Review: The King's Sword

King's Sword, Brightley

Imagine Worf with a smooth forehead and a bit less of a temper and you have Kemen Sendoa, a warrior committed to honour and his country, Erdem. He comes across the tracks of a city boy in the snow one day and follows them, thinking the boy obviously needs some help. He finds the young prince, fleeing a palace coup, inadequately prepared for winter weather and life in general. Sendoa finds himself the reluctant guardian of a spoiled, soft boy who needs to become both a man and a king before he can hope to win his throne back.

Brightley surprised me by writing a book that is both intensely masculine and deeply introspective. Sendoa is the consummate warrior and takes great physical delight in his own exercises, which Brightley describes so well you feel as if you are living in the man’s skin. He is also dark-skinned in a fair-skinned country and feels deeply the slights and suspicion that he is continuously subjected to. We discover that the war hero has his own issues, even as he helps the prince overcome his.

Brightley’s prose is unpretentious, direct and often understated, which lends it the power of simplicity and perfectly suits the temperament of the narrator. The plot is a little slow-moving, because of the introspection I mentioned earlier. Sendoa thinks deeply about everything he does and shares his reflections with us. While it does slow the action down, it also increases our respect for him. He has thoughts worth listening to.

And there is plenty to think about. Not only has there been a coup, but war is looming, and the country is badly frayed. Prince Hakan is not going to be given the luxury of growing up slowly.

Most of the book is taken up with the relationship between Sendoa and Hakan, so these are the characters drawn the most deeply. The others were never richly developed but this is due at least in part to the fact that we see relatively little of them. I must confess, I sometimes had trouble remembering who matched which name, because I didn’t have a clear enough picture of the character and because Brightley didn’t provide very many “memory hooks” to help us recall who she was talking about. I would perhaps quibble also that so many of the characters were good. It is a strange thing to complain about, but it seems to me that a little more darkness would have been appropriate, and Hakan’s path, while not easy, could have legitimately been more difficult.

I heard it said once that fantasy is the only genre where you can write nobility without irony, and this is precisely what Brightley has done. There is genuine nobility of character here, without pretension.

Still, this was an enjoyable book. I do enjoy having characters I can cheer for, and watching the relationship between warrior and princeling develop was enriching. I do hope we can see Sendoa confronting his own issues more directly in the sequels and that Hakan will have greater challenges thrown his way. I finished the book intensely fond of both of them.

C.J. Brightley's website

Review: The Anonymous Source

Anonymous Source

I am not a frequent reader of thrillers, although I do have quite a fondness for John Le Carré. But A.C. Fuller caught my eye when I read in an interview somewhere that his favourite book was Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. I was impressed. Most people haven't even heard of it, let alone liked it, and I have always been of the opinion that it was far superior to Hesse's more famous Steppenwolf. So I got a little excited. I guess I was a prototypical hipster, getting excited about the things nobody else has heard of. (One year I dressed up as a hipster to greet kids at the door for Halloween, and nobody realized it was a costume... Wait, I'm supposed to be writing a review.) A thriller writer who likes obscure German literature that I also happen to like. That was a promising start. I figured I'd get a thriller with a difference, so I asked for a review copy.

And yes, there are some differences from what I normally expect in a thriller, but not enough to offend readers of the genre. There is a bit of a mystical touch and he delves perhaps a little more deeply into the personal issues of the characters than is normal in a thriller (at least the ones I've read apart from the aforementioned Le Carré).

In The Anonymous Source Alex Vane is a young and rising newspaper journalist in 2002, hoping to break into TV journalism. He's been assigned the courtroom beat and fortunately for him, is covering a murder case that has transfixed NYC. All is going well until he starts getting tips from an anonymous source, one that has taken the care to use a voice scrambler. Alex starts going beyond courtroom reporting and starts investigating the murder itself and it isn't long before he finds himself in the crosshairs of an assassin who is taking his assignment far too personally.

I don't know if this is going to be a signature of Fuller's work but food is something that figures prominently in the book. Meals are often described in loving detail, and Fuller seems to find amusement in underscoring the differences in eating habits between Alex and Camila, a lady who finds herself more involved in his investigation than she would perhaps wish. Don't read this book while hungry or you could find yourself snacking more than you should... ;o)

Fuller leaves us hanging on a number of details, which would normally be a fault, but seeing as this is not meant to be a standalone book, we can hope that they will be resolved in a future episode. While the story does resolve in a satisfactory way, Alex still doesn't have all his answers, and somebody still wants to pull his strings. And I personally want to know about the sense of shame that Alex feels on occasion. He's not sure where it's coming from and I do hope we will find out before the series (?) is over.

All in all, I would recommend this book to thriller lovers. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

A.C. Fuller's website 

New review of DISENCHANTED

"Did I mention she has hips?"

Michelle was quite smitten with Morwen. I am very pleased, because I tried to break out of stereotypes with her: she is smart and independent, but embraces her role as a mother and wife. She doesn't wield a sword or kick down doors or have an impossible photo-shopped body, but her strength is unmistakable. I'm happy to see that she resonated so strongly with at least one reader.

