It happens more often than you think. Sometimes we just don’t read certain books. It has to do with time, opportunity, cost, motivation or whatever. The end result is the same, and the book sits there in the “To Be Read” pile. It’s a shame, because we miss a lot of great novels this way. We were recently asked to review some of the various novels out there that don’t seem to get a lot of push, and this reminded us of those copies of Alan Campbell’s novels that we bought forever ago.
Alan Campbell’s SCAR NIGHT is one of those novels about which people always say, “Oh yeah, I’ve always wondered if that book was any good. I just never manage to get around to it.” We were in that group. What you need to do is follow our lead here. Stop messing around and go read this book.
SCAR NIGHT is the first book in the Deepgate Codex series. What we have is a city—the city of Deepgate—suspended by chains over a supposedly bottomless chasm. The immediate visuals of the setting are terrific, and Campbell descriptions keep the setting alive throughout the full extent of the novel. It’s original, fresh, and lends to all sort of later conflict.
But that’s not all this novel has going for it. There are some light steampunk offerings. Angels. Quasi-angels. Devils. Poisoners. Assassins. Zombie-ish things. Gods alive and kind-of alive. In other words, the novel is full. Unlike some other offerings over the past couple of years, this abundance of…uh, stuff…never feels like a laundry list. It is all developed too the level that a first novel in a series allows.
Lets talk characters. Dill is an angel who is forbidden the act of flying. He is the last descendant of on of the warrior angels of the past. His life is mostly one of boredom and longing until he meets Rachel, an assassin who is viewed as expendable by her order. Both of these characters gravitate towards each other as outcasts, and for the most part their chemistry is well done. Rachel is a tad rough in spots, and though she is regarded in scorn by her fellow assassins, she never seems less of an assassin than they are. In fact, there are things she says that makes her seem positively brutal…those are scenes we wish we could have seen. Dill is perfectly written in his role. Innocent. Naive. Honorable.
Once a moon-cycle comes Scar Night, a night on which Carnival, another angel gone mad, roams the city looking for a victim to kill and drain of blood. She is a fantastic character through which we get to see madness, sadness, torment and cruelty. And it all usually happens at the same time. In a similar vein (hehe), someone else is roaming Deepgate killing people in a similar manner. The goal of that person? To make a concoction of people’s souls that will grant immortality.
The pacing of this novel is unrelenting. There is no slow-down, though there isn’t a huge amount of action. Campbell’s writing, to us, was perfectly accessible while not falling into simplistic clichés. And this story isn’t all jelly beans and rainbows. It is grim. It is dark. In a way we were reminded of a less explicit Neil Gaiman with just a tad of Miéville thrown in.
Perhaps the only issue we had was with some of the side characters that got main character screen time. Their sections dragged a bit, all the while we wondered what was going to happen with the angels and assassins. It wasn’t major, but you’ll notice it when you start reading.
So. SCAR NIGHT. What a fun, fresh read. This is what every fantasy reader needs to read to refresh themselves. It is a true melting-pot of ideas that shouldn’t blend together, yet somehow do. Campbell’s story here ends with everything in disarray and on a medium sized cliff-hanger, but since we already bought the other novels in the series we don’t have to wait at all. Yep, we’ll be reviewing the full series as we read it. Go out and grab these novels. You won’t regret it in the least.
Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: There was relatively little, though when it did show up it would be in a paragraph burst followed by a hundred pages without any.
Violence: Yeah. Depending on the type of reader you are, it can mess with you.
Note: In hindsight, the covers probably aren't helping Campbell's sales in the USA. The UK covers are completely awesome, and are the versions we chose to buy. You may wanna consider doing the same if you are here in the States. Remember, Book Depository is your friend and ours.
You all know by now that James Barclay has become one of our favorite authors. Action. Character. Tragedy. Humor. Love. He somehow manages to blend all these themes perfectly. So when we got the opportunity to interview James, we jumped on it with fanboy glee.
So here you have it...
1. Hello there, James. Glad to have you here at our illustrious blog. Our tradition here at EBR is to give the authors we are interviewing a chance to brag. So let loose, James. Tell us what makes you and your novels awesome.
Hello. It’s lovely to be here and sit for a while where I normally drop in only too briefly. Brag, eh? Well, you know how we authors hate to talk about ourselves in any but the most self-deprecating ways but I’ll do my best.
