Blish's novel, in many ways, feels like the precursor of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow; it is a first-contact story strongly, and intimately, concerned with the personal and theological impact of that first contact on a Jesuit, and the struggle to integrate the alien species into pre-existing Catholic theological models.  The differences are larger than the similarities, however, because whilst in The Sparrow much of the struggle is with atheism or nihilism, A Case for Conscience sees Father Ruiz-Sanchez struggle with Manichaeism.

The plot is in two parts; the first sees the end of the expedition to Lithia, in order to classify it, of four scientists, including Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a Peruvian Jesuit who is also a biologist.  Lithia is an inhabited planet, and the four scientists each have a different attitude to it; but Ruiz-Sanchez' attitude is changed dramatically on learning, at the last minute, some significant facts about the development of Lithian young and the nature of Lithian thought.  This makes him suspect the whole planet of being a Satanic creation, to deceive Christians - thus, flirting with Manichaeism.  On returning home, Ruiz-Sanchez is is presented with a Lithian baby, which he accepts and returns to Earth with.  The second part of the novel sees the consequences of the first come into action; the Lithian, divorced from its society and natural environment, developes amorally and amorality, using its exotic nature to propogate such doctrines amongst the disaffected society of mid-21st century Earth.  This draws all four scientists in, in very different ways.  That the second half of the plot is harder to describe than the first is, in part, because it is messier and less well-controlled (much of what happens is not really connected together very well and occasionally Blish introduces elements which go nowhere, despite routes both obvious and logical for progress); and because it spends an awful lot of time building a projected future, reliant on some interesting ideas - but ones which, especially since the close of the Cold War, are demonstrably failed futurism.

The strength of A Case for Conscience is in its first half, and in its characters - or at least, some of its character.  Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a brilliantly written figure, sympathetically and thoughtfully portrayed without his failings being whitewashed.  This is encapsulated by his contradictory attitudes to Lithia; despite his fears about the planet, he is still drawn to the Lithians themselves.  Blish's characterisation is well-written and intelligent, with Ruiz-Sanchez; he brings together the various aspects - scientist, Jesuit, and human - of his personality into a single, and very believable, whole.  However, the problem comes with the rest of the cast; from Cleaver, one of the first characters we meet, on, everyone is pretty much a caricature.  Everyone seems to have their single characteristic - which may at least change across the course of the novel, as Michelis does - but that's about it.

In the end, A Case for Conscience isn't about the characters, or even the plot, really; it's about the essential, theological problem at the heart of the novel, and in that, it is a really strong novel, because it treats it intelligently, thoughtfully, and without ever coming down on either side of the equation.  A thought-provoking, if perhaps not well-written, novel.
The third volume (and possibly last) in the City of a Hundred Rows series neither breaks particularly new ground nor squanders that which has been put in place in the previous installments of the series; whilst this might make it sound simply workmanlike and adequate, Whates' closing volume is neither, and sheds new light on areas previously in shadow, both of the city itself and the series.

City of Light and Shadow picks up right where City of Hope and Despair left off, and this review will contain spoilers, so the majority of the review will be under a cut.

Read more... )

In the end, City of Light and Shadow is an excellent conclusion to one of the best series to come out of the still-young Angry Robot Books; although, especially given the nature of the setting, if Whates chose to continue with another book, he could easily do so, since enough ends are left loose to allow it without too much shoehorning.  Brilliant work, and I highly recommend the entire City of a Hundred Rows trilogy to you.
Adam Christopher's Empire State is an interesting novel, to say the least; but it's interesting for its concepts more than its content, which is unfortunate when the concepts are delivered through the content, albeit in rather infodumping form.

The plot of Empire State is hard to describe, as is the novel itself; secondary-world noir, perhaps, is the best descriptor, but the plot has little content beyond explaining that.  Essentially, a murder investigation spirals out into a huge, world-shaking set of overlapping, and ill-explained, events and plots which are variously misconceived, hidden, or underexplained and driven only by dei ex machinae heaped on top of each other until the whole edifice creaks and crumbles with each rapid-fire twist and turn; that's when the broken story-telling style doesn't end up with events happening backwards or sideways, or with the disjointed narrative leaping around without any real sense of what's happening or clarity.  The consistency of the problem is disturbing, and really makes this a hard novel to read.

The characters are just as bad; from Rad Bradley, our main character, down, every single individual in Empire State is consistent only in their one-dimensionality and cod mysteriousness.  I say cod, because that mysteriousness really isn't terribly well conveyed; instead of making characters mysteries, Christopher instead uses statements that go nowhere, false trails that avoid conclusion and aren't actually followed up on, and on many an occasion, a musing of Bradley's that just is dropped as soon as plot or convenience demand and allow.  Rather than constructing a noirish and strange-yet-mundane world, Christopher's efforts in Empire State actually combine to create a confused, and indeed confusing, mess of characters and plot; we have no clear-cut clarity, except where we're having information fed to us in a rather constrained and over-basic manner.

I'd really like to have enjoyed Empire State, and Christopher's attempts to bring in superhero and noir to his work looked like they could have been fascinating; but in the end this novel just spends far too long trying to be mysterious, and not enough time being, well, anything.
Clementine is another installment in Priest's alternate-history Clockwork Century series, and an excellent one at that; a novella available from Subterranean Press in ebook format, it's a story that ticks the boxes that the Clockwork Century series has as its hallmarks: well-written female hero, extended Civil War setting, steampunk mainstays like dirigibles, and the language of the times - one of our main characters here is black, and the attitude to Croggon Hainey is what we might expect. However, the best addition to Clementine is the obvious steampunk one: airship pirates!

The plot of Clementine is an effective, tight and fast-paced one.  We follow Maria Boyd, an ex-Confederate spy now employed by the Pinkerton Agency, in her hunt to prevent Capt. Hainey recapturing his stolen airship the Free Crow (renamed, by the man who stole it, the Clementine); and in the other strand, converging about half-way through the novel, we follow Hainey himself in his attempts to recapture his ship.  The plotting is fast-paced, and the incorporation as the story progresses of other elements and complications to the novel (such as the Union secret weapon, a vital component of which is being delivered in the stolen Free Crow) add a sense of building tension as well as some rogue elements - Boyd feels loyal, still, to the Confederacy - and the book's set-piece scenes are so well written and racey without being wild or confusing that the plot does move along at a fair lick, without leaving the reader behind or throwing out ideas too fast.

