Monday, September 30, 2013

Book Review - Raven Black

Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

I consider myself an avid reader and very aware of a lot of authors. I was surprised then, that when “Raven Black” caught my eye that not only had I not heard of Ann Cleeves, but I was also unaware she had an extensive back catalogue too.

The reviews for the novel were all positive so could this just be a massive oversight by me? I was looking forward to finding out.

The Blurb:

It is a cold January morning and Shetland lies buried beneath a deep layer of snow. Trudging home, Fran Hunters eye is drawn to a vivid splash of colour on the white ground, ravens circling above. It is the strangled body of her teenage neighbour Catherine Ross. As Fran opens her mouth to scream, the ravens continue their deadly dance. The locals on the quiet island stubbornly focus their gaze on one manloner and simpleton Magnus Tait. But when police insist on opening the investigation a veil of suspicion and fear is thrown over the entire community. For the first time in years, Catherines neighbours nervously lock their doors, whilst a killer lives on in their midst. Raven Black is a haunting, beautifully crafted crime story, and establishes Ann Cleeves as a rising talent in psychological crime writing.

As the blurb indicates, “Raven Black” is based in the Shetlands. It is the members of this community that are the protagonists rather than a particular individual. You get the sense that as with Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, although there are the main protagonists, the books can focus on a number of individuals easily.

In “Raven Black” there are multiple points of view characters. Each one is interesting and each one has a great background. The primary one would have to Jimmy Perez. Jimmy is a member of the local police force tasked with solving the murder. He is used to dealing with traffic violations and petty theft and although an intelligent man, is still whirling from being dumped by his girlfriend many years previously.

It is a nice change to have a policeman that is a) not an alcoholic and b) not better at their job then everyone else even though senior management do not appreciate it. Perez is good but Cleeves also exposes his flaws; he is far too compassionate and inexperienced. So that when a detective from the main land arrives to take over the investigation (Roy Taylor), Perez is positively in awe of him.  Again this makes him a very enjoyable character to read.

The other main character is Fran. Fran is a single mother, although her former husband is very much on the scene and something of a big name on the island. In an effort to have a daughter form some sort of relationship with her father (something Fran never had), Fran suffers her insecurities at being in the same proximity to the older woman her husband ran off with. Again, by having such a vulnerable character, the reader instantly empathizes with her plight and shares her suffering.

The other main characters are Sally Henry and Magnus Tait. Sally is a little annoying as although written well as a naive school girl with almost dysfunctional parents, she is hard to sympathise with as she is so stupid. She hankers after a man that although appears interested in her, is clearly using her.

Finally there is Magus. Magnus is a great character. Widely despised by the other residents in the Shetlands, Magnus was accused of abducting another missing girl eight years earlier. Although never convicted there is little doubt in most people’s minds that Magnus was responsible for her death.  An old man now, and clearly on the slow side, Ann Cleeves does a terrific job of capturing his loneliness, whilst also never indicating to the reader whether he is a bad man or just tragically misunderstood.

With such a solid cast of main characters it would be forgivable for the secondary characters to be a little weak. However, this is far from the case. Each is developed nicely and evolves as the novel progresses. Special mentions to Euan the grieving father of the victim, Roy Taylor the enthusiastic SIO (who clearly has a past of sorts) and Catherine the victim.

The plot is full of the twists and turns you would expect from a novel in this genre. What sets this apart and a level above other crime novels is the pace is perfect. It is not frantic but I still devoured the book in two days. Cleeve’s writing is simple and effective. She captures the setting well and does a good job of portraying the mood of the community.

The other unique thing about “Raven Black” is that I genuinely did not have a clue who the killer was. Yes, you suspect it has to be one of the characters but there are no obvious candidates. Every character is hinted as having enough of a sinister side that it could be anyone of them. There are also more than a few red herrings planted.

If I am honest, the ending felt a little rushed and anti-climatic. The final scenes started well, but the whole thing was wrapped up so quickly, I did not really have time to process the revelations before the book had finished. That is not to say it was not satisfactory, but I would have preferred a little more time taken to concentrate on some of the characters.
Overall then, this book was a major surprise for me. Fast, intriguing with a great little mystery, “Raven Black” has good characters that are a joy to read. My first Ann Cleeves book will certainly not be my last.

My rating: 8.8

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Book Review - The Crossroads Brotherhood

The Crossroads Brotherhood by Robert Fabbri

Review by Jacqui Slaney

Having enjoyed the Vespasian series so far and enjoyed the character of Magnus, when I saw the novella it was an easy choice to make to read it.

This is the description:

The prequel to Robert Fabbri's bestselling VESPASIAN: TRIBUNE OF ROME. Starring characters from the series, this novella delves into Rome's criminal underworld Rome 25 AD. Marcus Salvius Magnus, Patron of the Crossroads Brotherhood, has a problem. In fact, he has two. A rival Brotherhood has raided one of the brothels under his protection, and valuable... merchandise... has been stolen. He can't lose face and let the attack go unpunished, but how can he retaliate without igniting a gang war? At the other end of the social spectrum, Lady Antonia - the emperor's sister-in-law - has let has let Senator Gaius Vespasius Pollo know that she has a score that only blood will settle, and Magnus owes the Senator a favour. Now, a simple assassination wouldn't be a problem for a man like Magnus, but the instruction is that this death has to be a little more... inventive... than the usual knife-in-the-back-in-a-dark-alley. Perhaps the Patronus of the Crossroads Brotherhood can kill two birds with one stone?