It’s like this. My books are awesome (good word, that) because they’re fantastically exciting heroic action fantasy thrillers and because they are so much more than fantastically exciting heroic action fantasy thrillers. That’s (partly) because every blow in every fight lands in one of my readers’ hearts. And THAT’s because there is a moment, in every Raven reader’s journey, when it dawns on them that they really, really care. They feel like they are reading about family and that makes the wounds hurt, the tears sting and the laughter the purest of releases. And there is nothing they can do about it. (And can I just say at this point for those of you who didn’t wait until that happened, it is absolutely your loss. Absolutely.)
All this means that I am not awesome. The awesome people are the readers who get The Raven. Get the facts that while they are extraordinary individuals, they are prey to the same things as the rest of us; love, loss, grief, fear, laughter. They bicker, they moan, they fight and they would die for those they love. And in amongst all that, they struggle to save their world for the ungrateful, the unborn and the unworthy. This is what heroes do.
Ah, now that means The Raven are awesome, doesn’t it? And I created them. So that makes me awesome too, doesn’t it? Excellent. Then all is well with the world.
2. We’ll start with some easy questions before we put your feet to the branding irons. When was it that you realized you wanted to be an author?
I was eleven. A tender age indeed but it was then that I made both my career choices. Actor and/or writer. Simple really and a triumph of youthful optimism over common sense. On the other hand, since I’ve now published ten novels and two novellas plus just recently appeared in a feature film, it all makes perfect sense.
3. Give our readers a little back-story on how you got published.
You have to understand that I have always loved writing stories; right from infant school, as soon as I could write. So a back story could be a gargantuan exercise, a bit like the long form version of Marx’s ‘Capital’. So I tell you what, I’ll start when I was sixteen and began to take it all rather seriously.
It was at that time that I began to write the most horrific derivative bunch of toss. Some might say I never stopped doing so but they are few and even now, they are being hunted down. I wrote a novella length thing for an English project and I was in competition with my mates for body count. Next was a pompous fantasy/sci-fi fusion for another school-based project and following that a proper novel length piece that was really a long Star Trek episode. I mention all these because within them are the germs of the character and action-driven novels I eventually published. And to point out that, at sixteen I was an embarrassing distance from being publishable.
Happily, I can fast forward to the time it became apparent that The Raven was a proper idea, worthy of expansion and eminently publishable so long as I could imbue the story with enough quality and other writerly stuff like plot, character and a coherent narrative structure. It’s no secret that the genesis of The Raven was table-top dice-based fantasy role playing and readers of Dawnthief will no doubt sense that though it is not apparent (in my mind anyway) in Noonshade and beyond.
I remember very well, my twenties and the various iterations of Raven novel ideas and how they began as a sort of comedic entity shot through with horrible violence and ended up the grumpy but magnificent world-savers we know and love. I submitted Dawnthief all over the place, along with much other work, and have many a rejection slip to show for it.
Mine was the classic patience and belief journey and it was not until I submitted to Gollancz the first time that hope was truly kindled. Even then, the comments were not wholly positive and amounted to a rejection with an invitation to resubmit. ‘The idea is fine.’ I was told. ‘But the book is like a skeleton with no flesh on the bones. The world is incomplete and there is no notion of existence beyond the sphere of the main characters.’
That is not a direct quote but it sums up the conversation pretty well, I think. But I took it as massive encouragement and to cut a long back story slightly shorter, I worked my arse off to improve what I had and nearly did it second time around. Third time around, I got the call every aspiring author dreams of. I only filled up when I saw Dawnthief on the shelf for the first time. That’s the moment when you know it’s all for real. That was 1999.
4. Elves. We typically hate them. For whatever reason, yours don’t rub us the wrong way. Lately there seems to be a collective eye-roll when elves are mentioned in the synopsis of a novel. Why did you personally decide to go with elves in your Raven stories, and why start another series that focuses on them?
I don’t think I ever thought about not going with elves. They were present in much of the stuff I read as a youth and were always there, irritating the crap out of my characters in role playing games so to me, they’re part of the family.
I also didn’t ever think: “Hmm. Got elves here, I really need to make them different.” They just came out as they came out. Now of course, they are different from the more classical ideals of the trope and I think that has helped me a great deal because people aren’t reading about the hoppity, skippety, portentous-speaking, effeminate horse-riders they are used to.
But I think the key to writing a well-worn trope like elves is not to keep on reminding people they are elves. You have to remember that they are as unremarkable in the fantasy worlds they inhabit as are humans. So readers find out about them by degrees just like any other character. And, in the same way I don’t remind you a human doesn’t have pointed ears, I don’t remind you that an elf does. My elves are different by dint of their culture, their homeland and their religion. Just like humans, then.
