This book hits a few loves with me. First off, the narration structure. The book is based around the legend of Prester John, a medieval European legen...moreThis book hits a few loves with me. First off, the narration structure. The book is based around the legend of Prester John, a medieval European legend of a priest-king who ruled over a land of legend off somewhere in the east. In 1699, a group, lead by a Brother Hiob, sets out to find traces of his kingdom, and come across a hamlet with a strange woman, who tells them that Prester John is gone, and shows them to a tree with books for fruit, and tells the head of the expedition he can pick three. The narrative is interwoven from those three books and Hiob's comments as he fights the decay of the books -- which, being fruit, don't last long once picked -- to record them and send them back to Europe.
The three interwoven narratives are John's own accounts of his travels, a memoir of Hagia, one of the locals who eventually ends up as John's queen, and a book of stories, which do a lot to explain how the country of Pentexore came into being and fill in the history that Hagia knows and John never asks about. It's a really cool device for a story like this, which is based on medieval legends rather than modern fantasy, even if the peoples of Pentexore are just as fantastic as elves and dwarves and vampires and werewolves.
Which is another point in its favor. A friend of mine is a fan of reading ancient Greek and Roman accounts of the wider world (and completely made-up ones, such as Lucian of Samosata's True History) and telling me what happens, and a lot of the legends have similar qualities. It's a welcome change from the current staple of fantasy, and Valente draws some damn good stuff from legends (not just of Prester John, but Thomas the Apostle, Alexander the Great and Herodotus), but gives a modern fantasy author's worldbuilding spin on it.
Valente, in a guest column for John Scalzi's blog, described it as writing a first contact novel, in that John is taken from a world where he fundamentally knows that everyone believes the same basic thing and looks, roughly, like him, and thrown into a place -- alone -- without other humans and without the shared cultural references that everyone takes for granted. Which can be frustrating for the reader, since, from Hagia's point of view, we are already invested in her people and that really makes John seem like kind of an asshole for taking so long to fit this into his worldview. Then again, John is a medieval priest, who doesn't even have the reference a Western reader would have for things like aliens or elves -- in his world, there are men, beasts, angels and demons, and he's not sure what is what or how this fits in with God's plan.
I did really enjoy the book. Valente can turn a phrase like nothing else -- at least, based on reading Palimpsest and parts of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making -- and this is the kind of story that calls for it. Plus, I did really like a lot of the characters, and the old-school legends made the book feel young again. I'd like to see the sequels -- from the bridging story and Hagia's own reflections as she writes, we know Shit Went Down, but there is always a story in telling how. (less)
A Spell for the Revolution is the second book in a series of American-Revolutionary-War historical fantasy. The series premise is that the witch hunts...moreA Spell for the Revolution is the second book in a series of American-Revolutionary-War historical fantasy. The series premise is that the witch hunts of Salem actually did target some people with special abilities, who were forced underground. Nearly a hundred years later, witches still persist in secret. The protagonist, Proctor Brown, is a young man trying to balance his service in the local militia (which is rapidly heading towards armed rebellion against the British troops) and his engagement to a local merchant's daughter (who isn't too thrilled by the thought of armed rebellion). He's also able to see the future, something his mother helps to hide. Anyway, and there will be spoilers for the first book here...
Proctor is finally discovered by the local magic community and the network that helps them find training and safe haven -- like the network that would later help transport escaped slaves northward, it was mostly run by the Religious Society of Friends. Unfortunately, the Covenant, a group of European witches interested in making the revolution fail, notice Proctor and assume the Americans have recruited supernatural talent, so they target the safe haven. Proctor decides that he can't sit by and let people be killed, so he takes action, and discovers this conspiracy of the Covenant, who want to stop the Americans because they want to use the British Empire as a focus to Rule the World. Or something.
... Anyway, the sequel takes place in the fall of 1776, where Proctor and Deborah (the daughter of the safe house owners in the first book) are trying to keep their charges safe. When they find out the Covenant is going after an orphan boy with a talent*, Proctor and Deborah book it to Long Island. They encounter the Continental Army under Washington, and discover that the Covenant cursed them by shackling ghosts to any soldier in the field. Proctor and Deborah have to come up with a way to lift the curse before the weight of the ghosts causes a catastrophic defeat or the Covenant's agents kill them. (And also rescue their original target.)
