Skin by Ilka Tamke is the first in a fantasy trilogy set in Britain in the early 1st century AD. Ailia is a child without skin, which means she doesn’t know her place in the world. Rome is poised to invade and the Britons are divided between those who would fight and those who would make peace. They are waiting for a spiritual leader. Ailia undergoes several trials and may be the one they are waiting for.
There’s quite a bit I liked about this book. The cover is beautiful and is a good representation of what the book is like. It’s in first person and set entirely in Ailia’s head, which means it’s not always clear what is going on because Ailia is young and doesn’t know who can be trusted. The worldbuilding is really great and the setting is brought to life with a mystical touch.
But, I wasn’t hugely engaged with the characters and the story. The ending sort of fizzled out. It is the first in a series, but even so, the ending felt as though the story just stopped, rather than coming to any resolution, and unfortunately didn’t set up any desire for me to find the next book.
The cover says it would suit fans of Game of Thrones which I think is a bit misleading. If you’re looking for hard-bitten political, dynastic fantasy, this is not it. Skin is an emotional, mystical story. It’s worth a read if that’s your cup of tea.
Devices and Desires by K. J. Parker
Published by Orbit in 2005
Sentenced to death for innovating in a country that tightly controls its industry, an engineer, Ziani Vaatzes, escapes prison and flees to an enemy nation. Outside the Republic the warring duchies are much less technologically advanced, a situation the Republic desires to continue, so Vaatzes offers one of them his knowledge to build war machines. As the Republic is prepared to go to war to recover its errant engineer, the Duchy is in no position to refuse. But Vaatzes motives are more complicated than that. As this is the first in a trilogy, exactly what Vaatzes is up to is not clear by the end of the book, but by this point there have been many switches and double crosses.
Devices and Desires is a huge book, both in length (700 pages) and scope. Aside from Vaatzes there are a number of point of view characters and subplots, including a love triangle between warring duchies. It takes a little while to get going as Parker establishes his world but once it does I found myself quite reluctant to put it down. One aspect that annoyed me was the virtually entirely male cast of characters. Parker chose to write about highly patriarchal societies and I am tired of reading about them. I’d really like to read some fantasy that conceives of society in a different way. Recommendations please!
That aside, I enjoyed it. Devices and Desires is complex and Parker manages to keep the intrigue up right to the end. There’s more going on than is revealed, and it still isn’t revealed by the end of the book. I may at some point pick up book 2 to find out.
Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
Published 2013, Jo Fletcher Books
Ulfar arrives in Stenvik with his cousin Geiri, thinking this is the last stop before returning home for exile. Instead, his life is irrevocably changed. Ulfar and Geiri make a mess of approaching the ruler of Stenvik, Sigurd, on behalf of his father and has to stick around until they can make it right. To the south, Olav, devotee of the White Christ, is gathering a huge army and forcibly repressing worship of the old gods. To the north, the most fearsome Viking captains are assembling under the direction of the witch Skuld in order to destroy Olav. The battle will centre on Stenvik.
I always enjoy Viking-based fiction and this is by an Icelandic author, which gives it an authentic feel. Probably entirely spurious, but there you go. Kristjansson has a stripped back, sparse style that carries the story forward at a cracking pace. Characters and setting are brought to life with deliberate, pointed description underpinning dialogue and action. It is enough but the setting, in particular, isn’t fully realised. Stenvik is the most completely evoked but it’s not clear where it sits in relation to anywhere else.
The big battle at the end is fantastic. It was exciting, thrilling and very gory. It’s fair to say I wasn’t really expecting the ending to go the way it did.
Diversity doesn’t come out brilliantly in this book. There is a character with a crippling illness and there are a couple of key female characters (in quite a large cast). They are quite stereotypical, but it’s fair to say that’s true of all the characters in the book. Most of the women are dead by the end and so are most of the men. Two thirds of the named characters are dead at the end. Very Shakespearean.
Overall, I enjoyed it. It was fun, fast-paced and surprising.
Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy
Published 1983, Bantam Books
Martha Macnamara comes to San Francisco to see her daughter, a genius computer programmer, only to discover she’s missing. At the hotel Martha meets Mayland Long, an ancient black dragon taking the form of a human in order to seek enlightenment. Mayland is enchanted by Martha and agrees to help her find her daughter, Elizabeth.
This is, on the whole, a charming book. The first half somewhat more so than the second half. The set up, Martha and Mayland’s developing relationship, is delightfully engaging. Once the chase for Elizabeth starts, however, the tone of the book shifts. After a few clues are followed, and it starts to become clear what the mystery is, Martha is relegated to damsel in distress. Her ending seems unworthy of her character and is a sour note in an otherwise sweet tale. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of how Mayland responds to sunlight.
This is one of the books given to me by my emigrating friend and I picked it out of a stack because of the cover. I like the picture of the dragon statue. Surprisingly, it matches the description inside the book. Tea with the Black Dragon is interesting and unusual and worth a read.
Marked, by Sue Tingey
Published 2015 by Jo Fletcher Books
First read of the books acquired at FantasyCon 2015 is Sue Tingey’s Marked, book 1 of the Soulseer Chronicles.
