A Pocketful of Crows – Joanne M Harris

A Pocketful of Crows cover

“The year it turns, and turns, and turns.”

Taking inspiration from The Child Ballads (which I’ll confess I’d never heard of, but turn out to be a collection of traditional ballads collected by Francis Child, rather than songs about children!), A Pocketful of Crows is a lovely, if dark, fairy tale-esque story of the magic of nature, and love, and revenge.

Set over thirteen chapters, one for each month and back to the beginning again, the use of the seasons is really wonderful. We follow a nameless wildling girl, a creature of the forest, who risks her innate magic for the love of a young man from the town. The outcome of this has a real sense of dread and inevitability through the first third or so of the book, with the remainder taken up with consequences.

I really enjoyed this. It’s very immersive for a relatively short book, catching up my emotional response almost from the get-go. My only minor complaints would be the use of the terms ‘folk’ and ‘travelling folk’ for the two kinds of people in the story, which I found a little confusing at first, and the ending just seemed ever so slightly abrupt.

Perhaps another few paragraphs could have lightened the mood a little, as overall it’s quite a dark tale, and I must confess I love the slightly more whimsical nature of T Kingfisher in her fairytale retellings. That’s a personal thing, though, as the cold indifference of nature, or at least its mix of dark and light, is perhaps one of the themes here.

Recommended, particularly for those who enjoy their fairy tales but are perhaps looking for something a little more unique.

NetGalley eARC: 256 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 19th October 2017
Series: none
Read from 28th September – 6th October 2017

My rating: 8/10

Advertisements

Bryony and Roses – T Kingfisher

“She was going to die because of the rutabagas.”

Bryony may just have found herself trapped in a magical manor house with a surprisingly eloquent Beast, but if there’s one thing she’s not it’s a ‘beauty’. She is, however, a gardener, and as things in the House take ever darker turns it might just turn out to be far more useful to have skills over looks. Can she figure out what’s going on in an abode that creates dresses and gardening tools out of thin air, and which throws a strop if the other resident – the mysterious Beast – tries to answer any of her questions?

I’ve loved Ursula Vernon for years, following her from her time on the art site, Elfwood, to her own blog (recommended – it’s a lot of fun) and from artist to writer. One of her skills is telling gentle, fairy-tale-like stories that are somehow so much more. And, along the way, she’s done a few ‘retellings’ of classic fairy tales, like Bluebeard, The Snow Queen, and this version of Beauty and the Beast.

One of the strengths of all of these books is the sensible, no-nonsense heroine. Bryony reacts to the magical house and resident Beast in ways that seem much more likely than most fairy tales. And while the dangers faced are fantastical, the solidity of the garden (which the author knows more than enough about to have read very authentically) is a great counterpart.

Of the three retellings mentioned, this is my absolutely favourite – I absolutely loved it! Okay, there’s no talking hedgehog (always a great feature in a book!), but Bryony is so pragmatic and real and just had me rooting for her from the get-go – not to mention getting twitchy green fingers! The Beast, too, is rather more relatable than some other versions, particularly as his story very slowly reveals itself

The plot has a few subtle twists on the classic version, more than enough to keep interest, even had it been a much longer book. At around 200 pages, this is a perfectly sweet, lovely little volume which I recommend wholeheartedly.

Kindle: 216 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2015
Series:  none (although could be loosely linked to The Raven and the Reindeer and The Seventh Bride fairytale retellings)
Read from 29th August – 1st September 2017

My rating: 10/10

The Dark Tower (2017)

Dark Tower poster

We seem to be living in a time when the old adage, “The book was much better”, doesn’t always apply. Fantasy in particular has come on in leaps and bounds, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones – we know that such adaptations can be, well, pretty darn fantastic. It’s a shame, then, that Dark Tower comes along to remind us that the transfer to the big screen is still a process fraught with dangers, and doesn’t always quite reach those dizzying heights.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I don’t have to look those words up. This is an opening line that is stuck in my head, opening an 8-book story that has near-mythical status for me. As a teen, finding two previously unheard of books (yes, I do predate the internet LOL!) by my then-favourite author was the stuff that dreams are made of (literally: I dream variations on this scenario to this day). That I had to wait eight years between books 3 and 4 puts even GRRM to shame! 😉

Roland Deschain is a gunslinger, one of Midworld’s peacekeepers (and more); in fact, the last gunslinger: his is a world that is slowing down and growing thin. But Roland has one last mission: to reach the Dark Tower, the nexus of all worlds, to keep it safe lest the whole universe collapse. Or, at least in this movie, to catch up to the Man in Black and get his revenge for the slaughter of everyone he ever knew.

A potted version of all this is sort of squeezed into the hour and a half of movie, and I think that’s the first disappointment: of all the richness of the world built up over eight books, we get to see so little of it. I was thoroughly baffled by the choice of focusing the movie on Jake (a youngster having dreams about the Tower et al) rather than on Roland (Idris Elba), and setting large chunks in New York rather than Midworld. Bah!

