Category Archives: Book review

Urban Fantasy

I’ve written about this a couple of other times in the past on other blogs, but after a few new discoveries I thought it was worth writing about it again. I really struggle to find good urban fantasy. I should clarify, by good urban fantasy I mean books within that specific sub-genre that I enjoy. I didn’t think I was particularly picky, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that perhaps I am because I’ve been underwhelmed or very disappointed by several high profile authors. I’ll come on to character in a bit, but for me there needs to be the right balance of humour in a book. If it doesn’t take itself too seriously, if it is written for laughs then I’m just not interested, I won’t connect or care about the characters and their fate. Equally if it is the most depressing and horrific read ever with no levity, I won’t read it as that isn’t why I read urban fantasy.

There are a lot of UF books out there and it is a genre that definitely seems to be growing, which is great, as it means it becomes increasingly likely that with every year I will find another author or two that I can add to my list of people to follow. I’m not going to name any authors or books in particular that I didn’t enjoy because it would be petty and pointless as many other people enjoy those books. Some of the books are so popular that there are several in the series, so people are buying, reading and enjoying them. My opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s and I think the internet is already choking with too much negativity. So, I’m going to try to make this a positive post about good urban fantasy books and why I enjoy them.

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
This series is one of my favourites of all time across all genres. It is also the longest series of books I have ever read. I know there are series of novels out there with more books than the Dresden Files, but I’ve not read them or enjoyed them enough that I felt compelled to keep reading. Writing one great book is hard. Writing twelve is actually kind of a miracle. I’m not going to claim that all of them are perfect, but I had a lot of fun reading every single one of them. I’ve also read and listened to interviews where Butcher talks about his process for building the stories and I respect the amount of effort he puts into each. The Dresden Files started from a very small corner and over the course of the series it has grown it into a rich supernatural world that is full of remarkable wonders and terrors. His characterisation is also incredibly strong which makes it easier to buy into some of the amazing things that happen because there is always a seed of disbelief or shock. This is still my favourite urban fantasy series and for once I really don’t want it to end. I know it has to but I’m dreading the day when Butcher announces that his next Dresden Files will be the last.

Felix Castor series by Mike Carey
These books are much darker than the Dresden Files and are set in London rather than Chicago. They’re almost gothic horror in some places and although there is magic and supernatural beings, it’s all handled in such a no-nonsense British fashion, it somehow seems more realistic. They have a real dirty, seedy feel to them and part of this comes from the main character who is very grey and definitely not a white hat. I’m not someone who needs or wants every aspect of magic explained to me, but Carey has done something quite unique and special with how it is handled in this series. Finding out about the mechanics was interesting but I would not have complained if he had not included this. There are five books in the series so far and I believe a sixth to wrap it up is planned. Something larger has been building behind the scenes for some time and the final book will go partway to explaining the mystery. I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this series and really enjoy the broodiness and dark humour that prevent it from being a depressing read.

Morris and Chastain series by Justin Gustainis
Unlike the previous two this series has several links to real world events as well as fictional historic events and characters from literature. This gives the series and characters a very different taste and feel. Without giving away too much, I only need to mention Salem and Van Helsing and you get an idea about part of it. The magic in the series is also less overt than Dresden. It is also in keeping with the principal of magic being a force than can be used for good or bad by the practitioner, which is inline with ‘real’ magic, if you believe in such things. There is also a certain bluntness to the books that I enjoy. The style of writing is pared down, it’s tight and fast, but the author does not sacrifice character moments for pace and plot. Also his peripheral characters feel very real and distinct from one another so you always know who is speaking.

As with the other two series the decisions characters make are not always the right ones, but they are realistic. I’ve previously thrown books across the room for being ridiculous where people suddenly act out of character in order to serve the plot or to titillate. I don’t have to agree with a character’s decisions and choices, but if can’t understand them, respect or relate to them in some way, especially if they are the main character, I will put a book down and never go back. I don’t have to like every aspect of a character, but personally I have to find something in them that I can relate to or understand. Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay, is a serial killer. He is a brutal murderer which is something I just can’t get my head around or relate to, but I can understand a little of what made the character the way he is, such as his upbringing, scars from his childhood, sibling relationships, and so on.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a rant, but I think this is one of the critical elements about why I’ve really disliked some urban fantasy series. Some readers are fine with reading about awful people with whom they have nothing in common, but I’m not one of them. I can’t read a story about a character who is a wet flanel with no backbone. Someone who is used and abused  by everyone in the story as they stumble from one disaster to another and yet somehow I’m supposed to support and like this person. Equally I can’t read about a murdering psychopath who carves up people for fun or his own amusement, twirling his moustache as he goes. The story might be very strong, but I need more than that, or else I will put it down and walk away.

