The Wench is Dead – Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton

Drakenfeld-Cover-ArtDrakenfeld is a book that wears its many influences with pride. It has a fantasy setting that is based heavily on Ancient Rome. There’s political intrigue, a locked room mystery, and finally Drakenfeld himself; a sword wielding Inspector Morse. I was also tempted to describe him as Hercules Poirot. He is a detective built in crime fiction’s classic mode.

This is a slow burning novel. If you have read any of Mark CN’s other novels you will know his world building is very strong. The Romanesque city of Tryum in the province of Detrata is painstakingly constructed. A vibrant city complete with rich merchants, slums, law enforcement, a royal family and a group of manipulative and ambitious senators.

Tryum has an intriguing political system that sits inside a bigger confection, Vispasia, an uneasy alliance of eight royal kingdoms. Overseeing this confederacy is the Sun Chamber, an impartial body, tasked with ensuring the wheels of governance run smooth.

Lucan Drakenfeld is an officer of the Sun Chamber, recalled to Tryum upon the death of his father. Lucan is a second generation officer, his father had a long illustrious career, in the shadow of which his son seems destined to stand.  Upon arriving back home after years abroad, Lucan has an indefinite feeling that there is more to his father’s death than plain natural causes. Before he makes any inroads into discovering the truth, there is murder at the palace. The King’s sister murdered in a locked temple outside of which there are hundreds of partygoers. The games is afoot!

The characterisation in Drakenfeld is second to none.  The central pairing, Lucan and Leana, his warrior Dr Watson, are wholly credible. Strong yet flawed, the interplay between the two, is the basis of everything that is good in this novel.  Beyond that the secondary characters are well-drawn.  There are no morally corrupt baddies or exemplary goodies, just ordinary conflicted humans, being greedy, helpful, lovestruck, selfish and any other number of states that in which we find ourselves as we navigate the tricky business of life.

The novel is a pleasing political whodunit. Everybody and nobody had reason to murder the King’s sister, his closest confidant.  Political manoeuvring? Crime of passion? Something more sinister, otherworldly even? These are the questions Drakenfeld wrestles with. The build up the mystery’s resolution is measured, possibly a little too slow. I had started to become restless, wishing something significant would happen. In fact, Lucan and Newton play their hands to perfection.magiceyye

The best way I can describe reading Drakenfeld is that it’s like staring a Magic Eye picture (a phenomenon that were unbelievable popular about twenty years ago). I’d skim read a couple of reviews of Drakenfeld, all saying how marvellous it was. It was much like somebody who could see a magic eye picture. They would smugly tell you how great it was, whilst you stared vainly at random pixels, none the wiser.  As I read, I couldn’t quite see what the fuss was about. Great world-building, but rare action and slow storytelling.  Then the image coalesces, and the beauty of the picture is revealed. And so it is with Drakenfeld. Suddenly everything gels. The deliberate world-building and exemplary character development pay off, delivering a barnstorming finale and wholly satisfying denouement.

Many Thanks Lauren to at Tor for sending me a review copy of this book. 

Victims of Circumstance – I am Max Lamm by Raphael Brous

maxlammI am Max Lamm is not exactly a novel to love. It’s central characters are shallow and unlikeable with few redeeming features. What’s clever about it is that despite this Brous shows that they could be almost any one of us. If this dark, edgy tale tells us anything, it’s that we’re all victims of circumstance. That and the press are a horde of unconscionable bastards.

The novel opens with a murder. A bottle attack during the London night. The victim a young Pakistani Muslim. The press reaction – hysterical; A hate crime by a vile racist. The reality is a little different. Max Lamm, a young failed tennis prodigy is the killer. Attacked late at night, victim of an attempted mugging, he smashed his assailant over the head with the beer bottle he was carrying. The speed and force of his blow, accentuated by his athlete’s reactions, made the strike fatal. Now he is on the run, hiding in Hyde park contemplating how he, a boy with the world at his feet, ended up there.

This a short angry polemic on the absurdities of modern life. The press gets it both barrels, portrayed as scaremongering sensationalists, never afraid to let the truth get in the way of a good story. The unfolding investigation and its portrayal in the media form the background to the novel. Through flashbacks we learn of Lamm’s hedonistic lifestyle and his fall from grace as Tennis’s enfant terrible. The novel is given a geopolitical flavour when Lamm becomes involved with the messed up daughter of a US Republican politician.

