Tag: book reviews


Review – The Magpie Lord

Posted 23 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Magpie Lord by K.J. CharlesThe Magpie Lord, K.J. Charles

As always with Charles’ work, this book is entertaining, sometimes funny, and an almost distressingly quick read. I wanted more! Not that the story isn’t complete: that isn’t it. It’s just that I ended up wanting to spend more time with the characters: not just Crane and Stephen, though the tension between them and their back-and-forth is undeniably fun, but Crane’s man Merrick as well. Crane is the remaining scion of a dissolute family; Merrick has been with him since he was banished to China, and is as faithful to him as a hound. They’ve been through all kinds of adventures before Crane is ever cursed, so he trusts Crane and wants to save him from the curse. Stephen Day, a magician who says he can help Crane, hates him on principle due to the depredations of his father and brother.

Of course, Stephen quickly finds out he’s wrong to assume the present Lord Crane is the same as his family, and he finds himself drawn into Crane’s orbit as he struggles to figure out the magic that surrounds him and unwind the hatred and dark magic that seems to be choking Crane and his estate. As an additional draw, Crane turns out to be the descendant of a powerful magician, one all English practitioners know of. Also, surprise surprise, he’s physically attracted to Crane. (If you know Charles’ work, this shouldn’t be a surprise at all — nor is it a spoiler that they get together.)

The background story is pretty dark and icky, and there’s one awful scene — well-written, but horrible to read — in which another magician forces Crane to choke on his own cut hair. All’s well that ends well, though, with plenty of room for more stories. Which I know exist, so I’ll be off in search of those now.

Obviously not one for people who aren’t into LGBT romances, but a fun fantasy-mystery for those who are. There are sex scenes, which didn’t seem to be absolutely necessary for the plot, but did add to character development.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ballad of Black Tom

Posted 22 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValleThe Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle

It would probably help me appreciate this if I’d read Lovecraft’s original story, but on the other hand, I don’t really ever want to read Lovecraft, so there’s that! LaValle rewrites one of Lovecraft’s short stories, partly from the point of view of a young black man. Unsurprisingly, it comments on racism in the US both modern and longer entrenched: that part is easy enough to appreciate, even for an outsider. The response to Lovecraft is a bit beyond me: I don’t know if Black Tom is a character from Lovecraft or invented for the purpose, even.

It doesn’t feel like a novella about a character or a place or even an event, in the end: it does feel very much like a response — to the original, and to the world. I enjoyed that, though I imagine plenty of people will be complaining about stupid SJWs, etc.

There are some genuinely icky-squicky bits (well-written, but difficult to read) and moments of horrid claustrophobia, along with the awful and all too familiar treatment of people of colour by the police, which is equally horrifying. It’s well written, but I feel like I’m missing the point through not knowing the original.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation

Posted 20 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Angkor and the Khmer Civilization by Michael D. CoeAngkor and the Khmer Civilisation, Michael D. Coe

One of the complaints in reviews about this book seems to be that it reads like a textbook. It does: if you’re looking for something more casual, a tourist’s guide, then I’m sure there are books out there, but this isn’t it. It’s a scholarly consideration of the ruins of Angkor, the way the Khmer civilisation developed and the context in which it did so. It is illustrated with photographs and drawings, but it’s not a coffee table book for sure.

It can be a bit slow going, but there’s plenty of interest, to my mind. It’s better than the other book I read on Ankor, which was rather focused on this and that ruined building, and this and that inscription: there’s more of a sense of a people behind the monuments, in this book, which was welcome. It’s still slow going, but fascinating all the same for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Hobbit

Posted 15 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

A long-time love of mine, I reread this because I wanted the Werther’s Originals taste/feel of the book, because stresss (which is over now, hurrah!). The main charm for me lies in what came of it later, along with the paternal and knowing tone of the narrator. The narrative voice has always felt warm to me — cognisant of the characters’ faults, and sometimes gently pointing them out, but always with a deep good-naturedness. And then, of course, there’s the world: perhaps not quite fully realised by the time of writing The Hobbit, but stretching out before and beyond it, even if the brushstrokes are broad.

There are many things tone-wise that don’t quite fit with The Lord of the Rings, and the text itself was revised to fit in with the later material — but so cleverly, playing with the textual history of the story, tying together the real with the imagined. I love all the things Tolkien did with creating texts within his stories: that too is part of what makes his world real, that there are books and histories that are relevant to the world… there are few people who do it quite as well, and it’s always a delight.

