Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Topsiders (Scott Tyson)

I very much enjoyed this read but I’m going to begin this review with a disclaimer.

It’s fair to say quite a few of my reviews will have a disclaimer of sorts; as a writer, I have a lot of writerly friends and colleagues who pen the genre I love reading, so there’s bound to be cross-overs from time to time. Scott Tyson falls into the cross-over category. While I’ve worked with Scott on another project, I was not involved with either the pre or post-production of Topsiders. Yes, that is me mentioned in the acknowledgements, but that was for providing general advice of a writing/editorial nature. My only knowledge of the Topsiders story was based solely on the back-cover blurb. I did not receive a free copy of the book – I buy the books that fill (overfill?) my shelves, and do so gladly.

topsiders

Okay, now that we have the disclaimer out of the way, let’s get on with this review. Oh, and big-arse spoiler alert here: I’ll be talking about the end of this story so if you don’t want to be tainted look away now…now I said! Stop peeking through your fingers!

Topsiders is a tale of twos: two worlds, two families, two journeys and two protags. Told through the eyes of father (Bill) and son (Mathew), we follow each as they embark on separate (though intertwined) quests into an abandoned house by the river. You know this isn’t going to end well.

The story started a little slowly for me; the small glimpses I had of the goings-on in the house made me want to be there, not reading of the dynamics between the adult-couples, or the jostling hierarchy of 14-year-old Mathew, his just-older brother Guy, and love-interest Claire. Don’t get me wrong, the characters are well-drawn and believable, I just wanted to get into that house… or rather, beneath it.

As we’re told this story from two points of view, we know that overly-cautious Bill isn’t so keen on investigating the house, but provoked into doing so by his estranged wife Judy, and lured by his lust for family friend Helen (despite Helen’s husband Phil), Bill plunges into the darkness of the house. When the parents go missing, Mathew, Guy and Claire (Helen and Phil’s daughter) head up their own search party.

Tyson does well to flip between the two parties. Access to the world below is through a tunnel hidden behind a picture in the bathroom – our first glimpse of this is done remarkably well, which only heightened my belief that we needed to get to this point sooner. The tunnel is creepy, and you know they shouldn’t enter, but they do (as we’ve all done things we know we really shouldn’t), and here we really see Bill’s cowardice come to the fore.

Mathew and Claire soon follow suit, determined to find their parents and the now-missing Guy. Tyson creates tension here, and his use of monsters-hiding-in-darkness fear is done very well (sometimes what is unseen is more frightening that what is). Bill, now alone, is at a crossroads – he’s seen (kinda) what lies below and he wants out, but Mathew’s arrival forces Bill’s hand.

Once both arrive at the heart of the monster’s home, the horror of what really lies beneath is shown in its total brutality. There are parts of this story that aren’t for the feint-of-heart, but I liked that Tyson didn’t shy away from brutality – this is a horror story and horror happens.

Once in the cavern, we’re shown the true heart of all involved: the monsters, Bill, Mathew and Judy. Tyson shows us that sometimes there’s not a lot of difference between those that live below and the ‘topsiders’. It’s a hard ending, but there’s a truthfulness to it that made the story all the more enjoyable. There’s a Laymon-esque quality to Tyson’s story – a collision of worlds that is honest in its brutality. I don’t want to spoil the ending of this story, but let me say that Tyson doesn’t soften that blow but delivers it how it must be delivered.

My main issue with the story was its slow beginning, and I think part of that goes to the world Tyson’s created beneath that house – this is where the true story lies, and I think the relationships explored at the beginning could well have been given to the reader while the topsiders were underground. I believe it would have amplified their dynamic. I wanted more of that world, and those trying to survive in it (monster and topsider alike), especially when you take into account that last chapter.

Tyson has left this open for a sequel, and given the point of view of that protag, I would gladly read it.

On a Goodreads scale, I give this a 4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

Review: Before They Are Hanged (Joe Abercrombie)

I’ll be completely honest, I went into Before They Are Hanged with pretty mixed expectations (I believe I actually gave a long-suffering sigh when I took it from my bookshelf). If you’ve read my review of book one in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, you’ll know how often I almost gave up on this series. If I hadn’t made it to those final 150-odd pages of book one, I’d never have picked up the second book in this trilogy.

I was wary, sure, I’d been burned with book one, and this was a longer book (although not by much), and my resolve to finish all books I start meant this could become tediously frustrating.

