The Ghost Bride by Yangsze-Choo

Just finished reading The Ghost Bride by Yangsze-Choo – talk about getting your last challenges in right on the last minute – this book is both my 100th book of the year and also my December read for Worlds Without End, Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge – can I just say what a great challenge the WoGF has been – sincerely I hope they hold this next year, I will be all over it if they do!

Anyway, moving swiftly on and away from my gloaty back patting self (the book review being the actual purpose of the post!) I do have mixed feelings about this book – which would probably resolve themselves if I had the chance to mull it over a little longer and really establish how I feel, but – deadlines are pressing – so, mixed feelings are what I’m going with on this occasion.  Although, for clarity’s sake I certainly didn’t dislike this, just not quite sure about exactly what my emotions are at this point (did I love it, maybe not.  Did I hate it – definitely not.)

The story is about a young girl, Li Lan, living in Malaya.  Her mother has died and her father has retreated into the world of opium.  As a result, and although she certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered any hardship having been raised mainly by her very loving Amah, her future does not seem to have been taken care of in the traditional sense leaving her with no future marriage prospects.  Her father’s business has deteriorated, as you would likely imagine as he spends most of his time with cloudy eyes chasing the dragon, and, on top of that, he also seems to have run up considerable debts.  Then along comes a marriage proposal of a most unusual nature.  A very well to do family would like Li Lan to marry their son.  Yes, it’s the old ‘attractive young girl marries into a wealthy family to save her own family honour’ chestnut. Or is it?  Before we all start jumping to those conclusions – there’s a snag with this marriage proposal, just a tiny one, maybe not insurmountable to some – although I think I might object  –  the would-be groom has already passed away.   Now, tell me that you’re not intrigued!

I confess that going into this story I was expecting something different to what I actually felt I ended up reading.  I think I went in with the notion of Li Lan actually becoming married in name only and seeing how this panned out.  The story is slightly different than that so if you have the same expectations going in as I did then I’ll just give you the low down right now to drop those and think along different lines.  This story actually becomes a little more of a mystery with Li Lan spending a good portion of her time in the spirit world.  Now, to a certain extent I loved that because for me that takes this book much more into the realms of fantasy than I ever expected, but, conversely I kind of wanted the story to follow the plotline I had in mind – my bad there I’m afraid, but I wanted to know how this whole married to a dead person would, or could, ever become a reality.  I mean, obviously the person isn’t physically there, but I had this idea of the young bride going to live with her new in-laws and coming to terms with this life and how that would end.  I probably also expected a bit of ghostly visitations – I certainly didn’t expect to spend a good portion of the book in the dead realms.

All that being said, this story is beautifully written, the attention to detail is wonderful with culture, religion, death and other ceremonies given great attention to detail.  Really, the place and the traditions do come to life in this story.  I admit that reading about other cultures is something I love to do and so in that respect I have such admiration for this author for writing in such a detailed way.  In fact, for me, the biggest part of The Ghost Bride was the setting and culture.  The people and plot line I felt took something of a back seat.  I didn’t necessarily dislike the characters but apart from Er Lang, who I couldn’t help liking, I didn’t have a strong pull to any of the others – in fact I would go so far as to say the characters were a tad predictable.  Maybe not a bad thing in itself as this book isn’t really marketed as a mystery story.  I think the other slight issue that I had with this was that I never really had any fear for Li Lan or the eventual outcome.  It felt a little like whenever she needed help it seemed to fall miraculously into her lap.

Now, that probably seems overly critical which I certainly don’t want to be.  This is a beautifully written and interesting story.  The attention to detail is literally fantastic and once I realised that this was going to be different than expected I really enjoyed it.  I think it’s that ’thing’ of going into a book with the wrong expectations and then spending most of the story waiting for it to go in the direction that you are expecting. Culture vultures will undoubtedly find this a great novel to pick up – however, if you don’t want your ‘culture’ quite so liberally splattered with the realms of fantasy then take heed.  However, if you want to read about such things as, for example, The Ten Courts of Hell, give this a go.

Also, the ending – can I just ask, did anybody feel that was a little bit rushed or is that just me!!

On the whole, a well written, intriguing book that I would recommend and I would without hesitation pick up more books by this author.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Just finished reading Boneshaker by Cherie Priest which is my (only just) October submission for Worlds Without End, Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge.  I loved this book.  It’s a seriously entertaining romping, steampunk adventure.  The main protagonists are a mother and son and we watch as they go in circles around each other in an almost despairingly frustrating fashion which is both fast moving and really compelling to read.

