Descendants (Rae Else)

3 stars

“There are lots of stories about the children of gods. But what about those cursed by the gods, and their descendants…

El, a seventeen-year-old has inherited an ancient and deadly power. She loses control of it, causing a horrific accident, and becomes the prey of a secret organisation, knows as the Order. Forced from her family and home, she hides in plain sight amidst the crowds of London, and is thrust into a world she never knew existed; one full of arete: beings with extraordinary powers like hers. 

Arete are beings that can trace their lineage and powers from ancient Greece. They do not claim their inheritance comes from the gods, rather legend says they are descended from cursed beings, such as Medusa. At the heart of their world is the kerykeion, the symbol that protects them from the humans and the humans from them. El is trapped between two factions, one that has built an empire around the kerykeion and another that is determined to bring it down.

As she is drawn deeper into the conflict, the only way to find the truth is to take matters into her own hands, and the line between friend and foe becomes dangerously blurred.”

I had mixed feelings whilst writing this review. On one hand, it was a quick paced YA thriller with interesting concepts and big ideas, but on the other, I finished reading this book and found it strangely soulless.

It has a great concept, binding mythology and technology, monsters and men. Why have your heroes be demigods when they can be the spawn of Gorgons instead? It’s obvious that Else knows her classics and there are examples of that knowledge spread throughout the entire text. She’s also got some big ideas; enormous sprawling structures hidden by kerykeion, contests of elemental magic, and enormous illuminati style corporations infiltrating the highest levels of business and politics.

So, why was I so underwhelmed?

I spent a couple of days trying to work out exactly why I felt that way, and came to an answer. There’s not enough character development, by far.

El, our heroine, has no defining features that make her ‘her’. We get some snippets of information about a childhood, a friend that doesn’t get enough page space to really be called a friend, and, yet,we  are expected to care when all of this gets torn away. I wonder whether it’s due to the book starting in on the action, maybe we needed some interactions between El and her friend, or El and her Grandmother before she has to go on the run. It’s very difficult to feel the loss of a life that you have not been shown. Likewise, what does El like to read? Is she athletic? What does she feel about the world that she lives in? I found that I was struggling to connect to El, or even to give her a face, and that made it very difficult for me to engage with the book in general.

When you can’t figure out the protagonist, it certainly makes it very difficult to care about romance, especially when it’s a love triangle. Once again, I wanted more from my love interests. Who are they? Why do they choose to do the things that they do? Dan, for example, should be our archetypal heart throb with his dark mussed hair, amber eyes and life spent travelling Europe, but we’re just not given enough information to justify his choices and his actions. Obviously, there’s a lot to be said about creating mystery, but if you don’t put in enough clues then we don’t know that we’re supposed to be looking for it. Mysterious can quickly become one-dimensional if we don’t have glimpses into what a character is feeling.

It was actually quite frustrating because there were some beautiful moments where I could see a rough gem shining through. I felt as if Else’s vision of her story and world were bigger than what she’d put down on paper. There were some wonderful dream like moments where the heart of backstreet London was revealed, only to be shattered by sudden clunking introspection only moments later. Show don’t tell. Slow down and let that heartbreaking moment of emotion spill over into three, four, even five sentences, rather than strangling it in one.

I felt that the book could have done with some injection of sensation. The world exists beyond just sight, it’s brought to life by scent and taste and sound and touch. Describe to me the soundscape of a crowded bar, the scent of earth and rosemary on a Dryad’s fingertips, the strange juxtaposition of speeding cars and tourists against a boy wending fire through his hands. There was so much possibility in this world, so much room for decadence and description, but instead I felt detachment. Distant from the characters and story.

Nevertheless, it was enjoyable in its own way. Quick paced, clever concepts and intriguing ideas; ‘Descendants’ didn’t grab me as I was hoping it would, but Else is a young author and this is a debut novel. I can already think of a handful of underwhelming debuts that grew into awesome series, so, hopefully, this one might be the same.

Many thanks to Rae Else for a copy in return for an honest review.

Fair Rebel (Steph Swainston)

 

3.5 stars

Fifteen years after the last devastating Insect attack, the immortal Circle is finally ready to launch an offensive against their implacable enemies. This time they have a new weapon – gunpowder. Hopes are high.

But the Circle’s plans are threatened when the vital barrels of gunpowder go missing. Jant, the Circle’s winged messenger, is tasked to investigate. Soon it becomes clear that the theft is part of a deadly conspiracy . . . and Jant and his friends are among the targets.

As tensions rise, Jant races to foil the conspirators. Can he expose them in time – or will the crisis blow the Fourlands apart?

My first introduction to the Fourlands was a good seven years ago now, in a book large enough to take someone’s head off. The blurb read as if all my favourite disparate plot characteristics had been forged into one enormous vat of excellence. Immortals, a winged messenger, drug fuelled crossings to wildly strange parallel worlds. Thankfully, it was as good as I had hoped.

Skip forward eight years and we have a book that I did not think was coming. “Fair Rebel’ is the fifth instalment in the Fourlands series, the story of a land being slowly destroyed by a wave of unrelenting, world-eating insects. Without giving too much away about the plot of the initial trilogy, because I think you should probably go and read that first, fifteen years have passed since an onslaught that stemmed the tide of insects, even if only for a little while. The Circle, a coterie of the very best militarists that the Fourlands has to offer, gifted immortality for as long as they remain ‘the greatest’, are planning a staggering assault on the insects far to the North, using their new secret weapon, gunpowder. Obviously, this does not all entirely go to plan.

