Roma Mater is an... odd novel.  Like Emperor and in the same vein as The Sarantine Mosaic, this is a novel about a lesser known period of Roman history, the mid 4th century CE.  Unlike those, this spends much of its time in the fictional, fantastical created elements of its world, rather than the real and historical aspects; the Andersons seem to want to use the history as a way to work around much of the world-building, or perhaps to give us familiar points of reference (Caesar, for instance) that we can hang the fictional, Anderson-created elements of the novel on.

Roma Mater starts strongly, and gets progressively weaker as characterisations get fuzzy, plot disintegrates, external elements disappear from the scene and increasingly the novel becomes about Ys and her relationship with her gods.  The plot of the novel starts as Gratillonius' mission to Ys, to bring them on side for Magnus Maximus' (temporarily successful) bid for a role as Augustus of the West launched from Britain; but over the course of the novel we see his loyalty to Rome essentially vanish (whilst there are flimsy justifications of some of his actions as Rome-centric, his strongest actions on Maximus' behalf is in fact completely off-stage.  The other plot, of the religious conflict - between Mithras, the traditional trinity of Ys' pagan deities, and Christendom - and the mysticism underlying it, is equally strangely handled; we alternate between Ys' traditional deities fading and dying, and being resurgent and angry, or simply taking over everything, completely extant (which never seems to actually affect Gratillonius' beliefs in Mithras, oddly).  Both plots manage to work at odds with each other in that regard; not waxing and waning in concord, but just seeming to be confusingly attempting to bring the two parts together. There's also a very brief Irish plot - Niall maqq Echach attempts to raid Gaul, Gratillonius uses the magic of Ys to prevent it, Niall survives though his son dies, and then... Niall curses Gratillonius and vanishes completely.

The characters are equally uninteresting, with one possible exception.  Roma Mater has a set of characters who each have one characteristic; they're differentiated well, but they're still very two-dimensional, and this is especially problematic with the Nine, who are supposed to be intelligent, powerful and independent women and yet those we see most seem to be perfectly happy to defer to Gratillonius and think that he is far more wise than them.  That Dahilis' one characteristic is being utterly in love with Gratillonius makes that even worse - the women are so focussed on Gratillonius, whereas he's got aims beyond the women despite his love for Dahilis, is deeply problematic.  Gratillonius himself does go some way to saving Roma Mater's characterisation - his conflicting ties to Ys and to Rome, to Dahilis and Magnus Maximus, and to Mithras and the deities of Ys are thoughtfully set out, and his crises of faith and life are interesting and bring him to life as a believable and interesting person.  He is definitely a military man, and his memories inform his present character, as do his fellows; indeed, he's a well-constructed person to hang the narrative on, but unfortunately not enough to save the plot.

Roma Mater's style, on the other hand, is typical Poul Anderson: utterly brilliant.  The sections with the Scotti (Irish) are written in the style of an ollam's saga; it creates a sense of mythology, and of the strange, deity-infused world that the Andersons wants to create.  It's a lyrical, beautiful and powerful piece of writing, and also works incredibly well as a contrast with the sections following Gratillonius; those sections are in a drier, simpler and starker style.  Less related to the character and more straightforward, this style mainly serves to contrast the Ysan and Scotti sections, but they certainly do serve that purpose.

Overall, then, Roma Mater is a weak mess of a book for most of its length; the Scotti sections and character of Gratillonius do a lot to rescue the novel, but overall the Andersons really haven't risen to the heights Poul has achieved in the past with this novel.
Leicht's novel is very definitely urban fantasy, but it isn't urban fantasy as it is traditionally understood. Not only is Of Blood and Honey set against the background of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, inherently a turbulent, violent setting (one of the most famous British atrocities in the history of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday, is written into this novel); but the portrayal of the Fae (and the Fallen), the use of viscera and violence, and the pretty relentless male focus of the novel are not quite in the standard mould...

The plot of Of Blood and Honey is an intermingling of two conflicts; first, the surface conflict of the Troubles, with Liam, our protagonist (I hesitate, for a number of reasons, to call him a hero) caught up in them first through incarceration in Long Kesh and then on Bloody Sunday arrested again.  This draws him into the IRA, although the plot only touches lightly on his actions in the IRA; this is rather more a way to lead into the plot of Liam's father Bran, and the war between Fae and Fallen that is being played out underlying the Troubles, with the Catholic Church playing a problematic role in the conflict as well.  It's a slowly told plot, jerkily transitioning in ways that aren't always clear (whilst Leicht dwells on certain sections with little happening for extended times, for instance the prison scenes and Liam's early IRA involvement, other bits are brushed over and referred back to in passing later, such as his IRA training), and it dwells on the violent scenes and moments for too long (given that this is a novel about violence and horror, this is perhaps intentional; but the timing feels very wrong when rapid, violent scenes are given so much space whilst we skip over so much).  It also requires a lot of wilful stupidity by a number of characters, to the point of straining credibility.