I am wary of prequels, as they quite often do not add anything to the existing series. This one is slightly different though as it involves not the lead character but one of main supporting ones.

I had always found the character of Magnus to be enjoyable, a bit more rough and ready then the wellborn Vespasian, and though he was first seen in the series offering protection for a reasonable price, this was the only sight that reader really got of this side of the life in Rome. 

Here you see him as the leader of the Brotherhood, sort of like the Godfather, being approached for help by people who look to him for protection against rivals.  As the description states, the rivalry is over a brothel and not one where men go to see women.

He is faced with a problem of how to help his own people and please a senator who is working for the emperor’s sister in a matter of murder, and use an enemy’s spy that has been placed in his own house. He and his men work out that all these problems could be dealt with at once, so that to formulate a devious plan.

The story is not for the faint hearten or the squeamish, there is violence and quite violent death, but is still an enjoyable read (realised that actually makes me sound quite bloodthirsty!).

The writing is fast paced and does not take long to read, but it is a good introduction to the series as a whole and I would recommend it.

9 out 10 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pewtory the Lesser Bard: Part 8 - the Stranger

To celebrate the release of “Ritual of the Stones,” I am releasing a free serialised story set in the same world of Frindoth. The story will follow the journey of Pewtory the Lesser bard as he travels to Lilyon to witness the Ritual. I hope you enjoy.

Chapter 8 – The Stranger

The crowd was still raucous as Pewtory stumbled down the corridor to his room. Despite losing count of the number of drinks that had been thrust into his hand that evening he remained relatively sober. He was exhausted; the adrenaline that had flowed through his veins during his performance had now well and truly left him. His back was also sore from the amount of times it had been pounded as he was congratulated.

He stroked the bowl cradled in his arm and smiled. The show had been a resounding success. He had performed to larger audiences in the past but there was something special in interacting with such an appreciative crowd in an intimate setting. The bards were correct; Gandarra was a great place for a minstrel.

Pewtory unlocked the door to his room and entered. He was grateful that Melvin had lit the candles by his bed, so that the room was cast in a warm glow. The smell of burning wax wafted over him and he inhaled the pleasant smell and smiled. He placed Willow and Wisp on the floor as he shrugged off his cloak and hung it on the door. As he did so he extracted a full pouch from one of the pockets. The people of Gandarra had been generous with more than just their praise.

He felt the weight of the pouch in his palm and nodded his satisfaction.

“That my scaly friends, is what is known as a good nights work.”

The fish swam lazily not acknowledging the bard. “Come on then, you’ve earned it.”

He picked up the bowl and carried it over to the large bath tub on the far side of the room. When the maidservants had arrived to retrieve it shortly before his performance he had asked for it to be emptied and then returned with fresh, cold water. The women had looked at each other quizzically, unsure how to react to this breach in their daily protocol until Pewtory had ushered them out of the room.

Now he knelt by the tub and felt the water. Satisfied by the temperature he tipped the two fish into the water.

“There you go my lovelies. A special treat from me to you, knock yourselves out for the night,” Pewtory said.

The fish responded by tentatively exploring the expanse, probing the bottom of the basin. Pewtory sprinkled some flakes in the tub and watched for a few minutes as the pair of fish devoured the food.

When the last of the flakes had disappeared, he left them to it and sat on the bed and removed his boots and trousers. As he massaged his feet he reflected on the performance. The crowd had reacted surprisingly well to his stories of King Jacquard. He had combined the elements of the man’s life well, showing his fearless side as well as the compassionate man others had not experienced. As all bard’s he spoke with a conviction of a man that had witnessed all the events first hand.

He wondered what the crowd would think, if they realised Pewtory had never even been to the region of Rivervale let alone the capital city of Lilyon. He certainly had not met the King either!

“Smoke and mirrors, all smoke and mirrors.”

As he unbuttoned his shirt the feeling that something was not right slowly crept over him. 

“Smoke and mirrors indeed,” the voice was deep and heavily accented. Pewtory froze with one leg folded over the other. Slowly he turned his gaze towards the window. The dark silhouette of a man stood in the shadows by the window. He must have been hiding behind Pewtory’s wardrobe.

The figure held the bowl with both fish inside, loosely before him, he arms raised as if poised to smash it on the wooden floor. How had he got Willow and Wisp inside the bowl?

“I witnessed your performance tonight,” the man edged forward so that the light revealed the lower portion of his face. Two grey lips concealed in well groomed stubble.

“The fish aren’t for sale,” Pewtory said cautiously. He glanced around the room for his sword and spied in on the chest by the door. It was too far away to retrieve it before the man broke the bowl. He cursed his carelessness. This was not the first time someone wanted to purchase his fish after a performance. He should have been on his guard.

The man held the bowl up to his face and examined the fish with interest. Both Willow and Wisp swam to the other side of the bowl in a bid to get as far away from the stranger as possible. Pewtory smiled inwardly at the small victory.

“Such small creatures, helpless really, yet without them your performance is nothing. You are nothing,” the man said.

“Take away my mandolin and my performance is even less,” Pewtory said.

He did not like the casual way the stranger held the fish. His hands had begun to sweat and he had to resist the urge to rub his palms against the sheets.

