Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Shadow Reader by Sandy Williams

The Wild One
Ok so this is pretty basic modern fantasy stuff. Hot babe? Yup. Giant weapon of some kind, preferably a sword? Oh yes. Determined 'strong woman' pose? God help me yes. Even down to her knee high riding boots there's really very little to put this apart from the thousands of other  tough looking women (and girls) staring defiantly out at me from my bookshelf, daring me to just try and read them. But I kind of like this one. I don't know if it's the soft dreamlike colours, the magical whisps or even the fact that she's looking over her shoulder at us (despite the fact she has a bum like a zebra) it all seems to work together.

Rebel, Rebel
Mackenzie Lewis is a college student trying hard to finally complete her degree after so many years of retakes and make up essays. A degree that's been put on hold so many times that she's not even surprised when an invisible and heavily armed fae steps out of thin air and into the middle of her exam. Why would she be, when this has been a regular occurrence for the last ten years of her life. Because Mackenzie has the sight, a rare ability allowing humans to see the fae, but even rarer she can also read their shadows, imprints left behind when they phase between places. And it is this treasured skill, letting her pinpoint the exact location of retreating fae, that dragged her into the middle of a magical civil war ten years ago. Ten long years spent serving their King and harboring illegal feelings for his sword master Kyol. However this time when Kyol comes for her so do the entire rebel army and Mackenzie ends up in the clutches of the arrogant Aren, pretender to the crown and all round evil bad guy. Or at least that's what she'd always been taught at the King's court. But after some time as a political prisoner she starts to doubt everything she's ever been told about the rebellion, and especially about Aren.

Leader of the Pack
Ding, ding ding! We have another amazing debut people! It's true I looked in to it because I just couldn't really believe it was true, this is Ms Williams' very first published novel. And it's a stonker of a modern fantasy tale, which I enjoyed immensely.

The Shadow Reader manages to pull off that rare trick of plopping you right in the middle of the action at the very start and keeps you on tenterhooks while still dropping those little bits of important information so you know what the hell is going on. We start with Mackenzie trying to retake yet another final when all round honorable fae and magnificent hottie, Kyol, fissures in to the exam out of thin air and tells her the rebels are coming to kidnap her. What follows was one of the best opening scenes I've read all year, Ms Williams is a dab hand at writing good action that flows perfectly while you read. I loved the way she took the idea of how the fae phase in and out of our world using fissures and turned it into a brilliant method of attack and ambush, it brought a whole new level to the fighting.
""You must make it to the gate, Mackenzie. You must!" 
Instinct screams for me to get inside the building, but I trust Kyol with my life, so I stop fighting and glance over my shoulder. Arrows still fly through the air. A few seconds after they leave the rebels' bows, they'll become visible to normal humans, so if a fae misses his target or doesn't hit a fissure, people will see the bolts embedded in trees or the ground or skidding across the cement. None of the student are reacting, though. The rebels are being careful. 
I take a small step forward. Some of the Court fae have fissured to the rooftops to fight; others remain on the ground, darting in and out of their fissures in smooth defensive dances. They're drawing the rebels' attacks, but it's a long way to the gate. They'll tire before I get there. Some of them might die. Kyol might die. 
"I'll be fine" he says, reading the concern in my expression. He cups my cheek in his hand. "As long as you're safe, I'll be fine.""
The fissures are also where Mackenzie's much sought after skill comes in, she can see the shadows of wherever in the world a fae has phased, which means they can be tracked. A useful talent and the sole reason she is so hotly pursued by the rebels. I rather liked Mackenzie, she wasn't a physical fighter but she had this try or die attitude that was admirable. I also loved the way Ms Williams builds the reluctant relationship she develops with Aren, it was a big point in Mackenzie's favour that she continued to distrust and thwart Aren's plans regardless of her attraction to him. Likewise her willingness to except certain unwanted truths about her beloved fae Court when she is faced with them, it's always refreshing to find myself not yelling at a book because the heroine is being a total numpty.

In addition to the main three, The Shadow Reader is rife with lovable and fully fleshed out secondary characters and it's these guys that really help expand the feel of the book's world beyond Mackenzie's immediate thoughts (no mean feat in story told from the first person!). I throughly enjoyed the fae's politics and history and what makes them even more interesting is being treated to two different versions.

