Category Archives: Review

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Review: Trust a Few by E M Swift-Hook

Trust a Few by E M Swift-Hook is the first book in the middle trilogy of a trilogy of trilogies. That may seem like a strange place to start, but I watched the original Star Wars in the cinema when it came out: so, let’s do this!

Avilon Revid was a rebel and a hero, a terrorist and a pariah, but events led to amnesia and capture by the Coalition. Now he is trying to build a new life and a new identity after finishing his sentence serving with the brutal Special Legion. He goes in search of the one man he considered a friend in the Specials, Jazatar Baldrik. They had arranged to meet in Starcity, but Jaz is missing and Avilon finds himself alone in the underworld of the ‘city, with only a few years’ memories and a still developing sense of morality to guide him.

The adventure follows four main points of view: Avilon, Jazatar, Charis, a pilot fallen on hard times, and Durban a free-agent seeking Avilon for his own reasons. They must deal with each other and the web of criminality holding the ‘city together. The plot interleaves their stories nicely, juggling plot threads and cliff-hangers in switching POV. Expect action, intrigue and double-crosses.

The world feels real and lived in, the tech, for me, explained enough without bogging down details, and the worldbuilding is deft. I particularly enjoy the idea of the ‘city selling itself as a tourist spot because of the levels of organised crime there.

Did I ever feel out of my depth, starting in the middle of the story of this universe? Actually, no. Trust a Few is a great jumping on point for new readers, with plenty of interesting characters being victims of events clearly established in the book. One character does take a turn at about the two-thirds point of the book which felt a little out of nowhere, but I gather he was a character in the previous trilogy and events here are in keeping with that. So that’s not so much a problem, as a reason for me to seek out earlier books in the series.

To sum up, if you want an intriguing sci-fi set in a grimy lived-in universe with interesting characters doing interesting things, then Trust a Few is well worth your time. Five stars!

And if you want a taster, check out my reading a short story that ties into Trust a Few in episode 24 of my podcast!

Review: Mercury’s Son by Luke E T Hindmarsh

My last indie read of 2017 was Luke E T Hindmarsh’s Mercury’s Son, and while it’s unfair to pick a favourite from such a diverse and fascinating array of books, this one, I have to say, rings all the right notes for me.

Valko is a Moderator, a cold passionless investigator who was technology which lets him enter others’ minds to draw out information, including the recently deceased. He and his team are called in to investigate a double murder, an investigation which will take Valko to all levels of his society, planet, and beyond.

In this book, Hindmarsh builds a hugely detailed dystopia, and uses the Moderator’s investigation to show off its tech, history, politics, religion and metaphysics. It’s an impressive feat, and Valko is a fascinating protagonist, his journey leaves him very much changed as he comes to terms with a world that is not at all what he believed.

Mercury’s Son is a great read, but I do offer one caveat. The writing is dense, there are a whole lot of words on display, and on occasion this can lead to a few wobbles in pacing.

That aside, this is a cracking read, and I’m happy to give it five stars.

Get Mercury’s Son on Amazon now!

 

Reviews: Christmas Movies on Netflix

At about this time every year, Mrs Storycast and I sit down to binge as many daft Christmas movies as Netflix can offer us. This year, I thought I’d give reviewing them a go. These aren’t going to be serious movie reviews, because, frankly, I’m judging these movies on a whole other scale. Quality here is not must-see-at-cinema quality. Still, there is fun to be had in their own way.

A Christmas Prince

Amber is an editor at a magazine looking for her first writing credit, who poses as a tutor to gain access to the castle and get the scoop on the wayward Prince Richard.

Blond ambition: Perky young journalist with heart of gold has hair to match.
Power of the press: Undercover journalism puts romance on the rocks.
It’s a kind of magic: No magic, but a drawer, and an acorn conceal a secret. So that’s a bit like magic?
Time Limits: The Prince must be crowned on Christmas Eve, of course
The Christmas Factor: Snow, gifts, parties, a Christmas message

Rating: ****

  Continue reading Reviews: Christmas Movies on Netflix

Review: Elvira Wonders by Sanna Hines

Let’s talk about Elvira Wonders by Sanna Hines.