The characters are a less strong point, but Clementine still has a solid cast.  Boyd is a well-written and interesting character, albeit suffering a little from the "greatest ever" problem (up front and repeatedly throughout we're told Boyd was one of, if not the, best of the Confederate spies; her actual actions, however, really don't back that up).  Otherwise, though, Boyd is a character who really does bring the reader in; she doesn't like how she's treated as a woman, and doesn't like how she's been treated by her country but still feels loyal to them; there's also the extent to which she uses various tactics, rather than just being able to use her sex to her advantage, and to which she's a character who thinks about things, and is able to adjust to the situation as necessary.  Hainey's a very different character; obsessional, especially about recapturing the Free Crow, he's also got a chip on his shoulder about his treatment as a black man (or, as the novel repeatedly says, driving the point home, a Negro).  That combines with his somewhat chivalrous nature to create a really interesting, thoughtful character who is not only well-written but interesting; we don't see him undamaged by his time as a slave, but at the same time he's not defined by it, which is a fantastic combination.

All in all, Clementine is one of the best installments so far of the Clockwork Century; Priest's writing here is fantastic and fast-paced, and the characterisation excellent across the ball, meaning we're really - for the short length of this novel - seeing some amazing steampunk. With airship pirates.
Stalking Tender Prey is Storm Constantine's attempt, as far as I can tell as a reader, to bring all sorts of new-age woo together into one novel, including ideas drawn from sources as diverse, and ridiculous, as Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? and other such places, alongside epics like Paradise Lost (thematically, if nothing else).  The problem is that the novel ends up incorporating the ridiculousness of Däniken, and the themes but not the epic scope or the characterisation of  Milton...

The plot of Stalking Tender Prey is rather messy, and perhaps even impossible to explain; we follow various characters, mostly Grigori (not fallen angels, but it's never remotely clear who they actually are, other than part-human with special powers), in a sort of mystical quest that's slow, messily told, and to no small extent seems to be an excuse to write sex scenes of all sorts (although the attitude to homosexuality leaves a lot to be desired, I have to say - it's treated very oddly!).  It's building, perhaps, on Paradise Lost - the idea of the fall and possibility of redemption, but it's also got all sorts of strange things to say about human nature; especially the whole idea of sex-vampirism...  What really doesn't help is the slowness of the plot; there does seem to be a huge extent to which Constantine draws all the events of the novel out beyond all real use or need, leading to fluff like repetitious interactions between characters, pointless introspection leading nowhere and adding nothing, and even extended scenes which just go nowhere and fail to add anything, even tension, to the novel.

The characters aren't much better; in part because Constantine uses them as props to advance her ideas, but also because a lot of them are so deeply inconsistent.  Every character, even including the one who is supposed to stand above it all unaffected (Peverel Othman), changes across the course of the novel, but not naturally; instead they change jerkily and strangely, in such a way that they stop being recognisable, and become different, worse characters.  Often enough, Stalking Tender Prey gets around problems in the plot with character-changes which are induced by mind-control; or alternatively, by the idea that love is infatuation, and infatuation is instant and complete and thoughtless - a deus ex machina way to allow the plot to advance that really does strip the humanity, likeability and empathy away from characters.

All in all, Stalking Tender Prey feels like a book in need of an editor: at about half the length and with consistent characters, it might have worked as an interesting story, but as it is, it's more like a mess of words...
Brightness Falls From The Air is one of Tiptree's few full-length novels; it's also a strong demonstration of the tragedy of that scarcity.  A space opera with both a beauty and horror implicit across the whole novel, and with a series of interlinked plots happening in the same place at the same time (in a well-worked manner, thankfully) and some thoughtful science fictional concepts, this is a speculative novel that really does dare to dream.

The plot of Brightness Falls From The Air concerns the planet Daimiem, and the three humans who stay there to protect the Daimeii (beautiful, winged insect-descended humanoids); at the start of the novel, a ship offloads a number of tourists onto the planet in order to watch the aftermath of an exploding star wash over the planet: a shell from a supernova, whose electromagnetic effects are visible in their impact on the atmosphere, and have a strange other effect too... but not all the travellers are what they seem, and Daimiem has been the sight of a very lucrative and vile criminal smuggling operation in the past, and some seem to want to restart that enterprise.  The plot seems complex - and, indeed, it is complex; but it's told straightforwardly, start to finish, with other elements of plot and with backstory integrated really well, and the use of multiple character viewpoints builds the plot slowly; the one major problem is that there are a number of points where characters appear to be wilfully or purposefully blind purely in order to advance the plot, rather than for character-related reasons.

The second greatest strength of Brightness Falls From The Air is the cast; whilst their actions do occasionally let the novel down, they themselves don't.  Each character breathes with a life of their own, and the large cast - there are fourteen major players in the novel! - is handled so well and so effectively that they're not only easily distinguishable, and not only understandable on their own terms, but even individually and separately interesting and empathetic (with a couple of notable, intentional exceptions up towards the end).  That each character has time to grow and move in their own world, and act on their own terms to show off their strengths, is wonderful; and that all of them are so powerfully and evocatively written, without anyone being a superhero but rather every figure a really believable person, is an incredible achievement.

However, the greatest achievement in Tiptree's novel is the style that she brings to bear in her writing.  Brightness Falls From The Air is a beautiful, evocative and powerful novel; throughout, there are major aesthetic considerations to be taken into effect, and Tiptree really does have a strong eye for the beauty of those aesthetics, and a vivid imaginative landscape to create a world that lives and breathes to the point where we can imagine it, and the creatures in it.  Equally, she seeds tragedy throughout the novel; whilst there is bravery and happy endings for some, Brightness Falls From The Air is also a tragedy, and a tragedy of human making.  Tiptree's vision of human nature is not a happy one, and the darkness throughout this novel is so well worked in and so beautiful as darkness that it really does take the whole thing to another level.

I really do highly recommend this as beautiful, well-plotted and well-charactered science fiction, but more than anything I would recommend Brightness Falls From The Air as a stunningly well-written, and moving, tragedy of human nature...
The Night Circus was tipped as one of the debuts of 2011, and it is no fault of Morgenstern's that I took til 2012 to read it; once I started the novel, it was finished within just over 24 hours.  There appears to be a slight fashion for circuses at the moment in genre circles (see, for instance, Mechanique), and these two very different but also very similar stories demonstrate why: circuses allow the writer a lot of freedom...

