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Recent book reviews for SFX magazine

by Dean on July 9, 2010

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book reviews sfx Recent book reviews for SFX magazine

In addition to my work for Orange, the National Trust, TechRadar and others, I’m also an occasional book reviewer for brilliant sci-fi/fantasy mag SFX. My recent reviews have included:

City of Dreams and Nightmare

On a foolhardy mission to reach the roof of Thaiburley, trespassing street-nick Tom witnesses an ambitious arkademic murder his rival.

Shrugging off magical attempts to restrain him, Tom flees down through Thaiburley’s Rows towards his home turf in the City Below. He’s pursued by Dewar, an assassin, and Tylus, a flying policeman with a cape that acts like a stunt kite…

Ambassador’s Mission

Reading Trudi Canavan’s newest fantasy novel is like wrapping yourself up in a towel that’s been left on the radiator overnight. The Ambassador’s Mission has a warm, satisfying cosiness to it, wrapping you up in the continuing story of Sonea and Cery from Canavan’s earlier Black Magician trilogy.

Of course, this familiar feel doesn’t mean that it’s a great towel. To be honest, it’s a little thin. As the opening salvo in the new Traitor Spy series, you can’t help feeling that there are better towels to come.

The Griffin Mage trilogy: Books 1 & 2

Like an old Hitchcock movie, Lord Of The Changing Winds starts surprisingly quickly, confidently and revs into second gear before you’ve had time to put your feet up. By page 26, in fact, when a young farm girl named Kes is abducted from her village by a shape-shifting griffin mage…

Black Lung Captain

For anyone who hasn’t read Chris Wooding’s rip-roaring Retribution Falls, try to imagine Firefly meets Pirates of the Caribbean, a light-hearted dose of steampunkery that mixes cutlasses and grog with giant airships.

The sequel, Black Lung Captain, continues the tale of freebooting, quip-happy Cap’n Darian Frey. Also returning is hiscrew of rough-hewn characters who the description ‘rag-tag’ fits as snugly as ‘Shiver me’ does to ‘timbers’.

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SFX book review – “The Gathering Storm”

by Dean on February 24, 2010

gathering storm SFX book review   The Gathering Storm

Another book review written for the excellent SFX magazine. This time, the chunky 12th book in Robert Jordan’s lengthy Wheel of Time saga…

“When Robert Jordan died in 2007, he left his mammoth Wheel of Time saga unfinished. But not for long. Armed with Jordan’s notes, story outlines and some completed scenes, Mistborn author Brandon Sanderson was hand-picked by Jordan’s widow to complete the final book.

The good news is that, after 11 books and 9,261 pages, we’ll eventually get to see Rand Al’Thor battle the Dark One at Shayol Ghul.

The bad news is that it doesn’t happen in this book. Or the one planned after it. It seems Jordan’s many sub-plots, sub-sub-plots and lengthy character arcs will take three books to wrap up.

The Gathering Storm is the first book in this final volume, to be followed by Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light. Yes, it smacks of padding and you’d be right to wonder whether climbing this 783-page cliff is going to be worth all the huff and puff.

The saga certainly lost momentum in the middle (Path of Daggers, we’re looking at you), bogged down with side quests and forgettable chapters about minor characters and Aes Sedai politics.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a little action. You’ve earned it. You want to know whether Perrin rescues Faile and if Egwene can unify the White Tower? But most of all, you want to know whether you’re any closer to Tarmon Gai’don, the final showdown between the forces of Light and Shadow?

Well, you are closer. These questions are answered, although it’s still heavy going. Much of The Gathering Storm is business as usual – Tel’aran’rhiod dream meetings, Aes Sedai squabbling, smug-faced Wise Ones and hide-and-seek Forsaken.

But there’s also a renewed sense of purpose. Various dangling plot ends get tied off – some spectacularly. There are Seanchan attacks, peace talks, mass murder, even zombies.

