I will be totally, absolutely honest. I wasn't really expecting to like Shades of Milk and Honey.
It's nothing to do with Kowal or her writing. I've ad...moreI will be totally, absolutely honest. I wasn't really expecting to like Shades of Milk and Honey.
It's nothing to do with Kowal or her writing. I've adored other things I've read by her. I've nominated and voted for some of her work for various awards. She's a good writer. But this one just didn't look or sound like my kind of book. The description, "Like Jane Austen wrote a fantasy novel" didn't hit any of my buttons, and I'm afraid the cover art didn't help. (The newer editions of this series have different and much improved artwork, in my opinion.)
I tend to prefer more action in my plots, more humor and fun in my fiction ... which I'm sure comes as a tremendous shock to anyone who's read my stuff. So it took me a while to pull this one off of Mount ToBeRead...
...at which point I devoured the story, finishing the book in three days, and sacrificing a bit of sleep in the process.
There are a few action-type scenes toward the end, but for the most part, this is a relatively quiet book. And I loved it. I loved the characters. I loved the relationships between them, and the way Jane's insecurities crashed into those of her sister, and the conflicts that ensued. I loved the language, which was careful and formal without ever feeling stilted or stuffy.
The magic was particularly enjoyable. In a genre that includes Gandalf and Dumbledore, the glamours of Kowal's world are relatively limited in scope: the manipulation of light and sound to craft illusions. It's seen as a lady's skill, like painting watercolors or playing a musical instrument. But Jane is very skilled and passionate about her art, and it draws you in until a scene about crafting an illusory birch grove is as thrilling as any battle between heroes and goblins.
Certain elements and twists in the story felt a little predictable, but I wasn't reading for the plot twists. I was reading for the sheer enjoyment. And I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner.
You can read the first two chapters at Kowal's website, and I strongly encourage you to do so.(less)
This is an ambitious story. Not only does Duyvis create a believable fantasy world (inspired in part by the Netherlands) with its own messy history, p...moreThis is an ambitious story. Not only does Duyvis create a believable fantasy world (inspired in part by the Netherlands) with its own messy history, politics, cultures, geography, and rules, but she also grounds Nolan’s story in our own world, then successfully ties them both together. In some ways, Otherbound is a portal fantasy, but it’s a portal fantasy with a lot more challenges and complications.
For one thing, when Nolan’s mind is with Amara, his body remains here with no one at the helm. As a child, he slipped into Amara’s world while crossing the street, which resulted in an accident that cost him his leg. Now, Nolan not only has to deal with his missing leg, but in many ways, his connection to Amara is presented as a neurological disability, one he’s constantly working to manage.
Amara’s tongue was cut out as a child, part of her “preparation” to become a servant. Later, she developed the power to heal from any new wounds, and uses this power to protect her princess … a girl Amara can’t decide if she hates or loves. In the meantime, they’re constantly on the run, guarded by an abusive drunk of a man.
Reading through the past few paragraphs, it sounds like this is a grim, gritty, potentially depressing book, and it’s not. There’s plenty of darkness, but Duyvis presents it all without ever wallowing in despair or hopelessness.
I was particularly impressed with how she handled the growing connection between Nolan and Amara. At first, Amara isn’t aware of Nolan at all. But eventually he learns he can control her. The first time this happens, there are layers of assumptions and misunderstandings on Nolan’s part. Without going into details, Nolan is simply trying to communicate with this person, to try to do something about this connection that’s cost him so much. But in the process, he takes total control of Amara. It’s a violation that has echoes of sexual assault, both in the way Amara loses control of her own body, and in her reactions afterward.
That’s Amara’s first introduction to Nolan, and it’s a hard thing to move past. Duyvis doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties there, but she does a good job of making both characters sympathetic and understandable as they try to negotiate and learn to work together.
I did get a little disoriented in the beginning as we were going back and forth between worlds, and I would have liked a little more grounding in Amara’s world, but overall I’m very impressed with everything Duyvis accomplished in this book. There’s plenty of action to keep things moving, along with romance, a diverse cast of characters, and an interesting magical system.