The plot of The Night Circus is told in a temporally disjointed, but still clear and, indeed, chronological manner; nothing needs later elements to make sense, though some make a new sense as later events are told.  It concerns the magical contest between Marco and Celia, taught by two different mages and, as children unable to really understand the competition or what it is they are being bound to, drawn into the world of deadly and dangerous magics; it's a romance, in fact, between those two characters, and also (inevitably?) a tragedy.  But it's the telling of how we come from men arranging a strange and magical contest over the head of Celia to the tragic, beautiful end of the novel that really makes Morgenstern's debut shine; that, and the characters she creates as she weaves the illusion that binds the reader.

The Night Circus does have one of the most fantastic casts of any novel I have read for a while.  It's not doing anything particularly revolutionary here - especially for YA, which this book is pegged as (though I'd not hesitate to recommend it to anyone over the age of, oh, comprehension); but the characters are so fully realised, so individual, and so willing to fight against their roles that the writing makes them breathe and live, and makes us laugh and cry with them.  The rivalry and romance between Celia and Marco is so powerfully and beautifully portrayed, the one arising from the other and both being so influenced by their essential characters, so similar and yet also very different, that the reader can't help but care for them and care what happens to them; and despite the large cast of the novel, the reader knows every character so well, because they are each so vivid and unique, so well-portrayed, that they leap off the cage, from the mysterious Mr. A.H-- to Isobel via the twins and Bailey.

The plot is equally well-handled; never losing sight of the contest, Morgenstern doesn't always foreground it, so its pervasive influence is felt in little, rather than grand, ways.  Told episodically and out of order, we're also treated to a way of storytelling that avoids simplicity in favour of complexity, but not obscurity; it's still very linear, and allows us both to explore the wonderous, mysterious and strange Night Circus as well as follow our characters in their adventures and magic, and in which not a moment is wasted.  Everything builds up the atmosphere of the strange and wonderful, and also ups the tension; by the end of the novel, we're at a snapping point, and The Night Circus' tragic resolution was both inevitable and beautiful.

I really, really enjoyed this book, and I'd highly recommend The Night Circus to anyone and everyone; get a copy and read it.  Brilliant, beautiful, and so incredibly well characterised, this really did blow me away...
Silverberg's The Last Song of Orpheus is a novella retelling the myth of Orpheus, briefly and in full.  As a Classics scholar, I've felt drawn to this work for some time, a similar draw as to that of works like The Sarantine Mosaic and The Dirge for Prester John, and as Subterranean Press have released an ebook version of the novel with the same lavish and beautiful illustrations as their limited hardback release, I snapped it up; and, despite the familiarity (to me) of the story told in the novella, it was a good decision!

The familiarity of the myth aside, this novella is essentially designed to give Orpheus a character; beyond the tragic lover and one of the heroes of the Argo, the myths - as with most of their characters - give him very little personality.  The Last Song of Orpheus, however, spends a long time giving Orpheus a character; and it's a very interesting, fatalistic one - integrating the myth of Eurydice's death and Orpheus' trip to Hades and the voyage of the Argo with an Egyptian mystical tradition common to ancient ideas of magic and the fatalistic traditions of Greek religion.  Indeed, there is also a tradition in the Orphic religions of reincarnation and the repetition of the fateful life of Orpheus is a strong part of the character of Orpheus; his denials of free will and his determination to tell the story, in its dark and grim form, focussed on him and on mysticism, create a dark and strange character who stands apart from humanity, and yet also a part of it.  It's a fantastic character portrait, and one that, whilst offputting at the start, makes the end of the novella - Orpheus telling us about being torn apart by the Maenads - all the more affecting.

The illustrations, whilst rare, are also fantastic; they aren't common but they are beautiful and, even in the black-and-white of a Kobo screen, they really do add something to the novel: a certain beautiful lushness, and - along with a flowing and poetic writing style - really evoke the power of Orpheus, even if not in verse form.  The building of Orpheus into an unreliable narrator, unwilling to ever confirm or deny anything at the start of The Last Song... but giving hints and then outright denying towards the end of the novel, really does create an interesting and well-written story without being clear about truth and not.

In sum, then, The Last Song of Orpheus is a beautifully written character study and retelling by Silverberg of a famous myth, interacting with other myths - such as that of Odysseus - as the demands of story call.  A beautiful, and effective, piece of work; I highly recommend it!
Novels of the Quarter )

With 42 more books read, and 40 of them reviewed, I'm 4 over my hoped-for total of 36 reviews for the quarter for the challenge, and with an annual total of 161 (an average of over 13 per month), I'm well ahead - nearly a month and half - or my intended year-long total of 144 books. The most notable pattern is that there's a significant amount more reading in October than either of the other two months for whatever reason.
There are quite a lot of authors new to me, with a smaller number of names - such as Guy Kay and Terry Pratchett - recurring; there are also a reasonable number of female authors, albeit few female science fiction authors than I might want.  There's also a split between fantasy and science-fiction, although genre-busters such as Valentine's novel are a little on the rise; which means there does seem to be a wide variety of subgenres within the genre represented here, happily.  There is also a mix of quality in there, which is perhaps less happy; some fantastic novels, and some which, whilst I went in with high expectations, I came out very disappointed, and even a few which were just poor.  Finally, a few classics came out at the end of the quarter, aided by a Christmas Kobo, giving a wide chronological spread in the genre.

In alphabetical order by author's surname, then, my top five reads of the quarter!
1. Feed by Mira Grant.  Not only an intelligent zombie novel, which doesn't surprise me, and a post-apocalyptic one discussing the rebuilding of the world after the rise of the zombies, Grant's novel has a really strong heart with great characters.  It also has some fantastic political and technological ideas, which make this a zombie post-apocalyptic pseudo-horror thriller for the new generation.
2. The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  Kiernan's horror novel, a slow-building, character-driven, expectation-wrecking piece of work which combines ghost-story and natural horror in that very Blackwood-inspired way with a brilliant psychological study is an incredibly disturbing piece of work which has really stuck with me strongly, as a dark horror.
3. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.  McDonald's near-future thriller is more of a cultural exploration of Turkey than it is an exploration of technology, although it does posit certain technologies that aren't quite here yet; but it's the portrayal of Turkey which really makes this novel, and drives it, along with a gloriously active writing style that keeps things moving effectively and quickly.
4. The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski. More futuristic than anything else on this list, The Highest Frontier is also the most clearly YA novel, with its university student protagonist.  A well-written and thoughtful novel, Slonczewski shows a lot of confidence in her audience by dropping the reader in head-first, and whilst it's not the perfect narrative it still has a strong pacing and some fantastic concepts.
5. Mechanique, A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine.  This well-paced and well-written novel is one of the most chronologically confusing things I have ever read, with its jumpy and disconnected narrative; however, the evocative style and rapid pacing combine with the broad brush-strokes Valentine allows the reader to create a brilliant, well-written and very readable narrative.
And because I found it so hard to pick a top 5 - the five runners-up, each of which almost-nearly made it onto the list and only not making it because of the quality of what did!  Those runners up being, again in alphabetical order by author's surname, Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod, The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson, and Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan; each incredible novels, but just edged off the top - clearly a very good quarter, then!

