Book reviews: Aurora Darwin, Arrived, Haven – A stranger Magic, The Lethal Oath, Light Touch Paper Stand Clear

It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed any books here, so during my week off I picked up my kindle, determined to finish a book I’d started a while back and then take a crack at a few more I’ve downloaded over the last year.

Aurora: Darwin by Amanda Bridgeman

Amanda Bridgeman has been a guest blogger here on a couple of occasions, and her posts are worth looking up if you’ve got the time.

Aurora: Darwin is a slow burn despite a introductory teaser delivering expectations of a fast-paced action thriller.

The story follows the crew of the Aurora and their investigation of a problem on a research station. A good half of the book was devoted to setting up the characters, situation and story world.

I won’t go into details so as to avoid spoilers, but once the crew arrive at the station the squishy brown stuff hits the proverbial spinning air-circulation device and things start going very badly for the Aurora crew.

The character development was strong, the action and underlying politics believable for the most part, and the resolution was solid while leaving plenty more for the sequels.

Overall, three-and-a-half stars out of five.

Arrived by Keion Alexis

I’m not sure how I came across this – most likely a freebie advertised on social media. Written with a lot of enthusiasm but little skill. Rating: a generous one star.

Haven: A Stranger Magic (short story, novella) by D.C. Ackers

Another social media download freebie, Haven: A stranger Magic is a promotion for D.C. Ackers longer works in the same world.

As a story, it’s mostly just an introduction to the characters and world, with a mini-adventure thrown in without any real resolution. Still, it got me interested enough in the characters that if I stumbled across the next one as a freebie, I’d take a look. Rating: two and a half stars – it would have been three if it had been a complete story in itself.

The Lethal Oath (The Viking Series) by John Snow

This is a short story/novella with a lot of promise and fairly solid characters and conflicts, but the author’s style failed to draw me in. I struggled through about half of it, skipping ahead regularly even then, before giving up.

I think the author was more interested in the story world and events than the characters themselves, but there’s lots of potential there. Rating: two-and-a-half stars.

Light Touch Paper Stand Clear – short story anthology

I’ve only gotten through the first four stories so far, but here’s the round-up.

The Bone Chime Song by Joanne Anderton – pretty darn good. A very well written, solid story with strong characters and a gritty world I’d be happy to revisit. Four stars.

Five Ways to Start a War by Sue Bursztynski – kept me reading to the end, though I’d probably have appreciated it more if I’d been a fan of Homer and ancient Gods of Olympus. Not so much of a story in itself as the exploration of a concept. Three stars.

History: Theory and Practice by Dave Luckett – the manipulation of a developing civilization by an advanced society. Essentially a small event set against a bigger backdrop, it’s well-told and drew me in. Felt a little bit like I’d only gotten half the story though, and the rest was in the works. Three stars.

The D____d by Adam Browne – couldn’t get through this one. The concept was wonderfully visual – the exploration and colonisation of the Circles of Hell – but I kept waiting for the story to kick in and eventually gave up on it. Two stars.

That’s it for now. Overall, it was just nice to have the chance to read.

Time to do some writing of my own.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Cover of Mistborn I first heard of Brandon Sanderson soon after he was given the task of finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga.

I doubted anyone could finish the series and maintain a similar voice to Jordan’s, let alone continue the story as well as Jordan had, but I hoped for the best.

After reading Sanderson’s first Wheel of Time book, I assumed most of it had probably written by Jordan before he died, it was that similar in style.

Sanderson’s second installment suggested otherwise (surely Jordan couldn’t have written most of the rest before he died), and convinced me he was a damn good writer. After listening to a podcast interviewing him about it, I decided to look up more of his works. I’m glad I did.

I came across Mistborn first, and I wasn’t dissapointed. It’s an epic saga, and though it maintains many of the fantasy tropes – “young orphan with special powers rises from obscurity and challenges the evil overlord” – it’s also quite original and compelling for the most part.

There are quite a few point-of-view characters, but it’s Vin, the abused and downtrodden young orphan who we empathise with.

Early on, Vin is rescued by Kelsier from her dangerous life as the youngest member of a gang of petty thieves. Recognising her inborn talents, Kelsier instructs Vin in the use of Allomancy – the ability to ‘burn’ metals to gain amazing powers.

Like Kelsier, she’s also among the rarest allomancers, a Mistborn, able to burn the full complement of metals, not just one.

From there it gets a little more complicated, as only full-blooded allomancer nobles are tolerated by the Lord ruler. As Vin’s both an allomancer and the bastard child of a noble and a skaa (peasant), she quickly finds herself on the Lord Ruler’s hit list.

Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy.
Mistborn Trilogy

Kelsier, however, has other plans for Vin. He intends to take down the Lord Ruler despite the fact the Lord Ruler is known to be a immortal God and the world’s savior – and Kelsier needs all the help he can find.

With Vin tasked to infiltrate the nobility, Kelsier and his crew begin plans to set the noble houses to fighting, to build an army, and eventually to bring down the Final Empire and the Lord Ruler himself.

And so begins Mistborn – a very good read.

Save the Cat – Blake Snyder

Save the cat Book Cover Probably the best book I’ve ever come across on the subject of structure, Save the Cat is the book you need if you want to write fiction of any variety.

Although  designed as a tool for scriptwriters, most of the information works just as well for novels, and a lot of it could, and probably should, be applied to short stories.

It’s not about the nitty gritty stuff like punctuation, grammar or formatting – it’s about what goes where in your story and why. Think The Hero’s Journey made clear and concise. It’s very easy to read and simple to refer back to.

No matter how much you might like to avoid the subject of structure, your story needs more than just  a beginning, middle and end.

Believe it or not, those broad categories actually have to do something – readers expect certain things from a story – and if you don’t give it to them, they’ll walk away feeling as if something wasn’t  quite working.

Save the Cat teaches you what each part requires and how to make it all work together.

The most useful thing Save the Cat taught me was how to answer to the simplest, most basic question you need to ask before you start writing – What’s the story about?

There’s a pretty simple reason Snyder promotes discovering the answer to this question.

Have you ever taken a thought, concept, image or idea and just ran with it?

Unless you get really lucky, it’s hard to edit ‘freewritten’ stories after the fact. Even with the story on the page, you probably still haven’t defined what it’s actually about.

Save the Cat will explain how to distill your story into a single sentence, and that’s just the start of what it will do for you.

Highly recommended.

The Steel Remains – Richard Morgan

A friend told me Richard Morgan’s books were difficult to put down, and as Altered Carbon had given Morgan a huge fan-base (though I still haven’t read it), I figured I’d rock up at a book signing and grab a copy of his latest novel, The Steel Remains.

I met Morgan at the Gaslight Bookshop in Fyshwick (along with about a hundred devoted fans). The Gaslight Bookshop is a fantastic little new and second-hand bookshop catering to lovers of speculative fiction in the Canberra region.

My first impression was that Morgan seemed like a pretty nice guy, and that didn’t change as he remained happy to sign book after book for hours – plenty of them dog-eared copies of previously published works.

Because the line was pretty long, I didn’t get to chat beyond a couple of pleasantries, but his genuine appreciation that people were waiting was obvious.

Once home with my shiny, newly-signed copy, I made a start – and found my friend was right – it actually was pretty hard to put down.

To say it’s ‘in your face’ is being mild. More like a kick in the face.

My second impression was that Morgan knows how to write. It started a little slow, but when things began moving, they moved like a bucking horse.

The action takes place in a richly imagined universe so detailed and real you can almost step into it. It begins with the main character Ringol taking a commission to investigate missing girls, and before long he’s shoved into the middle of a conflict that threatens to destroy empires.

Mix in some magic and human-like creatures from another plane of existence, and you’ve got everything you need for a powerful fantasy story.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the protagonist, Ringol, is a rather sullen bastard with a truckload of baggage and a brutal attitude – most of it stemming from the fact he’s gay in a gay-hating society.

It probably doesn’t help that he’s also the hero of Gallows Gap, a war a decade or so in the past, and has to suffer the expectations that everyone places on him. Because of his attitude, I found it hard to get on Ringol’s side. He’s basically a decent guy, but I found I didn’t particularly like him. What empathy Morgan develops through Ringol’s good acts, he peels away with Ringol’s ‘screw you’ attitude.

  Overall, The Steel Remains is a grim and gritty book and leaves you feeling wrung out, if satisfied. It’s pretty difficult to find something this powerful and original, so for that alone I’d recommend it.

Morgan doesn’t leave too much to the imagination either, so just prepare yourself for some pretty graphic imagery and brutal character development.

Oh, and be prepared for a sequel or three. It is a fantasy, after all, and there’s some pretty big hints at the end.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well: William ZinsserI first came across this book just after I became interested in writing fiction, and it’s one of the best books on writing I’ve ever found.

My first copy was the ‘Third Edition: Revised and Enlarged’ edition, and it’s somewhat dog-eared now from so many years of use and being leant out.

It even had a helpful section called ‘Writing – and rewriting – with a Word Processor’. Ahh, word pricessors, those new-fangled things on them fancy computers.

Yes, I’m almost embarrassed to say it was that long ago.