The town of Elvira is opening for tourism and it has a lot to offer its visitors. Fairies, Giants, Werewolves, Vampires (two flavours), Thunderbirds, Naiads, Ghosts, psychics and… Egyptians. But as opening day approaches, artefacts are stolen from the Egyptian temple, the feud between the vampire factions escalates and Josh Seldom discovers a murdered fairy.

I was pleased to discover this was not about a vampy mistress of the dark speculating about things. That’s a good thing. In fact, when Josh stumbles across the body of the murdered fairy friend, my interest was well and truly piqued. Hines writes well, I find her style readable, and she does a great job at pulling these various factions into the story, and giving each of them a role in the resolution of the story.

So: a promising start, and a deft conclusion. My problem, I’m afraid, was with the bits in between.

For me, there are a few structural problems with the plot. The elements set up at the start, the murder and the pressure to be ready for the start of tourist season, is all-but dropped in favour of soap opera. We focus on crushes, bickering, mystical curses played for comedy, and for reasons I couldn’t fathom, the ongoing damage to a Hummer is probably the most consistent through-line. While the resolution of the murder does kick off that conclusion I enjoyed, it arrives in an unsatisfactory, almost accidental manner.

There is some interesting world building mixed in here, and I think there is a lot of potential in the Elvira setting for either a much darker story, or a lighter romp without the murders. As it is, it falls betwixt and between, and I can’t give it more than 3 stars.

Review: The Rose Thief by Claire Buss

The Rose Thief by Claire Buss is a loving homage to the works of Terry Pratchett, with particular nods towards the Guards books in the Discworld series. This is both the book’s strength and its weakness.

Ned and his Thief-catchers, a group of magical investigators including a sprite, a nymph and a firefly, have been given 24 hours to find the criminal who has been stealing the emperor’s prize roses. Along the way they will encounter warlocks, mermaids, journalists, smugglers, family, alternate dimensions, love and its loss. The cast of characters are engagingly quirky, the ideas on display are strong, and there are some genuinely funny moments. The pace never dipped, and Buss’s style is readable throughout.

But I have two problems with The Rose Thief. Firstly, the Pratchett parallels are perhaps a little too on the nose. For example, the description of one region of the city is such a familiar riff on Pratchett’s Shades in Ankh-Morpork that it left me wanting something different. The strongest elements in the book are all the new ideas, and there are plenty, but they are somewhat buried under the Pratchett pastiche (the Pratchiche?). Secondly, the plot is sacrificed to the need for jokes. After a little early set up, there is very little investigation in the Thief-catchers’ story. Ned spends the first half of the book shuttling back and forth between his office and the palace, the original mystery wraps up well before the end of the book to be replaced by a quest which feels rather arbitrary and doesn’t make a great deal of sense. I spent too much of the book wondering why things happened the way they did.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book. While it has its flaws, it was fun, and some of the ideas are well worth further exploration. If Buss writes a follow-up, I will happily read it, but I can’t give The Rose Thief top marks. Pratchett is a tough act to follow, you need to be funny, clever and really tightly plotted. The Rose Thief accomplishes some of that, if that works for you, the book would be well worth your time, but for me, it still falls short. Three stars.

Get your copy of The Rose Thief from Amazon.

Review: The Alchemist’s Box

The Alchemist’s Box by Alex Avrio is the first book of the Merchant Blades series. It follows the adventures of Captain Regina Fitzwaters and her mercenary team on a simple mission to recover the eponymous box from a neighbouring city-state. As things go wrong and the mission spirals into complexity, her team must deal with wolves, politics, crocodiles, curses, betrayal and ancient magic beyond their comprehension. All complicated by the presence of her second-in-command, Kapitan Maximillian Jaeger, a down-on-his-luck mercenary that served on the other side of a recent war. They will need to do more than simply co-operate if they’re to get through all this alive.

There’s a lot of good in this book. The style is light and thoroughly readable, the pacing is brisk, and Captain Fitzwaters is a likable and believable character, who goes through the book making reasonably astute and sensible choices (always a plus). The world is fleshed out enough, there’s a sense of place without being buried under world-building (though I am curious what the people who live in South Beyond the Waters call their homeland).

It’s not flawless. Some of Fitzwaters team are rather one-note, and the more the story steered away from the mercenary company roots and into the ancient magic in the third act, the less engaging I found it. There are a couple things that felt like they were being set up as big reveals, and they were all rather thrown away. And while the relationship between Fitzwaters and Jaeger was generally very well handled there were two or three moments which rang strange.

But I do recommend this book for all that. If you’re looking for an enjoyable fantasy romp with a mix of military and dark magic, The Alchemist’s Box would be a fine choice. A no-nonsense, readable, four stars.

Get The Alchemist’s Box from Amazon.

Review: Too Wyrd by Sarah Buhrman

In Too Wyrd by Sarah Buhrman we get a fascinating vision of magic in a modern setting, with a dash of Norse mythology and a solid helping of approaching Ragnarok.
Nicola is a single mother and pagan, looking for a quiet life. But when she hears that her ex is running a cult and her half-sister has joined it, Nicola is reluctantly pulled into a role she doesn’t want: hero. Can she untangle her sister and prevent Ragnarok?

For the most part, the way magic works in Nicola’s world is wonderful. That Nicola must access memories and harness the associated emotions to use her abilities is fascinating. It gives real insight into who Nicola is and what drives her. The weaving of different mythologies, particularly Norse, into the narrative gives proceedings a nice weight. And it’s all underpinned with a contrast to the urban setting of Indianapolis. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these elements.

But there were things which didn’t work for me, enough that despite the things I genuinely loved in the book, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Nicola is well realised, though with a tendency to retreat to glib and detached, but I found the supporting cast all quite one-note. Generally, I think the book could have benefitted from another edit pass to tighten it up. There aren’t many typos, but fixing a few pacing problems and dialogues scenes buried in unnecessary staging notes could really make this book sing.

I’m giving Too Wyrd four stars. It is a creative urban fantasy with lots of really clever ideas and a good deal of heart, if you’re not being over-analytical, it would be entirely possible to kept swept up in it. But when I review, I analyse, and in my case, I can’t give it top marks.

Buy Too Wyrd on Amazon now.

Review: FountainCorp Security by Watson Davis

If you’re looking for an action-packed military sci-fi romp you’re in the right place. In FountainCorp Security by Watson Davis, we have plenty of spaceships, blasters, espionage and zombies (not necessarily in that order).

Dorothea is adjusting to life in a new life with a new unit, but on their first mission out things go sideways, and she must rescue her team and a young girl from a zombie infested space station. This leads to new relationships, and confronting a part of her past she would rather forget, all the while tangling with corporations, terrorists and the Families.

Davis has created an interesting universe, with enough detail to the setting to intrigue, without clobbering you with a world building hammer, and his prose style is approachable and enjoyable.

It’s not perfect, I’ve knocked a point off for a few minor quibbles: we’re introduced to too large a cast too quickly, and until the book settles down a bit, it’s hard to tell who we’re supposed to care about. At no point does any character say “wait, these are actual bona fide zombies?” and I’m not sure if that’s because zombies are common in this setting, but if they’re not, it seems strange that nobody brings it up. The book is at its weakest when Dorothea is caught up in a dysfunctional relationship, which makes it hard to like our main character, even though much of the book does an effective job of making her likable. I also find the switching back and forth between first person and third person sections a distraction.

But for all these quibbles, this is a fun read, tense and exciting where it needs to be, in a world with a believable layer of grime and decay over everything.  Thumbs up from me, four stars.

Buy FountainCorp Security on Amazon now.

 

 

Review: The Calling by Louise G White

I’ve been looking to broaden my YA reading for a while now.

I’ve read the obvious (‘Yer predictable, Harry!’) and dabbled with Rysa Walker’s excellent time travel adventures, The Chronos Files, but otherwise I’ve not read much YA fiction since I was a YA. There’s a lot of it out there, and finding something new to sample has been an excellent way to avoid editing chores on my own YA book.