As for the Elves series well, for every reader who cannot bear our faerie cousins appearing in a fantasy novel, there is another who cannot get enough quality work about them. This was of course of interest to the commercial side of the Barclay/Gollancz partnership. There’s more to it than that, mind you. The elves of Calaius have been a fascination to many of The Raven’s readers, particularly the TaiGethen but for the whole elven cultural package too. And I have grown to love them and have wanted to write more about them for years.
And why not? Rain-forest dwelling, isolationist and super-religious beings liable to remove your liver and show it to you before you know you’ve been attacked are fascinating on many levels.
They have complex societal and religious structures tied to the rain forest and what it gives them. They are subdivided into ‘threads’, each of which has a different typical lifespan and this has been the seat of every inter-racial problem they have ever experienced. The protectors of their faith, the TaiGethen, are an elite fighting force like no other in fantasy and every action they take is in the name of their god.
They are an incredibly proud and ancient people who cannot quite reconcile themselves to their own internal problems. And then some idiot goes and invites humans in to shift the balance of power. And shift it they do.
Enough of that. Suffice to say that I think my elves are a genuine breath of fresh air in the genre. The first Elves book, Once Walked With Gods, is my best-selling trade paperback so far. That’s because it’s really, really bloody good, by the way.
5. How has the reception been to your release of novels here in the US? Why did it take so long for them to make their way over here?
It’s been really positive, thanks. The Chronicles trilogy sold very well and was positively reviewed by some exceptional review sites. Can’t think of any particular names off-hand… I’ve had great feedback from readers too and that is particularly gratifying. Of course we could always sell more and I firmly believe it is incumbent on every man, woman and child in your vast and magnificent country to furnish themselves with Chronicles novels. The Legends series is only just coming out now so it’s too early to say if they’ll repeat the goodness; but if the early reviews, and Raymond Swanland’s astonishingly fine covers are indicators, then we should do very nicely indeed.
Why did it take so long? I haven’t a clue. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Sometimes I think books slip between the cracks in the pavement however well they do in other countries and such it was with mine. That’s life. I know that Lou Anders at Pyr Books was surprised to find the rights still available and I’m really grateful to him for getting them on US shelves. Sure I could have wished to have been published in the US ten years ago but then I’d not be working with Lou Anders and frankly, that was worth waiting for.
6. In a similar vein, why oh why aren’t your Ascendants of Estorea novels here in the US? Can our US readers expect them anytime soon?
I think with the Ascendants the scene is a little different. I know editors in the US looked favorably on them when they were first written but the sheer size was off-putting – don’t forget they would have been my first books published in the US and would have been a tough sell. The first book is three hundred thousand words long and that would have represented a major leap of faith.
If the Raven sell well enough through Pyr then maybe they’ll want the Ascendants too but that’s in the lap of the gods and Lou Anders. Is that tautological? Probably. Anyway, I do hope US reader get the chance to see the Ascendants. I’m immensely proud of those two books – about the birth of magic in a Roman-esque empire teetering on the brink of implosion, and manifesting itself in four young people – and again they’ve garnered plenty of praise over here in the UK.
We’ll just have to wait and see.
7. How far ahead do you plan novels? Your Elves series is going strong in the UK, but have you thought past it at all?
Generally speaking, by the time I’m in the final throes of a series, I’ve got firm ideas and a proposal for new novels, series, whatever. Right now, I’ve got many notions running around in my head. Some are stand-alone and others are multi-book sequences. But I don’t spend too much time agonizing over these things when I’m bang in the middle of a series like now. Ideas suggest themselves and I write them down. There, they ferment away and some demonstrate great potential while others dissolve or are subsumed into other, better notions.
By the way, I’m diversifying slightly as well. I’ve got a young adult trilogy out on proposal at the moment and we’ll see what comes of it. I’ve many other YA ideas too right now which is a good thing. They’re all within the broad church of our magnificent genre but more contemporary in nature.
8. What do you consider your greatest weakness as an author?
I’ve always had this tendency to charge into drafting a novel before I’ve tied down enough of the direction, plot, character development and all that stuff. Once or twice it has worked spectacularly well but more often than not, the opposite is true. I’d like to tell you that I’ve eradicated it from my working life but that would be a massive lie.
The first Elves book was, I thought, going terribly well and then I read a good chunk of the draft and had to start from scratch because it just wasn’t working. The same happened with the second book. I think it stems from me being able, in the past, to hold so much more in my head in terms of the complexities of a novel and now I can’t do that nearly so well.
The positive I take from it is that, in the past, I might have tried to mould what I had into something acceptable and then have an almighty struggle come editing and revising to make the book right. These days, painful though it is, I’ll stop, file the original under ‘utter bollocks’ and start again to ensure the result is of far higher quality from the first completed draft. It saves a lot of time (and certainly a lot of hassle) in the long run but at the time, it hurts baaaad.
