Category Archives: Review

Review: The Vagrant

The Vagrant by Peter Newman

vagrant coverThe Vagrant is his name. He has no other.

Years have passed since humanity’s destruction emerged from the Breach.

Friendless and alone he walks across a desolate, war-torn landscape.

As each day passes the world tumbles further into depravity, bent and twisted by the new order, corrupted by the Usurper, the enemy, and his infernal horde.

His purpose is to reach the Shining City, last bastion of the human race, and deliver the only weapon that may make a difference in the ongoing war.

What little hope remains is dying. Abandoned by its leader, The Seven, and its heroes, The Seraph Knights, the last defences of a once great civilisation are crumbling into dust.

But the Shining City is far away and the world is a very dangerous place.

The Vagrant is trying to get himself to safety.

Oh, and a baby. And a sword. And a goat.

None of which entirely want to co-operate.

And there’s at least three parties out there who want what he’s carrying.

There’s spoilers later in this review, so I’ll put the overview in now: read this. It’s fantastic worldbuilding, brilliant multi-layered characters, a quest you’ll get hooked into, and I want to re-read. I love it. Read it.

So, more detail…

The world’s fantastic. The ‘baddies’ aren’t; they’re a product of their environment, understandable even as they destroy humankind’s world. The multiple different factions are all at cross-purposes, and their aims change. Even the ‘goodies’ aren’t; they have tried to keep their goals and ideals and ended up fighting a defensive action, unable to adapt to the changing world. The Seraph Knights are gone, and evil is all around – the taint has infected most humans and turned them into strangeness.

And in the midst of the weaving politics and changing landscape, between evil and uncaring humanity and people just trying to survive, the Vagrant is walking onwards.

The baby is adorable; I loved seeing her development and character, brought out so clearly. The book’s even more brilliant because the Vagrant doesn’t speak, and for most of it, the baby doesn’t either – their interactions are done entirely by movement and gesture and look. It’s such a lovely thing to see grow over the course of the events. The Vagrant’s interactions with the world around him are brilliant, too; weaving a path between honour and duty and pragmatism.

We get snippets of other information as we go through – the past and the present interweave so that we slowly learn more about what happened even as we see the effects. We also get the Uncivil’s point of view, the Commander, the Knights; we can see the enemy as well as the Vagrant, and it’s an extra layer of depth to understand what they’re aiming for, to see the unfolding plots and events on both sides.

And then, at the end…there’s more twists, changing aims, more politics. Nothing’s ever plain good or bad, black or white, and every choice has a consequence.

~ Spoilers!! ~

I think my only criticism is that it’s hard to warm to Harm, because I kept expecting him to be killed off. The earlier deaths are brilliant in the shock factor; the Vagrant just keeps going, forced to make horrible choices even though he tries his best to save others. But then when you get to Harm, I couldn’t take him seriously because I expected him to die…even at the end I didn’t think he’d survive.

I wanted the Hammer to survive, too. I liked her. That death felt like a cheat.

~ End of spoilers ~

But overall, I love it. It definitely needs a second read once the past and the present collide, and I’m really looking forward to it!

Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

never let me goIn one of the most memorable novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.

My overall impression of the book is fatalistic. It’s beautiful, haunted, tinged with the unquestioning acceptance of fate; sad and nostalgic while still somehow evoking an ideal childhood, a weave of friendships and memories and loves that pervades Kathy’s life even into her adulthood. But every character accepts the world as it is; there are only vague dreams of change, never a desire or a drive to actually make a difference.

The first section is placed at Halisham, a boarding school; the children have lessons, create art, compete with each other and learn and grow. They always know there’s something different about them, something odd – it’s not important, but they know their lives are set and their futures set onto a certain path, even if they don’t entirely understand what the path is. The story is tinged with the children’s inventive plots and dreams as they try to make sense of the hints they’re given. The second section is after school, when the teenagers move away to the Cottages; allowed more freedom, they talk and have sex and wait for their lives to begin. They try to find out a little more about their paths and their backgrounds, but…it’s still not important. It’s a dream, an adolescent fantasy, and by the time they step onto their paths they accept the course taken. And the final section is Kathy as an adult, a carer looking after her classmates and peers, waiting for her own turn. She travels, spending long hours thinking over the past and turning her memories into dreams.