It’s a good book, and doubly impressive for being Duyvis’ debut.(less)
My Zombie Hamster is … well, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the box. There’s this hamster, you see. And he’s a zombie…
Naturally, there’s mor...moreMy Zombie Hamster is … well, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the box. There’s this hamster, you see. And he’s a zombie…
Naturally, there’s more to it. Let’s start with the official synopsis:
Matt Hunter and his buddies are looking forward to Christmas — actually, they’re looking forward to receiving the latest sword-and-fantasy video game. But Matt’s parents have other thoughts — they give him a fluffy little mammal, a hamster called Snuffles, for the holiday. And his grandmother makes it worse by giving him a hamster cage and wheel. But the hamster isn’t all that cute — at least not after part of its cheek and belly fall right off — without bothering it a bit! And why is it staring at Matt with black beady eyes and a lean and hungry look?
Say hello to Anti-Snuffles, the zombie hamster! Or better yet, run!
This is a middle grade book set in the very near present. The zombie apocalypse has led to a society of walled cities and towns, but aside from the zombie-hunting cops wandering around to make sure you’re still alive, and the presence of life chips that go off when you expire (alerting said zombie-hunting cops to come and dispose of your potentially brain-hungry corpse). On the other hand, Matt still has to go to school, still references present-day pop culture, and still lives a life that’s in many ways pretty similar to most kids these days.
Similar except for the never-named-but-clearly-hinted-at ex-movie star who’s come to town to take charge of zombie security, of course. And the mayor’s big pet contest. And of course, Anti-Snuffles, who may or may not be building an army of undead critters…
It’s a quick read, one the author describes as “a cross between Shaun of the Dead, The Goonies, and The Diary of Adrian Mole.” The short, daily chapters are interspersed with Matt’s lists of things to do, whether it’s his plan for breaking into [SPOILER] or the things he plans to do once he becomes a megamillionaire.
Despite the undead hamster, the book isn’t particularly gross or scary, so it shouldn’t give young kids nightmares about the family pets. On the other hand, reading it as a not-quite-40-year-old, that also meant the stakes didn’t feel quite as urgent to me.
One of my favorite parts was a subplot with one of Matt’s friends, something I can’t really talk about without spoiling things. But it was an unexpected development, and I really enjoyed the way the characters handled it.
It’s a light-hearted story about a boy vs. his undead hamster. What else is there to say?(less)
One of the things I liked about this book was that the author didn't spend a lot of time on backstory or hand-holding to explain the worldbuilding. Yo...moreOne of the things I liked about this book was that the author didn't spend a lot of time on backstory or hand-holding to explain the worldbuilding. You jump right into Rownie's story, picking up details as you go, from the clockwork guards to the mythology of the River to the layout and struggles of the split town. I've seen a few reviews that complained this was confusing, but I didn't have a problem with it. I really enjoyed the worldbuilding, and the thought Alexander had put into the magic and history. You can skim the book and still appreciate the story, but you'll get a lot more out of it if you read more closely.
The different types of magic felt original and interesting, from the masks to Graba's curses to the coal used to power various automatons. I also appreciated the role and personalities of the goblins, all of whom felt distinctive and real and interesting.
At its heart, the plot is pretty straightforward and self-contained. What's interesting to me is that I think one of the reasons it works so well is everything Alexander doesn't say, in addition to the things he does. He drops hints and suggestions, and the reader fills in the rest. It's an impressive balancing act.
There are a few scenes that are genuinely dark and disturbing in that old-school fairy tale way, but they feel right for the book. And the ending is both satisfying and true to the story.
The Lives of Tao, is Wesley Chu’s first novel, and as an author, I kind of hate him a little bit for that. I picked up and started reading the book be...moreThe Lives of Tao, is Wesley Chu’s first novel, and as an author, I kind of hate him a little bit for that. I picked up and started reading the book because I had met Wesley a while back, and he seemed like a pretty cool person. I finished reading it because it’s such a fun read.
