Friday, 29 November 2013

Path of Night by Dirk Flinthart

Path of Night by Dirk Flinthart is the author's longest published work (ie first novel) to date. I'm sure I've read some of his short stories before, but apparently not since I started reviewing here. Blurb:
Michael Devlin is the first of a new breed. The way things are going, he may also be the last.

Being infected with an unknown disease is bad. Waking up on a slab in a morgue wearing nothing but a toe-tag is worse, even if it comes with a strange array of new abilities.

Medical student Michael Devlin is in trouble. With his flatmates murdered and an international cabal of legendary man-monsters on his trail, Devlin's got nowhere to hide. His only allies are a hot-tempered Sydney cop and a mysterious monster-hunter who may be setting Devlin up for the kill. If he's going to survive, Devlin will have to embrace his new powers and confront his hunters. But can he hold onto his humanity when he walks the Path of Night?
Path of Night follows Devlin, a med student with bad luck. After being murdered and coming back from the dead, he discovers that a) he needs to eat a lot of food now, b) he has super senses and super speed and c) a bunch of people are trying to kill him. His side of the story is very much centred about not dying and getting through the day.

The other point of view character is Jen, a Sydney cop who starts out investigating the homicide Devlin was caught up in. From her point of view we see a bit of police internal politics, some investigation and then, well, then the story catches up with Devlin and everything gets a bit crazy.

The pacing in this novel is brilliant. It's not a short read, but even though it took me a while to get through (because life etc) it was sufficiently well-paced that it felt like it would be a quick read. It wasn't all action all the time, but there was never a dull moment. I felt I always wanted to know what happened next, even when the point of view switched away from Devlin and Jen to the characters on the other side of the equation.

This is the first book in a series, and I have to admit I wasn't sure how it would play out, in terms of setting up the next book, until I got to the end. It didn't really feel like a book one, and I say that in the best possible way. I wasn't sure who would survive or in what form the series would continue (until the end when the premise of the next book was seemingly set up).

I also loved that it was set in Sydney. Living overseas as I am for the time being, I have been really appreciating books with Australian settings. Particularly ones which feel authentic, as Path of Night does (occasional references to "sidewalks" notwithstanding). I kind of want to take a tour of those tunnels next time I'm in Sydney. I wouldn't have known they existed otherwise. The tourism bureau should pay Flinthart a commission. ;-)

Path of Night was an excellent read and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for the next book and anything else I see of the author's. I highly recommend it to fans of urban fantasy and contemporary horror, especially the more action-filled variety. Readers looking for an Australian setting (or a non-US setting, heh) are also advised to give Path of Night a shot.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2013, FableCroft Publishing
Series: yes. Night Beast book 1 of ?
Format read: eARC
Source: The lovely publisher
Challenges: Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Beckoning by Paul Collins

The Beckoning by Paul Collins is a contemporary horror novel set in Warrnambool and Melbourne. Featuring a satanic cult, lots of psychic weirdness and plenty of death. Blurb:
When evil intent is just the beginning...

Matt Brannigan is a lawyer living on the edge. His daughter, Briony is psychic and trouble shadows his family wherever they go.

Cult guru Brother Desmond knows that the power within Briony is the remaining key he needs to enter the next dimension. Once he controls this, he will have access to all that is presently denied him.

When Briony is indoctrinated into the Zarathustrans, Matt and psychic Clarissa Pike enter the cult’s headquarters under the cover of night to rescue her.

So begins Armageddon…
This book was not for me. Followers of this blog will probably have noticed my quest to read more Australian horror books. For the most part, that's been a successful venture and I've read some excellent books. In general, they've been more subtle than The Beckoning, which was competently written, but the content was not my thing. I have to admit, it was the kind of thing I was into in my early teens but apparently not so much any more. Ultimately, I found the exciting bits dull and the horrific bits uninteresting. I strongly suspect others' mileage will vary.

The Beckoning is written in omniscient third person. There was more head-hopping than I'm used to, but I have to say it was done well and I was generally not confused about who was thinking what. However, I was slightly confused at the start as to who the main characters were. Because it took me a while to work out, I didn't feel very attached to anyone which, unfortunately, made their life-threatening situations less exciting.

