Here are reviews for a couple of the books I bought at the Preston Comic Con (having already posted shorter reviews on Goodreads).
The Poisonwood Shadows – Christina Crook
Scarlett Winchester lives in the city of Poisonwood, which is policed by the secretive, nocturnal Shadow Army. After being abandoned on a doorstep as a baby, Scarlett now works as a maid for a rich family, but itches to get more out of life. Following a dangerous night-time encounter, she strikes up a friendship with William Poisonwood, member of both the Shadow Army and Poisonwood’s top family – but soon after, as he works against crimes committed by a neighbouring city, William learns a terrible secret about his family. The events that follow have a strong impact on Scarlett in turn, leading her on a journey that will take her far away from what she knows.
The world of this novel is clearly not our own, but it’s not that far removed; there’s no actual magic, and some familiar technologies such as cars. But at the same time, airships are a commonly used mode of transportation, and there are specially trained, athletic soldiers watching the streets at night. It’s a good blend of familiarity and novelty, and Crook hits the right balance when it comes to revealing the world, neither dumping information when it suits the story, nor leaving the reader floundering in details that they are apparently just supposed to understand. I also liked the prose in this story; the descriptions are simple but still effective. Unfortunately, I also noticed a number of spelling and grammatical errors which needed fixing.
Fans of action will probably like this book; the setup gives plenty of opportunity for scenes of fighting and undercover work. There’s also a lot of intrigue, with a number of mysteries that the characters set out to solve; sometimes, even when an answer is apparently unveiled, it’s not really the whole truth and more work is required. The pacing moves very quickly – sometimes a little too fast, truth be told. Some parts, like a scene where two characters share a brief kiss in the rain, feel a bit cliche – yet it still works within the story and fits with the characters. Cliches are not always a bad thing; you just need to use them right.
The characters play a large part in making the novel so good. Scarlett Winchester is a really great protagonist; she’s multi-layered, and she feels real. For example, when another character feels that she’s overworking herself in the middle of a stressful situation, she replies that she can’t stop – if she does, she’ll cry. Scarlett is put through a lot of suffering, and not everybody she meets warms to her, at least at first. This complexity plays a large part in making the reader sympathise with Scarlett, as does the growth arc that she goes through. Scarlett, and the other important characters, go through major changes, along with the world around them. By the time I was at the end, there had been so much change that the beginning felt like a very long time ago, and in a good way.
Reaper’s Rhythm – Clare Davidson
Sixteen-year-old Kim walks into her house one evening to find her older sister Charley dead; recoiling in horror and falling down the stairs, she wakes up in hospital with no memory of exactly what happened. Refusing to accept what everyone else believes – that Charley killed herself – Kim is instead convinced that her sister was murdered, and begins determinedly investigating the matter. But repeated cryptic appearances from a boy named Matthew, who advises Kim to just let the matter go, gradually cause her to realise that the truth is stranger and more frightening than she could have imagined.
As the description above indicates, the story opens very dramatically and hooks you in. For the first half, however, while a few more intriguing things do happen, the overall progression isn’t very quick. I was getting a bit frustrated at this point, particularly with Matthew. I’ve always hated characters in books and films who clearly know more than they’re letting on but choose to dangle it in front of the protagonist, instead of either opening up or staying out of their way altogether; this is how Matthew seems to behave towards Kim, saying just enough to frustrate her and then disappearing. There’s also the fact that Matthew is a beautiful, mysterious young man – and we’ve already seen plenty of those in urban fantasy stories.
It is, however, quite clever of Davidson to introduce an explicit hint of supernatural goings-on in the opening scene; so while the first half of the story mostly stays in Muggle territory, we know that something more magical is going to turn up sooner or later – and turn up it does. It’s at this point that the story really gets better, becoming much more compelling and exciting. I could hardly stop reading, which meant that I got to the end quite quickly since this book isn’t that long. Even Matthew becomes a better character once we know more about him. In the first half, I was looking at his behaviour towards Kim and thinking, “He doesn’t seriously believe she’s going to do what he says and let it go, does he?” – but this ineptness could actually be a reflection of his inherently unique mindset.
The story is first-person narration, so we can get right into Kim’s head, which works very well as her emotions are running high most of the time. We see how she deals with the loss of her sister, and then later with the revelations of the story’s supernatural elements; her thoughts on these subjects, and how they end up integrating, are handled particularly well. The murder-mystery side of things provides intrigue throughout, and as with The Poisonwood Chronicles, I liked the prose a lot; the descriptions in particular paint very vivid pictures. Overall, I was definitely encouraged to look into the rest of the series.