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W.M.M. van der Salm-Pallada "A Fantastical Librarian"
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The Clown Service
The Clown Service
by Guy Adams
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Impeccably paced, 30 July 2014
This review is from: The Clown Service (Paperback)
When The Clown Service arrived the cover grabbed me as it was seemingly so at odds with the title. It evokes a classic cold war spy thriller, but in a colourful way. It is also set in a supernatural London; that fact alone would have sold me. But it was not just the supernatural London setting that made this book so much fun, it was its tone and sense of humour as well. In addition, The Clown Service's plot was extremely entertaining and very well put together. I was really pleased with the book and while the story was impeccably paced, I would have loved for it to have been a bit longer, so I could have spent just a bit more time with the characters.

The Clown Service centres on Toby Greene. He's a British Intelligence agent, who has been just reassigned to what seems to be a career-killing department. And Toby is seemingly somewhat of a failure, as his boss is keen to remind him. His last mistake - letting an asset he was babysitting get away - gets him shunted off to Section 37. But it's not just at work where Toby is treated like he's less than capable, his father treats him the same way. Toby is someone with a past, having been deployed to a hot zone in the Middle East and having come back with a case of PTSD, a diagnosis he roundly denies as he doesn't want to be judged unfit for duty. I loved how Adams incorporated this into Toby's character and his reactions to events when the Fear - as Toby calls it - overtakes him. In contrast, he accepts all the weirdness Shining reveals to him as part of the reality of working at Section 37 almost too calmly.

Toby's relationship with Shining was somewhat reminiscent of Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant from The Folly series and his bond with his superior Inspector Nightingale. Like Peter Toby is taken under his wing by an eccentric older mentor. August Shining is fabulous and I loved that he believed in Toby's capability and wanted to train him. In fact, Shining is the rare type of mentor who seems to want to give his protégée all the facts, not keeping secrets. Something which only makes the fact that circumstances make it impossible for Shining to actually give Toby all the details all the more frustrating, both for Toby and the reader.

The narrative is nicely structured, told in two timelines, one in the present and one set in the early Sixties, when Shining first encounters Krishnin, the villain of the book. Much of the story set in the past is conveyed through Shining or others sharing their stories with Toby, which is an enjoyable way to frame a secondary narrative. With Toby being introduced to Section 37 and learning more about the supernatural reality of his world, Adams is also able to insert some interesting story beats and Chekov's guns that he then has paying off at exactly the right moment. The Clown Service was faultlessly paced, both in terms of its action and its humour.

Of course, Toby and Shining can't defeat the evil Krishnin alone, they do have back up. I loved all the sidekicks and their various abilities, some of which were truly supernatural, while others where more of the 'technology so far advanced it seems like magic'-variety. My absolute favourite secondary characters, however, were Shining's neighbour Tamar and his sister April (their parents didn't have much imagination when it came to names) who were fantastic. Especially April was a strong-as-nails, eccentric old biddy, who appeared to my mind's eye as a sort of mixture between Professor McGonagall and Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet). The ending was great, because it's an ending that is not undividedly happy. Toby, August and April come out of it indisputably changed and Adams' is a world where actions definitely have consequences.

I had a fabulous time with The Clown Service and I'm excited to have the second book in the series, The Rain-Soaked Bride, already on the TBR-pile and I can't wait to start it. Once I pry it out of the husband's hands when he has finished it that is, because he is currently devouring it. For fans of Aaronovitch's The Folly series and Stross' Laundry Files this will be a great series to dive into and I highly recommend it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Fearsome Dreamer
Fearsome Dreamer
by Laure Eve
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting debut & fun read, 29 July 2014
This review is from: Fearsome Dreamer (Paperback)
Fearsome Dreamer has been on my radar ever since I first learned it was to be published. I was lucky enough to grab a copy and get it signed by its author, Laure Eve, at WFC in Brighton last year, but as so many books that I got at WFC it landed on my TBR-pile, to remain there until this month. With the sequel The Illusionists out next month, I decided it was high time to finally read Fearsome Dreamer. And I'm glad I did. While Eve's debut novel wasn't perfect, its world-building was intriguing and its characters satisfyingly complex.

The main characters of the book are Rue and White. Both of them where complicated characters and not always easy to like. Rue's need to tell herself that she's special, and consequently better than others, became wearing quite quickly. Coupled with a teenager's tendency to think she knows better than the rest of the world, it was a clearcut recipe for trouble in the offing. And trouble certainly finds Rue by the end of this first book. In the reverse, White starts out quite likeable. A traumatised young man, he flees the continent for Angle Tar and gets drafted into the school for the Talented run by Frith. His is the more traditional magic school narrative, at least until circumstances elevate him quite quickly to the position of teacher instead of student. And it is here that White becomes harder to sympathise with; he's clueless on how to handle Rue as a student and how his treatment of her might be interpreted. And instead of talking about it, he hides behind a wall of hurt and anger, which serves to remind the reader that he is still a youth, despite being an old soul in some ways.

