Monday, 30 March 2015

The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson

4 stars

Ever wondered what happens after the good guys win? The Well of Ascension, the second in the Mistborn trilogy, takes us back to Luthadel one year after the fall of the Final Empire to find out. While the tyranny of the Lord Ruler has been thrown off, its fledgling government (now headed by King Elend Venture) is finding that transition has its own set of problems. Aside from meeting the needs of a population whose entire society has been thrown into chaos, rival factions both within and without the city quite fancy having themselves in charge. Which is how Luthadel finds itself under siege with two rival monarchs camped on their doorstep and a third, backed by a Koloss army, not far behind.

While still really, really good, The Well of Ascension is a very different book to its predecessor with a very different pace. Instead of the gleeful exuberance of Kelsier, this is filled with Vin's insecurities. Instead of planning audacious heists, our characters are pondering the problems of holding onto political power. In the place of victories are people struggling to make the right choices. And while the action still crackles, its sidelined by Vin's relationship problems and struggle to understand who she is. We say goodbye to a few of the crew this time around, but these were robbed of potential punch by the fact that they were those that clearly had nothing left to do and, while I did enjoy the new characters (particularly Allriane), I didn't buy the love triangle that Zane brought with him at all.

Still, there's not many fantasy trilogies where you can enter the last book with no idea whatsoever of what it may hold, and the above are all minor quibbles in a book that still held me captive until the last page.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Mistborn: The Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

5 stars

Over a year ago, Brandon Sanderson's short story Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell emerged as my favourite from the Dangerous Women collection. A friend (hi, Tamsin!) had long ago championed the Mistborn series and so, having had this sat on my kindle for way too long and with a stretch of free time ahead of me, I thought it was high time I gave this a go. I am so, so glad I did and am now going to be doing this for the foreseeable future as I devour everything of his that I can get my hands on. 

Brandon Sanderson has built a truly fantastic world - one ruled over by a tyrant who was once  a hero, destined to save the world. Now the days see ash fall from the sky, while at night ominous mists keep a beaten down populace - the slave class of the skaa (ruled over by a vicious nobility who are ruled over, in turn, by the Lord Ruler himself) - behind closed doors. A young but useful member of a thieving crew, thanks to her ability to push her 'Luck' and the emotions of those around her, Vin has never dreamed that life could be anything other than the way it is. That is, until she's recruited by the charismatic Kelsier for a truly audacious job - to overthrow the Final Empire.

As well as a well-crafted world for our characters to live in, Sanderson has also given us a new and really rather cool magical system, based on the 'burning' of metals - Allomancy. With each metal having its own powers based on Pushing/Pulling, those with an affinity for a particular metal specialise - there are the Thugs, burning Pewter for enhanced physical abilities, Tineyes, with enhanced visual senses, Soothers and Rioters, burning brass or zinc to influence the emotions of others, and a host of others besides, while the Mistborn - somewhat rarer and with an affinity for all of the metals - tend to be those of noble blood, each guarding a Noble House (who, like most nobility throughout history, tend to be a particularly ruthless shower of shits constantly at one another's throats). I loved this magical system and how it was used, as well as how it was affected by its limitations.

But, more importantly, Sanderson has given us a brilliant bunch of characters, each distinct and serving as an important piece of the whole, with personalities and a mission that I'm now wholeheartedly invested in, as well as some truly formidable villains. I loved the whole idea of the Inquisitors and even our Big Bad, The Lord Ruler, is more interesting that most having been given his own backstory in the legends that underpin this society, making us wonder at what might have made him what he is today.

A fantastic series opener (as well as working well as a finished story in its own right), if you're at all into fantasy then do yourself a favour and pick up Mistborn: The Final Empire today.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

3.5 stars

Heretic's Daughter is a slow moving yet effective portrayal of a family's life in 17th century America, and how that family was ripped apart by religious extremism and ignorance in one of the more shameful episodes of American history - the Salem witch trials.

Young Sarah Carrier's family is a typical one of its time, their days governed by the back-breaking work needing to be performed daily to ensure the family's survival, the monotony of which is only broken by outbreaks of disease, fear of Indian raids and visits to the town meeting-house to bask in the spite and ill-feeling of their neighbours who are already eager to lay the blame for an outbreak of smallpox at the Carrier's door. 
Sarah's mother, Martha, has already made a few enemies thanks to her strong will and sharp tongue, but black looks and malicious gossip are a kiss compared to what's to come as the hysteria over and persecution of so-called witches spreads from Salem Town, and the Carrier family find themselves just one of the many victims fallen prey to the townsfolk using religious doctrine to settle vendettas, jealousies and grudges by casting accusing fingers at their neighbours, and even members of their own families. Imprisoned in appalling conditions and executed if they protested their innocence, many would 'confess' and so be set free (in an example of the sort of insane troll logic that seemed to govern the time), while many others (most of them women) would lose their lives before reason could prevail.

