Saturday, 27 April 2013

Poison Study

Title: Poison Study
Series: Study Series #1
Author: Maria V Snyder
Pages: 409 (paperback)
Published: September 21st 2007 (originally published 2004)
Published by: Mira Books


A quick death
Or slow poison...

Yelena has a choice – be executed for murder, or become food taster to the Commander of Ixia. She leaps at the chance for survival, but her relief may be short-lived.

Life in the palace is full of hazards and secrets. Wily and smart, Yelena must learn to identify poisons before they kill her, recognise whom she can trust and how to spy on those she can’t. And who is the mysterious Southern sorceress who can reach into her head?

When Yelena realises she has extraordinary powers of her own, she faces a whole new problem, for using magic in Ixia is punishable by death...

Yelena is dragged out of prison, emerging from her cell half-starved and filthy for the first time in seasons. She is convinced she is on her way to her death, but instead she is offered a position as a food taster to the Commander of Ixia, the man who overthrew the old regime years ago and implemented his own strict laws. It is Valek, the Commander's ruthless assassin, who offers Yelena the position and who trains her to detect the many different poisons she may come across. Her life is reliant on her ability to pick up on any detected poisons, evade the father of the man she murdered, and keep her magic unnoticed by those around her.

I um-ed and ah-ed over this book for a long time before finally buying it. From a second hand shop - I wasn't entirely convinced so decided to hedge my bets. This was about...4? 5? years ago, and it is now one of my favourite books. I just get sucked into the characters and the story and the relationships and the intrigue. It's very easy to read and an engaging story, so I can just whizz through it in a day or two any time I need a break from tougher reads or when I want to read something I love.

The characters are probably the strongest part of the book for me, though. Yelena is a great lead, and her development through the book is both logical (given what is going on) and heart-warming. Her back-story is revealed in bits and pieces as the book continues, and seeing what she's been through and what she's becoming really helps you warm to her. Though of course not everything goes her way, and there are several times when things go very wrong which was nice to see. Yelena has to work to achieve everything, and you
don't get anyone helping her just for the sake of the story. The relationships she builds are believable and based on something. Valek is a very interesting character, probably in part because you don't really get much of a handle on him. You mainly see the harsh assassin who killed the entirety of the royal family, allowing for the coup to take place, but there are undertones of something more to him. And I will admit to being ever so slightly a little bit in love with him. Because he's awesome!

There are numerous other secondary characters, many of them just as likeable as the central characters. The "power twins" Ari and Janco are particularly note-worthy. Best of friends and slightly opposites, they are amusing and lovely and are among the first to befriend Yelena upon her appointment as food taster.

When it comes to the story, there's enough mystery to keep you interested, both in terms of the circumstances leading up to Yelena's imprisonment and what is going on in the present. You start off not knowing anything and wondering about so much, guessing what might have happened and who might be plotting now. There's always something going on, someone to suspect or some danger to be escaped or recovered from and I find it so easy to get lost in the story and not even notice the pages disappearing.

In terms of the writing style, it is the just the way I like it. I'm not a particularly visual person, and there aren't huge amounts of description in it. Enough so you have ideas of what people look like, and what they're wearing (uniforms! Uniforms everywhere! No need for excessive description there) but you aren't drowning in paragraphs of the stuff. Maybe not for some people, but great for me.

A great, easy read with wonderful characters.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Lord Foul's Bane

Title: Lord Foul's Bane
Series: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever #1
Author: Stephen Donaldson
Pages: 438 (paperback)
Published: June 12th 1987 (originally published 1977)
Published by: Fontana

The first book in one of the most remarkable epic fantasies ever written, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever.

He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself. Yet he was tempted to believe, to fight for the Land, to be the reincarnation of its greatest hero....

