This is probably my favorite of Milan's books so far. I find myself ill-equipped to talking about it. The relationships between the characters. The emThis is probably my favorite of Milan's books so far. I find myself ill-equipped to talking about it. The relationships between the characters. The emotional complexity. The science! That was probably my favorite bit. I loved that Violet was so smart and sciencey, and it's not often that historical romance often gives you actual history. I guess that's what you get when you turn a former law professor into an author. She just can't leave her brain behind, and I'm totally grateful for it. Luckily, she's also into emotions. Delicious, swoony emotions.
And because it's thematically appropriate (Milan even dedicates the book to Rosalind Franklin), let's give it up for Kate Beaton, ladies and gentleman:
I'd heard this was the weakest of the series, but I thought it was rather adorable and quite enjoyed myself. (Perhaps moreso than I normally would havI'd heard this was the weakest of the series, but I thought it was rather adorable and quite enjoyed myself. (Perhaps moreso than I normally would have, as I just got finished reading a rather dreadful old school 80s romance novel that was just blaaaaahhh.) This was a nice palate cleanser, and I found myself unable to stop reading it, for whatever reason. Excited (and sad) to finish out the series now....more
And so concludes another installment of the madcap adventures of that time-traveling Highlander clan, the Mackenzie-Fraser whatevers. This was the leaAnd so concludes another installment of the madcap adventures of that time-traveling Highlander clan, the Mackenzie-Fraser whatevers. This was the least weird, but most melodramatic of the books so far. It was wacky and I enjoyed it, despite some issues. Full review later....more
First of all, yes, this is essentially a five star review, but please note, it’s five stars with reservations. The five stars is almost entirely due tFirst of all, yes, this is essentially a five star review, but please note, it’s five stars with reservations. The five stars is almost entirely due to the first 1/3 or so of the book (and maybe a little past that) and how it absolutely took over my life. If I could, I’d probably rate the first 1/3 six or seven stars, and the rest four, but that’s obviously not possible, so here we are. The rest of the reason that I settled on five stars is due to the fact that I just really super enjoyed myself while reading, as weird and disjointed as it got towards the end, and even if the end didn’t match the absolute emotional perfection that was the beginning.
I mean, the first half, just . . . absolutely delicious agony. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. After that cliffhanger ending that was Dragonfly in Amber (wherein Claire learns that Jamie in fact did not die in the battle of Culloden like she thought he did). This section of the book switches back and forth from three different POVs: Claire, Roger, and Jamie and Claire’s daughter Brianna searching throughout the historical record for any trace of what happened to Jamie and where Claire can find him were she to go back; flashbacks to the past twenty years for Claire, Bree, and Frank; and flashbacks to the past twenty years for Jamie. I found Jamie’s sections particularly fascinating (how he survived, yes, but a bunch more stuff that I really shouldn’t spoil in this review). This whole section builds and builds, culminating in Claire traveling back through the stones to find Jamie. And this is when I nearly lost my damn mind. It just builds up the tension of EVERYTHING until you’re ready to absolutely die, and then they finally meet again for the first time in twenty years, and you DO die, and it’s so perfect. I will admit: it was pretty much impossible for things not to be a bit disappointing after that.
The second half slash 2/3 (or whatever) was good, but it got Gabaldon Weird and didn’t have the structural integrity of the first half. The second 1/3 of the book mainly features Claire and Jamie re-learning to be in love, and Claire attempting to fit herself back into Jamie’s life (which is very different than it was twenty years previously, mainly as a result of what happened at Culloden). They also have twenty year blanks to fill in with each other, including the births of multiple children. (The scene where Jamie sees pictures of his daughter for the first time made my soul hurt.) There’s stuff with Leg-whore (Malin informs me this is the fandom’s name for Laoghire), Jenny, hidden treasure, a kidnapped nephew, and smugglers. Also, kilts are banned! There are no more kilts! I can’t believe I didn’t know the English did that. The last 1/3 of the book got all rescuey and adventurey. There was a thing with a ship to Jamaica, shipwrecks and pirates and voodoo and witches and drunken priests. Oh, and Jamie’s adopted son Fergus* and a wedding. And a pretty racist depiction of a Chinese character Jamie calls Mr. Willoughby (I’m pretty sure Gabaldon intended to portray the racism of the time period here, but as always she seems to have trouble delineating between that and actually being sort of racist herself). And a Very Special Person shows up just when you least expect it. By the end, Jamie and Claire have basically spanned half the globe, and some crazy shit has gone down, but it basically all hangs together, and everybody is happy.
