These books. Both by Australian authors, both… missing greatness.
I wasn’t going to do a proper review of these two books. Each had good points and bad, and whilst I felt they were solid overall (I’ve both rated as three out of five), I was concerned that my comments would come out sounding more critical than I intend and be unfair*.
I also live in the same country as these authors, and at least one of them could kick my arse**. I’m not a brave person.
I after some reflection, I feel I should do this. I think I can be fair here, and I think I can highlight their various strengths whilst addressing the areas that I thought let the stories down. And I guess… I guess felt these books could easily have been better. Tightening a few things, being more aggressive with the delete button… little things would have lifted these into the next category.
So here goes – let me know if think I’ve struck the right balance here.
He slapped the gun aside. As Peacock whimpered, this mouth flapping almost silently, Alex put one palm behind the old man’s head. He raised his other and drove iron hard fingers thought Peacock’s eyes. The hot warms of grey matter and blood burst over his hand as he stepped out aside to avoid the gout of gore as he pulled his fingers free. Peacock slumped, his head bounced once off the corner of his desk with a sick crack, and he rolled to the floor on his back. Dark, thick blood and brains oozed from the black orifices where his eyes used to be.
Alex stood panting, rushing from the flood of power coursing through him. The exhilaration was orgasmic, firing neurons all over his body. He took long, strong breaths in through his nose, forcing himself to settle, drawing his shields back tight. He felt the book in his pocket, throbbing with thick waves of exultation, revelling in the death.
Bound: Alex Caine #1 – Alan Baxter.
Bound – Alan Baxter: three out of five stars
There’s a reason I chose this quote for my review – its an accurate reflection of the book; graphic, aggressive and violent. This is an imaginative, no-holds- barred savage urban fantasy novel… which is just how I like them. Unfortunately I found the main characters tough to connect with and never felt they were in any real danger that they couldn’t handle.
Alex Caine – a tightly wound cage fighter who never loses is approached by a stranger, Patrick Welby, who tells him his martial talents are supplemented by an innate magical ability. Reluctantly running from difficulties in Sydney, Alex is recruited by Welby for the worlds simplest task; reading a book. Little does Alex expect that ‘reading this book’ means learning how to harness incredible eldritch powers, binding his soul to a evil Fey elder god, and undertake a mission to save himself that risks unleashing a power that could destroy everything. On the way, he starts a romance with a gorgeous and bloodthirsty kin woman and kicks multitudes of supernatural ass.
This book is fun. It’s action packed, its end-to-end spells, fist fights and sex. The way the magic and martial arts was mixed came across as quite novel, if not wholly unique. It’s well paced and the story itself has solid foundations. The book builds steadily to a strong climatic ending. I got a distinct Buffy feel to the ‘ancient supernatural world hiding beneath the surface of normal life’ (not helped by the fact I envisaged Welby as Stewart Head), but I’m a huge Buffy fan, so this wasn’t a bad thing. Buffy is actually not a bad comparison for other story elements; the evils are apocalyptic, the powers are difficult to control, and the hidden world is huge with a rich history.
The writing is good, it’s what I would call functional or lean – not poetic, but not over engineered either. For an action book, its dead on what is needed; straight-forward and brutal. Baxter definitely knows his way around a fight scene. He’s written a short writing guide called ‘Write the Fight Right‘ – already recommended to me by author Kay Camden, this was a must buy after reading Bound (and I mean that – I’ve bought it & will do a review once I’ve had a chance to read it). Bones break, blood sprays, and Alex’s moves are believably violent.
The villains were villainous (shocking I know) – in that they were clearly evil. Moustache twirling? Maybe a little. There was certainly no grey area baddies here; black hats only. Any moral shades of grey’s were left for the protagonists to fill. Again, this sat well with the style of the book – its like a Schwarzenegger film, a high body count flick, and the bad guys need to be hated.
The less good
Firstly – and entirely personally, the cover. I haven’t made a deal about covers in the past, but I *do* pay attention, and I have to say I’m not a fan of the art style on this book. It’s probably just me, but I found the image of the characters on the cover look lifeless. If I were shopping in a bookstore, I would have not picked this up.
I found the characters difficult to connect to – neither Alex nor his kin lady-friend Silhouette were particularly engaging. Alex is a tightly bound ball of controlled rage and anger who straight up murders a dude early on (the unfortunate Peabody from the quote); albeit whilst under the influence of a magical device. Even with this mystical rage enhancing excuse, he comes across as unsympathetic; and occasionally unpleasant. Silhouette appeared to be well named – attractive but insubstantial. She serves as a guide for Alex in this new supernatural experience, and as his physical release valve for when the powers get too much… but I felt she didn’t add as much as I hoped. I didn’t really buy the romantic subplot here either – I felt it more like a casual physical hook-up for the two of them instead of anything deeper.
But my biggest grievance was an overall lack of character risk. Alex is already an amazing fighter – which is great – but within 50 pages he’s already a mage busting down the defences of other more experienced wizards. He’s instantly a force to be reckoned with. If Hagrid had told Potter ‘You’re a wizard Harry!”, and then the eleven-year old kid had started smacking down death-eaters by chapter 12, it would have made Potter much harder to sympathise with. I rarely felt that Alex was truly at risk, simply because he was so awesome.
The escalation didn’t work for me either, the danger levels seemed a bit flat – sure, his world is turned upside down at the start of the book, there is little in the way of increased pressure from that point. The bad guys get progressively tougher, but so does Alex, and at a startling rate. I missed a strong sense of rising tension. The real danger to Alex was the unseen battle for his soul, and whilst it’s mentioned, not enough is made of it to have much impact.
I described this on GoodReads as a ‘good book for a long flight’ – and I stand by this. It’s quick, light and enjoyable read, but neither the story nor the characters will linger with you afterwards.