White and Rue's friends and classmates reflect the class-based society of Angle Tar, which is divided by large gulfs between classes. Especially the differences between country-born Rue and some of her more high-born classmates are clearly depicted. The difference between life in the City of Parisette and life outside of it is huge, as well. At the start when Rue and White aren't yet both at the University and Rue is still an apprentice to a hedge witch out in the country, it almost seems as if she lives in a different world. One that could almost be, but isn't quite, a secondary fantasy world. And Angle Tar is again a world away from the rest of the planet, where countries have reformed into new nations such the UCRI, the Hispanic Federation, United Russian and Chinese Independents. But in Angle Tar they are just referred to as World. Life in World largely takes place in a virtual space appropriately called Life. This virtual space seems more real and is definitely more colourful than the physical version. Yet we see curiously little of it, something which I hope will be different in the second book. I also hope we'll learn more about the mysterious organisation that is located in Castle, a secret meeting place where Frith travels regularly for meetings and where there seems to be a huge threat to humanity about to escape.

While I found the concepts and world building of Fearsome Dreamer fascinating, there were some elements that bothered me. The pacing feels off sometimes, with the build up for Rue's leaving for the city taking a relatively long time and other events happening seemingly quite sudden. In addition, the apparent time shift between the two story lines, which only becomes clear once they join up at Parisette, felt abrupt as we miss a couple of months of White's story time and the White Rue meets is a different White than the White the reader last sees at the end of the first part of the book. Lastly, and perhaps most bothersome to me, the fact that Rue doesn't tell anyone about the silver-haired boy in her dreams. This drove me nuts, especially once I realised who he was. I dislike this trope, the one where people keep secrets for no good reason and get into trouble as a result, and while it was completely in character for Rue to keep this secret, I still wanted to shake it out of her.

Despite my qualms, I really enjoyed Fearsome Dreamer. The romance in the book is understated, yet palpable, and the focus is far more on the intricacies of the politicking between Angle Tar and World. I'm looking forward to learning more about the mysterious Castle and the menace it's trying to defeat and to discovering whether Rue and White will ever learn their true feelings for one another. Fearsome Dreamer is an interesting debut and a fun read. I recommend you pick it up soon, as the sequel The Illusionists is out on August 7.

The Shadow Master
The Shadow Master
Price: 4.55

3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, but not what I expected, 26 July 2014
This review is from: The Shadow Master (Kindle Edition)
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
- William Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

The cover copy for The Shadow Master called to mind Shakespeare's prologue to Romeo and Juliet, quoted partially above, immediately and with the invocation of the names of the Medicis, the Lorraines, Leonardo and Galileo created certain expectations about the nature of the book. I expected an alternate history and a romance and while there was truth in advertising, at the same time my expectations were disappointed. There is far less of a Shakespearean influence in the story than I expected and the book wasn't so much as alt-history as much as a story told with certain historical characters and events dropped in to invoke a certain sensibility.

This resulted in me having a tough time getting grounded within the story. It was clearly set in a Renaissance, Italianate city and the inside of the Walled City is clearly developed. Yet everything outside of the Walled City is covered in mist, it is the great Beyond and not much is revealed about it. This spare world-building is perhaps symbolic for the way most of the City's inhabitants have been cloistered in the city and have never travelled beyond and as such truly do not know what the world outside looks like. Looking back it was quite cleverly constructed, but while I was reading, I just felt confused. This general ignorance of the world beyond the walls also felt forced given the time frame set up for the plague that has penned everyone inside the City's walls. According to the text the plague is rumoured to last for eight years and has been running rampant across the land for six, so how did knowledge of the outside evaporate like this?

Setting aside my problems with the setting, I really enjoyed my time spent with The Shadow Master. The dynamic between the two families was interesting and I loved the rivalry - that wasn't really one - between Leonardo and Galileo. There were also some fun nods to some of their real historic works and inventions. I especially loved the way Cormick incorporated The Vitruvian Man in the story. The idea that magic is as much artifice as it is alchemical was intriguing, especially considering that one doesn't need to have any nebulous aptitude, but just have a rigorous mind. Additionally, here is magic that isn't without cost. It'll be interesting to see if this magic system will be transferred to the next book or if Cormick creates a different one.

My favourite character in the book was Lucia. The only daughter of the Duke of Lorraine, she's beloved and sheltered and dying to break out. Over the years she's formed a connection with one of the ward's of the Medici family and she wants nothing more than to be able to pursue their relationship. However sheltered she is, Lucia isn't a wilting flower. When she's kidnapped and imprisoned she doesn't weep and wail, she doesn't let despair cripple her, she plans and takes her fate into her own hands. I loved Lucia's self-reliance and quick thinking. Her romeo Lorenzo was interesting as well, though I found him less compelling than Lucia. He's a bit more on an accidental hero type and does things he knows are wrong, all to satisfy his own desire to see Lucia. Yet despite all this he's a very sympathetic character and I found myself rooting for him regardless of his unwise choices.