*I forgot to mention how much I love Fergus in my review of Dragonfly in Amber. I love Fergus. That’s all, really.
After finishing this book, I officially count myself a fan of this series, although the end of this book was the perfect place to stop, as it’s clear from the ending that the series is going somewhere super new after this. Hint: the year 1776 is coming up real quick like. Also: I can’t wait for Jamie to meet Bree, and I think partly my taking a break from the series was a way to extend that delicious agony just a bit longer. I wonder who the show will cast in that part? She’s got to be tall, have red hair and be able to have a passable American accent. Google has been very unhelpful in this matter, as has the fancasting I’ve seen (although I very much support the idea of Henry Cavill as Roger). None of the girls I’ve seen as potential options seem likely candidates to me. Thoughts, fellow Outlander fans?...more
Very disappointed in this. The story was okay, I guess. It's a fairly straightforward adaption of the first 2/3 of Outlander, except from Jamie's persVery disappointed in this. The story was okay, I guess. It's a fairly straightforward adaption of the first 2/3 of Outlander, except from Jamie's perspective. Except that Jamie's perspective is nowhere near as interesting as Claire's, and Gabaldon threw in this weird plot about Geillis Duncan and her also-time-traveling boyfriend? Mostly the change in perspective and medium did nothing for me except make the story seem more shallow and disjointed.
And then there is the artwork, which I find to be rather terrible, especially for a graphic novel. The artist's rendition of the Scottish surroundings was kind of pretty, but *everything* was blurry in his style, and all the characters except for Claire were indistinguishable from one another. Even Jamie, who is supposed to be the main character. The biggest problem with the art, besides that I find it very aesthetically displeasing, was that it didn't function the way that art in a graphic novel is supposed to function, namely by showing us select panels from a story that then fire up our imaginations enough where the story comes alive and we forget we're only seeing those select panels. In a lot of ways, a great graphic novel creates the illusion of movement where there is none. This artist's panels are almost entirely static, and I didn't like it at all.
I guess to each his own, but I'm glad I didn't spend money on this....more
GENE LUEN YANG: Did you just finish reading Boxers? ME: Yes! GENE LUEN YANG: Well, I have a present for you! ME: I like presents. What is it? GENE LUEN YAGENE LUEN YANG: Did you just finish reading Boxers? ME: Yes! GENE LUEN YANG: Well, I have a present for you! ME: I like presents. What is it? GENE LUEN YANG: I'm going to punch you in the heart! Isn't that yay?
Vibiana is a fabulous character. She’s coarse and resentful, violent and impish. Her family thinks she was sent to them from the devil, so she purposely contorts her face as a warning to others. When she finally leaves them and finds a home among Christians, she’s still feisty and self-directed, even despite the teaching of Christianity. What’s great about Vibiana’s story is that she doesn’t so much come to Christianity out of any righteous desire, but because Christians are willing to give her something her Chinese family isn’t.
And of course, there’s also the visions.
Throughout her life, Vibiana experiences visions of Joan of Arc. Throughout Saints (which is a quarter of the size of Boxers), Vibiana tries to glean some sort of meaning out the visitations of this strange golden girl. Unlike in Boxers, Yang’s illustrations are gray and dull, with the lone exception of Vibiana’s visions. My feeling was that this suggests something about Vibiana’s life, how dull and colorless and absent of joy she finds the world, except for those brief moments of transcendence when she glimpses visions of a young girl who did important and exciting things.
I’m not going to go into the ending because that would make me a huge asshole, but I would like to vaguely state that it a) Punched me in the heart as promised, and b) Perfectly tied together the two volumes into one thematically consistent story. It also managed to surprise the hell out of me, which is no mean feat.
I’d really recommend these two graphic novels to anyone: people who like history, graphic novel aficionados, graphic novel virgins, daydreamers, imagineers, and seekers of the spiritual and the enlightening. And I’ll definitely be picking up Yang’s previous effort, Born Chinese, which has been on my to-read list forever. I’m thinking it probably won’t be as weighty as Boxers & Saints, but then again, that’s a pretty tall order to fill.
