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Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Court of Broken Knives

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I am an on-off reader of fantasy, partially due to the lack of time I have for reading, which means I really have to focus my decisions to the currently relevant. My fantasy reading has recently been limited to Guy Gavriel Kay (because he has always been my favourite writer) and Miles Cameron, because I know the man, and he is a DUDE! Thus I might have let this one slip by had I not bumped into the author at a convention in Scarborough the year before its publication and thought ‘that sounds interesting. I’ll have to give that a read.’

I will start by saying that it’s perhaps not the easiest read. If you are looking for Pratchett or Eddings or the like, keep looking. But to clarify, I find there are two types of novel into which I can generally categorise everything I read. Some are easy reads. They are like a horse race, where you get caught up in the speed and excitement and dragged break-neck to the end. They are excitement and fun and glory and I love ’em (in movie terms let’s say Kingsman). Other novels can be harder to read, but perhaps have a different sort of reward, pushing you to a more cerebral experience (in movie terms I might offer Schindler’s List). I read fewer of this sort of book, but that does not mean they are not as good or have less to offer. Quite the contrary, in fact. Court of Broken Knives for me fits into that second category. I have pushed myself in its reading, but it has paid off in interesting ways.

I had no preconceptions going into the novel. Plot, I will deal with first. And I will be careful. You know I hate spoilers. The opening plot is simple enough. A party of mercenaries on their way to a foreign city to kill a bunch of people. And those who hired them in the city maneuvering politically throughout. Seems reasonable. A good plot, in fact. Then at maybe 40-50% of the book, everything changes. The plot takes a side alley, zig-zags to lose any anticipated ideas, does a few loop the loops and comes out the other side leaving you rubbing your eyes and wondering if Machiavelli’s line is strong and running in London bloodlines. Other than this I am not going to touch on plot. Just… experience it.

There are two strengths to this novel that stand out for me.

One is the writing itself. Smith-Spark’s prose is far from your standard fare. It is often jagged, broken, staccato. It sometimes flounces and flows into the brain, but often comes at you like knives (quite appropriately, I suppose). In doing so it manages to convey something that is lost in a more commonplace style. There is utter, raw emotion in the prose. Some is first person, some third, some past tense, some present, and the point of view leaps between a number of principle characters. The language is sometimes beautiful and haunting, sometimes sharp and horrifying. But in this manner, it is always refreshing, and I have enjoyed it. It is a style of writing I will long remember and appreciate.

The other is character. Let me say from the outset that this novel is full of utter bastards. There are few people in it who I would give the time of day, and those who are good and sympathetic are so riddled with doubt and demons that they are morally bankrupt anyway. This is a novel FULL of anti-heroes. And you find yourself supporting one against another. Because something about Smith Spark’s characterisation carries the genius of making the irredeemably wicked and unpleasant oddly lovable. I cared about characters I had no right caring about and should really have been rooting for the demise of. Oh, and there’s plenty of that, too. Anthony Riches and myself both have something of a rep for brutally offing important characters. Smith-Spark is no slacker in that department.

In short, prepare yourself for a Machiavellian bloodbath of epic proportions, full of lovably loathsome characters. Settle in, light the fire, pour a fine scotch, and marvel at this new fantasy world.

The Court of Broken Knives is an oddly fascinating gem.

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Written by SJAT

September 21, 2017 at 10:15 pm

Murder in Absentia

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For me, Murder in Absentia is a solidly 4* novel. A treat in numerous ways, a surprise in many, engrossing and unusual. I’m now applying a 5-point system for review, and given that, here’s why I rate Assaph Mehr’s work so highly.

