Monday, October 31, 2005

Viking: Odinn’s Child by Tim Severin

Author: Tim Severin
ISBN # 0330426737
324 pages

Set at the turn of the last millennium & based on the Viking sagas, Odinn’s Child follows the life & fortunes of Thorgils Liefsson, son of Lief the Lucky & Thorgunna, a mysterious Irish noblewoman with the gift of second sight. Thorgils is raised in Iceland & Greenland by various mentors who teach him the “Old Ways” even while the followers of the so-called White Christ are growing in number among his people. His travels take him to Vinland, to Orkney, the land of his birth, & to Ireland, home of his maternal ancestors, all the while learning more of the Old Gods & growing ever more committed in his devotion to Odinn.

Billed as “the stunning first volume in an epic historical trilogy” I expected something a little more exciting than what I got. Odinn’s Child was incredibly slow to start & was a laborious read from start to finish – I found myself literally dragging myself through page after page of not-much-happening when what I wanted was action, adventure & heroics.

I’m not overly familiar with the Eddas (stories, myths & legends of the Norse Gods), but I do know a little of the life of the Norse people at that time (however slight) & was sorely disappointed not to learn more than I already knew. I was not engrossed as I had expected & instead found myself barely able to keep on reading.

Not once did I feel anguish, fear, excitement or wonder at what was happening to any of the characters – I couldn’t have cared less whether or not they survived another harsh winter or the cruelty of their keepers when they were enslaved. In fact, I found myself wishing more hardship upon them if it would only add a little drama to the proceedings & make reading this worthwhile.

As a result, it took me well over a week to wade through little more than 300 pages which has to be a record for me. I didn’t even bother reading the extract of the sequel included at the end as I already knew it would hold absolutely no interest for me.

If you’re heavily into Vikings, you might get something out of this & the remaining volumes of this trilogy, but unless you can get excited over something that moves at a snail’s pace, I wouldn’t bother with this.

Poor show.

Rating: 3/10

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Author: Dan Brown
ISBN # 0552151696
510 pages

Wherever there are codes, there are code-breakers, & to be a good code-breaker, you need to have an understanding of code-writing or cryptography. The NSA employs the best of the best & they have built the ultimate code-breaking machine – TRANSLTR. But what happens if the ultimate in US computing intelligence comes across a code it can’t break? The world of law enforcement will lose its edge & the criminal underworld will be able to encrypt all correspondence to unfailingly hide their shady activities. The countdown has begun, & now the greatest cryptographers are working against the clock to do something impossible – they have to breach Digital Fortress before it is sold on the internet to the highest bidder… but who can they trust?

Digital Fortress sees Brown take a break from the Catholic religion, but carries on with the theme of codes & cryptography, this time in the confines of the NSA’s top-secret Crypto Development Division. The action takes place over a single weekend & is fast-paced, action-packed & filled with lightening-fast deductions, assumptions & dialogue.

Once again, the lead female character, Susan, could have been lifted directly out of either Da Vinci or Demons, except that this time she’s American rather than European: She’s frighteningly intelligent, fiercely loyal, extremely capable &, of course, devastatingly beautiful. (I think Mr Brown has an unwritten code that in his books, brainy women have to be beautiful too – you can’t have one without the other – she has to be the perfect woman.)

This time, the main character focus is on the woman, with the male characters playing second fiddle (although her fiancé, David, still does a fair bit of the running round & figuring out, but from another continent). There’s a lot of power-play here & it also highlights the struggle of women in male-dominated fields to get the recognition for which they work so hard, & the derision they receive when they get those well-deserved promotions. The message is clear – men like to be in charge, but sometimes a woman is better suited for the role.

This was a more well-rounded read than either Da Vinci or Demons, with none of the preposterously unbelievable stunts or revelations – this is purely technical & firmly set in reality. I’ve not yet read Deception Point, but I feel it will be hard pushed to best this.

Rating: 9/10

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgwick

Author: Marcus Sedgwick
ISBN # 1842552678
264 pages

There is a time when all is not as it seems; when anything can & does happen: These are the Dead Days, the days that fall between Christmas & New Year, that dark, cold time when even the impossible may come to pass. It is during this time that Boy, an orphaned assistant to a magician called Valerian, must hunt high & low for a mysterious book that will avert catastrophe. Assisted by a girl called Willow, Boy must make an appointment with destiny & uncover the secrets of his past… and his future. Trouble will surely find them before the week is out…

Set against the shadowy backdrop of a nameless city, the nameless Boy inhabits a world not unlike our own, but in a time when science is still a kind of magic. Thus Sedgwick weaves a spellbinding web of intrigue & danger, full of dark places & even darker secrets. And the reader is kept ignorant of the facts until they unfold, leaving them in the same position as Boy, as Valerian (& Sedgwick) holds the cards close to his chest.