The characterisation is also weak.  The only developed character is Liam, so we'll cover the other main figures rapidly.  Most central is Father Murray; a Catholic priest, he's very simply and one-dimensionally portrayed, in no small part as simply a kindly old man who has a darker side - or rather, who is intended to have a darker side without ever actually showing it.  Mary Kate is similarly basic; her portrayal is as a passive, loyal female without any real personal agency (any agency she has is only ever off-screen, which is problematic in its lack of immediacy) and she is eventually fridged. Liam is the best character, and even he is intensely passive; much of the novel is spent watching things happen to him, and Of Blood and Honey as a result has a real problem with its drive and requires a lot of credit on the part of the reader.  He's also intensely obtuse - that is, the reader is given a lot of hints and clues and is very able to put them together, and Liam, with the same information, is always way behind us, which makes him seem rather... boring as someone to follow.  In the end, the enigmas of the secondary characters are far more interesting than any of our primary cast, simply because we don't see enough of them to realise how uninteresting they are.

In the end, Of Blood and Honey has great potential, but squanders it; there is some very visceral and powerful writing on display, but that isn't backed up with characters or a plot which the reader is invested in, and Leicht uses real events and gruesome horror as a cheap way to manipulate the reader.  The writing style is choppy and poor, and the unsubtle plot and politics - British bad, Catholic Church too dogmatic, Liam's eventual moment of glory (although even that is qualified and deeply passive in reality) - really do intrude for at least this (British) reader in such a way that it harms the novel as a work of fiction, making it more of a polemic.

And this doesn't seem to be what Leicht is after; on the terms the novel is presented in, Of Blood and Honey fails dramatically, since as fiction it doesn't make the reader want to keep reading, and as argument it falls down because we don't care enough about anyone to care what happens to them (except when it's so violent as to be nothing more than cheap, obviously-fridgey manipulation...).  I cannot help but damn this book; certainly, Of Blood and Honey isn't worth your money...
Stephen Baxter is renowned as a hard science fiction author, and Emperor, at least in one regard, demonstrates some of the skills of hard SF: meticulous and detailed research, portrayals of the technological and societal situation as well as character (the epilogue of the novel has a great skit on this, about Lucian), and use of characters to explore the changing world.  Emperor, however, is essentially historical fiction, with a tiny tinge of fantasy; the fantasy is an excuse for continuity across nearly 400 years of Romano-British history, more than anything else...

Because Emperor doesn't really have a plot.  Instead, it has three (four, if you include the prologue) moments of plot, islands linked by a prophecy given in the prologue and by the family relations of the characters.  The first moment is resistance by three Brigantians to Claudius' invasion of Britain; in this telling we see the immediate and early effects of the invasion on the British people, and meet Vespasian, future emperor, as well as Claudius, the emperor of the moment.  The plot here is minimally, rather just following the responses of the three Britons to the invasion, and how they differ and have very different results - integration, death, or the semi-integration of life in Britain in Romano-British culture.  The second is in the time of Hadrian, and a visit to Britain; here every member is integrated to at least some degree with Roman society, and the plot concerns the machinations of Severa using the prophecy to try and gain profit from Hadrian's consolidation of the empire (in the form of the Wall).  The final is in the time of Constantine; his Christianisation of the empire, the institutionalisation of the Church, the taxation required to recover from the post-Diocletian civil wars, and so on result in descendants of the original family of Prophecy uniting, or at least appearing to, in an attempt to leverage changes in policy using the prophecy - though there are, naturally, games within games.  The point here being that the Prophecy comes in to play at three crucial moments in history for Britain, and vulnerability for Rome: Claudius' invasion; Hadrian's consolidation of empire, rejecting Trajanic perpetual expansion; Constantine's conversion, and this allows Baxter to explore those turning points.

The research behind Emperor is, whilst not perfect (we see glass mirrors, rather than just beaten bronze, and a penetration of the use of coinage that the last thirty years has cast significant doubt on), meticulous, and details are thrown in very neatly.  The cultural picture of Rome, and Roman imperialism, is painted very nicely and effectively; we see how the attitude of Rome changed to her provinces and provincials over time, meaning that what we get is a picture of Rome's decline.  It is perhaps a little caricatured, and there is certainly an extent to which for Classical scholars of Rome it will fall short, but Emperor does certainly paint a useful and intelligent portrait of three vital points in Roman history and explode many of the modern myths about our classical past, albeit whilst buying into others.

Finally, and least importantly (as Thalius says, the ideas are the point in this kind of fiction) Emperor does have a strong, varied cast of characters.  It's a wide cast, but they're each very individual; all influenced strongly by, defined by, and of their time, rather than standing out from it, which is perfect, and all showing the differences in culture by contrast, because in some ways there are continuities of character across the eras.  Baxter's writing is weakest here because they do occasionally delve into simplicity and monodimensionality, but at the same time they're fun, interesting characters who we do care about and want to follow, and their views of the Roman world are so fascinating because of their attitudes given what actually happened; again, for a Classical historian, a really interesting piece of writing.