Before they are hanged

Spoilers ahead, so read on at your own risk…

So, Before They Are Hanged…? Now this was a story I could sink my teeth into. Where book one had been a chore, I down-right enjoyed this story. With trilogies, I’ve often found that the second book is where the story falls down, flails, if you will; where the story becomes more of a way-station between books one and three. But Abercrombie takes the tension he’s built at the end of book one and (mostly) runs with it.

It’s a dark, punishing look at a world that’s on the brink of change. And according to the characters telling this story, it’s not going to be a change for the good. The Union is screwed, but they’re the facilitators of their own undoing. As a long-term ruling power, they’ve become lackadaisical, especially with their army, focussing more on pomp and ceremony than actual fighting skills, and it doesn’t take much for these weaknesses to be exploited.

For me, the story is carried by the characters. Abercrombie has really pulled his socks up with characterisation here – he’s challenged his characters to change, and they’ve bit back hard, resisting his push for it but undergoing it nonetheless. Ninefingers is still my favourite character (the Bloody Nine!), although Dogman and his crew are all very close seconds – I could happily read about their exploits, and their dialogue is excellent. Ferro took a while to warm to, but her harshness and dogged thirst for vengeance (regardless of self-realisation) endeared her to me.

Glokta is still the intriguing character he was in book one, but watching his edges being chipped away… this isn’t going to end well for anyone. The revelation (for me, anyway) were my feelings toward Luthar. I had no interest in this character in book one. He was a bland waste of space, and I had to consciously stop myself from skipping over his pages in book one (a hard task indeed). He starts off this way in book two, but his interactions with Ninefingers are some of my favourite. Luthar can still be a bit of a pratt, but if he’d have changed to someone of good character and compassion… well, that would have felt like a slap in the face as a reader.

The battles that take place within this book are grim, bloody and in-your-face, just as they should be. Abercrombie doesn’t shy from the horror, the ugliness, and the unfairness of war. Shit happens. A lot of bad shit happens. People die. Horribly. People live (also horribly). And those we want to live, die; those we want to die, live. That’s war. It’s not pretty. It’s not glorious. Abercrombie does it shitty justice.

There’s a lot at play here, and Abercrombie’s worked it well, giving us more of the characters and fleshing out the culture of this world and its roots. The Union is fighting (rather poorly) for its survival, but there’s war happening on all fronts here: Bayaz and Khalul, Glokta and Sult, Ninefingers and Ferro (sex/companionship as a battle), West and the pompous colonels, and all the internal battles of the main characters… it’s everywhere and I liked it.

There are multiple plot-threads in this second instalment but it’s not too messy. Each new sliver of information, each cross and double-cross adds to this ongoing chess game. They’re all playing – each character a king in their own game, but pawns in the games of others. It’s this… greyness of storytelling that kept me turning the pages – nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.

This isn’t a completely glowing review, as at times the pacing seemed a little off. There are times when Abercrombie really grabs you with his storytelling, then lets you go, asking you to wander around a bit while he gets his soldiers all in a row. I found that most of this was to do with what I like to call ‘politics-interruptus’. It’s the telling of what’s going on that drags at the book; yes, I understand there’s politics involved with this story, but we really did get our understanding of these machinations with book one (in slow, slow shovel-fuls), there’s little need to rehash it in book two. Give the reader some credit; we can carry the pseudo-religious-politico games through on our own.

Overall, Abercrombie’s written a fine second book in this trilogy. Before They Are Hanged was a story I wanted to keep reading, and while book three awaits, I’ll be taking a breather with another book before heading into the epic 700-pager that awaits with the Last Argument of Kings.

(On a Goodreads scale, I give this 4/5 stars).

 

Review: The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)

I didn’t read anywhere near as much as I wanted last year (I’m talking for pleasure, not work), so this year I’m setting about turning this around. I’m also wanting to read more fantasy (of the darker kind), as the novel I’m writing has fantasy roots. Aaanywho, I picked up Joe Abercrombie’s ‘The First Law’ trilogy, and as I’m about halfway through book two, I thought I’d chuck the review of book one up here.

So, here we go…

This is a 2.5 star rating, but I’m going to review this book as two parts because that’s exactly how it read to me – like two books… and sometimes even two authors, who put ‘The Blade Itself’ together.

I picked up ‘The First Law’ trilogy on a recent trip to my local bookstore. The sales clerk raved about it, and a quick check on Goodreads showed great reviews, so I was pretty excited to get started. Grimdark!