Malin has made the Turner series (of which this book is #3) sound verrrry appealing in her reviews, and well-written. So I gave it a go, and I was kinMalin has made the Turner series (of which this book is #3) sound verrrry appealing in her reviews, and well-written. So I gave it a go, and I was kind of shocked by what I found. If you’re familiar with classic 80s romance novels, you’ll know what kind of fare I was used to getting from my romance reading (purloined from my mother's collection). Most romance novels I've read mostly revolve around women being put into sexy situations or dangerous ones or extremely melodramatic ones and then letting themselves fall in love with a man, which usually involved surrendering of some kind. It’s all very 80s and very trashy and I LOVED IT. The nice thing about Milan as an author, though, is that she manages to scratch that romance itch without falling into idiotic plot traps, or compromising the intelligence or integrity of her heroes and heroines.
All three books in the Turner series focus on a Turner brother, and whereas a great majority of historical romance novels center around characters being forced into situations and sexing their way out, Unraveled and its two predecessors are quite character focused and character driven. It’s inner conflicts that are the issue here, not manufactured plot twists, misunderstandings, and character decisions driven only by plot necessity.
This particular book centers around middle brother Smite (long story, don’t ask), who, er, has issues. Like, real psychological ones. He was abused as a child (a more mental type of abuse inflicted on him by his mentally ill mother), was forced to care for his younger brother, Mark, while they were both homeless on the streets, and whose devotion to the law as an adult has earned him the nickname of Lord Justice. He upholds justice in such strict measures because nobody bothered to listen to him as a child and his sister died as a result. Smite leads a lonely life by choice. He doesn’t believe there is any woman who could put up with his quirks (night terrors, for one), or who he would even want to try.
Enter Miranda Darling, child of actors, currently trying to make it as a seamstress and wigmaker. Miranda and Lord Justice meet when she’s sent to court to testify on behalf of a thief who is under the protection of the local crimelord, someone Miranda is also under the thumb of. Miranda and Smite had met before under similar circumstances, and quickly seeing through her act, he warns her that if he ever sees her in his courtroom again, he’ll have her arrested. So of course he becomes obsessed with her and asks her become his mistress. To which she agrees (hey, she’s got a foster kid to take care of). From there, it’s just a matter of the both of them breaking through each other’s walls (which is basically the plot of every romance novel ever written).
I actually liked the other two Turner books better than this one (damaged dudes aren’t really my thing), but this was still really good. Miranda was pretty standard, but Smite’s inner life was very convincing, and really thoroughly thought out and executed. Plus also it was fun, even if the ending was a little cheesy (the resolution to the crimelord story is what I’m thinking of here).
Romance novels aren’t my go-to pleasure reads normally. For that, I have fantasy. But usually about once a year, I get a craving that nothing but binging on romance novels can satisfy. It’s good to know I have Courtney Milan not only to satisfy these cravings, because she actively tries to make her stories stand out in such an oversaturated genre, but to give me well-constructed story with three-dimensional, flawed characters. ...more
I’m a bit ashamed to admit that my only knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion before reading these books came from those crossover episodes of Buffy the VaI’m a bit ashamed to admit that my only knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion before reading these books came from those crossover episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel where Angel, Darla, Spike & Drusilla are taking advantage of the carnage of the Rebellion, and Spike ends up killing a Slayer (“Fool For Love” and “Darla,” in case you’re feeling like a rewatch). And really, I was more concerned with the vampires than with what was happening around them. Now that I know the context, I really think those guys were acting like dicks.
Anyway, such was my mindset when I first opened Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a dual-volume graphic novel. Each volume focuses on one side of the Rebellion, roughly split up into the poor rural villagers that make up the Boxers (as they were named by the Foreign Devils) and the Christian-converted Saints (or Secondary Devils, as they’re known to the Boxers). The Boxers (who call themselves the Righteous and Harmonious Fist) were extremely concerned about the encroachment of foreigners into China, specifically Christian missionaries from Western countries. The Saints were a mix of foreigners, missionaries, and Christian converted Chinese people. The situation was made worse by a severe drought, raising tensions between the two groups. Yang breaks up the story into two volumes to illustrate both sides, but the whole thing ends up being about the futility of violence (as all war stories should be, in my opinion).
