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Thursday, 29 November 2018

Review: Vitellius' Feast - L. J. Trafford

Note: I received a copy of this in exchange for review.

Vitellius' Feast is a truly epic story from the heart of the Roman Empire, during the Year of the Four Emperors. It is the last in a series from L. J. Trafford, which I will be collecting in due course as this is the first time I had heard of the series.

The book opens with young Domitian being watched over by a freedman, Philo, who is charged with watching the Flavian family. Vespasian is in the East with his legions, and remains a distant worry. However, for the victorious Vitellius and his two generals - Valens and Caecina - the party is just beginning.

And it is a party. Not since the days of Nero's successes has the palace seen such hedonism and debauchery. But it is not all harmless fun. Vitellius quickly proves to be much darker and crooked than any of his predecessors. Shining eunuchs such as Sporus quickly crumble under Vitellius' burdens, and it isn't long before whispers of mutiny start to float through the palace.

The painstaking research Trafford undertook to produce such an epic literary account of one of Rome's most turbulent times is seen throughout. The world building, the characters, the whispers and betrayals, the friendship and family dramas, and the grand soap opera of the story kept me flicking page after page well into the night. If you are a fan of the Roman period, or even just historical fiction in general, then this is the book for you.


Saturday, 27 October 2018

Review: Lethal White, Robert Galbraith

I have been SO looking forward to picking this up ever since J.K. Rowling revealed the title MONTHS before the book was released. So, quite a while. It's been three years since the last Strike novel - and the first ever novel in this series (The Cuckoo's Calling), was released way back in 2013! (Just to think, the political chaos now exhausting us all was still years away then...)

Anyway, back to more pleasant thoughts. J.K. Rowling, in the acknowledgements, said (as Robert Galbraith) that this was the most complex of the Strike novels she had written so far, and she's not wrong. At 656 pages, (over 100 more than Career of Evil), this book is not only a thrilling and mind-bending read, but also a pleasingly substantial one.

We begin in the aftermath of Robin and Matthew's wedding, which Strike inadvertently interrupted so well in his Strike way. However, this sets Robin and Matthew to arguing straight away, which is not helped by Robin finding out that Matthew had deleted Strike's voicemails. (By the way, it would be handy to re-read the last few chapters of Career of Evil before getting onto Lethal White, as there are more important throwbacks to understand).

The rest of the novel takes off a year after the wedding. Strike has become famous thanks to finding the Shacklewell Ripper, and the agency has now become so busy that Strike has had to hire more staff. The cases they are handling are interesting but quite standard for private detective agencies. However, that all changes with two events. One - a young man called Billy, clearly suffering with some kind of mental illness, storms into Strike's office and claims he saw a child strangled when he was younger. Two - the Minister for Culture, Jasper Chiswell (Chizzle, as pronounced properly), hires Strike to help him uncover a blackmail case.

Due to commonalities in people and events, Strike is convinced that the cases are linked. And this is where Lethal White becomes more complex, because in previous novels there was just one clear area of focus, whereas this is more than one but they are all interlinked.

There's also more focus on relationships in this one - Robin's deteriorating relationship with Matthew; Strike's relationship with a woman called Lorelei; and, of course, the increasing 'will they, won't they' between Strike and Robin. (I won't give that one away).

It all takes place against the backdrop of the London Olympics in 2012, and what I really enjoyed was reading about the fictional (though, undoubtedly, based on some real life aspects) of the background of the Olympics never really thought about. There's plenty more class issues and dilemmas, and the stark juxtaposition of Conservatism and Socialism provide an interesting undercurrent to the whole plot.

Galbraith, with his usual panache, weaves a web through London and beyond, from wealthy and aristocratic central London to the eclectic and more working-class outskirts. The murder in this one is certainly more palatable, (especially after The Silkworm), and altogether more intriguing due to the many moving parts and myriad of people involved, not least the various families we come across.

If you've never picked up a Galbraith novel before, I highly recommend you do so now. It is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying series I've ever read, the puzzle pieces so brilliantly put together one by one throughout the whole.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Review: The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star is Book 1 in the Shades of London series. The blurb below is from Goodreads:

"Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London to start a new life at boarding school just as a series of brutal murders mimicking the horrific Jack the Ripper killing spree of more than a century ago has broken out across the city. The police are left with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory spotted the man believed to be the prime suspect. But she is the only one who saw him - the only one who can see him. And now Rory has become his next target...unless she can tap her previously unknown abilities to turn the tables."

Rory Deveaux is a smart, determined, and self-sufficient young woman who relishes the chance to spread her wings a little and delve into London life for herself. Although she has a baptism of fire at the beginning of term with the workload and extra-curricular requirements, Rory soon gets into the swing of things thanks to some new friends. 

