Retro Review: Shalador’s Lady (2010)

Anne Bishop

HarperVoyager (2010)

ISBN: 9780732290948

Black Jewels #8

A direct sequel to The Shadow Queen, Shalador’s Lady continues the story of the incumbent Queen of the Territory of Dena Nehele, Lady Cassidy, as she attempts to heal the wounds of her land. Cassidy is still coming to terms with the fact that she might actually be a good Territory Queen when Theran – the last of the ruling family left, and the one who had petitioned for the new Queen in the first place – falls under the spell of a ghost from her past; Kermilla, the Queen who broke Cassidy’s first court. Theran is blinded by Kermilla’s looks and charm – he has never agreed with Cassidy’s methods, and believes Kermilla is the Queen he is looking for. However, the rest of Cassidy’s court disagrees, particularly Gray, Theran’s own cousin, who has fallen in love with Cassidy, and Ranon, second-in-command of her Master of the Guard. With the Sa Diablo family in quiet support of Cassidy, does Theran have a chance of overthrowing Cassidy’s court, and will it really be the best thing for his nation?

Anne Bishop is the mistress of dark fantasy – her Black Jewels novels are always engaging, intriguing, sexy and just a little bit fun. The characters jump off the page and into your heart as you become deeply involved in their lives. Bishop has interwoven her original characters (primarily the Sa Diablo family, including Saetan, Jaenelle, Daemon, Lucivar, among others) throughout the narrative of the later books, which is a great bonus for fans of the series, particularly as they play a genuine role, rather than being add-ons to the story, with the characters continuing to evolve.

Shalador’s Lady had me up until after midnight devouring pages; I simply could not put it down. I just had to know what happened next, and how things would turn out, and the writing simply draws you through the story. I can’t wait to see what Bishop does next in her Black Jewels world – I’ll be first in line for the next one!

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Retro Review: The Fallen Moon trilogy

The Dark Griffin 

KJ Taylor

Harper Voyager (2009)

ISBN: 978 07322 88525

The Fallen Moon Book #1

KJ Taylor is a young author and The Dark Griffin is her first book. This combination (in my experience) frequently makes for a naively written book that I generally find easy to dismiss. From the first chapter though, The Dark Griffin engaged and intrigued me. Taylor has written a cohesive and powerful tale, peopled with deeply layered characters and set in the wonderful tapestry of a new fantasy world.

Arren Cardockson became a revered griffiner by luck alone – his Northern heritage marked him otherwise as outcast. From the chance that bought him his position, hard work and intelligence continued to improve his position in life. But there are those who fear what he might become, and who put every obstacle possible in his way, and herein lies the crux of the conflict in the story.

Cardockson is not the only protagonist the reader gets to know, however; the griffins themselves are captivating. While somewhat anthropomorphised, they still present an alien counterpoint to the human drama. Chief is the tale of the rogue griffin who becomes known as Darkheart; his story is fascinating and heartbreaking, and mirrors Arren’s own challenges, until their stories become entwined, by chance and choice both.

While I would not class The Dark Griffin as a young adult novel (the style and subject matter don’t really match the usual criteria), neither is it unsuitable for a secondary collection. There is death and violence throughout the book, and some intimations of sexual activity between adults, but not in a graphic or even overt manner. The writing is not too challenging for older teens, and I would recommend it for readers 14-plus.

Taylor has produced a wonderful new world to explore, and I have no doubt she will continue to draw in readers as her popularity grows. She is a shining new light in Australian fantasy, and I look forward to seeing where her star takes her.

The Griffin’s Flight

KJ Taylor

HarperVoyager (2010)

ISBN: 978 0 7322 8853 2

The Fallen Moon Book #2

 

Arren Cardockson is a wanted man after he brought down the ruling class of Eagleholm, effectively (if unwittingly) destroying the city and its government of griffiners. On the run with the wild griffin Darkheart (now named Skandar by Arren), he heads towards the North, the only place he can think of where he might find peace. But peace is not in Arren’s destiny – first coming across the strange woman Skade and joining her on her own strange quest in the hopes of redeeming his own curse, then being captured and enslaved, Arren crashes from crisis to crisis, embroiling himself ever deeper in a spiral of rage, fear and hate that has no visible way out.

I was disappointed by this book – I enjoyed the first one of the series so much and had really been looking forward to this. Unfortunately, the writing, characterisation and plot simply didn’t live up to the promise of the first novel. I was particularly frustrated by major changes in the character of Arren himself – the enormous difference between how he was written in The Dark Griffin and how he is shown here is simply too overt, and not sufficiently supported by the underpinning plot. Another small annoyance that kept jolting me out of the story were the names the author applied – with Skade and Skandar both in close contact with Arren (also called Arrenadd, which gets tough when the character of Arddryn is introduced), and Arren’s grandfather called Skandar and father Skandarson, it becomes confusing at times – I understand the reason for the convention (except for Skade – that really irritated), but it still aggravated me.