The Shadow Master ends on a huge twist, didn't make for a cliff hanger ending exactly, but did leave the reader to contemplate a mystery and wondering about the true nature of the Shadow Master. While there were some hints at this turn of events during the book it felt a bit abrupt. Still the core story of The Shadow Master was resolved in a quite satisfying manner and as such the book stands on its own quite well. Despite my qualms I enjoyed The Shadow Master and I'm looking forward to The Floating City to discover more about the true nature of Lucia, Lorenzo and The Shadow Master.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy 3)
The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy 3)
by Deborah Harkness
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.00

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Addictive reading, fantastic ending to the All Souls trilogy, 24 July 2014
I was surprisingly blown away by the first book in this series and its sequel drew me in even further. Yet A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night were two very different books. Where A Discovery of Witches was modern day supernatural fantasy, Shadow of Night was very much a historical fantasy. And I was looking forward to seeing what The Book of Life would be. As far as setting goes, The Book of Life is very much more in the vein of A Discovery of Witches, yet with the added benefit of some of the fantastic characters from Shadow of Night. Yet like both of its predecessor the book makes for addictive reading and I had a serious case of book hangover once I finished it.

Of a necessity, talking about The Book of Life will contain some spoilers for the previous books, so if you want to remain unspoiled, beyond the cut will be SPOILERS!

With Matthew and Diana's return to the present time, the story takes a new direction, especially considering Diana's increased power and skills and her unique condition, a witch carrying a vampire's babies. I love how Harkness incorporates the pregnancy in the plot, creating limits on what Diana can and cannot do, without turning her into a fragile glasshouse flower who can be allowed to do anything for herself. Instead, Diana remains her strong, independent and active self as much as she can; dealing with the vagaries of pregnancy as she must - I related to the constant 24/7 nausea, having had it with both my girls, so I really felt for Diana on that score - going on with life in the main.

With the return to the twenty-first century also comes the return of modern science and I adored the way the two strands of scholarship intertwined and furthered the plot, with neither Diana's historical research or Matthew's science being the deciding factor, proving that the Humanities and the Sciences aren't oppositional fields, but should be complementary. This modern research also allowed for a larger role for Diana's best friend Chris and for the return of Miriam to the main stage. I loved these two; their dynamic was awesome. The undeniable attraction combined with a competitive streak of academic ambition made for great entertainment.

With our protagonists returned to the family fold, Harkness gives the reader a closer look at vampire family politics, especially as Diana is now a fully fledged, if warm-blooded, member of said family. These politics are more complex than they seemed at first blush and it was interesting to see Diana finding her feet in them. When she does, she's upgraded to the next level, she's sent to Venice to face the Congregation. The chapters set in Venice were among my favourites in the book. Being once more amongst the De Clermonts also means learning more about their history, such as Marcus' history in New Orleans, the different members of the De Clermont family, and about Matthew's first son.

The Book of Life sees the return of many characters from the previous book, chief amongst them Gallowglass. Matthew's Gaelic cousin was one of my very favourite characters in Shadow of Night, so it was wonderful to see him again in The Book of Life. His journey in this book and the revelation of how he has spent the years since 1591 is rather heartbreaking. Another family member that plays a larger role in this book is Fernando, Matthew's brother-in-law, his brother Hugh's widower. He is a wonderful characters, full of empathy and patience. Yet despite my liking for these two characters and the very much testosterone-driven society of the vampires, in this book it's very much the women who are the power players, even if the men bark louder. The Book of Life is filled with fabulous women, from the fearless and loyal Diana, the regal Mater Familias Ysabeau, stubborn and loving Aunt Sarah, the cool, calm, and cerebral Miriam, to clever, courageous Phoebe. All of them are special in their own way and I loved the bonds Harkness creates between them.

What I didn't like was the neat pairing off that took place. It felt a little too convenient. What bothered me most though, was the dynamic between Diana and Matthew. It bothered me more than in previous books, he was so possessive and dominant, that in a normal situation we'd say it was an abusive relationship and she should get out of there. Even the fact that his possessiveness is due to his vampire nature and exacerbated by his blood rage doesn't really make it better. Only the fact that Diana realises this and never acquiesces in his trying to limit her agency and knows how to handle it and manipulate Matthew into getting her own way, makes it just this side of creepy. But it is in no way a healthy or easy relationship.

I adored The Book of Life and I really and truly hope this is not the last we've seen of Diana, Matthew and their family. And Harkness seems to have allowed an opening for her to return to this world, even if this book wraps up the story arc of the All Souls trilogy quite well. No matter whether she returns to the world she's created here or not, I can't wait to see what Harkness writes next, as she knows how tell a fantastic story. A mix of bookish thriller, supernatural romance, and historical novel, The Book of Life is a compelling ending to Deborah Harkness' debut trilogy. If you haven't started the series yet, I highly recommend you pick it up, as it is a fantastic read.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

The First Stone (Strange Trilogy 1)
The First Stone (Strange Trilogy 1)
by Elliott Hall
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.18

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, creepily dystopian, near future murder mystery, 22 July 2014
June's Hodderscape Review title was an interesting choice. At first blush, Elliott Hall's The First Stone seemed more a crime thriller than an SFF novel, however there are certainly speculative elements to the story. Most of these are due to the narrative's dystopian tendencies and near future setting. It made for a fascinating and somewhat chilling world and one whose elements are frighteningly plausible.