Then I noticed that someone who had retweeted my podcast had a YA Fantasy series out. Seemed like a chance to get some YA research in, and thank her for the RT, so I picked up book one of the Gateway series. Here then, are my thoughts on The Calling by Louise G White.

Carolyn is a teenage girl who suffered a unique tragedy, and is dealing with it in an unusual way: her mother and brother were snatched away by a magical gateway that also triggered a change in Carolyn. Now she is called to other gateways to fight demons with her own new-found magical abilities. Along the way she encounters demons, wizards and secret agents, discovers more about her family’s history, and struggles through a complicated first relationship. With a shape-shifting snake demon.

The setting for The Calling is very interesting. Earth is being protected from the other realms of demons by an organisation of wizards and agents, but the organisation is factionalised and working at seemingly cross-purposes. We see only glimpses of the demons’ realms, but they too seem politically complex and sophisticated, more so than Carolyn realises at the start of the book.

The main cast are likable enough. Although it’s clear that not all of them are entirely on Carolyn’s side, if they could just bring themselves to talk honestly with each other, a lot of their problems would just drop away. But that’s teen angst in YA for you, I guess.

If there is one note about The Calling that I find troubling, it is how much of Carolyn’s fate is outside her own control. Between mind controls, compelling and sudden unexplained bonds Carolyn comes across as… powerful but weak? My favourite part of the book is early on when Carolyn is on the run stealing things from Argos. The more Carolyn is tied into the plot, the weaker, and honestly less sympathetic her character becomes.  Carolyn has a strange arc, that leads almost inevitably to darker places.

In summary, I enjoyed The Calling, and will swing around to book 2 once I’ve worked through some more of my TBR list. I will have to ding a point for my uncomfortableness with Carolyn’s lack of control, but if I read book 2 and it pays off with Carolyn triumphantly taking back her life, I’ll come back and apologise!  My rating 3.5 stars.

Review: The Devil’s Playbook

Before I start, I should say that Anthony is a friend of mine.  So when reading this review, you should keep in mind that on one shoulder I have an angel telling me to encourage people to support my friend’s book, and on the other, I have a demon, stabbing me with jealousy that he has his book out there, and mine is still languishing on my PC.  As I wrestle with my angels and demons, let’s talk about The Devil’s Playbook by Anthony Le Sueur.

This is an urban fantasy set in modern day London.  It is by turns funny and dark, revolving around the ancient conflict between angels and demons. Of late, the demons are winning, and the Devil is worried.  He suspects something is wrong, but needs to provoke a reaction to prove it, so sets out to break the covenant that exists between the factions. He recruits Andy, a blogger, to write stories that technically break the rules in increasingly blatant ways.  Can the Devil get a response from God, and will it be in time to combat the threat which is targeting both sides?

Says the demon on my shoulder… The Devil’s Playbook is very much a debut novel, and it has its flaws.  The opening reads like someone sat down to do NaNoWriMo, had no idea how to start, and just wrote what they could see in front of them. Certain major plot points are discarded on characters that have only just been introduced and we have no attachment to. At times, the effort ground the novel in real London, wanders into the realms of a London guidebook and “places I know”.

But, the angel is quick to point out, there is a lot to recommend in this book.  There are two main protagonists, the blogger, Andy, and the Devil.  Both are likable and well written.  The world that Andy is drawn into is interesting, and the demons he meets are a memorable bunch.  The mythology Le Sueur builds is interesting, and in fact I would like to see it developed further.

Best of all, the true villain of the piece is terrifying and creepy. Throughout the book, we see short interludes of him working in the background against both the angels and the demons. These scenes are tense, well written, and on more than one occasion, more than a bit upsetting.

The Devil’s Playbook then, is not perfect by any means, and I found the early section before it found its feet a bit of a slog.  But once you can get past that, it is well worth the effort, and if you like urban fantasy with interesting mythology and memorable characters, I recommend The Devil’s Playbook to you.

As for a star rating… four stars feels perhaps a little high… but three stars is definitely too low.  Can I give 3.8?  What the heck, this is my blog, 3.8 stars.

I’ve just made a mockery of my own star rating.