Sunday, 25 September 2011

Mini-reviews of some kiwi-authored books

This post is part of the SpecFicNZ blogging week.

As I mentioned in my last post, this year I joined SpecFicNZ, the national association for speculative fiction writers. (Speculative fiction is a catch-all term for the three ‘what if’ genres of fiction: science fiction, fantasy and horror.) Since joining the association I’ve found that there are writers in and from New Zealand getting their non-YA spec fic novels published after all.

Brief aside here. I never thought that there weren’t people writing spec fic in New Zealand, and I never thought that people here would be bad at writing it either. That would be a stupid assumption, because spec fic from overseas sells well here, and people tend to write what they like to read. It’s just that I learned a few things while I was studying for a Diploma in Publishing back in 2008. First, publishers in New Zealand in general don’t want to publish genre fiction. I had the opportunity to ask some publishers about this, and they told me matter-of-factly that genre fiction doesn’t sell in NZ (untrue) and that genre fiction never has the same literary merit as literary fiction (also untrue). Secondly, I was told by many speakers while on the course that, apart from a very, very few exceptions, overseas publishers do not publish books by New Zealand authors. I don’t know why I took this as gospel when I knew that what they were saying about genre fiction was bull crap, but I did. I therefore assumed that there weren’t published books for adults of the type I like to read written by New Zealand authors. Well, it turns out there are, because although my first point is true, the second is not, and people are getting their books published overseas.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Through SpecFicNZ I became aware of spec fic books out there in the wild written by New Zealand authors. This year I’ve had a go at reading some. Below are some mini reviews of kiwi-authored books I have read recently. Please keep in mind, although I have pointed out any issues I had with these books, I enjoyed reading each and every one of them. Any negatives were more than outweighed by the overwelming positives. 

The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe

I actually read The Heir of Night before I joined SpecFicNZ. I first learned about the book from the Christchurch Writers’ Festival pamphlet (the festival never went ahead because of a pesky earthquake you might have heard of).

The Heir of Night is the first book in an epic fantasy series. It takes some standard tropes of the genre (a half-forgotten foe about to return after a long time, young people forced to leave their homeland and ‘find themselves’, a magical object-finding quest) and combines them in such a way that it feels just enough different from what has gone before. There is something deliciously sci-fi-esque about the origin of the world the book is set in, which is always a plus for me (I love fantasy/sci fi combos). I’m not too sure yet (this is only the first book of four) but I think it looks like there is going to be something left-of-centre about the foes, a plot twist perhaps. I’m looking forward to it.

The best things about this book for me were the two main characters, Malian and Kalan. While some of the other characters were still a little bit flat, these two were very engaging and I cared a lot about what was happening to them. I’m looking forward to book 2, The Gathering of the Lost.

Tymon’s Flight and Samiha’s Song by Mary Victoria

These are books 1 and 2 in Mary Victoria’s 'Chronicles of the Tree' trilogy. They are set in an incredibly original world - a ginormous tree with a canopy the size of a continent! The people living in this tree do not even know that such a thing as ground exists. Fascinating stuff. The cultures of the various people who live in the tree are also quite different to standard epic fantasy fare - there’s not much that feels Western European in these books. Rather, the various societies feel more like Eastern Orthodox or Islamic. What a refreshing change.

Tymon’s Flight is essentially a coming of age story. It gripped me from page one and didn’t let me go until the end. Off the top of my head, I’d say that Tymon’s Flight has been my quickest read this year. (As an aside, I am on to my second copy of Tymon’s Flight. I lent the book to a friend, and in the 6.3M earthquake on 13 June his bookshelf fell over and crushed the book. So now I have a new copy.)

Samiha’s Song is quite a different book in tone. Now that the protagonists have come of age, it is time for them to enter the adult world properly, and be exposed to all the hardship and injustice that can entail. It was a harrowing read, and I took a long time to get through it. But what happened in the book was the right thing to have happened at that point, and in the end I did find it a satisfying read. I think I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Tymon’s Flight, just in a very different way.