Finally, this quarter brings us some new reading technology; The Red Tree, and every work following it, was read on a Kobo Touch.  I don't intend to write a sales pitch for the device, but I think it's pretty clear from my continued use of the gadget demonstrates that I am something of a fan.  The fact that it's not backlit is a great help, and the lack of buttons - as a reading device, it's very sleek, with nothing but the screen and home button there when a book's open - really does put it leagues ahead of the Kindle.  It's also light and portable, although reading it in the bath is perpetually risky.  I've always expected to dislike my first eReader, but the Kobo has far surpassed such expectations; indeed, it's a very intuitive, user-friendly device.
Tarr's historical novel with added magic is quite a fantastic one; set around the end of the first millennium, Ars Magica combines reality and fiction with a deft hand, and despite the slightly disjointed prose style and lack of truly cohesive continuous narrative, this works remarkably well as a novel because of the focus on Pope Sylvester II - or, as he's known in the novel (mostly set before his accession to the Papacy), Gerbert.

Ars Magica follows the rise of Gerbert on his path to the Papacy, with an added wrinkle of his learning the Art of magic; that wrinkle doesn't change the basic history, although Tarr does so on a couple of other occasions, but only develops Gerbert's character and that of some other figures in the novel.  We see the feud over Rheims in focus strongly, as it takes up a significant amount of the novel, and the magical fall-out of some of Gerbert's decisions also affects the course of the plot.  It's a well-written, character-driven series of episodes, but it is such a series; the Parts, especially, feel somewhat disjointed, but even chapters within those Parts are rather disjointed and broken in such a way as to break up the flow of the narrative, jumping forward in time without really explaining what happened between events.

It's really the characters which make this novel work so well.  Gerbert is brilliantly written, not saintly but trying his best consistently, a conflicted and at times broken man who is struggling against his limitations; driven by a need to know and a powerful ambition we see him fall, multiple times across the course of the novel, and part of the joy of Tarr's writing is the extent to which we watch him attempt - and sometimes fail - to put himself back together after, and learn from, his falls.  Richer is, in the latter half of the novel, with him each time this happens as a faithful servant and guiding hand, and again makes an interesting character, as we see his mixed feelings - of jealousy and of love for Gerbert - and as we understand his concern, but also see Gerbert's driving emotions.  Indeed, the whole novel is peopled by characters with historical evidence behind them, perhaps excluding a few very early characters; and they are all very human and well-written, with Ars Magica providing a very intelligent view of the people of the turn of the millenium.

In sum, whilst the novel is perhaps not presented effectively as a single piece of prose, Ars Magica is a fantastic piece of historical magical realism, and Tarr has created a fantastic cast to people it.
Lest Darkness Fall is one of the earliest works of alternate history, and of a time-traveller going back in time and affecting the workings of history with his foreknowledge. L. Sprague de Camp’s novel is, naturally, of its time (1939) and place (the good ol’ USA), but at the same time de Camp does turn out a fantastic piece of fiction.

Lest Darkness Fall follows one man, Martin Padway, who falls back in time to 535 AD, and the fall of Roman civilisation as the Dark Ages close in, and his attempts to forestall that darkness, through technological innovation and an increasing political and military involvement. The character of Padway is, in the end, deeply problematic; that he is an American, with American ideals, and a classical education, is not a problem, given his introduction as an archaeologist on his way to the Lebanon, but over the course of the novel he displays knowledge of all too many different subject areas; he turns out to be a genius military tactician and politician, able to invent paper, the printing press, and telegraph alone (although he can’t manage gunpowder), and a politician without flaw. The problem with all this is that Padway is a complete Gary Stu; none of his plans fail, his tactics are perfect and unbeatable by men like Belisarius, the best general of the time, and he juggles so many balls without flaw as to be truly ridiculous.

The plot suffers from de Camp’s major flaw; the consequences of Padway’s actions throughout Lest Darkness Fall end up positive and with Padway in control and command, the American always managing to lead the Goths to victory, control their simple minds by sleight of hand and trickery, or otherwise work such things into success for himself. In this way we end up without seeing more than moments of doubt which we can be assured are false, and – especially with the relatively strong refusal of de Camp to think through alternative results of actions in the period, and to credit anyone but his American hero with intelligence and ability (certainly intelligence or ability to match that granted Padway!)

In the end, this novel is saved by the historical attention to detail of its early chapters – some fantastic work there – and the writing style of de Camp, which is stronger than anything else about this novel. I’d cautiously recommend Lest Darkness Fall, more for its influence on the alternate history genre than anything else (Harry Turtledove and Eric Flint for instance), but approach with care!
Marion Zimmer Bradley is best known for the Avalon and Darkover series, one Arthurian fantasy and the other science fiction. Darkover: Landfall is the first in the latter series in internal chronology, although it was published fourteen years after the first Darkover novel; Bradley uses it to set up the earliest history of the colony.

The most notable feature of Darkover: Landfall is how Bradley does this set-up; unlike the seminal Mists of Avalon, there is a lot of dead space, mystery, poor writing and slack, unfortunately. The first thing to note is the characters of the novel; it’s got quite a large cast, but an oddly weak one. Our main characters are Rafael MacAran, a colonist with geology specialism, and Lieutenant Camilla Del Rey (named, perhaps, for Lester Del Rey), the ship’s first officer. The former is an interesting, well-written character, reasonably rounded except for in his feelings towards Camilla (obvious, badly developed) and for women generally (problematic in the 1950s, let alone the 1970s, and forget the 21st century future Bradley was imagining!); indeed, his pioneering spirit and willingness to defy the established order is quite well written, without being pushy. Camilla, on the other hand, is appallingly written; she’s a very basic weak and feeble woman, in theory and practice, largely obsessed with men – ironically, I don’t think this book is actual Bechdel-compliant, even with its reasonable number of female secondary characters.

