June 28, 2012

Daddy, May I Dance With Danger (review: Grave Mercy by Robin La Fevers)

Grave Mercy
Robin La Fevers
Andersen 2012

Ismae has always been different and has always suffered for it.  Born to an unwilling  mother and an angry father, her body bears the mark of a deadly poison, intended to kill her while she still resided in her mother’s womb.  The fact that this poison merely scars her leads to the pronouncement that she must be not the daughter of a mortal man, but that of Mortain – the God of Death.  Needless to say, when she gets to marriageable age there aren’t many suitors a’ knockin’ and her father sends his fourteen year old daughter into a marriage with a man as abusive as himself.  Rescued from her seemingly inevitable fate at the twelfth hour, Ismae finds herself spirited away to a strange Abbey, inhabited by a band of nuns versed in the arts of death – for they are all his daughters.  Here she learns that her parentage has imbued in her a strange ability with poisons, as well as a variety of other deathly arts.  Trained as an assassin, Ismae is sent by her imperious Abbess into the royal court of Brittany – currently fighting for it’s independence from the all powerful France and finds herself immersed in a world of courtly intrigue, dangerous waters and political murk. As she slowly feels her way towards the source of much betrayal (and her ultimate mark) she discovers that the situation may not be as simple as her superiors would have her believe.  Thrown together with nobleman, Gavriel, she slowly realises that the only person she can really trust is herself.

Ismae is an interesting character – to an extent.  First encountered at the age of fourteen, she is a scared child, unloved and sadly resigned to a harsh future with a good dose of self-loathing thrown in for good measure (largely to do with the scar she has lived with since birth).  Her story then jumps forward three years during which time she has become a fairly confident young woman, ready to start a career of killing in the name of, er, death.  She has understandable trust issues when it comes to men and clearly feels herself to be superior to them.  Which is fine… until she changes her mind.  It seems inevitable that Ismae might eventually meet a nice bloke who would help her see that not all men are abusive monsters but did it have to be one of the first men she meets?  It seems to stretch credulity a little and while all things are possible, this rather effortless change in stance didn’t aid the already rather bland characterisation.  It’s not that Ismae is unlikable, she’s just dull – something that even the excellent daughter-of-death premise cannot remedy.

Few characters in Grave Mercy particularly stand out but Gavriel is probably the better written.  He’s a pleasing mix of impatience and kindness, duty and care, trust and misgiving and all of his actions seem believable… until they don’t.  Again, there is a point in the book where his decision making process seems to go out of the window and he starts scurrying around dark passages in a rather useless and increasingly irresponsible manner.  Anne of Brittany, as the great white hope of the movement to retain independence is also pretty interesting and a character who reads well from start to finish (as does the formidable Abbess).  She becomes particularly striking when you realise how young she is – although it is sometimes hard to reconcile her young age with such a mature bearing.

While Grave Mercy attracts with its premise (daughter of death leaves home to become assassin in name of father) in actuality it excels in the story of a royal court torn apart from within.  Mixing historical fact with fantasy works surprisingly well but the book would have worked just as well without the God of Death aspect.   La Fevers has written a truly gripping account of backstabbing, betrayal and murder that will keep readers hooked until the last page – in amongst such intrigue, Ismae and her odd abilities becomes almost superfluous.

It’s often hard to approach a book objectively when it has built up such a positive buzz both on and off the interwebs and Grave Mercy is a case in point.  Sadly, it doesn’t entirely live up to the hype but still has much to commend it.  While the characterisation is more than a little flat, the story is nothing but compelling and if the core premise doesn’t entirely work then this is compensated by Le Fevers’ skilled use of language and her often gorgeously visual writing.  First in a series, Grave Mercy works equally well on its own terms leaving only a few loose threads at the end. Whether these are enough to attract readers to book two only time will tell because while aspects of the title work beautifully, it just isn’t quite the sum of its individual parts.

Grave Mercy is available now.  Thank you to the publisher for providing me with this book to review.

June 21, 2012

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair (Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas)

Throne of Glass
Sarah J. Mass
Bloomsbury 2012

Deep in the heart of a brutal salt mine slaves a young girl.  Covered with salt-packed scars, this is the Assassin, dying in the place that killing led her.  Unlikely to survive another winter in the mine, she finds herself dragged from its shadows by the Captain of the King’s Guard.  Taken to the Crown Prince of a family she is surprised to find herself asked to enter a deadly competition, fighting against 24 others (all as versed in violence as herself) in order to win a place as the King’s Champion – killing at his whim for four years, after which she will gain her freedom.  Despite her misgivings at working for the King she so despises, Celaena Sardothien agrees to his terms and travels to a glass castle with an oddly alluring prince, a sullen guard and a dangerous duke. As the competition begins, Celaena battles for her freedom and her life while slowly realising that there are dangers far worse than her fellow competitors roaming the glass walls.

