Saturday, March 16, 2019

Mountain of Daggers (Tales of the Black Raven #1) by Seth Skorkowsky

I picked up Mountain of Daggers by Seth Skorkowsky because people were talking it up on the GrimDark Facebook group. It's a loose collection of tales following the doings of thief and miscreant Ahren, aka the Black Raven, as he goes about his business. Sometimes he's on top of things. Other times his opponents get the better of him. Seth's writing flows along at a decent clip, and he paints a well-realised world that promises to be filled with lore (kudos there). I wanted to nitpick a little but shoved my editor hat under the table, even though I'd have enjoyed having a go at him.

But where this book falls flat is the very concept that it presents – a series of vaguely interconnected stories about the legendary Black Raven. While there are key events that suggest motivation, the lack of overarching narrative to drive the story forward means that it loses some of its oomph. Look, it's not a bad concept, but it could have had a bit more meat to the bones, if that makes sense.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the setting very much. There's most certainly action by the bucket load, but I wanted more depth to the character. As it goes, it feels more as if I'm an observer watching rather than actively participating.

This is still a worthy read though, and if characters with dubious moral inclinations are your thing, with a side order of swashbuckling and getting up to mischief, then you'll enjoy Mountain of Daggers immensely.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman

Every once in a while I like to venture outside of my preferred genres, and The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman caught my eye. The author paints a vivid picture exploring how technology may very well impact our lives in the not-so-distant future. The world that she envisions means that every movement a person makes is recorded in some way. AIs and self-driving cars are the norm, but police are still required to provide the human element in fighting crime.

Yet some people – especially religious communities – have moved away from the city to enjoy more simpler lives, without all the surveillance. But when a murder is committed in Bountiful, a strict Christian community, the case presents detectives Salvi and Mitch with more than their fair share of obstacles.

Suspects abound within Bountiful, but things are further complicated by the nearby Solme complex, where dangerous offenders are treated using cutting-edge technology that renders them, as the word suggests: Serene. We follow Salvi's point of view as she unravels the clues that make her doubt even the people closest to her. Hard ethical questions are asked, with no easy answers provided.

The story has a slow build, with short scenes that speed up towards a tense conclusion, and I must commend Bridgeman for her stunning misdirection in terms of me figuring out who the killer was. I'm not a huge fan of crime fiction, but I really enjoyed the ride nonetheless. Salvi herself is a difficult character to get into at first, but as Bridgeman gradually reveals Salvi's past, her fanatical dedication to her police work makes all the more sense. There were times when I felt that Salvi herself was emotionally distant, but that could also just be part of her characterisation in that she keeps herself apart from the people and circumstances around her until she can no longer avoid dealing with the issues that challenge her.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Vampire of the Mists (Ravenloft #1) by Christie Golden

I really, desperately wanted to love Vampire of the Mists by Christie Golden but unfortunately this one fell far short of the mark for me. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of tale that I'd adore, I mean, c'mon ... a vampire elf. (Yes, I'm sort of crunchy that way. If an idea is well executed, I'll gobble it up.)

Except this novel could have benefited greatly at the hands of a developmental editor. It's one thing having a story chock full of tropes. It's quite another if you don't find a way to subvert them in some way to give them nuance and overturn readers' expectations. And it's not just the head hopping that drove me dilly, it's also the shallow writing in terms of character development – there was next to no layering, and the prose is adequate at best.

Granted, if you're a huge fan of the setting, and you're into the RPG, you most likely won't be as critical as I am, but truth be told, this read more like hastily dashed off fanfiction than a well-rounded narrative. If the writing had delivered, I would have been won over to enjoy all the Gothic high drama this story packs, but this was not the case. Or maybe I just went into this expecting too much. I don't know. At any rate, I came away disappointed.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Granite by Jenny Robson

Granite by Jenny Robson is a quick read aimed at younger readers (I'd say about 10-14 or thereabouts) that dips into the world of the young nobleman Mokomba, as he narrates the story of the downfall of the great African city Zimba Remabwe. His version of events is supplemented by the notes shared by his friend Shafiq, whose general knowledge and literacy offers context.

The king of Zimba Remabwe tasks Mokomba's father with finding out the secrets of building cathedrals in the style of the "Milk People" to the north, so a party sets out upon a dangerous journey, by land and by boat, until they reach England. What they find there and what they bring back is not quite what they expect, and we are offered the story bit by bit by unreliable narrators until we eventually have the bigger picture.

Jenny's writing style is engaging and fluid, and her love of the setting shines through with this telling that brings us an Africa-centred adventure, and a young man's coming of age. My only complaint is that the story is too short – there was so much potential to expand this into something more layered. This is a fascinating glimpse into a world of tradition and history, and I was left wondering what else could have been added to give the story further depth. As it is, this is a poignant read that may spark interest for those who'd like to know more about African history.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I won't lie. It took me forever to read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. This classic is heavy going, and some understanding of French history during the Napoleonic era won't hurt. I will also admit that I cheated a little and watched the 2002 film adaption of the novel that stars Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce. I can understand why the scriptwriters made some of the decisions they did. This is a big story, filled with numerous subplots.