Some of this is certainly the Sanderson effect. The stand-in author brings a fresh pair of eyes and a faster pace to The Gathering Storm. But he also remains faithful to the Jordan-esque levels of detail that fans of the series have come to expect.”

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SFX book review – The Dwarves

by Dean on September 11, 2009

the dwarves SFX book review   The Dwarves

This review of Markus Heitz’s novel ‘The Dwarves’ appeared in science fiction magazine SFX, issue 186.

The Dwarves

Make a list of all the things you know about dwarves – braided beards, battle axes, good with hammers, fond of a beer or two, surnames designed to inspire respect (like Balendilin Onearm and Giselbert Ironeye), but actually give you the giggles.

Even the cover has a certain John Rhys Davis feel about it.

Because as you read The Dwarves, you can tick these attributes off one-by-one as the pint-sized Tungdil quests across an evil land to save the world of Girdlegard from a crazed sorcerer.

Yes, it does sound a little Lord of the Rings-y. But it’s a little faster on its feet than Tolkien’s classic. Our dwarven Frodo is Tungdil Bolofar, a bookish dwarf (and part-time blacksmith) who’s been raised in isolation by humans. For plot’s-sake, this means that Tungdil is rubbish at being a typical dwarf – he’s never met another one and can’t swing an axe.

So when a D&D army of Ȁlfar (think dark elves), ogres, gnomes, kobolds and orcs threatens a full-on fantasy apocalypse, Tungdil is the least-equipped to do anything about it.

Uprooted from his home, he finds himself proclaimed the unlikely heir to the dwarven kingdom. Cue a quest to see whether the unstoppable bad guy has his own tiny exhaust port, barely two metres wide.

Translated from Heitz’s German original, The Dwarves often reads like it’s been written by an English student with a new Thesaurus. The high fantasy flourishes do settle down. But for every inventive set-piece or dramatic skirmish, there’s a silly name to dent the mood – Nudin the Knowledge-Lusty and Maira the Life Preserver being two of our favourites.

Of course, it’s still strangely readable, chucking in zombies, self-centred wizards, political bickering and betrayal. It’s probably the greatest dwarf opera since George Lucas finished the script for Willow.

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SFX book review – “The Ancient”

by Dean on January 12, 2009

the ancient 2 SFX book review   The Ancient

This review of R.A Salvatore’s novel ‘The Ancient’ appeared in science fiction magazine SFX, issue 179.

“Compared to new-wave Noir novels like Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, The Ancient wears the breeches and wide-brimmed felt hat of purist high-fantasy.

And for the most part you get what you expect – feisty dwarves and warrior monks, save-the-day magic and fight sequences that spill over several pages.

Having plucked the hero from his previous Corona novel, The Highwayman, Salvatore’s rag-tag band of characters take two-thirds of the book to reach a climactic battle with Ancient Badden (“Hi, I’ll be your villainous priest for today) and his army of glacial trolls.

If anything retains your attention, it’s the ‘Highwayman’ himself. Bransen Garibond is a fascinatingly flawed lead, tricked into fighting a war he couldn’t give two hoots about. While he’s clumsy and crippled, he’s also capable of Errol Flynn derring-do whenever he straps a magical gemstone to his forehead. It’s the perfect dual identity. Give the man a pair of tights.

Unfortunately there’s less of the Highwayman’s effortless heroism than you might like. This is the first novel in a new ‘Saga of the First King’ series, so it’s slow going as Salvatore manoeuvres his super-swordsman, a disaffected monk, barbarian priestess and indestructible dwarf into position for the finale.

But come the third act, the author lights a rocket under the plot and lets you ride it to a satisfying (if wholly expected) conclusion.

With faint echoes of 1930s action flicks like The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Highwayman’s heroics underpin a story that also clutches forbidden love and religious nutters to its fantasy bosom. You don’t even have to have read The Highwayman or any of Salvatore’s Drizzt novels to find The Ancient curiously likeable.

And yes, that surprised me too.”

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