Celaena is a fantastic protagonist with one of her most attractive qualities being a blustering arrogance that incredibly enjoyable to read.  Even when pulled, emaciated and dying, from the salt mines she remains massively confident in her own abilities, responding to royalty and guardsmen alike with superiority somewhat out of keeping with her current situation.  When she arrives at the castle, her arrogance is matched with her vanity as she preens and twirls in coloured silks and flirts outrageously with her keepers – in short, she’s hilarious and one cannot help but like her.  However, Maas has tempered these aspects with a harsh past, difficult present and the looming spectre of death at every turn.  Despite her talk, Celaena is out of shape and (whisper it) somewhat intimidated by her surrounds.  Additionally, it quickly becomes clear that she is absolutely terrified of the King whose employ she seeks.  Her determination to draw conversation from Chaol (captain of the King’s guard) speaks of a deep loneliness and Maas carefully hints at aspects of Celaena’s past that might have lead to her prickly yet hopeful demeanour with those who might become friends.

Chaol and Crown Prince Dorian are also very well written.  Dorian is perhaps the more straightforward character as a young man unsure of his father’s motivations and his mother’s plans for his future.  He clearly seeks out Celaena as an act of almost childish rebellion but his curiosity towards her is always believable as are their interactions – with Dorian rarely bothered by her stuff and bluster.  Chaol is far more interesting in many respects, busy doing his duty for a King who he seems rarely to have questioned.  The growing friendship between him and Celaena is dealt with deftly and is a pleasure to read as it deepens into a real bond.  His reluctance to trust her only makes their conversations more believable and it’s lovely to see him slowly soften, if not entirely.  Rounding out the cast are the skin-crawingly conniving Perrington, ye olde mean-girl, Kaltain and mysterious princess Nehemia – all are vital in their own way and all are well-realised by Maas, never relegated to expositing bit players.  Lurking mainly behind scenes is a King who is truly sinister and who represents the true danger at the heart of all others Celaena might face.

In Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas has built a world that is at once versed in well-worn fantasy tropes and yet also unique in its details. It’s a winning combination and allows the reader to slip easily into the land that Maas has imagined.  From the awful salt mines of Endovier to the glass palace in Rifthold, each arena is visualised with real talent.  What is particularly compelling is Maas’s willingness to seek out the unsavoury details of each location from the port city of Rifthold reeking of fish and rot to the almost unspeakable conditions of Endovier.  The plot itself is compelling with the competition to be Champion at the heart of a far wider ranging story.  Maas manages to capture the fear that both known and unknown evil can engender and the result is impressive and often bone-chillingly direct.

It’s refreshing to see fantasy making its mark on Young Adult shelves, with titles like Grave Mercy and Daughter of Smoke and Bone (not to mention Curtis Jobling’s Wereworld series) building up positive buzz and leading, hopefully, to further stories in the genre.  Throne of Glass is a worthy addition to the books that currently have everyone talking and if you’ve enjoyed any of the above then you’ll enjoy this.  Refreshingly, while Throne of Glass is the first book in a series it actually works equally well as a standalone which will satisfy readers looking for an ending while also whetting their appetites for further stories of Ardalan’s Assassin.  Excellent stuff.

Throne of Glass will be available in the UK in August - thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this title to review.

June 01, 2012

Public Service Announcement

Splendibird is off on her holibags!

It's true, I'm off to foreign climes (well, er, Orkney... which is, like, nearly Norway) for a week to enjoy boat burnings, treasure hunting and seafood.  Fear not, though, I shall be carting a veritable suitcase-load of books with me, all falling roughly into the high fantasy genre.  Therefore, dear readers, you can expect reviews of the following to be forthcoming on my return:

Pretty good, yes?  Also, there are changes afoot in The Mountains of Instead which will all be revealed on my return.  Until then, in lieu of posts for the next week, please enjoy my very favourite ee cummings poem - which always makes me think of my current destination.

maggie and milly and molly and may 
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang 
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing 
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone 
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) 
it's always ourselves we find in the sea