The future United States in which The First Stone is set has turned into an even stronger surveillance state. The movement towards ever closer and all-encompassing scrutiny was begun with the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11. Yet it is the complete and utter destruction of Houston by Iran that moves the USA even further to the right and towards an even more fundamentalist mindset. There are shades of Orwell's 1984, the citizen informers of the Soviet Union informers, the current revelations about the NSA surveillance and the police state. In short, Felix Strange's world is a frightening one.

Such a society is a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy and corruption. It also puts the government apparatchiks constantly on the defensive to retain control of their position and powers. The government's policies are dictated by a strong fundamentalist religiosity and are aiming to curb all sinfulness, so as to be morally superior to the rest of the world. In many ways it reminded me of the Cromwellian Protectorate and its strict morality laws. This also leads the USA to reinstate what amount to crusades into the Middle East to convert the non-Christians in that region. This also leads to one of the main plot devices in the form of Felix's debilitating syndrome which he caught during the war. His treatment by the VA and society felt reminiscent of reactions to PTSD and Gulf War Syndrome. Both were at first regarded as phantom afflictions, as not real, and were only acknowledged as `real' medical conditions years and even decades after they were first reported.

While the creating of this brave, new world is seemingly secondary to the plot - which is a relatively straight-up murder conspiracy, although the conspiracy is complex - with Hall slipping in many of the details almost in passing. Yet this hierarchy is deceptive, because without the society Hall creates, the plot could not have taken the shape the author gives it; both work hand in hand to create a fantastic story. The murder mystery was intriguing and very well structured. Hall creates a believable dystopia, one in which the eventual denouement of the mystery seems inevitable, if it hadn't been this time, then at some point in the future.

The novel's main character, Felix, is fantastic. Despite the near-future setting, Felix is a hard-boiled PI, with the accordant vocabulary; he uses dame unironically. Hall's description of his struggles with his medical condition and his dependance on expensive drugs, which he can only acquire illegally, is impressive and I found the way it influences his every decision convincingly portrayed. His connection to Iris is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because she is an interesting woman, with her own goals and ideals, who is a good partner for him. A weakness, because their romantic connection is almost instant and as such feels a little unconvincing. Despite this, I really enjoy their connection and their dialogues. Another of Felix's friends I really liked was Benny, an FBI agent, who is one of Felix's squad mates from Iran. They have kept their friendship even after shipping home and theirs is the friendship of two men who have faced the worst together and have come through it. A similar unspoken comradeship is displayed with the other veterans he encounters during his investigation.

Elliott Hall's writing is smooth, pacey and really funny, yet also contains lots of pathos and makes you feel for the characters. I really enjoyed The First Stone and hopefully I'll get the chance to read more by Elliott Hall in the future. I know I'll be keeping an eye out for the two other Felix Strange novels. The First Stone is an interesting, creepily dystopian, near future murder mystery that should be appealing to both hard-boiled crime lovers and fans of dystopian fiction.

This book was provided for review by the publisher as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.

The Raven's Banquet
The Raven's Banquet
Price: 4.31

4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully captivating, 15 July 2014
Clifford Beal’s Gideon’s Angel impressed me very much last year and when the author told me a prequel was in the works I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Raven’s Banquet is set 26 years before Gideon’s Angel and is told in memoir form by Richard Treadwell in 1635, so nine years after the main events related in the book and running up to the earliest events recounted in Gideon’s Angel. While the narrative as such stands alone quite well, its ending clearly makes it a prequel and the 1635 arc definitely isn’t resolved. To find out what happened the reader will have to seek out the next book.

What then is the value of this prequel? First of all, it allows Beal to delve deeper into Treadwell’s history and develop his character further. The reader is introduced to a younger, more idealistic Richard Treadwell. Not always as sympathetic as he is in Gideon's Angel, however, as Treadwell is very much a son of privilege and one that feels he's been less well-treated by his family than he ought to have been. His motivation for joining the Danish army is also rather surprising. Of course there is the young man's dream of glory and riches to be gained, but Treadwell also seems genuinely devout and willing to die to save the Protestant people of Germany from the clutches of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. This motivation isn't just surprising given the Treadwell we know, but it is also hard to fathom for someone like me, who’s largely agnostic. Yet this kind of militant devotion is of all ages, just consider the jihadis in the Middle East or some of the more militant fundamentalist Christian groups in the US.

Second, the prequel allows Beal to introduce more information on Treadwell's gift. His ability to see the dead is examined in more depth, including the fact that he was told to never ever reveal what he saw for fear of being denounced. We also learn that his ability makes him prone to haunting, something that serves to drive the plot forward in an interesting way, without leading him by the nose. The third element that makes this prequel a good addition to the history of Richard Treadwell, is the fact that we learn more about the mysterious Anya, a Roma woman who aids Treadwell and provides him protection from the supernatural. I liked learning more about his connection to Anya and how they met, but it was also Anya who was at the heart of the thing that bothered me most about the book. Treadwell, in keeping with the time the book is set in, refers to Anya and her folk as gypsies. While historically completely accurate and a quick search of the OED online doesn’t provide any other contemporaneous term, its use made me wince, since its now widely considered a racial slur. Beal works hard to incorporate era-appropriate language and language use, succeeding at this well. The language feels authentic, even if the subject matter isn’t, though even that is debatable as in Treadwell’s time people did truly believe in witches.

