Year One by Nora Roberts

This is such a difficult and, frankly, strange book to review. The principal reason for this is because from the blurb and the first hundred or so pages, the novel sets up the reader and one set of genre expectations that are, out of the blue, overturned. Depending on what you think of the genre that dominates the novel from thereon in, responses to the book overall will vary. You see, it started very much like Stephen King’s The Stand, a terrific post-apocalyptic/eschatological novel and one of my favourites in the genre (along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) before it suddenly morphs into an urban fantasy ala Karen Marie Moning’s Fever books, with a little bit of Harry Potter, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis thrown in along with a healthy dose of romance.

 

Basically, Year One by Nora Roberts, starts off as a dramatic apocalyptic story. The opening scenes take us to the Scottish Highlands where the McLeod family gather for their annual Christmas celebrations. Travelling from far and wide, they spend glorious days feasting, hunting, reminiscing and sharing. When the men shoot a pheasant and it lands in the middle of a cursed stone circle (as they do), it marks the beginning of the end as the men, somehow, become infected with a deadly sickness that, as they leave the Highlands and venture back to their homes in London, USA etc. (all via stopovers in other major centres) spreads and kills anyone infected. Fatalities rise and the sickness quickly becomes known as The Doom.

The story quickly shifts to New York and the United States generally and, as is usual with these types of tales, we bear witness to the destruction of society and civility as we know it. Events are observed mainly through the eyes of a few protagonists: journalist, Arylis, sous chef, Lana and her lover, the writer, Max, and a paramedic, Jonah, the man responsible for bringing patent zero – one of the McLeods – to his hospital in NYC, and the only suriving member of the McLeod family.

Mysteriously immune from The Doom, these main characters and the people around them form the core of the story as they seek to find other survivors and generally survive – no, more than survive, but rebuild a life. But while The Doom may have spared them the ravages of a deadly disease, it hasn’t saved them from the murderous intent of other survivors who take advantage of, not only the huge loss of life to grab power, but also wield the mysterious abilities some of them find themselves invested with.

This is the unexpected part of the book. From being quite sci-fi in nature as the disease spreads, touching on the collapse of government, media and general law and order, it suddenly (and I mean, suddenly) becomes populated with witches, fairies, elves and all manner of magical beings, all who seem to know exactly what they are even if their talents are still manifesting and growing. There are those who use their newfound abilities for “good” and those who do not. Then there are those who have survived and fear these gifted humans in their midst, calling them The Uncanny, blaming them for the demise of civilisation as we no longer know it and wanting to destroy them. Of course, there are those who appreciate their gifts and the gifted and seek to live with and within their communities.

Herein lies another problem. The good people are just so good and obviously good; the bad are horrendously and mindlessly wicked. There seems to be no good reason (pardon the pun) for their bad. They just are. The clichés and stereotypes are quite extraordinary. Some of the “baddies” give us insights in the form of diabolical rants before they kill the “goodies” – those with powers and without, but most do not. So, why are they doing it apart from bloodlust? I am assuming for power, but it’s not really explained. It just happens. There have been studies and examples that demonstrate that civility is a veneer many wear lightly and when it’s gone, the monster within emerges. But in many ways, these people are just so monstrous, they are caricatures.

But wait, there’s more… one of the intrepid main characters finds she is pregnant. Not only that, but she is bearing a child who has a role to play in the future of the world. As such, there are those on the Dark Side who wish to destroy both the unborn child and her mother. Why? Again, not sure. How do they know about the child and her apparent potential? Don’t know that either. Though there are the occasional characters who speak in riddles and prophesise, but it’s all very ad hoc and strange. I wanted to know how these people knew about this powerful child. I also wanted to know how, after a few weeks of millions of deaths, the shock of loss and crumbling of society, there were those who not only had powers we’ve only ever seen before in the Marvel universe or at Hogwarts, but could declare to any who asked (and were friendly) what “species” they were: elf, fairy, witch etc. It seemed more than uncanny. How do they KNOW this??? I don’t expect they were all Tolkien fans… but then again…

By now you’re probably thinking I am going to say this is a terrible book. But, if you can get beyond the shift in narrative and expectations, it really isn’t. Yes, there are leaps of logic and lack of explanation that, as you can tell, had me grinding my teeth in frustration and rolling my eyes a few times, but there’s a reason Nora Roberts (and this is the first book of hers I have read) is such a bestseller. She can tell a yarn. So, despite my reservations and the plethora of fairy wings (yes, really), I decided to go with the flow, embrace the urban fantasy and enjoy the ride. It was exciting, wild, sentimental in parts, shocking in others, slightly long-winded in some sections and jumpy and lacking in logic in others, but I actually liked it.