“Pewtory the Even Lesser Bard,” the man teased. He stepped forward to reveal the rest of his face. His eyes were dull grey like his lips. His hair, brown, and cut short in a well groomed manner. Willow and Wisp remained as far from the stranger as the bowl would allow.

“Don’t worry my darlings, it will be alright.”
“Will it? They spend enough time with you to know when you are lying. Or are you trying to convince yourself?”

The question was a little too close to the truth.

“Do you have a reason for being in my room or are we just going to chat all night? If so I would rather put some trousers back on.”

The comment was far bolder then Pewtory felt, but he was tired and in no mood for games. From downstairs a burst of laughter erupted. At least some people were still enjoying their evening. 

For a brief second a flash of anger blazed in the intruder’s eyes. It was enough to make Pewtory flinch, but it disappeared so swiftly that the bard questioned whether or not he had imagined it.

The man took a deep breath and forced a smile.

“It is clear you wish to be famous.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Your constant reference to your namesake, your grossly exaggerated stories (Jacquard killed twenty seven men single-handedly by my count in your version of the battle of Barembaug) and the fact that you use pets as gimmicks to impress your audience. Just to name a few reasons.”

“You draw that conclusion from all that evidence?” Pewtory said with a smile. It faltered when the stranger ignored the comment.

“I can make you famous. More famous than your namesake.”

The words chilled Pewtory’s soul but also ignited a greed in him that he did not know was there.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review - Valkwitch

Valkwitch – Michael L Watson

Having now self-published, I thought I should do the decent thing and give other struggling authors a chance to get noticed by reviewing their work and raising their profile.
I was immediately drawn to the cover of this book and the sample hooked me enough to give it a whirl.
Here is the blurb:
I want to hear your version of the beginning, oh master bard. Let’s hear about the time before the titles and plane-shifting. When I was just…me.”

Life and Death. Fire and Water. Light and Shadow. Air and Earth.

Together, the eight elemental forces were used in the creation of the world. Now, separately, they seek to unmake it. To do that they need agents to carry out their designs. Thus, the Elements offer a pact to anyone willing to listen and the terms are simple: power for service.

Those who accept have become heroes and villains, men and women of legend. History and myth are littered with tales of their deeds, while the face of the world is scarred by their successes and failures in equal measure.

For Tyrissa, such stories reside solely in within the pages of a book. While she feels the call of a more adventurous life, she reins in the urge and settles for ownership of the immense evergreen forests of her homeland. As much as she may dream of greater things, it seems she wasn't meant for a life beyond her current reach.

But such stories have a certain way of unfolding, and Tyrissa will find herself drawn into the long-simmering elemental conflict in a way she never quite imagined.

Valkwitch is the beginning of an epic fantasy saga that stretches across a fracturing world and into realms beyond.
I have mentioned it before in my review of Anthony Ryan’s “Blood Song,” there are some authors who you know you are just going to enjoy. Their style of writing just feels comfortable and effortless. I felt this with Robin Hobb and I felt it with George R R Martin.
The opening of Valkwitch gave me a very similar feeling. The prologue was good but it was the first chapter I loved. Michael does a great job of easing the reader into his world and introducing his main character Tyrissa along with her brothers. The dialogue feels organic and the story-telling natural.
It is something that is rare and I devoured the first few chapters eagerly.
Tyrissa is your standard fantasy character: She dreams of a better life and for adventure beyond the small town she lives in. She is also going through the motions in what is perceived to be a patriarchal society. Fortunately there is far more to Tyrissa than the standard setup. She is sure of herself but at the same time naive. One minute she speaks with authority on subjects and the next she is unsure and out of her depth. She s confident in her ability to fight but is also readily humbled. These are nice character traits as Tyrissa is neither arrogant nor condescending. 
The supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Many characters drift in an out of the story with no real resolution. One can only assume that they are set up for future books, but it is a shame as you are not too sure what to make of some of them.
Olivianna for example, is a good character. She is the first lady that Tyrissa is told to protect in her new job and instantly sets about antagonising Tyrissa. The reasons for this are unclear other than the simple explanation that from where Olivianna comes from it is considered “sport.” It adds a nice layer of mystery to Olivianna and sets her apart from the other characters.
Kexan is also a prominent character. A skilled warrior he trains Tyrissa in becoming a more proficient fighter. Out of everyone (other than her family) he gets closest to Tyrissa, offering to train her and later working with her.
There is no antagonist as such. Tyrissa pursues Vralin but we never really get a sense of who he is, other than a puppet of the elements. Surprisingly, I did not mind this, in fact I found it refreshing.
Tyrissa’s brother, Lirian is a constant, but he is reduced to a minor role in fairness. Only featuring at sporadic times to make sure his sister is alright. This proves as a useful anchor for the plot, refocusing it and reminding the reader of all that has gone on.
Speaking of the plot, I feel this is where the novel is a little weak. Once the incident that sets Tyrissa is underway the driving force behind the story is a little lost. There were times where I found myself wondering (particularly in the first half of the book) exactly what Tyrissa was supposed to be doing. Her journey is less of a quest but more of a travel log. Tyrissa has a mystery to solve, but she does not appear to be in any rush to achieve her goal. It is more of a “wait and see” what happens situation. Every now and then she gets the urge to be proactive but quickly gives up at the first hurdle. This all changes when she meets Giroon the bard where Tyrissa learns a little bit more about who she has become.
Don’t get me wrong, Michael Watson’s writing is highly accomplished. In parts it is baffling that this is a debut novel as the prose is so well written and descriptive, but there are pacing issues. Quite often the strongest element of the writing i.e, the descriptive passages are also the weakest. There are times when far too much times is spent on describing a market place or city. As a result, all momentum of the scene is lost. It never becomes a chore to read, but sometimes you wish the pace was a little more direct.
Once the plot becomes clearer however, the pace of the novel increases. The action scenes are extremely well handled and I loved the idea of the Pact with their special powers. These are used extensively but never feel over done. They are also never used as a deux ex machina which is nice as all the characters are vulnerable. 
Michael unveils elements of the plot slowly and thoughtfully. There is a subtlety to his writing that even most established authors would be proud of. To achieve this so early on in his career makes me envious.
All of these builds to a huge climatic showdown. Michael does well to avoid rehashing earlier confrontations with Vralin and provide the reader with something new. Whilst the story line concludes in a satisfactory way, there is a real sense that the story is just beginning.
Overall then, I enjoyed Valkwitch. The writing is excellent and the idea fresh and original. Apart from the pacing issues early on in the novel and the seemingly constant merry-go-round of characters entering and departing the story with no real resolution I would be given Michael debut novel top marks. I am certainly looking forward to the second book.
My rating: 8.3

Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review - Dead Spots (JS)

Dead Spots by Melissa F. Olson
I saw this while browsing for books for my Kindle, the reviews were enthusiastic and as it seemed to contain a lot of good elements with quite a clever idea, I thought what have I got to lose. 
This is the description:
Scarlett Bernard knows about personal space: step within ten feet of her, and any supernatural spells or demonic forces are instantly defused—vampires and werewolves become human again, and witches can’t get out so much as a “hocus pocus.” This special skill makes her a null and very valuable to Los Angeles’s three most powerful magical communities, who utilize her ability to scrub crime scenes clean of all traces of the paranormal to keep humanity, and the LAPD, in the dark.
But one night Scarlett’s late arrival to a grisly murder scene reveals her agenda and ends with LAPD’s Jesse Cruz tracking her down to strike a deal: he’ll keep quiet about the undead underworld if she helps solve the case. Their pact does not sit well with Dash, the city’s chief bloodsucker, who fears his whole vampire empire is at stake. And when clues start to point to Scarlett, it’ll take more than her unique powers to catch the real killer and clear her name.
In this book, we are presented with the idea of a ‘Null’ someone who can make those ‘magic’ creatures around them human again, and stop spells from happening. Scarlett the main character is employed by the’ Old World’ as a sort of cleaner, someone who comes along after an incident and removes any trace to a human eye that anything odd had happened at all, she has the aid of a handy incinerator for the extra big things. She shares a house with a vampire called Molly, who loves the way that Scarlett makes her human as she can then enjoy the things that she misses - food, shopping and apparently watching daytime television. 
So the story proper starts with a triple murder, and Scarlett is called to start the clean up, this is not possible, and Scarlett soon realises that she is being implicated as the murderer, especially when another body is found and she finds her life at risk from the people she works for.
It seems a great idea, you have vampires, werewolves, witches all living in modern day LA, You have three main characters, Scarlett, Eli a werewolf who was in an on/off type relationship with Scarlett and Jesse who was a human policeman who Scarlett was forced to tell about the ‘Old World’. The POV changed from Scarlett to Jesse from chapter to chapter.
After 60 odd pages in, I was struggling. I found Scarlett, Eli and Jesse annoying, there were romantic complications between them, which did not really add to anything, and the plot seemed to wander around without any focus or pace.  Though the main ones were wooden, the supporting characters I did like. You have Will the leader of the werewolves, Dashiell the head of the Vampires and his partner Beatrice, Kirsten the head witch, Molly and the evil Ariadne,  these were all interesting characters who added to what scene they were in.
I did nearly give up, but I have a stubborn streak when it comes to books and I stayed with it and I was pleasantly pleased that I did. The pace of the story quickened and the characters seemed to become more natural. You found out what had caused Scarletts trauma and you understood why she was as she was, I even began to like her!
The plot was brought together to a rather rapid conclusion but it worked well and then right at the end the reader is thrown a shock, which is obviously to get you to read book two. I first thought it was unexpected then I remembered a clue from earlier in the story, which is very easy to miss. 
After reading the book, I still do not understand some of the rave reviews about this book, maybe I am having the same problem that Rob did with ‘Prince of Thorns’ that everyone seems to love it apart from me, I enjoyed it in the end but it was a struggle.
I would say that if you stay with it then you will find a decent story for your trouble, this is the first book this author has written after all so maybe I am being a bit tough. I will probably give the second book a read just to see.
7 out of 10

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pewtory the Lesser Bard: Part 7 - The Wager

To celebrate the release of “Ritual of the Stones,” I am releasing a free serialised story set in the same world of Frindoth. The story will follow the journey of Pewtory the Lesser bard as he travels to Lilyon to witness the Ritual. I hope you enjoy.