Thomas Covenant finds himself pulled into a world completely unlike this one. Here, the people respect the earth and coexist with it. It is a land without disease and where some few can call upon the magical properties of earth and wood. Unfortunately it is also a world where a great evil has woken, and which needs a saviour.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect going into this book. A few months prior to buying it, I was in a bookshop when I got talking to one of the sellers. He said the series was one of his favourites, and if I enjoyed anti-heroes, then Thomas Covenant was the ultimate anti-hero. A few days after buying it I was talking to a friend when it came up in conversation as a book that they couldn't finish because of the main character and a particular act which he committed. So I was kinda torn between this classic, epic fantasy, and just how much anti there was in this anti-hero.

We join Thomas Covenant about a year after he has been diagnosed with leprosy. His life has fallen apart around him. His wife has divorced him, taking his small son with her. He can no longer write anything, and the town is turning against him, doing all they can to make sure he has no reason to venture among them. He is dejected, but determined not to be beaten down when he finds himself in a strange land. I thought his reaction to everything that happens to him is very believable. He refuses to accept that he has been transported to another world, and vehemently denies it throughout. Even at the end it's a little unclear what he believes, or whether this is indeed all a dream of his own concoction.

This reaction aside, unfortunately there isn't a whole lot else to like about Covenant. The bookshop-guy was not kidding about him being an anti-hero. He moans and complains, has quite a horrid temper, it suspicious of everyone and everything and is just generally quite a lot of an idiot. Horrendous-action aside, he's just not a nice person. Even with the extenuating factors of what has happened in his recent past, it would be nice for him to be a little bit nicer. He doesn't seem to get along with anyone, and is dragged from place to place by the will of those around him.

The one exception to this seems to be Saltheart Foamfollower, a twelve foot giant who is hundreds of years old. The relationship Covenant builds with him seems to be the closest he comes to friendship in the course of the book, though most of the work does seem to be done by Foamfollower rather than Covenant. Foamfollower himself is a lovely character, often laughing, singing or telling stories. Unfortunately, his tale in this book is not such a happy one, and the place where he finds himself isn't at all fun.

In fact, this seems to hold true for many of the people we meet. Yes, the Despiser - Lord Foul - has awoken and is wreaking havoc but it might have been nice for some happiness to be slipped in there occasionally. Instead there's death, doom, gloom and more death. Which in one way is good - it's nice to know the characters are in actual danger and aren't always going to miraculously escape at the last minute.

By the end of the book I still wasn't sure if I could class Thomas Covenant as an anti-hero. The anti- part I have no problem with - there's anti to spare with Covenant! What I'm quibbling is the hero part. He isn't so much a hero as just...being there. He refuses to act so many times and in so many situations, and when he does it's often because someone has forced him into it. He doesn't seem to grow as a character at all, merely being the protagonist for all this stuff going on around him. Yes, there is some small amount, but considering all he has done and seen and been party to, I can't help but think there should have been a greater impact.

The writing was quite difficult to read at times. I often found that I'd read half a page without actually taking anything in because I'd lost focus on it. It was quite wordy at times, and Covenant often had great long thought processes about his life and how miserable it was and how he thought he was quite possibly going insane and how unfair it all was. Between this, the wordy descriptions of places - I'm not a particularly visual person, so this is more of a personal thing and probably not such an issue for most others - and generally not a particularly easy writing style, I often struggled to read this book for any length of time, making it quite slow going in general.

The Land that Covenant finds himself in, though, is something of a utopia. You know, if you ignore the bad guys trying to take over and kill everyone and everything. It's a beautiful place where people live in harmony with the land (though this did feel a little preachy at times, with people constantly shocked that people didn't see the Land in that way where Covenant came from, i.e. here) and the magic of nature is used to help and heal people. All manner of people live together in peace, and there is a centre of scholarship open to all who want it. People help each other for no reason other than to be nice, seeing the beauty in everything.

Once the story gets going - which I'll admit, takes a while - the pacing is good. Even though this is the classic epic fantasy, thus making huge amounts of travelling obligatory, there isn't too much detail wrung out of these sections, and days are skimmed over until the next bit of action is ready to take place. And even in the slower bits, you never have to wait too long for something to happen, there's just a bit more filling in of knowledge about stuff. Luckily these never really felt like info-dumps.

