The Wind City by Summer Wigmore

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An instant New Zealand classic, melding Urban Fantasy with Maori mythology.

When Saint befriends the spirit of a Maori demigod and is gifted with the ability to manipulate fire, he is tasked with ridding the city of the spirits and entities that dwell there. Little does he know, however, that the evil spirits he is destroying are in fact conscious beings with their own lives; friends, homes and families.

Typical of much Urban Fantasy, there is a hidden world that only some characters are a part of – one of magic and magical creatures. But, despite being hugely imaginative, the story itself was disappointing with the lack of depth given to these characters or creatures. When Saint first learns his flatmate is a monster, what could have been a well developed plot point becomes a brief action sequence before moving on. The same can be said of many elements which had huge potential but were glossed over which diminished their potential importance. The irony here is that the invented fictional spirits of the urban setting were actually really fun, interesting characters and they made a lot of sense. As far as Urban Fantasy goes, these elements were exactly spot-on and I would have loved to have seen more of this in the book.

The first half of The Wind City wandered without any real direction, unsure just what the book wants to be. At around the halfway point when the plots began to converge and irritating character devices took a step back, the book began to really shine. But by this point, I wasn’t completely invested in the characters and the story didn’t have as much of a hold on me as it should have. The biggest let down was the main character, Saint. His tropes were irritating, annoying and unrealistic; he was an imported character slapped onto a template. His actions were sometimes pointless and motivations were confused or lacking. The other side of this, however, is the second main character Tony. Discovering she is part taniwha she steps into the hidden world, at first reluctantly, taking on the time-honored responsibility of guardianship. Her story was far more interesting and well written than Saints. In fact, it was Tony’s story that captured me and kept me going, in contrast to Saint’s who pushed me away.

Not a perfect book, by far, but for a first novel it is a really strong, enjoyable effort. Wigmore shows plenty of promise and is a name to keep an eye out for on the shelves. The Wind City is a great entry into the New Zealand Urban Fantasy genre and should be read by anyone tired of the recycled Nordic/Tolkienesque fantasy tropes. 7/10 stars.

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The Factory World by Joseph Edward Ryan

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An imaginative work that is equal parts intriguing and disturbing.

The Factory World is very similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Tad Williams’ Otherland series, or the screen adaptation of Mutant Chronicles. With dark and gritty tones, vivid and unsettling imagery, a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and horror elements and a milieu-based story structure, The Factory World draws inspiration from thirty years of slipstream cross-genre novels.

Ten year old Simon wakes up in an outflow pipe in an abandoned factory in a dark and strange world, where purple meteors rain down and scour deep black holes through the earth. He is dressed in a Lion costume from a play of The Wizard of Oz and meets a nameless stranger whom he calls The Tin Man. Together, they roam an eerie and ominous world and encounter strange and terrifying creatures and wondrous technologies, all in the search for a way to return home.

The post-apocalyptic fantasy setting immediately felt like I was reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and as the Wizard of Oz elements started showing up I felt like I was reading King’s Wizard And Glass. Normally, it would be a compliment to be compared to something as epic and masterful as Stephen King’s magnum opus, but in this instance Ryan falls flat. The author’s voice and ideas are lost in the comparison to King; The Factory World is too similar and disappears beneath the shadow of a greater work. Ryan’s world has many brilliant ideas and concepts which are unfortunately often glossed over when they should have been expanded; despite the vivid and fantastic imagination the world lacks a critical depth that makes it feel real and cohesive.

There wasn’t enough characterization to make me care for the protagonists; any initial emotional connection I felt was soon lost as the book progressed. However, luckily for Ryan, the protagonists weren’t the main characters. The true hero of this book is the world itself; it is a reflection of our own subconscious, a dark and confusing and scarred entity struggling to survive.

#Warning: the following part of this review contains spoilers and will majorly disrupt your enjoyment of the novel if you have not read it. Please do not read any further if you have not yet read this book and intend to.