In the end, whilst Emperor is probably weakened because of my university study of Ancient History (nitpicking: it's what we do), it remains a very strong, lightly fantasy tinged, historical portrait of three eras in Roman history, as well as being good fiction; very readable, and very informative, it's certainly worth a look.
Forbeck's novel of the Titanic's sinking - or rather, the sinking, and what came after it - isn't a strictly historical retelling of the 1912 disaster (a timely release, and probably one of all too many this coming year).  That the Carpathia came to the rescue of the survivors of the Titanic is a matter of history; presumably it was that name that inspired the subject of this novel by Forbeck - because in Carpathia are not simply travellers wanting to go to the Old World, but a hold full of vampires.  Thus what we have here is a tribute to Dracula - more naked than most - and a disaster story uncommonly familiar to us, but combined to great and positive effect.

The plot of Carpathia starts with the sinking of the Titanic, on which we meet Lucy Seward, Quin Harker and Abe Holmwood, our three protagonists (and if you recognise those names from the work of a certain Mr. Stoker, he is defined as an old family friend - Uncle Bram).  The three are fast friends, although the (strictly heterosexual) love triangle complicates matters somewhat; but over the course of the novel their friendship is tried and tested as they are forced to first fight to escape the Titanic, and then to escape the vampiric infestation of the Carpathia.  That they recognise the vampires for what they are is thanks in no small part to Uncle Bram, and its also thanks to him that they can fight them; the trio are very much strong characters, and never pretend for a moment to be otherwise, although Lucy has a moment at the close of the novel where she collapses into the role of early C20th woman who collapses into emotional chaos after being frightened (an annoyingly anti-feminist moment given the strength of Lucy and Maggie, a suffragette minor character who is very outspoken and powerful as a character, in the rest of the novel).  The growing horror and power of Carpathia comes from the change of the threat from that of nature to an unnatural one, and the inevitability of it; the infestation of the Carpathia is complete, and the effect of that on our characters' confidence is unmistakable and excellently portrayed, as is their realisation of just how real vampires are.

The characters of Carpathia are also well written.  Each of our three principal characters are intelligently and thoughtfully drawn, with a sensitivity for emotional detail and crisis that makes the romantic element all the stronger, and their falling out over it all the more effective.  Similarly, their strength is very believable, because they're strong despite being scared; Carpathia doesn't have the kind of emotionless hero who is simply brave, but nor does it have heroes who are terrified but act despite it without reason, instead being blessed by Forbeck with Lucy, Quin and Abe, a trio who are brave because it is what they feel they ought to be, or because of each other.  It's a real strength of the novel, because it makes it much more plausible; these are characters who feel human and alive.  That goes just as strongly for the principal vampires, Brody Murtagh and Dushko Dragovich; despite the full range of vampiric powers (Forbeck has clearly done his homework), they feel very human, motivated by human concerns and desires, simply altered in their scope and the nature of their species-loyalty by their nature.  It's brilliant writing, especially in Dushko, who is evil (a vampire, after all) but at the same time sympathetic.

If we are to see a slew of Titanic-related fiction in 2012, and I suspect we very much are, then I hope Forbeck's novel is indicative of what we can expect: intelligent, well-written and enjoyable fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously without descending into farce.  Carpathia is definitely a novel to watch out for.

Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.  Carpathia will be published in the US and in ebook format on February 28th, and on March 1st in the rest of the world.
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!
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.
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.
Thomas the Rhymer is mediaeval semi-fantasy; it builds on traditional tales and ballads, bringing in conceptions of the Faerie court, and some modern ideas (especially about women), to create a lyrical and beautiful fantasy which - in contrast with Jo Walton's piece on - contains (practically) no violence, but rather a good deal of thought and romance packed into this relatively brief piece.

The characters of Thomas the Rhymer are by far its strongest point; Kushner's ability to write sympathetic, kind, interesting characters really shines through here powerfully, as each of the human characters are not only rounded and changing over the course of the novel, but also characters who are human and to whom we can connect.  Indeed, if there's a criticism we can lay at the door of Kushner's story, it's that the fey also have these qualities - qualities which, according to Kushner's world, they can't have.  Thomas himself, as the central figure in the narrative, comes across most clearly, as a wanderlust-infected fame-inspired boy who grows into his skills and role in the world as one of its most influential minstrels; and that's where Kushner places him, in the role of the supreme balladeer, which fits with the historical Thomas' reputation.  He's an interesting figure, who grows into his humanity over the course of the novel, especially the time he spends in Elfland, learning what it is to be human.  The other human characters are less developed, in part because of the time they spend offscreen whilst Thomas is in Elfland, but they are still interesting, rounded figures; Gavin, Meg and Elspeth are all more... mundane, in their way, without the romance and mysticism of Thomas himself, but that grounded humanity is also more relatable in many ways, and more deeply human than anything Thomas can achieve, as they're connected to the world around them and to other people in a way Thomas never truly is.  That grounding really does provide an interesting, and powerfully effective, contrast that is well worth considering.

