Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland

4 stars

1321 turned out to be a pretty cruddy year for the village of Ulewic.

Times are tough – crops are failing and the meagre harvests are blighted with mould, while the livestock is falling foul of disease, and what passes for the local power is too busy preying on the populace to be of much help.

Ruled over by a lord obsessed with chastity whose nephew is obsessed with relieving people of theirs – consensually or not - their priest is also too busy fornicating, and then worrying about getting caught, to attract any to his flock. Instead, the villagers turn to the beguinage on its doorstep for help and charity, or to the older gods and the Owl Masters that apparently serve them for justice and revenge.

It’s with the women of the beguinage – a community of religious women of the kind that apparently flourished across Europe at the time – that this story is chiefly concerned. Already suspicious due to being foreigners, and attracting the ire of what passes for the church due to being women and for not doing exactly as the priest says, when the daughter of the local lord becomes one of their number events are set in motion to sorely test their faith.

Breathing life into an age that was dogged by superstition, bullied by the church, where the less fortunate were the playthings of the powerful and where being a woman is one of the biggest sins anyone could commit, The Owl Killers told its tale slowly and effectively, with multiple narrators showing us multiple viewpoints and letting us question what we’d seen or been told (although not all of the narrators were as effective as others and the slowness sometimes felt a little too slow) but the end result was largely an atmospheric and intelligent take on the lives of women in medieval England.

Read it when the nights are drawing in, the wind is blowing and the rain is dripping from the trees and you'll soon be nervously eyeing every bird (and man, especially religious ones) that crosses your path.

Rogues, by George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois

3 stars

An anthology of stories all featuring - you guessed it - rogues, while the entries within have been gathered from across a variety of genres, my favourites – Joe Abercrombie’s blistering opener, Tough Times Ahead (featuring not one, not two, not three, but a whole town of rogues), Scott Lynch’s A Year And A Day In Old Theradane, and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Lightning Tree – were all plucked from the fantasy branch of the bookstore.

While there were a fair few stories of a high standard featured – as well as my favourites there were other great entries from Neil Gaiman, Carrie Vaughn, Daniel Abraham and Bradley Denton (the only non-fantasy flavoured that really got me going) – there were also more than a couple of duds. It was another fantasy that really scraped the barrel here for me, in the form of Matthew Hughes’ The Inn Of The Seven Blessings which really should have been read aloud by Jemaine Clement in Gentleman Broncos ("This part of the forest had become uninhabited after Olverion's final misjudgment and the large predatory beasts that now roamed free had no compunctions against dining on wereflesh.")

Ending with a short tale from George RR Martin, as with all of the other anthologies he’s busy putting together instead of writing the end of a particular story, I’m starting to find that these enders are neither here nor there for me. Detailing the lives of past Targaryen’s in a dusty, dry style that’s nowhere near as visceral and involving as what I’ve previously inhaled of Westeros, I’m starting to find that I now give no shits whatsoever what might have happened to whichever Targaryen was the sister-marrying psycho in charge at the time.

So, while there were a couple of 5 starred stories in there (the three mentioned at the top), the majority of the 21 stories (2/3 of them, in fact) dragged the score down a couple of notches to a mostly entertained (but not always) 3.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut

5 stars

Narrated by the ghost of a man killed during the building of the Bahia de Darwin cruise ship, Galapagos is an absurd, original and funny look at the evolution of man, from the perspective of a million years into our future.

Detailing the tiny accidents, coincidences and circumstances (mostly caused by humanity's troublesome big brains) that led to the few passengers booked on to the 'Nature Cruise of the Century' during a financial crash getting trapped on a Galapagos island and unwittingly becoming the ancestors from which the future human race evolved, once again Vonnegut packed more wit, perception and ideas into a page than most manage in an entire book.

Filled with wonderful observations from our ghost and interjections from Mandarax (an invention of one of the Darwin's passengers that's almost a primitive Hitchhikers Guide), Galapagos was yet another of his works that makes me wish I could kiss Vonnegut's magnificent big brain. Instead I settled for highlighting all of the parts that delighted me, and now my copy is basically one big highlight.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Half A War, by Joe Abercrombie

4 stars

Since the events of Half The World, the High King has turned his gaze from Gettland and Vansterland and settled instead on Throvenland. Having his champion, Bright Yilling, slaughter its king and anyone else he can get his hands on should mean that Throvenland will fall easily. Except there’s someone that Bright Yilling has overlooked – a young princess, Skara, who turns to the only people left who may be able to help her: our bunch of ‘heroes’.