Tao is basically a symbiotic life form, one who requires a human or animal host to survive on Earth. His people crash landed on our planet ages ago, and are now at war. Tao and the Prophus want to peacefully encourage humanity’s evolution until our technology is advanced enough to help them get home. The Genjix are believed to have similar goals … minus the “peacefully” part.
After a mission gone wrong results in the death of Tao’s human host, he’s forced into the body of an unambitious, insecure IT technician named Roen. This is the time, when he’s stuck in an untrained host, that Tao is most vulnerable. He has to keep Roen alive long enough to get him trained, and eventually to try to figure out what the Genjix are really up to this time.
Like I said, the book is a lot of fun. Tao is a great character, one who has existed in some of the greatest hosts in human history. (Genghis Khan, for example.) Tao tells Roen dream-stories about some of his past lives at the start of each chapter, which gives him (and us) the background of both Tao and his people.
Tao has tons of experience and knowledge, but upgrading Roen to superspy status isn’t as easy as simply plugging him in. There’s plenty of banter, entertaining training scenes, lots of action, and characters you want to keep reading about.
The only real complaint I have isn’t about the writing so much as it is one of the tropes Chu uses in the book. He’s created a world in which many of the wars and tragedies of human history were actually engineered by the Genjix. While it makes sense in the context of the book, I’ve never liked that particular trope, since it would seem to excuse us for our own atrocities. I know it’s fiction, but it still bugs me. Humans are capable of amazing things. We’re also capable of horrible, evil things. Pretending otherwise feels like lying about human nature.
Like I said, it’s a personal peeve.
There’s a twist in the ending that I saw coming pretty early on, but overall, it’s a good ending, one that wraps up the events of this book while making it clear there’s more to come in the series.
Darkbeast began as a short story in the anthology Fantastic Companions, edited by Julie Czerneda. Which now has me thinking how cool it would be to tr...moreDarkbeast began as a short story in the anthology Fantastic Companions, edited by Julie Czerneda. Which now has me thinking how cool it would be to try to do the same thing with my own story from that anthology… But that’s completely off topic, sorry. I blame this cold, which has turned my brain into overripe cauliflower today.
In Keyes’ story, the companions in question are darkbeasts, creatures given to each newborn by the gods to take the children’s negative feelings and impulses into themselves. For example, when our protagonist Keara disobeys her mother, she’s sent to her darkbeast Caw, a crow who takes Keara’s disobedience into himself. This arrangement lasts until the child’s 12th birthday, at which time the child is expected to kill his or her darkbeast as part of a religious ceremony marking their transition into adulthood.
But unlike most children, Keara loves her darkbeast. She loves their telepathic bond, the comfort and companionship Caw provides. So when the time comes to kill Caw, she refuses. She flees her village, the only home she’s known, and joins up with the Travelers (actors and storytellers who tour from one town to another.)
Caw tends to steal the spotlight. He’s fun, always demanding snacks and treats, and always accepting Keara and all of her faults. But keeping him alive violates one of the core laws of the priesthood, and if the Inquisitors catch Keara, both she and Caw will suffer.
This is a YA middle grade book, relatively short, quick-paced, and easy to read. But I found myself wishing it was longer, with a bit more exploration and discussion of the world, the gods, the religion, the magic… I wanted to know more about how and why things worked the way they did. The structure of the novel means we discover things along with Keara, and many of the revelations don’t show up until the very end of the book.
The book tends to raise questions obliquely, circling around the true roles of the darkbeasts, the place of the Inquisitors, and more. But those questions, while thematically central, are often a step removed from the plot. Keara makes friends and enemies among the Travelers, learns their ways, shares their urgency to create a new and daring performance. And in the midst of those conflicts and struggles, we see how the darkbeasts fit into the children’s lives, and the cost those children pay when they kill their darkbeasts and become adults.
Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but a part of me wishes the story had addressed some of those questions more directly. But it’s not until the end when we finally rip the curtain aside.Fantastic Companions(less)
The Apocalypse Ocean is the fourth book in Tobias Buckell‘s Xenowealth series.