Now, I was a bit leery of the books series, because well... I'm American. I know that, all other things being equal, I'll take an American side in a conflict -- in other words, it's easy for me to feel sympathy for the patriots in the Revolutionary War and harder for me to root for the British. Having Our Heroes be Patriots and the Bad Guys be Europeans (or a southern Loyalist slave owner in one case**) doesn't pose much moral complexity for me. (For that matter, it seems like most non-fantasy lit about the Revolutionary War that I read as a kid has Patriot protagonists.) Add in that the Bad Guys are Bad Guys -- helping a nation become a superpower so you can use it as a focus for your magic and control non-witches, drawing power off of the unwilling, enslaving spirits of the dead, raising demons. It's not even a case where both sides are equally underhanded. I might even tolerate it more if it was not!America and not!Britain, but painting a historical conflict in terms of Good and Evil bothers me. I'm contrasting something like the Temeraire series***, where nations don't appear to be any more good or evil than others. It could be worse -- it could be a current conflict.
The straw that broke the camel's back was the in the second book. While I realize some historical events and persons are going to show up, this felt a bit silly. So, General Washington was involved, because he's the leader of the army. And Thomas Paine, writer of revolutionary pamphlets, plays a role in the solution to the central conflict. And the Battle of Trenton and other conflicts fought in the NYC/New Jersey area during the summer and fall of 1776, and the fire in New York City. But the point where Proctor and Deborah ran into Nathan Hale on the road in Long Island, figure out he's a spy for the Americans†, and then later see his execution (and the whole 'I regret I have but one life to give for my country') thing, was where my disbelief snapped -- it just came across as the writer trying to make every event that happened in the area something that the protagonists saw. (I mean, I might have even bought it if Hale was only mentioned, or they didn't run into him on the way to the city -- but at that point, it just got a bit silly.)
So, I think both are going to PaperBackSwap and I won't bother reading the next one.
* In the previous book, a Covenant spy kept a slave around and drew off her talent. It was generally figured out that's why they were so powerful -- they were stealing from others.
** One thing with having many of the minor protagonists being Friends or friends of Friends means that you don't have to deal with the moral issue of slavery as much as you might otherwise have to. Or, for that matter, shitty treatment of women.
Temeraire features a British cast in the Napoleonic era where Napoleon is portrayed as an honorable enemy, France becomes more progressive on dragons' rights (copying China), and the British admiralty are willing to purposefully infect the dragons of Europe with a deadly disease if it ends the war. The human protagonist smuggles the cure to France because, to him, unleashing a biological weapon on conscript soldiers and noncombatants is WRONG, then returns to get imprisoned for treason. And then France invades England, and his superior officer/lover yells at him for risking his career when someone would have eventually leaked the cure. For that matter, even the protagonist (who is portrayed as semi-enlightened for his era), shows some racist and sexist attitudes, and it takes him a book and a half to realize that his dragon and best friend is essentially a slave conscript-soldier and the only place where he could live free was halfway around the world from Britain.
† Because he is apparently the worst spy ever. Seriously, they spend five minutes with him and see right through his cover story, without use of magic. How anyone expected him to check out troop movements in occupied territory is beyond me. Granted, historically Hale was caught, but writing his exposure as a spy because he was easy to read bothers me. (less)
Okay, I was recced this book based on the fact it had a lesbian protagonist. (It was during the mess with Amazon where books with GLBT themes weren't...moreOkay, I was recced this book based on the fact it had a lesbian protagonist. (It was during the mess with Amazon where books with GLBT themes weren't showing up on searches.) I did read the author's short stories beforehand as a bit of a warning and was ambivalent -- interesting in trying them, but prepared to send it off to PaperbackSwap if I didn't like them.
One of the problems with this book is that I went in thinking it was what I consider an otherwordly fantasy when it was more of a very-stretched alt-history. The reason I say this is because of the religious elements. Hundreds of years before the series began, Italy (still made up of a number of kingdoms, like historical-Italy was), a new religion arose based on the magical ability to call fire and worshiping a pair of gods (the Lord and the Lady, though the Lord isn't mentioned much) and supplanting Christianity (called 'the Old Way' in the book). Unsurprisingly, one still gets the Inquisition, de facto rule of the Church, and punishment of heretics, regardless of whose name the religion is ruled by.
