Review – The Fallen Gatekeeper by C R Fladmark

I didn’t realise when I first started this book that it was part of a series, but it quickly became apparent. The book jumps in without any real introduction to the main characters, the world-building, or the events that led up to this point. It was very hard to figure out what was going on for the first couple of chapters because the characters would talk about things that happened in a previous book without there being any additional explanation for those readers who hadn’t read that book. It got easier after about four chapter when I’d figured out the basics of what was going on, but there were still moments throughout the book when knowledge of the previous book was just assumed. For example, a character was brought into the story who’d not been so much as mentioned in this book, and I was left with no idea who this person was. I realise it’s a delicate balance when writing a sequel as the author doesn’t want to bore readers who have read the first book, but I thought this one could have done with a little more background explanation. Still, that’s probably not an issue if you read the books in order.

The Fallen Gatekeepers is a fantasy story about other worlds inhabited by gods, and the gatekeepers, an order of warrior girls who protect the gods from Evil Ones. Junya is a teenage boy who has been caught up in this world of magic and gods. He is determined to help the gatekeepers fight the Evil Ones, but he also wants to spend more time with Shoko, a gatekeeper of great skill. When the Evil Ones start attacking Shamans, Junya and Shoko must break with tradition and come up with a new plan to fight them.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book. The plot is interesting. There were some nice twists and turns that kept me reading to figure out what might happen. The plot was cleverly constructed and was what held my attention to the end.

There are some nice underlying themes about jealousy and the desire for material things which add a layer to the book without coming across and preachy. It comes through the book in a very natural way and feels understandable in the reactions of the characters.

I liked the character of Mack, one of Junya’s friends, and there were some interesting dynamics between some of the gatekeepers who work with Shoko. There are a large of range of characters, both major and minor, who all feel like different people with their own desires and goals.

My main issue with the book was that Junya did some things that annoyed me. He frequently checks out women and girls in the early part of the book. This starts with watching Shoko getting undressed when she’s taking a bath but also includes ogling at women who work for his grandfather. There were also some sexist traditions in Shoko’s world that it would have been good to see Junya call out. When discussing what happens if a girl gets pregnant – she loses her position and her honour, but the boy who impregnated her isn’t punished – Shoko dismisses this as being because the elders know what young people are like, especially boys. This is a “boys can’t help themselves” argument that I find infuriating and it would have been nice for Junya to address it instead of letting it slide.

Junya is also obnoxious about money. He has a large amount of money thanks to the events of the previous book (he talks about millions of dollars in a stock account at one point) and he does things like throwing half a million dollars on a fancy car just because he can. Then he goes and talks about wealth inequality and how it isn’t fair that a small minority has so much money – despite being part of that small minority. If he was ever shown being generous with his money it would be fine, but these statements come across as hypocritical given his behaviour in the rest of the book. This could have been easily fixed with an aside mention of charity donations, or an extra sentence to say that he paused to give money to the homeless people he passes while walking with Shoko – instead the homeless people are mentioned and Junya just walks right by. This is especially grating given the message the books shows in other places around how desiring stuff for stuff’s sake can be damaging.

The other thing that annoyed me at times was the way other countries and cultures were portrayed using stereotypes. Japan wasn’t so bad because there were enough different Japanese (or Japanese-inspired) characters that they could have different personalities, but the way the ninjas were written or the girls wore school uniforms and so on did feel like stereotypes at times. But other countries get only a very brief mention and they come across as ridiculously stereotyped – such as the tribesmen of Africa (the land of big cats and elephants – even though this description might apply to India), or the clansmen of Scotland (the land of druids – even though this could apply to Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, etc.). In the exchange with the Scotsmen, Shoko uses a few phrases with local dialect wording and Junya talks about how she’s “talking Gaelic” even though she’s actually speaking English. The scenes in Africa and Scotland were quite short in the book, but they still grated because they felt very stereotyped.

The plot of the book and the ideas behind it were very interesting, but it was the details of how it was written that annoyed me. I feel like I’m being quite harsh in this review – I did enjoy reading the book after all. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I’d read the first book in the series before coming to this one.

If like me, you come to this book without having read this series, I’d suggest going for the first book before coming back to this one.

Three stars.

Review: Barefoot on the Wind by Zoe Marriott

Barefoot on the Wind coverBarefoot on the Wind by Zoe Marriott is a book very loosely inspired by the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast. It is described as a companion book to her earlier book Shadows on the Moon and is set in the same Japan-inspired fantasy world, but it deals with completely different characters and situations so you don’t need to know anything about that first book to enjoy this one.