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The ending of The Factory World was a severe disappointment. After what builds itself up for a powerful and climactic ending, the author ends with an epilogue showing us that it was, in fact, all a dream. Seriously. It’s the same ending that we all used on our creative writing assignments at school when we were eight years old. This ending killed any enjoyment of the book for me – what could have been a fantastic and intriguing journey was suddenly halted by a lazy ending that is offensive to the reader. However… this ending could have worked, if Ryan had foreshadowed it in the book correctly. It is true, the characters question if anything is real – just as we all do at some confusing and distressing point in our lives – but this merely humanizes the characters, it doesn’t justify the cop-out ending. For a “dream sequence” to be valid, it must be integral to the plot. Even without embedding meaning and metaphor into the book, Ryan still could have linked the ending to the beginning of the book by changing the very first line from:

“Simon woke in the drainpipe and was cold all over.” to:

Wake up. Simon woke in the drainpipe and was cold all over.”

That simple addition would have made the audience read the ending and go, “Ohh, I see,” instead of saying, “Really? That was it?” None the less, still a mostly entertaining read. The most important parts of a book are the first and last chapters, and unfortunately such a weak ending heavily impacts the overall feel of the book. 4/10 stars.

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Sephirot by Gordon Bonnet

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Drops the reader into a dark metaphysical journey full of intrigue.

 

Our main character is Duncan Kyle, a man of indeterminate age or origin who one night falls through the floor of his apartment and finds himself in a dark and mysterious world, one of many within the Sephirot that he must journey through and return home. This is a standard Voyage and Return type plot; Our hero wanders aimlessly in a strange land, having adventures and drawing wisdom and revelation through his experiences before returning home. In Kabbalah the Sephirot is ten different emanations/revelations of God. Each contains a different characteristic emotion or virtue, and through attaining enlightenment of any one of these levels one brings their self closer to the divine knowledge of God. In Bonnet’s book the Sephirot are represented by different fantasy realms that must be physically journeyed through; and with the Sephirot being a creation of the hero’s own mind, it is thus a journey to attain an enlightened knowledge of his self. Unfortunately, Bonnet fails to give as much thought to characterisation or setting as he does to concept or structure; ironically, crafting a journey that is, instead of being enlightening, one that feels hollow.

We don’t know anything about the protagonist and, only towards the last half of the book do we discover things about our hero, but then it is too late. The story is about the hero’s self discovery, not the reader’s discovery of the hero, and in this it is hard to find an emotional connection to Duncan Kyle or to emotionally invest in his journey. As well an uninteresting character, the conflicts he faces are resolved quickly, or avoided completely via last-minute portals opening and allowing him to escape into the next realm. Another over-used cliche is the quick discovery in every realm of the ‘mysterious helper’ archetype: a potential foil or background character who dispenses knowledge and advice and assistance to Duncan at almost every step of his journey. The impact of these story devices is that the tension is stripped from the book; any dangers presented to the main character are aesthetic and offer little tangible threat.

Despite these flaws, it is an enjoyable read with some interesting ideas and varied and interesting settings. I would have liked to have spent more time getting to know the different worlds, and the book could have benefitted from more consistent pacing, but the general direction of the book kept me intrigued. 6/10 stars.

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Mansfield With Monsters by K. Mansfield with Matt & Debbie Cowens

 

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A dark and unsettling collection of stories in the tradition of Pride and Predjudice and Zombies or Android Karenina, set in Edwardian New Zealand.

Mansfield with Monsters is a post-modernist interpretation of classic Victorian literature, introducing gothic and supernatural elements to pre-existing stories. This transformative subgenre has become increasingly popular since the early 2000’s withnumerous best selling books and film adaptations proving hits in theaters. Mansfield with Monsters draws from Katherine Mansfield’s vast collection of literary works, rewriting select stories and introducing horror and gothic elements from similar works of the time, such as Poe, Crowley or Lovecraft.