The blade itself

Here there be spoilers…

I have a like/hate relationship with this book. I began intrigued by the story, and with Logen Ninefingers especially (if it weren’t for him, and later his ‘merry’ band, I’d have thrown the book at the wall), but the further I moved into the book, the more frustrated and annoyed I became. The story started strong enough, Logen Ninefingers, talking with spirits, the Shanka – all good, then in came the world of the Union, and in particular Inquisitor Glokta and Captain Jezal Luthar – two very different peas in an almost farcical pod.

Glokta is an interesting character; once one of the Unions most famed soldiers, after 700 days at the “mercy” of the enemy, he’s a crippled, toothless shell of a man and now the best torturer the Union has. Abercrombie does well to make the reader believe Glokta is an old man; I was surprised to learn he was in mid-thirties. Glokta’s Practicals are also a nice touch to the man – Frost especially. At times, I was cringing at the amount of internal monologue Glokta has; less is more, and repetition can become tedious.

Captain Jezal Luthar is an awful parody. Godawful. The back of the dustjacket describes Luthar as a ‘paragon of selfishness’, but I found him to be lazily written. I’ve absolutely no problem with unlikeable characters, if fact, they often make a book, but Luthar is… well, did I say godawful? Especially when he’s marked against a character such as Ninefingers or Dogman, for instance (fleshed out and well-rounded). There’s room for shallow characters, but not room, I believe for shallow characterisation. Sure, he can really only go up from here, and there’s nothing BUT growth to be had, but Abercrombie shows he can write a great character, it’s more like he couldn’t be bothered with Luthar and that makes the book suffer in my eyes.

When I said farcical, that’s exactly what the Union is… with a few clichés thrown in for fun: a fat, dementia-riddled absurdity of a king; a ridiculously stupid crown prince more worried about fashion that his empire; the king’s guard (I’m talking 40-odd men here) who cower, whimper and almost piss themselves when their king is vaguely threatened (seriously? no one’s buying that); and a religious council (let’s call a sect a sect) who pretty much have their hand up the king’s bum like a puppet. Yes, I understand the need to make the Union appear as defenceless and gormless as possible, but this is beyond believability – I can suspend belief, I can, but c’mon!

sheldon1

The one man in the Union who does understand the ridiculousness (and danger) of the situation is Major West, a commoner risen above his station, much to the derision of the blue-bloods (yep, I see that cliché too). But him, I like.

350 pages in and it was a struggle; where was the story arc? Where was the plot? It was Ninefingers and his old crew that kept me turning the pages… well that and I’m stubborn. I was finishing this book, and I was going to be honest in my review.

Then something happened. The story finally kicked in. It had been wandering all over the place, almost as if it were trying to find its way. When Ninefingers, Bayaz, Luthar, and Glokta walk into the House of the Maker it was like they awakened the author. The writing (mostly) fell into place, and I began to see the story Abercrombie wanted to tell.

From here on in I read the book quickly; I was interested and intrigued, and even grew to tolerate the beige that is Luthar. The magic, both dark and curious, began to show its other hand, and the Eaters are a great creation. THIS is where the story should have begun. This is also where I realised the first 350-odd pages had been the longest character introduction I’ve ever read. From here, Abercrombie pretty much holds his own. The ‘Bloody Nine’ chapter is a bloody good read, and the scene where the Bloody Nine rises is a stand-out.

For me, the structure doesn’t do the story justice; I was close to giving up so many times but perseverance got me through. Thing is, a great read shouldn’t be about perseverance, especially when the last 150-odd pages were a good, and at times, a very, very good read.

I can’t forgive the amount of times ‘Er…’ appeared, though, I just can’t. Everyone says it. All. The. Time. If I’d have made a drinking game of it, I’d have been hammered a couple of chapters in. If I’d based the game on exclamation points, I’d be back in the mud. (Ping to the editors on that – less is more, less is more!!!!!)

drunk dog

Make no mistake, Ninefingers and his old crew carried this story for me; they were the only ones I was invested in.

So… here we are at the end of this review that will get two ratings: 1.5 stars for the first part, and four stars for the end. Nothing we learned in the first part, couldn’t have been given to the reader in a hundred-odd pages without losing any of the understanding of characters, culture and the history of the world Abercrombie has created.

I’ll start book two, and see how it goes. Though I’m now a wary reader.