Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages by Tom Holt

Reviewed by Andy Venn

Polly is starting to think that she is going round the bend. She works as a solicitor for a big company, marvellous job, good opportunities, what more could she want? Someone is drinking her coffee. Someone has written in her diary. Someone is doing her work. Brilliant, you would think. But there is a sense that something here is very wrong. She gets calls from people who say that they have spoken to her before, even though she knows that she hasn’t. Then she gets invited to play darts with the company team. This is where things start to get really weird. The dry-cleaner that she took her dress to has vanished. The building does not exist, has never existed, no one in the vicinity knows of it. Calling on her musician brother to help her there now follows a tale of magic and chickens. A tale of twisted reality and mixed dimensions. It turns out that Polly’s boss has been employing people from alternate dimensions, saves on the wage bill apparently. There is also a competition that has been running for centuries with a £500 prize. And Douglas Adams idea of compound interest does not apply, it is still £500 after hundreds of years. Continue reading “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages by Tom Holt”

Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

This is the first fantasy novel by MD Lachlan and although I’ve said this a few times recently, he also has a very unique voice in the fantasy genre, and this is certainly not a me-too product in any way. I can’t point to any other fantasy book that I have read and say, Wolfsangel is a bit like that, because it’s a very distinct and disturbing creation. Continue reading “Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan”

Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

I’ve never hid the fact that I am a sci-fi reader before a fantasy reader, but every now and then a fantasy book comes along that I look at and just want to read. Songs of the Earth is just such a book, not as hefty as some other novels in the genre but the blurb makes it sound interesting, the fact that it’s the first part of a planned trilogy even better. I won’t lie, this one has a lot to live up to even before opening the page, the publisher declaring it as the fantasy debut of 2011. However, for me Songs of the Earth hit the spot and delivered the kind of story that makes me want to read more fantasy – a rare thing indeed!

Gair is a witch, awaiting execution at the hands of the Church. For many years he has hid the truth about his magical skills while learning about the religion and fighting methods from the scholars at the Church, and he knows full well what they do with magic users. However, at his trial the Preceptor, an old and frail man, grants him a lifeline in the form of exile rather than the death he – and everyone else – was expecting. But not everyone is willing to accept this and a witchfinder is quickly dispatched by opposing members within the Church to carry out the execution as intended. Fortunately for Gair he falls into the company of Alderan, a wise old man who hides more than he lets on, but the offer he makes Gair is irresistible: travel with him to a place where he can improve and master his talents among others like him. And his journey begins…

Songs of the Earth may be a fantasy tale with magic, strange creatures and a hidden world beyond ours, but it’s the characters that drive it forward. Gair is, of course, the hero of the tale, and one that is exceptionally strong at what he can do. However, he’s got the recognisable background of orphan who doesn’t know his parents – a sure sign that he’s destined for greatness. But Gair is an interesting character, one that has never had a home and has had to hide his magical powers from everyone around him, keeping a secret that could (and does) cause great problems for him. He’s not the only character I liked either: you’ve got Alderan, the wise mentor; Ansel, the old and determined Preceptor of the Eadorian faith; Aysha, the crippled shape-shifter. There are many more I could go on about, but that would just ruin it for you. The bad guys are also interesting, although we don’t get quite as much depth to them as we do the good guys, something that I hope is improved on in the next novel.

The world building is also a good aspect of Songs of the Earth, but not one that is deeply explored. Cooper manages to create a very real world for the story to take place, and done so without much info-dumping, but I would have liked to have found out a little bit more. There is a fine line between not enough details and too much, and while the balance isn’t quite right, it’s pretty close. But then again I do like a good bit of world building in my stories, so this is very much personal taste talking.

The magic is also another aspect of Songs of the Earth that I very much enjoyed, the way that a person uses song to create the magic, hearing the different tunes and managing to craft them into different things. It’s not a system that is precisely laid out either, but one that you get a feel for as the story progresses and you see more of it in use. It’s interesting and adds a good element to the story, another aspect that I hope to see further explored in the next two books.

