Monday, May 10, 2010

the world of the black magician trilogy returns in trudi canavan's the ambassador's mission

One of Australia's best-known and most popular fantasy authors, Trudi Canavan is back with her latest novel The Ambassador's Mission, the first book in her new Traitor Spy trilogy.
Canavan's Black Magician trilogy – made up of The Magician's Guild, The Novice and The High Lord – was an international best-seller that established her as a fantasy author to watch.
In The Ambassador's Mission, Canavan returns to the world she created in the Black Magician books.
It's a number of years later, and the son of Black Magician Sonea – the heroine of the original tale – is all grown up. Lorkin has set out on his first mission as an adult magician with Ambassador Dannyl, also returning from the first series.
Despite the damage done to the city of Imardin during the brief war with the Sachakan magicians years early, the two lands have an uneasy truce, although trade has restarted and Dannyl is about to become an official representative.
Lorkin's father, Akkarin, died during the battle but left behind him a legend that could possibly cause the young man some problems in the new land. Still, he decides to take up Dannyl's offer and heads off, much to his mother's disquiet.
Before long Lorkin is caught up in Sachakan politics, gets himself kidnapped – or possibly saved – and leads Dannyl and a bunch of Sachaka magicians on a merry chase across the countryside.
Once again Canavan has set up a likely group of characters in her well-established world, allowing for an easy fantasy adventure.
Central characters from the first series return – Cery the Thief is back and trying to work out why certain other thieves are going missing. Sonea is still restricted by the rulings of the Magician's Guild regarding the isolation of a Black Magician's powers and various other players arrive and depart moving the story along.
The addition of political machinations in Sachaka adds an extra dimension to the story, but all in all, none of this is ground-breaking fantasy.
Canavan writes solid, comfortable traditional fantasy. What makes her work stand out from the rest is her ability to infuse a sense of humanity and, odd though it sounds, reality, into her books.
Lorkin's chafing at his mother's over-protectiveness, Dannyl's continued issues with being homosexual in an anti-gay society and Sonea's sadness and loneliness after the death of her lover, all read as being very “real”.
The Ambassador's Mission is a great first book, in what will certainly turn out to be a series as successful as Canavan's first.

The Ambassador's Mission by Trudi Canavan is published by Orbit Books and is available from good book stores and online.

historial thriller featuring an ex-monk who believes in aliens & tracks down murderers by sj parris

Heresy from SJ Parris is the first in what will be a series of historical thrillers set in the 1500s and staring Giodarno Bruno, former monk, magician, scientist and heretic.
SJ Parris is, in fact, the author Stephanie Merritt, a well-known British critic and journalist who has written for The Times, the Daily Telegraph and who was also the Deputy Literary Editor at The Observer. She's also published three books; two works of fiction and a memoir about depression.
With Heresy, the author has moved into new territory by creating an interesting new character with both depth and human foibles writ large. Although the 'murder mystery set in ancient times' concept isn't exactly new – in fact, the publishers suggest in a book blurb that readers who liked The Name of Rose or CJ Sansom's work should buy this book – Heresy is an interesting take on the idea.
Bruno is a mass of contradictions. Although he spent years in an Italian monastery, he has an inquiring mind and doesn't toe the line. Heresy opens with a humorous explanation as to why Bruno is no longer a monk.
But the real meat of the story comes years later as Bruno, now safe from the Inquisition in England, ends up working for Sir Francis Walsingham, spy-master for Queen Elizabeth I.
Sent to Oxford, the university is considered to be rife with rabid Catholics, Bruno's political investigations are interrupted by a series of murders, so he switches track. Helped by a beautiful young woman – he's no longer a monk, remember – and a series of letters implying that each death is linked to heresy of some sort, Bruno attempts to track and catch the murderer.
From the opening scenes of Bruno's youth, to the action-packed conclusion that includes hidden priests, secret loves, burly henchmen and scheming aristocrats, Heresy is a good read.
The pace is fast, the historical detail is not overwhelming – although the background information on religion in the period is a bit tedious – and the characters are well-developed. Merritt / Parris has a nice turn of phrase, although some of the cadence and terminology may be a little modern for purists, it makes for an easier read.
The 'Medieval thriller' genre is not new, there are the popular Hugh Corbett mysteries by Paul Doherty and Michael Jecks' Medieval West Country Mysteries series as well as Peter Tremayne's prolific Sister Fidelma series about a nun in 9th century Ireland.
But Merritt / Parris has given the genre a little more bite with her former monk who believes in extraterrestrial beings and astronomy, and who is neither 'holier than thou' nor a complete rake.
Heresy is a good start to what could be a substantial series of solid, fun, historical thrillers. Only time will tell if Giodarno Bruno will become as popular as some of the other characters in this genre.