Our way into the conflict starts with Little Bao, the youngest son of a village Farmer in the Shantung province of China, in the late 1890s. Little Bao is a dreamer at heart. His favorite thing in the world is to watch the opera singers who come to the village fair in the spring time. He imagines the gods and lords and ladies in their opera masks accompanying him on his daily tasks. And yet, he is still illiterate, uneducated and the youngest son of the family. Through Little Bao’s eyes, Yang takes us through several years of Chinese history, as Little Bao’s whimsical daydreams (colored and drawn beautifully) are harshened by real life. Foreigners are encroaching on Chinese territory and converting Chinese citizens. A local missionary smashes a statue of the god that oversees the spring festival, something of great emotional import to Little Bao. And Chinese men who wear crosses around their necks are terrorizing local villages. Little Bao’s father is attacked by a group of converted Christians, and crippled for life. And no one in the government seems to be doing anything about this.
When a young kung fu expert named Red Lantern moves into Little Bao’s village, he begins training all the young men in kung fu and sword fighting, and soon all of them (even Little Bao, who at first wasn’t allowed due to his age) are training. When Red Lantern is also killed for being a member of the Big Sword Society, a group of young men who see it as their duty to protect Chinese citizens if the government will not, Little Bao and his talent for spirit possession take over the group. From village to village they go, following Little Bao into battle. Killing foreign devils and secondary devils. All the while fueled by righteous indignation, and the desire to prevent the world from chaning out from under them.
At the beginning of the novel, the whimsical tone and rounded, brightly colored lines of Yang’s world fool you into thinking this is going to be a happy sort of story. A coming of age tale, perhaps. To illustrate, my favorite panel from the book: an encounter between the protagonists of Boxers & Saints that neither realizes the importance of. Bao has seen Vibiana for the first time, and likened her scowling devil face to that of the opera masks he so loves. It’s a quick moment, but it typifies the wit and attitude of the story.
Later panels, however, are full of fury and desperation, and the bright colors of Little Bao’s daydreams morph into spiritual hallucinations fueled by anger, fear, and revenge. His opera singer visions are replaced by ritualistic callings of the old gods, who inhabit Little Bao and his men of the Righteous Fist. This is a genius detail, because a key element of the Boxer Rebellion was the Boxer’s apparent belief that they were impervious to foreign weapons, and that during battle they were possessed by spirits who provided them with mystical powers. Yang’s decision to make the spiritual and religious elements real in both volumes on serves to heighten the metaphorical nature of it. But more on that later.
The choice to humanize the historical content of the Boxer Rebellion through Little Bao was a good one. The history of the Rebellion comes alive with the personal stakes we’re given in rooting for Little Bao, even as we can see from the comfortable hindsight of 100 plus years that at points he’s making mistakes, and that he’s going to regret his actions by the end. Because of course that’s where this story ends up: tragedy. Little Bao and his Righteous Fist are fighting a losing battle — a losing battle against people whose motivations are just as strong as complex as his own.
August might as well have been Outlander month, for all I paid attention to anything else.
I read Outlander late last year and enjoyed it, but I also fAugust might as well have been Outlander month, for all I paid attention to anything else.
I read Outlander late last year and enjoyed it, but I also found it very strange and disturbing in parts (and not in a way that I found altogether explicable). Ultimately, despite my reservations about some of the content (not the things that happened, necessarily, more the way Gabaldon treated them in her prose*), I decided to continue the series, probably one a year to stay current with the show, which I was very excited for. And then I watched the Outlander pilot free online and just suddenly needed to read book two, which I finished reeeaaallly quickly, and then immediately dove into number three. I had to stop myself from going full bore and reading the rest of the series right away.
*For instance, it’s understandable that corporal punishment would come up between a husband and wife in that time period, but I needed Gabaldon to somehow acknowledge her issues with it through Claire, and I didn’t think it was emphasized enough. As a point of interest, I also vehemently disagree with people who read the book and ragequit when they hit that scene, firstly because people who do that lack the context of the full story (perhaps the characters come to terms with the scene later in the book, or even later in the second book, as is the case here); and secondly, because placing your own feelings about domestic violence nowadays onto historical characters is not a fair thing to do, nor is divorcing them from their historical context by reading your own culture onto it. We have an entirely different emotional landscape for abusive relationships today than they did back then. Today, a man beats his wife, we know exactly what kind of guy he is and what his issues are. Reading that same context onto a scene where a man hits his wife once and feels bad about it, while living in a culture that didn’t stigmatize marital violence, is not the same thing at all, and we shouldn’t treat it like it is. I think it’s certainly good (even expected) to feel really uncomfortable while reading that scene, but to then write off the whole story because of it seems to miss the point entirely, especially as in later books it’s part of Jamie’s development to learn exactly why it was wrong for him to spank Claire in those first few weeks of their marriage. Okay, ranting over for now.