The story behind this book is almost as interesting as the book itself....moreThe Apocalypse Ocean is the fourth book in Tobias Buckell‘s Xenowealth series.
The story behind this book is almost as interesting as the book itself. Buckell talks here about how he used Kickstarter to successfully reboot this series. I haven’t seen the ebook, but I can tell you the hardcover is gorgeous. More about that later, though…
The Apocalypse Ocean continues Buckell’s tradition of blending larger-than-life characters (Pepper and Nashara are back!) and … well, let’s call them “life-sized” characters for comparison. Tiago is a boy doing his best to survive on Placa del Fuego, an island where acidic, flammable rains are only the least of people’s troubles. Placa del Fuego is a dead zone, where little technology functions, and an alien known as the Doaq roams the streets at night, devouring all who oppose it. Tiago is a clever but low-level pickpocket, and his Fagin is Kay, a woman raised and engineered on a hellish alien world who’s determined to run Placa del Fuego for herself. Unfortunately, their island is about to be caught in the middle of a galactic conflict…
It’s been four and a half years since I read and reviewed Sly Mongoose, the previous book in the series, and I stumbled a few times as a result of my own forgetfulness about what had happened. The new book does stand on its own, but it will mean more if you’re familiar with the first three.
You can tell Buckell knows his world and his characters very well, and has spent a lot of time developing both. From the smallest details of the home Tiago shares to the sweeping history and conflicts of the wormhole network, he’s gone beyond surface flash to consider the implications and possibilities of his worldbuilding. The Doaq uses a horrifying but fascinating version of wormhole technology, for example.
All in all, it’s a strong, engaging adventure, one that leaves me hoping for a fifth book in this universe.
As an author myself, I was fascinated by the way this book came about. Buckell has always been near the forefront of publishing, following and analyzing the trends, and doing a good job of taking advantage of new possibilities. So I wasn’t surprised to see him try Kickstarter, nor was I surprised to see him succeed. Physically speaking, this hardcover is as good or even better quality than a lot of what I’ve seen from professional publishers. I did notice a few typos, but nothing that threw me out of the story. Buckell put a lot of work and care into this book, and it shows.(less)
Death Troopers was presented to me as “Star Wars with zombies.” And now you know everything you need to know to decide whether or not to read this one...moreDeath Troopers was presented to me as “Star Wars with zombies.” And now you know everything you need to know to decide whether or not to read this one.
It’s a fairly standard zombie story. The Imperial prison barge Purge encounters an abandoned Star Destroyer. They investigate, return to the Purge, and then a mysterious illness begins killing both the crew and the inmates. Will our handful of survivors manage to escape the uprising?
There are references to Darth Vader, but the only familiar characters were the “two smugglers” who had been conveniently isolated in solitary confinement, and thus didn’t get infected right away.
There were a few points where I struggled with suspension of disbelief. (Yeah, I know. Star Wars and zombies. But still…) The one that comes to mind was the behavior of the zombie-goop when the doctor (the only female character, I believe) was trying to prevent another character from becoming infected. I got stuck on, “Wait, how exactly is that supposed to work?”
There are moments of genuine horror — the wookiee scene in particular, and Chewbacca’s reaction. For the most part though, I didn’t feel like I was reading anything new. I was left asking myself, “Why was this a story that needed to be told in the Star Wars universe?”
Schreiber has written another zombie Star Wars book, Red Harvest, which introduces a Jedi and a Sith Lord into a zombie story. I suspect that one could do a better job of bringing the Star Wars universe and mythology into things. How does the force affect the walking dead, and vice versa? What’s the impact on the larger political struggles we’re familiar with?
I have absolutely nothing against trying to write something popular, and zombies have been hot for a while now. The fact that Shreiber wrote a second of these books suggests that Death Troopers sold well, and I’m always happy to see a fellow Michigan author succeed.
Personally though, I wanted to see something new, something that managed to feel like both Star Wars and zombies. For me, it accomplished the latter, but failed to do the former.