The plot is more interesting; a colony ship crashes on an Earthlike, inhabitable planet at the start of the novel, and Darkover: Landfall concerns itself with the question of whether the colonists and crew will focus on repairing the ship, or instead on settling the (at this stage unnamed) planet. MacAran and Del Rey are on opposite sides of this argument and, through a series of rather extremely contrived events, the settlers win the argument. This is combined with a strange, and rather impossible if not hilarious, natural environment predicated on human psi powers and alien beings who can easily communicate with humanity; all in all, Bradley appears to feel a need to throw as many elements in as possible, and ends up with a hodgepodge of a plot that combines Gary Stu (MacAran), very negative gender messages (surprising for the author of Mists of Avalon), and a mess.

In the end, Darkover: Landfall is not one of Bradley’s better novels, and certainly not a part of the canon of feminist SF; an easily-overlooked, poorly-written novel.
The Red Tree is by a long stretch the spookiest thing I have ever read; managing to combine the creeping nature-horror of Algernon Blackwood with the claustrophobia of Cherie Priest, Kiernan's novel is a chilling, brilliant narrative, with strong, indeed excellent, characters and a powerful voice.

The Red Tree's principal cast is one character, Sarah Crowe; for the majority of the novel, she is our narrator and guide, and the events of the novel happen to her.  Kiernan uses entries in her diary, bookended by a foreword by her agent and an excerpt from one of Crowe's novels, to tell the story; and so we get an incredibly strong sense of Crowe's prickly, defensive, deeply damaged personality.  An author stuck on her new novel, Crowe has moved to New England to a house with an - unknown to her - haunted history, in the wake of the suicide of her girlfriend, Amanda; and over the course of the novel the creeping horror consumes her. Right up front we're told that Crowe has committed suicide, and this also informs our reading of the novel; it builds into Crowe's character, which is one that draws us in and makes us back off at the same time, a difficult personality, one that it's hard to like but at the same time one that perversely draws one to it.  It's a very difficult balance for Kiernan, but she strikes it excellently; we care about Crowe, whilst not sympathising with her, and we want to know what happens - or rather, what happened to cause her suicide, of which we have foreknowledge.

This need to know draws the reader through The Red Tree, with its interwoven intertextuality; Crowe's diary includes little snippets of literature, largely the Alice books, which are significant to Crowe, and excerpts from a book about the red tree at the centre of the horror of the novel by the previous tenant of the house - Dr. Charles Harvey, who also committed suicide.  We also get conversations with the tenant who joins Crowe partway through the novel, Constance Hopkins; indeed, it is only after Hopkins' arrival that the horror of The Red Tree truly gets off the ground, although it has been building from the opening page of Crowe's diary.  That chill drives the plot and is palpable throughout; how Kiernan manages it I don't know, but that The Red Tree is compelling, chilling, dark and strange from page one is an amazing achievement, and one that really drives the indescribable plot of the novel, which combines the interactions between Crowe, Hopkins, Harvey and Amanda (the past never being really dead) with the increasing role of the red tree in the lives of the inhabitants of the house.

In the final pages of The Red Tree we get the real horror, and it's a brilliant bait-and-switch; or perhaps there are two horrors in the novel - it's impossible to say, because Kiernan doesn't want to, and interrogating the question too hard, especially with a narrator as unreliable as Crowe increasingly grows, is not something the reader can do.  In the end, what the reader gets is an utterly bone-chilling novel of the kind that not only stops one sleeping, but sticks in the back of one's mind - it's the kind of story that niggles at the reader forever, what one has read always sitting in there, informing future thoughts.  A really brilliant, strange and dark piece of work, I'd recommend The Red Tree without a second thought.
Wolfe's Book of the New Sun sequence is one of the defining works of 20th century fantasy, although - with its setting on an Urth with a dying sun, and cultural setting of a post-galactic empire which has collapsed back down to a single planet and lost its past knowledge - it technically, perhaps, counts as science fiction; Shadow of the Torturer introduces us to some stylistic quirks of Wolfe's style in the series, and introduces us to both our narrator and the main character, Severian.

Severian is the only character we get to know in Shadow of the Torturer, for two reasons; first, Wolfe's strictly realistic first-person style means we only ever know Severian's suppositions about other characters, and explicitly so, and we know how unreliable Severian is as a narrator early on; secondly, other characters appear only briefly across the span of the novel, attaching themselves to and then vanishing from Severian's sphere, affected by and affecting him but never there long enough at this stage for us to truly know any of them.
Severian's character, as demonstrated in Shadow of the Torturer, is a compelling enough one for us to follow in this novel and beyond, however.  Because he's an unreliable narrator, and we're seeing his own portrait of his youth, it's hard to know what to trust, but the character that emerges is a none-too-sure one, uncertain about what he wants to do with his life; indeed, Severian is torn in two by competing loyalties, and pastes love of various women on top of that, in a wrought and well-written adolescent style.  A sheltered youth thrust out into the world, Severian's character does draw us in, especially with the overlaid character of the elder, wiser Severian laid atop the young lad; thus we come to care for Severian even as we know he must survive.

The plot of Shadow of the Torturer is very simple, and yet avoids the trap common to many opening novels in series; whilst it is brief, and does set up future books, it avoids feeling as though that is all it did.  We follow Severian as he grows up in the Guild of Torturers, focussing on a small number of events, and as he is then cast out and sent to be a carnifex in Thrax.  Thus we discover the world Wolfe has created, of Urth, and we learn about what place the Torturers have in it, as Severian tells us those things, and - possibly - as he himself discovers them; what is fascinating about Wolfe's style is that he foreshadows future events simply by dropping references about the present Severian, rather than by more extreme or obvious methods, and that he uses the simplicity of the plot to allow him to explore the fascinating and fantastical world and draw the reader in with a beautiful, idiosyncratic prose style that is all his own.

Shadow of the Torturer is a strong opening novel to a renowned fantasy sequence, and - especially as it is usually found bound together with the second novel of the quadrilogy - an excellent draw to the series, and Wolfe's work; I'll certainly be following the rest of the Book of the New Sun, and I recommend you do, too!
Sullivan's Theft of Swords is, according to the interview at the end, a concious return to traditional fantasy, using tropes and cliches as a way to turn away from the gritty, amoral violence that is typified by authors such as Sam Sykes, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker and many more; instead, judging from the the first instalment of the Riyria Revelations, the reader is in for relatively black and white morality (although not completely), and Leiber-inspired characters, with Tolkeinian elements to boot.