I did like that it was set in Australia — I've been particularly enjoying Australian-set books of late — although I was a bit disappointed to see it "translated" into American English. It's jarring to see an Australian teenager talking about her "cell" phone. Of course, that's less of an issue with the book itself and more the (location of the) publisher.

As I've said, this book was not for me, but I think people into psychic antichrist cult type books will enjoy it. And I think it would probably work as a movie. Fans of straightforward horror, with violence, creepy cult leaders and potentially world-ending doom will probably enjoy this one more than I did.

3 / 5 stars

First published: September 2013, Damnation Books
Series: Don't think so.
Format read: e-Review Copy
Source: A bit convoluted, but the author via a mutual friend
Challenges: Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Curtsies and Conspiracies by Gail Carriger

Curtsies and Conspiracies by Gail Carriger is the sequel to Etiquette and Espionage which I read and reviewed earlier in the year. They are part of the Finishing School series, which is set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate books, but twenty-five years earlier. I would recommend reading Etiquette and Espionage first, if you haven't already (just in general, everyone should read it), but although there's an over-arching plot, each book so far also has a very self-contained main plot.

The basic premise of the series is that the main character, Sophronia, attends a special finishing school where, while learning proper etiquette, the girls also learn how to become spies. And of course, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it seems. Blurb:
Sophronia's first year at Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality has certainly been rousing! For one thing, finishing school is training her to be a spy (won't Mumsy be surprised?). Furthermore, Sophronia got mixed up in an intrigue over a stolen device and had a cheese pie thrown at her in a most horrid display of poor manners.

Now, as she sneaks around the dirigible school, eavesdropping on the teachers' quarters and making clandestine climbs to the ship's boiler room, she learns that there may be more to a school trip to London than is apparent at first. A conspiracy is afoot--one with dire implications for both supernaturals and humans. Sophronia must rely on her training to discover who is behind the dangerous plot-and survive the London Season with a full dance card.
I loved all of Gail Carriger's other books, and this latest instalment is no exception. I pretty much inhaled it in a day and after a trying week+, it was exactly what I needed. Carriger's customary wit had me laughing out loud several times, and miscellaneous adorableness — like Bumbersnoot, Sophronia's mechanimal dog, about whom I'd forgotten — made me happy.

One of my favourite aspects of this book (among many favourite aspects), was the tantalising ties to the Parasol Protectorate books. We have more hints about how the main cast characters, Vieve and Sidheag, end up where they do in the later series. Not that Sidheag's future/history are a great mytery, but I was delighted by Vieve's trajectory in this book. Other favourite characters from the Parasol Protectorate books made an appearance, including Lord Akeldama, which was particularly well-done from the perspective of someone who's read the later books. I suspect that, while his appearance might have greater impact on readers familiar with Carriger's world, it will still be amusing to new readers. Or at least, I hope so, because those scenes were among the funniest.

On the topic of linking Curtsies and Conspiracies to other books, the overarching plot becomes apparent in this second volume and it successfully whetted my appetite for the next book, not that it needed extra whetting. With new mysteries for Sophronia to discover and solve, building on the previous book, the trajectory for the next couple of volumes. (I note her website lists two more titles in the series: Waistcoats & Weaponry and Manners & Mutiny, albeit with undetermined release dates.)

This is a book I would recommend to all Carriger fans. If you've already enjoyed any of her other books (and particularly Etiquette and Espionage), then reading Curtsies and Conspiracies/the Finishing School series should be a no-brainer. For readers new to her work, I would suggest starting at the beginning of the series, but highly recommend it to fans of Steampunk, Victorian England and witty comedy. Or any one of the three.

5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2013, Hachette
Series: Finishing School book 2 of (at least) 4
Format read: eBook
Source: purchased from iBooks

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Skulk by Rosie Best

Skulk by Rosie Best is the author's first novel, and what a début it was! It's a YA urban fantasy set in London I enjoyed it immensely from the very start. The main character is engaging and realistic and the fantasy worldbuilding is somewhat original. It even has a blurb which isn't entirely made of spoilers! (Well done, Strange Chemistry.)
When Meg witnesses the dying moments of a shapeshifting fox and is given a beautiful and powerful stone, her life changes forever. She is plunged into the dark world of the Skulk, a group of shapeshifting foxes.