Above all else Songs of the Earth is a damned fine novel. It tells the story in an interesting way, and while it may not be bringing new groundbreaking stuff to the genre, for me it’s exactly the sort of book I want to read. It manages to shy away from some typical fantasy elements, but it also incorporates much of what I expect from a novel in this genre.

Debut of the year? Hard to tell at the moment, but boy is it one hell of an entertaining read!

Songs of the Earth is not your typical fantasy novel by any stretch of the imagination. There are a number of unique qualities about it that make it stand apart from others in the genre, including a much lighter tone compared to authors such as Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie or Sam Sykes.

Cooper is a storyteller who takes time where it is needed to flesh out her characters and the world they live in without the need for big chunks of unwieldy exposition. The reader learns about far off lands through encounters with natives from those areas, as well as through dialogue that doesn’t feel forced and is not designed just to pass on information. The description of the world is done well without it being heavy handed and it is the little details that made it easier for me to picture in my head. I had a real sense of history, culture and an idea about the landscape via snippets of information.

Coming to any new fantasy series can be daunting because quite often they are long running series and the books are weighty tomes which will put off casual readers. This is the first of a trilogy and because Cooper has found a good balance between pace and detail, it is a reasonably sized novel.

For the most part her characters are fairly straightforward individuals and their aims easily defined, although as the story continues more grey begins to drift in. That is not to say the characters are simple, far from it, but there is no ambivalence and few surprises for the reader. Gair, the main character, is a troubled young man who has a good heart despite everything that has been done to him, and he always tries to do the right thing. Although there are plot twists, a character is never turned on their head from hero to villain or anti-hero and the rug is not pulled out from under the reader’s feet.

Cooper spends time on the main character and his relationships with everyone else, perhaps more so than some authors, so this is not popcorn fantasy that puts pace and action ahead of depth. It is a rich read that takes the time to develop characters without overdoing it.

Although Cooper mentioned on her blog that she had no desire to write a novel that featured some of familiar racial archetypes found in fantasy, or some of the epic fantasy furniture such as prophecies and magic swords, there are some familiar elements for those familiar with the genre. An orphaned main character with a special gift beyond others is a regularly used archetype, but even though Gair is stronger than some of the others, he is one of many and is not the chosen one. There is, however, the possibility that his unknown heritage will later be revealed to be significant and in some ways I hope not. I would prefer it if he was simply the son of an ordinary man, rather than the long lost heir to a great king or similar. I could be wrong but only time will tell.

The story has a strong connection to nature as the magic system used, the Song, is linked to balance, restoration, and the maintenance of a Veil that keeps different worlds separate from one another. The lighter story with a dark undercurrent, the well thought out world-building, the connection to nature and a stronger focus on relationships reminds me of Freda Warrington’s Jewelfire Trilogy of fantasy novels. Songs of the Earth is a fascinating and thoughtful fantasy debut quite unlike many others in the genre and the author has a unique voice that separates her from the competition.

The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

The Straight Razor Cure is an unusual book for a number of reasons. From the cover, with a hooded figure and the above description, you might think it’s just another fantasy novel focusing on the criminal underworld. The cover is actually slightly misleading because it suggests the main character is someone who wields magic, whereas he’s a former soldier turned criminal kingpin and drug dealer with no magical ability. Also, although magic is featured in the novel, it’s actually a small part of the overall picture and the story is firmly a street level tale about crime. It deals with murder, revenge, drug dealing, prostitution, and a whole range of other seedy stuff not mentioned, or only referred to in passing in other fantasy novels. If reading about any of that bothers you, or you don’t like the idea of the main character being a drug dealer, then I would seek out a different novel. Continue reading “The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky”

Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

There has been a trend in the last seven years or so of fantasy novels focusing on the criminal underworld with protagonists who are varying shades of grey. The covers often feature men in hoods and the quality of these books varies a great deal in my opinion. Given the wealth of material available in this sub-genre, I read from this segment very sparingly. Having said all of that, I think to date Among Thieves is my fantasy debut of the year. When I finished it I had the same vibe and buzz as when I finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch for the first time. Both are excellent stories bursting at the seams with brilliant characterisation and a story with many plot twists that keep the reader off balance. With some novels I have a general idea of where events are going and with others the author throws in twists that appear to be there only to shock the reader and there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason for them. The best written novels are those where the author lulls you into a comfortable place and then pulls the rug out from under you, but if you go back you can see the clues that led to the twist.

