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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill

After Ringworld, I needed something lighter. I figured that Some Girls Bite would be just the antidote I was looking for, the kind of trashy novel that doesn't require a lot of thought and can act as a kind of recharge period. While it did act as a recharge period, my initial opinion was perhaps a bit harsh.

Some Girls Bite follows Merit, a graduate student who is changed into a vampire after she is nearly killed after an attack by an unknown vampire. To say that she is unhappy about this turn of events would be an understatement; in fact, having been torn away from her contented life of research and academia, she is determined to hate the one who forced the change on her, a master vampire named Ethan Sullivan. This is only complicated by some serious sexual chemistry between the two of them and his expectations regarding her unquestioning loyalty and gratitude. When she finds out that she is only one of a series of women attacked by vampires, however, she finds that she may well be safer in allying herself to Sullivan, as well as a few other supernatural allies, as she tries to figure out who tried to kill her.
From the description, this sounds like it's going to be your standard trashy vampire romance novel. And initially I was fully expecting it to unfold in the exact way these books always unfold. I was pleasantly surprised. The cliched route to take would be for there to be the alpha male vampire with either a wilting flower needing his firm but tender touch to guide her through this new world, or with a fiery sarcastic minx who would challenge him at every turn but eventually be melted by his somewhat dubious charms. In some ways Merit and Ethan fit the second mold, with one rather important difference: their affair fails to start. Fairly early on, Ethan manages to essentially ruin his chances of getting together with Merit precisely because he is a fairly standard alpha male "romantic" hero; by insisting on asserting his superiority, he pushes her away because, in the long run, that just is not something you want to have to deal with. There's chemistry, but Merit knows full well that chemistry alone won't make a relationship work if there's such blatant power issues and obviously different agendas between them, and that was really surprising and pretty damn cool. It's the main good thing that I brought from Some Girls Bite. The other main thing that the novel pulled off well was the characterisation and relationships between Merit and her friends, with Jeff, the flirtatious, if utterly hopeless, shapeshifter being a particular favourite of mine.
But, of course, few books are perfect. If it were perfect, I would be having the equivalent of a stutter right now. There are a couple things that were just kind of average, where they could have been really interesting. First, the world-building needs some work. It's your standard urban fantasy world where if you can think of a humanoid supernatural or mythical creature, then it exists. It also does the whole "vampire coming out" thing, which has been done to death by now. There's the hint of interesting politics, not only between vampire houses but between vampires and other supernatural creatures; unfortunately, it's frustratingly vague in this book, and after the intense world-building in Ringworld, it's all the more obvious. Additionally, the mystery isn't all that well developed. For one thing, most of the book is focused on Merit's attempts to fit into this new rigidly hierarchical society, with the murders being almost a side issue. Also, after a certain point in the book, the culprit becomes disappointingly obvious after one of Merit's friends makes a prophecy regarding what the fallout of the murders will be; seeing as the person being hinted at isn't going to be Merit, there's only really one person who fits the bill otherwise and the big reveal at the end fell a bit flat. Admittedly though, it has set up an interesting set of circumstances for book number 2 in the series, so I'm curious to see where it will go.

Overall, an above average vampire novel. I know, all the ones that I've picked up seem to have been above average; either I'm just easy to please or I've been lucky so far. An interesting subversion of romance tropes and good characterisation is brought down by vague world-building and a subpar mystery. I'd still be interested in reading the next installment though. 3.5/5

Next review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Signing off,

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Right, so, first review of the new year. Hopefully I should be more prolific this year, but considering how long I took with this one, that could be high hopes. Anyway, Ringworld was practically forced on me by my fiance, who is very much a fan of the world-building style of science-fiction novels. Me, not so much, but I agreed to read it because I do find them as a whole interesting, if not wholly satisfying. So how did this measure up?