Chapter 7 – The Wager
When he had finished speaking the room was noticeably subdued. A man in the corner began to clap politely which was joined by others. Soon the whole room applauded and there were even a few whistles and cheers. Pewtory acknowledged this with a smile.
The performance had been successful but the story of Jacquard and the impending Ritual had reminded the men and women of their current reality and not the escapism of his earlier songs and stories.
Pewtory was unperturbed. He knew his finale would bring the house down. Finding Melvin in the crowd he indicated that now was the time. The innkeeper grunted and pushed himself off the counter where he had resting his enormous belly and disappeared into the kitchen.
Earlier in the day, he had discussed what he had intended to do with innkeeper who had snorted in disbelief. The owner of the Falconer’s Stump clearly did not think the trick Pewtory was about to perform was possible.
Indeed as he emerged from the kitchen carrying too large glass bowls of water he was shaking his head, a look of scorn on his face. Sheila followed behind him holding another two bowls as effortlessly as she had held the plates earlier. If possible she wore even less than earlier, her skirt was so short it would have fit a child. As the two of them placed the bowls next to Pewtory on the stage, he caught the vague essence of her perfume. The scent was alluring and he imagined what it would be like to be alone with her.
Once again the atmosphere in the room shifted. There was now an excited air of expectation as the crowd speculated what was going on.
Pewtory placed the four bowls roughly half a foot apart around the bowl containing Willow and Wisp to form a pentagon. When he finished he stepped back and looked at the bowls in puzzlement. The anticipation amongst the congregation increased. It was part of the show of course, he knew exactly what he was doing and his heart soared as the pretence elicited the desired response from his audience.
He bent down and moved the bowl with the fish in it further away from the two nearest to it, so that the gap was nearly a foot. The crowd gasped. Pewtory nodded to himself as if he had been performing some complicated calculation and had solved the answer to his satisfaction.
He positioned himself in front of the bowls and raised his hands to signal he wanted the room to be quiet. He opened his mouth to speak but then hesitated. He turned and went to the bowl with the fish and moved it back another few inches. The crowd laughed with delight. The bard resumed his position and went to address the audience, this time when he again teased them and didn’t speak they hooted with laughter as he began to feed the fish a few crumbs.
Finally he spoke to the inn, who were now feverish with expectation.
“Ladies and gentlemen, before me and my companions retire for the evening who would like to win a silver coin?”
Immediately every hand in the room shot up in the air. Pewtory reached into his pocket and pulled out three balls; one red, one green and one blue to represent the three moons of Frindoth. He began juggling them, dancing and spinning as he did so.
“Whoever catches the red and blue balls will be able to take part in a little wager. Are you all ready?”
The crowd responded in unison.  He tossed the balls into the eager throng of people. There was a mad scramble but many of the audience were content just to witness the spectacle.
A bearded man emerged from the bundle of people a look of triumph on his face as he held the blue ball aloft. The red ball was claimed by a surly looking youth who displayed a look of determination that was almost comical.
Pewtory welcomed them onto the stage and ascertained their names. The bearded man was called Merk and dwarfed Pewtory. He smelled of rotten food and sweat that was so pungent the Bard had to force himself not to gag. The youth was named Vince and that is all that Pewtory got out of him. Vince bounced on the balls of his feet as if he were preparing for an intense activity.
“Gentlemen, for the final time, can you show these good people that balls in your hand? Merk raised the red ball whilst Vince begrudgingly showed everyone the blue. You are all about to witness something truly remarkable. You may have noticed I travel with two small companions. I do not think I have formally introduced them to you yet. My red friend here is called Willow,” the fish responded by jumping out of the water and plopping back down, the crowd let out a collective “ooh” of appreciation, “the blue beauty is Wisp,” Wisp flicked her long tail and sent a splash over the side of the bowl. Men and women tittered in delight.
“Now Willow and Wisp are quite the competitive pair and as you can imagine being stuck in a bowl all day is hardly fun. So every now and then, they like to have a race. The course is simple, they must complete one lap around the bowls and the first back will win.”
The crowd were silent. At this point in the performance Pewtory usually noticed one or two members wander off believing he was crazy. In the Falconer’s Stump no one moved. The Inn was deftly silent.
“The colour of the ball in your hand matches the colour of the fish you are backing. If you want to change, now is the time to discuss it.”
Merk did not move but Vince held out his blue to swap. Evidently he did not consider the elegant blue fish as much as a swimmer. Merk happily swapped, he did not seem bothered either way. In the audience, frantic betting took place amongst the men.
Pewtory retrieved a vial of pink liquid from his pocket. He undid the lid and inserted a pipette into the bottle. He then held the instrument over the bowl.
“Is everyone ready?” he waited for the last of the urgent wagers to exchange hands and then squeezed a few drops into the fishes bowl. “May the best fish win.”
The fish reacted the moment the first drop hit the water. They swam like crazy, completing circles in the bowl as if an invisible spoon stirred them. Wisp was the first to make the leap, he jumped out of the bowl and flew in the air. Pewtory was very much accustomed to the sight but still marvelled as the fish seemed to move in slow motion, its large globe like eyes glistening in the night.
The audience seemed to have held their breath and it wasn’t until Wisp landed dead centre in the adjacent bowl that the room erupted into thunderous applause. Willow was only seconds behind, her elegant fins seemed to flap in the air, water falling from their tips. She landed in the bowl as well and the two began their rapid circuits again.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” one onlooker muttered in wonderment. No one bothered to respond.
The next time the fish left the bowl, Willow had taken the lead. Soon the room was filled with shouts of encouragement as the residents of Gandara urged on their favourite to victory.
Pewtory stepped back and admired the looks of sheer joy on the faces of his audience. This is why he became a bard. This frisson he experienced at thrilling a crowd like no other. The expression of happiness captured on the faces was one he wished he could remember forever. He never got tired of it and he doubted he ever would.
The crowd gasped as first the two fish collided in the air and then Willow landed on the rim of the fourth bowl. She flapped there for a second before flopping into the water.
Vince smirked certain this meant his red fish would be victorious. It was Willow that landed back in the original bowl first though, causing the youth to scowl. The bard tossed a silver coin to Merk who grabbed it out of the air and pocketed it before anyone could object.
Pewtory took a brief moment to savour the expressions of pure joy on the people’s faces before he collected the fish and left the stage to tumultuous applause.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Book Review Re-Read - Prince of Thorns