One of my favourite things about these books has always been the voice of our protagonist, the immortal Messenger, Jant. Fate gave him fully functioning wings in a world where, for most, they’ve become little more than vestigial. The Jant of the original trilogy spent more time in the drug jettisoned worlds of the shift than in the Fourlands, but he seems more tempered in ‘Fair Rebel’, maybe a little more aware of just what they have to lose if he takes his eye from the ball. His relationships are firmer, truer, he seems more reluctant to disappear from them than the immortal of fifteen years ago. It raises a lot of questions about humanity and what happens to our humanity if immortality intercedes.

There was, however, one big elephant in the room for me when I was reading this book. The word ‘gypsy’ is used liberally throughout. I’m pretty sure it was used critically (well, semi-critically), indeed in the book the ethnic group that it’s used for and their persecution is a huge story theme. It’s just difficult when you’re physically wincing every time you see the word. You’ve just got to question whether it was necessary to use such a loaded word in text. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, just come up with a fancy fantasy word. Likewise, the plotline, which obviously had some basis in world events and the current post-Brexit bigotry we’re encountering, wasn’t handled as delicately as it needed to be. I’m not sure whether we’re all still a little bit tender for narratives about domestic terrorism, especially when coupled with a loaded use of the word ‘gypsy’. Swainston’s books have always dealt in the more fringe realms of fantasy; sex, drugs and death, and were probably never really for people who like ‘happy go lucky’ books, but there are definitely parts of this plot that came up as a big question mark for me.

So it was a bit of an up and down experience for me. I love the character of Jant, I love being back in the world and the depth and detail of Swainston’s work, I’m just not sure that the plotline worked and I ended up a little bit worried that it might even be offensive to some readers. I felt like in places it was trying to make a point but then never really made it. Is this supposed to be a book about terrorism? If you want to have a discussion about the broad painting of marginalised ethnic groups as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ purely due to the actions of a few then why is this book about white people? It’s either an allegory for the treatment of actual Romani people or an allegory for the treatment of the Muslim community in the world at the moment, it can’t be both, and it felt a little bit like a weird, mind-mashing mix of the two.

So, my recommendation at the moment is to read the first three books. I’m not quite sure where this book sits with me. I enjoyed it when I was reading it, but thinking about it and writing this review I started to realise just how uncomfortable I’d been with the way some of the plot points were handled. I’ll be interested to see how the next book continues the story, but I’m disappointed with the way that this one unfolded.

Many thanks to Gollancz and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

The City Stained Red (Sam Sykes)

citystainedred_comic_page1

5 stars

‘Your employers should consult those who make the corpses. We merely clean up after them. Death is our business, Captain. Business is always good in Cier’Djaal.’

Sam Sykes has to be the first author whose book I’ve picked up solely based on personality. I used to devour high fantasy, to the point where it was almost all I read, but that did lead to the conundrum where everything I read felt a little…the same? I read a lot of science fiction, young adult, some classics, even a little contemporary,  but I was looking for something to draw me back into the high fantasy fold.

I’d been following Sam for a while on twitter because he seemed fun and there was a high concentration of writing discussion, owls and dogs on his feed. Eventually I did indeed ‘BUY [his] BOOK’ and I will admit, I didn’t think his personality would translate into the text because, from past experience, ‘swords and sorcery’ never had much of a sense of humour.

I am pleased to say that I was very much mistaken.

The book opens with our battle weary young protagonist, Lenk, on ‘some crappy little boat’ making the decision that he really ought to put down his sword and place his killing days well in his past. I think that you can already guess that he doesn’t really get a chance to even act on that decision before he is thrust once more into fighting, killing and general tomfoolery. You see, he’d love to settle down, but you can’t retire without gold, and the gold he thought was coming his way is now in the pocket of a priest somewhere in the city of Cier’Djaal.

Except, the priest isn’t a priest, a gang footwar is brewing, the giant spiders that make the silk are feeding on something less than wholesome, and the city is full of demons…

I loved this book.

The monsters are really monsters. We’re not talking vaguely humanoid creatures with boobs, we’re talking dragonmen, demons that haul their way out of peoples mouths and cloaked, multi-armed creatures with paintings for faces. It’s delightfully weird.

It feels like that D&D campaign you’d play if you were funnier, more intelligent and more imaginative than you think you are.

The characters are really something else. Amoral yet loyal, sarcastic, running from their pasts, trying desperately, and failing, to care less and be more detached. A motley crew comprised of a reluctant young warrior, a shict far from home, a seven foot dragonman, a thief, a priestess and a boy wizard. A combination that shouldn’t lead to anything less than Armageddon (and, in its own way, does) but actually tends to hilarity and genuine emotional upheaval.

This is maybe not a book for the squeamish, or those without a slightly twisted sense of humour, but I genuinely adored it. A surprise favourite for sure.

So if you like your fantasy wildly imaginative, gory and darkly funny then this is definitely the author for you.