Heresy by SJ Parris is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

another 'genetic-manipulation-gone-bad' novel; ancestor by scott sigler

The last Scott Sigler book I read was the arresting Infected, where a mysterious alien spore started infecting people, making them lose control of their thoughts and behaviour, and leading to a rather gross conclusion. While it was not an entirely original concept – Invasion of the Body Snatchers anyone? – Sigler managed to tell a gripping tale by focusing on one individual and the emotions he goes through as he realises that something is taking over his mind.
In his new book Ancestor, Sigler has again taken up another common theme in science-fiction. This time it's the evil that occurs when people get involved in genetic manipulation.
Once again, a conglomerate is out to play god and create some sort of creature that will – supposedly – solve a terrible human condition; oh, and make lots of money in doing so. Dr Claus Rhumkorrf is trying to create the perfect organ donor and win the Noble Prize... and success must occur at all costs.
Naturally enough, science goes too far and an abomination is created, something that not only doesn't appear to have solved the human organ supply problem, it's also got very sharp teeth, near human intelligence and an amazing ability to develop overnight.
Tied into this story is a clearly insane Chinese geneticist, Jian, who's nightmares may have something to do with the monsters; PJ Colding, a mercenary for hire with a heart; his love interest, sassy pilot Sara; assorted baddies in the guise of more mercenaries and a nutter of a businessman.
Plonk them all on an isolated island in the American Great Lakes, add a nasty snowstorm, a few crafty locals and lots of cows; unleash the monsters and you've got yourself a gore-fest in Ancestor.
Sigler can write; his main characters are good, if a little clichéd – the mad scientist, the crass bully, the baddie with a heart of gold – his dialogue likewise, but his plotting is obvious and the early part of the book a little slow.
In many ways Ancestor does not stack up against other books in this genre. White Devils by Paul McAuley, for example, remains one of the better genetic-manipulation-gone-wrong books published recently. Still, Ancestor is not bad; there are some great action scenes and the conundrum of Jian's nightmares leads to a great twist towards the conclusion.
If you enjoy science-fiction with at least one foot in reality, as these types of books usually have, then Ancestor will fit the criteria.
Although there's a bit of scientific language at the start of the novel – which may be why it's a bit slow – the action from about a third of the way through makes up for it and Sigler sets up the final scene with an eye towards a sequel.

Ancestor by Scott Sigler is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available from good book stores and online.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

the devil's queen: a novel of catherine de medici, queen of france, by jeanne kalogridis, adds the spice of magic to history

A new novel about the historic personage of Catherine de Medici shows another side to a woman who has been blamed for the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, when thousands of Protestants were killed throughout France.
Jeanne Kalogridis' The Devil's Queen traces the life of a young girl, orphaned and taken in by relatives only because of her name and bloodlines. As the great granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Catherine was a valuable trading piece in the politics of the 14th century.
Generally unloved and manipulated by everyone from her distant cousin, Giulio di Giuliano de Medici, Pope Clement VII, to her closer relatives like her aunt Clarice Strozzi (nee de Medici), Catherine never really had a chance to be herself.
During a rebellion in 1527, when the family was pushed out of Florence, Catherine was imprisoned twice, treated relatively harshly and threatened with death repeatedly. She was still only a child. After the fall of the rebels, Catherine was taken to Rome where her marriage was arranged to Henry, Duke of Orleans, the second son of King Francis I of France, at the age of fourteen.
From the time she moved to France, Catherine suffered from being ignored, being hated and being scorned as her husband openly took lovers and eventually flouted his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who controlled Henry almost completely.
All of this, and much, much more, is generally known information about Catherine, but what Kalogridis has added is a touch of the supernatural and the macabre.
During Catherine's time there were a number of well-known and influential men who dabbled in the esoteric arts of magic, astrology and alchemy – despite them being banned by the Roman Catholic Church.
In The Devil's Queen, Catherine is befriended by Cosimo Ruggieri an astrologer and magician who eventually followed her to France; and meets Monsieur de Nostredame (Nostradamus) who remains, even now, a powerful figure.
Kalogridis gives Catherine an esoteric bent, a belief in the real power of magic and the ruthlessness to ensure her children are born, live and survive. There's lots of blood and violence involved, and an eventual denouement that may, or may not, be true.
The problem with historical novels of fiction is the existence of facts and general knowledge about these personages; particularly those of great fame.
However, Kalogridis manages to imbue Catherine with a real honesty, a realistic personality and adds enough fiction to ensure the reader is never bored.
If you don't like novels full of politics, long names and plots within plots, The Devil's Queen is not for you. This is a tightly woven story of a historical period seen through the eyes of a lonely, abused and desperate woman; one who had to grab her future with her own hands to ensure she stayed alive.
The book follows her story through the birth of her children and the death of her husband and her heirs, until the reign of Henri of Navarre – Henri IV or Henri the Great, the first Bourbon monarch.
Catherine lived to the age of 69 and was considered to have been the most intelligent person to ever sit the French throne. Still, The Devil's Queen does her justice in many ways.
Kalogridis' research is impeccable, as is her eye for detail and her ability to add personality and warmth to long dead people and times. Despite the historic detail, The Devil's Queen does not drag, it is fast paced and absorbing.
The Devil's Queen is a solid historical novel with just enough fiction to add spice and titillate the reader.