Ishiguro’s writing style is incredibly readable; I was turning the pages almost effortlessly. The story flows very well and even though events jump back and forth, there’s no sense of confusion – everything fits and works within the overall frame. There’s some beautiful language and phrasing, and Ishiguro effortlessly evokes the idyllic nature of growing up fading into a horrifying reality.

While I love the book, when I think back over it, the fatalistic nature of the characters annoys me. None of them try to fight. None of them try to leave. They accept the boundaries and even when they try to break out, it’s still within the confines they’ve been given. I don’t know if I missed some vital part of the background that sets their place within the society they live, or if it’s just the way the characters have been set. I don’t necessarily want a Katniss-style revolt, but…some flash of something from someone would have made it a little more realistic for me.

So – beautiful, haunting, dystopian and readable. Definitely worth at least one read.

This was part of my 2017 Discoverability Challenge.

Review: Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

shades of grey coverHundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place. Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour. Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane — a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed. For Eddie, it’s love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey …If George Orwell had tripped over a paint pot or Douglas Adams favoured colour swatches instead of towels …neither of them would have come up with anything as eccentrically brilliant as Shades of Grey.

I didn’t expect this to be dystopia, but it is. Amusing, unsettling, young adult dystopia.

The world’s amusing at first. Everyone can only see certain sections of colour, and society is divided on those lines. Everyone’s got traits, too; Yellows are snooty, Reds are practical, Greys are the workers…and life is driven by the drive to rise up the colour rankings by ensuring your children have a good colour-vision percentage, and by the need to find more scrap from the past that can be recycled into dyes so that towns and villages can be coloured appropriately. Inside all of that there’s a whole multitude of mystery, a bookful of rules, and one inconvenient girl with a very attractive nose who couldn’t possibly have been where Eddie saw her. The fact that she threatens to kill him is just icing on the cake.

The plot mixes a personal mystery – why Eddie’s been sent to the Outer Fringes – and a murder one; an unconventional romance (involving said attractive nosed-lady) and an extremely rules-bound and practical one; a society that’s as strange as it is amusing, and which slowly becomes less amusing and more dangerous…

The book is amusing, witty, entertaining and frankly – at least by the end – unsettling. Fforde’s writing is good, and the oddities and twists of this book are what make it – the idea of evening stories tapped out by Morse on the radio; a particular shade of green giving an euphoric effect; a rule against making more spoons; specifically dyed green grass. But it’s the wider world and the plot that is eerie and thought-provoking, and although Eddie is at times a bit dumb, his morals and his slow realisation of the reality in the society around him is one of the drives of this book. I admit to a thorough like of Jane (possibly because she opts for violence as a primary solution; it’s a very practical method of problem-solving and, incidentally, problem-creating) and the surrounding characters are all interesting. I particularly like the historian!

So – if you like Fforde’s writing (particularly the Thursday Next series) or Douglas Adams; or you’re into dystopia; then give this a read.

Review: Girl Genius series

Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Mad, bad and dangerous to know…and in charge. If your country gets taken over by an army of intelligent lobsters, well, that’s pretty much normal for this alternate universe. The story and world are littered with mad inventors, crazy ideas, strange politics, stories of derring-do and general insanity…

Agatha starts the story as a lab assistant who can’t quite get any of her inventions to work. When Dr Beetle gets an unexpected visitor, a dose of double-crossing (possibly involving a fishbowl) mean the visit doesn’t quite go to plan. Agatha opts for getting away from it all – but runs straight into the forces of Baron Wulfenbach, Europa’s least mad inventor and therefore its Force For Sanity, and is imprisoned aboard his airship. In short order, she has to find out where she is, who she is, what she can do, and why she apparently smells quite so good – although apparently not to Wulfenbach’s son, who consistently puts his foot in his mouth, mostly when it comes to Agatha.

I really enjoyed this; it’s a fast-paced and amusing romp, all done with tongue firmly in mechanical cheek and littered with jabs at steampunk, inventors, scientists, history and mad machines. The plot does get quite intricate and it can be hard to follow the politics, but I found that I just sat back and accepted a lot of it, trusting that it would be sorted out later – and it usually was. You definitely can’t take this book seriously, and it’s a tremendous amount of fun.

