1 Following


I'm a fantasy author with a flying addiction, or a flying author with a fantasy addiction, depending on whether you look up, or down. Come have a look at my books on greghamerton.com

Currently reading

Altered Carbon
Richard K. Morgan
The Kinshield Legacy
K.C. May

Before They Are Hanged (The First Law: Book Two)

Before They Are Hanged  - Joe Abercrombie This is the second book in The First Law fantasy trilogy. The Dogman leads us into the sequel with a strong voice, and seems to have taken over from Logen Ninefingers as the issuer of pithy barbarian proverbs and gritty wit. The story runs fast in the style of the trilogy, where there are no heroes, just survivors, or rather people with a strong determination to not die.

Abercrombie's strength is his characterisation, and he delivers incisive insights into the nature of his ruffians and rogues which carry the story with wry humour. If you don't think too hard about it, the tale is a lot of fun, particularly for those who enjoy watching a good fight.

The first cracks in a potentially great fantasy series appear in the plotting. The questers go on a seemingly endless journey to ‘find’ the talisman for the wizard, but it becomes obvious that the wizard can’t be trusted and will use the power for his own ends. At this point I’m asking myself “What is Logen’s motivation to risk almost certain death and hardship?” The assassin Ferro Maljinn has even less motivation. She was hunted by the invincible Eaters at first, but they seem to have abandoned the chase entirely. She’s been told she will get her revenge, but she’s not that stupid to believe the wizard. None of them would repeatedly risk their life without being shown exactly what the quest was about. Maybe there were better motivations devised for the characters but they weren’t obvious.

The conceited soldier Jezal gets some of the arrogance kicked out of him and so becomes more interesting, but he still lacks a compelling motivation for following the quest and any real ambition we can empathise with. Glokta, the crippled torturer, survives in a world of politics and subterfuge only by being clever. We feel his vulnerability, but I’m not rooting for him anymore, because he doesn’t seem to have any ambition beyond survival.

There are bright instances of great descriptive writing: sharp, clean and evocative. But on the whole the crassness of the characters and the pointlessness of the quests, battles and political intrigue create a world that can become tiresome. The story lacks the magic of the first and leaves me thinking that the ‘delightfully twisted and evil’ review quote on the cover might be appropriate. It’s still a good fantasy due to the arc from the first book and my hopes for the third, but the trail between them is bloody.

The Blade Itself (The First Law: Book One)

The Blade Itself - Joe Abercrombie Snap review: 5 stars, a dark, gritty and wry fantasy based on the sword-and-sorcery and epic fantasy templates. There’s no safe middle ground here: you’ll either love the raw gleeful energy, or you’ll find it too slapstick and cynical. Joe Abercrombie’s prose is deadly: witty and violent, well plotted and brilliantly told.

Joe Abercrombie really packs it in. I was reluctant to begin a book with a blood-spattered cover lauded as ‘delightfully twisted and evil’. I’m not a psycho. I don’t fantasise about blood. But as a fantasy author, I want to know what’s happening in the fantasy genre, and so I stuck my neck out and got it chopped right off by the blade itself. It’s not what I was expecting. It’s personal, brutish, and brilliant. I get the feeling that Abercrombie takes great pleasure in writing this way. If he doesn’t like someone, they get smacked.

His characters scream “Character!” In a few lines of dialogue we meet some unforgettable rogues. Logen’s viewpoint shines! To enter a city for the first time and see all of its strangeness through the eyes of a barbarian was so very funny. (I felt not unlike a South African arriving in London). The book is worth reading for this character alone. But Abercrombie himself is the lead character – he expresses himself so strongly that I found myself wanting to read on just because of the way he told his story.

He drops his capitals too. Instead of The Blade Itself the first cover was ‘the blade itself by joe abercrombie’. Unfortunately later designs have put his name and titles in capitals, which doesn’t truly reflect the style. His prose cuts you before you’ve seen the stroke coming; no words are wasted on flowery descriptions. If he’s telling you something, it’s relevant: if he’s building someone up, he’s poking fun at them. His story-telling is remarkably efficient.

