Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mythology, Magic and Steampunk in London

THE UNDYING LEGION (Crown and Key #2)
Clay and Susan Griffith
Random House Del Rey Spectra
June 30, 2015

Following closely on the heels of The Shadow Revolution, first in the Crown and Key series, The Undying Legion continues the adventures of a motley crew of monster hunters and magicians. A supernatural war is brewing. The beautiful and brilliant alchemist Kate Anstruther, magician- scribe Simon Archer, monster hunter Malcolm MacFarlane, young werewolf Charlotte and maker of marvelous gadgets Penny Clark are the first line of defense.

Kate is occupied in trying to reverse the damage to her sister, horribly mutated by a mad scientist in The Shadow Revolution. Kate has had only limited success and now a new threat has arisen. Someone is ritually sacrificing young women in London churches, and the dead are rising. An artist and necromancer, Rowan Barnes, is at the heart of these events. However, is something more ancient and deadly the driving force? The talented Griffith team combines Egyptian mythology with allusions to the prophetic poetry of William Blake and comes up with something entirely different and quite thrilling.

The action is non-stop and very cinematic, but I think that the character development is the most enjoyable element of The Undying Legion. The deepening attraction and respect between Kate and Simon is one element, but more enjoyable is Malcolm's relationship with Charlotte. As Malcolm's previous attitude to werewolves has always been "kill them", his struggle to work with and trust Charlotte is entertaining to say the least. I have no idea where the next in the series, The Conquering Dark, will take me but I am really looking forward to the ride.

Thanks to Random House Del Rey-Spectra and netgalley.com for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 4 Stars

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Brilliant "Noir" Trilogy set in Nazi Germany and Beyond

BERLIN NOIR (Bernie Gunther Books 1-3)
Philip Kerr
Viking Penguin

Berlin Noir is a repackaging of the first three books in the Bernie Gunther series: March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and German Requiem. Noir is not and has never been a preferred genre for me but having read a review of the most recent Bernie Gunther, The Lady from Zagreb, I decided to give the series a spin.

Bernie is a cynical, hard-drinking, somewhat overweight PI working primarily on missing persons cases. The setting for March Violets (a derisive term for late-comers to Nazi Party membership) is Berlin in 1933, and missing persons cases are plentiful. A former Kriminalinspektor with Kripo, the Berlin Police, Bernie quit his job when the Nazi's began purging the police officers who were not party members. A new case of two murders takes him to the highest reaches of the party.

Skipping to 1938, The Pale Criminal shows a Germany even more under the jackboots of the Nazi Party. Personal freedom is non-existent, the persecution and deportation of Jews are in full implementation and Bernie is still stubbornly resistant to Party membership. But when none other than Reinhold Heydrich summons Bernie to solve the cases of missing and murdered young girls there is no way he can refuse. Kripo has had no luck, but Bernie's reputation makes him a likely candidate. Not that Heydrich has any real interest in the girls; indeed he is hoping to implicate his Nazi rivals.

A German Requiem skips over the war and covers the occupation by the Three Powers (American, Russian and British) of Berlin and Germany. Having been blackmailed by Heydrich into SS membership, Bernie found that the wholesale killing of women and children was something her could not stomach. He asked for a transfer to the Eastern Front, ending up in a Russian POW camp. Returning to Berlin he finds a ruined landscape, food shortages, ever-present corruption and an unfaithful wife. There is little to choose from among the occupying Americans, British and Russians. When a former Kripo colleague is accused of murdering an American Captain in Vienna, Bernie takes on the investigation, for a substantial fee.

Bernie Gunther is very much the tarnished knight; amoral, prone to dispatching opposition with no second thoughts and in it for the money. But he does have a sense of honor and an unfailing eye for hypocrisy. I am not a stranger to the brutality of the Nazi regime, but I found some of the books very hard to take. Nevertheless, the three books of the Berlin Trilogy are extraordinarily well-written and historically accurate.  The audiobooks (available as separate units) are narrated very competently by John Lee, even though I found his American New York accent a little lacking. The Bernard Gunther series is relentlessly dark and while I will be continuing, I will be taking a break for something a little lighter.

RATING- 4 Stars

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The High Price of Celebrity and Beauty

Daisy Goodwin
St. Martin's Press
July 2014

The Fortune Hunter tells a story set in Victorian England based on actual characters and events. Charlotte Baird is a very wealthy young heiress, Bay Middleton a well-known cavalry officer and horseman and the beautiful Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Elizabeth is an accomplished horsewoman and has come to England to hunt and to escape the stultifying Austrian court and her equally stifling marriage to the dutiful Franz-Joseph. The lives of the three collide when Bay is assigned to be her "pilot" while hunting by his commander. He is to guide her on unfamiliar terrain and protect her from injury. Both are reckless riders and feel an immediate attraction. The problem is that Bay has an informal engagement to Charlotte.

Beautifully written, The Fortune Hunter is rich in historical detail and paints a picture of a bygone era. The parallels between Princess Diana of England and Empress Elizabeth are obvious; both were totally unprepared for the constraints of royal life and hounded by a public unable to get enough of news about them. Even though Elizabeth hated the attention and refused to be photographed after around the age of thirty, she was obsessed with her appearance. Her beauty rituals are bizarre in the extreme. Charlotte, on the other hand, is not a beauty but makes up for the lack in spirit and charm. Unlike most young women of her social standing, Charlotte is an accomplished photographer and is not particularly interested in marriage. Until she meets Bay, that is. 

The Fortune Hunter has exciting descriptions of foxhunting and steeplechasing. Even though I deplore foxhunting and blood sport in general, I found both engrossing. One gets a clear sense of the danger involved in galloping and jumping a horse over rough terrain and the skills required. At times, Goodwin's dialogue among the rich and leisured is hilarious. The British upper crust had entirely too much time on their hands, wasting whatever talents they might have had in useless pursuits and meaningless gossip.

Goodwin's portrayal of her three main characters in this love triangle is mostly sympathetic but I'm afraid I couldn't connect with Elizabeth or Bay. She was a shallow, selfish, manipulative creature, and Bay was a womanizer whose true love appeared to be his horse, Tipsy. I can't help but feel that Charlotte deserved better. As much as I enjoyed the book I was not enchanted by either Bay or Elizabeth, so that colored my overall opinion. I still have to give it a solid four stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys well researched and written historical fiction.