In my review of The Dark Griffin I noted that the book wasn’t really aimed at young adults – to some extent, this book fits the YA mould a little better. Sadly, the writing in The Griffin’s Flight doesn’t live up to the ideas and at over 600 pages, it’s hard work at times. I still like the premise, and the book isn’t bad, exactly;it just doesn’t meet the high expectations I had based on the first book – I wanted it to be even better, not a step down. So this is a lukewarm review from me, but one that is based on my own anticipation more than the flaws of the work (although I do think a stronger editorial hand would have immensely improved the book) – I’m certain other readers will still enjoy it!

The Griffin’s War

KJ Taylor

Harper Voyager (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-7322-8854-9

The Fallen Moon Book #3

The dark griffin Skandar, along with the griffin/woman Skade, search to find Arrenadd, who is both saviour and destroyer. Plans for vengeance by those who survived the destruction of the griffin city dog the Northerners at every turn – who will survive the clash of two peoples?

I struggled with this book and I was very disappointed that I found it such hard work. I really enjoyed Taylor’s first book in this series, but the second and third have been a challenge. With book two, it was more that I was not as impressed as I had been with the first one, rather through any fault of the book itself, but this time, I think the story, characters and writing have really let the initial idea down. The complete reversal of characterisation really threw me for a loop, and this was never justified well enough to make it believable for me. The writing meanders and the action is poorly paced. The world building maintained its complexity, but was let down by a plot that simply did not, to me, make sense or live up to the expectations created by the first book.

It’s hard to me to give a bad review, particularly for an Australian fantasy series that showed such marvellous promise early on, but sadly, I can’t recommend the series based on the strength of one book. This just didn’t satisfy.

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Retro Review: The Blue Bloods

Melissa de la Cruz

Books 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the Blue Bloods series

Blue Bloods

Masquerade

Revelations

The Van Alen Legacy

(all published in Australia in 2010 by Atom)

In Melissa de la Cruz’s world, vampires are the “Blue Bloods” of high society. Reincarnated by a blood creation process, only 400 vampires exist, not always at the same time, and they are part of a complex Heaven and fallen angels scenario from millennia past. Two are even archangels, who descended by choice to watch over those who fell. Cruz has at the heart of her story the young Blue Bloods of this generation, who are maturing, recovering their memories of previous lives, and re-discovering their powers. Mimi and Jack Force, rich, gorgeous and powerful, are two of the next generation Blue Bloods, but there are others, and some of them, like Schuyler Van Alen, are different to those who came before.

Blue Bloods, the first book of the series, introduces us to a world of the super rich elite, peopled by vampires who call themselves Blue Bloods. While these vampires do require human (Red Blood) blood, they generally don’t terrorise or kill them, living hidden in plain sight as the rich and famous of their world. Schuyler Van Alen is part of this world, but feels isolated from it – her family’s fortunes have waned over the decades, which means while Schuyler is still schooled at the elite Duchesne school, she doesn’t command the respect of her wealthier peers and doesn’t try to fit in. When a student is killed however, Schuyler finds out she is more a part of the elite crowd than she could ever have imagined. With an unknown threat to all the young vampires, Schuyler finds herself at the heart of the hunt for the murderer, and on the front line of danger.

This first book sets up a somewhat different vampire scenario. The vaguely defined incarnation process is fairly mystical and while it makes sense in terms of how Cruz discusses it, the actual mechanics are pretty hazy, and Cruz often strays from her premise in terms of characterisation, which can be frustrating. And while this premise is distinct from the usual angsty teen vamp fare, the set up for the series itself is not unique – the Vampire Beach series by Alex Duval is a very similar set up, with vampires that exist as the top echelon of society, who quite happily live in the sun and who co-exist relatively peacefully with humans.

Possible SPOILERS for books 2-4 follow!

In Masquerade, Schuyler is desperately trying to find her grandfather, missing for decades, after her grandmother was killed by the Silver Blood. The Committee still have their heads in the sand, refusing to believe the Silver Blood has returned, so Schuyler, accompanied only by her human friend and Conduit, Oliver, is in Venice on her hunt. The mystery of her mother’s condition, alongside the uncertainty of her feelings for Oliver and Jack, and her concern over the ongoing Silver Blood threat, teases out threads of storyline that both continue from the first book and lead further into the next.

The third book, Revelations, finds Schuyler even more deeply involved in her relationships with both Jack and Oliver. Her new friendship with Bliss has seen her pitted even further against Mimi, who is at once jealous and dismissive of Schuyler. With her grandfather, Lawrence, out of the country on Committee business, and Schuyler trapped under the control of Mimi and Jack’s father, Charles Force, events charge along, and danger is ever present, in many different forms.