The Salem witch trials are a potent example of some of the evils perpetrated by those claiming to do God's work, and Heretic's Daughter does a good job of depicting the plights of those accused. How the towns concerned recovered from this appalling episode isn't explored, and I had to wonder how one would forgive and move on from such terrible crimes. But then I'm not a particularly forgiving sort, and would hope that those responsible had their lives ruined by guilt (although I'm sure they simply cherry-picked some other piece of doctrine that absolved them of any wrong-doing, before quickly returning to using their religion as a stick to beat other people with).

If you're after something fact-filled you're probably better off looking in the non-fiction aisle but if you want something that brings the people of the time to real life, you could certainly do a lot worse than by picking this up.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

2 stars

Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a dying millionaire to find out who's been blackmailing him, but it turns out that it's not just a simple case of extortion - there are two wild daughters and a missing son-in-law to deal with too. Soon bullets are flying, bodies are dropping, and dames are hissing like broken radiators and then getting slapped (and liking it too, apparently). Everyone is either evasive or outright lying and while Marlowe seems to have a firm grasp of what's going on, I must confess that I didn't entirely follow. The short, sharp dialogue (which I could hear Humphrey Bogart spitting through clenched teeth) often left me a little bewildered as to what on earth people were talking about - I'm glad that Marlowe summed it all up for us at the end or I'd likely still be lost now.

I did really enjoy some of Chandler's writing ("Bubbles rose in it like false hopes.") but I think that choosing to read a noir whilst under the influence of strong painkillers was probably a little bit too ambitious.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Drowning Mermaids, by Nadia Scrieva

1 star

Being up to my eyeballs in painkillers thanks to some extremely painful back problems, I thought I’d turn to some brain candy whilst I convalesce. Unfortunately, Drowning Mermaids was more fit for rotting the brain and I can only assume that the high rating this has garnered on Goodreads must mean that every other reader was on far stronger painkillers than I, with the highest dosage having been taken by the writer just before she started scribbling as most of this book made no freaking sense whatsoever.

Aazuria is working as a ballet dancing stripper to finance a mermaid war when she meets Trevain, an extremely wealthy fisherman. Taking him up on the offer of moving herself and her sisters into his home they fall in insta-love, although their happiness is threatened by the fact that Aazuria is the leader of an underwater nation at war and that Trevain can’t help but piss himself laughing every time she alludes to being a mermaid. Will their love survive? Will I find the book littered with incredibly strange sentences? Will I get pissed at the weird strain of sexism on display? Will I roll my eyes hard enough for them to fall out of my head every time a doorbell rings demurely? Will I become angrily confused by the shoddy world-building? 

In this world mermaids don’t have tails, which explains how Aazuria can get a job as a stripping ballet dancer. Instead, they’re human – albeit ones that have grown a second set of lungs (not gills) that can somehow filter oxygen from water (where these lungs are housed in their bodies is beyond me, as they don’t have extremely large ribcages to accommodate them). Their legs, however, become wracked with pain if they spend too much time on land – although this only seems to affect Aazuria (and someone who later turns out to be a merman) and didn’t seem to influence the mermaid architects when building their underwater ice palaces in which lots of waterless caverns have been carved out for some reason that made absolutely no sense (along with them having carpeted some of these caverns. Where did they get the carpets? Did they have to strip to pay for them? How were they fitted in the ice caves? And why??)

The mermaids seem to have some powers but they’re crap ones like being slightly intuitive, only aging on land and having your hair and skin change colour when not in the water (this is apparently due to tanning, which somehow turns your platinum blonde hair dark and which only affects some mermaids, but not all – the twins remained flame-haired and fair skinned whether they were underwater or not). Despite not having powerful tails, they’re still incredibly fast and strong swimmers, easily able to catch up with boats that have set off long before them. Which would have been fine, except that meant that I was incredibly bewildered by a bunch of mermaid reinforcements arriving by boat in the middle of an underwater battle – a battle in which bullets, kicks, punches, people and throwing knives all move in the same way that they do on land (ever tried to punch someone underwater? It seems my brother and I did more research during family holidays than Scrieva ever did). 

The characters and their love affair were written with the same lack of skill as the world in which they lived – Aazuria is apparently a brave and strong ruler of her people, although she constantly abandoned them to seek her own safety on land, and we’re constantly told that Trevain is kind, considerate and honourable although what we’re shown is a man who’s decided that visiting the mother he has installed in a psychiatric hospital is too much bother, who throws temper tantrums when things don’t go his own way, insults and belittles the woman he supposedly loves and even goes for her throat when they disagree. I spent rather a lot of time hoping that Trevain would get harpooned in the chest by the evil, black clad mermaids (that’s how we know they’re evil) that Aazuria was at war with, and that she’d be so grief-stricken that we’d get to see exactly how one would go about drowning a mermaid. Instead, after vanquishing her enemies Aazuria got her happy-ever-after, with Trevain’s mermaid genes (lucky!) enabling him to join her in her ice palace (good luck to her, I wonder if he’ll choke her every time he gets sick of seafood?).