The ending sets up the next book very well (even if it does involve a Dumbledore… I mean, Gandalf, no, I mean wizened mentor dude with prescient knowledge offering hope and horror in equal measure) and a tad too conveniently, but hell, by now I just let the story carry me.

So, if you’re looking for something different that’s not a McCarthy, Atwood or Kingesque kind of post-apocalyptic tale, and enjoy urban fantasy, then you may like this. I know I did, despite thinking I was going to be reading one type of book and then finding myself immersed in a completely different one. And yes, I will be reading the sequel. J

Overall 3.5 stars.

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Close to the Bone: Logan McRae #8 by Stuart Macbride

imgres-4Another cracker of a read from Stuart MacBride featuring DS (now Acting DI) Logan McRae and the cast of regulars that readers of the series have grown to love: the inappropriate (“we are not home to Mr Fuck-Up”) but somehow loveable DCI Steele, prone to stuff-ups, Rennie, “Dildo”, Wee Hamish, Finnie etc.

This time, a feature film based on a successful supernatural book, Witchfire, is being shot in and around Aberdeen. Former DI Insch is involved in the production and the cops and population are bewitched. When a gruesome murder that has clearly been based on those described in the book occurs, the cast and crew come under scrutiny. When the body count starts to grow and even one of McRae’s own disappears, the stakes become high; but this is an elusive and clever criminal McRae’s seeks, one who is above all convinced they are righteous and that makes them doubly dangerous.

Apart from the occasional bursts of humour amidst quite dire circumstances, the interpersonal relationships between the police and the great dialogue, what makes these books so compulsive is Logan himself. A man with a head and heart, he is simultaneously vulnerable, heroic, resilient and kind. Whenever I finish one of the books, I promise myself I’ll read something else for a while, but I find myself returning to the series, needing and wanting to know how his tale pans out. Highly recommended.

 

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The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston

8694522This is a beautifully written novel that is both historical and fantastical. For me, this is both its strength and in some regards, its weakness. When I first started reading it, I thought it was an historical novel, so accurate were the details and the rendering of setting (1600s) which meant your senses were both fired and tuned to the past, and the characters inhabiting it came alive. When the fantastical elements came to the fore, I found myself, at first, confused and unsettled. They didn’t ring true, so perfect had the other “real” parts seemed. It wasn’t until I understood the novel is really historical fantasy, that segues into the present (and keeps the magic happening), as well as taking the reader back to different historical periods, that I lost myself in a marvellous tale of female power and subordination, as well corruption and male control.

The book opens during the reign of King Charles of England in 1628, during the witch craze. After terrible trials and tragedy befall her family, young Bess Hawksmith has yet to endure worse – seeing her mother accused of witchcraft and having dire judgement cast upon her. As the village in which Bess grew up, and where her mother held such an esteemed position, turns against them, Bess is forced to seek the protection of Gideon Masters, an unpleasant man whom Bess cannot trust.

Yet, it’s Gideon who teaches Bess the skills to survive and in doing so, saves her life. He inducts her into the Craft, introducing her to powers she barely knew she possessed. Fleeing Gideon and the control he tries to exert over her one night, Bess tries to make a new life for herself. What she doesn’t expect is that Gideon will hunt her down – not merely through one lifetime, but through the many her powers have granted her. That is, until he can exact the price he demands for saving her.

Moving from the 1600s to the present, the reader is slowly given insight into the different lives and times of Bess/Elizabeth and the other variations on her name she takes. From a nurse during the Great War, to a surgeon in an early hospital and others, Bess tries to find occupations where she can put the skills she has and use her formidable powers for good. Trying to avoid Gideon, she barely manages to stay one step ahead, but it’s not until the present day when she finds solace in a small cottage and the friendship of a young girl whom she begins to train in the craft, that she faces her greatest challenge.

