Friday, July 19, 2019

The Usurper (King Rolen's Kin #3) by Rowena Cory Daniells

The Usurper (King Rolen’s Kin #3) by Rowena Cory Daniells sees me finally putting this trilogy to bed. I’ve got many thoughts about this epic, and they’re conflicted, so bear with me. Daniells starts out with all the elements that I love about a meaty fantasy trilogy – courtly intrigue, royal heirs thrust into unwished-for situations, treachery and a side order of the occasional fantasy beast. But…

I think she took a leaf out of the GRRM handbook but didn’t flesh things out nor develop her narrative arcs fully. So, while things started out promising (I really did enjoy book one and two) by the time we hit book three, I gained a nagging suspicion that she was pantsing her way through the epic without any clear idea of where or how to end.

There are so many promising characters and some lovely interactions, for instance friendships that develop in unlikely places (no, I’m not going to spoil it). I found myself enjoying those secondary arcs more than I did the primary ones, which all seemed rather standard (winning back the crown at all cost, etc etc).

I feel more could have been made of the theme of characters having to cope with the lot handed to them in life – Byren the reluctant king; Fin, the warrior monk who doesn’t have a shred of magical ability; Piro the princess who has all the magical ability but needs to keep it hidden… And while the writing is solid, I often felt that the point of view did not go deep enough – especially in terms of crisis situation which felt almost a little glossed over – I’m thinking of the ending in particular (you blink, and it’s over in a whiff of vapour). Too many conveniences – for instance, instead of executing someone you dislike the moment you lay hands on them, why then apparently starve them to death very publicly when you know they have sympathisers who’ll no doubt try to save them. (It feels too much like the Disney villain whose gloating ends up being his undoing.)

As much as I wanted to love Byren, there were times when I felt he was almost too trusting, too obstinately obtuse about the people and their feelings around him – not quite in the TSTL category, but verging very near to that. Not to mention his bungling of his friendship with Orrie.

I think what stole most of the joy of the story for me was the way it felt rushed towards the conclusion after events dragged out midway in the trilogy, as if the author had gone off on a bunch of tangents but then wasn’t exactly quite sure how to wrap them all together for a satisfying ending – but had to, within a specified word count. And it’s difficult. I understand all too well when writing merely one character’s narrative arc. And we’re sitting with not one but three point-of-view characters here. So, though I don’t want to lean on the GRRM reference too hard, it’s painfully apparent here. Added to that, the author flips between points of view rapidly, sometimes within a scene. Now, I don’t know if it was how the book was formatted (I was reading the ebook so don’t know if those spaces accimagically vanished during the final production) but I’d have liked some scene breaks indicated – I sometimes had to stop and go back a few sentences to realise we’d switched characters. And if no scene breaks, a better transition could have smoothed this out. Not a complete deal-breaker, because I don’t know if it is a formatting glitch, but if not…

I wanted to like this trilogy very much, and it had such a promising start, but I’ve been spoilt by so many more complex, textured and lush fantasy writing that this felt like something I may have enjoyed more when I was in my early teens. I know I’ve gone on a bit in this review, more than I ordinarily would, and King Rolen’s Kin is not a bad little fantasy trilogy, but it could have packed a stronger punch to conclude better at book three.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Tomorrow by Damian Dibben

The premise for Tomorrow by Damian Dibben bit me from the start – an immortal hound is separated from his equally immortal owner and spends more than a century searching for him throughout Europe. Tomorrow blends elements of fantasy with luscious prose, through a layered alchemical process that results in a novel that is difficult to pin down. (There’s quite a lot going on beneath the surface.)

My first thought upon finishing was that Tomorrow reminds me somewhat of Paul Gallico’s classics, such as Jennie or Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God – both novels my mother inspired me to read when I was little. Granted, it’s been decades since I’ve read any Gallico, so this comparison might just be wishful thinking on my part.

But I’m a sucker for a novel written from an animal’s point of view, and Tomorrow (yes, that’s the dog’s name) offers such an evocative window into Europe between the 1600s and 1800s. At a glance, this story may be about a dog trying desperately to reunite with his owner, but the story is much, much more than that.

A pervading theme makes us question the value of life – would we value our existence if it was limitless? Tomorrow and his master, Valentyne, both enjoy an eternal life that is juxtaposed with the ephemeral; when we meet secondary characters such as the indomitable Sporco or the sensitive Blaise, whose lives are but instants in those of our protagonists, these short-lived characters’ vitality and ‘presentness’ becomes all the more apparent. We examine also the complex relationship between two men – Valentyne and his counterpart Vilder. Each copes with eternity in different ways: Valentyne by working to preserve the lives of others and bring them comfort, and Vilder, by pursuing a more hedonistic, self-centred life. Neither seem to gain any satisfaction through their actions, and through the ages are locked in a love/hate relationship.

We see also, a Europe turned upside down by war, with graphic illustration of the battle of Waterloo and the resultant carnage that is brought to life in such a way that will leave you in no doubt that war is far from noble. Threaded through this is a search for meaning, because a life without the limitations placed upon it by death, can easily become meaningless.

Tomorrow is not a happy read, but it is filled with evocative prose and astute observations. In addition, the novel jumps backwards and forwards in time, and this non-linear execution may be confusing to some. If viewed in a linear way, the plot isn’t all that developed – there are patches that fall flat, and are propped up by the author’s lush style. So, this is more a novel about internal alchemy for Valentyne, in which we are not privy to his thoughts, but we view his journey through the lens of his loyal dog. In that sense, I don’t think this novel is going to be for everyone, but it’s certainly a memorable story that will prey on my mind for a while yet.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Gorgon Bride by Galen Surlak-Ramsey

The Gorgon Bride by Galen Surlak-Ramsey has all the ingredients that I enjoy in fantasy comedy – ancient gods, magic, and true love overcoming all obstacles. So at a glance if I could say who’d enjoy this book, I’d single out those of you who’ve read and enjoyed Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and hells, while we’re at it, if you’re a Discworld fan then you’ll be on familiar turf with The Gorgon Bride.

I will admit that I’m not a huge fan of fantasy comedy (I’m one of the sad sacks for whom Good Omens fell flat the second time I read it, and neither do I indulge in any of Pratchett’s writing anymore, even though I admit that the writing is good – the fault very much lies with the reader and not the author.) So, here goes. I’m going to take off my spooky, serious GrimDark-loving hat and tell you what I liked about this novel as if I were the intended readership.

Alex, a wealthy, professional pianist, is quietly minding his business when a whale lands on him, killing him instantly. It all goes a bit bonkers after that, as a deceased Alex finds himself landed in the midst of a contest between ancient Greek gods … and he himself married to the gorgon Euryale.

On a quest to save his marriage, not only must Alex outwit and outfight gods and monsters, but must figure out what love means to him. And while at first I wasn’t exactly sure where the author was going with this story, by the end of (yet another) quest for Alex and without giving spoilers, I was fully on board with how the story is resolved.

My only criticism is that the pacing of the novel is a bit off. I didn’t really get stung by a sense of urgency and high stakes, but the quality of the writing and the interaction between characters more than makes up for that.

Alex himself grows as a character, from someone who’s self-absorbed and decidedly unheroic, into someone who’s willing to take on the god of war himself, even if his plans never quite work out quite the way he expects them to. Add to that, a wonderful cast of gods and monsters, and you’ve got a fun, rip-roaring plot of mythical proportions that kept me suitably entertained. Author Galen certainly knows his stuff in terms of Greek mythology, and he does a cracking good job bringing that ancient pantheon to life with plenty of in-jokes only those who know their myths will get (and appreciate).