While I don't mind Christianity in alt-history/historical-fantasy (because... well, it existed), I tend to worry that any use of it (or other real-world religions -- anytime you mention a goddess with multiple elements to her, I get the same feeling) in fantasy taking place outside of our world is going to lead to at best a lack of creativity, and at worse proselytizing, which leads to me throwing the book against the wall. Especially when they are the minority and oppressed religion. (Let's face it -- fantasy fen root for the oppressed.)
On the other hand, Kritzer did a good job of both keeping the heroine questioning which is right, and in not portraying one religion as the Good one or the Right one. Plus, as an alt-history nerd, I liked the fact that the resurgence of Old Way was apparently modified by the new religion. For one, the magefire promoted by the in-power religion acts to reduce fertility, which changed the status of women in the society. The Old Way version of the New Testament gives Gesu only two major disciples, Tomas and Mara (plus Guidas/Judas), and states that God is aspected as 'the Mother, Her Son, and the Holy Light'. The priestess character hints that the 'Old Way' is a reconstruction of the actual Old way and that even she, a scholar, has no clue what it was really like.
The plot also handled the main character's change from music student to revolutionary quite well, including explaining why and how she got a leadership position, something that doesn't always work well in fantasy. It also had a bit of an environmental message -- the plot switches from the protagonist's mysterious new roommate, to her discovery that magefire is what caused the dead regions on the border with another country, to her becoming involved in both the Old Way and the reform movement.
(Also kudos on handling the 'magic messes up the environment' and 'one religion likes magic, one doesn't' angles. I'm always a bit leery of environmental fiction as well, but it can be done well -- see half of all Miyazaki movies, notably Princess Mononoke.)
Overall, I thought the book handled a number of cliche themes in a sensitive and thoughtful way. Which makes me happy. Plus, it had a good plot and a main character I liked. So I'll probably buy the sequel new. (less)
The world has many hidden life forms called mushi, something like the base of all life. Ginko is a traveling mushishi, or 'mushi master', and he solve...moreThe world has many hidden life forms called mushi, something like the base of all life. Ginko is a traveling mushishi, or 'mushi master', and he solves various problems that the mushi cause by interacting with humans.
First of all, this is a pretty, pretty series, and very episodic and encompassing. The down side is that the first manga volume maps nearly exactly to the anime -- as in, I can't see seeing both. I only hope that there's stuff that didn't make it to the anime, otherwise I'm just gonna give this one up. (less)
He's a millennium-old vampire traveling to the New World to avoid vampire politics. She's a detective-mage with a sense of duty that could crack iron....moreHe's a millennium-old vampire traveling to the New World to avoid vampire politics. She's a detective-mage with a sense of duty that could crack iron. Together... they fight crime!
Seriously, New Amsterdam is set in sort of a steampunk/magic/alt-history where the Hadenosaunee(Iriquois) and other native tribes kept the British and French from doing much in the US interior, the Dutch didn't cede their New York territory to Britain until the Napoleonic era, and the US never won independence. Lady Abby Irene Garrett is one of the Crown's three go-to people for magical crimes in the colonies, after a self-imposed exile from England.
I enjoy a good supernatural mystery, and this fulfills this in spades. The book is made up of a series of interconnected short-stories -- there is an overarching plot about the relationship between Abby Irene and the Crown, but each story also features a crime to be solved. The worldbuilding is also nice, and I'd love to see more than New Amsterdam, Boston and Paris in the stories.
The romance, on the other hand, is pretty generic. I liked Sebastian (the vampire), but he doesn't really bring anything new to the idea of a vampire. At least we are saved from gratuitous additions, such as sparkles -- Sebastian just suffers horrible burns from sunlight. Bear does attempt to show what it is like to live a millennium, but all we get is an apolitical character who remarks a lot about vampires he's known who have suicided after the weight of years got to him. I guess I'm more of a fan of the charismatic monster for vampires, so perhaps it is not Sebastian's fault that I liked him as a character, but not as a vampire. (less)
Between this book and Elizabeth Bear's Stratford Man duology, I find myself wanting to learn as much as I can about Elizabeth and her politics.
The t...moreBetween this book and Elizabeth Bear's Stratford Man duology, I find myself wanting to learn as much as I can about Elizabeth and her politics.
