Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland - Diana Wynne Jones

My apologies for the interruption in reviews and other new content lately. As I mentioned in my previous post, my attention was diverted by a situation at work. I won't bore you with the details of Dutch labour law but renewing my contract turned out to be a bit a drama. Despite the best efforts of my manager, as of tomorrow, I am officially unemployed. This sucks but life goes on. And so does Random Comments.

And here we are (slightly delayed), reviewed work number two-hundred. When I approached a hundred reviewed works I asked the readers of Random Comments which book I should review and ended up with Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel so I derided to try it again this time around. I ended up with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a non-fiction book by Dianna Wynne Jones. She recently passed away after a battle with lung cancer at the age of seventy-six. I haven't read any of her other works and I didn't know what to expect of this book other than that is was a parody on fantasy clichés. And lets face it, there's quite a few of those around to poke fun at.

Jones does this by taking the reader on a Tour through Fantasyland. In a series of concise descriptions, ordered alphabetically and properly cross-referenced, she takes us past the building blocks of life in your average fantasy world, pointing out the major attractions, peculiar customs of its inhabitants and unique critters that can be found along the way. There's tonnes of absolutely vital information you need to know and countless warnings that will keep you safe throughout the journey. It also helps you build a useful vocabulary to describe common phenomena in Fantasyland by assigning OMTs (Official Management Terms) to them.

Under C for instance, there is an exceedingly useful description of capitals:
CAPITAL LETTERS at the beginning of words are used liberally by the Management according to Rules that transcend human understanding and may under no circumstances be questioned (see TABOO).
But there is also more practical information. Under H for instance, we lean that:
HEATING is open fire or nothing, except in MONASTARIES, TEMPLES, and the PALACES of sick KINGS, where a charcoal brazier is allowed to the abbot, HIGH PRIEST, or King. Sometimes the insides of an ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECT will be kept inexplicably warm by some preternatural agent beyond the ken of Man (OMT), indicating the ancients knew a thing or two about central heating.
We pass by dragons, non-human races, raids by bandits, wars, famine, magical mayhem and all manner of discomfort than can be counted upon during a tour through Fantasyland. In fact, it is something of a miracle anyone would want to go there in the first place.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is entertaining, at times hilariously funny and for any fantasy reader hugely recognizable. Still, I don't think we need 230 pages to drive this message home. More than once my attention drifted. Despite the number of pages I wouldn't recommend trying to read it in one go. I guess one of the aspects that made me feel only mildly interested in this book is the somewhat dated content. I've read the revised version, published in 2006, and it clearly doesn't do justice to the diversification that the genre has gone through in the last fifteen years or so. Yes, there are plenty of books and series that conform to a lot of what Jones describes but I found it just as easy to come up with examples of works that don't include particular entries. In fact, you could be forgive for thinking Jones based herself on The Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time for most of the content.

Another example that made me feel the text was a bit dated can be found under V:
VAMPIRES are increasingly rare on the Tour. They have been attracted over to the Horror Tour by offers of better pay. Where they appear, you will find up-to-date Vampires wear expensive sunglasses and wish to drain you of energy rather than blood.
I guessed they moved on to the Urban Fantasy tour now, fickle creatures that they are.

The book did get me thinking on why Fantasy more than other genres seems to suffer from the image of being repetitive and unoriginal pulp. Some people still seem to suffer from the delusion that all fantasy is a substandard retelling of The Lord of the Rings, a preconception that is disturbingly hard to dispel. Jones doesn't really answer that question in this book of course, but she does emphasize how silly this idea is by making the reader keenly aware of stereotypes floating around in the genre. I guess the book might be interesting if you write fantasy yourself. It could be good fun to see how many Tour elements you pack into your story. Do keep in mind that it is not a list of things to avoid at all cost in your story. These tropes are popular for a reason.