The problem with Kushner's characterisation comes with the Fey.  Unlike Bear's Faeries, Kushner is very explicit in Thomas The Rhymer that faeries cannot love or change; and yet, over the course of the novel, various faerie characters do in fact change and alter, not simply in terms of how Thomas sees them, but in terms of their actual actions.  This is especially true of the Elf Queen, who is most prominent; her emotional and mental state changes a lot through contact with Thomas, despite the apparent impossibility of this, which is a deeply problematic state that throws a lot of Kushner's writing into question here.

There are also problems with the plot, which don't end with the Faerie characters.  Whilst Thomas the Rhymer is told in a lyrical way, and rather akin to a fairy tale, meaning we can expect the happy ending right from the very start (it really isn't hidden), a lot of the actions of various characters don't fit with how those characters are shown to think; this is true especially of Elspeth and Thomas.  It's most jarring on Thomas' return from Elfland; we see their reconciliation from Meg's point of view, and it happens not only very quickly, but also without any actual form of reconciliation other than "suddenly, she forgives him".  However, other subplots are rather more effectively portrayed; whilst the solving of Hunter's riddle is rather contrived, the plot which it forms a part of is complex, thoughtful, and resolved ambiguously but effectively, and with some really nice references beyond the scope of the story, something which much of the novel has, in asides or just mentions.

In the end, despite the occasional problems, Ellen Kushner is a brilliant character-artist and lyrical, beautiful writer in Thomas the Rhymer; it's an enjoyable little novel, despite the imperfections.
Ruckley's novel is a cross between police procedural and horror novel, and a strong piece of work; The Edinburgh Dead fits, in many ways, into Tim Powers' idea of the "secret history", incorporating as it does Burke and Hare, Major Weir, and a few other elements into a single whole.

Sergeant Adam Quire, the protagonist of the novel and man whom it generally follows, is a policeman in early 19th century Edinburgh, investigating a murder; this leads him into a whole mass of strange and supernatural horrors involving the undead, possession, demons and other strange things that populate Ruckley's Edinburgh.  Quire himself is a great character, a flawed ex-soldier turned policeman, with a good deal of stubbornness and a bolshie spirit - he cares about the people of Edinburgh, and he also has a certain resistance to authority.  These combine throughout the novel with a tenacity of spirit that drives Quire to destroy his enemies, even if it destroys him; and that gives a certain pathos, and darkness, to the whole novel.  The other characters are less well-written, though still strong; Ruthven is a weak man driven by poverty and desire for power, and this comes across well, although it makes him rather simplistic, and Burke and Hare are brilliantly written, if in direct opposition to their portrayal in the recent film of their lives, with the rest of the cast largely playing second fiddle to Quire.

The plot is quite a strong one; The Edinburgh Dead, by using the Powers' idea of a secret history, adds an air of verisimilitude to its otherwise straightforwardly horror-novel plot, and makes it hit home to the reader that much harder.  Ruckley's writing means that the discovery of the evil working at the heart of the story, in the form of Mr. Blegg, is powerfully effected, and that the twists and turns, the action and the slower moments, all fit together well.  He also manages to keep a plot touching on all sorts of different areas grounded, and to make it clear what the costs of Quire's actions are - this is a horror novel without a clean ending, in which no one comes out of it untouched, and it is that much stronger and darker for it, because lives are ruined and destroyed simply because of the nature of the characters and the horror at the centre of it.

This all adds up to make The Edinburgh Dead a really strong, powerful read, and a great novel; Ruckley's turned in a really good horror novel, with that little frisson that marks out the best from the rest.
The first novel – by publishing date – in the Sharpe series is not such a fantastic one as might be expecting to spawn such an all-conquering historical fiction series, but Cornwell is hardly a slouch as an author in his debut novel. Sharpe’s Eagle is a fantastic, enjoyable, and very unique reading experience.

The characters in Sharpe are fantastic, rounded, well-written and powerful. Sharpe himself is not an officer and a gentleman, but an officer and a rogue; it’s emphasised that he rose through the ranks, and time and again we see evidence of this as he fails to fit in or get along with the others of the officer class. Similarly, he has a combination of charisma, temper and inevitability about his character that really make the reader love him and care about him; he isn’t a nice man, but he is a good one, and perhaps even an admirable one – though as the novel continues, that becomes a little dubious. Harper, his Sergeant, is a larger-than-life figure, brilliantly written and a fantastic supporting character, as he adds another facet to the novels whilst also providing someone as a support to bolster Sharpe in the darker moments of the story. The villains of the piece – Simmerson and Gibbons – are less well portrayed; they are caricatures of armchair generals and aristocrats, which makes them read a lot less true than most of the characters of the novel. They do, however, have both enough nastiness and enough personality to drive the conflicts that make Sharpe’s Eagle such a good read: Sharpe isn’t only fighting the French, after all.