9. Who do you consider your main influences?
First up has to be David Gemmell. First I was a fan devouring every book and later, hugely fortunately, a very good friend of his. We spent many a fabulous hour jawing away over things like the nature of heroism, how to make fights better, ways to develop character and the state of anything and everything. His attitude to work and his fans, his methods and his sheer professionalism have affected me greatly. I will be aspiring to his heights in all of these things forever.
The other main one is not a who, it is a single book. It’s ‘The Legacy of Heorot’ by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes. Bloody hell, what a book and what an influence it had. For me, this is the only text book you need on how to write character driven action novels in probably any genre. If you want to write that sort of stuff, then once you’ve read my books (having bought a pristine set), then go get the source text. It sets the bar high, very high.
Inevitably, all my influences stem from my formative years and from before I began to write novels with a ghost of a chance of being published. I don’t feel I’m influenced by any of my contemporaries. For those I rate highly, I reserve emotions such as jealousy, awe and massive respect.
10. When you aren’t writing or planning your next novel—we know right? How dare you do anything but write!—what occupies your time?
The demands on my time are many and various. Number one is my son, Oscar, who is four in January. Watching him learn, develop and grow, and engaging in all his play and his imagination is simply joyful. For another, I’m chief cook in the house and get bored of recipes easily so I like to experiment if I get the time. Then there’s the dog. She’s sitting with her chin on my thigh at the moment and if I should misspell a word anytime, it’ll be because she’s nudged my arm for some attention.
Because I’m nearly middle aged, I do like pottering around in the garden and because we own an old house, there is an endless list of repairs and the like to keep the place upright and passably smart.
Increasingly rarely now, I play computer games. I’m a PC gamer though Oscar and I muck about on the X-Box Kinect and the Wii from time to time. Nothing beats a quality shooter and of course, the daddy of them is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. When the elves book is done, I’ll go back and play that again, then play its slightly lesser sibling before charging into book three (see question 8 above ).
I watch TV but only either late at night or at lunchtime when I get to catch up a little bit with stuff like Stargate Universe and The Walking Dead. I hardly read at all… only for research these days.
The fact is that fatherhood is the dominating part of my life after the day’s work is done and quite frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
11. You’re in a bookstore, in the SF&F section, and a customer mistakes you for an employee. He/She asks you to recommend a novel. You can’t recommend your own novels (because OBVIOUSLY the customer has read them all). What book/series do you recommend?
The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss. Beautifully written.
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch. Just brilliant.
The Troy Trilogy – David Gemmell. The man at his very best and written just before he died (indeed, the third book was co-written by his amazing wife, Stella after his death).
Germinal – Emile Zola. It is an utterly gripping, terribly depressing and achingly brilliant novel about the effects of a strike on a poverty-stricken mining community in northern France under the second empire. Right, not SF&F but there is more to life and this book, written in 1885, is extraordinary.
12. What do we have to do to have cameos in your next book where we die violent deaths?
You want that? You got it. All you have to do is furnish me with your ideal fantasy versions of your names in the style of those already in The Raven and I’ll do the rest. That’s you, the Elitist crew, not the earth’s population in general.
13. Again, James, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. As always, it has been a pleasure. Any last words for the readers?
Yes I have. In one way only, I want to be like JK Rowling and find it easier to create a list of those who haven’t read my books rather than the lengthier one of those who have. So go and buy my books and then make all your friends do likewise (and their friends and so on and so forth). Much appreciated.
Seriously though, this genre is full of richness and talent and variety and extraordinary people. Never walk away and, if you can, get one more person to read your favorite genre title. This is surely the true path to global enlightenment.
Thanks for inviting me in. No need to get up, I’ll close the door on the way out.
We get asked all the time who our favorite authors are. Two years ago the answers would have been absurdly simple, but we read a lot more novels these days. A WHOLE lot more. As a result, who we consider our favorites tends to shift and slide. Barely more than a year ago we hadn't yet read anything by James Barclay. Now with each novel of his that we read, he solidifies himself as one of our favorite authors.
The Legends of the Raven series, though it contains many of the same characters from the Chronicles of the Raven, is extremely different from the mentioned trilogy. The emotions of the characters are more raw. Conflicts are closer to the surface. It is with SHADOWHEART that we truly are able to see how good of an author Barclay is. Our UK readers already know all of this, but his novels are completely new to us here in the US, and we are lucky to be getting them all in quick succession. The previous novels are still fresh in our minds, which makes it easy for us to look over our shoulders and say, "Man, those first three Raven novels were great, but they don't have ANYTHING on the latest few."