I guess I have to say I am mildly disappointed by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Yes, it is very funny at time, but offers the reader little more than brief entertainment. I guess it is good to look at a preferred genre in an other light once in a while. Jones does a good job of pointing out all the stereotypes and clichés that cling to epic fantasy. Nevertheless, I don't consider it a must read for fantasy fans.

Book Details
Title: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Firebird
Pages: 234
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-14-240722-4
First published: 1996, 2006

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Quiet for a bit

You may have noticed the absence of new reviews by now. I have been trying to get some reviewing done but what I have right now is so crappy I don't dare run it. It's not the book or that I don't know what to say about it. My attention has simply been diverted by something going on at work. One way or another, it should be resolved by the end of the week. I expect to be back on the two reviews a week schedule next week. Thanks for your patience!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The God Engines - John Scalzi

Subterranean had a big sale a while ago. I bought one of their bookbags containing eleven titles, without knowing what would be in them before they arrived. Pretty much all of it is short fiction, which is a good thing, I have been neglecting that particular form lately. I'll be reviewing a couple of those later in the year. It also included John Scalzi's 2009 novella The God Engines. It was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards in the novella category. As usual with Subterranean publications, the book itself looks gorgeous. A very nice hardcover with cover art and interior illustrations by Vincent Chong. The care this publisher takes with even the more modestly priced editions is just amazing. While the physical object is very pretty, I am conflicted about the text itself.

The God Engines is set in a universe where gods are at war with each other. Long ago, one of them managed to subdue most of its competitors and become the single most worshipped creature in a universe united in their faith in him. The vanquished gods are taken prisoner and serve on the fleet of starships of the scattered colonies of humanity. Carefully controlled by the crew, these gods provide the means of travelling the stars. Captain Ean Tephe serves on one of these ships. Lately, the god powering his ship has become increasingly rebellious. It appears he is not the only one. When the captain has his ship recalled for new orders, it becomes clear that there is trouble ahead. The kind that will test his faith mightily.

Religion is the main theme of this novella. The all conquering god seems the be very much in control, with his church running the affairs of humanity. They rely completely on their god to provide travel between the stars and although it is known to the priesthood that humanity once possessed the technology to power spaceships, that knowledge appears to be lost. In fact, not much science is in evidence in the story. Perhaps this is why the publisher chose to market it as dark fantasy rather than science fiction. Most people in the novel behave more or less like the ideal flock, their faith is firm, not all that surprising given the level of dependence and the regular affirmation the faithful receive. The ruling god was careful enough the have history sanitized for his own purposes and his church is careful to keep a few other secrets for him. A theocratic dystopia. Rather depressing really, and in my opinion, presented in a heavy handed way.

I guess it shouldn't have come as a surprise that resistance does not come from people who would like a bit more control over their own destiny but from those worshipping one of the captured gods. Imagine his gratitude on being freed from eternal slavery. Apparently there is only one way to stay in power against such opposition, lying, keeping secrets and generally being the meanest son of a bitch around. In a universe where faith does not (in part) depend on believing in something unseen, finding out your god is not that nice a fellow is a bit of a shock. Ean Tephe doesn't like it at all in fact, but his struggles with his conscience don't really convince. Scalzi manages to make a starship captain look a wee bit naive here.

There were parts of the novella I liked better. The relationship with the "Rook", a mix of councillor, prostitute and secret agent, Shalle Thew is particularly interesting. Although most readers will assume Shalle is female, nowhere in the story is this actually mentioned. The temptation to use particular or possessive pronouns must have been overwhelming for Scalzi but he manages to avoid them. Even the illustration Chong provided could be either. So easy to assume, I almost missed it. It would have been nice if this part of the story had been a bit more detailed, Shalle is quite important in the final part of the story but since we see the action form Tephe's point of view, her motives remain a bit nebulous. Then again, the whole character is a bit mysterious so perhaps that is for the best.