“One more time around the wheel, old friend.”

While Idris is his usual wonderful self (but who should definitely be getting meatier scripts!), and the lad playing Jake is thankfully largely unannoying, the real stand out performance for me was Matthew McConaughey as Walter (O’Dim? Paddick?), aka the Man in Black. Oozing menace, he flicks his fingers and commands people to kill, or simply to stop breathing, purely because he can. Of all the changes made from the source, throwing more of a spotlight on Walter was a good one, I’d say. Without spoiling anything from the books, he seems to have more of a continuity to his story, which was actually quite interesting to see.

What was less interesting, however, was the cliched “let’s destroy the world” plot. I just kept thinking about the line from Guardians of the Galaxy: why would you want to destroy the universe when you’re “one of the idiots that lives in it?” Argh!

Through the piece there are little nods to both the books and the wider Stephen King bibliography (not that the two aren’t entwined, of course!). Look out for the fairground attractions – Pennywise and Charlie the Choo Choo – or the graffiti urging us to “All Hail the Crimson King”, or the talking raccoons in the commercial (Oy!). I was in two minds about these: they’re somewhat pointless if you’re not a fan, but if you are then in a way they’re little reminders of all that we’re skipping.

I have a feeling I could waffle on about this movie, or at least the books, for another 90 minutes myself! So, let me summarise: The Dark Tower is absolutely not the huge mess that some earlier reviewers wanted to make it out to be. If you go in expecting a straight adaptation of the wonderful books, then you will be disappointed. If, however, you can view this as… a different way the story could have played out, perhaps… then it’s at the very least rather interesting. And if you’ve never read the books at all, then it’s still a decent if short fantasy-action flick telling a fairly self-contained story with some intriguing characters.

Personally, I enjoyed it despite the flaws. I wish there could be eight movies, to tell it all ‘properly’. But this little slice is a nice addition to the overall world, which I still hope to see more of from the rumoured TV series, even if it’s not with the great pairing of Elba and McConaughey.

Released: 18th August 2017
Viewed: 22nd August 2017
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

The Magicians – Lev Grossman

magicians cover

“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”

Quentin grew up obsessed with the Fillory (think, Narnia) books, full of talking animals and important quests, and a set of siblings who only travel to this magical place when it decides to summon them. So when Quentin (‘Q’) is invited to Brakebills, a school for magic – real magic – his head is already halfway there. But, this isn’t Narnia. Or Harry Potter (and definitely not ‘HP goes to college’!). Because Q isn’t a character in a book (urm, in the book… o_O), he’s a teenager with all the usual problems and neuroses and misery, and no amount of magic is going to change that.

The reviews of this book show it to be something like marmite: people either rave about it, or are throwing the book out of a window in a rage at how irritatingly annoying the main character, Quentin, is. Not that the rest of the cast is much better, but I half think that might be the point.

For those of us who, like Q, grew up reading Narnia and The Magic Faraway Tree, and other such books, the message that discovering magic solves all your problems is a bit ‘hmm’. The characters who go to these places are always semi-perfect, and find themselves able to cope with whatever oddity the world throws at them, more or less. They are handed vast power, and wield it responsibly and wisely – or are the baddy, to be stopped. Instead, here we’ve got a bunch of alcoholic depressives who don’t really know what to do with the freedom they’ve been granted, let alone the power. Q is thus antithesis of all those characters we’ve read about. He’s not more interesting or special or smarter than his friends, never mind the rest of us. How does that interact with unbelievable marvels?

Shortly: the story isn’t really about magic or adventures. It’s about human psychology, about grounding the fantastical with real people.

Like many people, I suspect, I picked up the book after really enjoying the TV series. The two are very different, in tone and in pace and even in the message of the story. And to be honest, I much preferred the adaptation: it smoothes over a lot of the ‘hmm’ parts to the book, makes it a bit less cynical, and focuses a lot more on the magic.

Still, I’m really glad I read The Magicians, and will happily be going on to the rest of the series. It might not have been an easy read to get into – my long reading time (see below) reflects starting and putting the book down for a long spell (no pun intended!), finding it tough going (and, perhaps, a bit too same-y to the plot from the show at that point, but less fun). However, I was never tempted not to finish, and ended up reading the second half in a few days, rather more enthralled.

I still think I prefer the TV version, but it’s such a different beast (again, no pun intended – which makes sense if you know either version 😉 ) that I want to de-tangle my thoughts of them being linked, and enjoy them both on their own more unique merits. And a fantasy story with this much angst is definitely a bit different!

Kindle: 410 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2009
Series: The Magicians book 1 of 3
Read from 13th March – 12th August 2017

My rating: 7/10

Darien – CF Iggulden

Darien cover

“He was a hunter, Elias Post, a good one.”

A hunter with an uncanny knack. A thief who knows where an ancient, impenetrable tomb lies. An old man teaching forbidden fighting skills to a group of street waifs. A young woman who knows magic is a fake, ‘cos it’s never ever worked when she’s been there. A young boy who can mimic anything he sees. And the city of Darien: ruled by 12 families, each with their own ancient artifact to protect the city – from invaders, and from themselves.