The characters of Theft of Swords are, by and large, written in broad brush strokes; they fulfil archetypes as well as being written in a relatively unsubtle way. That isn't to say they aren't good, or sympathetic, and certainly that they aren't likeable; after all, Hadrian especially is a very friendly fellow who the reader would have trouble with not developing fellow-feeling for.  Hadrian is our Fafhrd, in this story; he's more sophisticated than Leiber's sword-slinger starts out as, and older, but he is indeed the muscle partner, an excellent martial soul in, apparently, every respect, but able to display Conan-level stealth as well.   However, his real character is a good-humoured, good-intentioned man who wishes he was more clear-cut in his morality; a good man who is trying to survive in a poor world.
Royce (or the Gray Mouser), on the other hand, is a darker character, more amoral and financially driven, although that seems to be in part driven by a wish to go straight with his girl, Gwen; he's more willing to kill, to take jobs just for the money, but he's also more careful about what jobs they take.  As we get to know Royce he becomes more likeable as we break through his shell, seeing him through Hadrian's eyes, and he does show his humour; and there's a big reveal towards the end of the volume which isn't a reveal about him at all, just as there is in the closing pages of the novel about Hadrian that has been incredibly strongly telegraphed.
The other characters also follow archetypical roles; Esrahaddon is the sage old man who stands as Gandalf in the Hobbit, in a number of ways - stepping in to give guidance and save skins, but only occasionally and when convenient.  Princess Arista is a competent, intelligent woman, ambitious in her own right; she's one of the ways Theft of Swords moves away from its cliche-embracing origins, with a powerful and independent female character who acts as well as being acted upon, and indeed, who causes things to happen, very much so.  On the other hand her brother Alric begins his appearance as an entitled brat and grows in the obvious ways very quickly into his role as a king; it's a little pat and smooth, and really quite bland - which sums up many of the other characters, who are so role-defined (either role in the world, or role in the plot) that they don't really stand up.

The plot of the Theft of Swords is relatively straightforward; Sullivan presents the novel at first as straightfoward swords and sorcery, small players with low consequences; and indeed, this is how Hadrian and Royce see themselves.  The scale, however, keeps zooming out until we see worldwide consequences to their actions; set up to take the fall for killing a king, they're broken out by his daughter and kidnap, in order to save, the prince - now king.  Covering the first novel of the novel we see Arista and Alric, from different ends, unravelling the conspiracy and attempting to gather resources to reclaim the kingdom.  The second novel of the volume covers an attempt to save a village from a beast harassing it, by stealing a weapon; but of course, especially with the resurgence of issues from the first novel, the problem snowballs and grows to huge world-changing problems, to the point where the Riyria are affecting the fate of kingdoms.  The plot is tight and well-controlled, if occasionally a little spelled out or attempting to pull off big reveals of elements obvious to the readers for some time by the actual reveals; and Sullivan keeps our eyes on the ball, cutting and changing viewpoints effectively as well as ensuring digressions don't go on for too long.  The one problem the novel does suffer from stems from its... unique... entry to the publishing world; Sullivan appears to have avoided an editor.  There is padding aplenty, such as extensive descriptions of food (but variably so, so sometimes we see momentary mentions of meals, other times paragraph-long descriptions of a meal); recaps and repetition, within each novel, which are quite short, rendering such recaps somewhat pointless; and infodumps which don't have even the subtlest of disguises.  This is backed by the occasional problem of research or understanding - such as in the fighting scenes, where we see occasional severe problems in how they're handled; but overall the pacing is good and powerful, keeping the plot powering on and moving quickly and effectively.

All in all then, Theft of Swords is a very enjoyable novel, and the Riyria Revelations look like they'll shape up to be very fun, if by no means groundbreaking, fantasy; a high achievement from Sullivan, even if his understanding of the history of fantasy (which began, really, with Howard and Leiber, gritty writers indeed!) is a little questionable. I'd recommend this very willing to fans of, for instance, Jordan's version of Conan or people who dislike the darker grit of Sykes and Abercrombie.
Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter has been recommended by some very prestigious left-wing authors as essential genre reading for socialists, and the messages of the novel certainly seem to fit with that recommendation - its nihilism aside, perhaps; the problem is that, as essential reading goes, it is actually a bad book poorly written, and that really does show through strongly.

Swanwick's novel has as confused a plot as any novel you are likely to have read.  Jane is a changeling working in a factory at the start of the novel, and wishes to escape; with the help of the iron dragon of the title, Melanchthon, she manages this and we explore parts of the world Swanwick has created through her eyes.  The biggest problem is the way in which we do this; a sex-obsessed, message-laden, chaotic, cyclical and above all poorly plotted out novel (when decisions have consequences, they need to have consequences, not just have brief consequences and then vanish despite the scenario appearing again in future; when you've set a theme, follow it through; when a character has learned something, they need to not forget it at opportune moments for purposes of plot). Indeed, those flaws rather run through the story of the novel; and are backed up by something worse - bad characters.  Jane is poorly written, simplistic, and rather more bounced around by others' than driven by her own desires and decisions, with the occasional brief exception which always fall apart rapidly after opportunities have been seized; and no other character has even as much three dimensionality as Jane, rather being simple and basic, designed as foils or friends or teaching aids for the changeling.

The problem becomes acute as we see, in different situations, the same scenarios explicitly repeat, with characters reappearing and (perhaps) resurrecting; the cosmology of The Iron Dragon's Daughter is never explained and just assumed, but in such a way that beggars understanding, as people keep popping up without any explanation or logic behind it, and sometimes in multiple forms simultaneously.  This is backed up by a world that is built to have different elements which both cannot and do co-exist; we see a world simultaneously pre-industrial, industrialising, and post-industrial, without any logical reason for the different elements and kinds of world to co-exists.  And the nihilism at the heart of the novel is just horribly overstated, and yet at the same time undermined, in no small part by the plot itself, and writing style Swanwick employs (that this novel did not win a Bad Sex Award is surprising; the sex is frequent, appalling written, and deeply voyeuristic, and the incoherence of the novel as a whole is reflected in individual elements of Swanwick's style).