Hana’s village has been cursed for generations. Surrounded on all sides by dark woods that house a monster, the village is completely cut off from the outside world. Every month, on the dark of the moon, a villager will disappear into those dark woods never to be seen again. When Hana’s father vanishes, Hana follows him and finds him bleeding and unconscious in the woods. Even when she brings him home, he won’t wake from his enchanted sleep, so Hana goes back into the woods to fight the monster and try to break the curse in order to save her father’s life.

While there is some action and Hana is a hunter, much of the book focuses on the emotional journey rather than on adventure. It deals with grief and anger, particularly as Hana comes to learn of the nature of the curse. Despite being a book full of magic, the emotions behind it all feel very real, very human. The reactions of Hana’s neighbours, the way her father acted after Hana’s brother’s death, and even the acts that started it all, all feel genuine.

It’s also pretty clear that Hana suffers from periods of depression, but this doesn’t define her or her story. I think this is very important.

In places, the plot was a little predictable, largely because of the fairytale source, but Marriott approaches it in new and interesting ways. The explanation of the curse was something that made perfect sense when it was revealed, without being something I guessed ahead of times.

This isn’t my favourite of Marriott’s books by far (I much preferred Shadows on the Moon) but I did enjoy it and I would recommend it if you enjoy young adult fantasy. Four stars.

October giveaway

A Rational Arrangement coverI’ve talked about my diverse book giveaways in previous posts. October’s giveaway is A Rational Arrangement by L Rowyn. I’ve written a review of this book in an earlier post.

I picked this book because it ticks a lot of diversity boxes. One of the main characters is an autistic woman, the other two are bisexual men. One thing I especially liked about this story is the way it handles mental illness. Nik has the magical ability to heal mental illness, and the way the book handles the subject is very respectful, it also differentiates between the illnesses Nik treats and a condition like autism. At one point, Nik is asked if he plans to heal Wisteria of her autism and Nik’s response is that her condition is part of who she is and not a sickness to be cured with the line, “Personality is not a disease.”

If you want a chance to win this book, head over to Tumblr and reblog the giveaway post.

Author Interview – E M Holloway

Please start by telling us a little bit about yourself.

I’m 35 and I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. The first thing I solidly remember writing was a story about a cruise ship crash that I wrote in fifth grade. I think I must have been a pretty morbid ten year old. I live in Arizona although I wish I didn’t, and I’m going to be married this December to my girlfriend/zucchini of ten years. I have three cats and one dog, all rescues. I once named a pencil Mr. Universe.

The Way Out is Through coverNow share a little bit about your books.

I have so many of them! Modern fantasy, or fantasy that takes place in a mostly real world setting with a few twists, is my favorite jam. I write some soft sci-fi, although I’ve never been good at hard sci-fi because of how technical it can get. I’ve also written some classic fantasy (with dragons!) and even some real world drama. I love a good mystery. Almost all my books have some element of mystery to them, because it’s my favorite kind of plot. Creating characters is my favorite part of writing, which is probably why I wind up with so many in each story!

Some of your books started out as fanfics. How do you go about converting a fanfic to an original book?

When I see a fanfic and think “that could actually stand pretty well on its own”, the first thing I do is try to change everything I can. The story’s location, characters’ gender or race or career, any major plot point that doesn’t need to be specific. Can that car accident become a drive-by shooting? Can that woman who died of an illness have fallen down her stairs instead? Since my fanfics tend to have a loose approach to canon in any case, that’s often enough change to make it an original, although the real alternate universe fics are the ones that are easiest to convert.

What’s the biggest difference between writing fanfic and writing original fiction?

Having the characters already set up is by far the biggest. I mean, I love creating characters, but it’s always nice to just sit down with them all created for you, and you can just throw them into fun situations to see what happens. Fanfic is less demanding, and I don’t just mean because it doesn’t have to pass a publisher’s muster – you’re building off accepted characters and tropes, so there’s just less to explain. You can slap ‘soulmate AU’ or ‘dystopian setting’ on the label and know that your readers are going to come in with knowledge about what you’re writing, so you don’t need to include five thousand words of exposition about what a soulmate AU is or how it works. Sometimes when I’m converting I have to stop and really look at what I’m writing and ask ‘is a non-fandom person going to know what the hell I’m talking about?’

Do you have a favourite character in your books?

Puck, from The Sum of its Parts, will probably be one of my favorite characters forever. I absolutely love writing “that normal guy in amongst a bunch of supernatural scary creatures” – it’s one of my favorite tropes. Especially when that normal guy is by far more dangerous than the supernatural creatures.