The plot is, equally, not perfect, but excellent. Focusing on the Tavalera campaign of 1809, Sharpe’s Eagle also takes in inter-Battalion politics, personal enmities between British officers, and a detailed knowledge of British and French equipment and tactics; the farcical Spanish regiments add a tragicomic element to the novel that works well as a counterpoint to the blood-and-guts approach Cornwell takes to the battles, brilliant, fast-paced and powerful action sequences that he neither gives too little nor too much time to. The problem with the plot is its focus; occasionally, the villains act as villains for no real reason – we’re focused on Sharpe, and so something needs to happen to provoke Sharpe, so it does, and this can be glaring.

Overall, despite its flaws, which are minor, Sharpe’s Eagle is a fantastic piece of historical fiction; hugely enjoyable and very well written, it is an incredible achievement, especially given that this was Cornwell’s first novel. I shall certainly be following more of Sharpe’s adventures, which have become numerous over the past thirty years, and recommend you do too.
Last Light of the Sun follows Kay’s pattern of fictionalising historical periods and characters into a fantastical setting; this 10th Century British novel, set in the time of Alfred (albeit with analogous characters, rather than the originals, and some ahistorical events), is very good at transmitting the feel and sense of the culture. Set in the same world as The Sarantine Mosaic (there is reference to a treatise by Rustem on cataracts, something also referred to in the Sarantine Mosaic, as well as to a mosaic chapel outside Rhodias).

The characters are more original than in previous Kay novels that I have read; whilst they’re somewhat similar to each other, they’re not cut from the same molds. They’re influenced and defined by their culture and environment, as well as their pasts; brilliantly, the Anglcyn aren’t perfect, as many historical sources (being English-written) suggest, and Aeldred is well-written with sympathy but not hagiography. Similarly, the Erlings (Norse) and the Cyngael (the Welsh analogue) are separately and sympathetically portrayed. Their cultures are a little over-influenced by stereotypes, but the individuals are all very human and very well-written; there’s a strong theme of common humanity, brought out by Kay with his asides, telling the full lives, beyond the action, of some characters who interact with the main story, playing them out and showing how (whether) they’re affected by it all.

The plot is a brilliant one of revenge, destiny and love. The Erling, Cyngael and Anglcyn groups are brought together and apart by threads of history and family; the novel starts and ends with an Erling raid and the intrusion of the half-world, and comes full circle in the life of one of the Erling characters, Bern, with the consequences of his flight and theft at the start of the novel being dealt with at the close. The whole thing seems to highlight the circular nature of life and destiny powerfully, with the violence, romance, and religion melded together with a lyrical and stylish language creating a compelling novel.

Overall, like all Kay’s non-Fionavar work that I’ve read, this is a powerful and beautiful novel with a huge amount to say in its favour; Last Light of the Sun is an excellent evocation of the end of the Dark Ages in Britain, well-written and enjoyable.
Drawing of the Dark is an odd story; mixing Powers' acknowledged mastery of the idea of the secret history, the strange and occult reason for events of history that are otherwise hard to explain or simply look like they could be re-explained, with a Merlin-style mythology that also underlies Jeter's novel Morlock Night, published in the same year as Drawing of the Dark.

Powers' characters in Drawing of the Dark are a slightly mixed bunch; whilst Brian Duffy is a damaged, old soldier with regrets and a lifetime behind him, and a well-written, interesting, and wonderfully world-weary character, Aurelianus (among most of the rest, including Bluto the artillerist, Werner, and so on) are thin, basic characters who are far too obvious; although Aurelianus does receive some character development and background, it's not well executed and suffers for it.  Duffy, however, is the story's main character and this does allow it to progress without being too hindered by poor characterisation.

The Drawing of the Dark has a better plot than its characterisation; revolving around the siege of Vienna as a clash of civilisations and positing it as a battle between East and West on a mystical level obscured by the military events, it's an interesting, fun and well-explored idea that brings together a lot of mythology, tradition and ideas in a rather weird way, albeit perhaps at times too obvious (it doesn't really ever bother with subtlety); the dark is, admittedly, a nicely concealed touch revealed about two thirds of the way through the novel to be something far more prosaic than the first thought would imply, and the story rolls along nicely and with a certain inevitability about it to the only end possible.

All in all, this isn't quite up to the standard I have come to expect of Powers' work, but The Drawing of the Dark is enjoyable, fun, and at times serious, with a decent plot bolstering weak characterisation effectively. I wouldn't recommend it for most fans of Powers' work, but it's not all bad.
This review is of the concluding volume of the Sarantine Mosaic duology and will contain spoilers of varying degrees for Sailing to Sarantium as a result.  A review of the opening volume is under the preceding link.