Of the story itself: a rather ordinary middle-class hobbit, comfortable in his world of small social engagements, good food and convenience, ends up swept into an adventure involving trolls, goblins, magic rings and (in the end) a dragon. He’s the most clearly delineated of the characters, with many of the dwarves being mere thumbnail sketches: nonetheless, it works (with one or two dwarves picked out for slightly more detail here and there to keep them from being entirely props, and Gandalf being the enigmatically fascinating sorcerer of somewhat unknown motive in the whole affair). It’s definitely pitched more at children, though there’s something about the tone that I think makes it a delight at any age. As a fantasy book, taken alone, it’s not all that astounding. It mingles some lore together, barely hinting at the more cohesive and seriously built world Tolkien would later introduce to us.

In the end, it’s a typical quest story  — it’s Tolkien’s world and his narrative voice that make it for me.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – War Cry

Posted 11 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of War Cry by Brian McClellanWar Cry, Brian McClellan

Received to review via Netgalley

I haven’t read any of McClellan’s longer work yet, so this novella from Tor seemed like a good point to jump in, really! It’s set during a war in a fantasy setting, with very familiar attributes — there’s propaganda, there’s airplanes, everyone’s running short and coaxing coffee out of months’ old grounds… but there’s also wizards, of at least two kinds: shapeshifters, and those who can cast illusions. We don’t get some big overview of the war: it’s fairly tight in to a little squad who have been taking losses, fighting hard, and living right on the edge. They get a chance to do a risky mission to get some supplies so they have food and maybe even coffee. And, predictably, it goes wrong.

It feels like there’s a lot more room for story in this world, whether that be an extended version of this story or a series of novellas. It’s not terribly unsatisfying on its own, because there is a kind of end to the immediate plot, but there’s so much more in the world that we don’t get to see, so much more for the characters to do, that it doesn’t feel like a stopping point (more just a pause). There’s room for awesomeness, but it feels like it’s mostly potential right now — an opening act, rather than a story in itself.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Ancient Celts

Posted 9 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Ancient Celts by Barry CunliffeThe Ancient Celts, Barry Cunliffe

This book is a gorgeous object, lavishly illustrated with photographs of Celtic artefacts and finds. The book was written by a well-known expert in the field, and I have no doubt of his credentials or his accuracy in laying out what we know and the interpretations that can be drawn (fairly cautiously) from that. This certainly isn’t the kind of book that looks at the mythology about the Celtic peoples written by the Romans and swallows it whole; Cunliffe bases the book on all kinds of different evidence, drawing it together to provide a picture of the groups of people one could confidently consider part of the same Celtic race.

The only problem is that something about Cunliffe’s style sends me to sleep. It’s not that I doubt that he’s fascinated by the subject matter, but he doesn’t communicate a good sense of that enthusiasm, to my mind — there are writers who can make the minutiae really speak even to a layperson, and there are those who can’t. Cunliffe is rather the latter. It’s still an excellent resource about the Celtic peoples, but it wasn’t the best for light reading by a curious outsider to the field.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – One Way

Posted 8 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of One Way by S.J. MordenOne Way, S.J. Morden

One Way was, in the end, too like a grimmer version of Death of a Clone for me to really enjoy. Even though I’m fairly sure neither was trying to copy the other, the similarities made One Way less enjoyable, mostly because it was the second one I read, and partly because it was rather darker in tone. I’ve seen comparisons with The Martian, but again, I think it was darker in tone than that, and less fascinated by the technical minutiae.

The book follows Frank, a convict who killed his son’s drug dealer in a pre-meditated fashion, and went to prison for it. He’s offered a way out by a company who are trying to build a base for NASA on the moon: he and several other convicts must ship out to Mars, there to spend the rest of their lives, and build the base. It’s cheaper than robot labour for them, and it’s a way out for Frank and the other convicts, so of course they say yes. They go through some gruelling training, but only six months of it (which should probably be a hint right there about how expendable they are, but they don’t seem to twig that fact), and then off they go.

Once they’re woken up from cryosleep on the other end, though, people start to die. As each team member finishes their job and becomes expendable, there’s an equipment failure, a weird leak in the hab… and there’s Frank, slowly realising that these deaths really aren’t accidents.

It’s not a cast particularly designed to arouse sympathy: they’re not out and out bastards in everything they do, but you know that each of them killed people, and each of them is capable of some terrible things. The camaraderie between them is fragile, and so is the reader’s willingness to root for them. In the end, I was mostly sitting back to see how each one of them died and when, without really caring much about the outcome. Not ideal!