The plot is decidedly un-childlike for a so-called children’s book – people actually die horribly grisly deaths here – so it’s really aimed at the 12+ market, but it makes for an engrossing read as you try to figure out what the hell is happening! His style would translate very well to the big-screen & I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before this gem is snapped up.

The plot twists & turns like a twisty-turny thing, keeping you on your toes at all times. The tale is continued in The Dark Flight Down & looks set to continue in the same vein. If so, I’ll most certainly be adding it to my wish-list…

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, October 20, 2005

When the Eagle Hunts by Simon Scarrow (Book 3)

Author: Simon Scarrow
ISBN # 074726631X
433 pages

In the bitter winter of 44AD, the Roman troops are awaiting spring to continue their invasion of Britain. But the weather is not the only source of cruelty – the legionaries must face a terrifyingly deadly & ruthless foe: The Druids of the Dark Moon. When the wife & children of a Roman General are held captive by the Druids, the message is sent that they will be sacrificed to the Gods; death by burning in a giant construction – a wicker man. It is up to the Centurion, Macro, & his young Optio, Cato, to mount a covert rescue mission with the help of two native Britons; members of the Iceni tribe. One of them has a name that will be remembered throughout history – Boudica.

This is the 3rd book in the series & the action is fast paced from the start. Scarrow manages to portray the reaction of the Romans to the unexpectedly harsh British weather perfectly & you really feel for the poor souls of the 2nd Legion as they wait out the winter & prepare to renew their battle efforts.

The introduction of a famous historical figure – that of Boudica – is a clever touch. Most people know of her story & it adds a nice edge to the tale as we see her people making themselves allies of the Romans in their conquest. I expect more of her own story will be interwoven with that of Macro & Cato throughout the following sequels.

Once again, Scarrow thrusts the reader into the thick of things & you can almost hear the clanging of sword on sword & the cries of the wounded & dying as he describes scene after scene fluidly. Again, the historical references are impeccable, & although it is stated in the author’s note at the back of the book that the Druids of the Dark Moon are a fictional sect, it is only too easy to believe that such extremists existed then, as they do today. It also made a change to see Druids portrayed as champions of their people, keen strategists & fierce warriors, rather than just spiritual leaders - it adds a nice twist.

I’ll certainly be getting hold of the rest of the series, as I am simply dying to see what happens next!

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Raven's Gate by Anthony Horowitz

Author: Anthony Horowitz
ISBN # 0844286193
283 pages

Before the beginning there was the gate and five gatekeepers: Children. Four boys ~ One girl. It has been written. The night of everlasting darkness is drawing in. The gate is about to open. The gatekeepers must return.

Thus begins an adventure that melds magic with science, the past with the present & good with evil.

Matt Freeman is a troubled 14-year-old orphan who lives with his aunt & her partner. After making a terrible mistake, he is made part of the LEAF programme rather than sent to a young offenders' institution & is sent to stay in the foster care of Mrs Deverill in Yorkshire. But all is not as it seems in Hive Hall, nor in the village of Lesser Malling. What is the secret they are hiding? What mysteries are hidden deep in the woods? And what is Raven’s Gate? Matt must embark on a voyage of self-discovery if he is to unravel the twisted plot & stay alive!

Raven’s Gate is based on an idea first published in 1983 as The Devil’s Doorbell & is the first in, I gather, a 5-book series (the cover hints at this with “The Power of 5” emblazoned across it), though the 2nd instalment isn’t due to be published till next Spring. It manages to take all the magic of epic fantasies & set it smack-bang in the here & now, starting in Ipswich, a trip to London & then settling in Yorkshire. As a result, it never seems over the top, in fact, the reader is left feeling that there’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary in the possibly supernatural occurrences.

It’s really a rite of passage for the main character, Matt, as he struggles to come to terms with the cards life has dealt him – the loss of his parents 6 years earlier, feeling unwanted while living with his aunt, being befriended by an unsavoury character & still trying to assert his own individuality - all the while feeling the usual unsettledness that the teenage years bring. But there’s something different. Matt is different. While he tries to understand what’s happening to him & why, he has to try & exercise some control over his own blossoming abilities.

All in all, this seems quite a strong start to what may well be an intriguing series. It ends a little abruptly, but I can only assume that the 2nd book will pick up just as speedily & continue the narrative, whether it’s following Matt or perhaps one of the other “Gatekeepers”. A good choice for those who are a little more cynical & prefer not to be expected to transport themselves to an entirely different world.