Overall an interesting book, and while the main character isn't particularly likeable there are plenty of others about who interest me enough to carry on with the series. Plus I got the trilogy as an omnibus so the start of the next book is literally just sitting there looking at me.

Friday, 5 April 2013


Title: We
Author: Yevgeny Zamyatin
Translator: Clarence Brown
Pages: 230 (ebook)
Published: 1921
Published by: ENC Press

The first dystopia ever, it started asking uncomfortable questions about individuals, collectives, revolutions, progress — and the collectives’ rights to individuals’ souls in the name of revolutions and progress.

Digit D-503 is a proud and happy citizen of the United Nation, where people live in identical glass houses and think identical transparent thoughts, equal among themselves and equally happy to be cogs in the machine of the most perfect society that ever existed on earth. The designer of the Integral, the United Nation’s first spaceship, meant to carry “mathematically error-free” happiness to other forms of intelligent life “possibly still existing in the primitive state of freedom,” D-503 is a True Believer in the path of the United Nation until he is mugged by reality that comes in the guise of love for a beautiful, cynical woman who rejects state-sponsored happiness and delights in leading a rebellion.

Yet the rebels’ only virtue is their rejection of the authority of the Do-Gooder, the annually unanimously reelected leader of the United Nation. Their revolution is but for its own sake, and their attitude toward “human slivers” is just as utilitarian as that of the United Nation: to either group, an individual life’s worth is measured only by its usefulness to the cause.

In this, the first dystopian novel and the influence for so many great others, the reader follows D-503. He is one among a collective, doing as he is told and as is set out for him, question nothing and perfectly content in his same-ness. He is the architect of the Integral, the first spaceship, designed to begin to take this perfect, regimented, organised way of life to the rest of the universe. It is only when he meets the captivating I-330 that he begins to stray from the way set out for him and realise that it might not be as perfect as he had previously thought. We are reading his journal, something he intends to be taken on the Integral as an educational tool for those civilisations they meet and 'educate'.

Written in 1921, this is a truly revolutionary book, and you can see its influence on many other books out there, 1984 particularly springing to mind with the regimented schedule and institute of watchful agents. The world created is one that is believable, and numerous times D- states how much better their world is than ours, how misguided we were thinking that things like democracy and personal freedoms made our lives better. How integrated people are, and how some people eventually begin to rebel, are both well done, and I particularly liked was the struggle that D- went through. He didn't just jump on board with the rebellion, there was true personal struggle and realistically human indecision and fear of the unknown. He is, after all, someone who has been one of many for all his life and never really had to think for himself or make any real decision.

There are a small core of characters, but it is only really three that you get any sense of feeling for: D-503, I-330 and O-90, she being D-'s lover at the start of the story. Others flit in and out, but you never really get to know them, and even these three there's a limit to how much you get to know them in that the regimented nature of their lives limits their ability to actually develop into individuals as much as they would have done otherwise. Even the rebellious I- is only really different in her rebellion: she does things because she's not supposed to; you don't really get the feeling she's doing things she likes. D- is clearly very intelligent and seems like a nice enough character, but as the narrator you don't get to see him that much, even if he is rather perceptive when it comes to others.

O-90 is possibly the character I was most attached to. She doesn't get huge amounts of page time, but she seems the most human of the characters we meet. The emotional journey she goes through is wonderfully evocative, and totally relatable. You can't help but feel for her and everything she goes through in the course of the story.

The story itself wasn't particularly gripping, but it was interesting seeing this world and how it's been put together, especially the 'vote' for the Do-Gooder, the unanimously re-elected leader of the United Nations (I pretty much always misread this, and had to go back to prevent confusion, minor though the difference is). It was a slow build, and the climax wasn't particularly climactic, but I still enjoyed the story and the changes D-503 and the United Nation goes through, for all that goes on does have a lasting impact. And the end, too, was realistic and an outcome that - given what you know of the system - makes sense.

An easily recommendable book, both for its own merits and as a look at the beginning of a genre which is coming more and more to the fore.