There were a few things about Mary Victoria’s writing that got on my wick a wee bit. She used too many said bookisms, and descriptions of how things were said were too often given after the line of speech they described. These occasionally jolted me out of the flow of the story. Also, her villains were a bit too ‘Mwa ha ha, I am evil!’ and their lesser associates generally had something unpleasant about their appearance, such as greasy hair or an unchecked weight problem. This made the villain POV chapters a bit cartoon-like. But this is Mary Victoria’s first published series (and goodness knows my writing has more flaws than that). I’m sure her writing will mature over time. I’m looking forward to the last book in the series, Oracle’s Fire, which comes out next month.

Geist and Spectyr by Philippa Ballantine

Geist and Spectyr are books 1 and 2 in Philippa Ballantine’s epic fantasy series. They are set in a world plagued by various ghosts and spirits that break through from another dimension and cause all sorts of paranormal mayhem, such as possessions and hauntings. There is a religious order that has given up the belief in gods (wow, what an idea) called the Order. The Deacons of the Order now devote their time and energy to exorcising these spirits. The book follows two Deacons, Sorcha Farris, a gruff cigar-smoking, alcohol-drinking beautiful redheaded woman in her mid to late thirties, and Merrick Chambers, a very young and green-behind-the-ears man who has just been made a full Deacon. The third main character is Raed, the ex-Emperor’s son in exile, who happens to be possessed by the spirit of a very large, very dangerous lion-shaped creature from the other dimension.

The story line? Lots of stuff happens. In quick succession. There’s maulings, explosions, conspiracies, frantic sex, oh, and maulings. Did I mention the lion is dangerous?

Over all, I found Geist to be a bit too frenetic in its pace, but Spectyr wasn’t so bad in that regard. I felt like I could keep up, at least. Sorcha and Merrick are great characters to follow; so much fun. Raed, not so much. So far, he’s a bit of a cardboard cut-out. He just didn’t seem to have much of a purpose other than transporting the lion around in his head and being Sorcha’s release valve. But something happened at the end of Spectyr than makes me think that is not going to be the case in the 3rd book, Wrayth. He has been given a purpose. And I think that plot line is going to be interesting. I just wish it had started sooner.

Again, despite having a few issues with the books, I really enjoyed them. It’s a great world and I’m looking forward to Wrayth and Harbinger.

Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

OK, so, I’m going to add a disclaimer here: I love steampunk. If you’re not so keen on it, you might not agree with my opinion of this book. What is my opinion, you ask? This book ROCKS! Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Like The Heir of Night, the authors have used a lot of cliches. In fact, they’ve used a ton. But I just don’t care because it was so very much fun to read.

The story is set in a steampunk London. The heroes are agents in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, a British Empire-wide clandestine organisation that investigates things the government and Crown are not willing to openly admit exist. Such as ghosts, secret societies and dangerously magical objects. Y’know. Cool stuff. Agent Wellington Thornhill Books is the archivist for the Ministry. His typical work environment is in the basement of the Ministry headquarters, in the archives, amongst the stacks. Agent Eliza D Braun, ex-pat kiwi, is a field agent with a close loving relationship with explosives. And guns. And in general anything that goes boom. When Eliza’s conduct gets her in a spot of hot water with the boss, she gets demoted. To assistant archivist. Needless to say, she’s not too happy with the arrangement, at least not until she finds the room full of unsolved case files. All those mysteries, waiting to be explored . . . irritated posh toff (but handsome) archivist in tow.

I understand that the authors were asked to add a lot of extra material after they had turned in the manuscript. Unfortunately, this shows in some areas where there are odd artifacts of this process. This is not the authors’ fault - their editor should have tidied the manuscript up better. I’ll give you an example: In one chapter, Books is getting dressed while thinking. He looks over his shoulder at his old service uniform hanging in his wardrobe. Then, on the next page it is established that he has broken into someone else’s house to get changed in order to lose any tails he had picked up. Um, then why were his clothes in the wardrobe? It makes no sense. Oh well.

All in all, the patchy editing is my only complaint. I enjoyed this book so much, and you won’t believe how much I want the next one, Of Cogs and Corsets. Goddamn, I want a Tardis.


Claire said...

This is a great entry -- it's given me a nice long list of books I need to read and I stories I need to get my hands on. Thank you! :D

Debbie Cowens said...

Great reviews of some excellent books by NZ writers. (Although I haven't read either of Mary Victoria's yet. I'll definitely have to get hold of them).

Ripley Patton said...

Great reviews Catherine. I love how you touch on some of the faults, but with a very light, understanding touch. Hope you'll be reviewing one of my books soon:)