By the half-way mark we have met a whole host of characters, each one unique and memorable and quite possibly important to the outcome of the story, which seems to be that a war that is brewing. Funny, I thought, no clear goal in sight, yet it’s compelling reading. Due to his wry observations and confident style I was drawn into the story despite the lack of any primary character with whom I can sympathise. I can empathise with Logen Ninefingers but to be honest it’s hard to really root for someone who has ‘thrown a woman down a well because she attacked me for murdering her husband’. He’s despicable, just like Inquisitor Glokta, whose murderous reasoning is appalling. I wouldn’t shed a tear for him, but in his tap, tap ... scrape I learn the rhythm of his pain, and strange as it may seem, I become drawn into his world, which just goes to show how good Abercrombie's writing is.

The architecture of the world, the cultures and the power struggles slowly emerge as the pages fly by, and the revelations are perfectly placed and nicely hidden within the fast-paced prose. There's a lot going on in the background, revolving around the wizard Bayaz, who is a truly outstanding wizard introduced with cunning and subtlety. Bayaz has terrifying power, and is the most fantastically arrogant self-centred bastard of a wizard there ever was, though he seems so reasonable. Or maybe he's actually good, I can't be sure, he disturbs me too much, so I'll have to read on, there is no way I'm putting this series down.

I went out and bought the whole series – it’s an altogether fantastic read. Highly recommended.

Last Argument of Kings (First Law: Book Three)

Last Argument of Kings  - Joe Abercrombie Whatever it was that Mr A withheld in the second part of his dark heroic fantasy trilogy, he brings it back with tripled texterity. The magic is back! I was left a bit puzzled at the end of book 2, Before They Are Hanged, wondering if I had misjudged book 1, The First Law – was it really that good?

Yes, it was! Logen is spectacular. What Mr A achieves here is worth emulating – he makes me care about this barbarian despite the awkward fact that even Logen can’t deny – he is a killer. I don’t like killers. Nobody does. But we really care about this guy. How does he do that? It seems that part of the art is withholding the truth about Logen’s past, giving us glimpses that worsen through the tale, but never enough to overbalance the empathy that develops as we endure hardships with Logen. The crux of it is that Logen is trying to be better than he was. It’s enlightening to learn how much one can forgive a man when is honestly trying. This only makes the horror of what he is and does more intense.

The humour is back: “Jezal sat in a haze of awkwardness, in a dreamlike silence, startling from time to time like a sick rabbit as a powdered footman blindsided him with vegetables.” I giggled myself to tears. My fellow commuters looked on like sheep eyeing a naked farmer. He’s gone mad – is he dangerous?

The characters all develop and (finally) assert their will: West comes into his power, Jezal too, despite the clear sense that all the lead characters are being carried along in events greater than themselves, they also begin to take command of their little patch, which is greatly satisfying to read. And this goes some way to explaining what was going on in terms of character development in book 2 – nothing.

The launch into the story world was expertly planned, and the conclusion was dazzling with a hell of a lot happening. The middle seemed, by comparison, to go nowhere. I was beginning to think that it may be better to take a story in a surprising direction in book 2 or simply eliminate the book altogether – if the plot goes up up and away and comes down with a crunch, we probably don’t need much of the bit in between. But there seems to be a lesson for the characters and this reader in the rambling arc of the middle book – nothing seems to work out the way we want it to. We’re all left feeling disappointed, which sets us up for the finale. I might have set the series aside, but I’m very glad I didn’t.

Bayaz is the best wizard I have ever read of. In the Last Argument of Kings Mr A passes on a revelation about what the wizard was actually doing and the book suddenly came alive! Bayaz is cunning, terrifying, manipulative and untrustworthy, arrogant, too wise, inhumanly inspired, and his magic is more in politics than in spells, yet he doesn’t shy away from destroying someone if he needs to. He is masterfully crafted, and this series is worth studying just for Bayaz alone. He is to be feared.