SHADOWHEART picks up right where ELFSORROW left off. It's hard for us to say a lot about SHADOWHEART without spoiling the ending of ELFSORROW, so we'll just say that The Raven are dealing with tragedy. Like we said before, the emotions of the characters are exposed for all to see. Perhaps our own emotions as readers were right there as well having just read ELFSORROW. We felt for the The Raven. The mark of any good writer is his or her ability to make the reader feel the emotions of the created characters. In this Barclay--to us at least--has succeeded on a level very few authors have achieved.
The war that threatened in ELFSORROW is in full swing in SHADOWHEART. The Colleges of Magic are in direct and bloody conflict. Some want balance, some want to reset the balance, and other factions--the Wesmen--want magic gone entirely. Xetesk is regaining control over dimensional magic, and have no qualms about using it against anyone who attempts to disrupt their plans. Also all the colleges have discovered the Erienne has inherited the One magic. As usual, The Raven are out to preserve Balaia at all costs.
SHADOWHEART is a full, full novel. Barclay does a fantastic job of showing how betrayed The Raven feel throughout everything. No matter what they do, or how many they save, they are still hunted for the power they hold and represent.
The Raven as we know them are coming to an end. SHADOWHEART has an underlying sense of inevitability throughout. The Raven have lost people in the past, and it is clear that they will lose people in the near future. Every novel the mercenaries get a little more beat up. A little more worn down. This novel was no exception. It's a bit like walking the plank blindfolded; at some point the fall is going to come.
A few very minor problems? Erienne's complete 180 somehow seems sudden. She goes from hatred towards the people she blames for the death of her daughter to complete reliance. It can feel a little disingenuous. It's the lack of her previous mistrust that stands out. Also, there are times when the size of armies gets a bit muddled. Like we said, minor problems, and and none of them should affect the overall enjoyment of an amazing novel.
It's worth repeating that these novels get better with each offering. Barclay's skill in foreshadowing is impeccable. His large-scale battles in this series better done than in the Chronicles trilogy. His character dialogue, and interaction is better. The up-close action is brutal and fierce. Emotions are honest and raw. SHADOWHEART, like every Raven novel that precedes it, is a must-read. If you want to write action and character driven novels, you should be devouring everything Barclay writes. Twice.
Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: It pops up in its strongest forms at times, but it never feels like it is swearing for swearing's sake.
Violence: Of course. It is a VERY violent novel, yet it never once seems over-done.
PS--Tune in tomorrow for an interview with James Barclay. It's one of the best we've done.
By chapter two of LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS I began to worry that Rachel Neumeier would make me suffer through new-author syndrome: the first fifty pages stiffly sets up a predictable story, using too-formal prose, repetitive descriptions, and clumsy world building. But I kept reading, because despite a not very illustrious beginning, the prose has some delightful metaphors and turns of phrase that spoke to the author's cleverness with words.
Griffins take center stage here--this isn't another dragon story (thank heavens, no). These are not your standard mythological creatures, they have their own magic, which is tied closely to fire and the desert. But they're at odds with the humans they must share the land with, as griffin fire magic is the antithesis of human earth magic. They are a species without the sensibilities of humans, and as a result there's little possibility for living peaceably.
Enter Kes, the timid younger sister of a small town's horse breeder. The griffins, having been ousted from their desert by the cold mages in another country, have taken residence in the mountains, terraforming the landscape into a desert to better suit them. When a stranger visits the town asking for help, Kes goes with him and discovers that he's a griffin mage; she agrees to help heal the wounds of the fleeing griffins, and her life is changed forever.
In the capital, the Lord of the Delta, Bertaud, friend to the king, is sent as emissary to the griffins with the hope that they can be convinced to return to their desert. But he doesn't anticipate the antipathy between the species and risks starting a war.
Then there's the neighboring country who wants to invade and take the mountain passes and port towns for their own use--and will use the griffins' presence to their advantage. You see? Fairly predictable. Just from this description you could probably outline the entire novel. You already know how it's going to end.
Kes and Bertaud as the main characters are flat. Today Kes would be diagnosed with Asperger's, a form of autism; and while it was interesting to see her cope with the situation, her character was muddled and inconsistent, with an unsatisfying progression. Bertaud's struggle to understand what's happening is the most compelling part of the characters' development, and I enjoyed watching it play out, unfortunately he still lacked depth. King Iaor should have been more interesting than he was, but Neumeier's attempts to show his character are awkward. Most most annoying? The motivations of the enemy king/mages are so cliche they're boring. The most fascinating characters are the griffins, but the problem with them is neither of the PoV characters are griffins, which is a pity because as the 'star of the show' they could have used even more face time to give the readers a deeper understanding of their culture and they way they think.