Book Review Re-read: Prince of Thorns
Up until recently I swore I would never re-read books. However, having re-read the Song of Ice and Fire series last year in preparation for A Dance with Dragons and thoroughly enjoying it as much as the first read, I have relaxed my stance somewhat.
As a result I have re-read some of my favourite books and enjoyed them all over again. There has been one book that I read last year and it bothered me. Said book is “Prince of Thorns” by Mark Lawrence. I heard excellent things about this book. It received extremely positive reviews, in fact the only negative reviews were from people upset with the level of violence in the book – not a problem for me.
So imagine my disappointment when I didn’t love it – See Review . Now as you can see from the review, I liked the story I thought it was good. I just didn’t get what all the fuss was about.
I can’t tell you how much this bothered me. Especially when Jacqui read the book and loved it and then my brother-in-law read it and loved it. I began to question myself. These were two people whose opinion I value and mostly share. Could I have been wrong about “Prince of Thorns?”
When I thought back to the novel, I realised I remembered very little about it. Sometimes this happens when reading 70+ novels a year, especially when reading a crime series as the books are very similar. I rarely experience this with a fantasy novel thought. I read my review of Mark Lawrence’s debut and it did not prompt any memories whatsoever. So why did I not remember this one. Was I just in a funk whilst I read it?
There was only one way to know for sure...
The truth of the matter is that I enjoyed the book a lot more than the first time I read it, but I broadly stand by my review. The things that irked me on the first read, i.e. the constant reference to historical figures in our world and the scene with the technology did not bother at all this time. I think this is more to do with my expectation this time round. It is not your traditional fantasy novel but more in line with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
I also found the plot to be more structured. Jorg has a goal in mind and he moves to achieve that with more focus then I remembered.
However, I still found the supporting cast lightweight and the flashbacks were still the best part of the novel. Jorg was also a bit too blasé all the time for my liking. I would have liked him to have been humbled more. Even when he suffered a set-back he still did not seem to care.
I also enjoyed the necromancers, but thought they could have been so much more than vague threats.
Overall, I thought my marking was perhaps a little too harsh, but it “Prince of Thorns” is still a way (in my opinion of course) from being the great novel everyone seems to think it is.
My rating: 8.0

Friday, September 13, 2013

Book Review: Fool Moon (JS)

Fool Moon: The Dresden Files Book Two by Jim Butcher

Having enjoyed Storm Front, I was looking forward to reading the next instalment as I had found the authors writing enjoyable. I have found that it is better not to go from one book of a series to the next so I fought the urge and read a few different books until all I had left on my Kindle was this one.

This is the description:

Meet Harry Dresden, Chicago's first (and only) Wizard P.I. Turns out the 'everyday' world is full of strange and magical things - and most of them do not play well with humans. That is where Harry comes in. Business has been slow lately for Harry Dresden. Okay, business has been dead. Not undead - just dead. You would think Chicago would have a little more action for the only professional wizard in the phone book. However, lately, Harry has not been able to dredge up any kind of work - magical or mundane. However, just when it looks like he cannot afford his next meal, a murder comes along that requires his particular brand of supernatural expertise. A brutally mutilated corpse. Strange-looking paw prints. A full moon. Take three guesses. And the first two do not count . . . Magic - it can get a guy killed.

I must admit that though I was looking forward to reading this book, I was slightly concerned that the idea behind the series might not work so well beyond the first book, although I had been told that the series got better as it went on. Within a few pages into the book, I knew that I need not have worried.

As in the first book, the story is from Harry’s point of view and as before he is desperately short of cases and so money is very tight. Even Murphy from the Police Departments Special Investigations is reluctant to involve him in cases due to the rumours revolving around him and his relationship with Chicago’s gangsters. However, when people start dying from what looks to be animal attacks during the full moon, Murphy turns to Harry for help.

This has a slightly darker feel than the first book and the writing is slightly tighter, I do not want to give away any spoilers but the descriptions of the various kinds of a certain supernatural creature (see I did not mention the W word) are well done and the murder scenes are very gory.

There is lots of action with police, FBI and a street gang all after Harry, and this is where my only complaint comes in about the book. Harry gets hurts quite frequently throughout the story and there is a repetition in the mention of amount of pain that he is suffering from and the trouble that this causes him in the use of his power.
Do not get me wrong though, this is an entertaining novel that made me wish my journey into work were actually longer so I could read more. There are many of the original characters in this story and the author develops the relationship between Murphy and Harry. There is also a sub plot that relates to Harry’s past. Did his parents die naturally or was there something behind their deaths? This is a theme, which obviously is going to go into the next instalment.

You could read this book without reading Storm Front, but for a better enjoyment, I recommend that you read them in the correct order, but definitely read them.