How about a favourite moment?

Hands down, when Connor comforts Puck in the hospital after his father is hurt. Favorite moment in that whole series. I just love the two of them and their relationship so much in that moment.

Is there anything that’s surprised you since getting published?

Not really? I’m sorry, that’s sort of a lame answer. But I’ll probably have a different one if I ever get picked up by a major publishing house. 🙂

Are there any authors who particularly inspire you?The One You Feed cover

So many! So, so, so many! But I’ll try to limit it. Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Jim Butcher, Bruce Coville, Neil Gaiman, Isaac Azimov… et c

If you could sit down for a chat with any author, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I’m gonna say Roald Dahl. His books are so amazing, such a great combination of childish whimsy and true horror. I’d love to get a peek at his thought processes. Plus I’ve heard he was kind of a jerk in real life, which means he and I would probably get along really well. =D

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now I’m working on converting The Boy in Red, which is the fourth installment of The Sum of its Parts. Plus I’ve been trying to get one of my other works, The More Things Change, published by an actual publisher instead of by me, heh. I’ve also been writing a lot of fanfiction lately for the Malec fandom! I can’t get enough of those cuties.

You can find E M Holloway’s books on Amazon.

September’s diverse book giveaway

Every Heart a Doorway coverEvery month in 2016 I’m giving away a different science fiction or fantasy book that highlights some form of diversity (preferably more than one). September’s book is the charming Every Heart a Doorway which I have reviewed in a previous blog post.

I chose this book for its LGBTQ representation. The protagonist is asexual, and actually uses this word to describe herself which is astonishingly rare. Another major character in the book is trans. There is an incident of transphobic language from one of the other characters but this is clearly addressed by the narrative and the other characters as being unacceptable behaviour.

If you want a chance to win this book, head over to Tumblr and reblog the giveaway post before the end of September.

Review: A Rational Arrangement

A Rational Arrangement coverA Rational Arrangement by L Rowyn is a fantasy romance set in the land of Paradise, which has very rigid societal expectations. There are any number of unwritten rules about what is acceptable behaviour for men and women of different ranks. Unfortunately, Wisteria has never been good at unwritten rules. She needs things to be explicitly spelled out for her. So when a meeting is arranged between Wisteria and Lord Nikola on the understanding that they might get engaged, Wisteria turns up with a detailed document spelling out the expectations on both a business level and a personal level. That her document discusses details around procreation and the possibility of infidelity shocks both sets of parents, but Nik is intrigued and amused by her openness. He wants to know more about this woman who can be so forthright on forbidden subjects.

His growing fondness for Wisteria however does nothing to diminish his attraction to the handsome Lord Justin. Here the rules are more clear and a sexual relationship between men is considered abhorrent so the two must keep their love affair secret. Nik is not the only one drawn to Justin though – Wisteria finds herself equally attracted and wishes society would let her marry them both.

Much of this book is focused on the romance between the three characters, but there are some elements of action and suspense in the plot. It should be noted though that if you’re looking for adventure and battles in every other chapter, you might want to look elsewhere. If you like the idea of character-driven romance however, this is a great book.

I love the character of Wisteria. I found myself relating to her confusion and frustration at the illogic of many societal standards. She is an open and honest character who just wishes people would be more up front about things. Nik is also an easy character to like. He’s dedicated to trying to help people, and he just wants to do the right thing. It’s easy to understand why his people feel such loyalty to him.

The only character I didn’t particularly like was Justin, but he grew on me as the story progressed. My main problem with him was that he viewed certain groups/classes of people as inferior to him – he actually says, “I hate apologising to inferiors,” when he realises he mistreated an employee. This is probably excellent characterisation for a lord in a fantasy novel, but it made it hard for me to like him as a person. On the other hand, his loyalty towards Nik made him endearing and some of his actions towards the middle of the book won me over a little.

Some of the plot twists were so well sign-posted that I could see them coming a mile off, but they were unusual enough that I have no problem forgiving them for being obvious. With so many books full of love triangles, I was happy to read this different take on the trope.

From a representation standpoint, I thought this book did extremely well. The word “autism” is never used but Wisteria is clearly written as autistic. The way this is addressed in the book makes it clear that this isn’t an illness or a problem to be fixed, but simply a different way of being.

Nik has the ability to magically heal mental illness and this meant that issues of mental illness come up frequently in the background of the story – there is mention of a character who used to be suicidal, a character goes through trauma and suffers from what is clearly PSTD (again, the modern term is not used), while there are background characters suffering from everything from anxiety disorders to full-blown hallucinations. These are all treated in a highly respectful way.