Changing perspectives once again, this time around we get the POV’s of Skara, Koll (who we already know and, in my case, enjoy) and Raith – former cup bearer to Grom-Gil-Gorm and now Skara’s initially reluctant protector. With the odds surely stacked against them, each take their place amongst those we’ve already come to know and love (well, I love some of them) as they make their stand against the greed and ambition of the High King and his chief enabler, Grandmother Wexen. But to get their last stand, some difficult choices must be made.

As with the previous entries, each of our new characters get to grow and change throughout the course of the story - Skara grows from a scared young girl into a woman capable of leading a country at war, and Raith was a stone cold killer who is slowly developing a conscience, while Koll serves as our window into the activities of Father Yarvi and is struggling with the decisions being made ‘for the greater good’. Through them we’re forced to recognise the ways in which the years of war and vengeance have altered our ‘heroes’ and reconsider whether they’re actually that heroic after all, a more unusual approach than that usually taken in series aimed at a slightly younger audience.

Less unusual for YA but definitely unusual for Abercrombie was the more overt romantic element in Half A War (not that we haven’t had characters develop feelings for one another in previous books, but this time around it was one of the more central threads). While I wasn’t initially sure that I was that keen on this, I somehow seemed to find myself inexplicably turning into someone who internally bellowed ‘KISS HIM!!’ at Skara every five seconds, and I liked the pragmatic outcome of this relationship even more. But – and there is still a but in spite of my fangirling – I still think that Abercrombie’s true strengths lie in other areas and I’d have preferred if the romance had been shoved a little further to the side.

Definitely a series that’s well worth a read, I’m now counting down the days until Abercrombie’s next.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Deadpool Killustrated, by Cullen Bunn

4.5 stars

I’ve always been a sucker for smart-mouthed psychos, and so Deadpool seems my exact flavour of super-powered catnip. Having recently had a major wibble on viewing the trailer for the new film and being far too impatient to wait until February to get my teeth into it, I decided it was high time that I check him out in graphic novel format. My local bookstore offered a few variations, so I went with this, in which Deadpool takes on the classics. It was the perfect introduction for me.

Deadpool’s particular brand of crazy means that he’s aware that he’s a fictional character, living in a fictional world. Sick of it all, by the opening of this book he’s already slaughtered the entire Marvel universe and knows that there’s no such thing as dead when a writer can simply resurrect you, and so he hits upon an idea – to kill the very idea of superheroes. And so he goes to the source – the classic characters of literature who inspired their tight-clad alter egos. Which is how we find him going after Moby Dick (Midge would love him forever should she read this), Tom Sawyer, the Musketeers, the Little Mermaid, Ebeneezer Scrooge, monsters from Greek myth and more, and we find me cackling with glee while rubbing my hands together at the anticipation of the fun I’m going to have inhaling more of his work.

More please!

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Half The World, by Joe Abercrombie

4.5 stars

Yarvi has come a long way since Half A King. Now Father Yarvi and Minister to his uncle, King Uthil, in Half A World we get to see him through new eyes – eyes that allow us to see just how deep cunning he’s become.

Thorn and Brand are in training to become warriors but when Thorn accidentally kills a boy in the training square, she’s named as a murderer. And when Brand approaches Father Yarvi to appeal on her behalf, they’re both soon swept along on a journey across half the world, seeking allies for Gettland against the power greedy High King.

I really enjoyed the first book of this series, but I flipping loved this one. The second book in a trilogy usually feels like something of a lull in proceedings but Half the World, while obviously building to something bigger, carried on the fantastically gripping pace already established and then ramped it up with action scenes that genuinely made me hold my breath.

Filled to the brim with yet more awesome characters that made me care about the eventual outcomes even more, Thorn has already snarled, spat and stabbed her way to the forefront as one of the more memorable Abercrombie characters (and half made me want to shave half my head while doing so), but even the secondary characters soon had me twisted around their little fingers. I can’t wait to find out who I’m going to meet in the last of the trilogy, so I’m diving straight in to find out.