Witchsign by Den Patrick — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

The premise of Witchsign sounded cool: a muggle arrives at evil Hogwarts and leads a rebellion. That’s a hook that ought to have made the opening of the book immediately interesting. Den Patrick can’t be blamed for dragging out the action until he reached the inciting incident; he had no way of knowing I’d have been informed of the key event before I even picked up the book. If that had been my only problem with Witchsign‘s beginning, it might not have been worth mentioning.

Marek was a good father, but his was a functional mind, only affectionate when he remembered to make the effort.

Witchsign, Den Patrick

What really put me off, however, were the characters. The dynamic between Steiner, Marek and Kjellrunn made me extremely uncomfortable. While they’re not intended to be a picture perfect family unit, we’re clearly supposed to find their internal conflicts sympathetic. Instead, I found Marek’s behaviour towards both his children pretty reprehensible, and the backstory which was meant to explain his actions seemed staggeringly convenient.

He passed a blanket to Maxim and before long he’d drawn an audience of fifteen imploring faces, all sensing protection was at hand and drifting towards it.

Witchsign, Den Patrick

Once away from the rest of his family, Steiner was able to flourish a little as Witchsign’s protagonist. He clearly demonstrated compassion, which is always a good start, and Den Patrick introduced lots of other characters, though none of them felt very fleshed-out and the pacing was a little off. Events seemed to all be happening too fast, without any time to breathe and absorb each new change of situation.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that characters kept remarking on how unlikely all Steiner’s successes were. Had they not repeatedly called attention to it, I might have noticed the improbability far less. Even so, the more pages I put between me and the problematic opening, the more I enjoyed Witchsign. By the end, I was actually having quite a good time. While the resolution superficial pacing of the main events meant the ending couldn’t really feel satisfying, there were plenty of loose ends left to be picked up in future stories. I just don’t know if I care enough to follow them…

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta — Reread Review

Cover: goodreads.com

You’d think that writing about any author as often as I’ve written about Melina Marchetta might get boring, but her books are all so different from one another. Previously, I’ve covered some of her Young Adult and Fantasy titles, and now we’re adding a third string to her bow with a crime novel. Not only is Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil a whole new genre, it’s also set in the UK, proving that Melina Marchetta can write about worlds other than those she’s lived in and created herself.

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil isn’t a puzzle mystery, exactly. It shares a lot of DNA with On the Jellicoe Road, in which you have to piece together people’s backstories fragment by fragment. So it is with Tell the Truth, not only for the crime but also for the detective, the victim, and almost every other character who appears. The realism and rawness of these characters’ emotions makes that particularly satisfying work.

“Can I trust him?” Violette asks. “Your father, I mean. He’s everywhere. Who’s he working for?”
“I think he’s working for you, Violette. I think my dad wants to save every kid in England because he couldn’t save his own.”

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, Melina Marchetta

The character development in Tell the Truth isn’t quite as strong as it is in Saving Francesca, partly because Bish Ortley is a fully mature adult at the start of the novel and partly because that’s just not as much the point of this novel. Despite that, Melina Marchetta still has the knack of presenting a character as a bit of a jerk to begin with and then giving you glimmer after glimmer of a real person buried behind that facade — I’m thinking particularly of Charlie and Glazier.

Gorman tried to pull free, tripping over a piece of tyre rubber, and they both went down the with finesse of the unfit, the middle class and the middle-aged.

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, Melina Marchetta

While Tell the Truth didn’t knock my socks off the way On the Jellicoe Road and Piper’s Son did, it’s still a solidly good book with lots of fleshed-out, realistic characters with interesting stories to tell. There’s action, too, if that’s important to people!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson — New Review

My copy of The Smoke Hunter came via Lindsey, who described it as ‘a bit silly really but def enjoyable’. I took it home on the strength, mostly, of its opening paragraph, and I was not disappointed. Judging a book on its cover may be questionable (certainly it would have failed me in this case), but I find the first paragraph test to be pretty reliable.

It was a river of story without a source, something that haunted the jungles of New Spain like the ghost of one had never lived.

The Smoke Hunter, Jacquelyn Benson

I was impressed by how much was going on, not just in terms of plot and action, but in terms of genre. I’d assumed The Smoke Hunter would be a historical adventure, but I quickly reprised my opinion — it’s genuinely hard to call whether the romance is the plot and the adventure is the subplot or vice versa. Not that it really matters, as both are equally fast-paced and fun. By the end of the novel, I’d also decided (with the help of fantasy book club) to also include The Smoke Hunter under fantasy. I wasn’t sure at first, because the magic only crops up in one object and nobody knows how to replicate it or explain it, but the final pages hint towards more magic existing in the world of the book, so I’ve decided that it counts!

He pulled his shirt off over his head and Ellie forgot to be annoyed. The sight of his bare torso did seem to have that rather inconvenient effect on her.

The Smoke Hunter, Jacquelyn Benson

The romance tropes aren’t anything ground-breaking, but I still had a nice time reading them, especially as they’re wrapped up in prose far superior to some romance novels I’ve read. The same could be said for the adventure and historical elements. The details of the Mayan/Aztec civilisation had a surprising amount in common with The Road to El Dorado, which is hardly what I’d call a rigorous historical source.

Ellie’s appreciation for organising things endeared her to me immediately and the fact she’d learned at least one cypher by heart makes her a pretty good puzzles protagonist — not a category I realised I needed in my life, but I was bemoaning the lack of crossword compilers in fantasy fiction just a few weeks ago, so this is timely. Ellie reminded me of Lady Trent in Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons; if you enjoyed that, I’d say there’s a good chance you’d enjoy The Smoke Hunter.

I wouldn’t want to read only books by Jacquelyn Benson, because I think I’d get bored of the romance tropes if they weren’t well spaced-out, but I’d definitely read another one in a few months, or when I get to the end of my TBR, assuming that ever happens.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.