In the end, I came to The Iron Dragon's Daughter with high expectations and a willingness to give Swanwick a lot of credit; but the credit was squandered and my expectations were not only quashed but completely destroyed.  A really disappointing read.
Reading, and considering, Guy Gavriel Kay's historical high fantasies, a strong theme emerges; from Tigana, the first such, to Under Heaven, his most recent, we see not only turning points in history, or in culture, but the dying of a culture, it's slow and mournful ending.  The degree to which this is simply the end of a decline varies, but in The Lions of Al-Rassan, this comes through incredibly strongly; we're seeing the dying days of Al-Andalus, a regional power and hugely influential culture.

The characters of The Lions of Al-Rassan are, as per usual, well written; those we spend most time with, naturally, especially so.  Our El Cid and Ibn Ammar analogues are two of those characters, alongside a doctor named Jehane; each of the three interrelates in powerful, strange ways, defined largely by love and similarity, but also by ties of loyalty, duty, affection, and history.  The three different cultures - Jaddite, of Rodrigo Belmonte (roughly Christian); Asharite, of Ammar ibn Khairan (roughly Islamic); and Kindath, of Jehane (roughly Jewish) - are portrayed as quite varied, Kindath aside (whereas we do see zealots and barely-faithful Jaddites and Asharites, we only see reasonable and faithful Kindath); and in that variation our characters all fall into the same sort of place on the spectrum: faith forms a significant part of their identity, but doesn't - by its strictures - inform their actions.  Every character we meet, from Alvar to Ziri, is portrayed effectively and with a sympathetic eye, excluding the various religious zealots we see; and Kay lets us in on their innermost feelings and thoughts, giving us as readers an additional way to understand the events and world as he portrays it.

Those events are also incredibly well portrayed; The Lions of Al-Rassan demonstrates Kay's strengths in taking both the grand, political sweeps of history and the small, personal things on which events turn and combining them into a single, simple story, which follows the grand implications of personal decisions and the small results of grand events on a huge scale; Kay uses the plot, the exile of both Rodrigo and Ammar to the Asharite city of Ragosa, to explore the events leading up to and comprising the start of war between the Asharite and Jaddite powers in the peninsula.  The bonds of friendship and loyalty, tearing the characters apart and throwing them together, have a major effect on the plot, and the way that Kay draws in a number of elements - personal history being a major one (Kay's theory of history appears to centre on important individuals, not on sweeping narratives and societal pressures, as a rule) - to come to the powerful, grand climax at the novel's close is very well done.

The final thing to note about The Lions of Al-Rassan is another one common to Kay's work; the concern with a lyrical and poetic writing style.  Not only does Kay use poetry in the novel itself, there is also a lyrical style to the prose of the novel as a whole, and a concern with emotion and with individuals spinning off from the plot reminiscent of the great epic poets; both of these recall those epics and, one suspects, actively draw on them.  Kay's writing makes use of a number of techniques which really do add a power and inevitability to the novel, as well as a beauty to it; reading Kay's writing, from Tigana onwards, has the feeling of reading long-form prose, as it flows and moves, and the frequent uses of verse poetry in The Lions of Al-Rassan really highlights this.

In sum, then, the exploration of Al-Andalusan culture and the history of the Iberian Peninsula, with its culture, in the 10th and 11th centuries is beautiful and powerful; Kay's working of the plot and painting of the characters is, as usual, stunning, and I would therefore highly recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan.
Guy Gavriel Kay's post-Fionavar Tapestry trilogy has been of consistently high quality in my experience.  Kay's retelling of the An Lushan Rebellion, or rather the time leading up to it, is of a quality on a par with any of his other history-retellings; indeed, Under Heaven draws the (Western) reader into the foreign culture of C8th China and creates believable, empathetic characters - on all sides, surviving and otherwise, right and wrong.  Indeed, the reader comes out of this novel with no clear idea of who was in the right; and Kay, presumably, intended that here as much as he did in novels like Tigana.

The main character Under Heaven follows is Shen Tai, son of a general who won a victory between the Kitan and Taguran Empires - a victory in a battle with a huge death-toll.  The novel opens with Tai burying the dead, one at a time, in mourning for his father; this rather defines Tai's character - this, and the gift of 250 horses from the Taguran Empress.  That Tagur and Kitai had been at war for years before the peace won by Tai's father 20 years prior to the opening of Under Heaven means that Tai's life is turned upside down by this news.  Tai's character is very well written; we see him maturing, and growing, over the course of the novel - into a competent young man, intelligent and thoughtful, rather than somewhat impulsive at the opening.  Indeed, this rather tends to define our cast; whilst impulses do happen - and Kay demonstrates their long-term effect every time, with asides and offshoots we've come to expect from his style - generally all their actions are well thought out and considered, in all their implications.  Every character is well-painted and written thoughtfully and stylishly, so that whilst they're different they clearly come from the same culture; a very different culture to our own, leading to the reader clearly having an impression of that culture; and no character could be taken from the narrative without taking something essential from the plot and interactions of the cast.

The plot of Under Heaven is intricate and complex; rather than following the politics of the rebellion, we're following Tai's return home and his delicate attempt to balance the various interests standing in his way - and wishing to claim his horses.  Indeed, Tai's story is the centrepiece of the novel, and because of that, we brush against politics, getting simpler, more basic ideas of what led to the rebellion - but also complex relationships and rivalries over petty and important things alike, as in human nature.  Kay's idea of history comes out strongly here, the idea that small events and minor decisions can have a huge impact on world events; and indeed we see huge events having small consequences, too, with figures followed as they leave the narrative of Tai's life.  By the end of the novel, Tai's small action - of burying the dead in memory of his father - has impacted on a civil war that tears an empire apart, and defines the world.

The scale of Under Heaven is simultaneously grand and epic, and small and personal; the characterisation excellent, and the depiction of Chinese C8th culture simple and evocative.  All in all, another tremendous piece of writing from the master of this sort of work.
Liz Williams' work is very well regarded in the science fiction field, but - despite a recommendation from Tricia Sullivan herself - my previous experience of it has been... somewhat disappointing, given the lavish praise laid upon Williams' authorial skill.  Following the specifics of Sullivan's recommendation, however, has proven somewhat more of an explanation for the critical acclaim Williams has: Snake Agent, the first of the DI Chen novels, is a brilliant slipstreamy-type novel.

