100 Books in 2011: The Left Hand of God

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman is the first of a trilogy following the life of Thomas Cale, a strange boy with a dent in his head and the uncanny ability to anticipate an opponent’s moves.

We meet Cale in the Sanctuary, a sort of monastery/training school for boys who are to become Redeemers. The faith expressed by Redeemers is a thinly veiled version of the Abrahamic religions and the Sanctuary is a brutal environment where the boys are treated with such violence and neglect that many of them don’t survive. Cale is a survivor and what that makes of him is delicately handled, for the most part.

Cale discovers one of the Redeemers dissecting a girl while another girl is tied up waiting for it to be her turn. He kills the Redeemer and then has to escape. He takes with him two associates (friendship is an offence punishable by being beaten to death) because he believes they will suffer once he is discovered missing.

Against the odds, they evade the Redeemers sent to capture them and end up in Memphis, capital city of a nearby Empire. There they discover a world ruled by subtle gradations of status conferred by birth and bloodline. The Chancellor is a talented and intelligent man and recognises that Cale can give them information about the Sanctuary. He sends them to the Empire’s military training academy where they wreak havoc and make some enemies. In passing, Cale meets the daughter of the Marshal of the Empire and falls in love. Said daughter, Arbell Swan-Neck, is kidnapped by the Redeemers in an attempt to draw the Empire into battle. Cale rescues her. The Redeemers attack again and Cale is forced to admit that the tactics they are using are his, but that he doesn’t know what the big picture is. He doesn’t know why the Redeemers are attacking, or really why they do anything. In the end, Cale finds himself back in the possession of the Redeemers.

This is an odd book. It starts off well. The initial chapters introducing us to the Sanctuary and the relationship between the boys are great. They are delightfully disturbing and the environment is solidly evoked. This world seems very real. The writing style is compelling and engaging. Characterisation is good, although less so for the female characters. The action and dialogue are great, keeping the book moving at a nice pace. This first quarter of the book is definitely the best and it is worth reading just for this.

Then it all gets a bit wobbly. The quality of the writing remains high and the style is still compelling. In fact, the writing style is basically what carried me through the rest of the book because there are some weaknesses. The main weakness is the worldbuilding. When the setting is the Sanctuary it’s really good. This is a real place with great detail and an oppressive sense of horror about it. Outside the Sanctuary, everything seems a bit haphazard. Nothing seems to fit together particularly and there is some confusion about where places are in relation to each other.

If the POV was tight third person centred on Cale you could argue that he wouldn’t have the first idea about the world outside the Sanctuary and that it would all be confused. But Hoffman uses a loose third person POV for various characters and frequently slips into an omniscient POV where the authorial voice can be used. His handling of POV is good and the changes flow smoothly. The use of the authorial voice contributes to the engaging nature of the writing style. However it jars badly with the poor worldbuilding. There are POV characters who would know exactly how their world works but they are never used to convey that information to the reader. And there’s no map so you can’t check (although I believe that if worldbuilding is done well a map is unnecessary).

To compound the rather haphazard communication of the worldbuilding, Hoffman randomly throws in elements of the real world, which, to my mind, only adds to the confusion. It starts with a reference to the Norwegians (never followed up), then one to the Middle East, then the Redeemers attack a city called York. I’m wondering if this is more of an alternative history than a fantasy but this is never revealed. (Whilst looking for the image for this post I went on the Left Hand of God website which has a map. It’s not this world.) Towards the end, in a discussion about the cost of war, there is mention of a group of people called Jews who happen to live in a ghetto and lend money.

I know most fantasy worlds are based on elements of the real world and that some authors are better at it than others, but this is just lazy. It feels like he was just making it up as he was going along with absolutely no regard for internal coherence. It’s annoying. But other elements of the book are really good. I don’t really know whether to recommend it or not. I enjoyed it but also was frustrated with it.