Check out what Michelle has to say. (You might want to squint at the end if you haven't read the book yet; she does discuss things that happen late in the novel.)

https://mickytang80srock.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/a-conversation-about-disenchanted-part-ii/

Review: Maggie Bright

Maggie-Bright

I love Tracy Groot's writing for a number of reasons, but a big one is her characters. She loves her characters, so much that you can't help but love them too. They are quirky and spunky and sparking with life. They are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, facing extraordinary evil, and they defiantly put their little brick in the wall erected against that evil. Groot doesn't write the world-changers—the Hitlers and the Churchills—she writes the common people caught up in the maelstroms of the worldchangers who find a way to do their part in perilous times. How can we do anything but cheer? Groot clearly believes that such small players matter, and matter immensely, seeing as she seems to seek them out in so much of her historical fiction.

In Maggie Bright, it is 1940 and we are in London. The British Expeditionary Force is being pushed back to the beaches of Dunkirk, and Hitler can no longer be dismissed as a delusionary buffoon, not even in far-off America. Maggie Bright is a yacht, one that young Clare Childs has inherited. Little does she realize that along with it, she has inherited a cause. The yacht harbours a secret that she is unaware of, but that others are eager to get their hands on. The Burglar Vicar and far darker characters turn up looking, and Clare gets pulled into a story bigger than herself. The Shrew, an indomitable retired schoolmistress with a shrill shriek and a killer kettle, William, a repressed bobby with a passionate heart under the rigid exterior, and Murray, a young American cartoonist with an international following and his own claim to the Maggie Bright, soon tangle their lives up with hers, and they all find themselves doing battle in one way or another.

At the same time as the Maggie Bright's story is playing out, Private Jamie Elliot is frantically scrambling through Normandy, trying to get safely to Dunkirk with his charge, Captain "Milton", who has lost both his men and his mind and can now communicate only by quoting Milton. The image of the grieving captain laying leaves across the gaping chest wound of a dead French child in a ditch while quoting Paradise Lost is not one that is likely to leave me soon.

Groot's blurbs come from some prominent historians. My husband, who is also a historian, was suitably impressed. This speaks to the quality of her research, and her ability to put a very human face on the great events of history. Maggie Bright will appeal to lovers of history, lovers of humanity, and anyone who believes that small lights shine brightest in the deepest darkness.

Tracy Groot's website

Review: Burn Baby, Burn Baby

Burn Baby

Burn Baby, Burn Baby by Kevin Craig is a raw look at abuse and disfigurement from a victim's perspective. Teenager Francis Fripp bears the scars, mental and physical, inflicted by a brutal father. He arms himself against a hostile world with sarcasm, cynicism, and profanity. The only truly bright spot in that world is his best friend from before his disfigurement, "Trig", who has stuck with him all the way and who always has his back. Trig is also everything Francis isn't: a popular, athletic A-student, dating one of the hottest girls in the school. Francis is envious, but not enough to ruin his friendship. In the meanwhile, school is hell for him, as a violent bully who has christened him "Burn Baby" sees to it that he gets regular verbal and physical abuse, which he amps up any time somebody tries to help.

And one person who tries to help is the new girl, Rachel. She has to be persistent, because her greatest roadblock is Francis himself, who cannot conceive of the notion that any girl could actually like him. Kevin Craig was himself a victim of abuse, so he comes at this subject with a deep understanding of what that kind of pain can do to a child. Francis has to fight with both himself and his environment to come to terms with his disfiguring scars, the ones on his body and the ones on his soul. It's not an easy read on any level, but I think a valuable one for anyone who has had an easier ride through life. Fortunately Craig allows some light to shine in the deep darkness here, or it would be an unbearable read.

It is not unbearable, but it is brutal. Prepare yourself for profanity, anger, violence, and a very unhappy teen culture. Prepare yourself also for hope.

Kevin Craig's website

Review: An Ember in the Ashes

EmberInTheAshes

Ye gods! as they say in Coventree1. Burning, bleeding skies! as they say in the Martial Empire. I haven't read anything as good as An Ember in the Ashes in some time. I kept being struck by the quiet inventiveness of the language ("In the ensuing silence, you could hear a tear drop.") and the brilliant handling of tension and characterization. Don't most people take several books to get to that kind of skill level?

The story is told from the viewpoints of two young people: Laia, a young woman of the Scholar people who has lost all her family but one to the brutality of the Martial Empire, and Elias, a young Martial man about to graduate from a brutal military academy to become a Mask, sort of a cross between secret police and special forces. Their paths are fated to cross of course, and the results are explosive. The Martial Empire is at a critical junction and the choices they make (and they will have to make many) will have far-reaching consequences.

The Martial Empire itself bears some similarity to Ancient Rome, but elements of many other cultures are drawn in, with the fantasy elements being mostly Arabic in flavour: jinn, efrits, ghuls.