The idea behind The God Engines is intriguing but in the end the novella didn't work for me. Parts could certainly have used a bit more subtlety and the story as a whole could have done with some more words to mature. The main character never really convinced me. I guess I'm not surprised that it didn't win those awards it was nominated for. I understand it is a bit of a departure from Scalzi's other works, which tend to be science fiction of the military kind. Perhaps one of those would work better for me.

Book Details
Title: The God Engines
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 136
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-299-3
First published: 2009

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Memories of Ice - Steven Erikson

I've reread Memories of Ice, the third book in Steven Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen this week. And it did indeed take most of the week, it's a massive tome. Although probably not the largest book in the series my mass market paperback weighs in at 1194 pages. This novel has been my favourite throughout the series. Erikson has gone on to write a number of very good additions to the series but I don't think he ever quite manages to pull of such a brilliant and multi-faceted climax as in Memories of Ice. In fact, there is so much going on, I was amazed at how much I missed during my first read and how much hints to future books Erikson drops. It's definitely a book that is even better the second time around.

Memories of Ice takes us back the continent of Genebackis, where the remnants of Dujek Onearm's army have been outlawed by the Malazan Empress Laseen in order to make a joint operation with their former enemies under the command of the formidable Caladan Brood possible. A new empire has risen in the south and it makes everybody distinctly uncomfortable. In fact, this Pannion Domin is considered such a threat that the two former enemies are willing to break off their nasty, decade old war and forge an unlikely alliance. Their first objective is the city of Capustan, a small city with limited defences that is about to be overrun by the Pannion's hordes. Defended by a mix of local militias and the Greysword mercenary company, the city will not hold out for long. It is highly unlikely their joint forces will reach the city in time to prevent if from being razed. They will need new allies to save it. On top of that, there is an additional challenge: they will need to keep their own shaky coalition intact long enough to push the Pannions all the way back to their capital and crush it once and for all.

In the second book in the series, Deadhouse Gates, Erikson opens up a whole new story, set on a different continent. Over the course of the series, these far flung events will coalesce into one huge overarching story but this early on in the series it is quite a challenge to let go of the characters from Gardens of the Moon and dive into a whole new, seemingly unrelated novel. A return to Onearm's host feels almost familiar after Deadhouse Gates. Familiar but not quite the same. The first novel in the series was written years before the others and it shows. Erikson has developed a slightly different view on some of the characters in the mean time. It is especially apparent in Tayschrenn, who is considered the villain and betrayer of the Bridgeburners in Gardens of the Moon. His return to the scene as a misunderstood hero is a bit awkward in my opinion. It's only a minor part of the story though. We gain a new perspective on Whiskeyjack as well. His story includes a bit of romance, showing us a side not may would have guessed the gruff, cynical former general possessed.

One other character that grows tremendously in this novel is Ganoes Paran. In Gardens of the Moon he has a number of ghastly things happen to him. Things that scar him, shape him and prepare him for the role his is to play in the rest of the series. All of that is gradually becoming clear to him. Paran clearly senses he is not meant to be a military commander. His command of the Bridgeburners remains problematic throughout the novel. A grudging respect between Paran and his soldiers does develop but fighting has little to do with it. Paran steps up to the plate as new Master of the Deck in this novel. Journeying into the realms of gods, the warrens of the Deck of Dragons. His decisions will ultimately shape the conflict between the gods that is rapidly approaching. Like his sisters Felisin and Tavore (notice how Erikson likes the number three), Ganoes is not satisfied with being a pawn in someone else's game, which I think is a definity improvement over his actions in Gardens of the Moon.

Despite the very emotional tone of much of the novel, it doesn't lack a great deal of violence. Some of the things done during the Chain of Dogs pale in comparison to what the Pannions are capable of. Erikson describes an army (and empire) that quite literally devours itself. It's this kind of irrational tactics that betray the hand of the gods, ascendants and elder races in the story. More than in previous books the soldiers seem to be aware of the game that is played over their head. The rise of the Crippled God is dreaded by many and most of them are not going to sit around and wait for him to break free. The cost is simply too high. Although Memories of Ice could be seen as another story of an impressive Malazan military campaign, the struggles of the gods are much closer to the surface than in other books. Erikson makes sure the reader understand that gods are not safe, even from mortals.