I was a bit thrown for a loop with this one right up front. Twice. Firstly because it starts out twenty years after Outlander, with Claire and her grown-up daughter Brianna living in the 1960s. How she got there and why she left, we have no idea, but she and Bree are visiting Scotland on holiday, but also not-holiday. Claire seeks out Roger Wakefield (who we last saw as a wee lad), who is now a historian, to help her track down what happened to some men after the Jacobite rebellion. The second thing is, about 100 pages in, we go to flashbacks and follow Claire and Jamie from where we last left them in Outlander (in France, Claire pregnant), and the content was not what I was expecting, especially after the crazysauce ending of the first book, with all the beatings and rapings and dramadrama. It was relationship stuff for Jamie and Claire, but it’s also a shit ton of history, and I was unprepared for that. I quickly adjusted my expectations, however, and soon I realized I liked the balance of drama and history and politics better here in Dragonfly than I had in Outlander. Perhaps it’s just because Claire is invested in her circumstances and surroundings this time around, instead of trying to escape them, but this book felt much more grounded than the first.
I also really liked that surprising structure. It’s full of tension. I liked Bree and Roger and their bookended sections of the story, as we unravel what’s happened to Claire in the last twenty years (she’s now a doctor, for one). The sense of mystery created by the missing twenty years was agonizing but entertaining. And when we’re with Claire and Jamie in France, we follow them as they try to navigate Jamie’s outlaw status, and try (in vain) to prevent the Jacobite rebellion, hobknobbing with the likes of Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, as well as the court and the King of France, for fuck’s sake. If the last book was about Claire deciding to stay back in time and be with Jamie, then this book is about them learning to navigate their differences as a married couple (one of whom is a time traveler), and also the trauma they both experienced at the hands of Black Jack Randall. This is the book where they really learn how to be a couple, and it’s way more interesting and compelling than it has any right to be.
Of course, just because I enjoyed this one more doesn’t mean what I’m going to call ‘The Gabaldon Weird’ isn’t there. It’s not there to quite the extent it was in Outlander (with all that rapey rape at the end), and it’s actually a positive weird . . . but it’s still really fucking weird. (For those who are curious: (view spoiler)[I speak of the scene where Mssr. Raymond comes to Claire after she loses the first baby and heals her with his ‘magic hands’, at one point literally putting them up her vagina to heal her inflamed uterus. (hide spoiler)]) The Gabaldon Length is still there, also, but I don’t really think this sort of intense story could really have been told in much shorter of a span. Anyway, as someone newly dealing with her feelings about this series, those two things are something I’ll just have to accept, because they’re not going away. Anyway, the 900 plus pages of this book flew by, and it’s even longer sequel went even faster.
Even if you really really like the history stuff, Jamie and Claire’s relationship is the real draw here (especially the Jamie part). Gabaldon just balances things really nicely in this one: the give and take of their relationship, Jamie coming to terms with Claire’s independence. The conflicts that arise between them are character based instead of feeling manufactured for drama. There’s also way less sex (although there’s still plenty), and more emotion than in Outlander. They have SO MUCH FEELS for one another, and they overcome so much, by the time you get to the end, and this happens:
“If I must endure two hundred years of purgatory, two hundred years without you – then that is my punishment, which I have earned for my crimes. For I have lied, and killed, and stolen; betrayed and broken trust. But there is the one thing that shall lie in the balance. When I shall stand before God, I shall have one thing to say, to weigh against the rest . . . Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God! I loved her well.”