I approached this book with no previous exposure to Katherine Mansfield’s work or any understanding of who she was. She was a hugely progressive individual who’s influence was both cultural and literary. Mansfield with Monsters captures the late Victorian/Edwardian tone of post-colonial New Zealand and successfully expands of the predominant themes of class and social division. The horror elements are masterfully woven into the narrative and are drawn from pre-existing elements in the original texts; it is a comfortable fit that feels natural to read. This, coupled with the general unsettling tone and uncomfortable word usages in the stories, creates a book with a very dark and very real atmosphere.

Some stories are not for the faint-hearted, with some scenes of graphic and implied violence, and others have awkward and unsettling sexual connotations which adds to the air of discomfort when reading them. Elements included range from the cosmic nihilism of Lovecraft, to Victorian classics such as vampires or Frankenstein-esque creatures, flesh-eating zombies and ghouls and there’s even a story featuring giant insects and steampunk mech suits.

A fantastic post-humorous collaborative effort, and a brilliant example of New Zealand literary talent. 8/10 stars.

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Kumari: Goddess of Gotham

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Dark and humorous, Kumari is a fun read that comfortably bridges the divide between Adult and Young Adult fantasy. Lees has written a heroine that is complex and endearing.

Amanda Lees parents met in the Borneo jungle where her Glaswegian-born mother had set up a hospital and her father was an Oxford-educated Gurkha officer. Goddess of Gotham was written as a tribute to her late mother, and to reflect Lee’s own exotic upbringing, exploring her love of the world and it’s different cultures.

The first in a trilogy, Goddess of Gotham is the story of Kumari, a thirteen year-old girl who is a goddess-in-training and lives in a hidden kingdom in the mountains. Despite being a goddess, her life is full of restrictions and instructions and she becomes disillusioned with her preordained role in the universe. All of this changes when her mother, the goddess, is killed and Kumari attempts to resurrect her and find the truth. But Kumari has not yet mastered her magical powers, least of all resurrection, and suddenly finds herself in the strange and fantastic world of modern day New York.

The city is no place for children, and she quickly finds herself placed in a foster home, attending state education and falling in love with a cute boy. The mortal realm is not so bad and she thinks she could get used to living here with her new friends and family. But there is a downside – she must leave her new-found life behind, or she will become mortal and never be able to return to her kingdom. But she does not know where her kingdom is, or even where New York is. Time is running out. Soon, she will lose all her powers and become mortal and she will never find the truth of who killed her mother. And who are the men that keep trying to capture her. Who do they work for, and how do they know who she is?

Inspired and steeped heavily in Nepalese and Hindu belief, Kumari, Goddess of Gotham is a riveting read that blends the magical and fantastic with the real-world. Often times a dark and thrilling adventure, Kumari is also a brightly coloured and light-hearted story. The characters are well-written and are believable and relateable, the story is original and gripping from the first page.

The first book in a trilogy, and also Amanda Lees debut novel, Goddess of Gotham is an emotional and exciting read for Young Adults or Adults alike. 8/10

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Cry of The Sea by Donna Driver

cryofthesea4 (2).jpgIn celebration of Earth Day (April 22) I am reviewing a Young Adults book with strong environmental themes. Cry of the Sea is about June, a young girl who’s parents are pushing her to follow their paths in environmental issues. When she and her father are first on the scene of a major oil spill they encounter mermaids washed up, covered in oil and grime. Suddenly she finds she has a vested interest in the environment as she dedicates herself to trying to help these creatures.

This kick starts the main plot of the book. Donna Driver does a fantastic job exploring the ideas behind such a discovery – who would ‘own’ the creatures? Do they have rights like us? How would media, science and big corporations all handle this discovery?

June is on the verge of becoming an adult, and as such she must deal with the common issues of impending maturity – love, friendships, tertiary education and career choices, family issues (especially overbearing parents.) Somehow, during all this, she must also keep the mermaids secret while trying to understand them. Where have they come from? Why has there never been any proof until now?