I mean, if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to include at least one zombie Ewok trudging along, groaning “Nuuuub… nuuuuubbbb.”(less)
Ink Black Magic is the third book in Tansy Rayner Roberts' Mocklore chronicles. I haven't read the first two, but that wasn't much of a problem. While...moreInk Black Magic is the third book in Tansy Rayner Roberts' Mocklore chronicles. I haven't read the first two, but that wasn't much of a problem. While there are a few references to earlier events, the book pretty much stands on its own.
How to describe this one ... well, let's start with this snippet from the official description:
"True love isn't all it's cracked up to be. Happy endings don't come cheap. All that magic is probably going to kill you. You really can have too much black velvet."
Basically, you've got Kassa Daggersharp, legendary ex-pirate and professor of magic; and Egg Friefriedsson, a university student whose comics come to life in the form of the foreboding and fashion-challenged city of Drak. And also a guy who's currently a winged sheep. And Aragon Silversword, who's in the midst of an identity crisis of his own. They have to save their home from Drak, which is expanding and transforming everyone it touches into dark, foreboding, sinister versions of themselves, all of whom dress like Neil Gaiman.
Other reviewers have compared this book to Pratchett's work, and I had the same reaction at several points while I was reading. There's a healthy appreciation for the absurd, and a lively cast of ridiculous and entertaining secondary characters. It doesn't have the same laugh-out-loud moments of funny, but it didn't feel to me like Roberts was aiming for that. So I didn't see this as a flaw, merely a different flavor of comic fantasy.
The plot was surprisingly layered, with mystery after mystery to be peeled back like an onion in which every layer of the onion is magical and might kill you or rewrite your mind or un-kill you or bring about a sudden rain of seafood. Or all of the above. While this made for a more complex and ambitious story, the pacing toward the end felt a little off to me, as if there was just too much to wrap up. But that could be a quirk of my personal taste.
Overall, a fun read and a nice change of pace.(less)
I reviewed Myke Cole‘s first book, Shadow Ops: Control Point, back in January of 2012. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier is the sequel, and if you liked t...moreI reviewed Myke Cole‘s first book, Shadow Ops: Control Point, back in January of 2012. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier is the sequel, and if you liked the first book, I suspect you’ll like this one even more.
Book two picks up where the first one left off, but switches to the perspective of Colonel Alan Bookbinder, a military man more comfortable behind a desk than in actual combat. He’s a quiet, nervous, even timid man, but when he comes up latent (displaying magical abilities), all that changes. He’s drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps, and ends up on the FOB Frontier, another world filled with magic and goblins and more.
While “write what you know” is generally a silly rule, Cole shows how it can work, using his own military background to create a solid, believable military fantasy. One of my favorite parts of the book was watching Bookbinder learn to move through his fears and develop his own leadership abilities.
Oscar Britton, the p0rtamancer protagonist from book one, also gets some point of view time in the book. It can be odd switching perspectives after spending so much time with one character, but I think it worked here. It was important to see what he’s been doing since book one, and how those events have changed him.
I enjoyed meeting the naga, learning more about the creatures of the Source, and seeing how other nations are dealing with magic and this fantastic frontier. And I appreciate that Cole went back to address the potentially deadly mess Oscar Britton left behind in book one.
In some respects, this is very much a middle book. (The third book, Breach Zone, comes out in January of 2014.) While relatively self-contained, the larger story arc about how people with magical powers are treated and mistreated, as well as the secrets of the magical frontier — “the Source” — are left unresolved. Indeed, this book ups the stakes in a number of ways. Assuming book three is the last one, I expect quite the crescendo.
You can read an excerpt of the first book at Tor.com (http://www.tor.com/stories/2012/02/sh...). If you like the excerpt, you’ll probably like the first book. If you liked the first book, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the second.(less)
I wrote the introduction to the first Velveteen collection, Velveteen vs. the Junior Super Patriots, so I was very happy to get my hands on book two....moreI wrote the introduction to the first Velveteen collection, Velveteen vs. the Junior Super Patriots, so I was very happy to get my hands on book two. In this book, bunny-eared superheroine Velveteen, with the power to animate toys, continues her battle against the the forces of the Super Patriots, Inc.