The very violent and sometimes grotesque scenes in Capustan are carefully balanced by more humorous episodes in the novel. The perpetually running two necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach make their first appearance in this novel. Erikson went on to write four novellas, set well before the main series, with plans for a bunch more. Erikson probably pays too much attention to them in this novel, they don't seem to be all that important to the overall story and don't return in any of the other novels. Personally I can forgive Erikson for getting sidetracked, the scene in which the two necromancers are confronted by Quick Ben is absolutely brilliant. On top of that there is the banter between the soldiers of Onearm's host, the antics of Lady Envy and her servants (keep an eye on that one, she has quite an interesting family) and the Mott irregulars, who for some reason are all ranked High Marshall. Erikson has a decidedly dark sense of humour but it does keep the novel from spiralling down into lengthy descriptions of battles and slaughter.

Reading Memories of Ice for the second time was quite a different experience than my first pass through this story. More so than in it's direct sequel Gardens of the Moon, Erikson lays the foundation of the larger series. We won't return to Genebackis until Toll of the Hounds, the eighth book in the series, but so much of what is going on in this novel is important to the rest of the series that I think this book is the key to the series. Once you've made it to this point, things will start falling into place. I've found even more to like about this book than during my first read. If Memories of Ice doesn't convince you to stick with this series, nothing will. Next up is House of Chains, which I considered one of the weaker books during my first read. Let's see if my opinion of that book survives a second read intact as well.

Book Details
Title: Memories of Ice
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 1194
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-81312-9
First published: 2001

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

The Gollancz SF Masterworks series contains no less than fourteen books by Philip K. Dick. A often heard criticisms of the series is that they can't possibly all represent the best of what the genre (or Dick himself) has to offer. I think there may be some truth to that and unless I develop a real taste for Dick's work, I don't think I'll read them all. The Man in the High Castle is generally accepted as one of his better novels however, he got the 1963 Hugo for it for one thing, and the idea behind it appealed to me. This novel is the last in the original Masterworks series. It says number 72 on the cover but it should be 73. Gollancz relaunched the series with a new design, reprints of some of the titles and a number of new additions after this book.

The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate 1962 where Japan and Nazi Germany have won the second world war and divided the world between them. The list of atrocities the Nazis committed is even longer than the one in our world and includes among other things, the depopulation of Africa and the creation of Lebensraum by exterminating most of the Slavic peoples. The US is split in three nations, the west is a Japanese controlled puppet-state, the East coast is run by Germany and the mountain states are something of a buffer. An out of the way place neither of the the superpowers is much interested in. After Hitler's health and last shreds of sanity gave out, Bormann ran Germany as the new Führer. News of his death unleashes a power struggle in that could disturb the uneasy peace between Japan and Germany.

Dick follows a number of characters all located in the American west, giving us an idea of what a totalitarian and marginalized US society might look like. We see the story though the eyes of a number of ordinary people and small players in the machines of government of both Japan and Germany. One of the things I found fascinating about the novel is how he American characters adapted to the Japanese culture being dominant. Although none of them seem entirely comfortable with it, the ones that come into regular contact with the Japanese are constantly aware of the cultural difference. Antiques dealer Robert Childan is a particularly good example of this. He has acquired a certain insight into the Japanese way of thinking but it is clearly incomplete, leading him to constantly doubt his own judgement.

