Queen of the Darkness – a review by Jeanette Greaves

 

untitledFive months ago, I picked up the first book of the Black Jewels trilogy. It had been a while since I’d been invited into a new fantasy world, and I had simultaneous feelings of excitement and trepidation. A trilogy is a fairly big commitment, even to a voracious reader, and I wondered if it was going to be good, if it was going to capture my attention and make me hunger for the next books in the series. Well, to be honest, it took a while. The first book introduced a world and a society of deep complexity, and after a few chapters in which I struggled to make sense of the interlocking ranks, jewels, states of being and dimensions involved, I put it aside. The next day, I realised that I’d been caught up by the plot, and I wanted to know what happened next.

Three books later, I’m so glad that I persevered after the first few chapters. All the complexity serves to provide a rich background for a simple story – the battle between good and evil. In this case, good is represented by the need to serve the land, and the decent people of the land. Evil is represented by greed and the lust for power.

The power for good is Jaenelle, an immensely powerful Queen. From her beginnings as an unloved and abused ‘difficult’ child, through a dark period as a survivor of a terrible crime, we have seen her grow under the love and protection of powerful men, and the friendship of her peers. She has learned to extend her own power and protection over the Realm of Kaeleer.

Throughout this, the forces ranged against her in her home Realm of Terrieille fail to recognise her power, seeing her as a mere pawn in the hands of the men who are, in fact, pledged to her service. They want a war, a war that will discredit Jaenelle’s new family, and deliver her back into bondage in Terrieille.

Jaenelle understands that such a war will destroy everything that she loves. The challenge arises at a time when she is finally healed of her psychic wounds, reunited with her fated lover, the beloved Daemon, and outwardly happy and settled in her life. The pressure is on for her to use her vast power to destroy her enemies, but she knows that the only way to protect everything that she loves is to make an enormous sacrifice.

I’ve found the Black Jewels trilogy to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. It wasn’t an easy read at first, and in the first few chapters it was tempting to dismiss the characters as stereotypes, and many of the scenes as naked wish fulfillment, but I was drawn in, the ambitiously large cast of characters became real and sympathetic, and in the end I found the story irresistible.

 

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The Child Eater by Rachel Pollack A review by Jeanette Greaves

childeaterIn The Child Eater, we have a novel that follows two separate strands of a story, two different sets of characters, in two worlds separated by time and magic. The stories are linked by The Tarot of Eternity (much, much more than a pack of cards), and by the threat of The Child Eater.

The villain of the piece is well named, and the book contains some descriptions of body parts and mutilation, and a sense of threat and helplessness.

Pollack presents us with three imperfect heroes. In the modern day, ‘real world’ strand of the story, we are introduced to Jack Wisdom, a child with unusual abilities who learns to stifle his gifts, and grows up to become father to Simon, another extraordinarily talented child who hides his skills because of his father’s fears and insecurities. Both characters are prey to enormous self doubt and guilt, which works to the advantage of their fated enemy, The Child Eater.

Meanwhile, way back in the past, we meet Matyas, the battered and unloved child of an innkeeper, who one day discovers his destiny and goes in search of it. Matyas has a good dollop of self loathing in his psyche too, but is blessed with a lot more confidence than Jack and Simon, and as he rises to his own power, he encounters the story, and the reality, of The Child Eater and the Tarot of Eternity that ties everything together.

The two stories work in different ways. Whilst Jack and Simon seem to be helpless in the face of danger, Matyas is blithely unaware of it, as he grows in knowledge, power and rank.

In contrast to the human and imperfect men in the story, the female characters are spiritual and almost supernaturally forgiving. The women and girls are there in supporting roles, and the support they give is vital and integral to the plot.