The reason I describe it as "slipstreamy" is because Williams mixes so many different kinds and categories into Snake Agent.  We see technology out of science fiction - literally liquid display screens that can be spread across any surface and biocomputing as an adjunct to the internet - alongside magic and active demons and gods.  All this in the context of a clearly futuristic P. R. China.  Combine this with the noirish feel of the narrative - although it builds up to be something out of the scope of most noir, in terms of conspiracies (stretching literally into the bowels of Hell!) - and the police procedural/whodunnit elements, and "slipstreamy" is simply the easiest, most complete description of the rolling, changing, shifting and never-quite-solidifying genre of Snake Agent.

The characters are, however, a quite different affair.  We have four main figures in Snake Agent, and they are all excellently portrayed, rounded figures.  The first, naturally, is DI Chen himself; a member of the Singapore Three police force, he deals with matters supernatural, and starts the novel by being asked to track down the kidnapped soul of the daughter of an industrialist.  As the plot progresses and grows more complicated, we see Chen really grow into himself - or perhaps into John Constantine, if we're feeling cynical; because it really does feel like Constantine is something of a reference point for Chen, but not in a bad way - rather they share a common heritage and feeling, as well as a world-weariness, but Chen's is leavened by his stronger urge to do good, and his attachment to Inari.
Inari herself is a demon, and Chen's wife - having fled from an arranged marriage in Hell with Chen's help, she's somewhat dependent on him, but the pair love each other; indeed, there is a beauty and power to their relationship and the way it is portrayed that works incredibly well.  Like all our characters, Inari is incredibly human, and an interesting figure; her inability to quite fit in with humanity and her problems attempting to are affectingly portrayed, as is her state of mind.
Zhu Irzh, Seneschal of Hell and a member of the Ministry of Vice (promotion, not eradication, naturally) is working the same case as Chen from the opposite end; again, he's a very human demon, neatly written as having different standards and ideas of duty as a human, but still having them - and following them.  It's an important note, because Zhu Irzh is so important to the narrative and as a character; Williams writes him very well, leaving him eminently believable.
Finally, Sergeant Ma, a human in the Singapore Three PD who barely believes in the supernatural despite the evidence and dislikes it, is a character like a duck out of water; he lets the reader be introduced to some of the concepts of the novel, and whilst not around for a huge amount of it, his naivety and distaste for demons give us a very different picture to Chen of human society and the world, and a necessary counterbalance.

The plot of Snake Agent is a complex one.  The aforementioned kidnapping is only the way into a complex conspiracy by one of the Ministries of Hell, which is also intertwined with attempts by Inari's spurned betrothed to take her back from Chen and Earth.  The personal, criminal and political run together in complex and unusual manners over the course of the novel, with hidden identities, magical responses, and larger scales than we ever expected at the start coming clearer and clearer, and the raising of the stakes gives rise to more and more elements of the plot being revealed and tied into the central elements, until at the end we have everything swept away, not with a deus ex machina, but with a brilliant resolution reminiscent of such - but far better foreshadowed and executed.

In the end, Snake Agent shows why Liz Williams is a much praised author, and DI Chen is a brilliant creation; I'll certainly be following along his journey.  Williams can, finally, welcome me aboard as a fan!
Flesh and Fire was accompanied, as a novel, by prog for a number of reasons.  Not only does its concern with wine strike a chord with the generally middle-class genre of prog rock, but its self-absorbed, excessively long and self-indulgent content rather reminded me of the excesses of the music; Laura Anne Gilman is clearly an imaginative writer in terms of worldbuilding, but sadly that rather appears to be where it ends...

The worldbuilding of Flesh and Fire is, for its part, pretty strong; after all, the idea of magic held by vines and only releasable through wine is quite strong.  Gilman lets this premise down more and more through the novel, but at the start it's a powerful and interesting premise; grapes have their own strengths that, if grown, fermented and imbued appropriately, can be used as magic by anyone.  The different grapes grow in different locations and thus different spellwines come from different locations, and vin ordinaire (why that, and nothing else, is in French? Never explained, by the way) reflect similar tastes to those spellwines.  This lets Gilman have some wine-wonkery in the background, albeit occasionally taking over the narrative too much or too strongly.  Equally, the Vineart ability - to produce spellwines - is only brought out through stress, and therefore vineyards are tended to by large gangs of slaves, and amongst those slaves some manifest the sensitivity to magic that is the hallmark of the Vineart.  Of course, Gilman is at great pains in Flesh and Fire to emphasise how bad slavery is - repeatedly, and strongly; indeed, she says time and again that it has horrible effects on the slaves' psyches and can destroy them, to the point where the unnecessary authorial politics to counter the (unlikely, but) possible iffy readings of her use of slavery are simply annoying and moralistic, rather than part of the story.

The characters are similarly... problematic.  Most of them are quite two-dimensional, simply there to fulfil a role or niche in the story; the exceptions are little better, as a rule, since they have one or two character traits that define them and do little else.  That Flesh and Fire's main character, Jerzy, spends most of the book essentially reflecting on the fact he used to be a slave, bringing it up every few pages, and defining himself and his actions entirely in relation to that - except when one might think it might have taught him something useful, when of course he doesn't.  There's no real character development until right at the very end, when it's all crushed together too briefly to really work effectively.  The only other real character is Malech, the Vineart who is Jerzy's master - but even he is rather more archetype than anything else, distant and mysterious teacher of magic who keeps his secrets and plays his cards close to his chest.  The characters really don't make the book appeal.

Sadly, nor does the plot; it doesn't help that most of the novel is spent setting things up - we see events, but not really impacting on our characters and therefore not impacting people about whom we care.  Gilman manages to spend pages and pages on tutoring Jerzy, without ever really covering new ground; indeed, much of this novel should have been left on the editing room floor, since it revolves around repetitious scenes of Malech teaching Jerzy the same kinds of things that could have been covered far more briefly.  Flesh and Fire only manages to find a reasonable pace in the last quarter or less, and even there much of the time is spent standing around and doing nothing; the plot feels like it needs to go somewhere but even at the end of the novel the only thing that happens is that the next novel has been set up, with no plot really having transpired other than scene setting.

In the end, Flesh and Fire has a fascinating premise and some stunning worldbuilding, but the actual writerly craft on display - or rather lack thereof - so deeply undermines any quality that the novel may have had as to make it a tedious, dull and slow read.  A really disappointing, underwhelming story, thin characters and no sense of resolution do not a novel make.

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