So, Briar and Zeke, mother and son.  They live in a less than comfortable condition and appear to be virtual outcasts.  Blair’s husband, now passed away apparently, was an inventor.  His last invention however was responsible for almost wiping out the city of Seattle.  A gold mining drill, built to dig through hundreds of feet of snow was set to test under the streets of Seattle causing massive destruction and mayhem leaving not only the collapse of many streets but the release of a noxious gas which kills and ultimately turns people into zombies – rotters as they’re now called.  In order to survive in the wake of this catastrophe the survivors built a massive wall around the perimeter of the blighted part of the city, not only to contain the zombies but also to prevent the spread of the gas which is too dense to breach the wall.

As you can imagine Briar and Zeke are not terribly popular.   Not only was Briar’s husband responsible for mass devastation but on the back of this Briar’s father caused further uproar when he returned to the doomed part of town to release the prisoners from jail before they could also be turned into the undead.  And, even though these events took place years ago bitter feelings still exist towards the two.  In an attempt to try and clear his father’s name Zeke, now a fairly headstrong teenager, decides to return to the blighted part of the city to find evidence.  And his mother returns to the same zone to try and find her son!  And so we have this dual tale where they both seem to circle each other during their individual adventures.

The blighted city is home not only to rotters.  Some people remained behind after the blight events took place and eke out a living in tunnels underground and boarded up places above.  Ways of traversing the city have been discovered and a number of rival factions exist.  It’s a dangerous place to live.  Of course there’s the ever present danger that the rotters present, not to mention the toxic gas that is becoming more concentrated by the year but one man in particular seems to be gaining a name and a reputation for himself and Briar and Zeke are about to come to his attention.

The setting is easy to imagine.  We have a sort of 1800s Seattle with a difference.  The author readily admits that she’s altered landmarks and historical events to fit in with the novel and after all if you’re reading about western type cowboys (and girls) flying around in dirigibles toting strange and weirdly fuelled weapons and fleeing from zombies then your imagination can certainly accommodate a few changes to history!

On top of this we have a number of strange and eccentric characters who we meet along the way, not to mention Briar is a great protagonist to read about.  There’s always an unknown element about the people who Briar and Zeke meet and whether or not they can really be trusted or whether they are acting out of ulterior motives.  I loved Lucy (no pun intended) and Princess not to mention Cly and Swakhammer and will gladly return to find out what eventually happened to them.

I also thought that using the different elements of gaining entry to the blighted city was interesting – Zeke using the tunnels and Briar using airship. It helped to give you a fuller picture of the city and was almost like a reflection of how the survivors lived within it’s confines – nobody lives on terra firma any more – you’re either under or over – and everyone wears masks.

I suppose if I had any criticisms at all they would probably relate to Zeke who at first I found a tiny little bit annoying.  He just seemed to trust people too easily and willing follow them, even when he had a bad feeling about it.  Of course he is still fairly young and I don’t think he ever expected the blighted city to be quite as bad as it actually was.  He was born after the catastrophe and so wouldn’t remember any of the former events that took place so I guess I forgave him eventually.  And, I suppose It must have been such a shock when he finally arrived not to mention the reality of how daunting his task truly was finally hitting home.

On the whole I found this a really enjoyable read.  I loved the pacing.   There was always something new and entertaining and I love the steampunk/horror/zombie fusion aspect.

I will definitely read the next in the series to find out what decisions Briar and Zeke make next.

I’m also submitting this for my Stainless Steel Droppings RIP event.  Check it out here.

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

Just finished reading Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht.  I read this book as part of my Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge.  I’m posting my review now because this is my August book and if I don’t get on with it – well, it will be my September book instead!  But, to be honest I think I would have liked a little more time to reflect on this particular novel and I will confess that it took me awhile to complete and I also did put it down for a time.  That being said I’m glad I finished.  This is very well written and certainly captures a certain sort of mood.

Of Blood and Honey is a book set in Ireland in the 1970 during the ‘Troubles’.  The story focuses on Liam who comes from a less than conventional parentage with a very mysterious father.  He seems to go from one traumatic experience to the next.  At the same time the story has a parallel story of conflict between fallen angels and the fey.

The aspects of the story that I thought were really good were the scene setting.  This was a grim time and it certainly comes across here.  The Troubles were not frivolous, a lot of people lost their lives and many families were affected and the melancholy within the book is a suitable reflection of this.  It’s not a subject to be treated lightly.

I thought Liam was very well depicted.  He was also a little bit unfortunate usually managing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I did have a degree of sympathy with him in that he suffered from a dreadful lack of knowledge from his mother, father and priest.  All of the other main characters, in some desperate bid to protect him or keep his life as normal as possible, conspired to withhold knowledge from him which ultimately might have been a lot more beneficial had it been shared – however, that would have shortened the story somewhat!