Another clear example of the influence the eastern way of thinking has gained in the US is the wide spread use of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching. Several of the characters us it to divine the future and help them make decisions. Dick himself also used its predictions to plot his novel, leading to a number of irrational, or perhaps I should say surreal changes of direction in the story as the characters try to wrap their mind around the cryptic text of the oracle. At one point in the novel, the I Ching even suggests that Germany and Japan have lost the war. One of many points in the novel that makes the reader and characters question the reality of what they are experiencing. Reality and (false) perception were also quite important in the only other book by Dick I've read: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The I Ching is not the only book that deeply influences the major characters. Dick employs the story within a story and has the characters read a novel in which the author describes a world where Germany and Japan have lost the war. It is of course quickly banned in German held areas of the world and this makes the book even more interesting. The history in this book, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, deviates from the one we know as well, creating a second alternative history in the book. In effect, the author is having the characters ask the reverse 'what if' question. When reading this, it pays to have a general knowledge of the period.

One of the things that struck me about the novel, and in my opinion contributes in large measure to the realistic feel of this alternative history, is the ease with which the characters push away the knowledge of the atrocities being committed in various parts of the world. It's something of a mild discomfort for some of them, sometimes they even wonder if the world would actually have been better if the Axis powers had lost the war (surely the communists would have taken over!). Other characters, part of the groups specifically targeted by the Nazis, also seem to have gotten used to the dark cloud hanging over them. It's frighting what people will ignore as long as they are able to get on with their own everyday lives.

With its many twists and turns,The Man in the High Castle is not a particular easy read. It's quite a strange story really, with an unexpected, open ending. Maybe it suffers a bit from the fact that lots and lots of alternative world war II histories have been published after it. I enjoyed reading it but I don't think I see the masterwork many other readers seem to feel it is. Then again, it is a deceptively deep novel, perhaps one reading is not enough to do it justice. I may have to give it another go in a year or so.

Book Details
Title: The Man in the High Castle
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 249
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08205-2
First published: 1962

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Crown of Vengeance - Stephen Zimmer

A couple of weeks ago I received a package form Seventh Star Press containing the first two books in the epic fantasy series The Fires in Eden by Stephen Zimmer. The author appears to be quite productive, publishing four rather large novels in the past three years. Zimmer alternates between writing this series and the Rising Dawn Saga, which is more of an urban fantasy. The book came in trade paperback format, including a number of very nice interior illustrations by Mathew Perry. The publisher clearly went for a high quality edition. Zimmer is aiming to write a classic epic fantasy. Although the scope and setting of the novel certainly lives up to that, I do feel the execution is not all it could be. This series is off to a rocky start.

The author introduces us to a group of characters from contemporary Lexington, Kentucky. Each of them is, in their own way, dissatisfied with their life and the world they're living in. One night all of them encounter a mysterious, unnatural fog, that obscures the world around them from their view completely. When the fog lifts, they find themselves in a in a place none of them recognizes. Slowly the truth sinks in. They have left their own world and entered a strange realm where technology has not progressed as far, strange and dangerous creatures roam the land and magic is still very much believed in. It is also a world on the brink of a massive war. A leader known as the Unifier is attempting to unite all peoples under his rule. In this part of the world, only three nations still resist and the Unifier means to deal with them soon. The role of the new arrivals in this conflict remains unclear, but a wizard known as the Wanderer is clearly steering them to a destiny they can only guess at.

The book does not indicate how many parts there will be in this series but, judging form the scope of this first volume, I would not be surprised if Zimmer means to take it beyond a trilogy. He creates a vast world, of which we only scratch the surface in this volume. As the first novel in the series, Crown of Vengeance is supposed to draw the reader in, create the kind of commitment to stay on board for part two and three. As a result, first novels in a series are often more self-contained than the sequels, aiming to be satisfactory read on their own, rather than in the context of a whole series. I think Zimmer hits a snag here. You may have notices I haven't mentioned any characters by name in the synopsis. This is because there are an awful lot of them with a point of view. Zimmer transports eleven people to his new world, eight of whom are point of view characters. On top of that, the book also contains nine point of view characters native to the world. Although some characters get more time in the spotlight than others, it goes at the expense of the depth of most of them, and to a point, also slows down to plot.

