Category Archives: Fantasy

How To Be Dead (Books 1-3)

How To Be Deadby Dave Turner

It is true that I have a strange sense of humour and there are certain types of books that simply call out to me. From the strange imaginings of Terry Pratchett and Tom Sharpe to the gentle humour of Leslie Thomas or Pauline McLynn, they offer an escape from reality. Humour is subjective and just because a book makes me chuckle merrily to myself doesn’t mean it will do the same for someone else. I am a fan of romantic comedies in any form, be it book, film or theatre, but my favourite release has to be the more zany worlds envisaged by the likes of Dave Turner. A world where reality comes face-to-face with the best of human imagination. 

Dave Turner’s “How To Be Dead” is not the first to give the likes of Death human form and a personality, and I am sure it won’t be the last. And whilst it has an uncanny resemblance to at least one Terry Pratchett adventure, it is extremely funny in its own right. 

The first character we meet is Death himself. Unlike most of his other appearances in literature, Turner’s Death is very human in his frailties and his obsessions. His inability to pronounce Beelzebub, his craving for biscuits and his need for reassurance make him a vulnerable and likeable character. And throughout the three books here we will meet his colleagues, War, Famine and Conquest. And Beelzebub of course. 

The story really begins when young Dave Marwood, stuck in a dead-end job and drifting aimlessly through life, becomes a hero. Saving the life of the woman he loves (even if she isn’t aware of it at the time) changes everything. But then, coming face-to-face with Death will do that every time. Following his near-death experience, Dave discovers he has gifts he never knew he had. He is also now living in a world he never knew existed. And for the first time in his life, he has a purpose. He also has a new relationship with the girl of his dreams, so what could possibly go wrong?

The three individual books of this trilogy focus on different strands of the overall story, but at the heart of each of them is Dave’s relationship with Melanie. It was his unrequited love for her that led to his near-death encounter with his new boss. And it is his passions that drive him to beat the odds when faced with a hastily assembled and not very successful attempt at a budget Appocolyps.  

There are some very original elements to this very funny book. I particularly enjoyed the back story to the Four Horsemen of the Apppocolyps. Their relationship was believable, considering they had been working together for millennia. 

But what makes the book such a joy to read is the relentless humour. From moments of slapstick gold to the most subtle of turns of phrase, every page offers something to laugh about. I love the kind of subtle humour that was so well perfected by Tom Sharpe, and reflected here in what I found to be a real page-turner. 

As I said at the beginning of this review, humour is subjective. If you are one of those that simply don’t get the Discworld or have never laughed at Monty Python, then give this one a miss. If, however, you can believe there is a world where Death is a Billy Joel fan with an obsession for bourbons, then this is defiantly for you.

 

Rotherweird

Rotherwierdby Andrew Caldercott

Rotherweird is a somewhat difficult book to describe. It has elements of gothic horror, fantasy and drama, underlaid with subtle humour.

The story centres around the links between our world and a parallel dimension where strange and mysterious forces are at play. The bridge between these two worlds lies within the confines of the secretive town of Rotherweird. The town and its citizens live by their own rules and very little contact with the world beyond their border.

Established during the reign if Elizabeth I, Rotherweird enjoys almost complete independence, but does exist with a number of restrictions, the most important being that nobody studies the town or its history. This presents a bit of a challenge for Jonah Oblong, the newly appointed History teacher at the Rotherweird School. Undaunted by this he soon begins to become acquainted with the townsfolk and their ways but he is not the only new face in town. The old manor has a new inhabitant, the mysterious Sir Veronal and his “wife” Lady Slickstone.

There are a plethora of interesting characters, all playing their part in the events that are about to unfold, bringing great danger to not only Rotherweird but the strange the inhabitants of the mysterious Lost Acre. Not everyone is as they seem and it soon becomes clear that there is a very good reason for keeping the town’s history a secret.

The plot has all the twists and turns you would expect from a good drama but I have difficulty with the more fantastic elements of the story. Strange creatures, reminiscent of something from ancient mythology, ancient books and characters who are much older than they seem make for an interesting mix.

As I said, it is a rather strange book and one that I had some trouble following at times. I enjoyed the story but some of the narrative lacked clarity. Having said that there are some strange and enticing characters whose stories I found intriguing. I enjoyed the book and was happy with the plot and the eventual outcome. However, I am not too sure about seeking out the next books in the series.

Exit West

Exit Westby Mohsin Hamid

Over the past couple of years, I have become quite a fan of Mohsin Hamid. His books are insightful and entertaining. His reputation as a writer of great fiction is well established and well deserved, so I embark on each new book with high expectations.

Opening in an unnamed city, presumably in the middle or far east, Exit West is a love story with a hint of science fiction/fantasy. As their lives are shattered by war and intimidation, Saeed and Nadia meet at college and soon become lovers. Whilst their relationship blossomed, stories began to circulate of mysterious black doors appearing all over the city, offering an opportunity to start a new life elsewhere. That is where the science fiction comes in. Individuals passing through these doors are transported, via a companion doorway in another location. 

Saeed and Nadia are amongst those who pay to use one of these doors to escape from the death and destruction that surrounds them. Looking for a new life leads the couple to make several such trips, taking in Greece, London and California. 

Each of the places they visit offers a mix of opportunities and troubles. As the number of these black doors grows, the number of travellers grows with them, bringing with it increasing pressure on the points of arrival. 

The subject of immigration is a very relevant one at the moment and this book taps into that, but from the point of view of the immigrants themselves. Saeed and Nadia face many difficult decisions and their relationship is tested many times before they eventually find themselves somewhere to call home. 

Although this book is very different from his previous works, it does share their intriguing insights into human nature. His characters are all well-formed and very easy to feel empathy for. Leaving your home behind to step into the unknown is a daunting prospect and would test the resilience of any individual doing so. In Exit West, Hamid asks some very difficult questions about not only immigration but also about tolerance and acceptance. 

I admit that I was not sure about the concept of the doorways. Not that I have any issues with the idea of instantaneous interdimensional transportation. As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, these concepts are not new to me, but I have never come across them in the context they appear here. I can see that many of Hamid’s regular readers might find the idea of the doorways distracting and off-putting. For myself, they were simply a convenient device to enable the more intense and intriguing examination of human nature and xenophobia.

Mohsin Hamid’s standing as a great writer remains undiminished. An interesting, insightful and novel that only goes to prove what a good writer he is. 

Red Country (First Law World #6)

Red Countryby Joe Abercrombie

Unlike a lot of fantasy fiction, Red Country is not about the struggles for power or a race against time and prophesy. It is about one young woman’s quest to rescue her young brother and sister from unknown kidnappers and to avenge the death of her father. It is a quest that takes young Shy South on a voyage of self-discovery and enlightenment. It is also a tale of redemption and forgiveness as Shy and her companion, Lamb, face enemies old and new. Both have pasts they have tried to forget, but events will conspire to bring those pasts very much to the fore.

I have to say that I felt the story takes more than a little inspiration from the American old west. On several occasions, I found myself reminded of that wonderful film “Paint Your Wagon” with its wagon train, mud and lost souls seeking their fortunes in the hills.

Although it is the thread that holds the book together, Shy’s personal quest isn’t the only story being told here. There are warring factions, but it is not the great powers themselves who cross Shy and Lamb’s paths, but others like the inept Temple whose life is similarly torn apart by events beyond their control.

The big advantage for fantasy writers is they are not constrained by facts or history. There can be no anachronisms and factual inaccuracies, just a blank canvas their stories can unfold. And Joe Abercrombie makes very good use of this freedom in all his books. But unlike most of his other works, Red Country is more a story of relationships, conflicting loyalties and personal discovery. There are enough scenes of blood and gore to keep everyone happy, but it is the unfolding personal stories that make this such a good book for me.

Fans of fantasy fiction will no doubt be already aware of Abercrombie’s work. But whether already a fan or not, Red Country is a book well worth the read. The well-constructed characters and their interweaving storylines make for a dramatic tale. Shy’s grim determination to recover her lost siblings is a compelling vehicle for Abercrombie to investigate the things that drive us all. Red Country is a damned good read.

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Fire and Ice #4)

A Feast for Crowsby George R R Martin

I found A Feast for Crows to be a rather strange offering. The books 770 pages are as gripping and full of the imaginative storytelling we have all come to expect of this wonderful series. The whole of Westeros continues to be torn apart by the warring factions each aiming to gain the Iron Throne and rule over the seven kingdoms. 

Whilst there are no big battle scenes, there is plenty of the political intrigue that has become the hallmark of this series. But for me, this was the inevitable weak point of the tale. It doesn’t really feel like the various threads of the tale have moved a great deal. I suppose that with so much happening in the previous books, a moment of consolidation and consideration was required. 

Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a bad book, it just doesn’t have the pace and impact of the previous books of the series. It also misses out completely three of the story’s central characters, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. We will have to wait until book five to find out what has been happening at the Wall and across the sea. 

In A Song of Fire and Ice, George R R Martin has created a world that is alive with wonderful characters, great beauty and unimaginable cruelty – much like our own, but with the added bonus of dragons. A Feast For Crows has them all (except the dragons) in abundance. As the Stark girls continue their separate odysseys, each unaware that her sister has survived the hell that descending on Kings Landing, Cersie Lannister’s attempts to tighten her grip on the Iron Throne are under threat from an unexpected quarter. In fact, the whole of Westeros is going to pot and there seems to be little anyone can do about it. 

As part of the series that has gripped readers and TV viewers alike, this book provides another piece of the elaborate jigsaw that has been created by the wonderful storyteller, George R R Martin.

City of Heavenly Fire (The Mortal Instruments #6)

City of Heavenly Fireby Cassandra Clare

City of Heavenly Fire brings Cassandra Clare’s epic Mortal Instruments to a dramatic conclusion. Each instalment has brought its own twists to the tale and this last book is no different. Despite everything that has gone before, the dangers that our intrepid band of Shadowhunters and assorted Downworlders face as the story comes to its dramatic end are the most gripping.

The pace and tone of the book are firmly established in the prologue, with Sebastian playing his hand and working to bring down those who oppose him. As always, the adults of the Clave are seemingly unwilling or unable to confront the truth and it is left to Clarey, Jace, Alec, Isabel and Simon to save the day. Well, it is aimed at a teenage audience so you wouldn;t expect anything else.

I have really enjoyed this series. The quality of the writing and the plot are excellent and Cassandra has created a magical world in which nothing is ever exactly as it seems. There are the usual teen romances, although by this point they are pretty much over the will-they-won’t-they stage in their respective relationships and now busy getting on with whatever it is that teenagers do! But much like the Harry Potter series, the final instalment is the darkest. All the pain and grief of the previous five books culminates in a fast-paced and exciting climax. There are several unexpected twists, but in the end, our teenage heroes once again save the day, but at what cost?

Day Four (The Three #2)

Day Fourby Sarah Lotz

Day Four is the second part of Sarah Lotz’s “The Three” trilogy. 

The story is set aboard a ship cruising the Gulf of Mexico. For three days, everything goes according to plan. Passengers enjoy the facilities and the sun; the crew deal with their usual mix of awkward, obnoxious and drunken holidaymakers. Just another cruise. Until day four.

That is when things start to go very wrong, and when events onboard the Beautiful Dreamer take a mysterious and sinister turn.

Although part of a series, you do not need to have read the first book (The Three) to enjoy it. There are obvious links and references to the first story, but on the whole, it stands alone very well.  

Each “chapter” tells the ongoing story from the perspective of the book’s main characters. Each has their own reasons for being aboard the ship. Each has a secret they want to keep hidden, but for all of them, events aboard the stricken ship force them to face fears and their own past. 

With no power, food and supplies dwindling and a virus beginning to take hold, tempers aboard the Beautiful Dreamer become increasingly short. And when people begin to see “ghosts”, things just from bad to worse. 

The only person not adversely affected by the changing circumstances is Celine del Ray, celebrity psychic, who seems to thrive on the mysterious events. Is she in some way responsible for what is happening? How does she know so much about her fellow travellers and their pasts?

Day Four is a gripping and intense thriller which questions our view of reality and ourselves. It is every bit as good as The Three with a great mix of wonderful characters, intense plot and skilled storytelling. 

I can’t wait t read the next. 

The City of Mirrors (The Passage #3)

The City of MirrorsThe epic Passage trilogy comes to a dramatic and conclusive end in this thrilling final instalment. At over 800 pages, it is quite a read, but well worth the investment in time and the wait. Unlike the first two books, City of Mirrors has more than one narrator and doesn’t follow a single timeline.

The action begins 20 years after the climactic events of book two. With the virals gone it is a whole new chapter for mankind. Just when what’s left of North America’s population begin to believe it is safe to turn off the lights and venture beyond the safety of their Texan compound, the old enemy creeps back. For a new generation of American’s, the virals have become something of a myth, the bogeymen from their parents past. But all legends and myths have are rooted in a truth, and they are just about to find out just how real these particular myths are.