This was an unusual book and though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I particularly liked the parts that took the reader back in time. Brackston has a knack for recreating an historical moment and place – through small details, a twist of prose, a deliciously rendered character, and gorgeous descriptions that place you in the there and now of the period. While some of the magic and fantasy didn’t seem to weave as well into the tale as others parts, and the climax was, at times, disjointed, it was still a compelling read that revealed a great deal about women’s place in society – then and today.

I look forward to reading the other books in the series.

 

 

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Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

This was a strange book, but not in a bad way. Described as an historical thriller that’s set in Germany during the late 1600s, it tells the story of the hangman in the town of Schongau, Jakob Kuisl’s, efforts to exonerate a midwife accused of witchcraft and the murder of three orphan children and other sundry crimes. Uniting with the town’s young doctor, Simon, Jakob finds himself in a race against time to prove the midwife’s innocence before he’s forced to first torture her then put her to death. With the town’s Burgers refusing to listen to reason and wilfully ignoring the dreadful witch purge of decades earlier, and with the villains one step ahead, Jakob needs all his formidable abilities to catch the real perpetrators.

Graphic in the way it discusses the torture process and careful to evoke the period in which its set in terms of sights, sounds and smells, the narrative moves fairly swiftly in the initial sThe Hangman's Daughter (The Hangman's Daughter #1)tages before stalling a little in the middle and racing to the end. Though an easy and quite enjoyable read, there were elements I struggled with in the book.

Despite being titled The Hangmans’ Daughter, the daughter, Magdalena Kuisl, a feisty, smart and very beautiful young woman, is little more than a secondary character. The story very much belongs to her father, Jakob, a man with conscience and a heart who takes his job (and the requisite drink he must down before being called to execute or torture) very seriously. As if to atone for the death he delivers, Jakob is also a self-educated healer of extraordinary talent and experience. The reasons for this are made clear in the prologue which provides a context for the rather schizoid personality Jakob occasionally exhibits, whether its as a righteous father warning an amorous suitor (usually, the town’s young doctor) away from his daughter, or whispering words of compassion to an intended victim. A big man, Jakob engenders fear and grudging respect from those he encounters, even while his occupation assures he and his family will always remain outcasts.

So, while I did enjoy the story, I didn’t love it. I found it became bogged down with chases here and there and dead ends and felt padded at times. The villains were also two-dimensional and oddly portrayed. There were moments when they were mysterious and elusive, at others, they stepped from the shadows and behaved with all the skill of a keystone cop. The main villain was also never fleshed out (and pardon the pun there – which will become clear if you read it). He started off being quite scary but, by the end, was more tiresome and contradictory. Likewise with the character known as “moneybags”. Maybe it’s the translation, but when he’s revealed, there are inaccuracies in his portrayal that jarred. Ultimately, because of this and other parts of the action (which occur, rather conveniently, off-stage) the climax is turned into a bit of an anti-climax.

I also found the use of modern idiom difficult to believe. At first, it gave rather a fresh flavour to the book, brought the Middle Ages into a more contemporary setting. When I encountered metaphors like “bun in the oven” to refer to a pregnancy and increasingly more contemporary patois, I found it took away from the rather excellent scene-setting and period evocation that Pötzsch does so well.

There was also a tendency to place contemporary mores and thoughts in the minds of those who, anyone with a slight grasp of the era knows, were unlikely to exist. For example, some of the young doctor’s and hangman’s dismissal of certain medical practices in favour of what we know work now didn’t ring true. An amount of scepticism might have been accounted for, but the hangman particularly looked upon the studies of the doctors of his era with utter disdain and disregard. Admittedly, Pötzsch was able to provide the names of books and philosophers that the hangman preferred, but even so, his skills smacked more of twenty-first century hindsight than they did knowledge gained through wartime experience or seventeenth century reading.

Overall, however, the novel was a good diversion, a romp through Bavaria in the 1600s with an element of mystery and lots of gore. What I enjoyed most about it was learning that Pötzsch was inspired by his own family history – it turns out he’s a descendant of a lineage of executioners – the Kuisl’s and Jakob and his daughter were real people. To turn an element of his own past into such a interesting adventure (and there are more books in the series) shows writing and imaginative flair indeed.

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