Driver’s voice is clear and fluent, and she writers her characters well. Often times the melodrama of teenage social life or family dynamics can seem forced or overbearing, and though there is some of that with June’s parents, it is not overbearing or un-interestingly stereotypical. Also, June’s school life had very few instances to make me cringe – this is usually the point where a Young Adult novel begins to pander too much to the TV and film tropes and not enough to reality.

Driver shines with her ability to see life from a realistic teenage point of view, crafting a believable teenage wasteland for June. The only let down for me was June’s Native American heritage. It had almost no relevance to the story, and only so her father could step out of character and become a Wise Indian stereotype.

The mermaids weren’t Disney princesses, they were sentient creatures of the ocean. Their plight, successfully, evoked the same empathy as that of whales or dolphins. They were the dominant driving force of the book, though they were downplayed in small background scenes, which was the correct course for Driver to take. Too much time with the mermaids would have been farcical, but by rooting the story in real situations and real dramas, the fantasy element played a more realistic role – successfully fitting into the fictional ecosystem that is Cry of the Sea.

Donna Driver has been a published author for 21 years and is a member of SCBWI Midsouth. She has several critically acclaimed nonfiction books as Donna Getzinger. Her three Young Adult titles Cry of the Sea, Whisper of the Woods, and Passing Notes are all published by Fire and Ice Young Adult Books. When she isn’t writing, she is teaching or singing in a community theater musical. She grew up in Southern California, but now lives near Nashville with her family. Learn more about her at www.dgdriver.com.

This review was done to help recognize World Earth Day and Arbor Day. To learn more about these important days, and find out how to do your part to help the planet, please read more at wikipedia.com

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Foxdown Wood by Beth Webb

61AXVRBgBBL._SX354_BO1,204,203,200_Beth Webb is an accomplished author of children’s and young adult’s stories. Foxdown Wood (1997) is one of her earlier books, aimed at a younger audience. It has narrative similarities to works such as the Narnia chronicles or The Bridge to Teribithia, but rather then being derivative is actually a refreshingly original take on the ‘other world’ story trope.

Cathy and her Mum have moved to Foxdown Wood – Cathy is resentful towards her mother for moving and for separating from her father. Next door is a young boy, Matt, who lives with his Dad who is a controlling but loving father.

Matt also has a secret, he has a wild ‘pet’ fox in the nearby wood whom he visits and feeds on a nightly basis. At first he is upset when Cathy stumbles across his secret, but soon the children become friends. And then Vix the fox leads them through a tunnel into a Gaelic-inspired world in political turmoil, where Arthurian-like characters are at war and where Vix can speak to the children.

The turmoil in the ‘other world’ however is parallel to the turmoil back in the real world. Greedy land developers are trying to clear the woods and build a subdivision, and the children are caught in between these two conflicts. They must save the woods in two different worlds at the same time.

This book is inspired heavily from Gaelic and Celtic mythology and draws from actual customs and beliefs in places. The ‘other world’ and it’s inhabitants are, perhaps, not developed as much as one would have hoped for, and the villains are quite two dimensional and almost cartoon-like.

But, this story ultimately is not about them. This story is about the children. It is a coming of age story as these two kids must overcome the changes going on inside them and around them. Their lives and relationships with their parents are changing, their own physical world is threatening to change around them, and they themselves are growing and maturing.

The book also has a secondary theme that is paradoxical to that of change – one of conservation. Conservation of environment and customs and heritage are important aspects of this book as well, lending themselves to important plot points and character arch development.

Though not a perfect read, it is an enjoyable book. The children are and places are well written. The rocky relationships with their parents avoid the cliched tropes found in most children’s books and are actually logical and consequential to the story. Stylistically there is nothing that overly stands out in this book, but it also means it can comfortably live on most bookshelves with it’s accessible language and brisk, engaging pace.

For more information, check out our interview with Beth Webb here.

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