As she learns about the other groups of shapeshifters that lurk around London – the Rabble, the Horde, the Cluster and the Conspiracy – she becomes aware of a deadly threat against all the shapeshifters. They must put aside all their enmity and hostility and fight together to defeat it.
The first aspect that had me enjoying Skulk was Meg herself. She comes from a privileged background with a (Tory) politician mother and a CEO father and goes to a good private school. Her mother is fairytale-level abusive, driven on by Meg being a little overweight, and her father is emotionally absent almost to the point of catatonia. She has friends at school (who come from similarly privileged backgrounds) but doesn't enjoy going out clubbing with them, preferring instead to stay home and later sneak out to draw scathing political graffiti around London. I first grew particularly attached to Meg when reading about her forays into socialising in situations she didn't want to be in, like at a club or her parents' political dinner party. It reminded me exactly of how I would've felt and acted as a teenager. (I have since learnt how to have a polite conversation with boring people, but I still have zero interest in clubbing.) It was nice to read about a socially awkward character without them being ridiculously awkward nor portrayed as the butt of a joke.

What really pushed this book into five star territory for me, though, was Meg's reactions to the horrible things happening around her. When someone dies explosively in front of her, she throws up (runs away) and spends the rest of the night trembling in the foetal position. Like a normal person. And during the climax when she's pretty much running on adrenaline trying to save the world without having time to stop and reflect on the horrible things that have been happening, she has a panic attack and collapses (luckily at a non-crucial moment), again, like a normal person. It was refreshing to read about a character who had realistic responses to the horrible things going on around her, especially since the body-count in this one was fairly high. Not enough YA books do this. Which, as I was discussing earlier on Twitter (with DarkMatterzine, Speculatef and StuffedO), does not say anything good about our culture.

Most of the book was about Meg dealing with her problems. Some of those problems were her mother's ridiculous expectations of perfection, and some were more along the lines of gaining the ability to turn into a fox. They weren't boring problems, but there wasn't an awful lot of room for secondary characters, except directly in relation to Meg's problems. That said, Best does an excellent job of introducing a broad range of secondary characters. One of the more prominent ones was Meg's love interest, Mohammed, who was introduced late but was brilliantly — albeit very coincidentally — set up. I don't like YA plots that revolve around love interests and this was not one of those. Meg is not looking for a boyfriend and when she does meet a boy she has a lot in common with, she recognises that she really doesn't have time for warm fuzzy feelings when there are lives at stake.

Among the others, including bit players, Best includes several minority characters (gay, trans, homeless, disabled) some of whom only get a few lines of dialogue, but I'm hoping they'll play more pivotal roles in the sequel, after the cast has had time to regroup. I was particularly pleased with the existence of the spider-shifter who had cerebral palsy and had to be carried around by her friend. It came up just after I had been wondering whether human disabilities and illnesses carried over to the shifters' animal forms the way cuts and bruises clearly did.

With all the positive points mentioned above, what more is there to say about Skulk? Well I quite liked the choice of possible animal shifters. Best chose urban animals which fit into her London setting. Not wolves, but foxes, spiders, ravens, rats and butterflies. Looking inconspicuous in animal form out on the street is not a problem for them. Not to mention that spider and butterfly shapeshifters are not something I've come across before. And the antagonist has an army of evil pigeon minions, which also seemed quite apt in an urban environment.

Also, Meg's graffiti hobby takes her and the reader into London nooks that are off the tourist track and possibly not obvious to the casually passer-by. I felt I learnt more about present-day London (a city I've visited a couple of times as a tourist) than from any other book I remember reading recently.

Suffice to say Skulk was an excellent read. I would highly recommend it to all fans of urban fantasy (YA or otherwise), particularly those after a different sort of magical premise. (Although I will say the saving the world aspect of the worldbuilding was a bit stock-standard — MacGuffins and all — but Best definitely made up for it with all the other elements.) I have very high hopes for the sequel, which I'm hoping will come out some time next year. Even if it doesn't exceed my expectations, I'm still looking forward to seeing what happens next to Meg, including some of the consequences of events in Skulk that didn't get revisited before the ending. This book made me happy. I hope other readers also enjoy it.