Even though her being called a gypsy made me wince, I really did love Anya. She a person all her own, living her life on her own terms and appearing and disappearing at will in Treadwell’s life. Another group of women that choose to live life on their own terms are the women who save Treadwell and his comrades after the battle at Lütter. This band of women living on the Kroeteberg are women widowed by war, who have chosen to fend for themselves in the woods making charcoal, leaving their children behind with relatives. Chief among them are the Oma, the German (and Dutch) word for grandmother, who is the camp’s leader and priestess, and Rosemunde, her second-in-command. Rosemunde is such a decisive figure and her ultimate choice to free Richard was stunningly written and her courage hit me hard. Rosemunde lives on her own terms and not on those of any man’s. Anya, Rosemunde, and the other Kroeteberg women are exemplars of women ostracised and worse, because of not submitting to male dominance. Again something that is still relevant today.

Other characters worth mentioning are the bluff and hearty Balthazar, who is hard as nails yet at the same time is kind, Richard’s brother William, who we see in the framing timeline set in 1635, and the creepy and dangerous Christoph. In truth, none of the men in Treadwell’s squad are men you’d like to meet in a dark alley, but Balthazar seems capable of kindness as does the converted papist Andreas. Christoph, however, is something else and he deserved everything he got. The growth in the relationship between Richard and William was lovely, yet it still feels as if there are some pieces of their story missing; perhaps these will be added in a later story.

Raven’s Banquet is a wonderfully captivating story, yet it should be read in conjunction with or after Gideon’s Angel. That way you’ll get all the nuances, plus the cliffhanger ending is softened by either already knowing what happens or being able to find out immediately. Beal’s second Treadwell novel is a truly enjoyable read and I hope we’ll meet Treadwell again as between his leaving Lütter and his being taken in 1635, there’s still quite a gap of adventures to be filled.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Veil of the Deserters (Bloodsounder's ARC)
Veil of the Deserters (Bloodsounder's ARC)
by Jeff Salyards
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Joyful reunion with Arki and company, 9 July 2014
Two years ago I was very impressed with Jeff Salyards' debut Scourge of the Betrayer. I enjoyed this tale of a young, naive scribe hired by a ruthless band of soldiers as their company's chroniclers enormously and I was looking forward to reading the second book in the series Veil of the Deserters. Unfortunately, due to the folding and subsequent sale of his publishers, Night Shade Books, to Skyhorse Publishing the publication of the book was delayed and we had to wait until a few months ago to be able to return to Arki's story. But it certainly was a joyful reunion.

In hindsight, I might have needed to reread Scourge of the Betrayer. Salyards doesn't coddle the reader with recaps or other explicit reminders of what has gone before and after two years I found myself grasping after details of what exactly happened in Scourge of the Betrayer. Yet it doesn't detract from enjoying the story and after a chapter or two things started coming back to me. What didn't take long at all though, was to remember why I enjoyed Salyards' writing so much. From the first page Arki's voice and the tone of the book is clear. It's a mixture of wry humour, naiveté and grit, one that I found irresistible.

Arki, or Arkamondos to give him his proper name, is a wonderful character. He is the story's narrator and our window onto the world of the Syldoon Empire. It's often a distorted view, shaped by Arki's decidedly non-martial nature and his conviction that he is not cut out to be a hero. Arki is a scholar pur sang and happiest with ink on his fingers and book dust in his nose, yet he keeps surprising himself, the Syldoon, and the reader by taking risks and decisions that are remarkably heroic, even if not always well-executed. He grows in his role as archivist to Captain Braylar Killcoin's band of Syldoon, becoming more sure of himself, his position in the group, his worth to the Syldoon, and his loyalty to Braylar. It's reflected in his observations of the Syldoon around him and Braylar and his lieutenants in particular; they become less and less intimidated and more direct and critical. He doesn't feel as a twig swept along by the river as much and more as an oarsman deciding his own course.

One of the reasons Arki seems more at home among the Syldoon is his growing friendship with Vendurro. The band's remaining sergeant, he's a junior officer and closer to Arki in age than Braylar, Hewspear, and Mulldoos. He's also quite funny and, like Arki, a poser of awkward and inappropriate questions. He often doesn't know when to keep his mouth closed, sometimes to comedic effect and sometimes allowing Salyards to drop in some more world building. Arki also gets a better read on Braylar's character and seems on surer ground with him. He also learns more about Braylar's history, some of it in surprisingly frank confessions by Braylar others through accident or eavesdropping. One of the reasons we learn more about Braylar is that his band of soldiers is joined by two memoridons, or memory witches, one of whom is his sister Soffjian. I really liked Soffjian and her companion Skeelana, who turn out to be as dangerous, or perhaps even more dangerous than the Syldoon. The memoridons are a fascinating element of Syldoon society and one we fortunately learn more about in this book, especially once we reach Sunwrack, the capital of the Syldoon Empire.

Sunwrack was awesome in every sense of the word. I love the palpable sense of awe Salyards invokes in Arki when he first sees Sunwrack, only letting it increase the further he gets into the city. Sunwrack is also a hotbed of political wrangling and plotting. We learn more about the details of what becoming a Syldoon brother entails and it isn't pretty. What happens with the current Emperor, Cynead, is unexpected, if not out of character as to become a Syldoon emperor means having an excessive dose of ambition and an unhealthy sense of pride.

One of my major complaints with Scourge of the Betrayer was the fact that due to Arki being the first person narrator and largely being kept in the dark as to the Syldoon's true plans, meant that the reader was kept in the dark as well and perhaps a little too much and too long. In Veil of the Deserters Arki slowly discovers more of the Syldoon's true intentions and ambitions, with the speed of revelations increasing the closer we get to the ending of the book. Yet, while I was glad to finally get a clearer idea of Braylar's plans and where the plot is heading, it still took rather long for these facts to finally crystallise. Arki still needs to fully gain Braylar's trust at the start of the book and it is only at the end that he has finally won it and information is shared more freely with him. I hope that in the next book Arki is kept in the loop and events and motivations won't be as much of a mystery.

Veil of the Deserters is a terrific sequel to Scourge of the Betrayer. One that builds on the framework Salyards created in the previous book, expanding the world and developing the characters in organic, but unexpected, ways. The book can be read without having read the previous book and Veil of the Deserters doesn't really suffer too badly from second book syndrome. However, the ending of the book is somewhat of a cliff hanger and as such the book doesn't truly standalone. If you like military fantasy reminiscent of Glen Cook and well-written battles and dialogue then Veil of the Deserters is a book you certainly won't want to miss. I had a great time with Arki and his comrades and I hope we won't have as long a wait as last time to find out what happens next.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Deadly Curiosities
Deadly Curiosities
by Gail Z. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Charming tale of supernatural shenanigans, 7 July 2014
This review is from: Deadly Curiosities (Paperback)
I first encountered Gail Z. Martin's Deadly Curiosities world in her short story Buttons in Jonathan Oliver's Magic anthology. I was immediately charmed by the premise and the characters and the consequent announcement of Solaris' acquisition of a full Deadly Curiosities novel was a pleasant surprise. This meant that starting Deadly Curiosities came with certain expectations about its setting, its characters, and its subject matter. And Martin certainly delivered on those expectations with a very entertaining tale of supernatural shenanigans, ancients ghosts returning, and the fight of Cassidy and Teag's life.

The story is set in the historic and atmospheric city of Charleston. It's clear that Martin has true love and great affection for this beautiful town and it makes the streets and buildings truly pop of the page. In Martin's Deadly Curiosities the supernatural is real and ghosts, demons, and immortals all wander the earth. The supernatural elements are present in the world, but most mundane mortals are unaware of their existence and there are organisations that work hard at keeping it so. One of these is the Alliance, a group of supernaturals and magically-gifted individuals that have banded together to contain the more dangerous and evil of their number. The book's protagonist Cassidy Kincaid is such a gifted individual; a psychometric, she can read the history of objects and even places, if the emotional impressions left by their owners or occupiers are strong enough.

Cassidy is a fun main character. She's snarky and spiky with a great sense of humour. She's comfortable in her life as the owner of Trifles & Folly and the occasional remover of spooky items. She's got a great support system in her friends and neighbours, especially in her best friend and assistant Teag. To be clear, Cassidy is single, yet there is not a hint of romance in the book. The only men in her life are Teag, who's gay and in a committed relationship, Sorren, her vampire silent partner, and Baxter, her Maltese. I really enjoyed Cassidy's independent spirit, but appreciated the fact that she knew when she needed help and allowed her friends to help her. She's still relatively unschooled in her gift and as she doesn't truly have a mentor to teach her any more, this sometimes makes her gift hard to control and places her in unexpected and dangerous situations.

Cassidy's main allies in her work taming the spokes, as she calls the haunted items she comes across, are Teag and Sorren. Teag is her assistant, both in the store and her work. He has his own recently discovered gift; Teag is a Weaver, which means that he can created and weave magic using knots, webs, and cloth. But Teag is not just a Weaver, he's a Data Weaver-- he's incredibly talented at manipulating the internet and other digital data connected to the World Wide Web. Sorren is the silent partner in Trifles & Folly, the partner that set up the store together with Cassidy's ancestor centuries before. I liked his paternal attitude to Cassidy, which is protective, without ever becoming patronising or creepy. Sorren is also a vampire and Martin maintains most of the traditional vampire traits: intolerance of sunlight, super strength and speed, incredible healing powers, and a thirst for blood. However, he doesn't see humans purely as food and it seems as if Martin's vampires can subsist on animal blood if necessary. He's more of an Angel character than a Spike. There is an amazing amount of history he's lived through and I'd love to learn more of it in future tales. A last character that I really enjoyed and who deserves special mention is Lucinda. She's an academic and a root woman and has a strong connection to the Loas, vodoun spirits, who she invokes for protection. She's such a warm and comforting presence in the narrative and I hope we'll see more of her in the future.