Conn Iggulden is well known as a writer of historical fiction, which comes with such rave reviews that I’ve been meaning to read some of his work for years. So, when NetGalley had a copy of his new foray into fantasy fiction, I jumped at the chance!

The best bit about this book for me was the sheer multitude of ideas, different forms of magic and magical skills. The downside was therefore how little time we get to spend with each of them, following at least three main plot threads as they inexorably pull towards an explosive meeting.

Thankfully, this is the first in a series – there is so much more to discover about Darien, its ruling families, the Empire of Salt, and of course all of these characters we’ve barely met in this first instalment. While the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of something so much bigger, and there are far more areas to be explored still. Colour me intrigued to see where the rest of the series might take us.

 

NetGalley eARC: 341 pages / 23 chapters
First published: July 2017
Series: Empire of Salt book 1
Read from 10th-20th July 2017

My rating: 8/10

A Gathering of Ravens – Scott Oden

“The storm howled out of the west like the terrible voice of God, shouting down the heretics who doubted the coming Apocalypse.”

The last kin of (a version of) Grendel – the monster in Beowulf – is on a mission to wreak vengeance on his brother’s killer. Along the way, he toys with a Norse warrior turned monk and his young apprentice, little knowing the impact one of them will have on both his quest and his unnaturally long life.

As the trail leads from Denmark to Ireland, the reader is treated to ancient myths meeting the rise of Christianity, in a tale of gods, kings and monsters, unlikely alliances, revenge and recreating yourself and the world.

I do wish I’d enjoyed this book more than I did. There’s a lot to be liked about it, including the mix of history and myth and the effort to cast orcs as part of both. However, I must be honest: I found the whole thing just a bit of a slog. Not bad by any means – and I did finish it, after all! – but there was something that just fell flat for me about the whole thing.

The characters, for instance, are either monstrous (well, on purpose!) and therefore unlikeable (mostly), or in my view just a bit… damp. I could not fathom the motivations of at least one main character, and therefore had very little empathy for dangers then encountered. As the story progresses, we switch from unpronounceable Norse names to a long list of old Irish, but as none of these characters are really there for any reason other than to further the plot, it just became an effort to remember who was who.

As for that plot, I found it a little too linear: creature seeks revenge. Other character is dragged along for the ride. Perhaps with something more involved, I would have been too. I did like the historic period – c.1000 AD – and the attempts to show the new ‘Nailed God’ worshippers ousting the old, more pagan ways, but there was either not enough explanation, or just too much reliance on ‘because: faith’, and either way I felt… meh.

Thankfully, I seem to be in the minority on this one, if Goodreads reviews are anything to go by. I could sense the love and passion that had gone into the writing, even before I read the afterword about ‘the story that wouldn’t let go’, and the author’s aims – which were fab to read. But, alas, this one just wasn’t for me.

NetGalley eARC: 400 pages
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 4th June – 5th July 2017

My rating: 5/10 – just didn’t grab me, ymmv

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

“One for sorrow: Mary Tudor, a magpie queen – dress black, face chill white, pearls hanging in her hair like teardrops – stands in the pose of a woman with child, her right palm flat across her swollen belly.”

Imagine a little corner of England, a village snuggled away from the hustle and bustle, where modern life has been kept at bay for centuries. It’s not that technology doesn’t exist here – in fact, thanks to the highly intelligent population and the university, much of the modern world’s tech is actually developed here – but the pace of life is still ‘ye olde worlde’, somehow. Not that the people necessarily know this, as outsiders are discouraged, and learning any history prior to 1800 is outright banned.

Why would such a place need to be hidden away? What’s so wrong with teaching history? When two newcomers – a history teacher and a new lord of the manor – arrive, both seem destined to wrap themselves in yet more mystery, as they struggle to figure out this strange, other-worldly place.

My first praise for Rotherweird is that it’s a wonderfully original book, quite unlike most of the fantasy stuff out there. There are layers upon layers of mystery, and no way to guess where most of it is going – lovely!

If I’m being picky, I did find there were perhaps a few too many point-of-view characters, which I felt got a little confusing at times. Everyone has such weird names, too. The author is also clearly a very intelligent chap (he’s a lawyer by day-trade), and there were points where I felt I was playing catch-up on the clues and reveals, which took away a little from the impact.

However, overall this is just a fantastically weird and immersive world, which was amazing amounts of fun to visit. There’s a strong dose of humour throughout the writing, and some excellent mystery-building to keep you reading ’til the end. I particularly liked the historical interludes between each section, slowly revealing a little more of the enigma.

Delighted to read interviews that suggest this is the first part of a trilogy – thoroughly looking forward to seeing what’s next for the odd population of Rotherweird!

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / ~60 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: Rotherweird trilogy, book 1
Read from 15th-29th May 2017

My rating: 7.5/10