Continue reading “Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick”

The Desert Spear by Peter V Brett

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

The Desert Spear is the second book by relative newcomer Peter V. Brett. This review contains some spoilers for the first book. At the end of the Painted Man there is a noticeable change in the world. The old battle wards have been discovered, Arlen has been transformed and many call him the Deliverer, even if he refutes it. So the landscape has shifted a bit, but if you boil the book down then at its core it’s still about fear. Fear of the dark and fear of what lurks out there. So now there is a fundamental shift in the world, or rather the possibility exists. But of course, people are still divided by their culture, their prejudice, desires and greed. A Deliverer, if not the Deliverer, a figure of myth and legend walks among them, who brings them weapons to fight back and yet, it’s still not enough for most people. Arlen’s approach is to arm people and leave them to fight back by themselves in their own time, but that’s not enough for some people. Just because they now have the weapons it doesn’t mean everyone will use them. The culture in the Free Cities that has existed for many years is to hide at night and wait for the dawn. Breaking that cycle is going to be incredibly difficult for some people as it is deeply engrained in them, whereas others, younger bolder people, eagerly embrace the new and want to be free of their fear. Continue reading “The Desert Spear by Peter V Brett”

Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

Kell’s Legend is dedicated to the memory of the late David Gemmell, the man who inspired Andy Remic to write fantasy. This book is undoubtedly an homage to Gemmell’s most famous character, Druss the Legend. The first story about Druss’s life, in the novel Legend, came towards the end of his life where he was an old man who had lived through many wars, buried countless friends and enemies and was unsuccessfully trying to settle into retirement. Kell shares many traits with Druss, as he too is an isolated old man who has seen better days, has arthritis in his joints and his only constant companion is a cursed, and possibly demon possessed, double bladed battle axe that made him infamous. Continue reading “Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic”

Shadow’s Edge by Brent Weeks

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

This is a second book in a trilogy and I really enjoyed the first. So I approached this volume with great excitement and was really looking forward to it, but on the whole I thought it was uneven and I was disappointed at the end. Some spoilers for the first book will be included, so look away now if you don’t want to know. When Way of the Shadows ends, Kylar is setting off to live a new life with Elene and a surrogate daughter. Durzo is dead and Logan, the once and future king, is a prisoner in the worst place on earth and not likely to survive for more than a few days. But Kylar doesn’t know this, thinks his friend is dead, and therefore isn’t going to come and rescue him. As cliff-hangers go, it doesn’t get any better than that. Continue reading “Shadow’s Edge by Brent Weeks”

Kraken by China Miéville

Reviewed by Andy Venn

Someone has got into the Natural History Museum and removed a preserved giant squid. There are no traces of it. No evidence of how it was taken. But there is a squid shaped gap where it was yesterday evening. The police are investigating, but without any evidence what can they do? There now follows a ride through a London that no one could imagine. Poor Billy Harrow, the man who was, yesterday, preserving giant squids and other creatures, is thrown into this bizarre version of our capital city. He doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t understand any of it. He is bewildered and amazed, threatened, befriended, aided and lost. Continue reading “Kraken by China Miéville”

The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

Brent Weeks is someone I came across on the internet from time to time in relation to new names in modern fantasy, but it was only last year that I picked up the first of his Night Angel trilogy. Weeks is also someone who obviously has a good sense of humour as he went head to head with English fantasy author Joe Abercrombie on a shared Borders blog which turned out to be entertaining and very funny. I’m sure they both earned some new readers from the whole thing. Continue reading “The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks”