June 1

The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas

Is it a fantasy, murder mystery, or even a political satire? This debut novel from Stephen Deas is a wonderful mix of all three, as well as a most entertaining read.

The book opens with two lovers escaping for a well-planned tryst. Their means of transport? Dragon. Not many can follow, and as soon as they are away from view, the two share a ride. But during the exchange, the Harvest Queen falls to her death. Was it an accident, or was she pushed? Very quickly the reader discovers that the political ambitions of Jehal know no bounds, and a simple murder is only the first of many underhanded techniques that he uses in an effort to unite the various nations under his rule. For the most part, this book, and the following series is the story of Jehal’s rise to power.

Many regular fantasy readers will be aware that most authors have no idea how to handle mythical creatures, especially dragons. The whole idea that dragons are little more than glorified ponies just bothers me. At first Deas seems to follow that regular formula, but then he takes the time to hint that there is a reason for the domesticity of the dragons, and only the alchemists know the secret. But then a dragon escapes, and it quickly becomes apparent that the dragons are drugged from ‘birth’. As the escaped dragon begins to realise what has been done to her for seven years, she begins a campaign to free her enslaved brethren. This becomes an engaging second plot.

During this book, both stories remain independent. However, as the series progresses, I can’t help wonder how the increasing independence of the dragons is going to impact on Jehal’s plans.

This is a relatively short fantasy novel without the massive ‘information dump’ that is so common in the genre. The action begins with the murder in chapter one, and continues relentlessly to the battle between the dragons and the alchemists. There are extensive genealogical charts at the start of the book, but personally, I would have loved to see a map. But maybe the fact that I had to construct the geography in my own mind helped keep me engaged in the story.

Certainly I am looking forward to book 2.

June 1

Going Under by Justina Robson

Have you ever walked into a movie half way through? Then you know how frustrating it can be as you try to work out who is who, and at least some rough idea of the plot. Well, add to that difficulty a strange mix of traditional magical beings where demons are good and imps are evil, and you have some idea of the problems I had with this book.

Apparently the last book in the series ended with Lila, our hero, marrying her true love. And this book started during the honeymoon, But so little background information is given that a hundred pages into the book I wasn’t sure whether Lila had married Zal or Teazle. Both were certainly in the room in the opening chapter. Or maybe the two are one, like Lila is also the necromancer Tath. Confused? I certainly was.

Unfortunately this confusion quickly became anger. I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t finish a book, but by the time I was half-way through, I was over it.

There are probably hundreds of Justina Robson fans out there who will be upset by this review. But they will have read the series, in order. I only had access to book 3. And Going Under drove me to distraction.

June 1

Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook

This is another re-release from Gollancz. They have a very nice little sideline of publishing old scifi/fantasy classics in new covers, formats or anything else they can think of to freshen them up. This is actually a collection of the first three books in The Black Company Saga. From what I could find out, the series is now up to 10 books. And it has been established long enough for some Internet sites to refer the saga as a ‘cult classic.’ Well, that cult does not include me.

The Black Company is a mercenary military unit, selling their services to the highest bidder. In the opening chapters they are arranging an escape from one employer and heading north to work for a mysterious Lady. On their way, many of the Lady’s enemies try very hard to prevent the company’s progress and before long they are fighting the highly organised Rebel forces. Things go from bad to worse, and by the time the company actually meets their employer, their numbers are greatly reduced. But new recruits are added and with a mix of military and magic, the Rebels are defeated. But at the moment of success, the Lady’s magical henchmen turn on the Black Company and have a very good try at wiping them from the face of the earth. With no place to run, the stragglers hide in the desert, surviving with the assistance of mythical beings who just happen to be sworn enemies of the Lady.

Make sense? Not really, but then it is virtually impossible to summarise 700 pages into a single paragraph.

This is not your typical fantasy novel. There is no classic battle of good vs evil. The Lady  and her husband, The Dominator, controlled an ‘empire of evil unrivalled in Hell.’ These guys are no heroes, they just fight when they can’t avoid it. So politically the reader may be supporting the Rebels or even better the White Rose, the narrator is telling you all about the good guys on the side of evil.

And speaking of the narrator, this story is told very simply. The title calls it the chronicles, and that is exactly what it is. It almost reads like a logbook, e.g. today we went here and did this. There is no moral questioning, little physical description and less personality. The guys all liked Raven because he was tough. One-Eye and Goblin were funny when they fought, and Croaker was respected not only because he was the chronicler but also because he was the medic. Apparently this series is highly popular with returned servicemen, and I can see why.

If a fantasy story can be thought of as a huge empty canvas for the author and reader to fill, this book is certainly black and white. Me, I prefer a lot more colour  

June 1

The Magician’s Apprentice by Trudi Canavan

The Magician’s Guild trilogy by Trudi Canavan has been out for years. And it is very popular with many fantasy readers that I know. But now Canavan has released a prequel for this trilogy. I certainly enjoyed it, but I wonder how many of the fans will be bothered reading about the founding of the Guild.

This story opens with a young girl working with her father who is the local medical man. The term doctor doesn’t really apply because the training and methodology is not very scientific in the modern sense. Anyway, Tessia is checking on a seriously injured slave resting at Lord Dakun’s castle when she is forced to defend herself from unwanted advances. She instinctively uses magic, and suddenly her plans to become a healer are changed. The law dictates that Tessia must be apprenticed to a magician to learn to control and manage her magical talent.

During her apprenticeship, her village is invaded and destroyed by the same man who attacked her. At first Tessia thought the attack was in revenge for her rejection, but it is quickly apparent that this is only the opening stroke in a battle for the survival of her whole country. From simple village healer, Tessia moves to become an active participant in the magical battle between nations.

This is an enjoyable, engaging book. I really liked the character of Tessia, and quickly came to understand and appreciate Jayan, Lord Dakun’s other apprentice. There is a touch of romance, and it is well handled without being mushy. Even minor characters are given a level of complexity that is unusual. As a result, everyone is interesting.

But somehow, this book never got around to founding the Magician’s Guild. Does that mean there are more to come?