100 Books in 2011: New Moon

The second book of the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer is New Moon. In this part Edward leaves Bella, for her own good natch, and she goes into a big funk for months. Then she discovers that if she engages in activities that could kill her, her subconscious provides an hallucination of Edward being all domineering. She hangs out with Jacob who falls in love with her and turns out to be a werewolf. Bella wonders if she can settle for being adored by someone she can’t love but then discovers Edward has gone off to get himself killed because he can’t live without her.

Bella goes off to find Edward in the company of Alice (Edward’s sort of vampire sister), meets lots of scary vampires who like to eat people, and brings Edward back. She bangs on a lot about wanting to be a vampire.

There’s even less plot in New Moon than there was in Twilight and even more disturbing relationships. The quality of the writing has slipped a bit from the first book and doesn’t seem quite as polished. It wasn’t as engaging and afterwards I felt a bit dirty.

Now I really understand what the issue is with these books. Twilight was ok, really it wasn’t any worse than your average romance novel. But New Moon takes it to another level. Bella only regains any happiness when imaginary Edward is abusively yelling at her in her hallucinations.

Then there is a really telling moment at the end. Edward has been his usual terse, controlling self who appears to only speak to Bella in order to correct her, admonish her or berate her over something. He acts as though he hates her. But for a moment, at the end, after he has left her and tried to kill herself, he makes a speech about how he loves her to distraction really, and all his arsehattery is because he loves her so much. It was a little out of place and read like the sort of thing the author wishes someone would say to her.

It is tragic that this resonates with so many women and girls.

100 Books in 2011: Irons in the Fire

I picked up Irons in the Fire by Juliet E. McKenna at a couple of years ago. Juliet McKenna does quite a few writing conferences and I’d heard a lot of what she has to say about writing and the writing life. I thought I ought to read one of her books.
McKenna is published by Solaris Books and I guess I wondered what differentiated authors who are with small presses from those with the big publishers. In between buying this book and reading it I’ve read three Angry Robot books, all of which were excellent, so I’m not sure there are any conclusions to be drawn.
Irons in the Fire is the first in a trilogy. It is set in a fantasy world where the Kingdom of Lescar is being torn apart by incessant civil war. Many people have left or sent their children away, so there are substantial communities of Lescari in other countries. Tathrin is the son of an innkeeper sent to study in the city of Vanam in the country of Ensaimin. There he meets Aremil, the crippled son of one of the Lescari Dukes and find himself drawn into a conspiracy to bring peace to Lescar. Along the way, a small band of conspirators is drawn together, all with different agendas and Tathrin finds that he’s not entirely comfortable with some of the actions they take.
I think the problem I had with this book is that the characters were too ordinary. I didn’t enjoy it very much and found it hard to stick with. The writing is ok – it starts off a bit ropey but settles down quite quickly. It’s not great but it’s better than some books put out by bigger publishers. It was quite an easy read and the pacing was good. It’s seven hundred pages and, in terms of the time I spent actually reading it, didn’t take that long to finish. But I did put it down and read two other books before I made myself complete this.
So, I asked myself, what is it that’s missing? Why isn’t this engaging me? There’s two things; the characters and the world. I didn’t buy into McKenna’s worldbuilding. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read any of her other books, which I believe are set in the same world, that I found that there were a lot of things left undeveloped. It just didn’t feel that solid. For example, there were gods, which I knew because people swore by them and there were shrines. But there was no information about how the gods related to each other, or to society, or about what impact religion has upon the world. It felt superficial.
Maybe that wouldn’t have mattered if I’d really liked the characters. It was difficult to feel anything about them at all because they were flat and ordinary and not well-drawn. The POV characters lacked passion and depth. There was much telling about how they felt that was not backed up in dialogue or action. The other main characters who didn’t have POVs were potentially interesting but just didn’t jump off the page. They were not characters who I would think about whilst not reading the book. Also, I think the guy on the cover is supposed to be Tathrin, but I think it says quite a lot that I’m really not sure. I can’t connect the picture on the front with the character in the book.
I won’t read anything else by Juliet McKenna and if you’re looking for epic fantasy, there’s much better stuff available. But I will give Solaris Books another go if I find something that looks interesting.