The Devil's Queen by Jeanne Kalogridis is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

final instalment in brandon sanderson's the mistborn trilogy; the hero of ages

Brandon Sanderson's The Mistborn trilogy comes to an end in The Hero of Ages, as the true hero is revealed and the cryptic words of the Lord Ruler are finally explained.
Sanderson's first two books in this series – The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension – built the backbone of the plot. A world overcome by volcanic ash, a serfdom of Highborn and Skaa and an immortal ruler coming together in violence, rebellion and myth.
Centred on the street girl Vin, her inborn 'mistborn' powers – an ability to use various metals to become faster, stronger and smarter than the average person – leading to her becoming first involved in rebellion and later to kill the undying Lord Ruler.
Despite killing off the supposed source of all their woes, Vin, her Skaa companions and her Highborn husband, new emperor Elend Venture, discover that by killing a god and releasing the power of the Well of Ascension, they may just have made things worse.
Finally, the story focuses on what exactly caused the Mists that have taken over the world, blocking the sun, killing the plants and causing illness to exactly 16 per cent of the population. The group realise they have to discover why the Lord Ruler hid caches of food, water and tools across the country and what they have to do to save their world.
Cleverly Sanderson has created a world that is not to dissimilar from ours so that readers can easily identify with the protagonists, but it's different enough to be interesting. The plot twists right to the end of The Hero of Ages – there's a surprising denouement right at the end that one doesn't see coming at all.
Sanderson is clearly an author on the way up. After Robert Jordan's death in 2007, Sanderson was chosen to complete the final book in Jordan's epic The Wheel of Time series based on just the first in The Mistborn trilogy, The Final Empire. He has already released The Gathering Storm – the first in the three-part culmination of Jordan's series – to thunderous applause from both fans and critics including Jordan's widow, Harriet McDougal.
In The Hero of Ages, Sanderson shows exactly why he was chosen for such an important task in the world of fantasy fiction. His characters are well-developed, his plotting is fantastic and his imagination runs wild yet is still accessible. In fact, the book has been shortlisted for the David Gemmell Award.
However the pace of his books needs to pick up a little. All three of The Mistborn books suffered from slow starts, a little too much detail – The Hero of Ages alone is 748 pages – and a tendency towards too much pontificating.
But despite this drawback, Sanderson's works are classic fantasy fiction and enjoyable reading. He's an author to watch.

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson is published by Gollancz, which is owned by Orion Books and is available from good book stores and online.

a new theme in urban fantasy; non-religious angels and archangels from nalini singh

Hard on the heels of Lyndsay Sands' Argeneau vampire novels comes a new series from New Zealander Nalini Singh from the same publisher and with the same overall marketing concept – supernatural romance.
Luckily in Singh's books, the vampires have been replaced by angels and archangels. Oh, there are vampires as well, and vampire hunters – who work for the angels because in this world vampires are actually made by angels.
How the angels got to be involved in our everyday world and where they originally came from and whether or not they have any relation to god, is never explained. One simply accepts that in Singh's world, the angels make vampires, the vamps work for the angels and the archangels run everything.
So, once you're over that bit of illogic, the story unfolds from the perspective of a Guild Hunter, Elena Deveraux.
Elena is a 'born Hunter', which means that she's a bit stronger, a bit faster and has an uncanny ability to track vampires by scent alone. She's beautiful (of course), tough and oh-so-slightly emotionally damaged. Just how damaged becomes more and more apparent as her adventure unfolds.
Being one of the best at what she does, Elena ends up with a contract to hunt down a being for the Archangel of New York, Raphael. Yep, some of the names are reminiscent of real life.
Raphael (of course) is heart-thumpingly handsome, aloof, awe-inspiring – he's got golden-tipped wings after all – and dangerous. He once broke every bone in a vampire's body and left him in the middle of the city for days; the vampire was still alive.
So, Elena naturally finds herself attracted to Raphael, but she's damn sure she's not going to give in and become Raphael's lover and human pet. At least, that's what she keeps telling herself.
As for the job she's been hired to do, Elena discovers that it's not a normal vampire hunt, this one is far more dangerous and secretive – if any of her friends or family find out who she's actually hunting, Raphael will kill them.
Angel's Blood introduces Singh's new fantasy world with detail, action, emotional turbulence and romance. These are urban fantasy romance novels after all. However, unlike Lyndsay Sands' series, these books have a lot more action... dare I say, a lot more bite.
Raphael is not some "ordinary bloke wrapped in a fantasy skin", he is a contradiction of awesomely powerful being, vulnerable man and inscrutable ruler. He is ruthless and he is violent, but he is immensely loyal and has an enormous capacity to love – even if that love is so powerful as to smother those who receive it.
Elena is tough, independent, resourceful and desperate to hang on to not only her humanity, but also the terrible things in her past that have made her who she is. Like Raphael, she is a mix of good and bad, full of contradictions, but these are the qualities that make Singh's characters more complex and more interesting for the reader.
Unlike Sands' stories, Angel's Blood and Archangel's Kiss are not single-book stories, nor are they all wrapped up happily ever after plot endings. Singh's books are much more of the traditional fantasy format, with each book adding to the story. The books are also much more interesting in general.
I love a good vampire story as much as the next fantasy reader, but even I have become a little bored with the ubiquitous nature of vampires in popular culture. Angels as non-religious, non-pious beings who have sex, scheme, manipulate and fall in love are new.
Thankfully Singh has a great turn of phrase as well; she is a good writer. The recurring theme of Elena's nightmares and how it's written, for example, adds a sense of tension across the plot lines of both books, with an eventual denouement in Archangel's Kiss. A tightness of prose that is missing in many of this genre's newest authors.
So, if you're looking for something new in the genre of urban fantasy, give Singh's series a go. You won't be bored, and you may even find yourself a new favourite author.