You just want to die. The ending is heartbreaking, and it pretty much forces you to start the next book immediately. Nothing like a 1,000 page book that ends in a cliffhanger, I tell you what. Anyway, not that I’m really complaining. I’m in it now.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This was pretty good for an anthology, but I really prefer longer stories, as it really takes a talented author to make me care for characters in suchThis was pretty good for an anthology, but I really prefer longer stories, as it really takes a talented author to make me care for characters in such a short period of time, or to have a plot immediately interesting enough to trump my interest in the characters. Short stories also tend more towards the self-important and annoying. Anyway, this was worth it just for the Martin and Sanderson stories alone, and there were several others I really enjoyed as well including ones from Robin Hobb (as Megan Lindholm) and Jim Butcher, making it worth it for having to enjoy the stinkers (a surprising number of authors seem to have missed the point of the ‘dangerous women’ theme, though). Mini-reviews of all stories included below:
“Some Desperado,” Joe Abercrombie – Classic Abercrombie. Gritty fantasy world inspired by some other flavor of genre (in this case, Westerns). His prose is always entertaining and his sense of atmosphere is great, but this story lacked narrative urgency for me, which is the main thing I enjoy when I read. Very little backstory on the main character, we only spend a small amount of time with her, and the story moves on. Good, but not great. At least for me. Did however make me want to re-read his First Law trilogy. That thing is great. 3/5 stars
“Either My Heart Is Broken,” Megan Abbott – Missing children, damaged and quirky women: Two of my least favorite things to read about (again, not really surprising, noir isn’t really my thing). But this was surprisingly readable, probably because Abbott is good with words, but also because it was so short. There’s no way I could have read an entire novel featuring these characters. Actually, reminded me very much of how I felt after reading Gone Girl. Very similar tones. 3/5 stars
“Nora’s Song,” Cecelia Holland — Reading this, suddenly realized (again) that I know diddly squat about English history. I’ve heard the name Eleanor of Aquitaine before, but until now knew nothing about her. Had to do some googling as a basis for this story, which was pretty good, although not really my thing, and a bit heavy-handed. Liked the characterization of Nora (the daughter of the estranged King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine). She was smart and fierce, but also appropriately naive to the shit going down around her. Also, according to Cecelia Holland, Henry II was a dickweed. 3/5 stars
“The Hands That Are Not There,” Melinda Snodgrass — My first reaction to this story was, oh yay sci-fi!! Then it immediately got weird. The main story is couched in an unnecessary framing device, the dialogue is really unoriginal (even cliched), and the worldbuilding was really obvious and not nuanced at all. If it weren’t for the twist at the end, the story of the lonely rich guy getting conned by a pretty, exotic stripper would have felt even more played out than it did. The first stinker in the collection. And surprising, considering the source (Snodgrass was story editor on Star Trek: The Next Generation). 2/5 stars
“Bombshells,” Jim Butcher — The first story in the collection featuring a pre-established world, namely Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The story takes place just before Cold Days, the most recently released book. Butcher has given us stories featuring the POVs of side-characters before (Murphy, Thomas), and this one was just as fun as those were. Harry Dresden’s apprentice Molly has always been an interesting character, and it was gratifying to get a story from her POV. It also functions as way to fill in the blanks between how we left Molly (broken and homeless and on the verge of insanity) in Ghost Story, and how we meet her again in Cold Days, hooked up with a sweet-ass apartment, courtesy of the svartalves. Don’t know how this would read to someone not familiar with the series, though. A large part of the fun for me was checking in with characters I love. 4/5 stars
“Raisa Stepanova,” Carrie Vaughn — Loved the title of this story on a purely phonetic level, then learned it was a name. Takes away a little of the coolness, but not by much. Really enjoyed this one. Haven’t read any of Carrie Vaughn’s novels (contemporary urban fantasy isn’t really my thing, unless it comes highly recommended), but wasn’t expecting to get a story about a Russian woman fighter pilot in WWII out of her, especially one that was equal parts funny and suspenseful. This story sucked me in in a way that short stories rarely do, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I think she flubbed the ending a little, this would have been my favorite story so far in the collection. 4/5 stars
“Wrestling Jesus,” Joe R. Lansdale — This story reeeallly wasn’t my thing. I suppose it was okay, for what it was. It felt like Lansdale was working out his masculinity issues, and the only ladies in the story were horrible, like some macho pig’s idea of what women are. Missed the point of the anthology, as far as I’m concerned. 2/5 stars