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess is the second in the series. Agatha has succeeded in escaping from Baron Wulfenbach’s airship, but has landed herself in the middle of the dangerous, monster-infested Wastelands with only a talking cat and a home-made doomsday machine to assist her. When she stumbles across a travelling circus, they take her in and she learns to fight – and build. But the circus soon arrives at even more trouble; Wulfenbach is not the only mad inventor around, and other people have plans for Agatha – and her voice.

The second book doesn’t let down the pace – very often a sequel starts wandering. This one? Nope! It’s got as many mad inventions, laughs, perilous situation and general mad shenanigans as the first. The political situation develops further, landing Agatha in a whole heap of trouble, but we do meet some more faces. The ending is something of a cliffhanger for the third book…

Agatha H and the Voice of the Castle follows Agatha on her quest to return to the castle in Mechanisburg, hereditary home of the mad genius Heterodyne family. The only issue is that the castle itself is insane and there’s another Heterodyne claimant around, determined to take over the castle and fight Baron Wulfenbach’s rule. In addition to those problems, Agatha’s got to sort out two genius lovesick inventors and keep her mind intact, all while trying to convince the Castle that it’s not fun to kill guests…

As mad, as fun, as interesting – but while the story is as fast-paced, I’m not as sure about the plot. This book is longer, and it feels it: without spoilering, I feel an entire arc towards the end could have been chopped out without any problems – and I’m currently not entirely sure about where it ended. The first and second books ended on natural arc end points, whereas this book has ended very much on a nailbiting cliffhanger of “they’re actually in mid-peril”…and now I have to wait? *scowl* So while I do have grabby hands for the next one, I’m also a little miffed. However, the world’s as insane, the machine are as monstrous, and the jokes are still firmly present; the book’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of madness.

I am definitely enjoying the series, and if you like steampunk, mad scientists, general chaos and a fun romp through absolute chaos, you’ll enjoy these.

On a side note, the books are based on the webcomic Girl Genius by the same authors. I read the books first, and have only got a few pages into the webcomic before deciding that actually, I’d rather have the images in my imagination!

Review: Fool If You Think It’s Over

Fool If You Think It’s Over by Jo Thomas

Fool if youThis is the third in the Elkie Bernstein series – the first two were 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf and A Pack of Lies. Fool If You Think It’s Over is out soon…watch @FoxSpiritBooks for a date!

As far as Elkie’s concerned, it’s all over and her happy ending is just around the corner.

She’s on her way back to Wales having freed Ben from the clutches of the controlling Dr Olsen and ensured that Dave, her ex-everything, will never be in a position to kill again. She’s even managed to find herself a (somewhat unwilling) father figure in Conn, the one werewolf in the world who seems to have his shit together. All she has to do is say “thank you” to the Valemon, a company so at odds with Olsen they were willing to support her, then get on a plane for home.

Easy, right?

The book finishes off Elkie’s journey to Norway, and completes the story that started when she got attacked by a werewolf – and won. Killing werewolves wasn’t meant to become a habit, but 25 of them later, it was sort of a Thing…and then it was a case of tracking down the person responsible. Unfortunately, that wasn’t just a single person involved, and Elkie got dragged into a political minefield. Plus there’s an ex-boyfriend, a reluctant father-figure, two sisters and a manipulative sort-of-ex to figure out…

Without spoilering too much there’s a second organisation that can (probably) turn into animals (I don’t really know enough about Norse mythology to know where some of the details and ideas come from)…and they don’t like Olsen. They do like Elkie. She’s not entirely keen on this but manages to learn a few things which, from a reader’s perspective, were incredibly helpful to the story but I admit I didn’t entirely understand. I need to go re-read my mythology now!

Anyway; Ben’s still a slimy little weasel (although I always think that’s a bit unfair to weasels), Conn’s still unsure and annoyed, and the wolfpack is just trying to navigate their place in the world. Elkie’s mullish, belligerant, chin-out stubborn and loyal to a fault. The plot nicely ties up the ends from the previous two books: the ending was unexpected, and I admit I was a little disappointed by it. I’d have liked Elkie to be a bit more proactive, have more of a…but that’s spoilers. It was a good ending, regardless.

So, overall? I liked the first one; amusing, witty, fast-paced. The second and third both get detailed and political, and – particularly in this last one – the motivations can sometimes be hard to figure out. In general, enjoyable and worth reading if you’ve read the previous two, just to finish the series – but 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf is definitely my stand-out win.