It is the story of a woman, Lucky de Salle, who sees the dead and makes a living helping them pass on. Her best friend is Kayla, who she believes to be a ghost. When Lucky is asked to return to her old school to exorcise the spirits of two little girls it opens a new phase in her life. She learns there are more worlds than she thought there were and nothing she thought she knew is true.
Marked is the first book of a series and it very much feels like it. I got to the end of the book and felt as though I’d just reached the beginning. There is plot, in that Lucky has to work out what’s going on and what has happened to her best friend, but there are some false starts. Is is a ghost story? Is it a mystery? It’s not really either. The real plot is what choice will Lucky make when faced with a new world?
Lucky is a bit of a Mary Sue character and this is most evident in her relationship with Jamie (the angel) and Jinx (the devil). They are both very taken with her, which I don’t find wildly unrealistic as they both know she’s a demon princess rather than the mousy human she thinks she is, but I find it icky the way they coo about how sweet she is. It’s patronising and infantilising. At the end of the book this love triangle could go either way. It could devolve into Lucky having to choose between them and be all Mills and Boon. Or, it could open into a polyamorous relationship and it would be lovely to see that portrayed. In the demon world polyamory and a full expression of the variety of love is accepted, but on the other hand a high premium is placed on virginity. To my mind those things are contradictory. I hope Tingey takes the opportunity to explore less traditional paths.
It was an easy read and mildly entertaining. I’m aware that the things I don’t like about it are things that have irritated me much more in other books, so they’re not that bad. I think the thing is that it didn’t quite live up to its potential. But if you’re looking for something unchallenging and you like paranormal romance you could do worse.
Shadow and Bone is the first in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. Alina Starkov is a scrawny orphan with little past and an uncertain future. As a conscript mapmaker in the First Army of Ravka she is sent across the Fold, a sea of dark magic that destroys all it covers. Her skif is attacked and, in the panic, Alina discovers she has suppressed her magickal powers. Alina is taken to the Darkling, the prince of the Grisha, and taught to use her powers.
The first half of the book is pretty slow and full of frustrating elements. I’m finding insecurity and a lack of self-belief poor obstacles for making protagonists resistant to taking on the challenges presented to them. I know it’s completely realistic and that’s how people feel, but I’m finding it boring in stories. Or maybe it’s just boring if it’s not written well. There’s some cliched mean girls bitchiness between Alina and the more privileged of the other Grisha students. The Darkling is a one hundred and twenty year old magic user and appears to be captivated by Alina. This is somewhat unbelievable, given what we know about both characters, and I was happy to discover this was misdirection.
I’ve read some reviews that suggest the Russian elements of the setting weren’t very convincing and I don’t know enough to judge myself. Alina’s immediate surroundings are well described, but the sense of the wider world was vague. I liked that Bardugo chose something different to inspire her fantasy world and nothing struck me as out of place.
The second half of the book was much better. The conflict becomes much more meaningful and the pace picks up. Alina’s understanding of the world is flipped over and she is on the run. It’s quite tense and I found myself nearly missing my stop on a couple of occasions.
It’s not the most skillfully written book but it’s not awful. It’s written in first person from Alina’s point of view but never gets right inside her head. I would rather it had been in third person. On the whole, though, I liked this. It’s a slow start but a cracking finish. I do like an exciting ending and I appreciated the twists in the middle. If you’re looking for a change of pace in your fantasy reading this could be just the thing.
Fenrir by M.D. Lachlan is the sequel to Wolfsangel and is really the same story. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment.
In Fenrir, a merchant is sent to bring a French noblewoman from Paris to Rus king Helgi because there is a prophecy that Odin will manifest on earth and trigger Ragnarok. The characters from Wolfsangel (Valli, Feilig and Adisla) are reincarnated in the characters in Fenrir, along with Odin and Fenrir, and it is not clear who is who. The merchant is accompanied by a mysterious warrior to protect him, as he is not the only one seeking Aelis, the noblewoman. The Vikings beseiging Paris also want her, as do two Viking shamans.
Aelis has her own ideas about this, which is nice to see, and takes charge of her own destiny in a way that feels consistent with her Christianity and the early medieval setting. It’s a gripe of mine that writing good female characters in historical settings means giving them modern sensibilities rather than fully embodying that character in time and space.
The characters are variously working for or against the manifestation of Odin and Fenrir, sometimes both. Lachlan manages to effectively convey a sense of confusion. None of the actors is sure what it is they are supposed to do and are wary of inadvertently bringing about the thing they seek to prevent.
Fenrir has a different style to Wolfsangel. Initially, I missed the lyricism and the mystical atmosphere of Wolfsangel, but I was soon drawn into the story. The change in style reflects the change in setting and underlines that this is the second cycle of the myth. It is the same, but not the same. In the end, Ragnarok is averted, but Odin and Fenrir will continue to try to manifest and the story will play out over and over again, until one day they meet and the end of the world begins. I enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to reading the next two cycles.