“Neighbors,” Megan Lindholm— Well, that was new. And freaky. And kind of heartbreaking. I’ve never read anything by Robin Hobb before (writing under Megan Lindholm here, which is apparently closer to her real name?), although I do have used copies of her Farseer Trilogy ready to go for later this year. I’m not going to say anything about the story itself, because that would ruin it, but I will say that this is the first story in the collection to nail it from back to front. Definitely looking forward to reading more from Hobb/Lindholm in the future. 5/5 stars
“I Know How to Pick ‘Em,” Lawrence Block — The hell was that? Ugh. I really don’t find stories about people who commit murder and do incesty things with family members interesting for their own sake. You have to have other things in a story for me to get behind characters who do these things, and it felt like with this one, that was the main attraction. Like it was this deep revelation that people are fucked up scumballs. Ugh, no thank you. 1/5 stars
“Shadows For Silence in the Forests of Hell,” Brandon Sanderson — As expected from Sanderson, good characters, freakishly detailed and atmospheric worldbuilding with just enough of the familiar and just enough of the new and striking. This story, a sort of fantasy/horror hybrid, had the added benefit of being fucking terrifying as well. Plus, you know, female bounty hunters! 5/5 stars
“A Queen in Exile,” Sharon Kay Penman — Follows Constance of Sicily, the Queen of Sicily and the Holy Roman Empress, mother of future King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick. There’s some stuff with her husband being a dick and trying to take over Sicily, and some stuff about her wanting a kid, and some riots, etc, etc. I’m not sure how to feel about this one. I think my problem with it is twofold. First, so much happens in the story that it probably needed a novel’s length to properly expand on all the themes and characterization she was working with. Either that, or she needed to choose a smaller period of time to concentrate on instead of breezing through literally years of events in less than fifty pages. She ends up telling us huge plot points in passing just to move the story to the points she wants to highlight. The second problem is the author’s note at the end, explaining that she chose Constance as her dangerous woman because of later events in her life, fomenting rebellion against her husband, taking back Sicily, protecting her son, etc. So . . . why didn’t she write about that instead? 3/5 stars
“The Girl in the Mirror,” Lev Grossman — The second story in the collection that takes place in an established world, namely Grossman’s Magicians series. I read The Magicians back when it first came out and had very mixed feelings about it, but glad to report that I enjoyed this story very much, probably because it was notable in its dearth of Quentin (the awful protagonist from The Magicians), who only plays a very limited role as the narrator’s professor at Brakebills Academy of Magic. I’m very happy that I enjoyed this story, as I had already previously decided to pick up books two and three (when it’s published later this year) in the Magicians series, and it is now less likely that I will be bashing my head into my wall while reading. 4/5 stars
“Second Arabesque, Very Slowly,” Nancy Kress — I suppose there isn’t really anything “wrong” with this story, but the whole thing felt very unoriginal and self-important. At a certain point, when the market becomes flooded with so many post-apocalyptic stories, you have to find a way to set yours apart, and I don’t think Kress did. Her wandering tribes with their focus on breeding felt overdone, but seemingly unaware that this particular scenario had been written ad nauseam in so many other stories/novels. And the thing that supposedly set it apart — the focus on dancing — just came across as pretentious and trying too hard for me. It felt like just another tired iteration of ART GIVES US BACK OUR HUMANITY. Only, Kress’s prose isn’t evocative enough to pull the emotions needed out of the reader to make it work. 2/5 stars
“City Lazarus,” Diana Rowland — Yet another story where the author is convinced the only way to portray a dangerous woman is to make her a sexy murderous stripper out to con men for vengeance or some such. Please authors, STOP USING THIS SAME TROPE OVER AND OVER. IT WASN’T EVEN GOOD THE FIRST TIME. Extremely tired of it, not to mention her cliched portrayal of corruption and sexism in a destitute New Orleans. Been done before, been done better. 2/5 stars
“Virgins,” Diana Gabaldon –This story probably isn’t going to work for everyone. And while it does indeed have a dangerous woman in it, the main character is actually Jamie Fraser, from Gabaldon’s Outlander series. You can totally tell she just wanted to write about Jamie before he met Claire, and she shoved that other lady in there to fulfill a requirement. What this story is actually concerned with is something different, as implied by the title. Thought the way Gabaldon treated the ‘virgins’ theme throughout was very nice, and worked well for me, especially when you get the double meaning near the end. 4/5 stars