As the real battle begins in the North, Logen is in his element and the tension around him is incredible. The way the hard men fear and hate him, yet respect him gives you a hint of what he is capable of, yet you aren’t shown the truth of it until you really need Logen to reveal his dark nature, and then there’s this complicated resolution to events where Logen doesn’t ever really save the day (but we want him to).

To write like this is a great achievement, in my opinion. Such despicable people, yet we care about their fortunes and want them to do right, in the end. It would be so easy to slip up in the telling, to lose the reader in a moment of revulsion and never regain the interest in the character. Mr A comes very close sometimes, so expect a bloody tale. But then the barbarian gets philosophical, and I’m speechless with respect for Logen (and his creator, back there in the shadows):
“You can have enemies you never really meet, Logen had plenty. You can kill men you don’t know, he’d done it often. But you can’t truly hate a man without loving him first, and there’s always a trace of that love left over.”

Five stars. Now sneak over to Joe Abercrombie’s website and watch what he’s up to. I know I’m going to. I just hope Bayaz doesn’t (ever) notice me.

Memory and Dream (Newford)

Memory and Dream - Charles de Lint This story had a deep impact on me. It opens with an innocent sketch in a town square; it soon becomes a deeply engaging study of the act of creation and the mind of an artist.

If I took out my editor’s pencil, I’d only be able to mark one paragraph in the entire book, where a minor character is granted a bit too much page space to rant about his over-intellectualised opinions of art. It is in character though. And that’s it. The single tiny flaw I was aware of, if flaw it is. I mention it only to show that I attempted to be critical, but could not really find fault. The story is mostly flawless, and breathtaking.

There is a twist that throws a new light on the whole story, right at the end, which as a reader is an absolute delight. As my mind recapitulates the tale I get a new version and insight into what I’ve already learned. This is so satisfying, it’s as if I get two stories for the price of one, this deepening of the experience is something I intend to incorporate into my own writing. I shall read more of Charles de Lint’s work. He is a master of his art. He deserves study. Maybe, even, demands it.

The value of this story is an appreciation of the relationship between master and apprentice. True, this story is an extreme relationship, but that brings things to light that in many relationships of this kind would be submerged, suppressed or sub-conscious.

The world de Lint creates is entirely believable, because it does not seem to be a creation (one of the benefits of a contemporary setting). There is so much that is familiar, that the subtle elements of magic slip into this framework without alarming the reader. Even though the created characters could be interpreted to be largely symbolic, I accepted them in the story world and the more I believed the story, the more they slipped into the ‘real’ world. (Is there a ‘real’ world, I began to wonder?)

The structure is not chronological. As more of the past is revealed, we can puzzle together the present. This is a clever mirror of what Isobelle Copley is attempting to do. .. piece together her life from her traumatised memory. That she is trying to understand the great power of her art makes it all the more poignant. This is a great storytelling technique.

In many ways, this is the classic tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice. We get a foreshadowing of what she could become, if she follows in her master’s footsteps: consumed the essence of her own art. It is a deeply philosophical work, yet most of that is hidden in the art, so it makes an exciting art-thriller set in a student world. I could instantly relate to it … a familiar world of study, university, friends, and driving ambition to find fundamental secrets. The magic allows this world to become invaded without seeming unbelievably weird. The unsettling power of the narrative comes from de Lint withholding the truth, making us wonder, when we mostly know the truth but a seed of doubt keeps us engaged. This subtlety, combined with conflicted characters, puts us on edge and we must read to the end to find resolution to the distress.

The books could have contained all of this, and still been mediocre. What lifts it to the level of mastery (and to the very TOP of my writer’s bookshelf) is the wisdom and truth de Lint shares, due to his lifetime of artistic practice. The story serves to demonstrate his understanding. Reading is more than entertaining, it is enlightening. In this respect, the story outclasses Tolkien and Hobb and any fantasy world I have encountered. Not due to the world-building—there are more elaborate and awesome worlds)—or scale, or even systems of magic (which is not particularly revolutionary). It is the artistry of the writing, the style, that so enthrals me.