Here be spoilers )

The Sarantine Mosaic's closing volume brings this story to an end but makes clear that it doesn't by any means bring the world to an end, and there is much more going on that this story could include; but because it is the story, above all else, of the emotional journey of the mosaicist Crispin, it has a definite conclusion, and a brilliant one at that.  A really good concluding volume demonstrating that Kay is a more-than proficient craftsman of this sort of detailed, beautiful fantasy.
Kay's novel is a beautiful, low-magic fantasy set in a world analogous to the Byzantium of Justinian I (with details like the Victory Riots).  Centred on the rebuilding of the Sanctuary of Jad, with a huge mosaic'd dome accomplished by Caius Crispus, Kay draws into Sailing to Sarantium a variety of political, military, artistic, theological and other details of the ancient world and sets up a number of wonderful conflicts for the concluding volume to the Sarantine Mosaic duology.

The characters are wonderful, if occasionally a little stock - the mosaicist, cook and architect who are each described as the top of their field (albeit only one of whom we meet in much detail, that being Caius Crispus, the mosaicist) are all irascible, likeably unlikeable, creative, kind and gentle but with facades of rage and a tendency towards bluntness; all the noble women are manipulative, use sex to try and get their way, are precariously positioned but brave and intelligent; and all the more physical men (Carullus, Leontes, Scortius) are cut from a similar mold of being gentle, kind, thoughtful and lovely people, but who don't give too much time to the more high-flown intellectual pursuits.  Valerian II is brilliantly drawn and very much not like anyone else in the novel, and despite the stock characteristics of even our main character, Sailing to Sarantium is emotionally moving because we do see things through the eyes of a number of characters are they are distinct - with different styles and focuses for each (Crispus' relentless focus on light and the play of light, for instance) which combine with an emotional truth throughout the story to pack a powerful punch - this is one of those books that had me, at times, choking up a little (or more than a little).

The plot's also brilliantly handled; with numerous little historical details slipped into the narrative, what we have here is a fictionalisation, with fantastic elements, of the reality of history.  The relations of the barbarian Antae in Varena (Ravenna?) with Sarantium, the theological schisms over the divinity or otherwise of Heraklidos, the son of Jad among other issues, the internal politics of Sarantium, the role of the emperor in the west, and other historical issues all become elements of a complex plot centred on Crispus; Kay handles the complexity of the Byzantine period well, with his sympathetic and knowledgeable portrayal creating a deep suspense and wonder even as (historically speaking) we think we know what will happen - we don't, after all, know what truly will.  Interspersed are smaller, more personal plots, and musings on things like the importance and lasting nature of art, and the numinous or divine, that keep the reader even more on their intellectual toes than the characters, perhaps.

All in all, whilst not flawless - Kay's characters do sometimes seem to be slightly differently focused versions of the same person - Sailing to Sarantium is an absolutely stunning novel, rich in detail and beauty.  Lord of Emperors has just hit the top of my "Buy this and read it" pile... and The Sarantine Mosaic duology should do the same to yours.
Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides is both a historical novel, and the basis of a Disney film - an odd combination, to be sure, but one that the author of Declare and Last Call cannot have expected to long avoid with a novel that, first published in 1988, so beautifully channelled the spirit of an increasingly drawn out film saga started in 2003.

As with all Powers' novels, the characters are brilliant.  Jack Shandy, the character we largely follow and our reluctant hero, is a brilliant figure in his own right, a pirate press-ganged into it for heroic actions, who mingles honour and illegality, whose sense of duty and right and wrong are challenged throughout the novel increasingly as he's forced into positions and actions that make his old codes impossible to follow.  Shandy is also a driven man, who as motivations that are, whilst understandable, hardly good; and these traits combine with a clearly portrayed personality to form an interesting, emotionally engaging figure.  Philip Davies is similarly a conflicted character, at one and the same time an honourable man and a pirate, protecting those who he feels deserve it and showing mercy where it's earned but also ruthless.  The other characters - including a brilliant, not evil but yet terrifying Ed Thatch (or Blackbeard) - are drawn with a deft, cunning hand, all with understandable motivations and dark sides to their characters.

The plot, incorporating vodun, the loas, the Fountain of Youth and the end of the Age of Piracy is a brilliant one.  Mixing historical fact with Powers' fantasy, the conflicting motivations and plans of the characters, without any one clearly good - and only one clearly evil - characters, creates a brilliant mixture of elements that come together into a plot that twists and turns, combining the swagger of the pirate with the deadly action at sea and the dark horror of magic (something Powers introduces slowly, and beautifully).  Powers' command of the different strands of the plot is wonderful, and the eventual ending - tidy as it is, but not overly so - is handled with such a brilliant hand that even the most demanding reader will walk away satisfied.