However, I think I had more issues with the book than I would have liked.  I find it hard to read a book about a conflict like this mixed in with fantasy. I think I would have preferred to read Liam’s story without the supernatural elements attached – and to be honest the fantasy was very limited compared to the urban.  I don’t mind that in a certain respect but it feels as though the fantasy/fey elements were a little tacked on to appeal to a certain audience.  There are however further instalments planned so it just could be that the scene has been set with this novel and the fantasy elements will be much stronger in future editions.

The other issue that I had was that, as I mention above, the author has dealt with this subject in what I consider to be the right way, but, it makes for fairly melancholy reading.  If I read a fantasy novel based on non existent people in a non existent place I find that the author usually injects some humour or snark into the story and this helps to break the mood a little when you’re reading.  I don’t think this would have been appropriate in this novel and so as a result it is a fairly intense read.

I can’t deny that I did struggle to finish this one.  I think it’s probably too near the knuckle and consequently is too grim for me personally.  I would have preferred to go into this knowing that I was reading about the conflict in Ireland rather than thinking it was urban fantasy then I would have been able to make a more balanced judgement if that was the story I wanted to read.  I am glad I finished this but I’m not sure I will continue with the rest of the series.

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

As part of World’s Without End WoGF reading challenge for July I read Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear.  I must say that I’ve been enjoying myself with this challenge.  It’s given me the incentive to pick up authors that I haven’t previously read and it’s introduced me to some amazing books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading.   So I expected much the same with Range of Ghosts – after all this book has received a lot of glowing reviews and the author is very well respected (not to mention can I just bring your attention to that gorgeous cover).  Anyhow, I won’t say that there was an immediate feeling of love for this and I certainly didn’t feel it started off easily but, after my initial hesitancy, the story did win me over and I will definitely pick up the next book.

The story starts with the aftermath of a fearsome battle.  A lone survivor makes his way through the dead bodies.  Temur.  Injured on the battlefield and suspected dead, he now makes his way South to the mountains to hopefully live out a quiet life in exile. We then skip to a different storyline.  To the once Princess Samarkar.  Originally heir to an empire her claim ended when her father’s new wife bore him a son and she became a bartering tool, sent to a marriage that ended in failure and bloodshed.  Samarkar has renounced her royalty to become a wizard. In doing so she not only renounces all her worldly status but also her ability to bear children.

Temur and Samarkar’s destinies are inextricably linked.  They will come together with a small band of travellers in a stance against the evil that is bringing about destruction across their world.

So, I must confess that I found this book a little difficult to get along with to start with – in fact for almost 50% of the journey.  Which is a bit of a surprise for me because the world building is thorough and the build up of the two main characters Temur and Samarkar is excellent.  On top of that we have ghosts, massive birds of prey, assassins, battles and other weird and wonderful things.  I enjoyed reading about both the main characters so it is a bit of a mystery for me as to why I felt the first half of the story dragged.  After all, I don’t need my stories to be action packed or to rush along at breakneck pace.  I suppose if I look at this seriously the first 100 or so pages are primarily about world building and really very little else happens other than an introduction to the two main and a couple of periphery characters.  Personally I think well rounded characters are a must to make a story compelling.  if I don’t particularly care about the characters then it all becomes a little bit meaningless and it took me a little longer than I would otherwise have liked to really start feeling for these two.  However, I did form an attachment, just not immediately and I think that may well be where my main issue was.

Another niggle for me about the story is that put in black and white it’s basically a rescue mission.  And yet, I felt that there’s only a very tenuous connection between Edene and Temur – in fact I thought he had a much stronger connection to Samarkar – I guess we’ll see what happens in the next instalment.  It’s probably simply that we didn’t spend much time with Edene so I haven’t really got a feel for her and yet alternately Samarkar has really come into her own and is an interesting and strong character to read about.

The second half of the book however I felt things really came together a lot more.  The travellers group expanded and became very interesting in nature.  They travelled to new places where they were out of their element and met new people, they also came much more under threat with sneaky assassins dogging their movements.  I particularly enjoyed one of the characters – Hrahima –  I won’t really expand too much on her because it will spoil it for others but I do think she’s great to read about.  I also love Temur’s horse – Bansh – and if you’ve already read this then you’ll know why and I suspect will probably feel the same way!