Ringworld for the most part follows Louis Wu, a human who is contacted by a Puppeteer, a creature long absent from all of known space, who needs him for an intriguing mission. His experience of exploration will be combined with the resources provided by the Puppeteer, named Nessus, as well as the combat skills of the tiger-like Kzin known as Speaker to Animals, and the supposed luck of a human named Teela Brown; with these qualities, they intend to examine and potentially explore a strange structure dubbed the Ringworld. As you can probably tell from the cover there, the Ringworld is an artificial structure built within the Goldilocks zone of a yellow star, creating a living space that is just about incomprehensible to the human mind. Their plans are quickly thwarted by a strange set of circumstances and they must deal with each other's secret agendas and the unknown surface of the Ringworld. 
From the synopsis, this all sounds too good to be true. It kind of is. I'll talk about the good stuff first. For one thing, it is a very thought-provoking book, with concepts of future technology and the process of moving out into unmapped territory all very well fleshed out. The group dynamic between the war-like Speaker and the cowardly Nessus, and the humans who try and balance them out, is engaging and progresses in an understandable and logical way. And the overall plot is generally easy to follow, despite the occasional bit of technobabble that can seem a bit overwhelming at times. So there's a lot to like and recommend this for. 
That is, before I get to the negative aspects, which may well be a game breaker for some readers. Firstly, although I praised the group dynamic, I can't really deny that the group's consistency and logical development largely hinges on the characters not really being much more than a 2D concept. For example, if somoene had told me that Speaker was meant to be a Klingon, or any of the other alien races that have been created as war-like but honourable, then I would believe them pretty damn quickly. Nessus is a perfect example of a cowardly race most concerned with safety, despite being touted as one of the "insane" ones. Teela, the supposedly lucky one, is characterised by her near horrifying lack of knowledge about pain and sadness. Louis, despite being the point-of-view character, felt kind of like a void of personality, doing things simply because it was the mid-point between the beliefs of Speaker and Nessus. Each gets some development, but never enough to make them feel fully fleshed-out or believable. It's like putting paper cutouts on an immaculate oil landscape and expecting the audience to buy that the two things were given the same amount of effort and time. As a result of this, I kind of felt that some of the moments in the book that should have been really important and awe-inspiring just fell flat, simply because the characters didn't have enough character to impart the impressive nature of what they were witnessing. Secondly, while most of the concepts introduced were things that I could accept within suspension of disbelief, there was one thing that seemed strikingly out of place. The flying motorcycles that could dispense food and water? I could buy that. An artificial day/night cycle created by metal plates between the Ringworld and the sun? Sure, that makes sense. The evolutionary path of the Puppeteers? No, now that's just silly. For those of you interested, take a look at what they're supposed to look like. 

So, the Puppeteers. A three-legged, herbivorous race with two heads that act as eyestalks/hands and a large hump on their backs concealing their brain. I cannot, for the life of me, conceive of an environment that would allow for such creatures to evolve in the first place, let alone become the dominant species of their planet and achieve space travel. I'm all for aliens that don't just look like humans with face-paint (see the Turians from Mass Effect, my favourite alien species, as an example), but there is a point where you have to stop and ask "No, really, how is this a thing that people take seriously?" 

In conclusion, Ringworld is a novel that is primarily aimed at people most interested in comprehensive world-building, ignoring the absurdity of the Puppeteers. The characters are suitable for their roles in-universe, but they never come into their own; for me this was disappointing, as it made the tension disappear completely and I couldn't quite bring myself to be wholly invested. Definitely one for when you're in a thinking mood. 3.5/5 

Next review: Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill 

Signing off, 

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

Hey guys. It's been a while since my last update, huh? Well, turns out that job searching is a lot more draining and distracting than I assumed it would be. So a large part of what I've been doing over the last couple of months has been a cycle of "look for a job -> fail at a late stage of an application -> feel my soul die a little -> look for a job". Add to that Christmas and my fourth anniversary to prepare for, it's been a tad hectic. I'm hoping the upcoming months will be less stressful, but I shan't get my hopes up.

Anyway, I just finished reading Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. I had heard that this was one of his weaker plays, but I thought to myself, "This is Shakespeare, author of some of my most favourite plays ever, so it can't be that bad." Oh dear god, how wrong I was. I haven't actually gotten round to watching the BBC adaptation that I have, that's how pissed off I am about it.