The two series have a superficial similarity. Both take Edmund Spenser's metaphor of The Faerie Queen for Elizabeth I, and create a shadow faerie court ruled by a queen bound to Elizabeth. Both also play up the theme of faeries being increasingly excluded from human society thanks to the advance of human technology, involving cold iron, and the old threat of human monotheism. (Faeries were harmed by church bells and couldn't tolerate speaking the name of God.) EBear even mentioned in her blog that she refused to read the book until her two were in their final copy, lest ideas leak from the one to the other.
That being said, Midnight Never Comes felt a lot simpler, as EBear's books had a lot of politics and shades of gray, and conspiracies. That's not intended as a criticism of Midnight Never Comes -- it was a good read, and a lot less head-swimming than Blood and Iron was. I wish more details were gone into*, and the flashbacks were a bit jarring, but it's something I'd read again.
* I'd like to know more about the other kingdoms of Faerie in the world. There is only the Onyx Court beneath London, with kingdoms around Britain and the Kingdom of the Sea mentioned. (less)
So, you might ask, why read Girl Genius in the dead-tree form when it's available for free? Well, aside from the fact a book is a very nice way to sto...moreSo, you might ask, why read Girl Genius in the dead-tree form when it's available for free? Well, aside from the fact a book is a very nice way to stop thinking about physics in order to sleep*, it gives the creators money. And it's worth giving them money.
So, Agatha Clay is a lab assistant to Dr. Beetle, a Mad Scientist (or Spark). She lives with her adoptive parents, Adam and Lilith Clay (and if those aren't wonderfully symbolism-laden names, you aren't paying attention -- Adam and Lilith are constructs, reasonable approximations of human beings (in this case, at least), created by a mad scientist), and her only worry is that nothing she works on seems to work like it should. The first story chronicles the start of Agatha's adventures, with a side story of her future life as Agatha Heterodyne, Spark and descendant of one of the most famous set of Sparks.
Agatha is a pretty likable character -- Girl Genius is the story of her growing up and claiming her inheritance. Even early on, she's smart and resourceful, if a bit high-strung.
I only wish the first volume was in color, though the black and white work is exquisite, and makes this the cheapest GG volume because of it.
* Yes, I realize most people don't have to distract themselves from work by reading fantasy novels. I wanted to say in a entirely complimentary way that I read this before bed last night because I was too wound up from work to sleep. In normal situations, this book will Not Cure Insomnia, except for the kind brought on by stress. (less)
So, at the end of Empire of Ivory, Laurence and Temeraire agree to commit treason to deliver a cure to a draconic plague to France -- Temeraire feeli...moreSo, at the end of Empire of Ivory, Laurence and Temeraire agree to commit treason to deliver a cure to a draconic plague to France -- Temeraire feeling that the lives of thousands of innocent dragons isn't worth victory of the war, and Laurence agreeing. Laurence then wishes to return to Britain, despite knowing he will be imprisoned or hanged for it, and Temeraire confined -- his own honor prevents him from staying in Europe, either as a French officer or a civilian. The book picks up several months later. Which I appreciate for two reasons. First, it give us a chance to see how dragons organize themselves on their own -- the breeding ground dragons are pretty much left to their own devices as long as they eat and mate and don't cause trouble. One of the dragons we meet, Percitia, is a mathematically inclined and quite clever dragon who refused to serve in the military because she didn't see the sense of getting shot up. Second, it gets to the interesting bit -- where Napoleon and Lung Tien Lien invade Britain -- quickly. Laurence, imprisoned on a ship, is presumed dead for a short while, long enough for Temeraire to be quite put out, and decide that he needs to fight Napoleon, and talks the rest of the dragons (ferals, captured dragons, some old retirees, and ones that just refused to fight) into forming their own flight to go fight.
Temeraire himself really shines here. He's forced to develop a sense of politics and leadership to negotiate with both other dragons and the human government and military. In Victory of Eagles he makes a lot more advances than I ever expected -- mostly because he points out that Napoleon was able to come so far because of giving dragons a reason to fight besides loyalty to their captains. Not to neglect Laurence, who is forced to go through a lot dealing with his own actions from Empire of Ivory -- questioning what honor and patriotism really mean. And even some of the secondary characters, such as Admiral Roland, get to play a role -- I'd love to see more interactions between her and General Wellsely/the Duke of Wellington, simply because the two of them quickly figured out the other was pretty damn good at their job, and developed a professional relationship, despite the fact Roland was a woman. (Thanks to Gentius, a veteran Longwings, we also got the story about how female Longwings captains got full rank. He told the story about how his first captain had left without the drunkard who had actual command, fought a tremendous battle, and then was commended by everyone, and finally got her proper rank.)