The short of it is that the young merchant sailor Edmond Dantès has a bright future, except that he is brought down by three people he considers friends, who envy his potential. He is locked up for many years in a prison, his identity all but erased, and during that time his betrayers all become highly successful people – one of them even marrying Edmond's beloved Mercédès. While incarcerated, Edmond befriends a fellow inmate, who not only teaches him but bestows upon him the location of a vast fortune. When Edmond eventually escapes, he sets himself up as the rather Byronic Count of Monte Cristo, who returns to Paris to exact vengeance on all who did him wrong.

What follows is an epic monstrosity of a novel bloated with subplots and a vast horde of characters to make readers dizzy with all the names and relations if they don't keep notes on the side. How Dumas kept it all straight, I don't know. In other words, this is not a novel I'd suggest abandoning for a while then try to pick up again. You won't just have lost the plot, you'll have dropped it in a fathomless well without any hope of recovering it.

Dumas is a keen observer of human nature, and for that reason alone it's worth reading this novel. I suspect the convoluted plot was created precisely so that he could revel in the complicated dance he wove for his characters. One thing that did annoy me, and perhaps it is because of the writing style itself, is that he writes in a shallow third person that verges on omniscient – sometimes addressing the reader. This is purely a writing convention that's a product of its time, but if you're looking for a deeper understanding of a viewpoint character's inner workings, you're not going to get it here – Dumas is deliberately mysterious, often, in order to maintain suspense.

As a template for designing a complex narrative, The Count of Monte Cristo is rich for the pickings, and in that regard I do recommend it to authors who're looking for ideas. I certainly learnt a lot from this. Just be warned, this is not exactly a novel you'll read cover to cover in a week.

PS, you can pick up a free copy of this over at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Elevation 2: The Rising Tide by Helen Brain

The Rising Tide, which is part two of Helen Brain's Elevation series, continues the tale of Ebba den Eeden, the mistress of Greenhaven. The setting is a post-apocalyptic future where the rising sea levels have turned the Table Mountain range into a series of islands cut off from the African mainland. If we'd hoped that things would be simpler for Ebba after she defeated the High Priest, we're sorely mistaken. Her actions have inadvertently ushered in an era where her region suffers military control. Everyone wants Greenhaven – it has the most fertile land – and Ebba is hard pressed to meet the demands placed on her.

What follows is what I'll affectionately term as "Ebba makes one bad decision after the other." In fact, I wanted to slap her upside the head to knock some sense into her. I agree with Aunty Figgy that boyfriend Micah is Bad News, but of course Ebba is so hopelessly in love with the chap that she's willing to let him distract her from her true goal: that of uniting the mysterious missing amulets and saving the world from catastrophe. (Then again, if I consider how boy-mad I was at 16, I forgive Ebba to a degree.)

That bloody Micah has it in his head that he's going to lead a rebellion, even if it means placing everyone on Greenhaven in danger. And I'm pretty sure Ebba has all the right of it to worry about Micah hanging out with the luscious and conniving Samantha Lee. Poor Ebba doesn't stand a chance – it's in this instalment that her sheltered upbringing in the Colony truly hamstrings her as she flounders about trying to do the right thing. (And making more of a mess while she does.)

There's a smidge of "middle book" syndrome at play here – with plenty of foreshadowing for things to come in book three, I'm certain. I spent a lot of my time saying, "Ag no, Ebba, don't." Her limited vision in terms of how she's manipulated by other people and how hard she tries to please other people to the detriment of her own goals grated on me after a while, and I'm not sure if she redeems herself in my eyes by the end. Here's hoping for book three.

What I love about the Elevation trilogy is the fact that the story is unconventional in terms with what I'm accustomed to when it comes to YA. Helen's characterisation, especially in dialogue and the way people are constantly at cross purpose with each other feels authentic. I'm also so pleased for her that she's also signed a lovely big contract that will see this trilogy hit overseas markets. Her voice and her world building is fresh and the story is engaging. I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Calling (Dragon Age #2)

Regular followers of my reviews will already know that I'm a huge Dragon Age fan, and specifically for the lore, which I love unpicking with my fellow fans. The Calling by David Gaider follows on from The Stolen Throne, though I suspect anyone who picks up these books will at least be conversant with the games so many of the characters will be familiar to them.

I'm no huge fan of Gaider's fiction. His writing is what I'll term is adequate, and he most certainly is in need of a developmental editor to help with characterisation and polishing up his writing. The Calling certainly flows a bit better than The Stolen Throne, and it was a more interesting read in terms of lore, but that's where it stops for me. I read this for the lore. And because I am interested in Fiona, as well as Alastair's back story.

Maric is still an idiot. Well meaning, bumbling, but an idiot. It's great seeing a little from Duncan's perspective, though here he's painted out as an irresponsible youth who's prone to childish fits of pique. And at one point of the story, I completely felt that he landed into the TSTL category. While I enjoyed this story a lot more than I did the first instalment, there were still aspects of it that made me say, "But why, mummy, why did they do this?" So, yeah, I'd liked to have seen better expression of character motivations so that I could at least understand why they responded the way they did under certain circumstances.

I will, however, recommend this one to die-hard Dragon Age fans who want that little bit of dishing out of extra lore – which is helpful, especially to those of us who write fics set in the world. But I do feel Gaider should stick to writing games and leave the fiction to those who have the feel for it.