Being the books I'd read up to the end of June, but my blog publishing habit is lax to say the least...
The Heroes - Joe Abercrombie
More of Joe in his distinctive style - great stuff. I especially like the way that Beck's story turns out, and Craw's was rosier than you might expect (but not too much so!). A few quibbles here and there - the involvement of Ishri just peters out, and while we get it that Bayez isn't very nice - certainly not your Gandalf / Belgarath archetype - he's becoming a bit of a deus ex mechina.
I also wonder in the back of my mind how the book would read if you read it before the First Law or Best Served Cold, and hence whether the characters of Dow, the Bloody Nine or Shivers would really come across sufficiently in a stand-alone novel. On the other hand I suppose Joe has earned the right to build on what's gone before.
Not his best, but still damn good.
Royal Assassin, Assassin's Quest - Robin Hobb
An interesting couple of novels. Part of the way through Royal Assassin (the second in the Farseer Trilogy) you get the feeling that you're reading a standard "young man's journey of discovery and growth" type fantasy. Then at the end you remember that you're reading Robin Hobb and if (like me) you've read her works out of order and already know the Liveship Traders you remember that she likes to tear her characters down about as low as they can get before building them up again.
A certain amount of re-building is done in the final book of the trilogy, but not excessively so. I'd have liked things to have turned out better for Fitz after taking us on this journey, but then that's why it's best I leave the writing to professionals.
Sailing to Sarantium - Guy Gavriel Kay
I'm concious that most if not all of the fantasy I read is medieval north-eastern Europe in derivation, with occasional nods to the renaissance. I was hoping this book - set in and around Sarantium (a parallel Byzantium), with a parallel Rome squabbled over by part-civilised barbarians - would extend me further east and further back in time, and it did just that. It has lots to recommend it - a good read for a start, and furthermore it really invokes the feeling of wildness and uncertainty appropriate to the time. The one certainty is that the mythic is real, in fact it surprised me how firmly the book is placed into the fantasy genre, when 90% of it could be read as alternative history. It's no worse for that though.
One quibble I had with the writing was the explicit foreshadowing ("He never did, as events unfolded...") which I find irritating for reasons I can't quite explain. Another, much more personal, gripe is that the main protagonist has had a rather miserable time of it prior to the start of the narrative, which I found rather depressing, especially following on from my previous reading of Robin Hobb!
The Dying Earth - Jack Vance
I've owned this book for years, but never managed to get far in to it. This time I finished it, but mainly due to stubbornness rather than enjoyment. I know it's a classic, but it just doesn't absorb me - there are some good stories in there, especially Liane the Wayfarer, but between the language and characters it's not a compelling read. The prose seems more that of someone who's showing off than someone with a story to tell, and the characters are somehow a bit flat.
On a more positive note Vance has created a wonderfully evocative world, both the setting and the treatment of magic (powerful enough to build a game upon). So, while I'm glad I've read it, it's not really a book I could recommend.
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
My wife told me to read this book so she could discuss it with me, which tells you most of what you need to know about it. Without wanting to give the plot away I can say about three things - a great plot with some fantastic twists, a really impressive piece of writing in the way she shapes your view of the characters throughout the book, and the second half stretches credibility almost to breaking point.
The really scary thought it leaves you with though - what if the second half really did happen to you? What would you do...?
Finding Nouf - Zoe Ferraris
An OK whodunit set in an exotic location (Saudi Arabia) and with interesting central characters. The author is an America who was married to a Saudi, so has first hand experience of the country, but somehow her portrayal of the country comes across as fascinating but unbelievable. It's likely to just be me over-analysing things and actually her portrayal is accurate. It does leave me wondering though what a Saudi novelist's take on the same story would be.
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins
The introduction to this trilogy is very good, leaving you wanting to read the rest. Unfortunately it's largely downhill from there - the second novel does manage to invoke some sympathy with and outrage for the heroes' plight but comes across very much as a sequel in the Hollywood style. It really does feel as though Collins had to try to reproduce the magic of the first but didn't quite know how. The "Games" portion of the book does get going nicely, but it does take a while to build up to it.
Mockingjay does go some way to rescuing the trilogy, the "Games" portion of this one really does stretch credibility to breaking point, but the ending (which is very much more grown up than I for one expected) does forgive any flaws the book might have.
Where the Bodies are Buried - Chris Brookmyre
Some reviews of this book seem to be disappointed by Brookmyre's departure from his earlier comic / farcial thriller style, but I thought the newer "straight" crime novel (still very much in his distinctive voice) was at least as good as his earlier work.
The book has some very enjoyable twists (which more astute readers than me will probably see coming a mile off) and a nice ending which seems to set us up for more to come - I certainly hope so.
The Seventh Trumpet - Peter Tremayne
As I've mentioned elsewhere I'd like one day to run a Celtic-influenced campaign, so picked this book up in the hope that it would give a useful view into that culture. It did give me a couple of good insights applicable to any renaissance or earlier setting* but overall I was unimpressed with it as a novel. Graham Crawford's review over at Good Reads is far better written (and somewhat more biting) than mine will be but suffice to say there are several things that really grated with the author's style. Most notable of these are that he's far too busy trying to educate the reader (or perhaps going about it in too heavy handed a way), so we have described in great detail inconsequential items of a character's clothing, along with its correct name and so on; and the lack of unique or credible character voices (e.g. a farmer, a monk and a chieftain's sister all speak in the same rather stilted way).
* 1) Building bridges is quite an undertaking, so ferries are more important than our modern viewpoint assumes and 2) horses are not obviously a companion animal in the way a dog is, but still provide the benefits of their own senses of smell, etc, if their rider cares to pay attention.
Zaragoz - Brian Craig
I'd picked this up second hand somewhere years ago (25p!) but not read it until Orlygg and Warlord Paul of Oldhammer notoriety gave it good reviews recently. And deservedly so it turns out. A good book but not a great one, though I wonder how much it suffers as well as benefits from the grim dark that it manages to invoke so well. Good story, great gaming material, wouldn't want to actually live there!
It amused me to notice that Orfeo the protagonist is a bit of a Mary Sue - apparently this is quite OK in a novel (for example, he's far less extreme than Hiro from Snow Crash), but when we as gamers emulate this in the PCs which we create for ourselves that somehow makes us bad people...