It’s not a bad idea for a novel, but peopled with such generally terrible people, it’s not something I found particularly compelling either. And I never believed in the promise of a second chance that Frank was offered: it was too obviously too good to be true. That left me feeling like it was just going through the motions, and I was glad to be done.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Labyrinth

Posted 6 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of Labyrinth by Kate MosseLabyrinth, Kate Mosse

I read this ages ago alongside my sister, and while we both had problems with it, we did enjoy it. I always kind of wanted to recapture that reading moment, so I gave it a try.

The book follows Alice, in the present, and Alais, a medieval woman living in Carcassone at the time of the Cathar heresy. Alice gets caught up in what happened to Alais, who turns out to have been her ancestor, as history replays itself in the modern world, everyone focused on obtaining the secrets that Alais found herself guarding. The secret, of course, of the grail.

Now, being a medievalist for the most part as a student, I have strong feelings about grail stories. The way people take them seriously as if there really was a Holy Grail drives me batty: I’ll show you the textual origins of the grail, if you like. They’re no older than Chrétien de Troyes, greatly enlarged upon by the continuations of his unfinished tale, and often taking their cue from Robert de Boron, who wove the whole explicitly religious tapestry around a bare mention of a graal in Chrétien’s unfinished story. Labyrinth… does not irritate me too terribly on this front. The problem is that the writing is not great, explaining things that are obvious and ruining the impact of any similes and metaphors by promptly just stating what they meant afterwards.

(One example, pulled from someone else’s review: “Baillard … felt the years falling away, a sudden absence of age and experience. He felt young again.”)

It’s pretty humdrum in execution: there are no surprises in the links between Alais and Alice, and there’s a whole romance element that just feels cheap. There is a good sense of place and the impression that research has been done in the portrayal of medieval Carcassone, and then that’s undermined by the opening where Alice is working on an archaeological site and just… pulls things out of the ground, without recording context, without any preparation for conservation… nothing.

In this case, looks like you can’t go back: my enjoyment of the book was of its moment, and can’t be recaptured. Ah well.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Magna Carta

Posted 4 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Magna CartaMagna Carta, David Starkey

This was a fairly basic survey of what the Magna Carta was, how it came about, and what it means to us now. I won’t say it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, because it does go into a bit of the back-and-forth and negotiations about what the Magna Carta actually contained and why, but it felt very slight. The subtitle of this book is “The Medieval Roots of Modern Politics”, and I didn’t think it really dug into that very much at all, in fact.

So not a bad book, but not exactly a deep dive either. Readable, but. Shrug.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Daughter of Mystery

Posted 2 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose JonesDaughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

It took me ages to get round to reading this, but it turned out to be pretty delightful once I finally did, and I want to read more set in the same world. (Good thing there is more!) It’s basically around (I think) 18th century Europe, only with magic, and it’s set in a Ruritania-like fictional European country, with mixed European elements to the language and culture. The two main characters are two rather different girls: one girl from a well-off but not noble family, and one girl with no family name who serves the nobility as a swordswoman. The general cultural attitude toward women is somewhat straitlaced, and Margerit is headed for a dancing season and then marriage as quickly as possible, despite her scholarly tendencies — while Barbara is an oddity and not exactly socially acceptable, though protected by the patronage of the baron she serves.

Of course, the Baron has it in mind to meddle, and the two girls are quickly thrown together after he dies, leaving his title to an annoying relative but all the non-ancestral lands — and his wealth — to Margerit, his goddaughter… along with Barbara, who remains in service and thus can be more or less given to Margerit through the terms of the will.

As the story unfolds, it slowly becomes apparent that there’s a deeper game going on, with political implications — and also that Margerit is more remarkable than those around her thing, as she’s able to see and manipulate the ‘mysteries’ by petitioning the saints. There’s a solid and satisfying story there even without the relationship that develops between Margerit and Barbara. In itself, the romance is a fairly slight story, with the standard impossibilities and misunderstandings and lack of communication: it kept my attention because of the larger story within which it plays out.

It’s a fascinating take on the usual ‘medieval European fantasy’ type setting (although not quite medieval, I know), and I enjoyed it. It mostly steers clear of tarring any character with too black a brush, though I found it weird that Margerit’s cousin is quickly forgiven by her for attempting to sexually assault her, and I wasn’t entirely keen on how often the threat of rape and abduction arose (often just to explain why Barbara would need to stay so close to Margerit, I think). Some of the side characters are fascinating, and I’ll be glad to see more of them in the other books, particularly Antuniet.

Overall, as a fantasy novel alone it’s not groundbreaking, and as a romance alone it’s probably too focused on the other plot. Taken together, and with the fact that it’s a lesbian romance, it turns into something quite absorbing.

Rating: 4/5

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