It's no bad thing that The Shadow Reader reminded me of one of my all time favorites, the Raine Benares series by Lisa Shearin. I'm also extremely pleased that the story has a good solid ending, it's not left completely open but no annoying cliffhangers either, an all round satisfying read.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Butcher's Hook
You may not be able to see it from this picture but you really need to grab a copy of this book and look at this cover! Some amazing soul made  of patience seems to have drawn an incredibly detailed (and hilariously annotated) map of London and again bonus points for the cover, almost lovingly, reflecting the story inside. Please do ignore the strangely titled and, while still cool, less awesome cover of the US version, Midnight Riot, as the effort and sheer detail in this cover deserves your attention!

The Knowledge
Police Constable Peter Grant is just finishing his two year probationary stint with the London Metropolitan Police and is desperately trying to avoid being placed into the Case Progression Unit. The unit where the only police skills he'll utilise are touch typing, photocopying and letting the other proper cops get the real police work done, cops like his fellow probationary PC and not-so-secret crush PC Lesley May. Then one night, while Grant and May are guarding the scene of a particularly bizarre murder, Peter finds himself face to face with a ghost, a ghost who claims to have witnessed the crime. So like a good policeman Peter takes his statement. And it is this mentally questionable act that leads him into the eccentric sights of Inspector Nightingale, sole member of the Met's vaguely named Economic and Specialist Crime unit and resident weirdo. But anything is better than a lifetime of doing other people's paperwork so Peter jumps at the offer to join. And suddenly finds himself going on ghost hunts, brokering peace between the personifications of the River Thames and their tributary children and most importantly starting his apprenticeship as a police wizard.

That's The Sound of The Police
You know what? I've clearly been reading way too many American books lately, my genres of choice are rather dominated by our US cousins and there's nothing wrong with that. But I didn't realise how much I'd been missing good old British humor until I read this book. That quietly dry, frequently foul mouthed and always self effacing wry humor that the US is always trying to replicate by remaking our TV shows with little success (don't worry it goes both ways, our sitcoms are utter balls, My Family anyone? Ergh) Anyway it wasn't the only reason I loved this book but it ran through the story so effortlessly it made it even more of a joy to read.

As a person who absolutely hates visiting the real life city of London with all it's tourist crowded transport and the fact that it’s costs about a month's wages for a pint, I love reading about it, especially when the author clearly has a deep affection for our capital city. The London in books is so much more interesting the one in real life and Mr Aaronovitch has created a fascinating London that still manages to be a pretty accurate representation of the real thing. This book is filled with Peter’s observations and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the historical hot spots of London and I love it when a book teaches me new things like this. But even better then that is Peter's inability to stay focused, he gets distracted so easily and his mind takes him so some hilariously embarrassing places. My absolute favourite passage in the book is when he first meets the river Goddess, Mama Thames.
"Her face was round and unlined, her skin smooth and perfect as a child's, her lips full and very dark. She had the same black cat-shaped eyes as Beverly. Her blouse and wrap skirt were made from the finest gold Austrian lace, the neckline picked out in sliver and scarlet, wide enough to display one smooth plump shoulder and the generous upper slopes of her breasts.
One beautifully manicured hand rested on a side table, at the foot of which stood a burlap sacks and little wooden crates. As I stepped closer I could smell salt water and coffee, diesel and bananas, chocolate and fish guts. I didn't need Nightingale to tell me I was sensing something supernatural, a glamour so strong it was like being washed away in the tide. In her presence I found nothing strange in the fact that the Goddess of the River was Nigerian. 
'So you are the wizard's boy' said Mama Thames. 'I thought there was an agreement?' 
I found my voice. 'I believe it was more of an arrangement' 
I was fighting the urge to fling myself to my knees before her and put my face between her breasts and  go blubby, blubby, blubby."
From the sublime to the ridiculous, Peter tries so hard to concentrate but more often then not his thoughts swing wildly away from him and it made him a joy to follow.

I also have to give a standing ovation for the plot (which I will not spoil, don't fret) because after a few years of reading increasingly more and more books with supernatural or fantastical elements. I was, for the first time in a long time, presented with something that felt completely new and original to me. The ideas behind the crimes, the perpetrator's motives and the final big reveal was handled brilliantly and I already have the next in the series, Moon Over Soho, cued up and waiting for me to dive in (as soon as lovely man finishes it!)