Especially early on in the novel, the author is busy transporting everybody to the fantasy setting. They cross over in five separate groups, resulting is a number of descriptions of people who are vaguely dissatisfied with life and their encounter with the mysterious fog. It is not an event that needed to be repeated that many times I think. Zimmer also spends quite a bit of time on their troubles of surviving in this new world without resources and gathering his heroes up in the more manageable number of two groups. These two groups and two focal points for the conflict he will follow for the rest of the novel. By the time these groups have made contact with the natives we're past the halfway point of the novel and only then can we start to properly explore this world.

The Unifier has three enemies left he means to deal with. Zimmer saves one of these groups for a later book and focusses on the two the Unifier means to deal with first. One of these groups, the Five Realms appear to be inspired by the Iroquois league, a loose confederation of people in the north-east of what is now the US and the bordering region of Canada. It's an interesting, somewhat a-typical choice in a novel that uses a lot of common epic fantasy ingredients. Perhaps he found his inspiration locally as the Iroquois do have a presence in his home state of Kentucky. I found his descriptions of the Five Realms culture very interesting. I wonder if they will end up accepting a sixth people over the course of the series.

The second culture Zimmer describes, the Kingdom of Saxany is based on medieval Anglo-Saxon society. He seems to have done quite a bit of research on the military structure of England during that period. I must admit this part of the story frustrated me a bit. It promises a classic big battle at the end, but while the Five Realms do get to experience the opening moves in the conflict, Zimmer holds back here. Saving the seemingly inevitable pitched battle for the next book, he ends Crown of Vengeance at what doesn't strike me as a natural break in the story. It could have made for a good cliffhanger ending but even that is not provided. This part of the story just stops.

There is a risk involved in walking down the well-trodden paths of epic fantasy. On the one hand it provides an author with a number of elements that obviously appeals to many readers. On the other hand, there is the risk of writing a cliché story. Challenging the staples of epic fantasy has given us two of the most exciting bit series in epic fantasy. The Malazan Book of the Fallen, in which Steven Erikson challenges just about every epic fantasy cliché, and A Song of Ice and Fire, in which George R.R. Martin carefully avoids quests and black and white characterization. Zimmer tries to give his own twist to a classic epic fantasy tale and ends up with an unevenly paced and essentially unfinished first novel, full of characters insufficiently developed for me to really care about them. In short, I don't think Crown of Vengeance provides a solid foundation for a multi-volume fantasy series. I hope the author manages to solidify the story a bit in the second volume Dream of Legends. If not, this series is in big trouble.

Book Details
Title: Crown of Vengeance
Author: Stephen Zimmer
Publisher: Seventh Star Press
Pages: 597
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-982-56561-2
First published: 2009

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Of Blood and Honey - Stina Leicht

A while ago Night Shade Books offered the e-book edition of Stina Leicht's novel Of Blood and Honey for free. I must admit, I had no idea what the book was about and who the author is but I took them up on it anyway. The book hasn't received al that much attention on the blogs and review sites I read but sometimes you got to take a chance. As it turns out, Of Blood and Honey is Leicht's début novel and it is one of the better novels I have read this year. It's also a bit out of my comfort zone, something of an urban fantasy really. I guess I am starting to appreciate these a little more as long as I am spared the sparkly vampires. Or maybe I am just biassed because of the author's appreciation of Rory Gallagher's music.

Of Blood and Honey is set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, during a period euphemistically referred to as The Troubles, as a full scale civil war was waged between Loyalist (to the UK) and Republican factions. The main character, Liam Kelly is born and raised a catholic area in the city of (London)Derry. Liam doesn't know who his father is. His mother became pregnant with him before she was married and after the scandal subsided, married another man. One day, he is unfortunate enough to witness to one of the frequent riots in the city. He is arrested and locked up in one of the more notorious prisons in Northern Ireland. It is an experience that will change the apolitical Liam into someone who embraces The Cause. It also gives him the first hints about the identity of his father, who is not a regular human being. It appears there is more than one war being fought in Northern Ireland and Liam is about to get involved in both.