This book hooked me from very first page. The premise brings together several popular styles - the supernatural; the setting of boarding school; and the ever-present allure of the mystery of Jack the Ripper. For a Young Adult book, it handles the gore well - the descriptions, while graphic, are not too shocking for the reader to handle (although I would recommend a minimum of age 14). The friendships and variety of characters are well-put together, and the backstories of the main cast are developed well as to not render the book superficial or shallow. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this, and I am looking forward to picking up more books from this series. 

Review: I am Apache, Tanya Landman

I am Apache follows the story of a teenager called Siki from the Apache tribe in the Black Mountains. She and her brother are both orphans, and tragedy strikes Siki yet again as she watches her four year old brother being brutally cut down by Mexican warriors, while the male Apache warriors are off on a trade mission with the Mexicans. Siki vows revenge on the Mexicans and trains to become a warrior, though she has to contend with the jealousy of another would-be warrior, Keste. Keste hints at a dark secret in Siki's past, which gnaws at her until she finds out the sad and terrifying truth.

It took me a while to get into the flow of this book as the way it is written is very different from most books on the Young Adult market. It is marketed as YA but it is written much more maturely, perhaps reminiscent of Siki needing to grow up more quickly than normal teenagers due to the tragedy in her life.

Knowing the history of the Native Americans, it was clear that this book was not going to end well, but it is nevertheless a very moving and, in some places, romantic read. Siki is a very thoughtful, observant, and determined young woman, and makes a very good role model. It's immensely poignant to read about the structure of the tribe, their relationship with the land, and their desire to protect it. It raises thought-provoking and challenging questions about the way we relate to people who live in such different ways to us. It is a book that, in these turbulent times of identity and race politics, we could all do with learning from.

Review: Battlemage, Taran Matharu

The beginning of Battlemage picks up immediately after the end of The Inqusition, when Fletcher and his team have entered the ether. The ether is another realm from which the humans and orcs harness their demons. The air of the ether is poisonous to humans, but Fletcher's team were able to grab some flowers (discovered in the temple of the orcs) that make them immune to the poison, but not for long. They're in a race against time - not just to find more flowers, but also against the orcs that pursue them.

After they make it out of the ether, that's when the really war begins. They know the orcs will be coming for them in one, final battle, and they need to prepare.

Unlike some third books of trilogies, Battlemage doesn't suffer from the feeling that the story got rushed in order to make a deadline. There are some truly spectacular races against time, well-organised battles as if Matharu was truly there himself organising the varying sides. There are some tragedies, as in any war, that moved me immensely, which shows the power of Matharu's characterisation.

Overall, this was a brilliant trilogy that I would recommend to any fan of YA or fantasy or both.

Review: The Inquisition, Taran Matharu

The Inquisition picks up a year after the end of the Novice. At the end of the tournament, the final big set piece of book 1, Fletcher is picked up by the Justices of the Peace (the Pinkertons), and is taken to prison back in Pelt.

Fletcher is put on trial for the murder of his nemesis in Pelt but, thanks to Arcturus, he is freed. However, trouble soon comes in the form of the rise in orc wars to the south. A secret plot has been discovered - the orcs are breeding thousands of goblins, and they need to be destroyed. Fletcher and other teams form to go into the orc jungles, find the eggs and destroy them.

The novel takes us away from Vocans and Corcillum, but the themes of friendship, politics, and identity remain. We delve a lot deeper into demon mythology and the origins of the wars between the orcs and the rest of the empire.

The suspense really builds in The Inquisition. There is a lot more present danger than in the last book, as Fletcher and his friends are not just looking over their shoulder for orcs but for the other teams as well, whom have set themselves as not just rivals but enemies as well. The worldbuilding and pace of their journey through the jungles is superbly written, with each page bringing new and fresh revelations about the world that Matharu has built.

The Novice - Taran Matharu

The Summoner Trilogy is made up of The Novice, The Inquisition, and The Battlemage. Matharu himself described the trilogy as Hogwarts meets Pokemon, which I think is a perfect description of the series.

The main character, Fletcher, lives in a village called Pelt in the north of the empire. He is an apprentice blacksmith to a man called Berdon, his adoptive father. Neither Fletcher or Berdon knows why Fletcher was abandoned as a baby outside the village.

A soldier comes to the village on market day, nicknamed Rotter (James Rotherham). He brings with him a book that turns out to be a diary by a Summoner, that also contains a summing scroll. Through an explosive sequence of events, Fletcher finds out he has the power to summon and a demon who Fletcher calls Ignatius appears.

Fletcher, frightened for his life, runs away and ends up in a city called Corcillum. He is picked up by a Battlemage who sends him to Vocans Academy.

At Vocans Academy, Fletcher makes both friends (including elves and dwarves, neither of whom are friendly with humans) and enemies of the upper class. The entire year culminates in a tournament - but I won't give that away.

This is a fantastic book, and a sorely needed addition to the YA fantasy market. It's well plotted with well-rounded out heroes and villains. There's a good undercurrent of themes of politics, rights and oppression, that are well explored. The novel ends on a good cliffhanger - more about that in my next review.