Now, in spite of my initial criticisms the author turned me round with this.  Yes, it was a bit slow to start off with, whether that was because of the names or maybe it just felt like a lot to take on board at the beginning I don’t know, I’m sure it’s got a lot more to do with the way I initially approached the story rather than any fault in the telling.  I just think I went into this with an unrealistically high level of expectation which is always a lot for any novel to live up to.  However I do know that I now feel keen to pick up No.2 and see where this goes next and fortunately I don’t have to wait for the next instalment which is always a bonus!

 

Image taken from Goodreads

Image taken from Goodreads

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker

Just finished reading The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker which I absolutely loved.

KG has brought to us a fantasy world filled with demons, gods, and different species.  A whole world filled with Children of the Sun and other species.  But, more than that, she’s brought us a romp of a novel.  This book is fantasy and fun combined and I loved it.  It’s like everything I love in my fantasy novels brought into a new world and looked at in a different way.  Really, I totally recommend this book without hesitation.  Okay, you might like your grimdark but you can also take an amusing look at the premise occasionally and that is what happens here.

The tale basically revolves around a character called Smith (an alias of course).  Smith was an assassin, and he was a damn good one – he can practically stop a would-be-murderer in his tracks just using a soggy false beard or a half penny!  However, good as he is, he has no taste for the job and has left his assassin ways behind, hence the false name, and at the start of the story he takes on what seems like a fairly innocuous job as caravan master transporting goods from one part of this imaginary country to the other.  He’s also transporting a group of unlikely characters and whilst this may all seem fairly mundane things are not as they seem.  Of course the trek across country turns into anything but easy with all sort of death attempts on the passengers until eventually quite strong bonds are developed between some of the travellers and upon arrival at the final destination, Salesh on Sea, Smith takes a different course with a number of his new friends.

Basically, this isn’t some sort of grand sweeping epic.  There are no massive scale armies of goblins or orcs marauding across the countryside raping and pillaging as they go with elves and humans pitched against them.  This is much more small scale in nature, almost by comparison regular every day problems – well, with a bit of death and bad drainage thrown in for good measure.  There are three elements.  The first where bonds are forged between the travellers.  The second where they try to establish a business together where all sorts of mishaps occur and the third where things spiral a little out of control and take certain members outside their normal sphere to head off events before they reach the pass.

I just really enjoyed this.  The writing flows easily.  The setting springs to mind with relative ease. Completely alternative and well imagined with festivals, myths, stories and religions to build upon but what I love the most are the characters.  If I’m going to be honest the character that is almost the most mundane is Smith, although he’s fairly steadfast throughout and I certainly didn’t dislike him.  My favourite character by far, and I could read novels just with him as the main character, is Lord Ermenwyr.  Quarter, or possibly half, demon this guy is amazingly amusing.  His style, his wit and, well, just everything about him – I could literally read adventures with him and his nurse Balnshik – what a great pair.  I mean, the other characters were good but these two completely stole the show – like watching a film with Jack Nicholson.  They just took the biscuit.  In fact they ate the biscuit and then they ate the rest of the packet of biscuits and left the empty packet in the cupboard to con other people into thinking there were still biscuits in there!  Ermenwyr comes from a very strange and powerful family that I won’t elaborate on – only to say that Ermenwyr’s and his siblings outrageous antics and demonic calling are dwarfed into insignificance by the dark force that is their father and not of course forgetting their mother who, although a goddess, is not to be underestimated and in actual fact probably dictates events far more than anyone realises.

The imagination of the author is amazing.  She had me laughing out loud and wanting to quote random snippets to equally random strangers as I went along.  I mean, not to give too much away (I hope) we have a duel with weapons of choice: Fatally Verbal Abuse.  Okay, I’m not going to elaborate because it will be spoilery.  All I can say is I loved this. It’s not a traditional novel.  It takes all the bits and pieces of fantasy, throws them in a bag, blows it all up and then pokes it with a humour stick until it explodes and basically this allows not only the author to have a lot of fun in writing this, but also allows a lot of flexibility in the parameters of what is normally considered allowable and also ensures that the readers have a lot of fun as they read along.

In terms of criticisms I suppose the only thing I would say is that I would have liked more from and for Smith.  I wanted him to feel a little more involved, which sounds a bit crazy because he was involved throughout and yet he almost comes across as peripheral, and I wanted him to get more out of the story.  In that respect I felt a little cheated on his behalf but certainly not enough to make this into any less than a really good read.

Of course, alongside all of this joviality I think the author also tries to weave into the narrative points about the environment and the treatment of the planet but this is done in a very casual way that melds easily with the story and is barely noticeable.

Give it a whirl!

I’m submitting this as part of my 100 books challenge and also as part of my Worlds Without End, WOGF challenge, details here.

July read for WoGF: Elizabeth Bear: Range of Ghosts

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