All this is on top of Nik’s bisexuality and the issues of sexuality that are addressed.

While the book was a little predictable in places, it was highly enjoyable from start to finish. I will be on the look-out for other books by this author. Four and a half stars.

Review: Nightblade by Garrett Robinson

Nightblade by Garrett Robinson was a reasonable fantasy novel. The protagonist is the teenaged Loren who suffers abuse at the hands of her father and dreams of escape. When she comes across the wizard Xian she promises to help him if he agrees to take her with him. She runs away from home with only a few supplies and a dagger that had belonged to her parents. Unfortunately, Xian is running from the authorities and, when he abandons her, she is those same authorities want to capture her for information. Every time she tries to get away from one group of people, it seems to land her in with another dangerous group.

There were a few things that annoyed me about this book and the main one was that Loren was naively trusting. The first couple of times, this could be forgiven but she never seems to learn. She continues to trust people she’s just met or to accept as truth the words of people who’ve betrayed her before. It was frustrating that she doesn’t ever seem to grow as a character.

There were a few little details that jumped out at me as I read and compromised the realism of the settings. At one point, Loren is learning to ride and is told not to sit so straight – she’s told to slouch lower. A five second google search will tell you that the advice given riders is the exact opposite. She also runs around for a long time with her bow strung. Again, a few seconds on google will tell you that wooden bows shouldn’t be kept strung. These sort of details are really minor but each one makes the story seem a little less real. It’s easier to accept wizards and magic if the rest of the world feels solid.

The story raises a number of questions as the book continues – largely around the dagger Loren carries, but also around why Xian is hiding, and the identities of several other characters. These answers are never given. I can understand leaving some mysteries for a sequel, but the book reached its ending without giving a satisfying conclusion or any answers to the most pressing questions. At least some semblance of an explanation should have been offered at the end.

It’s decent enough as a fantasy adventure, but nothing that leapt out as amazingly original. 3 stars.

Author Interview: Garrett Robinson

I interviewed Garrett Robinson about his fantasy novels. Unfortunately, I had some technical issues with the call recording so what I’m sharing here is only the first few minutes of the interview. I apologise that I’m not able to share the entire interview.

If you want to know more about Garrett’s books, you can check out his website at http://garrettrobinson.com or find his books on Amazon.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway coverEvery Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire is an original and interesting take on the classic fantasy concept of children stumbling into magical worlds. The protagonist, Nancy, has recently returned from the Halls of the Dead and she came home changed. Her parents, believing she was kidnapped, are concerned for her health and are convinced to send her to a special boarding school. To Nancy’s surprise, all the students (and some of the teachers) are people who have been on similar adventures to her, travelling to worlds of many different types. She meets students who fought goblins, danced with skeletons, or ran across rainbows. Here they can talk about their experiences and know they will be believed. But this sanctuary isn’t safe. When students start getting killed, Nancy finds herself one of the prime suspects. As a recent arrival and someone who lived among the dead, the other students are wary of her. If she is to win their trust, she must convince them that she isn’t the killer. All the while, she dreams of returning to her magical world.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a different take on a classic concept. The variety of magical worlds is hinted at and I loved the idea that there are people at this school treating the travel to these worlds like a science, trying to figure out how it all works and understand what it all means.

The characters are interesting and each feels like a genuine person with their own personality traits, desires, and opinions. The style of the story is quite simple and makes for a pretty quick read, but that simplicity adds to the magic of the world. It feels a bit like hearing a fairytale in places.

From a diversity standpoint, it does well. The protagonist is asexual and this is clearly addressed – as well as being a reason for the isolation she felt that led her to find her magical world. Her sexuality added to her character and never felt stereotyped or disrespectful. There is another character in the story who is trans, which is again treated in a respectful way by the narative (though there are incidents of transphobic language from another character).

On the whole, I highly recommend this book. It’s a simple read but well worth it. Five stars.

 

July’s Diverse Book Giveaway

The Defectives coverOver on Tumblr, I’m continuing my series of giveaways of books that showcase diversity. For July, I’m giving away The Defectives which I’ve reviewed in a previous post. This book has a disabled protagonist, multiple disabled and neurodivergent characters, as well as racially diverse characters.

If you want a chance to win this book, head over to Tumblr and reblog the giveaway post.

I’m still looking for suggestions of other books to include in this campaign, so if you’ve read a great SF&F book that features diverse characters, let me know in the comments and I’ll take a look.