Honestly, the only good things I took from this book were that reading it was so painful it made my back pale in comparison, and that if I decided to abandon my job and write instead, nothing I could produce (even out of my mind on painkillers) could be any worse than this.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

4 stars

Camille Preaker has spent her adult life trying to put her past behind her. Still wracked with grief over the childhood death of her younger sister, she's escaped both the small town she grew up in and a toxic relationship with her cold and manipulative mother. But when two young girls disappear from her home town, Camille (now a reporter for a small Chicago newspaper) is sent to cover the case. Forced to face her family - including a 13 year old half-sister, Amma, that she barely knows but who seems to have a powerful hold on most of the town - Camille soon comes face to face with some disturbing truths.

A good whodunnit which kept me guessing all the while, it was the fascinating female characters that made this book for me. Gillian Flynn has done an excellent job, knowing full well that little girls really aren't made of sugar and spice and all things nice and it's a joy to read something where they are allowed to be human, with all of the awful traits that sometimes entails, rather than idealised versions of womanhood. Mothers aren't always warm and caring, daughters aren't always well-behaved, and no matter what our age or role we aren't always kind-hearted bundles of innocence.

 In Sharp Objects we have a brilliant array of women who are either fucked up or who will fuck you up - and it's all the better for it.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry

5 stars

Helter Skelter is a truly astonishing book, and one that deservedly ranks amongst the best True Crime books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a fair few). Co-written by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, it laid to rest more than a few misconceptions I’d held about Charles Manson (I was labouring under the belief that the five murders committed at 10050 Cielo Drive were the only deaths that he and his followers stood accused of, when actually these were just the horrific tip of the iceberg) and, through the incredible amount of investigative work on the part of the prosecution team, built a clear picture of events from the discovery of the first crime scene, through the (inept) police investigation, and into the sometimes bizarre trial of Manson and his murderous Family.

The book held many revelations for me – and not just in upwardly adjusting the number of Manson Family victims. Although I’d been aware that the Tate crime scene was particularly horrifying, I had no idea to what extent. Set upon with an inhuman savagery that was hard to even read about, it’s incredibly difficult to understand what could possibly lead someone to commit such a crime – let alone be ready to do it again the very next night, when the LaBianca’s suffered the same ordeal. Bugliosi does a fair job of helping us to try understand that, tracing the origins of the Family and, through detailed witness testimony, showing how the hold that Manson had over his followers had come about while making it clear that their victims were far more numerous than those they were convicted of killing – even Family members were not immune from Manson’s murderous designs.

But the crimes themselves were not the only awful shocks in store – I was astonished at the interviews and testimonies of Family members, particularly Susan Atkins, who not only showed no remorse but were actually proud of and talked about their crimes with undisguised glee. Even worse, it seems that if it hadn’t been for Atkins big mouth and pride in her savagery, the Family may not have even been caught. The incompetence shown by the police – whether it be obliterating prints at the Tate crime scene, disregarding important information from witnesses, not bothering to collect important evidence they’d been informed of (it was left to a TV crew to collect the bloody clothes worn by the murderers), losing evidence and, at one point, angrily denying that investigating crimes and gathering evidence was even their job! – won them the palpable disgust of Bugliosi, and before long it was a disgust I wholeheartedly shared.

It’s a testament to the hard work and skill of the prosecution that they were able to successfully convict those involved in such a complex case, even while the Family members that remained free made attempts to take the lives of witnesses and lawyers, and it’s a testament to Bugliosi and his co-author Curt Gentry that they were able to take such a complex case and turn it into this compelling, informative book.

If you're at all interested in True Crime this is a book I would definitely recommend - but be prepared to have your faith in humanity and law enforcement well and truly shaken, if not completely demolished, by the time you've finished.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Blood of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

(Rain Wilds Chronicles #4), 4 stars

We’ve finally come to the end of our journey and as our dragons and their keepers work to wake up the Elderling city of Kelsingra and uncover its hidden secrets, boats bearing Hest and the Duke of Chalced’s minions are also making their way up the river hoping to slaughter the dragons in order to release themselves from the Duke’s subjugation. Also hoping for relief is Selden, languishing in ill-health at the Duke’s abode where he’s unwillingly providing a temporary cure for the Duke’s old age in the form of his ‘dragon-man’ blood. But the Duke of Chalced is soon to discover that ordering a dragon’s slaughter is far easier than doing so, and that there are consequences– huge, flying, venomous, deadly consequences.

Finishing a Robin Hobb series always leaves me feeling a little bereft, as happened again here. And while this series never quite hit the giddy heights of the Fitz and Liveship trilogies, it also wasn’t anywhere near as emotionally devastating (though, perversely, that’s also probably why I haven’t rated this one quite as highly) and it also give me some moments of wild glee along with some brilliant characters that almost began to feel like real people to me (despite the fact that they were sometimes, y’know, dragons).

Robin Hobb has a real talent for building worlds that I never want to leave, and I’m already eagerly anticipating my next visit.