Courts of the Feyre by Mike Shevdon
I’ve come to this series late but have been very pleasantly surprised and I really enjoyed it. So far I’ve only read Sixty-One Nails, the first in the series from Angry Robot, and it is steeped in a blend of real world history, ritual, English customs and folklore. There was a lovely freshness to this series, which sounds odd, but when you read a couple of UF novels in a year, even a few months apart, they can sometimes feel very similar. Shevdon’s approach to UF is as unique as all of the others I’ve mentioned which meant I couldn’t be a lazy reader. Lazy reading breeds odd and pointless questions and comments such as ‘That’s not what an elf/faerie/troll etc looks or acts like.’ or ‘How does the magic system work?’. It’s perfectly natural to want to know more about an aspect of a story, be it magic or the Feyre Courts, but it is something else to expect or demand the author to explain every detail just because in another UF book it was laid out in great detail.

Reading Sixty One Nails meant I had to slouch off my preconceptions about what an UF book should be. Anything I was carrying in my head from other series about magic, wizards, Fey, and so on had to be shoved to one side and ignored. This initially makes it more challenging but equally more rewarding when I did find out about magic and the Feyre in this series. It shouldn’t be compared like for like because it’s a totally different world and is not connected in any way to a UF novel by a different author. I’ll stop there because that’s a much bigger discussion and a bigger rant.

New stuff – Fated
A new book that was just released this March is Fated by Benedict Jacka from Orbit Books. As I mentioned I’m always keen to try new urban fantasy authors and this has a cover quote from Jim Butcher, so now I have two reasons to read it. Butcher also provided a quote for Gustainis, so it is an encouraging sign that I might like it.

What else is good?
So, given all of the above, the tone of the stories, the style of the writing, characterisation and so on, can anyone recommend something similar I might enjoy but might have missed?

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Coming of Age

Last week SFF publisher Angry Robot announced they are setting up a YA imprint, Strange Chemistry, and Amanda Rutter, has been appointed as the editor. I am totally thrilled and delighted for Amanda because for as long as I’ve known her she has always been extremely enthusiastic and vocal about the joys of YA fiction. They could not have picked a better person for the job. This, combined with reading my first YA book, Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan, made me think back to when I was the right age for YA books and what was available.
 
When I was in primary school the only SFF books available were those to help you read which contained lots of colourful pictures and not many words. After that I jumped to books of Myths and Legends which often had beautiful paintings and sketches of the monsters like Grendal or the Green Knight from the story about Sir Gawain. After that I had to jump to borrowing my brother’s books, which were the Belgariad by David Eddings, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis and there’s another series I’ve completely forgotten but will come back to me later. LOTR was a bit beyond me and at that age I quickly grew bored and was bogged down with it, but the Belgariad was probably closer to what we might call YA today. No such segment existed back then, there was just one small and quite repetitive SFF segment in my local bookshop for SFF and it was dominated by the likes of Stephen King (too old and weird for me back then), Clive Barker (far too scary) with the occasional Terry Brooks or Eddings thrown in. Once I had exhausted the Belgariad, and the Mallorian was not yet in print, I went through all of Brooks’ Shannara books.
 
The first time I read the Belgariad series I was probably ten or eleven as I distinctly remember sitting on a bench at lunch times in Middle School reading Pawn of Prophecy while other boys ran around playing football. This could explain why I never got into football and don’t support a football team. Anyway, I picked up most of the content in the Belgariad, probably missed some of the nuances but that was all right, I absorbed enough to know what was going on and who all of the characters were. I was already in love with the genre by that point and without knowing it, this was my first brush with a coming of age story which I would later read over and over again. The story was about a boy named Garion who grew up to discover he had a destiny that could not be avoided and like Luke Skywalker, and a host of other orphans, farm boys, scullions and stable hands, he discovered the kindly old man with the white beard who was always so nice to him was actually a powerful Sorcerer.
 
I’ve gone back and read the Belgariad since and on subsequent readings it has had far less of an impact. I can see what is going to happen next, I know the main character will always do the right thing and that in the end the heroes will always win. It’s a comfortable read and without meaning to sound patronising, it’s a much simpler book than I remember.

So some of that was in the back of my mind when earlier this year I read Glow, my first proper YA book and to my relief it was a totally different animal. Some adult issues were referred to in passing, or they took place off the page, so perhaps that is one of the minor differences between YA and other fiction, but apart from that I didn’t notice anything in particular. It was a SF story and like the SF I enjoy the most, it focused more on the characters and it used the SF elements as background and structure, the technology did not become the whole story. As someone in his thirties I know it was not written for me and therefore there were certain elements I felt were missing, but it didn’t prevent it from being an enjoyable read.