Powers' novel is a perfect mix of action, magic and plot, with a writing style that never lets the reader go and keeps one turning pages to the end, holding one's breath to see how it all falls out.  If Disney manage to adapt this faithfully, a flagging franchise will be powerfully revitalised; otherwise, a fantastic book will have been wasted.  On Stranger Tides should be read by every fan of Pirates of the Caribbean, to see what those films could have been.
Lachlan's Viking urban fantasy novel (ish) is a fantastic piece of gritty fantasy on some levels, and a nice piece of epic fantasy on others, without quite working out what it wants to really be; Wolfsangel has a powerful and brilliant atmosphere, but is let down by a lack of clarity in writing style and plot, and a lack of decent characters.

Taking its lead from the sagas, perhaps, Wolfsangel focuses on a wide number of characters and the interactions between them, how things work as they talk, fight, move and plot, and this is a good call in that we see things from a number of angles - mostly Vila, Feileg and Adisla, but also a number of more peripheral characters.  The problem is that these characters are very hard to tell apart; speech styles slip and merge without really delineating characters, styles, motivations and actions seem completely divorced without rhyme or reason, and the way people behave doesn't seem to follow anything that is understandable.  Whilst there is a theme of fate and madness running through it, the reasoned actions seem no more sane than the mad ones, and the characters of Vila and Feileg are simply slipping into and out of each other without real sense.

The plot is equally problematic; there's no solid conception of time with travel taking significant lengths for some characters and moments for others, events taking different lengths of time to occur from different perspectives, and timelines for different characters simply not lining up in any way at all.  Lachlan applies time as and how he wishes, and that makes understanding the already-convoluted plot of Wolfsangel that much harder; given that it is orchestrated by a mad witch to thwart a mad god, is directed by the Norns, and controlled by the themes of the sagas, this really leads to a novel that feels significantly messy, as if Lachlan wants things to happen but has no real idea how to make it plausible within the world he has constructed, whereas if he simply says "this happens" it works better...

The one thing I would praise is the worldbuilding; the Norse world of Wolfsangel is brilliantly realised, with the vistas, the magic, the gods, the tribes are all absolutely beautiful and brilliant, well-detailed and well-understood, with Lachlan combining history and imagination to create an interesting and realistic world with its own spin.  The spin really does work reasonably well and, if it perhaps was a little more coherent, the magic system would be fascinating; sadly it's not really anything to be understood...

Overall, Wolfsangel is an ambitious novel, and Lachlan a beautiful worldbuilder within the Norse thematic constraints, but the novel really falls down on a number of levels, leaving me disappointed and wanting something better.
Chadbourn's novel is in the same sort of vein as Dan Abnett's Triumff, which I've been trying to get more than 10 pages into for a while now, and Elizabeth Bear's Ink and Steel, sharing the character of Marlowe with the latter; that is, Chadbourn has written an Elizabethan spy thriller with hints of James Bond and with the Fae as a central element.  Yes, really.

Set in 1788, the year of the Armada, Chadbourn's constructed England and Spain are as true to history as the inclusion of the Fae and of his characters can allow it to remain; indeed, we see a strong continuance of what happened to the Armada, with certain elements rejigged, certain characters' roles altered, but overall, Elizabeth, Walsingham, Drake, Dee et al. play their real roles in the events that unfold, with additional roles on top of those.  The world we are thrown into is vividly and honestly realised - with the language of the Elizabethan period not used to such an extent that it becomes a barrier to the reader, but nor so little used that we're jolted out of the historical aspect of the novel.

The characters are really well realised.  They are, in many ways, straight out of a spy thriller, with Swyfte being the true James Bond figure - known to all, and yet still somehow able to engage in covert operations.  However, Swyfte is a much deeper figure than that, with torn motivations and a strong sense of personal, as well as national, duty; his every action seems to come at some cost to him, and whilst sometimes we see things very much out of character from him, they still seem right in the situation.  The people around him - Carpenter and Nathaniel especially - are also characters with very much real and rounded emotions and personalities, both the historical figures like Walsingham and the invented ones like Grace (although her character seems much weaker than that of anyone else, far less developed... since she's the only female character, this is a major loss).

The plot is, of course, brilliantly convoluted and full of both secrets and moral shades of grey; despite the overwhelming sense of black and white we have at the start of the novel, by the end of it humanity doesn't look that much better than the Fae, and this is played with really well in how Chadbourn developes the plot and deals with the various characters on both the English and Spanish side.  Indeed, the style with which Chadbourn interweaves international intrigue with fantastical fairy story and turns the pair into a magic-laced thriller is brilliant and almost unparalleled, and the consummate skill and ease he displays in his writing, which is fast-paced and really well woven together, keep the reader guessing throughout the novel as to how things will turn out.