The book’s currently on its ’30th Anniversary Edition’, which suggests Zinsser’s doing something right.

The most valuable part about On Writing Well is that it strongly promotes simplicity and keeping things clear and concise. Zinsser argues there’s no room for wordiness – and he shows you how to achieve clear and accurate text with a range of examples.

Although designed with non-fiction in mind, the book is for anyone who wants to write, and any fiction writer will benefit from reading it.

The book is broken into four parts – Principles, Methods, Forms and Attitudes, but it’s Principles and Methods that give the book its value.

For example, the topic on Simplicity begins with: “Clutter is the Disease of American Writing.”

Of course, the problem isn’t limited to just America, but the entire English language.

The paragraph finishes with: “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless Jargon.”

What was true thirty-odd years ago holds true today.

If you want to get the basics right, On Writing Well is the book you need.

Ghost Town: Morganville Vampires Book 9

Cover Image: Ghost TownI read Rachel Caine’s Ghost Town: Book Nine in the Morganville Vampires series, shortly after reading book six – I’m still not sure how I missed books seven and eight.

Nothing really happened in between that I couldn’t easily pick up though – or after reading book nine, feel I needed to go back for.

The only thing to note was that Ada, the computer/brain that controlled the town’s portals and made people forget about vampires when they left town, had died or otherwise been ‘put down’.

That, of course, gave rise to the main plot of Ghost Town. With no machine to wipe memories, Morganville’s vampires have an exposure problem – and following an accident, Clare (something of a science prodigy) is forced to build them a new machine.

Ghost Town is a ‘problem of the week’ story and plays on the status quo of the town: vampires in control, humans doing their best not to get eaten or otherwise killed, and Clare and her friends in the middle of the latest crisis to beset the town.

That means the Reset Button is well and truly at play in the world of Morganville.

If you’re unfamiliar with the dreaded reset button – it means that by the end, things pretty much go back to how they were at the start. This shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve read the series up to this point.

After nine books however, it’s starting to feel tired. The premise is that the machine Clare builds to replace Ada gets some wires crossed and begins making people inside the town forget the last three years – some even go crazy.

That creates a big problem for Clare – she wasn’t in town three years ago, so people don’t remember her, particularly the vampires she works for.

That makes it difficult (and dangerous) to convince them the machine’s broken, or that she’s the only one who can fix it.

Soon enough, Clare is neck deep in it and struggling to survive. Considering the number of books in the series, you shouldn’t have to guess how it turns out. Still, Rachel Caine does know how to keep you cheering for the good guys.

While Ghost Town didn’t draw me in as much as the earlier books, it’s still decent, and certainly a cut above many of the other ‘vampire chick lit’ books around.

The first six are highly recommended.

You can see an interview with Rachel Caine here on fandelion.com.

Bitten – Kelley Armstrong

The cover of the book Bitten by Kelley Armstrong A friend knows I like werewolves, and recommended Bitten to me.

Funny thing is, while I like werewolves, I’m not much of a ‘traditional werewolf’ fan – the kind of werewolf that goes nuts on a full moon and usually ends up dead (Wolfman, anyone?).

Thankfully, Bitten doesn’t fall into formula.

This isn’t a Twilight version of a werewolf story either. This is an ‘in your face’, get kicked where it hurts kind of novel.

Gritty.

The story begins with Elena Michaels, the only female werewolf (genetics mean the werewolf gene doesn’t pass to female offspring – instead, she’s one of the rare survivors of a werewolf bite), doing her best to live a normal life with her human boyfriend, away from ‘the Pack’.

Nevermind that her boyfriend doesn’t have a clue about her true nature, or that the Pack are the authority in the werewolf world – she’s looking escape her past.

Her ‘normal life’ means a job and boyfriend, but that gets a whole lot trickier when her pack is threatened and she’s obliged to help out.

Doing her duty, unfortunately, means returning to the Pack and facing her former boyfriend, Clay, the werewolf who bit her. Clay, naturally, wants her back, and he’s the werewolf all other werewolves fear.

It’s not long after she turns up on ‘home turf’ that human bodies begin getting dumped on Pack land and Pack members start turning up dead.

Yep, there’s a power struggle erupting, and Elena’s landed right in the middle of it – and did I mention her ex wants her back?

While the story and characters are engaging and the book hard to put down, the real story is Elena’s struggle with her werewolf nature and her place in the world.

She doesn’t want to be a werewolf, and definately doesn’t want to be drawn back into the Pack and werewolf politics, but if she ever wants a normal life, she’s going to have to deal with both.

And that’s what makes Bitten so good.

The story forces you to care about Elena and what happens to her – and that as much as anything else makes Bitten worth the read.

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