“LOOK OUT,” she yelled at Colt, then quickly spun around to check whether someone was creeping up behind her. No-one. She turned back to Colt and saw her struggling with Grolsh over her gun. A hail of bullets fired, ricocheting off the ship, sending Carrie scrambling for cover. She saw Fairmont throw a hard punch at Hunter’s already bloodied face, knocking him onto his back, barely three meters in front of her. In one swift movement, he grabbed Hunter’s arm and twisted it, snapping it like a twig. Hunter screamed in pain and loocked down at the bone as it protruded slightly from his arm. As Fairmont knelt over him, Carrie saw a clean shot and fired. It caught him in the shoulder. He grunted in pain and reeled back. Fairmont looked down at his wound, flashed her a ferocious look, then swiftly got to his feet, growling, as he lunged for her. Heart racing, she quickly took aim and fired again. She saw part of his head blow away, then his body swirled and fell limp to the ground with a thud.
Aurora: Darwin (Aurora #1) – Amanda Bridgeman
Aurora: Darwin – Amanda Bridgeman: 3 out of 5 stars
Near-future military sci-fi with some great tense action and a dark conspiracy. It’s easily one of my favourite easy reading genres (love my Horus Heresy novels), and its a debut book by an Australian female sci-fi author. What’s not to love?
Look, it’s not amazingly original, and I felt some of the tropes a little worn. But by far the biggest crime was acres and acres of exposition at the beginning.
The UNF Aurora – a United National Forces military spaceship under the command of Captain Saul Harris and his squad of specialist marines – is called to answer a distress beacon from the top secret research space station Darwin, sitting out at the far edges of inhabited space. A simple assist and rescue some scientists task, no big deal. Standard procedures.
Well… standard except for the fact that the Aurora has to take three new female marines with them to the outer zones, something that has never been authorised by UNF before. Corporal Carrie Welles, accomplished sharpshooter, is desperate to live up to her pioneering father’s reputation is one of these three.
The marines soon find out that nothing about this mission is as it seems, and are forced into a terrifying cat and mouse game on the Darwin, fighting for their survival.
When the story fires up author Amanda Bridgeman really brings it to this story – some excellent writing in here with some deliciously tense moments strung around a solid plot. The marines working their way around the mystery of the Darwin whilst learning about each is done very well, with reveals steadily paced throughout. This is taut story of conspiracy, violence and hidden terror that reminded me strongly of Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation of the movie ‘Aliens’.
‘Aliens’ will come to mind for many readers – there are many shared tropes here; the misogyny of some of the male soldiers, the difficulties of new recruits joining an established team, heck, the butch space marines grunting their way through a close, threatening environment, getting picked off one-by-one…. But I’m ok with this. I have no problems with revisiting well established themes and tropes where they are done well. And in the main, these are done well here.
The marines characters are tough but engaging, and most of them are easy to like. There are some unique elements too, particularly the Captain’s unusual ‘gifts’. That said, the bad guys are the stars here, and whilst a little over-the-top they do bring a real menace to the story.
This was fun, and once the story really started I found myself looking for opportunities to continue reading. I count this as a good sign.
The less good
I’ve mentioned the use of well established tropes and themes, and whilst they were handled well, it meant that most ‘reveals’ were very easy to spot well in advance. There were few real surprises, and the timing of attacks and the fall of the victims were predictable.
The antagonism and outright misogyny to the women/new recruits at the start of the novel was another obvious angle, and entirely reasonable given the Aurora was a wholly male team suddenly being forced to take on three new female soldiers. But in some parts I felt it was over done and a little over the top, and it proved a distraction when it was easy enough to see the obvious conclusion (the divided team bonding after the difficult situation).
Nothing criminal here. Once the story gets started the book is solid. Entertaining.
But… at the start?
So much exposition.
Telling, telling, telling. The first… 50 pages? 60? It was so dull. Seriously, I nearly put the book down. We get walked through the Captain’s family, the Captain’s gift, we get walked through Carrie’s history and her strained relationship with her father, we get walked through the secretive mission and the fact women aren’t allowed in space, etc, etc, etc… it was really frustrating. And what’s worse – completely unnecessary. The story starts properly at chapter three, where we find out about the Captain’s dreams (again), we sit through the suspicious mission briefing, we hear the shocked response of the team as they are informed that women will be joining them… we even overhear a phone call between Carrie and her father and the distance between them is obvious. I would say skip the first few chapters – from Chapter three Bridgeman has all the information we need in the story, revealed in a manner that is showing, not telling. Seriously, read the prologue then skip to chapter three – you’ll miss nothing.
I’m sure this comes off as super harsh, but I found it difficult to get through the first few chapters, which was annoying. And after reading how entertaining the actual story was, the start of the book seemed even more unforgiveable.
There was also a point at the end where I thought we lingered too long in debriefing and relaxing – this was less of a problem as I’d just finished the exiting stuff and the book had earned some leeway… but I think the end point could have been tighter. Wrapped up a little sooner.
As I said earlier – this book is walking on well trod ground, but it does do credit to its source materials. Excepting the exposition at the start of the book, it had enough character, drama and action to keep me turning the pages. I’ve already picked up its two sequels (a good price on iBooks due to the release of the fourth Aurora book) and I have high hopes for number Aurora#2.
Whew, well I hope I managed to show what I thought of these books without appearing too harsh. They are solid, entertaining, fun. Great action stories; both carry a few flaws.
If you do read or have read these, let me know; do you agree? Am I way off?
*I’ve already picked up other books by the same authors, so I considered their work in these books strong enough to try something else they’ve written.
**Lets be honest, I’m pretty sure both could kick my arse. I’m not a strong person either.