He could have achieved this with just Isobelle’s story, yet in these 600 pages there is another story, told through a diary and memory, of Kathy, the writer. This allows de Lint to explore the relationship between artists and writers, how their craft differs and the poignant and heartbreaking legacy of abuse, the spirit to create and the will to live. I found de Lint’s perspective on these issues unique and troubling. He spoke to my soul. Kathy’s tale twines through Isobelle’s and broadens the emotional range; a subtle kind of world-building.

If this is a fantasy novel, it is of an entirely different genre to sword and sorcery. Yet it deals with magic, and an altered reality. The magic is of her own making. The story is of her own making. The brilliance of it is ... Charles de Lint.

The Desert Spear

The Desert Spear  - Peter V. Brett Brett’s writing is simple, unpretentious, and action-packed. The Painted Man is a blend of a coming-of-age tale, a monster-violence thriller and a speculation on human nature. When Brett switches from Arlen’s viewpoint and demonstrates that there is more to the story than the standard fantasy fare (a country bumpkin goes on a quest to learn magic and save the world) I know I’ll stay till the end. Although the fast-paced action is often bloody and the body-count is high, it is not slasher-fiction and so does not appal with gore. The writing doesn’t challenge the reader much—it doesn’t need to—it simply sweeps you along with the story.

Master wards:
Arlen, Leesha, Rojer: they are characterised so strongly and memorably that when we return to Arlen after a long break in the narrative, I can picture him immediately, sitting in his ward-circle. Full marks on characterisation. The three character arcs are very different stories that come together in a rollicking climax. The occasional flimsy plot mechanism weakens the spell, but the vigour of the storytelling pushes you into the new action. There are gems of wisdom that brighten the tale and increase the authenticity of the characters. By spanning many years in the character’s lives, Brett makes me feel really connected with them because I feel I’ve known them for a long time.

The question that drives the story forward so well is: how does fear make people behave? That’s what interested me throughout the book, watching the characters grapple with their fear and coming up with responses that defined their humanity. Because there is this interesting subtext, I’m engaged and want to see further examples of well-considered observations of human nature under pressure. It is a simple recipe: Brett forms charismatic leads and places various character types around them in conflict situations. This was fun to watch.

The concept of the wards and the way the knowledge of them has become scattered and lost is a great idea. You begin to feel that you must learn wards or you’ll be dead soon, so it becomes a vital lore. That the user gains power through their use is also a nice twist—usually mages are limited by something, but Arlen has great potential: only the lack of knowledge of wards seems to limit him.

Wards I wasn’t so sure about:
The premise, that bloodthirsty demons rule humanity with fear and would condemn us to become a fractured medieval society is believable, IF you can get past the demons rising insubstantially from the ground and solidifying into rabid monsters. The way the demons sank into the earth and rose again seemed unbelievable to me, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were Monty Python cardboard cut-out demons wobbling back into their slot in the stage. I’m too rational to be left without some science to justify the existence of the monsters. Doesn’t have to be true science, just believable.

The setting is nothing new and will be familiar to Terry Brooks readers (at whom the book is marketed)—a post apocalyptic world that has slipped back into a medieval existence with technology and the knowledge of it lost in the flames. It is a bit unlikely that none of the modern technology survives. Nonetheless, the historical link to the present day helps me to relate to the setting, so it’s easier to believe.

Wards that didn’t work for me:
Leesha’s story has so much sexual posturing that it becomes a little tiresome. Although it is believable that everyone would be obsessed with reproducing because humanity is clinging on to survival, it conflicts with the conservative attitudes within the villages—I think Brett could have pushed the boat out a bit further here on how the culture would change under such extreme survival conditions, given that it develops from the present day. There were also too many ‘narrow escapes’ where undefended humans dodge hungry rabid monsters. They would have been chomped.

The Painted Man has a flaming good concept and is great fun to read. It doesn’t have the mind-dazzling awe-inspiring impact I need for 5 stars, but it’s a solid 4 and I look forward to reading The Desert Spear. Arlen is definitely a mage to watch. I’m practising my ward-work now, just in case the demons come. You never know.