I was recently listening to an episode of the SF Signal podcast where they had a panel discussion on YA. One of the panellists said in their experience there are typically two types of YA. The stories that can be read and enjoyed by anyone of any age, and the teen focused stories which centre around particular issues they might be struggling with, such as eating disorders, image issues and personal confidence, social conformity and so on. They’re never spelled out that overtly, but at their core that’s what the stories are about. I haven’t read much YA so I can’t comment on that so I will defer to her knowledge.

I think an adult could read and enjoy a novel in the latter category, but personally I would probably want the heart of the story to be focused on something else. My angst days are a long time ago. Glow probably straddled the two categories but I can definitely see it appealing more to a YA audience as it is all about searching for answers and searching for yourself. I think it was about the main characters believing they would grow up to be one thing and then events didn’t go as they had anticipated and they had to adapt in order to survive. By the end of the book they were totally different people and they looked back on their younger selves as naïve. It was never patronising, there were no easy answers and unlike the Belgariad the characters didn’t always do the right thing. There were plenty of grey in Glow and at the end of the book it was not all tied up neatly in a little bow. I would definitely read another YA book, but right now there are so many other books I desperately want to read and don’t have enough time, so perhaps I will revisit YA when my to read pile is more manageable.

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Manhattan in Reverse

Manhattan in Reverse

A collection of short stories from the master of space opera. Peter F Hamilton takes us on a journey from a murder mystery in an alternative Oxford in the 1800s to a brand new story featuring Paula Mayo, Deputy Director of the Intersolar Commonwealth’s Serious Crimes Directorate. Dealing with intricate themes and topical subject this top ten bestselling author is at the top of his game.

Before talking about the book itself I should mention I’ve only read two Peter F. Hamilton books (The Dreaming Void and Mindstar Rising). Both of those were in the last year, so my review is slightly coloured by my lack of in depth knowledge about the different series and various universes he has created. I have a vague awareness of some, and although I  know certain characters like Paula Myo, I’m sure the stories in which she features mean a lot more to long time fans. There are also a couple of significant moments in a few of the stories, but there again I missed out on their impact as I don’t know the whole story.

I think an existing fan will get a lot more from this book of short stories as most of them tie into his Commonwealth novels, but a couple of them are completely standalone. On the other hand, the book is fairly slender in comparison to all of Hamilton’s books, so it will give new fans a taste of the type of story, characterisation, technology and ideals that are typically explored in his novels.

The first, Watching Trees Grow, is a very curious story that is essentially a murder mystery across the centuries. It follows a dogged investigator who refuses to give up and as advances in technology provide him with extended longevity and more tools to  analysing the evidence and question the suspects, he still struggles to find an answer. The irony of how the crime is solved was not lost on me and I enjoyed the universe Hamilton had created in this story where the Roman empire still exists and major families rule.

My favourite story was probably ‘If at First…’, which is a time travel story about an idea I’m sure many people have often pondered. If you were able to, would you go back to an early stage in your life and fix some of the mistakes of the past? Or perhaps relive your life again up to the present? A mad man is taken into police custody claiming that a famous tech guru, a Steve Jobs type, has done just that and his success is because he invented a time machine and has been reliving his own life with knowledge of the future. It sounds ridiculous and like the ravings of a lunatic. The suspect is a known stalker of the tech guru and coupled with that he was caught breaking into one of the tech company’s offices, it’s an open and shut case. It also sounds like a case for mental health services and yet there is something there that doesn’t ring true and the detective in charge decides to dig a little deeper.

My second favourite story was the last one, Manhattan in Reverse, which to me actually felt like a bit of a western for all its SF framing. It deals with a wild frontier, a new planet full of unknowns and an attack by savage locals on the new arrivals for no apparent reason. This puzzle that is causing all sorts of problems for colonists and no one is quite sure what to do next. The simple solution would be to wipe out the problem with a big laser and not worry about it, but Paula Myo is not someone who thinks like that. She is known throughout the galaxy and her reputation has taken a bit of a knock. This simple job is pitched at helping her curry some favour with the right people so she is not shuffled off to a dark corner and forgotten about for the rest of time. The story still featured the now familiar technology I read about in the Dreaming Void, but here it was just a tool to help Paula with a very particular job. I wasn’t bogged down by some of the detail like I am in the novels, so for me it was a very light and refreshing read by comparison.

As with any anthology or collection of short stories, some are better than others and some more memorable and engaging. One of the stories was incredibly short and it was specifically written to be less than a 1000 words. It showed me what could be done with very little space and it was a feat when this whole book was a quarter of a normal Hamilton novel!

Overall I think this book is a great primer and a good jumping on point which gives you a good flavour about Hamilton’s style and approach to stories, characters and science fiction.

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