The plot of the book was well-paced. Every time Cassidy and Teag got close to solving the mystery, it turned out to be only a minor piece of the puzzle or to open up an whole new can of trouble. It allowed for Martin to reveal more and more of her world and of the supernatural elements in it without creating giant info-dumps. While the tension gets turned up every time, it also caused me to check whether I'd misremembered the number of pages left in the book, as it seemed as if the plot would be resolved in the next chapter or two. Inevitable this would be followed with a twist, which meant more problems to solve. To me this wasn't a problem, but it might be off-putting to those who dislike this sort of thing. Martin manages to work a lot of history into the book and from the author's acknowledgements in the back of the book some of the historical figures, landmarks, and events truly existed or happened.

Overall, I was a charmed by Deadly Curiosities as I was by Buttons and I found myself being sucked more and more into the narrative the further we got along. The tale Martin spins us is interesting and complex. Cassidy, Teag, Sorren and the rest are wonderful characters and I hope we'll see more of them in the future. Deadly Curiosities is a strong opener to a new urban fantasy series, one that stands on its own beautifully, but it leaves many avenues open to explore in future books. I can only hope there'll be many more in the future.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Drakenfeld (Drakenfeld 1)
Drakenfeld (Drakenfeld 1)
by Mark Charan Newton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Smart and well-plotted, 4 July 2014
When a fantasy novel is announced as a murder mystery set in a secondary world inspired by Ancient Rome *BOOM* I'm done and sold on reading said novel, especially if it's written by an author whose work I've enjoyed before. Super sold on the book, I bought a signed copy at WFC and then, inexplicably, crickets. The book got waylaid by review copies and while I kept eyeing it, reading kept being put on the back-burner. The paperback release gave me the perfect excuse to finally read it. And I'm glad I did. I knew I enjoyed Mark Charan Newton's writing, having read Nights of Villjamur and his short story in The Lowest Heaven, but Drakenfeld has made me kick myself for not reading City of Ruins, which is on my shelf, and his other Legends of the Red Sun books before. A situation which I'll have to remedy sooner rather than later.

Drakenfeld is set in a Rome-inspired world, where the Royal Vispasian Union ensure peace and prosperity for its constituent monarchies. The world is familiar enough to allow easy entry, yet different enough to make it truly a secondary world fantasy. I love the ambiguity of some of the staple elements of fantasy worlds. There are many different gods and religion is important, but the priestly powers seem mundane, not god-given. There is mention of magic and witchcraft and the populace firmly believes in curses and augury available on most street corners. Yet there is no firm proof and due to Lucan's rational and logical outlook on the wold, it's never quite clear whether they are fake or whether Lucan is just too much of a sceptic to believe in them.

The narrator of the novel is the eponymous Lucan Drakenfeld. He's an interesting character, the son who followed in his father's footsteps, yet has been estranged from him for years. Like his father, he's an agent of the Sun Chamber, a body of law enforcement that functions across the entire Vispasian Union and is integral to keeping the peace between its member states. This makes him not only a character with an interesting profession, but also one who has travelled the continent and as such brings something of an outsider's view to the happenings in Tryum, despite having been born and raised there. I liked his thoughtful and peaceful nature-- Drakenfeld abhors killing though he admits there is a time and place for it. He's also somewhat prudish and arrogant, yet at the same time he sees those of the lower classes not as chattel or lesser beings, but as people in a more unfortunate position than himself and worthy of respect. He's a complicated man, our Lucan Drakenfeld.

What makes his life even more complicated is the fact that he suffers from what we'd call epilepsy. His episodes are often preceded by specific smells or flashes of light, a phenomenon that is commonly known as aura. It's interesting to see how these seizures influence Lucan's functioning. There is a taboo on them and he tries to keep them hidden as much as he can. The only one who knows all about them is his closest companion, confidante, and bodyguard Leana. On the one hand he seems to consider his seizures a punishment of the gods as he prays to his goddess Polla to help him vanquish them, yet at the same time he and Leana seem aware it's a medical condition and he even successfully consults with an apothecary for a remedy to at least assuage the number of seizures that plague him.

There are several important supporting characters in the book, but the most important are Leana, Senator Veron, and Lucan's former lover Titiana. Leana is a fascinating character. She's a woman of colour posted to a city where people often look down at people of colour, yet she holds her head high, defying their prejudice and proving herself superior in spirit and skill to all of them. Despite what we learn of her - she's from Atrewe, she's the sole survivor of her people who were massacred, she was married, she's a brilliant warrior, and she's fiercely loyal to Lucan - there is a sense that her story is yet largely untold and I look forward to learning more about her in future Drakenfeld books. One of the most entertaining characters in the book was Senator Veron, an old friend of Lucan's late father, who takes him under his wing when he returns to Tryum. Veron is your quintessential hedonist; he drinks, he feasts, he sleeps around, he gambles. Yet despite all this I really liked him and his hedonism seems in part a front as Lucan notices his mask slipping a number of times and sees a far different, more serious man underneath. Titiana is an interesting character as a foil for Lucan. She uncovers some of his past and reveals to the reader some of what has made him into the man he is now.