There are other flaws. For example, the two main PoV narratives can be confusing when they speak of a non-PoV character's emotions and motivations, making it feel like the author is switching PoV characters within a scene. And I swear this is not a petty complaint because it's such an obvious no-no: using 'almost' or 'he wasn't sure how he knew that but he did' descriptions. I mean, really. Using vague 'almost' descriptions gives the writing an unnecessarily passive tone, and 'he wasn't sure' only makes the PoV characters sound indecisive and wimpy. She does it a lot, and I'd give examples but that would just make you grind your teeth. There are other problems with how Neumeier handles the armies, distances/scale, time frames, differences in countries (they almost felt like a couple of states in the U.S. in terms of proximity, homogeny of culture, etc), naming conventions. It's apparent that Neumeier is still settling into her craft, because these are mistakes experienced authors don't usually make.
Yet, LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS is still an entertaining read...because of the griffins. If you're a fan of Anne McCaffrey, Robin McKinley, or Andre Norton you'll see their influence in Neumeier's writing. It has much the same straightforward storytelling, use of mythological creatures, and lyric writing. She integrates the magic into the culture and world: all humans have some form of earth magic, usually manifesting as an 'affinity' to a kind of animal, whereas others are strong enough to become mages; on the other end of the spectrum the nature inherent in fire affects the griffins and their behavior.
This book dipped over the edge from like into mediocre as a result of the predictable plot and other problems with characterization and style. But, despite its flaws, LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS has a great wealth of potential. Neumeier is building a world with a good foundation on its creatures and magic with a promise of greater things to come in the sequel.
Recommended Age: 12+
Violence: Moderate, some battles and blood, but even then it's not very graphic.
We rarely read any novels from Pyr that could be deemed a “miss.” The number of stellar novels put out by Pyr since its inception is astonishing. But every now and again even they miss the mark. THE HORNS OF RUIN, by Tim Akers, is Sword & Sorcery/Steampunk hybrid. Sounds cool on the surface. In fact a lot of this story sounds fantastic on paper…unfortunately that paper doesn’t include the actual execution of the idea.
We love Sword & Sorcery. We love Steampunk even more. So this love-child of the two was something we were extremely excited about. Our PoV character is Eva Forge, the last Paladin of a betrayed, dead god. She wields a revolver and a Steampunk-looking sword. The gist of the story revolves around her looking for the abducted leader of her dying cult, and protecting a girl who belongs to the tech-centric cult of the god who betrayed Eva’s own cult. Again, in theory it all sounds great.
The story is told by Eva Forge herself in 1st Person PoV, and this is where we have our first problem. To us, 1st Person is used to give us a more immediate and deeper connection to the main character of the novel. When it works—like with Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s series—readers automatically root for the character. We become invested in that character’s struggle. When done poorly, it makes reading the novel a chore. In THE HORNS OF RUIN, the latter is the case. We just don’t like Eva. We found it impossible to care about her or root for her. She is a typical female “tough-girl” written from a male’s perspective. She may as well be a guy. With the exception of another character mentioning Eva’s cup size, there is nothing in this novel that says, “the main character is an awesome chick, not a dude.” On TV the other day on The Human Target, one character says to another something along the lines of, “Look, I don’t want to hear your ‘bad girl’ resume. Just show me some actual competence.” That is exactly how we felt about Eva in this story. Rather than going around like a brainless barbarian saying “Hulk smash!” how about you show some freaking intelligence as befits your position?
The problem is that this is the attitude of the character for the entire novel. No matter what other characters say to her, she does it the stupid and hard way. People save her butt, and then she turns around and hits them in the face for getting in her way. It’s the tough-girl cliché to the extreme.
The other main issue we have with this novel is the lack of setting. 95% of the time, we felt like we were reading about characters in a white, formless room. This had potential to be an awesome showcase of setting much like in Alan Campbell’s SCAR NIGHT (we’ll be reviewing this shortly). Instead we rarely had any idea where we were, or why it mattered.
Dialogue is a mixed bag. Sometimes, mainly when dealing with male characters, everything goes smooth. Yet whenever it is two female characters talking, they get into constant verbal cat-fights. Since 90% of the book deals with two female running around together, you can imagine our frustration. The girl who Eva is “guarding” is Cassandra. She is some sort of super gifted tech-mage from the cult of the Betrayer. We have rarely read a character as wildly inconsistent in speech patterns as her—the other ones all had multiple personalities. Some of the stuff she says comes off as sounding like a woman-hating wife-beater. Really. Again, the problem here is another girl written by a guy as a cliché tough girl freed of her bonds.