I found this an easy book to read, and although it wasn’t a gripping page turner, I was drawn back to it consistently, admittedly more for the plot than the characters, who I found to be unsympathetic. My main problem with the characters was that they didn’t grow or learn much from their experiences until the end of the book. It was frustrating to see them make the same mistakes again and again. The plot made up for it. I wanted to know who The Child Eater was, why he existed, and if he could be defeated. I’m happy to say that all these questions were answered in a very satisfactory manner. I would recommend this book to the reader of fantasy, but beware, there are no dragons here.

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Lancashire Authors at Chorley

Chorley and District Writers’ Circle, of which I am a member, will be joining Lancashire Authors at their Chorley event on Saturday 21st June at 1:30 pm at St George’s Church Hall, Halliwell Street, Chorley. I have quite a long reading slot, and will be giving a taster of my new story, ‘The Eight Pane Sash’ as well as looking at other examples of my writing.

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Heir to the Shadows – A review by Jeanette Greaves

untitledMuch as I enjoyed ‘Daughter of the Blood’, the first book in the Black Jewels trilogy, I have to admit that at times it was hard to read. The world in which our heroine (Jaenelle) lived, was a dark dystopia, under attack by power hungry men and women who used their sexual and political abilities to destroy any chance of real love and relationships between their subjects, and to ruin potential rivals before they reached adulthood and power.

The middle book of the trilogy, ‘Heir to the Shadows’, provides welcome relief from the darkness of the first book. The complex social dance of the landen and the Blood, the Jewel hierarchy, the living and the dead, men and women is spiced up even more with the addition of the The Kindred – magical, intelligent animals such as wolves, unicorns, big cats and spiders.

Against this background, Jaenelle’s relationships with her adoptive father Saetan and his son Lucivar deepen and grow, giving her a safe harbour in which to mature. The trauma she suffered at the end of the first book has been forgotten, locked away deep in her soul. Along with that pain, she has forgotten about Daemon, her destined mate and one true love, who has fallen into madness, having been convinced by his enemies that he was the agent of her pain.

This book is set mostly in the Realm (dimension) of Kaeleer, and firm distinctions are drawn between the political system there and that of Terreille, which is Jaenelle’s ‘home dimension’. Kaeleer’s vast open spaces, owned by The Kindred, are a magnet for immigrants from Terreille. This immigration has been largely encouraged by Jaenelle’s enemies, who are hungry for yet more power and influence, and see Kaeleer as a soft target. Inevitably, conflict arises, and Jaenelle’s Kaeleer friends and allies are threatened.

The traditional villains plot and plot again, but as Jaenelle grows in power and knowledge, her enemies become less and less relevant. Whilst her foes draw up their destructive schemes, it becomes clear that Jaenelle is powerful and intelligent enough to deal with anything that is thrown at her. Although she and her allies suffer, it only makes her stronger and more aware of what she is capable of. The sense of threat against a young woman has been replaced by the knowledge that Jaenelle has reached a stage where she is much more of a threat to her enemies than they are to her. The book ends with a rise to power that sets the stage for book three.

‘Heir to the Shadows’ is a comforting, traditional fantasy read, and I enjoyed it a lot. It would have been nice to see a few character flaws in Jaenelle, and to see her solve more of her problems by her own intelligence and guts, rather than by the application of brute force magic, but overall I’m hooked, and looking forward to the final book in the trilogy.

Originally published in the US at the end of the last century, ‘Heir to the Shadows’ is the second book in the Black Jewels trilogy. It is available now as ebook and paperback from Jo Fletcher Books.

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What’s Your Story, Chorley?

On Saturday 26th April, I will be reading a short extract from one of my short stories as part of Chorley & District Writers’ Circle contribution to the ‘What’s Your Story, Chorley?’ event. I’ll be reading in the Chorley Library Circle at 2 pm.

I’ll also be at the stand from 1 pm to 4 pm to promote the group.

http://www.chorley.gov.uk/events/Pages/What%27s-Your-Story,-Chorley.aspx

 

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‘A Song for Issy Bradley’ by Carys Bray. A review by Jeanette Greaves

IssyBradleyLet me make it clear, I like genre books – horror, sf, fantasy. If it doesn’t have a spaceship or a paranormal creature I am unlikely to read it. And yet a couple of years ago, Carys Bray drew me into her slightly askew world with her short story ‘Sweet Home’, a very English take on the story of Hansel and Gretel. A further unforgettable encounter with her prose, in ‘The Baby Aisle’, prompted me to buy her short story collection ‘Sweet Home’, and then I was hooked. This woman’s work gets under my skin. She writes about families, the kind of family we all know, or are part of, and she writes with absolute, unmerciful, unswerving truth. But this isn’t misery lit, it’s a view of real life from the point of view of someone who knows how to love and what it means to grieve.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that her first novel, ‘A Song For Issy Bradley’ had been the prize in a bidding war last year, and it’s been on my ‘must read’ list ever since. The book expands on one of the ‘Sweet Home’ short stories (Scaling Never), and because of this, I don’t feel that I’m letting loose a spoiler when I tell you that it’s the story of a family falling apart after the death of one of their children.

I was expecting this foreknowledge to spoil the first few chapters, but Bray’s use of multiple viewpoints puts the focus on the protagonists’ lives so deftly that I wanted to know how they would react to the forthcoming death of little Issy, and how they would cope. I was impressed, and considered myself to have been taught a lesson on how a good writer deals with an unavoidable spoiler in a novel.

This book is not about a death. It may make you cry, but it is just as likely to make you laugh in recognition or in sheer delight. This book is about a family, and how they relate to each other and the wider community. It’s a family that has taken for granted its unshakeable unity, and its place in the heart of a small religious community in the North West of England. Issy’s death strikes a deep blow to the centre of the family, fissuring the cement that holds the Bradleys together, and as the story unfolds, we follow the increasingly separate journeys of mum Claire, dad Ian, teenage oldest sister Zippy, middle child Al, and young Jacob, who is a true delight, if a bit of a puzzle, to everyone who meets him.

The use of multiple viewpoints leads to amusing differences in how the five family members see the other characters in the novel. We get several different takes on other members of the church, absent relatives, and also the Church of Latter Day Saints itself, which is so integral to the story it’s almost another character.

Each family member reacts in a different way both to Issy’s death, and to the wave of grief following such a massive loss. Jacob, the nearest in age to Issy, is particularly beautifully drawn. Jacob lives in a world of stories, a mixture of fairy tales, Bible stories and stories from the Book of Mormon. The church he has grown up in is keen on the concept of miracles, and it’s not surprising that he decides that what the Bradleys need is a miracle. In his own pragmatic fashion, he sets about creating one.

As each of the Bradleys copes with Issy’s death in their own way, they drift further apart, some struggling to make things right, others wondering how things can ever be right again. As their individual lives each reach a crisis or an enlightenment, they are drawn back together for what could be the miracle they all need.

‘A Song For Issy Bradley’ is out in June, published by Hutchinson.

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‘The Unquiet House’ by Alison Littlewood – a review by Jeanette Greaves

Unquiet HouseAlison Littlewood is a modern writer of classic horror, and in ‘The Unquiet House’ she portrays a growing menace, a lurking evil that has poisoned lives through several generations.

Mire House was built to be a place of love, a place to raise a large, happy family with many children. When love and motherhood are both thwarted, hope turns to despair, and despair turns into vengeful bitterness. The house, over many years, decays through neglect and abandonment until Emma Dean, our young heroine, arrives at the house to survey her unexpected inheritance from a mysterious distant relative.

Emma is drawn to the house by curiosity, she wants to see Mire House before she sells it. It’s a legacy from someone she does not know, but by coincidence, she has also recently lost both her parents, and is alone in the world. As she explores the many rooms, she begins to feel an affinity to the house, and is drawn to its potential as a home for her, and a future family. Her first visit is brief, but she soon returns, with her few possessions, to take ownership of Mire House and to make it her own.

Within hours of her arrival, a good looking and intriguing stranger arrives at the door. Charlie Mitchell is the grandson of the man who left the house to Emma, but he gracefully makes it clear that he is not there to stake a claim, but to indulge his curiosity about the house that his grandfather owned, but refused to inhabit. Throughout the book, we are unsure of Charlie’s intentions, but Emma is nevertheless drawn to him, and wants to trust him, despite her growing unease with him, and the atmosphere of the house.

Just as the mood of threat and terror climaxes, the action switches back forty years, to the early 1970s, focussing on Frank, a farm boy from the next property, and his brother and friends. I loved Frank’s character, it’s well drawn, with a realistic mixture of schoolboy bravado, dawning cynicism, and moral backbone. In this section of the book, we see how the curse of Mire House touches yet more lives, and we gain a further insight into the history of the house, and its tragedies.

Rewinding the film once more, we hit the eve of World War Two. Our protagonist for this section is the teenager Aggie, the younger child and only daughter of a farming family. She is excited at the prospect of leaving the back breaking work of farm life to go into service at the new house that is being built along the lane, by the churchyard. We see, through Aggie’s eyes, the genesis of Mire House, and its curse on all who live there.

Returning at last to the present, and Emma’s story, the author draws the threads of the story together, allowing Emma to understand her situation at last.

In ‘The Unquiet House’ we have a well structured horror story that spans almost a century of life. The story has that claustrophobic feel that works so well with ghost stories. Everything is contained within a small area – Mire House itself, the church and graveyard next door, the neighbouring farm, and a short stretch of swampy land that gave its name to the house. Mire House draws everything to itself, and admits of no other way of life.

This is the second Alison Littlewood book that I’ve read, and on the strength of it, I am definitely going to treat myself to ‘Path of Needles’, her second book.

The Unquiet House is out now, published by Jo Fletcher Books.

 

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Games Creatures Play, edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner. A review by Jeanette Greaves

Games Creatures PlayThe game – produce an anthology of fifteen stories.

The rules – they must be short stories, they must include at least one supernatural creature such as a shapeshifter, fairy, vampire or ghost. They must include a strong element of a game or a sport. No author can contribute more than one story.

 

Go.

 

And thus was born ‘Games Creatures Play’ an anthology of fifteen stories, bracketed by Charlaine Harris’s ‘In The Blue Hereafter’ at the beginning, and Toni L.P. Kelner’s ‘Bell, Book and Candlepin’ at the end.

There is a great deal of variety in the stories, as you’d expect from such a wide brief. Some of the stories are all about the game or sport. Others, including those from the two editors, use the games as a background against which the story develops. Harris’s story is a Sookie Stackhouse tale, nestled closely into the True Blood universe and its existing characters and mythos. It works nicely as a stand alone, whilst enticing a captured reader deeper into the bigger picture. Kelner’s story works in a similar way, and I was surprised to find that it’s only her second venture into this particular world of the Allaway Kith. There are some interesting ideas in this story, that I’d love to see explored further.

 

Most of the contributions to this collection are set in the approximate present of the 20th and the early 21st century. The exception is Dana Cameron’s ‘The God Games’, a story about a man travelling to the Olympic Games of ancient Greece, on a vital mission. The games and the sports are richly and authoritatively described, but take a back seat to the plot and the characters.

 

Anthologies are made for dipping into, and a change of tone is welcome from one story to another. We certainly get that. There are several stories with a strong dose of humour, including Scott Sigler’s story about an unconventional supermarket exorcism, ‘The Case of the Haunted Safeway’; Mercedes Lackey’s entertaining yarn, ‘False Knight on the Road’ about a Prohibition era bootlegger getting into a motor race with the wrong person; and ‘Hide and Shriek’ in which Adam-Troy Castro plays fast and loose with the concept of apocalypse at the hands of a group of very mixed ability demons.

 

Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Dreamer’ is a bloody and violent story, well paced and packed with action, as befits a ‘capture the flag’ challenge.

 

Of course, an anthology about the paranormal shouldn’t be without its dark side, and we get that in spades, kicking off with ‘Hide and Seek’ by William Kent Krueger, a particularly nasty yet atmospheric telling of innocence lost and hope abused that left me looking for a kinder story to end the night on. If you like your horror uncompromising, this one’s for you. Joe R Lansdale’s ‘Dead on the Bones’ is another story of innocence lost, but it’s treated in a very different manner. For me, this is one of the stand out stories of the anthology. The characters are well drawn, the setting is exotic enough to fascinate, and the protagonist is both sympathetic and appealing.

 

Moving on to team games, the dark theme continues with ‘On The Playing Fields Of Blood’ by Brendan Dubois, a well managed mixture of bloody history, lacrosse, revenge and betrayal across the centuries. Ellen Kushner tackles a similar idea in ‘Prise de Fer’. The sport is fencing, the insult to be avenged is very personal, and the location has moved from the mountains of North America to a finishing school for young ladies in France, but the anger is the same. I particularly enjoyed Kushner’s story for its technical details of the sport, and the very satisfying ending.

 

Vengeance is a hot topic, unsurprisingly in a book about competitive sports and games, and in Caitlin Kittridge’s ‘The Devil Went Down To Boston’ we find a heroine with many good reasons to seek revenge on a world that has let her down too many times. Finding herself backed into a corner, she uses her talents and the skills she has learned in her chosen field to take on the ultimate player of games.

 

Jan Burke’s ‘Stepping into the Dead Zone’ captured me almost from the first sentence. It’s a beautiful story of friendship and loyalty, with a centrepiece school dodge ball game lovingly described in a way that sets the tone for the second part of the story. I got a sense of a world beyond this story, and would be interested in seeing it developed further.

 

At this late point in the proceedings, I will confess that I am a fan of paranormal fiction, especially the short form, but I have very little interest in sport. And yet, Seannan McGuire’s ‘Jammed’ left me cheering on the young women in this Roller Derby story. The characters are a wild and lively mixture of normal and paranormal women, the challenge they face is made vivid and urgent, and the resolution is satisfying. This is another of the stories that turns the anthology into one for the shelves, because I want to re-read this story again and again. It’s great fun, and the protagonist is a memorable one.

 

The penultimate story is Laura Lippman’s ‘Ice’. It’s place in the book is between the mayhem of ‘Hide and Shriek’ and the fast paced ‘Bell, Book and Candlepin’. It really does give the reader a chance to pause and gather energy before the final sprint to the end of the book. It’s a quiet story, touching only gently on the sporting theme of this collection. It’s a brilliant, heartbreaking little gem about the nature of story itself, and the manufacture of history at a very personal and local level. I loved it.

‘Games Creatures Play’ is out on 3rd April, published by Jo Fletcher Books.

 

 

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Daughter of the Blood, by Anne Bishop – a review.

Daughter of the blood coverFor some, it’s the moment you walk out of customs in a foreign airport. For others, it’s the studio signature music that heralds the start of a film. For me, it’s the slow turn of the page, the march of black marks on white paper that become a new world of experience and thrills.

I was looking forward to Daughter of the Blood, the first of a dark fantasy trilogy. It’s been a while since I enjoyed a new world, new characters, and I expected to like this book.

I admit that within just a few pages, I was tempted to turn my back and leave. Anne Bishop has built a world filled with magic, power and beauty, but so many of the early scenes portrayed the cruelty of power, and the privilege of perfection, that I felt repelled. There was, additionally, a lot to take in. Three worlds, between which some travel is possible, by some people. Two classes, the landen and the Blood. Many levels of magical ability – measured and displayed by the colours of the jewels worn by the Blood.  Four levels of existence – the living, the Demon Dead, the Guardians, and the ghosts. The mad and the sane. Above all, two sexes of the Blood, engaged in a power battle that stands in the way of love, and poisons sex.

I left the book on the table, and decided to get back to it the next day.

Overnight, something happened. The characters had their hooks in my brain, and I found myself eager to get to grips with the story. By the mid point of the book, I was in the state that a reader loves – I resented every moment that wasn’t spent in the company of the Demon Dead, Witches, and Princes of the richly woven, connected worlds of Terreille, Hell and Kaeleer.

The characters are, in the main, stereotypical, but this is a work of dark fantasy, and in a strange world, of strange powers, it’s a relief to have familiar figures to guide us through the story. It’s a fast moving book set in a complicated world, and it took me a few chapters to get to grips with the workings of magic and power, and the relationships between the main players. I’m glad I made the effort, and trusted the author, because this is a good story, well told.

This is a book about magic, hope, strength, patience and love. It is also a book about blood, torture, murder, child abuse and rape. Because of that, it isn’t an easy book, but for me, it became a compelling read, and I look forward to the sequel, ‘Heir to the Shadows’.

Originally published in the US in 1998, and now published in the UK. ‘Daughter of the Blood’ is the first book in the Black Jewels trilogy. Available now as ebook from Jo Fletcher Books, the paperback edition is released on 6th March 2014.

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Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald – A review

The series that started with ‘Planesrunner’ and continued with ‘Be My Enemy’ continues at a rollicking pace with the third novel ‘Empress of the Sun’. It would not be wise to treat it as a stand alone novel; it hangs upon, and draws on, the events in the previous two books, so leaping in mid series is not advised. That said, going back to read the first two books is hardly a task to be avoided, but an initiation to enjoy.
A young adult novel that brings together alternate universes, steam-punk, lizard queens and a massive feat of space engineering needs a sure hand at the wheel, and thankfully, in Ian McDonald, it gets one. Ian is not afraid to give his characters and ideas time to gel together, making ‘Empress of the Sun’ a satisfyingly chunky read.
The book picks up the twin tales of two teenage boys, Everett Singh and his alter Everett M Singh, an almost identical boy from an alternate Earth. Everett Singh is the son of a physicist who, having discovered how to travel between different universes, has been exiled by those who are threatened by his invention, and want it for themselves. That invention, the Infundibulum, has been downloaded onto Everett’s iPad and launched him (and the crew of the airship ‘Everness’) into the many adventures that are documented in the series. The alter, Everett M, has been engineered and blackmailed to fight against Everett. The boys are physically identical enough that Everett M fits convincingly into Everett’s world, where he spends the duration of the book. He shows himself to be, like his alter, a strong and inventive teenager who survives challenges from several quarters, growing and maturing in the process. The story follows three main characters – the two Everetts, and the ruthless Charlotte Villiers, a power hungry steam-punk villain from another alternate Earth. McDonald handles the multiple viewpoints well, making Villiers’ actions understandable whilst keeping her character an unsympathetic one.
Although the book is populated by a variety of interesting characters, the show is almost stolen by the landscape and setting of the world into which Everett and his friends crash at the start of the book. It is a richly drawn and fantastic world, utterly unlike any of the Earths that we have previously seen in this series, and its evolutionary history has led to a precariously balanced civilisation that is on the edge of extinction. The addition of Everett and his friends from the Everness to the volatile mix brings about a situation that threatens the whole of humanity.
The paths of the two boys take an interesting turn, initially we are presented with the idea that Everett Singh is the hero, and Everett M the villain, but as the story progresses, both boys are changed by their experiences, and we are challenged to reconsider our ideas.
The adventures in the book are brought to a satisfying close, but we know that the main story arc still has a lot of potential, and at the end of the book we get an intriguing taster for the fourth book in the series.
Empress of the Sun is out now, published by Jo Fletcher Books.

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