I emailed Seanan after I finished reading the collection, telling her she was awesome, and that I was honored to be her friend. She wrote back to say thank you, but that she wasn’t sure what about her silly superhero stories had inspired such a response.
That’s a fair question, and it’s taken me a few days to try to put it into words. Because sure, there’s a fair amount of silliness going on in these stories. There’s a superhero who’s basically a Disney princess come to life. There are Velveteen’s green plastic army men shooting tiny plastic bullets at bad guys. There’s a whole story about getting trapped in a typical horror flick.
But despite the silliness, the characters are always treated with respect. They feel like real people, even when they’re flung into rather odd or absurd situations. Their struggles and their love and their pain are real, and you very quickly start to care about them all. I think that’s one of Seanan’s superpowers.
There’s more going on here, though. These stories, this book, felt … unfiltered in a way most books don’t. It felt like Seanan McGuire had written these stories purely for the fun and joy and love of it. Knowing her as a friend, I could see her shamelessly indulging her love of parallel universes and toys and twisted holidays and fairy tales and horror films and so much more, and it works. This collection is an invitation to join Seanan in celebrating everything she loves.
Now sure, if you don’t like the same things she does, then the stories may not work for you. No book works for everyone, after all. And not everyone has the same tolerance for the fun/silly factor in stories.
But I like it. I like the random-but-carefully-thought-out superpowers combined with the all-too-real corporate overlords of the Super Patriots, Inc. I like that she never forgets that all victories come with a cost. I like that the individual, mostly-standalone stories don’t feel repetitive. I like the character revelations we get in this book.
I liked the first collection, but by the end of this one, I felt like Seanan had accomplished something magical.
The Velveteen stories are also available online if you want to check them out before you buy. The first nine are listed on her website. All of them are tagged on her LiveJournal.
IN A WORLD where children are bound to magical darkbeasts, intelligent companion animals who are supposed to take their children’s sins and faults int...moreIN A WORLD where children are bound to magical darkbeasts, intelligent companion animals who are supposed to take their children’s sins and faults into themselves, Keara has defied tradition by refusing to ritually kill her darkbeast Caw. This makes her an outcast and a target for the Inquisitors.
We pick up where book one left off, with Keara, Goran, and Taggart on the run with their darkbeasts, searching for the darker community — others who have chosen to spare their darkbeasts and live in exile. But what they find is not what Keara had expected. She feels out of place and … empty. Day-to-day life in hiding isn’t what she had imagined it would be.
I like old Taggart’s response to Keara’s complaints about boredom and routine: “Most of life is routine. Routine is what keeps us fed, keeps us safe. Keeps us ready for those few, heart-stopping moments when we must fight for what we believe.” Let’s just say that as I approach my 13th year working for state government to support my family and my writing, that line resonated.
Without spoiling too much, Keara soon finds herself wishing for boredom. We get a story of betrayal and political intrigue and power struggles and relationship drama and more.
It’s a fun and enjoyable read. As with book one, I liked the characters — particularly Caw, with his unapologetic greed for treats and his unwavering parental love for Keara. It was nice to see more of the politics of the world, and the conflict between the Princeps and the Inquisitor Ducis.
I think the title left me expecting more actual rebellion. There’s a lot of interpersonal conflict and growth, and a fair amount of setup for book three, but don’t pick up the book looking for epic battles between darkers and Inquisitors, with armies of ravens and rats and snakes and spiders swarming over enemy soldiers. Which was disappointing, because I kind of wanted to see that. But given where we end things in this book, I imagine the larger scale conflicts are coming soon.
You’ll want to read Darkbeast first, but if you enjoyed that one, you should pick up the sequel and join me in impatiently waiting for Keyes to finish the third book in the trilogy.(less)