The mystery in the book is a classic locked-room one and I found the way Newton structured his mystery very solid. I really enjoyed the sense of flusterment and desperation that overtakes Lucan about halfway through his investigation, when he's running out of leads and facing increasing pressure from the king to solve his sister's murder. Yet he manages to pull his chestnuts out of the fire and to do so without a deus-ex-machina intervention, but through old-fashioned legwork and deduction. With Leana to protect and assist him, Lucan makes his way through the city or Tryum and the labyrinthine twists of the murder plot in a very satisfying manner. I won't go into the details any further, so as not to spoil anything, but trust me the resolution of this mystery is surprising and interesting.

With Drakenfeld Newton moves in a very different direction than his previous series, but the world and characters he creates are instantly compelling and very entertaining. I loved the details Newton inserted into his world building, such as the graffiti everywhere and the political structures not just of Tryum, but of the Vispasian Union over all. Drakenfeld is a wonderful start to the series and I can't wait to read Lucan and Leana's next adventure later this year in Retribution. If you enjoy smart, well-plotted historical fantasy, yet set in a secondary world then you shouldn't miss out on Drakenfeld.

Half a King (Shattered Sea, Book 1)
Half a King (Shattered Sea, Book 1)
by Joe Abercrombie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 5.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars YA Abercrombie-style!, 3 July 2014
Joe Abercrombie is one of the foremost names in gritty and grimdark fantasy. His First Law trilogy and its three standalone successors are all prime examples of this sub-genre. So, when HarperVoyager announced they'd signed Abercrombie for a YA trilogy set in a new world, different from his First Law world, my first reaction was something along the lines of "Huh, that's unexpected. Wonder how he'll pull it off." In true Abercrombie style would be the answer. While Half a King is most definitely YA, Abercrombie pulls no punches and doesn't talk down to his younger readers. This results not just in an exciting epic fantasy tale, it also grants the book major crossover appeal, even to those who feel adults shouldn't be reading YA.

While the basic premise of Half a King - a prince is betrayed and takes his revenge aided by a band of misfits - isn't necessarily undiscovered country, Abercrombie gives it a decidedly Abercrombian flavour by switching up some traditional elements and having a strong cast of characters. He flips the traditional divine aspects; those that are usually masculine (the sun, the sea, war) are called Mother, while traditionally feminine facets are called Father (Earth, Moon, Peace), to name the six Tall Gods. Not only that, the many gods are actually fragments of an original one (feminine) god who was shattered by the elves in the long ago. And not only the divine feminine aspects have powerful roles, several of the female characters have lots of agency, such as Yarvi's mother, Laithlin, called the Golden Queen, as she a cunning and powerful keeper of Gettland's Treasury, Grandmother Wexen, Minister to the High King, Captain Shadikshirram, Sumael. All of these women are powerful in their own right or decide their own fate and none of them do so at the behest of a man.

Yarvi is an interesting character. He's not your traditional heroic prince. He's not handsome, bold and gifted with great physical prowess. Instead, he has a withered left hand with only a thumb and a little finger and he's been trained to become a Minister, due to his more peaceful nature. I found Abercrombie's treatment of Jarvi's withered hand and its consequences interesting. The hand isn't a problem, unless Jarvi is forced to do things he isn't suited to - there are plenty of situations where having one good hand would be a distinct disadvantage, but he still manages to power through on mental strength and in some cases it isn't even mentioned - but Yarvi's always conscious of people watching it and him and judging him by his hand. Yarvi's extremely easy to like and to root for, especially as he never truly wallows in the 'why me'-s you so often find in these sorts of narratives.

The rest of Yarvi's band of misfits is fascinating as well. I particularly liked the relationship Yarvi develops with Ankran. They start off as adversaries, yet in the end they are each other's family and they stick together. His oar-mates Jaud and Rulf are wonderfully solid men, not bad or good, but human and loyal. My favourite had to be Sumael though. A young female navigator, more at home on the deck of a ship than on land, she's competent, strong and actually the only one who can lead them home through her skills at reading the way. Lastly, Nothing is both fascinating and a let-down. He's a terror with a blade and I really liked his gruff banter with Rulf, but he was also a main character in the storyline in the book that was very entertaining yet at the same time felt somewhat predictable. All of them, however, have traits that teach Yarvi about how to be a better man and a better leader, which was an interesting process to witness.

As ever, Abercrombie's writing is strong and the narrative fast-paced with no extra fat or adornment. I really enjoyed the Viking-esque flavour of the setting, which conveyed a sense of culture, without following the Viking-mould to a tee. The one thing in the book that was a little disappointing to me was one of the final twists that I'd figured out pretty early on. Figuring it out didn't make the story less cool or enjoyable, it just made me go "Oh I bet that this'll happen" and it became more of a puzzle to find the clues than a wait for the drama of the reveal.

Yarvi leaves home a boy, returns a man and the final chapters of Half a King illustrate this in a fantastic way. Especially the final chapter with its final reveal was a clear demonstration of Yarvi's growth and provided a fantastic setup for Half the World, the second book of The Shattered Sea series. The world of the Shattered Sea is fascinating and leaves much to be explored in coming books and it'll be a joy to join these characters on further adventures. If you've never read Abercrombie and where intimidated by the fact that he's already six books into his First Law world, Half a King is a fantastic entry point to his writing and if you've a fantasy loving teen in your life this will make a fun book to share with them. This book is well-worth reading and I'll be here tapping my foot until the next one is out early next year.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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