5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: Yes, book 1 of ? (possibly 2)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Blood of Whisperers by Devin Madson

The Blood of Whisperers is Aussie author Devin Madson's début novel. I have to admit I was ever so slightly hesitant going into a book by a new author and a new publishing house, but  I need not have been concerned. The Blood of Whisperers absolutely lives up to the quality I have come to appreciate from the Australian speculative fiction scene. (And I have since learnt that it's production was funded by a Pozible campaign, which is a risk for a début, but it has obviously paid off.)
They call him the Usurper.

A man of common blood sits on the throne. At his command the last emperor was executed, but now the empire is on the brink of war.
Vengeance is coming.

Endymion is an Empath. He was born with the ability to feel another’s emotions and reach inside their hearts for their deepest secrets. Often despised, he lives a nomadic existence, but when he finds himself imprisoned for sorcery and facing death, it is his past that will condemn him. Born Prince Takehiko Otako, the only surviving son of the True Emperor, Endymion is already caught in the brewing storm. Fast losing control of his Empathy, he seeks revenge against the man who betrayed him, but for Endymion the truth will come too late.

The fight for the Crimson Throne has begun.
In case you missed it from the blurb, this is a Japanese-flavoured/inspired fantasy world. (But not actually historical Japan.)

There are three point of view characters in The Blood of Whisperers and all three's perspectives are told in first person. It was only confusing for the first paragraph of chapter two, when the first perspective shift happened. Then I realised that the symbols at the start of each chapter indicated which character it was about. Mind you, I didn't memorise the symbols until well into the book; the voices were distinct enough to generally make it obvious who was telling the story.

Endymion is the first character we meet and possibly my least favourite of the three. I didn't actively dislike him, and he wasn't a bad character, but I did feel least invested in his plight. I suspect he will become more pivotal in later books, especially given the ending. Endymion has feared magic powers and was raised by a priest who never told him his true identity (which I now realise is revealed in the blurb). For the most part it is his magical ability that gets him into trouble and sets him on the paths he follows. Up until the ending, he didn't have an awful lot of control over his destiny, which I suspect is partly to blame for my lukewarm reaction to him.

The other two characters were much more interesting. Hana is the daughter of a previous Emperor and in many ways has the most legitimate claim to the throne. We first meet her masquerading as a male captain in the rebel army, fighting alongside her cousin, Monarch, who wants to take the throne for himself. One of Hana's defining characteristics is hating her femaleness, which quickly became understandable, given the way women were treated in the society. (That is, poorly. Shock, horror.) She was definitely my favourite character, although I did wish that there were more female characters around to offset her hate of femininity. The only other two named female characters are on the page briefly and I fear that one might not appear in the sequel (just guessing).

Finally there's Darius Laroth, the Emperor's right-hand man. Feared by most because of how well he's learnt to school his face, we quickly find out that Darius has many secrets, including from the Emperor. I think I enjoyed reading about Darius the most (although I was more invested in Hana). Some of his secrets take the longest to come to the forefront and for a lot the book he is balancing on a knife-edge. His close relationship with Emperor Kin is also the primary way we get to know the Emperor. He's also the only character that doesn't want to usurp Kin, which makes a nice change.

The Blood of Whisperers is primarily a story about vengeance. Almost everyone wants revenge, and will stop at nothing to get it. At the back of the book, Madson says that the inspiration for the book came from two sayings, one Confucian and one a Chinese proverb:
‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’
‘When two tigers fight one walks away terribly wounded, the other is dead.’
And it's clear to me as a reader, that the way the story is going, vengeance isn't going to go particularly well for anyone. I'm looking forward to finding out just how everything falls apart in the subsequent books and whether anything can be salvaged.

The Blood of Whisperers was an enjoyable read. It took me a little while to become truly invested in the characters, but once I did it became difficult to put down. I would recommend it to fans of Japanese/Asian-flavoured fantasy or anyone who enjoys stories about rebels and political machinations (although I wouldn't say it's heavy on political intrigue per se). I am looking forward to reading the next book which is apparently due out in December, so not a long wait at all (yay).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2013, Cloudburst Publishing  
Series: Yes. The Vengeance Trilogy book 1 of (duh) 3.
Format read: E-review copy (paperback available here, ebooks here)
Source: Publisher
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge