Monday, 15 July 2013

Book Review: Feast of Souls by Celia Friedman

Name: Feast of Souls
Author: Celia Friedman
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Notes: Published in 2007 by Orbit in the UK and Daw Books in the USA. I bought the British paperback edition.

In the High Kingdom of Danton Aurelius, magisters from across the known world are gathering for an unusual meeting. The King’s son is dying of an apparently incurable wasting disease, and he has charged them with providing an explanation and a cure.

There is a mystery here, but not the one the High King thinks. The magisters know the cause of the prince’s illness but they dare not reveal it for fear that it will expose the secret at the heart of their order. The mystery is not what is responsible, but who


Why I read it:

I bought this on a whim, really. I’d never heard of Celia Friedman, but her book had a nice blurb from Tad Williams (whose books I like) and the prologue seemed interesting.

My Review:

Imagine a world where there are two types of magic users. The first are witches. Male and female both, witches use their own life source – their soul fire – to cast spells. Small sorceries cost witches mere minutes of their lifetime, while larger undertakings might cost days or even years. Only the Magisters can use magic freely. An immortal order of mages, by tradition male-only, they fuel their sorcery by siphoning the soulfire of others.
It’s a great premise, right? I actually think it’s one of the best things about this book. I loved the idea of vampiric mages. Drawn to novelty, incredibly learned, and dabbling in politics to pass the years, they’re compelling figures. Indeed, several of the main characters are Magisters – but ­­Friedman never lets us forget the callous choice they make every day: to kill others so they can live. The Magisters also stand out as the most original part of a book populated with fairly typical fantasy archetypes; of course there’s nothing wrong with noble princes, insane kings, dashing magicians and tomboy heroines, but I’ve seen them all before.
The most ‘dark’ thing about this book is the setting. Sexism permeates everything. At one stage a female character is raped, and even sympathetic characters use unpleasant gendered language. (“Forgive me, my fierce little whore.” Ummmmm, what?!) It almost made me stop reading, although in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t. There are also hints of homophobia – although no outed queers – and it’s obvious that peasants suffer under the magical feudal system. It’s a depressing backdrop for a story, although Friedman puts it to good use. At least not all the characters were white. 

Still, there were a lot of positives about this book. Kamala, an ex-prostitute and survivor to the core, is a brilliant protagonist.  I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at some of her sections – because of course she hates dresses and feels the urge to monologue about it – but on the whole her quest to become the world’s first female Magister was a compelling one, especially given what a dubious moral choice it is. There is also a looming battle against the “Souleaters”: vicious dragon-like creatures reemerging out of legend and leaving destruction in their wake, creatures that even the Magisters are ill-equipped to deal with. I’m expecting big things from Book 3. 

Bascially? This was a great novel. I can’t wait to finish the trilogy.

Cover Commentary:

I don’t mind the British cover. Yes, it’s slightly boring. But the colours go well together and the castle is nicely drawn, although I’ve no idea why they the publishers decided to overlay the building with elven-esque writing. It’s certainly a damn sight better than the American cover, which for some reason has dragonfly wings framing an underdressed and sexualized Kamala. It’s a horrible portrayal of a character that 1) is repeatedly described as unfeminine and masquerades as a boy for most of the novel, and 2) is a former prostitute who loathes her former life. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Book Review: Earth Girl by Janet Edwards

Title: Earth Girl
Author: Janet Edwards 
Genre: Science-fiction, Young Adult
Notes: Published in 2012 by Harper Collins in the UK & Pyr in the USA. 

2788. Only the handicapped live on Earth. Eighteen-year-old Jarra is among the one in a thousand people born with an immune system that cannot survive on other planets. Sent to Earth at birth to save her life, she has been abandoned by her parents. She can’t travel to other worlds, but she can watch their vids, and she knows all the jokes they make. She’s an “ape,” a “throwback,” but this is one ape girl who won’t give in.

Jarra makes up a fake military background for herself and joins a class of norms who are on Earth for a year of practical history studies excavating the dangerous ruins of the old cities. She wants to see their faces when they find out they’ve been fooled into thinking an ape girl was a norm. She isn’t expecting to make friends with the enemy, to risk her life to save norms, or to fall in love.

Why I read it

It got a very nice review over at The Book Smugglers and I thought the premise sounded interesting. Also, the UK cover is gorgeous and I am a shallow bookworm. 


For the handicapped, the universe is restrictive. They’re tied to one planet rather than being able to portal to others. (I imagine this feels like being confined to your hometown for your entire life.) To make things worse, most were given up by their birth families, and all are constantly mocked by offworld “norms”. Enter Jarra, the main character of Earth Girl. She’s handicapped, and understandably bitter about that fact. However, a love of history and a desire to escape lead her to enroll in an off-world history course – one she can attend for the first year only, as it takes place on Earth. 

I thought Jarra was an excellent character. Her bitterness at being handicapped felt very real to me, but it never overshadowed her drive to succeed or her love of history, other core aspects of her personality. Other reviews have called her a Mary Sue, but I disagree. It’s true she initially outshines the others on her course, but this is understandable: thanks to her disability, she’s had amateur experience at Earth dig-sites, and is a history-nerd to boot. My only complaint was the reason why Jarra kept her identify secret for so long. I won’t spoil the book, but I feel like the ending glossed over the ramifications of this choice. Hopefully it’ll be better addressed in the sequel.   

Jarra’s classmates were an entertaining bunch. They’re a diverse group hailing from every sector in the galaxy, providing steady subplots of gossip, friendship and romance. I thought the sexual Betans were particularly well-drawn. Karth, a foil for Jarra rather than a person in himself, was the only character I found frustrating. He was described as suspicious of the military, thanks to his left-wing conspiracy theorist of a father. Fair enough. But he was also most bigoted norm of the course (again courtesy of his “left-wing” father). How does that make sense? I think it would have been better to split the character into two, and give each more complexity.  

Despite that, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a clever YA novel that pairs a bitter and capable teenage protagonist with excellent worldbuilding, and absolutely deserves all the hype it’s been getting. 

The Cover

I love the English cover. The combination of colours and the font are stunning, and I’m not surprised that this is the image the author used for her blog. The American one, on the other hand, makes the novel look like a handbook for young environmentalists. I really don’t understand why the strident, capable Jarra was portrayed so passively here, or why she’s hugging the Earth that gives her so much pain. It doesn’t fit the tone of the book at all.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

April Reading

So, this is my April to read list. Odds are I'll finish more than the three below, but these are the novels I'm most looking forward to.


River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Released on the 2nd April, this is the book I'm most excited about this month. Kay is one of my favourite writers, so of course I'd read anything he writes. But River of Stars, like his last book Under Heaven, is also set in Kitai (aka China). And since I call the Middle Kingdom home these days, I'm extra-curious to see his take on it.





Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I've heard a lot of good things about this book, and I've been meaning to read it for a while. Finding out it got nominated for a Hugo Award just spurred me on. I actually know very little about the plot (although I've heard it described as Arabian epic fantasy) but I'm sure I'll find out soon enough.



Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Not fantasy, this one. But I try to read outside my genre ghetto occasionally and figured I'd give this one a try - it won the Man Booker Prize last year, and Mantel's prose looks stunning. Also, Anne Boleyn! Who doesn't want to read about the queens of old?

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Book Review: The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia

Title: The Secret History of Moscow
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Notes: Published by Prime Books in 2007

Why I Read It: 

I love urban fantasy inspired by mythology, so when somebody recommended this book - and I noticed it was only $2.99 for Amazon Kindle! - I had to buy it.

My Thoughts:  

No surprise really - this was a great book. Not excellent, but still very, very good.

The underlying plot is driven by magic. People are being turned into birds, and two people - a girl who wants to save her now-avian sister, and a policeman assigned to the missing person's case - are on a quest to get them back. Their investigation leads underground, to a Moscow populated by outcasts beyond time - some former political dissidents; others, simple misfits who fell through the cracks. It's a powerful setting, made all the more real by the fact that underground, undeveloped Moscow has a rural fringe where the rusalka live. (I'm a geographer. I love that kind of detail.) 

I also liked the Russian backdrop. I've always thought of myself as a mythology nerd, but clearly my education was more Western than I thought. It was a pleasure getting introduced to figures like Koschey the Deathless and Zemun the celestial cow, along with snippets of Russian history. I never felt their lack of familiarity detracted from the story. Other reviewers have commented that the plot starts meandering when many of these figures are introduced, and perhaps that's true. But the story regains focus towards the end, delivering a conclusion that is both powerful and unexpected. Well worth a read.

The Cover:  

The sky is beautiful, the bird is a nice nudge to the core plot, and the crumbling walls echo the run-down and broken realities found in the book. The only thing I don't love is Galina herself - I think we see a bit too much cleavage here, and in any case she looks cold. Isn't this book set at the start of winter?! On the whole though, it's a lovely cover.


Ekaterina Sedia's blog is here, for anyone interested. She's got some pretty interesting articles on fashion and feminism. She's also got a few other books out - I'm particularly looking forward to reading Heart of Iron.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Claw Pride

Not a book review, but book related... or more specifically, Harry Potter related. Yes, I finally gave in and joined Pottermore! Flash sites annoy me so I only stayed long enough to get sorted. Turns out I'm a Ravenclaw, which I've pretty much known since age 13. Still, it's nice to have it confirmed by J.K herself.