The conflict in Northern Ireland that is the backdrop of this novel was one of the nastiest civil wars in the history of Europe. It's not easy to write a number of sympathetic characters involved in this dirty war. Leicht also limits herself to one side of the conflict, although seeing war as Catholic versus Protestant is shown to be an oversimplification. The Loyalist and Republican factions are far from unified, even within the IRA there are splits and differences of opinion about how to achieve the ultimate goal of joining the Irish Republic, resulting in various organisations carrying the name. Not surprisingly there is lots of rationalizing quite brutal violence and terrorist activities in this environment, which is something the reader must be prepared for. It also includes a number of vivid depictions of prison life. I'm not sure how much of that is based on real history but from what I have gathered from historical works, the conditions in those prisons were something the UK government ought to have been ashamed of. Northern Ireland was a fertile ground for internal conflict in those days and the novel shows it. There is nothing sparkly or fantastic about this side of the novel, which is one of the things I like about it.

It will come as no surprise that the characters in this story are no heroes. Although Liam is not a political youth, he can't avoid the reality of the situation in Derry and is dragged in anyway. He is not particularly proud of his actions, in fact, when he is forced to kill in order to make a getaway, he is deeply shocked by the event. His whole involvement in The Cause is a drama. A solution for such a conflict cannot be reached by means of violence, as Liam finds out the hard way. I have no idea how someone living in the area would respond to this book but to an outsider it illustrates the tragedy that took place there (and is still simmering under the surface to some extend) quite well.

The supernatural part of the tale is something of a contrast to all this. It is not as fully developed as the Liam's IRA activities which may be something of a let down for the die hard fantasy fans. I'm of the opinion that digging deeper into this part of the story would have ruined the novel. Liam's father is not human but. No matter how many tales people tell about not getting involved with the Fey, some people will fall for their glamour. Liam's mother is one of them. He is not aware of this fact however and the absence of his real father is a source of permanent sorrow for Liam. His father's nature can't be completely suppressed and at some points in the novel Liam's Fey heritage shines through. The way Liam's anger at his father's supposed lack of interest in his son affects Liam's life and behaviour is one of my favourite parts of the novel. It makes his hurt believable, his anger understandable in a way that would have worked if Leicht had made the father more visible.

There's another reason why I think going light on the fantasy element of the book was a good idea. Liam's father is absent for a reason. He is involved in his own struggles and what would be better than to lash out at the father by hurting the son? On top of that the Catholic church is aware of the existence of these supernatural creatures and has a special secret order that keeps an eye on them. They see them as fallen angels, entities to be fought and killed. What would the church think of the son of a fallen angel among it's flock? Better to keep his distance. I don't think there is an organization in the world that has more fictional secret societies attached to it than the Catholic Church. When another one pops up I am usually tempted to move on to something more interesting. I wasn't tempted to do so here.

All in all, Of Blood and Honey is a very character driven, emotionally charged, début novel. Liam is an intriguing character, very well realized and the focus of a story that could easily have gotten lost in further exploration of the historical context or the mythological themes of the novel. Leicht keeps the plot tight, resulting in a novel stands on its own pretty well. It reaches slightly rushed but satisfying conclusion. It leaves quite a few possibilities for more novels. Especially on the Fey side of Liam's family there are more than a few questions unanswered. The position of the church on the Fey seems to be shifting as well, which might well be a topic for a sequel. It will be interesting to see if more stories in this setting appear. I for one, wouldn't mind another.

Book Details
Title: Of Blood and Honey
Author: Stina Leicht
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 311
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-59780-213-0 (paperback)
First published: 2011