Rating: 7/10

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince by J K Rowling

Author: J K Rowling
ISBN # 074758110
607 pages

It’s Harry’s penultimate year at Hogwart’s School for Witchcraft & Wizardry. Now that he has the results of his OWLs, he can choose which subjects to study to NEWT level, but it’s not going to be easy. Mysterious disappearances are occurring & the mayhem ensuing from the activities of the Death Eaters is spilling over into the muggle world. The two halves of Harry’s life are fast colliding. Throughout this year, Harry will have to keep his wits about him if he & his friends are even going to survive long enough to take their apparition tests. With a heavy study load, Harry has a little extra help in the form of notes penned by the mysterious Half-Blood Prince in an old copy of Advanced Potion Making, but is all as it seems…?

In this 6th book, we learn more of Voldemort’s history & discover that he & Harry may have much more in common than either one of them would like to admit. There’s more undercover activity by the Order of the Phoenix & Harry is made privy to perhaps more knowledge than he’d like. He has to learn that the price of growing up is having to behave like an adult. The scenes between him & Dumbledore seem to have taken a new twist & Harry no longer sees his mentor as infallible, but as a human with faults of his own.

He also starts to see his friends in a different light & realises that relationships have to evolve as we grow older. Although I personally felt that Harry might be a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to girlfriends, he makes up for it with his mature attitude towards his own responsibilities (if you’ve read it already, you’ll know what I mean, if you haven’t, you’ll see…).

This one still didn’t quite live up to Goblet of Fire for me, but it was pretty damned close. Just the right mix of action & adventure as well as progressing the story we’ve been following over the previous 5 books made for a riveting read. I only hope the tale gets the finale it deserves when Rowling produces the 7th instalment!

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix by J K Rowling

Author: J K Rowling
ISBN # 0747561079
766 pages

As Harry prepares himself for his fifth year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, he finds he’s more famous than ever following the results of the Triwizard event last year. Due to the attitude of Minister Fudge & the reporting of The Daily Prophet, there are many who think Potter is potty & Dumbledore is dotty – they simply do not believe that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named­ has returned. The Order of the Phoenix has been resurrected in response to the threat, but finds it must operate in secrecy. To add to the disruption, as the Ministry of Magic has seen fit to interfere in the very running of Hogwart's, teachers & students alike are now treading unsteady ground, as new laws are added on an almost daily basis to make things more & more difficult for Dumbledore & those loyal to him. To top it all off, Harry risks expulsion (again!) & has his exams coming up & this promises to be his most busy & stressful year yet!

Harry’s done a lot of growing up over the last four books & Phoenix sees him become more of a ‘normal’ teenager, complete with all the failings & insecurities that comes at that awkward age. He suffers petty jealousies, infatuations & the worry that he won’t do well enough in his exams to be able to follow the career path he’d like to take – that of an Auror. Seeing all these in Harry definitely makes this the easiest story in which to identify with our lead.

This story is darker, again, than its predecessors & reflects the more adult way in which Harry now views the world. Not only that, but he now no longer feels connected to either the wizarding world or the muggle world – he can no longer fully relate to either, as who else has seen what he has seen, done what he has done? How can anyone possibly understand how he feels? (It's the cry of every teenager in history!).

We also find out a little more about Harry’s family (how his parents were at his age, why the Dursleys actually agreed to take him in & why Professor Snape feels such utter hatred for him) & the revelations all seem set to make him change his views on everything he thought he knew. It’s time for some deep soul-searching for Harry & there is much going on to distract him.

New bonds are made & more loss is endured, but there’s an old saying: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” & this holds true here. Harry is being ably prepared to tackle a future that seems so unsure to anyone of that age – even if he does have a lot more on his plate than most teenagers.

Not quite as good, in my opinion, as Goblet of Fire, but we do get a little more of Sirius Black (a major bonus) in this one, although I felt that this time round, Black was painted as being a little more childish than I might have liked. Still, we also see the return of some other old favourites, which makes for a wonderful familiarity here. I get the feeling that Rowling is now speeding us along at break-neck speed towards a thrilling conclusion & I can hardly wait to get my teeth into Half-Blood Prince!

Rating: 7/10

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Author: Terry Pratchett
ISBN # 0385608675
362 pages

1000 years ago, Koom Valley witnessed history’s most bloody (& rocky) battle between Dwarves & Trolls. It is the only battle ever recorded where both sides claim to have been ambushed by the other. And now, with just days to go till the anniversary of the massacre, it looks like history will be repeating itself in the streets of Ankh Morpork – Dwarves on one side, Trolls on the other, & the City Watch stuck right in the middle. And there’s a picture missing. And there’s a vampire in the Watch. And the Watch are being audited. It’s all going to get political. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s 6-o-clock & Commander Sam Vimes is going to read “Where’s My Cow?” to his infant son, as he does every night. Without fail. He’s never late. Because some things are Important!