Angel's Blood and Archangel's Kiss by Nalini Singh are published by Gollancz and are available from good book stores and online.

Read my review of Lyndsay Sands' latest novel: Clichés abound in Lyndsay Sands' latest Argeneau novel

clichés abound in lyndsay sands' latest argeneau novel, tall, dark and hungry

The Argeneau family of vampire brothers returns in Lyndsay Sands' latest novel, Tall, Dark and Hungry. Yes, the clichés continue.
The previous two novels in the series that I have reviewed – Single, White Vampire and Love Bites – are part of the Argeneau series with such catchy titles as A Bite to Remember and Vampires Are Forever. It just goes to show, if something works the first, second and third time around, why not just keep it up.
I have to say, when I first read Love Bites, I hadn't seen the other novels and thought it a cute take on the current craze for all things fanged and hot. However after the second book, and now third in the series, the conceit is getting little tired.
Likewise, in Love Bites, the brother in question – Etienne – was at least involved in a bit of vampire-type action ie. Being stalked by a deranged vampire-wannabe who actually injured him, leading to his meeting his wife-to-be.
Read my review of Love Bites: Fun, vampire romance with tongue, firmly, in cheek
Single, White Vampire, the next one in the series saw a reclusive vampire author hook up with his editor – no action at all to speak of there – and now in the third series it's even less exciting.
Read my review of Single, White Vampire: Light, escapist reading
The couple from Love Bites, Lucern and Kate, are getting married so Kate's cousin Terri arrived in New York a few weeks earlier to help out. She's put up at Lucern's brother, Bastien's, apartment and that's about it.
They both like each other, they solve a few wedding disasters like a bankrupt caterer and a few family issues, like a vampire cousin who can't ingest blood from a bag, but really, that's it.
They fall in love, there's a misunderstanding as Bastien tries to explain he's a vampire – which in the Argeneau series means they're actually from Atlantis and have nano-bytes in their blood which is why they're so beautiful, live forever etc – and then there's a wedding to be planned: The End.
So, the first time around the conceit of the titles, the 'I may be a vampire but I'm just an ordinary bloke' attitude and nice descriptions of sex made the books a fun read. But, really, this is all very, very old the third time around.
In fact, Sands' books are simply pulp romances dressed up with vampires. Unfortunately the vampires aren't even slightly exciting. It's the 'Twilight' effect: Take a concept with centuries of tradition, thousands of permutations of moral dilemma, an edge of danger, a sense of transgression and rebellion, and whitewash the lot of it with middle-class suburbanisation, Middle America bible-bashing and lowest, common denominator pop culture.
What you get are vampire stories with no bite – pun intended in the case of Twilight. You lose the dichotomy of good versus evil, the psychological tug of war between sex and blood, and the true moral dilemma of immortality.
So, if you're looking for a light-hearted romantic read, Tall, Dark and Hungry is fine. However, it's a mere feather-weight when compared to the much more complicated and fascinating series from Laurell K Hamilton or Anne Rice.
For real vampires with fangs, moral grey areas and truly raunchy sex, stay with the mistresses of the genre and leave this series on the shelf.

Tall, Dark and Hungry by Lyndsay Sands is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.