The plot of The Comedy of Errors is a farce involving two sets of twins, separated at a young age and unaware of each others' existence. When one pair from Syracuse arrives in Epheseus to trade, they find that the people there mistake them for their twins; hijinks ensue. Why doesn't this unravel at the seams almost instantly? Both sets of twins have the same names. The merchants are both Antipholus, and the servants are both Dromio.
This coincidental set of circumstances brings me to the first reason that I couldn't abide this. The play actively defied my efforts to suspend disbelief. For one thing, the twins both have the same name? Really?! It's such lazy story-writing that I can only barely comprehend it. It's just so obvious that The Comedy of Errors was written for the paycheck that it's a constant distraction.
The second reason that I hated this play was that I couldn't help but feel that this was a far less successful attempt at writing Twelfth Night, one of my favourite plays. There are so many elements here that I've seen Shakespeare implement so much better elsewhere, like the mistaken identity thing between twins. I don't want to associate something like this with a play that I genuinely adore.
Third, I couldn't help but think that the female characters were both really pointless and kind of abused. For example, Adriana, the wife of the Antipholus from Epheseus, is physically attacked by her husband after she unwittingly shuts him out of his own home and he later threatens to put out her eyes because he believes she's been adulterous. This from the same person who was going to give expensive presents to a prostitute out of spite. It just got really uncomfortable at times, especially when other women were extolling his virtues and telling her not to be such a jealous harpy. It was just unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel.

Overall, this is a play that I would avoid. If you're a Shakespeare completist, then be warned that he has used the same elements in a far more competent manner. The customary clever language only compensates so much. 1.5/5

Next review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Signing off,

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Falconer by Elizabeth May

I received a copy of The Falconer from Gollancz as part of their Gollancz Geeks project. I applied for this book mainly because the strange premise tickled my fancy. Who wouldn't be intrigued by a Jane-Austen-style heroine going out at night and hunting down monsters? In any case, did the premise live up to its promise of great things?

The Falconer follows Aileana Kameron, a debutante who spends her days carrying out a standard aristocratic life, attending balls, entertaining friends and the like; her nights are quite different, usually involving the murder of faeries. She must keep up a balance between propriety and murderous rage in order for both of her lives to carry on as expected. Or at least that's the plan. Since her mother's murder at the hands of a faery, she's been consumed by the need for revenge and a general homicidal feeling towards faeries as a species. Homicidal tendencies tend to somewhat muddle more mundane intentions, so her whole social life is a mess: society thinks that she killed her mother in cold blood and her frequent disappearances at balls is tipping her reputation closer and closer to total ruin. 
I'm not really sure whether I like The Falconer or not. On the one hand, it's a competently written debut novel, with a sympathetic protagonist, engaging side characters and a real feeling of threat and constant danger; all of that makes me tend towards liking a book. But on the other hand, there are two major flaws to the novel that stop me from actively liking it. 
First, there is the protagonist, Aileana, or Kam as she is just as often called. I know I said she was one of the good points, but hear me out. Aileana is sympathetic, there's no denying that. She's justifiably angry at the faeries for brutally murdering her mother in front of her, and the restriction she feels from her former debutante life is just as understandable and engaging. The problem that some may find with her though is that this makes her in no way likeable. At the beginning at least, there seems to be little to her character beyond bitterness and anger. She does develop a little more as the novel progresses, but by and large she is still defined by her reactions to events happening around her: she gets angry about the faeries that she comes across, she stews about the things that she has to do as her duty to society, occasionally feeling nostalgia for the person she used to be. There wasn't really much that I could point to and say "This is what makes her a character that I want to root for." I don't particularly want her to fail due to her sympathetic nature, but at the same time I finished the book more because I'm not feeling well and wanted something to distract me. 
The second major problem that I had with the novel was the ending. It doesn't so much end as stop, and rather abruptly at that. You know how most stories go: hero(ine) starts quest, it gets progressively more difficult until a final climactic struggle, at the end of which they either win the day for good or fail and emphasise the tragic futility of the whole endeavour. The Falconer doesn't do that. Instead, it gets to the final battle and stops right at the most tense moment. I cannot tell you how irritating that was. I'm not unfamiliar with cliffhangers at the end of books, most often when said book is part of a series. I guess I should have seen it coming, considering all the loose ends dangled invitingly in my face in the preceding chapters, but I sort of assumed that there would be some kind of quick resolution, or they would stay a mystery and create a sense of poetic tragedy. Nope. Instead, there's a clumsy grab for a sequel. It irritates me because I expected a complete story when I started reading, maybe not Aileana's only story, but something complete at least. It irritates me because there was no hint given that this would be the first in a series. It irritates me that so much was brought up towards the end, hinted at only to be snatched away by this forced ending. Most of all, it irritates me because it worked: I do want to find out what happens next, even though I'm angry at the book. 