100 Books in 2011: All the Windwracked Stars

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear is a bit genre-busting. It is heavily grounded in Norse mythology with liberal sprinklings of sci-fi, steampunk and high fantasy.
After Ragnarok, of which there are and will be many, one Valkyrie survives because she ran away. Her name is Muire. When she comes back after the battle, wracked with shame, she finds a single valraven still alive who takes her for his rider. She heals him and, in doing so, turns him from a flesh and blood creature to one of metal and fire. Then she rejects him. Centuries later, Muire is living in the sole remaining city of Valdyrgard which is kept alive through technomancy while the rest of the world dies around it.
Mingan, the Grey Wolf (Fenrir?), returns to Valdyrgard, hunting for something. Muire senses him and believes she must kill him to avoid another Ragnarok. In tracking him down, she discovers that the souls of the Valkyrie have been reborn as new people. These new people don’t remember themselves but Muire and Mingan know who they are. An ancient love-triangle is reignited. Muire wants to restore the Valkyrie to themselves.
I loved this. It is dark and sexy, full of flawed characters trying to do the right thing, but finding it hard to work out what that is. The characters are complex and complicated and so are the relationships between them. The villains have excellent motives and it is hard not to sympathise. The heroes want to do what’s right, but the consequences of that are often wrong. They all struggle with the way they feel and the burdens they carry.
The language is lyrical and poetic. The rhythm is slightly odd but perfectly pitched. I really enjoyed reading it for the sake of the arrangement of the words. It was lovely.
If I have a criticism, it’s that it is a shame that the only person of colour in the book is the most abused, damaged, infantilised and sexualised character in the book. Those two things didn’t have to belong to the same person and it plays into some unpleasant racial tropes.
Other than that, this was one of the most engaging books I’ve read this year. I enjoyed it enormously and will definitely pick up more of Elizabeth Bear’s work. Highly recommended!

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: Wolfsangel

I’ve been on blog hiatus for a little while as I was on holiday in Vienna. Which was lovely. You may also have noticed from the sidebar that I’m running a little behind on the 100 Books in 2011 challenge. This is because I have been re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire before A Dance with Dragons is released on 12th July. Have I mentioned that I’m excited?

Anyway, while in the beautiful city of Vienna, I read Wolfsangel by M. D. Lachlan. I had been looking forward to this for some time, having read a number of rave reviews, and generally enjoying stories about Vikings.

The story follows the lives of twin boys separated at birth, one of which grows up as the son of a lord and the other is raised by wolves. They find each other as young men and their destinies are entwined with that of a young healer whom they both love. At the same time a witch is trying to protect herself from being killed by a god by bringing forth another god, using the bodies of the twins to achieve her goal.

My synopsis doesn’t really do it justice, but to be clearer about the plot would be to give away what happens. The plot is elegantly convoluted and the twists and switches are wonderful. People are not who they think they are but the reader only comes to this relevation along with the character so it is deliciously surprising.

The point of view is interesting. It’s omniscient third-person, which I’m not usually keen on, but this is done so well it really highlights why I don’t normally like it. Lachlan starts with a limited third-person pov, then pulls back to a gods-eye view and then circles down into another limited third-person pov. Everytime the perspective changes this happens. There’s no head hopping. While the perspective changes can happen quite quickly and we may visit more than one head in a scene, there is always at least a paragraph with an authorial tone that separates them. This is how it should be done and how it so often isn’t. It is controlled yet appears effortless.

Something else I enjoyed about the book was its lyrical style. At one level this is a re-telling of a myth and the language suits that. It takes a few pages to settle into the rhythm and, once you’re there, it’s hypnotic. I think this is especially notable in a book that is quite earthy and gory. It takes some skill to show the torments Lachlan visits upon his characters in such poetic language.