An Ember in the Ashes is a fantasy book for teens, but that designation does make me grumble a bit. I haven't been a teenager in many, many years, and I never felt that this book was too juvenile for me. Yes, the central characters are young, but the themes are universal: conflicting loyalties, choosing between self-gratification and principles, love, betrayal... All the good stuff. And while the difference between good and evil is quite clear in this book, the mix can be complex. While the Scholars are very clearly the oppressed in this story, we find out that their past is not as virtuous as one might think, and their Resistance, while sometimes heroic, can also be venal and corrupt. And the Martial people, while clearly the oppressors, have individuals who aspire to be better and will sacrifice a great deal to do so.

The personal dynamics can also be complex. Sometimes there is no simple choice; someone will get hurt or feel betrayed. Some of the choices remain in the future, as this is clearly the first of a series, and we can't help but wonder how the dilemma will be resolved. The "good guys" blow it sometimes, and even the most evil of the evil show flashes of humanity, although admittedly very few.

The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful, which keeps us turning pages and perhaps from noticing an occasional plausibility issue (unless there is an underlying reason for those implausibilities which will be revealed in future episodes). I am particularly pleased to note that there is no foul language (unless you are so sensitive that "ten hells" sets off your alarms), no steamy sex, although desire is never far away (they're young, how could it be otherwise?) and the story does not suffer in the least because of it.

And for those following the We Read Diverse Books Challenge, this would answer nicely in a couple of categories, depending on your age and the colour of your skin.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy through a giveaway from SF Signal. No review was requested, but I wrote it anyway.

Sabaa Tahir's website

 

1The land at the heart of Disenchanted.

Review: The Name of the Rose

The-Name-of-the-Rose.jpg

The Name of the Rose has got to be the most philosophical mystery novel of all time, the one the most layered with symbolism and cryptic meanings. To fully appreciate the book that launched Umberto Eco's career as a novelist, it would be helpful to be well acquainted with several languages, at least basic notions of philosophy and logic, as well as medieval church history. Fortunately, Eco has wrapped all of this in a first-class mystery story, so readers with a less classical education can skim through the denser parts.

The novel takes place in a fictional medieval monastery (modelled very roughly on Monte Cassino) in fourteenth-century Italy. Preliminary talks between proponents of papal and imperial power are about to take place there. William of Baskerville, a Franciscan and a former inquisitor, arrives on a mission from the Emperor, accompanied by a German novice, who is the first-person narrator of the story. They find out on their arrival that a young monk has just died under suspicious circumstances. In the next seven days, there will be a series of deaths which William is tasked to investigate and hopefully put an end to, in the midst of multiple personal antagonisms and a high-level political dance between the delegates of the Pope, the Emperor, and the abbot himself.

William is a stand-in for the modern man, our window into the medieval mentality, which another very important element of the story: the medieval mind which assigns deep symbolic meaning to virtually everything, and for whom authority is more trustworthy than evidence interpreted by very fallible human beings. William is an anomaly, disabused by all the abuse of authority that he has seen, and at the forefront of the new kind of thinking that will sweep the world during the Renaissance. We find ourselves at a pivotal point in history. He is very much a Sherlock Holmes, in a world that really doesn't know what to make of him. Adso, his young assistant, is very impressed by him but also rattled profoundly. He is in many ways a Watson figure. And where is Moriarty, you ask? We spend most of the book realizing that he must exist and then finding him and, true to form, the story concludes with a dramatic between him and William-Holmes.

But because this book is more than a whodunnit, the now elderly Adso who is telling the story finds himself at the end of the book reflecting on the meaning not only of the events he witnessed but of life itself, and the meaning of everything he has ever been taught or believed.

Eco is a semiotician, someone who studies the meaning behind signs, which are themselves representatives of reality. The constant play between meaning, symbol, and reality is at the heart of this novel, and it is quite clear that he wants to bring us to a deep reflection on these things.

I was very much taken at the beginning of the story by how well Eco establishes the setting and the atmosphere. We find ourselves at the foot of the mountain on which the monastery is built on a snowy winter day, and we truly do find ourselves there, in another place and another time. It was beautifully done.

There are generous sprinklings of passages in different languages throughout the story, for the monastery is a very international place, with monks of many different nationalities, drawn to a monastery famous for its library and its learning. These are never translated, although occasionally reworded by one of the characters. Fortunately for me, my studies were in foreign languages, but the Latin was perplexing to me. This is not a fatal flaw in the book, but you might find it irritating. Anybody who likes a light read will hate this book. It is dense and requires quite a bit of thought to be appreciated. Those who enjoy the challenge will love it. It is certainly fine example of how literature can expose you to worldviews and experiences totally different from your own. The fact that it has not gone out of print in the last thirty-five years also speaks to the broadness of its appeal, despite its difficulties.

I would really love to explore the parallels between the fictional abbey and the famous Monte Cassino, but that would turn this into an analytical essay more than a review, and more to the point, would necessarily involve some serious spoilers. So I will refrain. For those who are interested in such things, Monte Cassino also inspired A Canticle for Leibowitz, an excellent work of science fiction which also provokes thought about the nature of civilization, faith, and learning.

Umberto Eco's website