Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Adamantine Palace - Stephen Deas

One complaint that I've often heard voiced about Novik, McCaffrey and other writers of dragon-centric fantasy is this: DRAGONS ARE NOT PONIES. It's a fair point. You've got basically a huge, razor-toothed fire-breathing monster, and its main purpose is as a domesticated mode of transport? The dragons in Deas's novel do, initially, seem to be of the Pony variety, but I'm pleased to announce that this impression changes rapidly when one of them gets loose.

With such a promising setup, it's slightly disappointing to find that the core of the plot lies elsewhere, in the Adamantine Palace of the title. The incumbent Speaker (a kind of over-king) is about to retire, and there is much squabbling among the lesser royals over who will succeed him. Queen Shezira, the favoured successor, has bartered one of her daughters and her finest dragon away to gain support for her claim, but the schemes of the younger and matricidally-ambitious Zafir threaten to derail her carefully-laid plans, and the dragon goes missing in transit. There's also nasty young prince Jehal who may or may not be poisoning his father, and some rather suspicious representatives of a rival nation who have given Jehal a special gift for reasons unknown. The intrigue is decent enough in its own right, but compared to the bigger story suggested by the unravelling history of the dragons, it seems relatively flat; I was much more interested in the alchemists' dark secrets than who would ultimately end up in the Speaker's chair, and only part of this is ever revealed.

There's still some reasonably good characterisation here, though; Queen Shezira in particular is an interesting portrait of a strong ruler, not entirely sympathetic, who still feels the shame from being traded in marriage as a child, but who is still prepared to do the same thing with her own daughters. The younger women are slightly less convincing; evil Zafir is a flaky, two-faced bitch, and youngest daughter Jaslyn is the Standard Tomboy Princess rather too prone to foot-stamping displays of petulance, whose blind hatred of Jehal seems to come out of nowhere.

Clearly the first instalment in a series, the only resolution we get at the end of this book is the contest for Speaker; the International Skulduggery, Mysterious Mountain King and Terrible Dragon History ones are left to tick over for future episodes. This is a shame because a) the book's already quite short, and I'd have liked to get a bit further into these new mysteries before it finished, and b) I'm getting very sick of bloody trilogies; can someone write a book that ENDS please? Still, I'm intrigued enough to read on once Book Two is out, so at least it works in a cynical marketing kinda way. In short: dragons, intrigue, poison, mercenaries and a Big Dark History. If you like that sort of thing then this is definitely worth a look.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Some (very) short reviews in a desperate attempt to catch up...

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters - G W Dahlquist

A sort-of alternate 19th Century setting, in an unspecified North European country. The disappointingly literal Glass Books of the title are some dastardly new science, developed by a secret cadre of villains; story is from the viewpoint of three accidental protagonists (hitman, debutante, doctor) who get caught up in the plot, and decide to take down the bad guys. There follows some convoluted political machinations, chases across rooftops, rapier fights and a bit of mild and decorous porn; there are also airships, steam trains, underworld skulduggery and the sort of made-up science that would make even Enid Blyton blush. Good pace, confused ending.

Iron Angel - Alan Campbell

Two-stranded story in the aftermath of Scar Night - one strand set in the surreal world of Hell, the other set amid the wreckage of Deepgate and beyond; the two don't really meet up till the end so structurally a bit disjointed. Much more fleshing-out of the world's pantheon and the infighting between the gods, which ironically helps to explain the Scar Night backstory a bit better (and connects rather nicely with Lye Street too). Some more great settings, including the distinctly nasty Cinderbark Wood and a very funny/sinister scene where Dill is chased by a malevolent doorway. A bit patchier than the previous book but looking forward to part 3...

Snowball In Hell - Christopher Brookmyre

Self-aggrandising professional terrorist Simon Darcourt is back (yeah, we knew he wasn't dead) and he's throwing a going-away party, involving, um, celebrities. Angel X, now working in the soul-destroying counter-terrorism business, has a more personal stake than usual in wanting to take him down, and is forced to call in help from her contacts in the magic biz. Its as fun and tightly-plotted as you'd expect from Brookmyre, Darcourt's first-person sections are entertainingly egotistical, and it's great to see Angelique back with Zal, but the addition of celebrities to the mix can make anything look slightly tacky and cheap, no matter how well it fits with the story. Still good but not one of his best.

The History of The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit - Christopher Tolkien & John D Rateliff

Five books here - four covering LotR (by CT) and one covering the first half of The Hobbit (by JDR). Christopher Tolkien's ones were much more interesting, firstly because the story of LotR's inception is rather more involved and tortuous than that of The Hobbit (for example, Aragorn was a hobbit called Trotter for much of the first draft) but also because there is a whole lot more material to draw from than Rateliff was able to dredge up. Rateliff's book goes into much more detail than Tolkien's, and much of it is dull (the exact typos and their corrections throughout the various drafts), speculative (for example, trying to guess which myths inspired the idea of an invisibility ring, with a lengthy list of all possible magic rings or other invisibility artefacts) or just unnecessary - do we really need definitions of words like "bracken" or "tuppence"? CT's books recommended for anyone with an interest in how LotR came to be, or indeed any writer wanting to see the growth of a classic; JDR's for obsessives only.
The History of Lord of the Rings: 8/10
Mr Baggins: 5/10

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