The magic is also tedious and, to us, silly. In theory it sounds interesting. You Invoke the power of the god by Invoking its history. Yet in actual practice you get long-winded monologues that kill the pace of action sequences. You also endure the main character pausing every other page to renew her “buffs”. Yeah, we kept thinking, “WTF? Are we in the middle of a Raid in World of Warcraft? This is ridiculous.”
THE HORNS OF RUIN has so much promise that it fails to deliver on. Everything is so abstract that we felt like we were floating along in a void waiting for Eva’s next emotionally-stunted outburst. We’ll also mention here that the ending is way predictable and cliché as far as Eva’s personal journey, and it is inconsistent and disjointed for everything else. Things are seemingly added at random at the end to give half-cocked credibility to people’s intelligence. Ugh.
We didn’t HATE this novel—some of the ideas here were truly awesome—we just didn’t like it at all. So disappointing. Will anyone like it? No doubt. Probably the same people who really liked BONESHAKER. Be we aren't in that group.
Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: Here and there. Not over-done.
Violence: There is some, but like the storytelling it is often disjointed and abstract.
I know what you're thinking: "This is a girlie book." Your first impression of the cover/title may be justified, but at the same time it doesn't fully describe the depth of the setting and characters of PEGASUS--this is more than a fairytale.
When a member of the royal family reaches twelve years of age they are bound to their own pegasus. Princess Sylvi's birthday is coming up soon, but she's ambivalent about the event, even if it means binding herself to one of the gloriously lovely pegasi. This is because the process involves the most dreaded of people to Sylvi...magicians.
Humans and pegasi have been allies ever since the humans first came to their valley centuries ago, and the humans were allowed to settle in peace in exchange for fighting off the pegasi's enemies. But the ability of the species to communicate with each other has been spotty at best, the bound royalty relying on magicians to help them communicate with their beautiful animal counterparts.
Until Sylvi and her bound pegasus Ebon show that perfect telepathy between the species is possible. Unfortunately, this creates more enemies than rejoicing. The magician's guild warns that it's unnatural and dangerous for a bound human and pegasi to be able to speak with each other without a magician intermediary. But it's hard to imagine that the innocent Sylvi and Ebon are doing anything wrong.
Robin McKinley returns in fine form with PEGASUS, a coming-of-age story that will appeal to Middle Grade and Young Adult readers, and even adults who enjoy charming fairytales. It's not unlike her BEAUTY and DRAGONHAVEN, and fans of McKinley's lovely prose and subtle storytelling won't be disappointed.
Told from young Sylvi's PoV, we get a sense early on of the kind of girl she is, her relationship with her family, and her perceptions about the society she lives in. She's both excited and scared about the prospect of having her own pegasus, but her biggest surprise is that Ebon brings great joy and fulfillment in her life. I enjoyed the dynamic between Sylvi's family, particularly her father the king, and how he parents her like any father would, regardless of his station. Where it falls flat is the villain magician Fthoom, whose motives are more formulaic than realistic. Despite that problem, it's Sylvi and Ebon's bond and the clash of the two cultures that make this story worth reading.
PEGASUS explores the questions of why pegasi and humans cannot communicate better, and how Sylvi and Ebon's bond questions humans' acceptance of the 'way things are'. The pegasi are a species apart, and their differences from humans are emphasized, such as attitudes and their magic. The differences in magical abilities in humans and pegasi are clear and affect their respective cultures, even if the details are sketchy about how each exactly works. Particularly interesting are the pegasi 'hands' that are weak and fragile and because of this the pegasi admire human wrists and strong fingers. These pegasi aren't the usual romantic horse-like creatures from standard mythic fare; instead they're more like small winged deer, and much more intelligent. McKinley approaches the pegasi with a more 'scientific' perspective, creating a culture and magic that fit the way they live and think. We see a great deal of each culture and their history--but I get the sense that most of what we learn in PEGAGUS won't become really important to the plot until the next book.
PEGASUS is told in a mostly chronological fashion, but it's sprinkled liberally with flashbacks and expository, which is part of McKinley's usual rambling style. If you can get past the first chapter's tedious back-story, the story does finally take off. There's plenty of world-building and character development, which are McKinley's strengths, but the style and light action sets the pace, which is leisurely.