Overall, a solid book marred by a slightly over-simplistic and unlikeable main character and an ending that is a shameless sequel grab. I'd still say it's better than a lot of books I read as a young adult, so it might be a good present for a teenager. I will probably read the next instalment, regardless of how it annoys me. 3.5/5 

Next review: The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare 

Signing off, 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

This was another Young Adult fantasy novel that I had lying around my room, so I decided to give it a read, as I've been in a fantasy-type mood recently. Not that anyone would have noticed.

The Warrior Heir follows Jack Swift, a 16 year old boy who has spent his entire life in an unremarkable town in Ohio. He has had to take medicine for a heart condition ever since he can remember. It is only when he forgets to take his medicine one day that he realises that there might be something different about him: instead of feeling ill, he feels stronger and faster than he ever has before. It leads to the realisation that he is a warrior, a type of magical individual, prized for his incredible rarity and his innate talent for combat. As such, there are certain factions who will do anything to get their hands on him.
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will be familiar with my term "popcorn reading". For the newbies in the audience, allow me to explain: popcorn reading covers a sub-section of books that are entertaining and don't really require a huge amount of brain power. The Warrior Heir is one of those books. The characters are very solid and, where appropriate, touching. It is a touch simple, and there will be very little doubt as to whether a character is good, bad or somewhere in between: Garrett Lobeck, for example, is your stereotypical bully archetype and nothing more. Likewise, the plot is well-constructed and exciting in all the right places, even if some of the twists are a bit easy to figure out. I imagine it would be a good place to introduce someone to the fantasy genre, especially if they're teenagers or younger; there are a couple of sexual references that an audience in their teens or older will understand pretty quickly, but they're very subtle, so I can't see younger audiences catching on.

A solid, if somewhat predictable, novel. Certainly, there are much worse fantasy novels that you could be reading, and it's a great introductory point into the genre. I'll most definitely be looking into getting the second and third instalments in the trilogy. 4/5

Next review: The Falconer by Elizabeth May.

Signing off,

Friday, 4 October 2013

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I realise I'm a few years behind the curve here, seeing as the last instalment of the trilogy came out at least a year ago. But I had heard really good things about Graceling, so I figured I'd do what I normally do: check out the hype long after it has died.

In the world of Graceling, the title word refers to individuals who are born with an exceptional talent for something, identified by their heterochromia (known as differently coloured eyes to those of you who have better uses of their time than I do). The main heroine, Katsa, is one such individual, who has the unfortunate Grace of Killing; as a result, she has been raised to be the strong-arm of the King of Middluns. Despondent about the way her life is going, she decides to investigate the seemingly motiveless kidnapping of an old man from the Lienid royal family. As she delves deeper into the mystery, she finds that the evil mind behind it could threaten the entire world as she knows it.
I'm rather sad that I didn't get to this earlier. I honestly can't think of anything that Graceling does wrong. The characters are complex and incredibly sympathetic, the most obvious, spoiler-free, example of which is Katsa herself. On the one hand, she is incredibly proud of her ability to defend herself, but she's just as scared of that ability and the potential that she could abuse it. The romance that's included is touching, very subtle and, for once, plot relevant. The plot itself is really well-written, to the point that the tag line on the cover, stating that Graceling "will slake the thirst of Twilight fans", genuinely bothered me; the two books are in such different leagues that it ceases to be funny. I really want to express how much I loved this book, but everything that I love is something that people should discover for themselves.