As for the end, I was quite pleased by it. It ended in a way that doesn't diminish what Laurence did in Empire of Ivory, but keeps our pair flying. Plus, this way, we might get to see new parts of the world -- I think Victory of Eagles is the first book since His Majesty's Dragon where we don't hardly leave Britain.(less)
So, this is a historical fantasy vampire novel. And... well, it was pretty generic. Young colonial brat gets shipped off to England for Education. Win...moreSo, this is a historical fantasy vampire novel. And... well, it was pretty generic. Young colonial brat gets shipped off to England for Education. Winds up being seduced by a vampire and turned, which he doesn't really know about until he returns home, is accidentally shot by a Washington-supporting neighbor who mistakes his good coat for High Ranking British Uniform, and wakes up in a coffin with a taste for blood. There wasn't much plot -- it felt like set-up for something else. And the supernatural was decidedly downplayed -- the vampires had all the standard powers, but neither the main character nor the other vampire seemed like anything other with humans with superpowers and a craving for blood. I was decidedly underwhelmed -- I hate vampires as humans with superpowers and a craving for blood.
This one's going back to the swap. If I wanted to read Revolutionary War fiction, I wouldn't bother with ones with vampires in it, unless the vampires add something to it. (less)
Ink and Steel (and its sequel, Hell and Earth) is a prequel to the previous books in the series -- while the first two Promethean Age books are set in...moreInk and Steel (and its sequel, Hell and Earth) is a prequel to the previous books in the series -- while the first two Promethean Age books are set in the modern era, Ink and Steel is set at the tale end of the Elizabethan Era. In fact, it opens on the date of 30 May 1593 with the apparent death of Christopher "Kit" Marlowe. Apparent, as Kit was shifted to Faerie and a glamor left in his body's place. Unfortunately, he drinks the water before he's quite conscious, so ends up stuck there. Which lives a certain group of Englishmen in a bit of a dire situation.
Previous books (or future) in the series featured the Promethean mages, and this series sets the tone -- a conflict between two sets of masters of symbols, struggling for control of humanity (at least, that part of it that lives in England). One is loyal to the Queen (and, as such, is an ally of the Queen of Faerie -- having a mortal queen on the throne bolsters the Faerie's Queen), and uses its tools to keep England prosperous, and its queen healthy and safe. The other side is more shadowy, is bent on cutting out the Queen, the Fae, and the plays. After Kit is stranded in Faerie, one side is forced to bring in another playwright -- a young William Shakespeare, currently caught up in making Titus Andronicus work. (Hint, Will -- don't write it before eating the dorm's chicken. I know that made it difficult to watch.) The book describes a war of words and rumors, where plays are commissioned as weapons and closing the playhouses is the other side's way of shutting down the offense.
Ultimately, I know which side won (an aspect of prequels -- I knew Anakin was heading for The Dark Side, too, and just gave George Lucas 3 movie tickets' worth of money to see how. ) But the story is how they won, and how Our Heroes Kit and Will negotiate conspiracies between England and Faerie.
The pacing was a bit slow at first -- the scenes cutting between Will in England and Kit in Faerie seemed to be a bit awkwardly paced. Some of that was because the book covers some five years, so bits get glossed over. I did notice that whenever Our Two Protagonists are on screen together, they steal the show. I somehow see why Elizabeth Bear has entries on her blog about this book tagged 'Kit and Will's Excellent Adventure'.
Once things come together, near Act III*, things get exciting. The climax of the book is both great and tragic and woven full of colors, and utterly, utterly right. For a book about the power of poems and plays and words, it is fitting that the climax should have such power. Though, technically, this is only Book 1. Hell and Earth is due out to conclude the story next month. I can't wait.
* The book is labeled in Acts. Don't like? Deal.
Bit of a warning -- if you don't like fiction where most people are either historical or legendary figures (everyone from Lucifer to Queen Elizabeth to the original Puck), this will not be your kind of book. Similarly, if you are the sort who will defend passionately theories about dead English poets/playwrights, and can't stand even a fictional interpretation of their lives contrary to your theories, don't read this. (less)