The Sword of Albion is a fantastic novel, overall, well-written and well-crafted with a strong dose of action and adventure and wonderful characters; Chadbourn has written a fantastic novel, one which I would recommend strongly.
Baker's time-travel science fiction story is largely a romance and a meditation on human nature, with thoughts on religion, group identity, and other matters.  In The Garden Of Iden, the first Company novel, is a mixed bag, in some ways - occasionally very clunky, sometimes far too preachy, but at the same time a brilliant exploration of the impact of immortality.

The nameless main character, also our narrator (of mixed reliability?), is a brilliantly human character.  Baker follows her as she ages really well, taking us through trials and tribulations, through her growth and education, through all the powerful, mixed and strange events that go on around her; the emotions we see in her are brilliantly portrayed by Baker, as In The Garden Of Iden sees a variety of powerfully conflicting emotions at a variety of stages of maturity coming into play in the life of our nameless narrator.  The other characters are equally brilliant; Joseph and Nefer are great as mature figures with failings and who make mistakes, whilst Nicholas is a great, wonderful driven love interest for the nameless-narrator character, and through whom we see some of the more human elements of the novel, as well as being given a very different image of so many of the issues Baker discusses.

The plot is neatly done - intertwining the political events of Tudor England from the death of Edward VI through to the reign of Mary, covering a couple of years in the main part of the plot, with romantic entanglements, personal antagonisms, botany and a brilliant set of dialogues on religion and humanity, Baker manages to balance academic, theoretical discussions with the history and her very much fictional world, with the implications of the involvement of our narrator analysed briefly but poignantly on a couple of occasions.  Nicholas and our narrator's burgeoning relationship, as well as the interplay between the various employees of the Dr. Zeus Corporation, creates a vibrant zest to the plot that really keeps things moving.

Finally, Baker's construction of Tudor England is brilliant; In The Garden Of Iden walks a fine line between anal accuracy and too much freedom with the historical events; the use of news reports and similar to keep track of the history is brilliant as a method of keeping things relatively objective, whilst some of the other historical background is a little... unhistorical, overly influenced by revisionism perhaps.  There's also a strong ability to depict the ordinary life of the lower nobility, which really does work brilliantly in this turning point in the economic history of England; some fantastic lines about the relationship between monarch and nobility, and about English history, could be mined from this novel for even academic work.

Overall, despite the slightly infodumpy moments at the start, the slightly over-done sociopathy/withdrawal from humanity of our narrator at times (which really changes over the course of the novel), and a few other slight failings, In The Garden of Iden is a fantastic story and Baker tells it wonderfully; I'd heartily and highly recommend it, brilliant characters and history et al.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to signal-boost on behalf of a truly fantastic author: Elizabeth Bear is doing a book-sale of some of her books here, until tomorrow (that is, Monday) and is also selling a variety of more intimate/less easily gotten, but truly awesome, things here.  Go and check them out!
This historical urban fantasy is beautifully written and intelligently wrought, as I've come to expect from Elizabeth Bear's work.  The White City's combination of urban fantasy tropes, beautiful descriptions of its world, and strong characters combine to create a novella that is beautiful and wonderful, even whilst its small scope allows for a compactness that a novel might lose out on.

It's been a shocking length of time since I last read some Bear, and this is a refreshing blast of her typical characterisation: Vivid, vivacious, sexual, intensely human, and intensely real, even the wampyr characters are portrayed so brilliantly, in their cynicism, their age, their eternal outlook, that the story works brilliantly.  Our large(ish) and varied cast are really brilliant - Sebastian at the core of the novel, with Phoebe, Jack, Abby Irene, Inspector Dyachenko et al. - with different outlooks, viewpoints, ideas, voices (Bear's broken English of Irina as she is learning the language, and of Jack, translated from the Russian, works really well, especially); that each character has such an individual personality and we can see why each of them thinks the way they do is stunningly well executed on Bear's part.

The White City is also blessed with a beautifully realised setting; Moskva is a real, beautiful, stunning city from Bear's descriptions, rather than the pastiche of onion-domes and grime that it often becomes in fiction.  Whilst Bear skips around neither of these, The White City merges them and creates from the potential pastiche a rounded, vital, interesting, and indeed living city; this skill is a deeply impressive one, on every level, and Bear deserves a lot of praise for how she sidesteps and incorporates clichéd images into something so new-feeling.

Finally, the Holmes-like plot is really well realised.  The mixture of elements - radicalism, romance, art, longevity of the wampyrs, murder, investigation and corruption - is really well handled, with different plotlines in different timelines coming together to give a resolution to each, in somewhat different ways, which creates an incredibly beautiful, sensuous reading experience, with plot-twists and sudden changes of pace being really well executed, like an expert racing driver taking a curve on a track he knows well smoothly, and the action (both romantic and violent, or at least as violent as it ever gets) is excellently portrayed, taking the reader's breath away.

The White City is, all in all, a tour-de-force, and a real incentive for me to get re-acquainted with Elizabeth Bear's work.


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February 2012

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