The central message I took home from this novel is that we are all victims of circumstance. Whether it be a disaffected youth who feels that mugging an innocent passer-by might ease the misery of his existence, the tennis protege whose dalliance with a prostitute is exposed by a disgruntled stablemate or the prostitute herself, an illegal immigrant, desperate to escape the living hell of own country, they are all united by their helplessness in the face of external forces beyond their control. It’s a controversial point of view, but Brous’s vision is a compelling one.

Shit happens, but what’s important is how you deal with it. Each of the novel’s characters gets to choose how they react to the events that make up their lives, and they mostly do so badly. It is these reactions that generates much of the novel’s interest.

I’m finding surprisingly difficult to sum up I am Max Lamm. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but find it hard to articulate exactly why. It’s the sort of book you have to try for yourself. It’s very black, filled with horrible people, yet the story is compelling. As a whole it’s far-fetched, but the individual components are all too plausible. It’s a book laced with humour, black of course and it is an angry novel. An angry novel that paints a dark view of the world, but it’s a view I identify with. I think there is something of Max in all of us. ‘I am Max Lamm’. –  ‘No. I am Max Lamm’.  Recommended

The Beast Within – Heart of Fire by Michael J Ward.

heart-of-fireRegular followers of my blog, if there are any, will know that I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the Destiny Quest series, Legion of Shadow. They may also remember that Michael Ward is an old school friend. A friend I used to play RPGs and generally geek out with. It was no surprise to me that Mike had been able to turn his hand to generating such a wonderful reboot of that mainstay of my formative years, the solo fantasy gamebook.

I bought book two upon its release, but it has taken me a very long time to work my way through it. I started but stuttered to a halt before the end of Act 1. Why? Is the book no good? Not at all. Heart of Fire has an absorbing storyline and makes for an addictive read. What it isn’t, is relaxing.

Like many people these days, I am extremely time poor. I have three children, one of them just over a year old. I’m a stay at home dad, meaning I’m often sleep deprived and exhausted (and more often that not covered in something that may or may not be related to a gelatinous cube). Most of my spare time is devoted to reading. If I find five minutes with nothing pressing to do, out comes the book and I read a couple of pages.

I love being transported to another world, whether it be fantastic, historical or contemporary. But until reading Heart of Fire, I hadn’t really thought about the contract one enters into when buying a book. For paying up your money, you are expecting to be entertained, but not only that, you surrender control to the author. It is their job to control character, plot and action and how successful they are determines how much you enjoy the book. Any decision making is taken care of by the author and his creations. In Heart of Fire the destiny of the lead character is in the reader’s hands and it’s a burden that cannot be taken lightly!

As I was determining the fate of my character, every entry became a source of angst. In a conventional novel, you get to see everything; all of the author’s best work. There aren’t chunks of plot you don’t get to read. When you have to choose your own pathway you risk missing something interesting. You could bypass the best scenes in the whole book. Worse, you might be eaten. Such are the myriad choices that faced my character, I couldn’t handle the responsibility.

I’d been feeling guilty for a number of months about not finishing this book. It sat on the shelf glowering at me, sulking at having been put aside. A chance Twitter conversation and the opportunity of a long childless train journey, saw me pull it down and vow to tackle the demons that lay within. As with LoS, I read the meat of the book, without participating in all the combats. To do so would add hours and hours of reading time, and in any case what would be the point, I would only cheat anyway!

I imagine played to it’s fullest extent, HoF could claim to be have the best pound per minute enjoyment ratio of any form of entertainment. For little more than the price of a cinema ticket you a treated to hours and hours of playing time. But herein lies my worry for Mike and his series. Who is it for? I touched on this in my LoS review, but I think the optimum reader for the Destiny Quest books is a rare breed.

Anybody who loved the Fighting Fantasy books as a child, is going to want to pick up these books, but the chances are, assuming they’ve learned how to talk to women at some point, they are now married with children. From my own experience there isn’t the time to clack dice all day. To attract newer readers, DQ has got to compete against the might of the computer game, something that in all its guises lays waste to puny real-life games. There are successes in this area. Magic the Gathering still goes strong, and some RPGs still pull in their audience manual after manual, but these are rare and they are niche.

The Destiny Quest books require dedication, and in the modern world such devotion is rare. Which is a shame, as they are bloody good. Act Two of Heart of Fire is possibly the pinnacle of interactive fiction. It’s strands are myriad and they dovetail seamlessly, weaving in and out from each other. One path followed, means another lost forever, with real consequences to your character’s destiny. I know this because I chased nearly all of them down, a task that proved to be just as exciting as finding the magic items.