One loose end from the previous two books that I felt needed resolving, was what was happening in the rest of the world whilst North America was being overrun by flesh eating virals. After all, the continent was quarantined at the virals themselves contained within its borders. Thankfully, this and other loose ends are neatly tied up.

After two books bursting with action, City of Mirrors feels a little slow at the start as we are introduced to a new narrator whose tale brings some clarity to the origins of the virals and their actions. It is the story of a man whose obsessions and decisions will bring humanity to the very edge of extinction. But his actions are not born out of hatred but love. Despite the body count and impressive stash of weapons, City of Mirrors is centred around a love story.

Unrequited love, maternal love and all-consuming passions direct the actions of each of the story’s main characters. Justin Cronin has proven himself to be a talented storyteller with a real vision. Bringing this incredible trilogy to a climactic and touching conclusion, City of Mirrors is a captivating and compelling read.

A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold (A Song of Ice and Fire #3.2)

A Storm of Swordsby George R R Martin

And the fun and laughter just goes on!

Or it would of there was any. One thing you can say about the epic Songs of Fire and Ice series is that they are neither funny or fun. If you have already read the preceding books, you will already know what to expect, if you haven’t then don’t bother trying to pick up the story at this stage. 

The squabble over the Iron Throne of Westeros continues unabated. And as the death toll continues to rise amongst the story’s leading characters, their relationships and allegiances becomes more complex and fragile.

Young Robb Stark seems unassailable as he leads his army of northmen inexorably south towards Kings Landing. But all is not as it should be back home, with Robb’s enemies hatching plans of their own. 

Beyond the Wall another war is brewing, but this time against an enemy that seemingly cannot be stopped. Jon Snow faces enemies on both sides of the Wall as he returns to Castle Black.

In the east, Daenerys Stormborn continues her campaign against the slave traders even as she prepares her return to Westeros to reclaim her father’s throne.

This is one of the most intense and complex series of books I have read in a long time. The carnage amongst the leading players in this deadly game is particularly unnerving as you never know who is going to fall next. This volume has a few surprises for those who have not already seen the TV series, with regicide seemingly becoming something of a pastime in Westeros. 

The Songs of Fire and Ice has become a modern classic, even though the last book(s) have yet to be published. The immense scope of the story itself is staggering and this book is just as intense and driven as the previous volumes. The characters around whom then story is told continue to be as bold and well-structured as the tale they tell. It is common for mid series books to falter a little as the plot hits a kind of lull before the climactic ending, but in this case, there are no signs of slowing down the pace or compromising the integrity of the characters.

A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow (A Song of Ice and Fire #3.1)

A Storm of Swordsby George R R Martin

The first part of the third book of the Song of Fire and Ice series, Steel and Snow sees our myriad of characters dealing with the aftermath of the failed assault on King’s Landing. As with the previous two books, the interwoven plots, expertly crafted characters and great writing make this as gripping a book as you could wish for.

Anyone who has seen the TV adaption will understand just how difficult it can be at times to keep up with the machinations and political intrigues that drive the plot on. But it is the relationships between the various characters that continues to intrigue me. As the story progresses, relationships become more complex. People are rarely all good or all bad, and can often react in ways that you can’t anticipate. And the same goes for George R R Martin’s multitude if characters. 

As for the story itself, the Lannisters tighten their grip on the throne of Westeros and shift their focus from their battle field to forging alliances through marriage. In the north, Robb Stark’s advance stalls as he faces the breakup of the alliances that have contributed to his successes so far. 

Beyond the Wall, Jon Snow must come to terms with the conflicts between his vows as a member of the Night Watch and the pressing need to survive amongst the Wildlings. The rest of the Stark family face their own challenges, doing their best to survive in difficult circumstances. Sansa has become a pawn in the games between the other houses, Arya continues her journey north in her attempt to re-join her mother and brother. Meanwhile, young Bran Stark continues his own journey towards the wilds of the far north in search of the crow with three eyes.

With all of Westeros caught up in the fight between the conflicting claims on the Iron Throne, the free people from beyond the Wall are massing for an attack on the kingdoms of the south. And across the sea in the east, Daenerys Stromborn is assembling an army to pursue her own claim on the throne. 

There is no let-up in the pace or complexity of the narrative. For fans of the books so far, there will be no disappointment here. For anyone who hasn’t read the first two books, it is pointless trying to join the adventure here – you’ll never work out what on earth is going on!