None of the books so far are completely self-contained – events continue from one book to the next, and while each has a big climactic event at the end, resolution is seldom the outcome. In an unusual move for this type of series, book four, The Van Alen Legacy, opens twelve months after the events of Revelations. Schuyler and Oliver are in France, on the run from what’s left of the Committee, who think Schuyler is responsible for the death of her grandfather. We also get a far more intimate point of view from both Bliss and Mimi, who have had their own life changes in the twelve months since the narrative left off. This book really finishes off the story arc, although there’s certainly room for more books to follow. I felt there were some continuity issues in this book, but nothing that couldn’t be glossed over without much thought. The resolution of the storyline was rather satisfying, and felt worth the time investment of the four books.

As I mentioned earlier, Cruz seems to stray somewhat from the premise she has established of how her vampires exist at times. This can get kind of creepy, particularly the incestuous nature of some of the relationships, which impacted on my enjoyment of the story – the “ew” factor tends to do that! It is explained, but it’s still icky, and having finished the first four books, I still can’t really find a reason that it has to be that way. Perhaps it’s supposed to increase the relationship tensions, but it doesn’t need to be included for the tension to be heightened. It may not impact the reading of others as it did me, but it was one aspect that consistently dropped me out of the story with the need for a brain-clean!

Having said that, I was surprised how quickly I powered through these four books – while I might complain about the lack of autonomy of each book, it did mean I picked up the next book immediately on finishing the one before, because I found myself invested in the characters. I think there are some faults with the writing and way the premise is presented, but it is still fairly compelling reading! The Blue Bloods series is presumably aimed at young adults (very little, if any, swearing, sex scenes are pretty much fade to black and few and far between, violence is not too graphic) although the incest aspect may turn some libraries off. A solid read though, and one of the more attention catching additions to the genre I’ve read.

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Retro Review: Pretty Monsters (2008)

Kelly Link (illustrated by Shaun Tan)

ISBN: 978 1 921656 36 1

Text Publishing (2008)

What a fabulous collection! There are so few single-author collections, particularly for younger readers, and it’s even rarer to find one of such quality. Kelly Link is a fantastic author and Pretty Monsters showcases her short stories to great effect. Not always for the faint-hearted, Link explores some of the darker side of speculative fiction, but in an engaging way that examines some interesting themes.

There are just five stories in this collection, and they are diverse in nature, but all equally compelling. The first is “Monster”, which starts out as a deceptively simple story about bullying at summer camp, and turns into something far more sinister. Next is “The Surfer”, which is a long piece examining a not-so-distant or unbelievable future when the flu is starting to hit humanity hard, but intertwined with a story of alien visitation – an interesting combination! This is followed by a true dark fantasy, “The Constable of Abal”, which sees a young girl, thrust into very strange circumstances, trying to find her way in life. The title story “Pretty Monsters” is another long one, but well worth it. Shying around elements of horror and paranormal fantasy, this is a very clever story that follows a group of girls on a rite of passage who get a whole lot more than they bargained for. The final story of the collection, “The Cinderella Game”, is one I read in the excellent Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling anthology Troll’s Eye View last year – it’s subtle creepiness is better suited to this book, for my mind, but the quality of story is undeniable, following a night with a stepbrother and stepsister who take play acting a little too far.

Recommend giving to those who are over Twilight, and want to get into something a bit more meaty, but without the commitment of big fat fantasy or horror novels!

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Retro Review: The Undivided (2011)

Jennifer Fallon

Harper Voyager (2011)

ISBN: 9780732290849

Rift Runners#1

I had a very bad experience at the end of Jennifer Fallon’s last series (the Tide Lords) and was very reluctant to take on her new book, because of my extreme disappointment with how that quartet was finished. However, fellow ASif! reviewer Lorraine Cormack expressed her enjoyment of this new series, and I trust her judgment, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Psychic twins Rónán and Darragh were separated as small children by a rogue Druid – Rónán was thrown through a rift in reality to a world that appears to be pretty much modern day Earth as we know it, while Darragh was left behind to try to hold his rightful place as the Undivided, without his twin.

With no memory of living in a previous world, Rónán (called Ren in “our” reality) nevertheless feels he doesn’t quite fit in, and the strange wounds that frequently appear on his body don’t make his life any easier.

Without Rónán to help him hold power, Darragh is at the point where he will be replaced as Undivided, something that is not a simple deposing of power but will actually mean his, and Rónán’s, deaths. But Darragh has a plan to find his twin, and save them both – but who can he really trust, in this quest to restore the balance?

A fascinating mix of the “real world” and a believable alternate reality in which magic and faerie are realistically embedded, The Undivided is a rollercoaster of a read. Straying from traditional high fantasy tropes into something of a blend with urban fantasy, the young protagonists and their fight to survive in the strangeness of alternate world is engaging and exciting. There’s no doubting Fallon’s skill with a story, and I am glad I took up Lorraine’s recommendation here.

However, be warned – this is definitely book one of a series (it’s not clear how many books there will be), and while some plot points are wrapped up at the end of the novel, the overarching narrative is definitely left unfinished and you will need to read on. Book two is already out though, so hopefully not too long to wait for more!

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