Ward’s method for allowing his alternative threads, is innovative, simple and leads to some thrilling decisions. The opening act sees you choosing sides between religious factions. Which side to choose is morally ambiguous, and I found it difficult to decide whose worldview was more in keeping with who I wanted my character to be. These decisions aren’t just about making sure you get the best gear, but about your character’s moral code. It’s riveting stuff. Ward has been clever enough to ensure that all shades are catered for.

Being wholly good, won’t send you down the easiest pathway; being Garion ain’t gonna make life easy. Similarly, playing an extra from Prince of Thorns won’t bring the best rewards either. And so it shouldn’t. Because we’re all complex people. By putting ‘You’ at the heart of the story, Ward has created one of the most human characters seen in fantasy fiction. This might seem an obvious observation, but never before when reading this type of book, have I felt that who the ‘You’ was actually made much difference to their experience of the game.

Act three is a bit more of a procession. Ward still hasn’t been able to get away from the problem of lining up his monsters for you to knock them down. The way the combats are stacked, I imagine they are tough to get through, and I guess there is a risk the enterprise grinds to a halt in a hail of dice throwing. Once again there are boss monsters, and once again I fail to see the point of them. As I said in my review of LoS, in a computer game the challenge is different every time. Here it’s all about getting the numbers. You will eventually, so why keep rolling?

That said, there is still some good stuff. This book introduces the possibility of teaming up with your hero form the previous book (though only to roll dice with). Also there are some interesting stacked entries, such as a chase scene, where success in each entry prevents a sticky end. It’s about as dynamic an experience as reading a book can get. For the item accumulators out there, Ward has introduced the concept of crafting. Allowing you to build your own artefacts and spell books.

As a whole the book is perhaps too long. The first two acts in particular are huge, giving masses of gameplay, but you do have to be prepared to commit lots of time to complete them. To do so is in no way a chore, but I can’t help thinking with a small amount of tweaking, each Act could have been released as a smaller entity, in a more serial-like format. But then, what do I know?

The amount of work Mike Ward has put into this novel is staggering. It’s complexity is testament to his dedication to delivering something special, that will delight even the most jaded of gamers. On the whole he has been extremely successful. The novel’s conclusion offers a genuine crossroads, and a humdinger of cliffhanger. Whilst your quest is concluded, your destiny is far from fulfilled. The journey continues in the forthcoming The Eye of Winters Fury, and the storm clouds are building.

A Gift from the Universe – The Night Itself by Zoe Marriott

The_Night_Itself_cover SmallI saw a review of this book in the Times, written by the ever-reliable Amanda Craig; A woman who knows a thing or two about children’s literature.  The biggest draw for me was that the magic in the novel invokes Japanese folklore, something I know very little about, but guessed would probably be interesting.  And so it was.

The Night Itself is a delicious, uncomplicated read. Great characters, a cool sword and exciting action sequences, all based around some killer mythology. The story follows Mio, a Londoner of Japanese descent, who is about to turn sixteen. When her parents go to Paris for a week, she steals out of the house, bound for a fancy dress party. As part of her costume, she takes a valuable family heirloom. A katana handed down through generation after generation for over 500 years. Mio’s late grandfather had shown her the blade, some years ago, just before he died. He told her, never to unsheathe the sword; to keep it safe, keep it secret. Teenagers are a forgetful bunch.

The consequences of revealing the blade are unexpected to say the least, including the awakening of a ravening shadow-beast called a Nekomata. This is a bit like a gargantuan squid-cat hybrid with a bad head. Oh yes, and it can assume human form, as long as its already eaten the original copy! Mio, along with best friend Jack, have to put the cat back in the bag, with the help of the sword and the mysterious Shinobu a handsome and buff guardian angel.

The story races along, drawing on various elements of Japanese lore, and melding them into a captivating whole.  There are elements of Tom Pollock’s Glass Republic. Both novels are set in London, where layers of reality overlay one another. Both writers use the device to great effect.

Marriott doesn’t put a foot wrong, delivering an entertaining tale. As the book nears its conclusion, Mio faces a terrible dilemma, and whether she can resolve it is even more captivating than the monster chase. Whilst most of the plot is resolved, everything is left wide open for book 2 of the ‘Name of the Blade’ series.  Who is pulling the Nekomata’s strings and what exactly is the mysterious Harbinger? Interesting times lay ahead.

One final word about the cover. It’s fabulous. Worth the cover price alone!