PEGASUS reminds me of DRAGONHAVEN, with the same theme of the difficulties inherent in communicating with another species, but the fearless inexperience of children will overcome hurdles. However, plenty of McKinley's usually avid readers didn't like DRAGONHAVEN because of its first person almost stream-of-consciousness narrative. PEGASUS, however, isn't written like DRAGONHAVEN; the setting is more ambitious, the prose and characters are more charming.
PEGASUS is the first in a duology, which made me curious because McKinley is an avowed standalone author; but in her words, she says PEGASUS is just one long book that had to be broken up. Series or not, the abrupt ending provides no clear resolution--not even a proper cliffhanger--instead setting the stage for the 'sequel'. But was this novel enough to get me to want the read the next novel? Oh, yes. If anything, McKinley knows how to spin a good yarn and having already spent 400 pages to get the story warmed up, I anticipate a spectacular continuation.
Recommended Age: Suitable for any age.
Violence: Mild peril.
THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, by Patrick Ness, is one of those wonderfully deceiving Young Adult books that reminds us all of the days when there was no such thing. It’s a simple story...in a gritty, continually plot-twisted, thought provoking and emotional thrill-ride kind of way.
I could simply call it a story about a boy and his dog, or boy meets girl, or coming of age...but then I’d have to mention that the dog talks, the girl is seemingly the only one on the planet, and that being a man isn’t exactly something worth envying here.
You see, Todd Hewitt is the last boy in his town on a colonized planet where biological warfare with the alien natives killed all women and caused all men and creatures on the planet to have their thoughts projected out loud in a jumbled “noise”. It’s worse than it sounds, however, because as Todd tells us, "The first thing you find out when your dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say." And when Todd finally discovers the girl, it results in a race for their lives, because there’s more to this world—and Todd’s town—than meets the eye.
I was worried when I first heard of the book. The setting is nothing unique—it’s practically the same old tired European world we see in traditional fantasy, with just a hint of western thrown in (the western aspects were what kept me hopeful). The concept doesn’t sound too complicated (so thoughts aren’t private. Meh.) The main character is a young boy with a dog...nothing really new there either (I've read enough variations of 'Old Yeller', thank you). But from the very first line I was hooked. What really makes this story (the first in a series) fly, is the writing. Ness not only maintains the mystery, the conflict, the emotion, the world concepts, and the narrative voice here, he amplifies it. I can’t count the number of times I shouted out, mid-read, “that could not have just happened.”
Then there’s the depth of the concepts. The ideas of what makes a man, morality of thought, violence, and gender differences are all raked through the coals. It could have been easy--especially in yet another young adult offering--to simply let the concepts become a splash of paint on the backdrop . . . but THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO is meant to provoke you.
Even the flaws--valid though they are--can be offset. The novel isn’t a satisfactory stand alone but ends in a cliffhanger, but that’s made moot by the fact that all three novels of the Chaos Walking trilogy are all out in print. The first person present tense that usually runs rampant in YA (often a crutch to help poor writers have an easy way to share character emotion and help readers have empathy with characters) is used to its full and proper effect. Instead of the character “confiding” in his emotions, we can feel them because of the writing, not the tense--and the emotions are deep and powerful here as well. Then there’s the young adult direction of the book, which is reminiscent of Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles. But while some revelations are revealed later than they could be, and the character's are a bit naive, Young Adult is really just a label here. It's even a more adult read than Reeve’s works. Characters in this book kill (and brutally too), but in a way that invites young adults to the adult world of literature. Conceptually, it isn't as grim as The Hunger Games, but it comes off as far more gritty due to the depth of character and emotion--which ultimately leads to a more powerful read.
While everyone loves a good fantasy, epic, gritty, or otherwise, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO reads like a modern SF/Fantasy CATCHER IN THE RYE, or THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN which only enhances its flavor. No, it isn’t epic in its fullest sense. There’s only the single POV (in this first book, anyway), and the conflicts aren’t global (again, in this first book, anyway), but there’s a more personal, intimate connection for the reader here.
If you want something different as well as something enjoyable, as only the SF/Fantasy Elite do on occasion--and you can handle the smallest hint of YA--give it a try. It’s good to see that Young Adult isn’t just full of Harry Potter or Twilight retread, but can still give something along the lines of Fahrenheit 451 or Lord of the Flies (The closest thing to Young Adult some of us older Elitists got).
Recommended Age: 14 and up.
Language: Hells, Damns and occasional references to female dogs. Many “I didn’t say fudge” moments, though.
Violence: Yes. Murder and beatings—though it’s tense, it isn’t graphic.
Sex: A tiny bit of innuendo—thoughts are public knowledge, after all.