A fantastic book. Definitely something that I would recommend as a gateway into the fantasy genre. It also has one of the coolest heroines I've read in a long time. 5/5

Next review: The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

Signing off,

Monday, 30 September 2013

Angel's Blood by Nalini Singh

I seem to be on a bit of a paranormal romance kick at the moment, don't I? As far as I'm aware, this is the last of it that my reading list contains for at least some time. If I'm enjoying the genre though, might as well read it; that and it tickles me that I was inadvertently filling my fiancé's Google store recommendations with vampire romance books. In any case, I had heard something of Nalini Singh's work prior to reading Angel's Blood: specifically that she was quite good at smut. So at the very least there was going to be something to talk about afterwards.

There's a bit of setting info that I should probably mention before continuing with the actual plot bit. Okay, so the Guild Hunter series takes place in a universe in which vampires are created by angels, for reasons that humanity is ignorant of. (If that basic concept seems absurd to you, then I can state emphatically that this will not be a book for you.) As payment for granting them immortality, vampires are charged to serve their angelic masters for 100 years, after which they are allowed to have their freedom. These circumstances don't sit well with some vampires, who take the chance to escape. This is where our heroine comes in. Elena is an individual born with certain abilities that allow her to track and capture vampires, making her an incredibly valuable asset to those wishing to regain those who have run away. Her skills are potent enough that she is hired for a rather unusual job: she must help Raphael, the archangel who unofficially rules North America, to find another archangel who has allowed his power to completely corrupt him. Along the way, sexual tension ensues. As a plot, it certainly has a lot more at stake than other paranormal romances that I've read recently: as much as I liked the two Argeneau Vampire books I reviewed recently, all that was really at stake was the personal happiness of the two leads. In Angel's Blood, the paranormal aspects actually lend a tangible possibility of peril: if Elena and Raphael fail in their endeavour, then there is the risk that the status quo of the entire world could be upset, and all the ensuing panic and chaos with it. It had a couple of pacing issues, but for the most part I really liked it.
So, to the romance. I think I'm still making my mind up about that one. On the one hand, it most definitely falls into the romance stereotype that makes me cringe: that of the super-possessive alpha male. There was so much reference to Raphael's absolute masculinity as his primary attractive quality, as well as the result of making Elena feel intensely feminine, that it began to feel rather silly. Maybe it's just me, but I find individual aspects of people sexually attractive, for instance a deep voice on men or curves on women, as opposed to their inherent masculinity or femininity. When romance writers point to "masculinity" as the reason for the initial attraction, then I can't help but think that they've created a heroine with confusingly low standards. Additionally, at the beginning Raphael has an alarming lack of consideration for Elena's personal boundaries. After mentally influencing her and constantly making reference to how much he wants her as a sexual toy, I find it quite insulting for him to call her sexually frigid. On the other hand, Elena makes an admirable stand against someone she has no real chance of harming when it comes to staking out the boundaries between their personal and professional lives; that she manages to piss off pretty much everyone that Raphael consults for help as a result is also rather impressive. The fact that she does feel sexually attracted to her archangel suitor do help alleviate their uncomfortable initial relationship somewhat, but overall it does feel somewhat dubious in the consent department.
Since I was just talking about the sexual tension, I might as well talk about the sex scenes. They were kind of disappointing. Having heard of Nalini Singh's reputation for smut, I was kind of expecting something that would be more...scandalous, somehow. It's not that the scenes are written badly, they're just a bit on the short side, especially considering the heat and in-depth nature of the flirting beforehand. It just feels like it's balanced wrong.

In conclusion, while there's a much grander scale to Angel's Blood than most paranormal romance, the relationship between the leads leaves something to be desired. The sexual tension is set up well through flirting, but the result is ultimately kind of disappointing. That their relationship starts with some rather dubious consent issues only complicates my feelings about it. 4/5

Next review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Signing off,