Khepera Rising

Khepera Rising - Nerine Dorman An incendiary work of black magic that will leave kindergoths wide-eyed.

Occultist James Edward Guillaume enjoys living up to his reputation as South Africa's wickedest man, but in so doing, he becomes a target for those who believe his esoteric arts and alternative lifestyle are the work of the devil and should be punished.

The author displays an accomplished style that gives me confidence to follow her into the dark. The protagonist, Jamie, offers a distinctive shock-rocker view of the world with a unique perspective on our so-ordinary lives. The story is an introduction to a ragged slice of Goth culture in Cape Town. The detailing is convincing – references to esoteric texts, drug culture and rituals that speak of experience or such good research that it is indistinguishable from it. But the book comes with a warning: M/M and M/F sexual content, occult, violence, gore. You’d best avoid it if you find smears of prejudice, graphic violence and conversations peppered with vile expletives offensive. I'd never have expected a woman to have written this … but I suspect that she is more fire and demon, with an undeniable knack for finding soft places with her claws.

In terms of setting a mood of eerie loneliness and ruin in modern-day suburbia, Kephera Rising is a complete success: Jamie’s life is a tragedy, the suffering graphic, the grimness unrelenting and some of the first-person writing is superb: 'a smile fakes its way across my face and a cold sweat starts beneath my armpits. Hollow eyes glance at me from the mirror above the fireplace.’ Jamie is suitably tormented by his lack of evil intent and vacillation in the face of his growing dilemma. The detailing of Cape Town is convincing and the dark underbelly of the city disturbing in its believability. This is where Dorman’s alter-ego as a travel writer shines through. You’ll also have ringside seats for some blinding action scenes.

Kephera Rising by Nerine Dorman

There are occasional dead points in the plot: making his tormentors as flawed as Jamie is quite plausible but seems too convenient. Jamie is a bit of a wet regarding his emotional problems, but the relationship with his girlfriend is ambiguous enough to keep us guessing, with twists and turns, tensioning and reversals. And he is a bit too dim-witted regarding his shocking hidden talent.

The way his world falls to pieces is expertly crafted and it shows up his narcissistic life as a reclusive magician. It must be said, however, that it is hard to care for a man who cusses the world and everyone in it, and unless you find the details of esoteric practices irresistible then only curiosity and an appreciation of the brooding atmosphere can pull you into the dark heart of the story. He doesn’t do much to help anyone but himself as he tries to survive his persecutors and the effects of his own emotional baggage, but the story (strapped to a chair with packing tape) is kept artfully alive by the ongoing character development and the incisive philosophical observations amidst the creative trails of blood on the floor.

The real attraction of the book is the essence of horror stated in Dorman’s seductive voice: ‘fear is an ambrosia, a liquor of unparalleled desire that I crave.’ There is something else at work in the writing; something that works around and underneath the words with demonic cleverness. The shifts from vision-possessed fugues back to real world were especially well done. Through sleight of hand plotting and misdirection Dorman induces the reader to empathise with Jamie, and we become complicit in his actions, participating in his sins whilst pretending not to know. The result of this manipulation is an emotional trap and you begin to understand that you will only find release from Jamie’s dragging guilt by reading through to the end.

The climax is a killing stroke with a strong message and is well worth the journey. Kephera Rising may be a gothic horror that marginalises itself by its extreme defiance but it recommends itself to its aghast audience in so doing.

First novel? Come off it, Dorman is no apprentice. She's pulled something out of the hat with this one, but then she's a practicing magician and no, it's not a white bunny she's holding in her hand. Then again, if being scared wasn’t irresistible, you wouldn’t be reaching out to take it.

A Man Rides Through (Mordant's Need, Book 2)

A Man Rides Through - Stephen R. Donaldson Very clever plotting and a compelling, intriguing and seductive world make this one of my favourite books.

Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Book 1)

Lord Foul's Bane - Stephen R. Donaldson A great opening, a compelling world, a masterful storyteller doing what he does best .. inventive fantasy.