9 out of 10

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pewtory the Lesser Bard: part 6 - Jacquard the half-hearted.

To celebrate the release of “Ritual of the Stones,” I am releasing a free serialised story set in the same world of Frindoth. The story will follow the journey of Pewtory the Lesser bard as he travels to Lilyon to witness the Ritual. I hope you enjoy.

Chapter 6 – Jacquard the half-hearted.

Tragedy. Tragedy is the answer. Tragedy is what changes a man from a ferocious warrior and fearless leader to having the fight knocked out of him. Our noble King was promised to a beautiful princess. Miranda was her name and it was said that she was truly the epitome of beauty. I cannot say with certain as unfortunately I never met her. Folk said her hair was as radiant as the sun and her manner as genteel as a butterfly.   

The two met and instantly fell in love. They were married shortly after Jacquard succeeded his father on the throne (for his father did not approve of the match - but that is a story for another time).

Their marriage was a happy one. The King had quelled all troublesome areas to his Kingdom and Frindoth lived in peace. Miranda bore the King a son, prince Althalos and the two doted on that boy more than any parent has ever doted on their child.

If only all stories had happy endings, then I could gladly leave King Jacquard’s story there. Alas, I do not make up these stories, I only tell them in their truest form,”

Pewtory paused as the comment drew some sniggers from the audience.

“The Prince was only two years old when the news broke. Miranda had been riding Clipper, her favourite horse. She often took the mare out of a morning after breakfast. Clipper had been startled by a snake on the path and had reared suddenly. Despite being a skilled rider, the queen was unable to steady the horse and tumbled to the ground where her head fell against a rock and her feet tangled in the stirrups.

The impact shattered her skull and killed her instantly. Clipper disturbed by the commotion bolted from the scene, dragging the queen behind him on the rocky road. When the horse was finally subdued by one of the Queen’s handmaidens, Miranda was a battered mess. Her once pulchritudinous features were destroyed. The handmaiden was said to have later killed herself, so haunted by the images of that gruesome day.

The King was inconsolable. He became withdrawn from public life, a recluse almost. He delegated more and more responsibility to his chief advisor Jefferson whilst he grieved. As a result Frindoth suffered, as although Jefferson was a wise man who had advised Jacquard and his father before him, he was now old and made many strange decisions.

It took Jacquard half a year to engage with the public again and even then it was for essential appearances. The warlords that governed the regions grew restless. The sympathy they felt towards their King grew thin as they began to fill ignored.

People have short memories and many of Jacquard’s heroic deeds were forgotten. Slowly, he returned to his duties but it was said he was not the same. He was a man that was going through the motions.

That was until he became obsessed with the Ritual of the Stones.”

Pewtory sensed the shift in mood in the room as the Ritual was mentioned. Smiles fell from people’s faces. The Ritual occurred every twelve years and in a few months it would occur again. The ceremony of the stones where twelve unfortunate individuals would find a stone upon them, marking that they had been selected to participate in the Ritual was even closer.

Pewtory hoped that whilst travelling to the capital city, Lilyon where the Ritual took place he would encounter one of the stoneholders so he could interview them and write a song about what could potentially be their last days.

“During his reign he had presided over just one Ritual. It was early on in his reign and the sacrifice broke his heart. It was nothing compared to the devastation to his soul the next one would cause him.

There are children present so I will not go into details but I am sure many people here will recall the tragic events of that day.”

Pewtory paused again. Several members of the Inn swiped their eyebrows and pointed their index fingers to the ceiling. It was a variation on an ancient superstition to ward off evil. The atmosphere had turned melancholy and whilst Pewtory wished to evoke all emotions, he wanted to the audience to go away feeling happy.

The last Ritual had been one of the most distressing in recent history. A young girl was chosen for the sacrifice and was viciously murdered by the Gloom. The Gloom did not discriminate between age or sex and took its time devouring the girl. Many of the audience were unable to look, some were violently ill. Despite this, people would still turn up in the thousands to witness the next Ritual.

“Needless to say,” Pewtory continued now eager to progress the story. “The King was as distraught over the event as anyone. The horrific event sparked a new vigour in him and he was more determined than ever to discover a way to stop the Gloom once and for all. It was a fool’s quest, many King’s in the past had undertaken such a mission and they had all failed.

This did not stop Jacquard. He commissioned scholars, witches, warriors and bards to discover the origin of the Ritual. He himself followed long dead leads, venturing beyond his region for the first time in years. He maintained in close contact with the parents of the poor victim, vowing to avenge their daughter.

Then one day, about a year later. He just stopped. He was riding through Meadowmead on a quest to track down an ancient brotherhood when he ordered his party to stop. He stared out across the fields ahead of him for a few minutes as if in a trance. He ignored the questions from his knights enquiring whether he was feeling well and then without saying a word, he turned his horse around and guided it back towards the White City. 

That was it, no explanation, no reason but it was clear King Jacquard’s search for the answers to the Ritual was over.

He still continued with his reign but his actions were perfunctory now. There is no one that could argue he did not rule justly but his enthusiasm, his zeal had gone. He no longer tackled each problem with the same vigour he displayed before. He had become Jacquard the half-hearted.   

Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review - Vicious Circle

Vicious Circle – Mike Carey
I thoroughly enjoyed Mike Carey’s first book. I read two debuts around the same time of urban fantasy novels and Mike’s stood out as the superior novel (The other was Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden’s series) and I was hoping for more of the same.
The blurb:
Castor has reluctantly returned to exorcism after the case of the Bonnington Archive ghost convinced him that he really can do some good with his abilities ('good', of course, being a relative term when dealing with the undead). But his friend, Rafi, is still possessed; the succubus, Ajulutsikael (Juliet to her friends), still technically has a contract on him; and he's still--let's not beat around the bush--dirt poor. Doing some consulting for the local constabulary helps pay the bills, but Castor needs a big, private job to really fill the hole in his overdraft.

That's what he needs. What he gets, good fortune and Castor not being on speaking terms, is a seemingly insignificant 'missing ghost' case that inexorably drags himself and his loved ones into the middle of a horrific plot to raise one of Hell's fiercest demons. When Satanists, sacrifice farms, stolen spirits and possessed churches all appear on the same police report, the name of Felix Castor can't be too far behind...
Not since I read Paul F Wilson’s “The Keep” and then the sequel “The Tomb” has a first and second novel felt so different in feel and tone. Whereas Mike Carey’s first novel was a slow burner, where Felix Castor investigated a haunting in a library by interviewing the employees in the building, Vicious Circle sees him in over his head and frantically avoiding an attack every five minutes as he struggles to figure out what the hell is going on.
This is not a bad thing and it is certainly not an inferior novel as a result, it just took me a little while to adjust to the different style.
Felix is fleshed out a lot more in this novel. We learn more about his past and in particular his guilt over his best friend’s Rafi’s problem. Felix is still the same confident and obsessive investigator but Mike Carey seems to enjoy the character more in this sequel, as Felix is always quick with a sarcastic comment or quip. He is also more reckless, taking chances with his mouth when a gun is pointed at his head often. In short, he is great.
The supporting cast are also good. Pen (Felix’s roommate), is great as his conscious that he does not listen to. There is a nice tension between them underlined by a lot of respect.
Juliet the Siren is also great. One of antagonists in the first novel, Vicious Circle sees her team up with Felix as she tries to learn how to be human. It is a great dynamic, as Felix constantly has to struggle in her presence to avoid the natural propensity to fall head over heels in lust with her.
The other good character is Peace. I wasn’t crazy about the name, for some reason it could never flow in the sentence as I read it, but he is a great character. A chequered past and seemingly a stronger skill with the supernatural, Peace is someone that invokes intrigue.
As I mentioned earlier, Vicious Circle moves as at rapid place. Felix takes on far too many jobs and does not really have a firm grasp on any of them. As he tries to make sense of the few leads he has, he stumbles across incident after incident and gets his butt kicked. The confusion Felix feels, rubs off on the reader, and initially I felt a little overwhelmed trying to remember what character was associated with which case. In some ways this is a good thing, as you really get a sense of the uphill battle Felix is facing, but when I was expecting a slow burner like Mike Carey’s previous book, I was a little shell-shocked.
Having said that, once I got a firm grasp on the plot, I loved the intrigues and mystery. The plot was very reminiscent of a Robert Crais or Harlan Coben novel only with ghosts, were-creatures and demons.
Inevitably, all of the plots weave their way together and accumulate in realistic and satisfactory way. Felix’s actions are logical and although he faces death about 49,254 times in the book, it never feels like he is let off without good reason or is saved by an outside force.
The ending presents an epic showdown worthy of the plot and even pulls on a few emotional strings as Felix is put through the ringer. Battered,bruised and emonally drained I can't wait to see what happens next to Fix.
My rating: 8.7

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Book Review - World War Z (JS)

World War Z by Max Brooks
Review by Jacqui Slaney
Now I have read a few Zombie books and played some of the usual electronic games, have found them particularly good, when you have had a rubbish day at work and you can take it out on someone. Actually, it’s a bit worrying how good my aim is getting!
Unlike most people who have read this book, I have not read the first instalment- the Zombie survival guide, but with the hype of the film, I thought I would give this one a go.
The description:
It began with rumours from China about another pandemic. Then the cases started to multiply and what had looked like the stirrings of a criminal underclass, even the beginnings of a revolution, soon revealed itself to be much, much worse. Faced with a future of mindless, man-eating horror, humanity was forced to accept the logic of world government and face events that tested our sanity and our sense of reality.
The book is set after the ‘war’ is over and is written as a series of interviews with people who were involved or affected by what went on, so you get a series of short stories really rather than one long tale.
This is quite effective as you gets lots of different nationalities, Americans, Japanese, British to name a few and different types of characters: children who grew up in the war, soldiers, and just everyday people whose lives are dramatically changed. There are some great descriptions of people in the entertainment industries reacting in horror, that now they have to dig ditches and tend crops as they usual career is now obsolete.
There is no flowing plot, but you find as you read each chapter, you get more and more pulled into it. It is gruesome, obviously, but even though some of the stories are short, you get to like the characters. Some that stick out are the K9 trainer, submarine officer and definitely the blind gardener, but I could name loads more.
Although these are separate stories, certain events are mentioned in each one and you have the running theme of how some countries were more prepared than others, and the very old story of the differing governments trying desperately to hang on to power though the world is falling apart around them.
This is a very enjoyable read, the way it is written makes the idea of the dead reanimating very plausible, and as the reader, you accept this with no problem. I would definitely recommend it for Zombie fans and those who are new to the genre
My rating: 10 out of 10