The characterisation, dialogue and setting are all good. The pacing is well handled. This is an incredibly well-written novel and a great story. I loved it. And considering that I read it in the midst of re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire (which is amazing) and it still stood out to me, that makes it all the better. Do read this.

Announcing a read of A Dance with Dragons!

Inspired by Leigh Butler’s fabulous A Read of Ice and Fire blog on, I am going to do a chapter by chapter commentary of A Dance with Dragons. When not gushing about the general awesomeness of GRRM, I will be focussing on the writing.

And as I have temporarily suspended the 100 Books in 2011 challenge in order to re-read A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows, I shall be prepared to spot all the clever hints and tricks. In theory. Part of me knows GRRM is a smarter writer than I am a reader. I’m so excited.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: Mistral’s Kiss

The first third of Mistral’s Kiss by Laurell K. Hamilton is basically one long sex scene with the protagonist, Merry Gentry having sex with some of her guard. After a while it becomes apparent that the reason for this is that she needs to get pregnant in order to become the heir to her Aunt’s faerie kingdom. It’s not good sex though. Mainly she just lays there while various men go wild with desire on her. It’s all very passive and not particularly engaging.

So for the first 150 pages I was mostly wondering what this book was supposed to be. There wasn’t a lot of plot in the first section. To be fair, this is number five in a series where, yet again, I haven’t read the previous books, so potentially I wasn’t quite getting what was going on.

The middle 100 pages of the book are a bit different. Merry and her guards bring life back to the faerie garden where they are having sex but the garden begins to swallow them up. They escape into another faerie realm and encounter the King of the Sluagh. With whom Merry has previously agreed to have sex so that he has a chance to father her child. At this point, the book starts to make sense as myth. This is the pagan wheel of life, the goddess and god coming to come together in a fertility rite. So there is more unexciting sex. Then the wild hunt is raised and Merry and her guards have to run for their lives.

They open a door into the mundane world. The last 100 pages are more like an urban fantasy detective novel. Merry and her guards fight the wild hunt and transform it into hounds. This is a book that doesn’t seem to know what it is. Is it erotica? Or urban fantasy? Or mythic allegory? It could be all three if they were blended together. I don’t think it would be easy, but it could be good. Instead this is three separate sections one after another and it doesn’t work.

The role of women in the book is problematic. Obviously I can’t say whether it is just this book or the whole series. The female protagonist is constantly surrounded by men, who don’t have fully developed personalities, and the only other female characters are her enemies. There’s her aunt who is a sexual sadist and mainly seems to want to kill Merry. Then there are two sluagh hags who are presented as possessive, jealous and manipulative. It’s a combination of a wish-fulfilment protagonist and misogyny.

The writing problems in this book aren’t about language, they’re about structure. The pacing is awful, characterization is sketchy, and it doesn’t know what it is. I’ll be giving the rest of them a miss.

100 Books in 2011 Review: The Painted Man

I was excited to read The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett. There’s been a lot of buzz around it and I like the cover a lot.

There are three point-of-view characters; Arlen, Leesha and Rojer. We meet them when they are children and follow their stories through to their mid to late twenties. In the book demons come out at night and they can’t be fought, partly because they are so numerous, so humanity hides behind warded walls. But still, many people are lost to the demons, including the families of Arlen and Rojer. The damage done to Leesha is done by other people. After the formative events of their childhood are described, they each leave their home village in search of a way to fight what happened to them. Each finds they have special skills: Arlen learns to fight demons by tattooing wards on his body; Rojer can charm them with his fiddle and Leesha is a talented healer. Towards the end of the book, their paths converge and they fight a pitched battle against the demons.