Thud! is the 30th Discworld novel & sees Terry returning to the ever-popular City Watch. Vimes has come a long way since his humble beginnings as Captain over Sergeant Colon & Corporal Nobby Nobbs in Guards! Guards!, when he was little more than a drunken plot device to introduce Carrot as the possibly rightful king of Ankh Morpork. Thankfully, Pratchett knew a diamond in the rough when he created one & Vimes is now the central figure in the assortment of oddballs that make up the Watch. We’ve seen him destroy dragons, arrest the Patrician, get married, travel back in time to become his own mentor & now he faces the most arduous task of all – fatherhood!

Pratchett is quite possibly the most naturally gifted satirist writing today – he loves nothing more than to take something familiar, add something a little less commonplace & still make it seem, well, normal. He’s nothing short of a literary genius. This is his tribute to The Da Vinci Code. And possibly to Top Gear too (read it - you’ll know what I mean when you get to it). He puts a unique spin on things & makes them quintessentially Discworldian, yet you always recognise things as being completely ordinary & “round-world”. It’s a wonderful gift.

This one doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights of the splendid Night Watch, but it’s not far off.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter – A Treasury of Myths, Legends & Fascinating Facts by David Colbert

Author: David Colbert
ISBN # 0141320605
285 pages

This book is not approved by J K Rowling, but it’s hard to imagine her disapproval of such a little gem. Answering questions from “Did alchemists really search for a magic stone?” to “Are any of the ‘Famous Witches & Wizards’ real?” & covering everything in between, this book looks at the fact behind the fiction, along with the myths & legends that inspired some of the people & places in the Harry Potter books.

I managed to get hold of a second edition which includes information for Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, so nothing for the Half Blood Prince, yet, but I fully expect a new edition will be released eventually, maybe once the seventh episode is published.

It’s a wonderful little think to dip in & out of, making it more of a “flick through” than a “read through” kind of book, but it’s full of lovely little nuggets of information that make you smile at the cleverness of Rowling & the research she has obviously put in through writing Harry’s adventures. There’s also a handy bibliography to encourage readers to do more research of their own & points you in the direction of writers who have clearly influenced Rowling.

A worthwhile addition to any Potter fan’s collection.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Eagle's Conquest by Simon Scarrow (Book 2)

Author: Simon Scarrow
ISBN # 0747266301
434 pages

The action picks up where it left off in Under the Eagle – The Romans are continuing their conquest of Britain, battling against the natives in their attempt to secure this misty isle as another outpost, testament to the might of Rome. But the Britons are not the only enemy that Macro, battle-hardened Centurion of the fourth cohort, & his Optio, the young Cato, must face. Treachery & treason are rife & the sinister plot to either depose or dispose of the Emperor continues. Amidst the blood & battle, whom do you trust when even your allies may be your enemies?

The action comes thick & fast in this adventurous sequel. Scarrow thrusts the reader straight into the heart of the battle for Britain, having already established his leads in Under the Eagle. We follow Macro as he guides Cato (still barely a man at only 18 years old) & helps form him into a good soldier & a leader of men. After their discovery of Vitellius’ duplicity, they are watchful of his every move, but even they cannot predict the route he might take in order to gain his own place in history.

Scarrow is particularly gifted at submersing the reader completely in the heady atmosphere as the Romans prepare to advance across British soil, describing the hopes & fears of these men as they follow the orders of an Emperor who believes he is utterly infallible (in fact he is working on having his deification announced!). If his campaign is successful, he has more hope of holding onto his throne, but a loss of Britain will mean a loss of power, & possibly his life.

More action is packed into this section of the story, due to the fact that the characters have been introduced & their development is the key factor here. We become more sympathetic to the men as they band together to form friendships & alliances. A few new characters are also brought to the fore to play vital roles in the plot & they are used to every advantage in furthering the tail & deepening the intrigue. We also see Cato maturing & falling victim to all the usual petty jealousies of men his age, endearing him to us even more. Vespasian’s role, & that of his family, is also explored here to great effect.

Again, the historical research put into this story is excellent & the details are exact at every step. A lot of thought has gone into recreating the era & the people involved in any Roman campaign of that time.

All in all, The Eagle’s Conquest really quickened the pace & I plan on reading the third instalment as soon as possible just to find out whatever will happen next!

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Where's My Cow? by Terry Pratchett

Author: Terry Pratchett
Illustrator: Melvyn Grant
ISBN # 038560937X

This is a book about reading a book, which turns into a different book. But it all ends happily...

Where's My Cow? is dubbed "a picture book for adults" & is a companion book to Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, Thud! (which is high up my "to read very soon" list!). It is an absolute delight to read (it only takes a few minutes, but they're fun minutes) & Grant's illustrations are superb (look carefully in at the background details for a few "in jokes").

An essential addition to any Pratchett collection - especially in homes where there are young 'uns to read it to. So long as you don't mind them shouting "buggrit!" forever after...

Rating: 10/10