  1. The world that Mehr creates. This book is a work of fantasy, though it is so closely-knit with the history of Imperial Rome that were it not for certain elements within the plot, it would be hard to see this as anything other than straight Roman fiction. The main location in this world seems to be a mash-up of Rome, the bay of Naples and Alexandria. It is clearly a fantastical version of the ancient city and culture of Rome, with geographical elements of the others drawn in. The naming conventions, social customs, dress, military, households and even religious aspects are very clearly Roman. The flavour is Roman. And it’s flavoured very well.
  2. The plot. Despite fantasy elements, this is essentially a whodunnit. It is a proper original mystery. Starting with a body – killed apparently during some dark, magical ritual – the hero, Felix the Fox, is retained by the victim’s father to solve the mystery of his death. The plot is full of twists, turns, herrings of the ruddy kind, and avoids too many cliches as it brings us to a satisfactory conclusion.
  3. The negative point here, and the reason for a 4* review rather than a 5* one: The book could have done with a thorough copy-edit. Lines like “he eyes were”, “an administrative organisations” and “if I we needed any more” are examples of the small typos that creep in. There is also a heavy tendency to mix tenses wihtin a sentence, which can be quite jarring. Also, anachronisms like “juiced up” sit a little difficult with me, though that’s really a personal preference, I suppose.
  4. The author’s handling of magic. There’s a lot of fantasy out there, and though I tend these days to concentrate on Historical Fiction, I’ve actually read plenty of it. Magic is often very Dungeons and Dragons in fantasy, or perhaps very Lord of the Rings. “Fireball! Magic Mouth! Prismatic Spray! These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Mehr’s form of magic used in the book is much more subtle and realistic, more reminiscent of the ritual in Lovecraftian horror or suchlike. It is all rites and tattoos of power and herbs and incantations. In short it worked, reading surprisingly believably and actually, oddly, it fits in well with the Roman feel of the background. You will, within the first 20% of the book, be viewing this magic as an everyday part of the culture.
  5. The detail. They say the devil is in the detail but if so, the devil is one hell of a helper to an author. The sheer scale of the bits and pieces of research Mehr has put into his Roman history for the book is impressive. From the nature of Roman Numina to the traditions of funerals and burial to the daily routine for the seeing of clients by Roman patrons, Mehr has really put in the work in his research.

So there you have it. A fascinating fantasy world, full of impressive real details and with a realistic and interesting type of magic, hosts a twisted and complex murder plot. Only the lack of a little proofing prevents this from being a genre-founding, mould-breaking novel. No, actually, it doesn’t. The novel is still that, and minor irritations over the specific text should in no way prevent you from buying and reading this. If you’re into Rome or Fantasy, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re into both, you’ll LOVE it.

 

Written by SJAT

January 14, 2016 at 10:38 am

Han, but far from Solo

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An alternative title for the blog that I was toying with was: I’ll have a Shifu Cloth with Fried Rice and Special Ribs.

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A few years ago I first became acquainted with the writing of Prue Batten, as she happened to be a member of the same peer review site as me. I got to read a sample of her fledgling work there and became a fan.

Prue’s portfolio has somewhat exploded since then, with four books in her Chronicles of Eirie fantasy series now available as well as a work of medieval historical fiction.

I read the first book (The Stumpwork Robe) and the second (The Last Stitch) in close order but, due to lack of time and other commitments I somehow missed A Thousand Glass Flowers. Recently, having had book four brought to my attention, I delved back into the world of Eirie and I’m thoroughly glad I did. The series follows the fortunes of an extended family that share mortal and faerie blood but the bonus for me is that although they create a definite series, the books work quite well as standalones, with only a little loss and a few gaps to bridge, and not having read the third in no way damaged my comprehension or enjoyment of the fourth.

So: about the world. In her chronicles, Prue has created a whole world that is almost a shadow of Earth. There are fantastic replicas of Medieval western Europe, Renaissance Venice and exotic India which all form the settings of earlier books. The style of her creation is to me reminiscent of Guy Gavriel Kay’s world and I find it enthralling. This latest foray opens up a new part of that world to explore: The Han. Clearly influenced heavily by Imperial China and with perhaps Japanese influences, it is a rich setting to become involved in.

About the writing. Prue is a wordsmith par excellence. Her use of unusual and oft archaic terms combine with her skill at sentence structure and description to provide a rich, heady read. I noted once that reading her work is like reading silk and now, five books on, that description holds all the more true. Prue’s concentration on character, motivation and feeling shows through and really brings the characters to life.

And finally, about the story: The Shifu Cloth is a story of siblings cruelly torn apart by kidnapping and slavery. Isabella, snatched from her native land, finds herself a slave of the mysterious and insular Han. As she begins to plan her escape and a journey back home, she is drawn into a web of strangeness wher she meets emperors and spirits, warriors and nobles, and her true potential gradually comes to the fore in the face of adversity. At the same time, her distraught family begin to fall apart as the search for Isabella produces no result until a bolt of strange cloth shows up bearing a hidden message and her half-brother Nicolas begins a dangerous journey in search of his lost sibling.

The whole thing is beautifully done. I would recommend you go have a read of the sample on Amazon here and see what you think. Currently most of the series are only available in eformat as the paperbacks are due, I believe, to be re-released soon.

This is highly recommended reading, particularly for those fantasy lovers out there, especially ones who like works in the vein of Guy Gavriel Kay.

Written by SJAT

February 6, 2013 at 6:07 pm