This is a book with a theme. It’s about how people respond to fear and what it does to them. Which is a good theme, but it’s very obvious and sometimes it feels like the story takes a backseat. That’s a shame, because there’s a good story in here. Although I suspect it might be in the second book of the series. What this really felt like was backstory. Here are three characters who are going to form an amazing demon-fighting team who I think I would like to see ridding the world of demons, but I have to wait for a whole book while we set up their motivation.

Also, the worldbuilding is quite poor. At the level of detail, it’s ok. Villages and individual buildings feel quite solid. The problem is at the macro level. The various city-states of this world are one dimensional in terms of economy and culture. The latter is particularly problematic as the references to real-world culture are too clumsy. Here’s a city in the desert, so we’ll basically make them arabs but without any depth of understanding of arabic or Islamic culture. The other four cities are generic medieaval European templates. It all felt a bit paint-by-numbers. Not that this isn’t a fine tradition in fantasy, but getting the worldbuilding right is one of the elements that separates great fantasy from the rest.

Anything that get’s published has something about it; something that caught the imagination of an editor. So, what was it about this book? From the small biographical details available, I don’t believe that the answer is ‘connections in the industry’. It’s a debut novel, so we can rule out previous sales history. I think it comes down to story. I like the concept. It’s an interesting twist on the ‘farmboy becomes hero’ trope. I wanted to read what seems to have been held over to book 2. Perhaps reading the rest of the trilogy and viewing it in the whole will make more sense.

One thing to take away from this book is about making choices about what to show. For all of the characters the books covers fifteen years and so Brett has to choose which events he shows and which he summarises. He has to pick out a number of scenes and events that represent the formative experiences of the characters. I’m not sure I would have made the same decisions in all cases.

If you fancied reading this, then you might be better off skipping straight to the second book.

100 Books in 2011 Review: Reaper’s Gale

I’m now behind target with my 100 books challenge and this is the reason why. Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson is book 7 in the Malazan Book of the Fallen and it’s a massive 900 pages. Not only is it long, it’s dense. There’s a lot going on and it took me two weeks to read it.

The story, at a fairly simplified level, is the fall of the Letherii Empire. There are a lot of storylines that weave together to create the story including characters in the Letherii army and secret police, characters amongst the Tiste Edur who have recently conquered Letherii, characters among the invading Malazan army and a handful of gods and their offspring.

There are a lot of characters in this book. On the one hand this is good. I like big, sprawling fantasy with a good selection of points of view. Some characters are really interesting and others less so. I did think that there were too many point of view characters and that there was enough time to really get to know the ones I liked best. Which is saying something in a 900 page book. Maybe it’s because this is book 7 and I haven’t read books 1 to 6. This is what happens when you join book clubs to get a million books for no money and then forget to tell them you don’t want the editor’s choice. You end up with loads of books from the middle of a series and never get around to reading the first ones.

One point I did take away from this book is that when you have several point of view characters it is not always necessary to show every step they take on the journey. Showing key scenes builds up the story without any waste. However, I do think you need a large cast to do this.

The writing is amazing. It is all show. There’s very little exposition and loads of dialogue. Reading this really brought home how dialogue can move a story forward, And that’s not all the dialogue does in this story; it does characterization, theme and exposition. It never feels stilted or forced. The description of the various worlds is beautifully done and doesn’t interfere with the action and dialogue. Instead it supports it.

I really enjoyed this, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on – that would be the six books I haven’t read yet. I liked it enough to want to read the rest of the series and then this one again.

Becoming Human

So, I just watched Becoming Human, the spin-off from the BBC’s excellent Being Human. Which takes a minor character (vampire) and adds a werewolf and ghost. New characters, but the same basic concept as Being Human. I thought I’d watch it because I love Being Human and I didn’t think it would be up to much – I thought it would be a bit samey and quite hard for them to differentiate it.

They set it in a school. The vampire has the body of a 16 year old and feels he needs some more education. So he goes back to class and meets a werewolf who’s being stalked by the ghost of a murdered classmate. And that was enough to make it work. I really enjoyed it.

Anybody else see it?