“Hell Hath No Fury,” Sherilynn Kenyon – This story had no business being published in this collection, or at all. If this story is any indication of Kenyon’s talent as an author, I will not be reading further in her body of work (not that I’d been planning to previously, but this only solidified my previous inclinations). This story was hokey, immature, offensive, stupid, and cliched, with prose that read like it was written by a twelve year old, and the worst dialogue I’ve ever read. I can’t believe Martin allowed it in the collection. Can’t speak for Dozois, though. No idea what his standards are. Haven’t read anything he’s written. 0.5/5 stars
“Pronouncing Doom,” S.M. Stirling – This story apparently takes place in Stirling’s Emberverse series, although I didn’t know that at the time I read it, and it worked fine for me as a stand-alone. Good take on a post-apocalyptic world where all the electricity stopped working (so basically Revolution without the Civil War thematics, Billy Burke’s gruff voice, or Elizabeth Mitchell’s fabulous hair). Thought it was a bit far-fetched that a group of people could be persuaded to behave like Celts and embrace Wicca, but Stirling made it organic in the story, and I bought it in the end. Particularly, because the focus of the story isn’t the world, but the characters living in it, and in specific, the characters having to deal with punishing a severe crime for the first time in their new lives. It was actually kind of fascinating. 4/5 stars
“Name the Beast,” Sam Sykes — I haven’t read anything else by this author, although a quick googling of his name made me realize I sat in on a lecture he gave with Pat Rothfuss and Diana Gabaldon about epic fiction at last year’s Tucson Festival of Books. He seemed pretty eloquent and knowledgeable at the time, but this story I think just shows how young and inexperienced he is as a writer. Some of his language and worldbuilding intrigues me, as does the fact that he writes fantasy (yay fantasy!), but this story was just too complicated, too overwritten, trying too hard. Maybe when he gets a little older his stories will relax and I will actually be able to enjoy them. 3/5 stars
“Caretakers,” Pat Cadigan — This was an unexpectedly interesting read about two sisters whose mother is in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimers. The older sister by fifteen years feels responsible for the younger sister, Gloria, who has never been able to hold down a job, and who instead focuses on silly things like true crime shows on TV. During the course of the story, Gloria becomes convinced that something untoward is going on at their mother’s nursing home, and right up until the climax, like I said: unexpectedly interesting. But I think the ending sort of biffed it. Very anti-climactic. 3/5 stars
“Lies My Mother Told Me,” Caroline Spector – The coolest thing about this story was the premise, but as that’s not something that originates with the story itself, I’m not counting it towards my rating. It takes place in the Wild Cards universe, where superheroes are created by exposure to a virus, and they can either turn out as Aces (the most powerful type of superhero, as the heroine of this story is), Deuces, or Jokers. This one is full of zombies and New Orleans and it really wasn’t my thing, although I suppose it was well-written. Did make me curious to check out the Wild Cards novels, however. 3/5 stars
“The Princess and the Queen, or, The Blacks and the Greens,” George R.R. Martin — The star of the collection, “The Princess and the Queen” is the story of the original Dance of the Dragons, set about two hundred years before the main events of A Song of Ice and Fire, in which two Targaryen claimants to a throne just go at each other for all they’re worth. Going to admit right up front that this is probably not going to be a five star read for everyone, for two reasons. First, because I don’t think anyone who isn’t familiar with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, or at the very least Game of Thrones, would enjoy it very much. He throws a lot of information about Westeros and the Targaryens at you right away, and expects you to keep up. Without the benefit of previous experience in this world, I don’t think that would be easy or fun to do. And second, because it’s a 35,000 word novella written in the form of a false history, as if we’re reading an actual history book written by a Maester in the Citadel, recording events for posterity (not that anyone in Westeros would learn anything from it, those idiots). Because I’m a huge nerd, and I’ve always loved the idea of taking history lessons and other types of classes in order to learn about fictional worlds, this strongly appeals to me. I don’t imagine it would appeal to everyone, especially readers who need more focus on character and dialogue. Here, it’s mostly just event after event (although very interesting events, particularly when dragons and dragon riders are involved). 5/5 stars...more
Was sort of uninterested in this book, until I read this blog post by the author. Boom! Sudden interest, give it to me now. And I’m really glad I pickWas sort of uninterested in this book, until I read this blog post by the author. Boom! Sudden interest, give it to me now. And I’m really glad I picked it up. My experience with Hild is the textbook example of why it’s a good idea to read outside your normal genres every once in a while. I don’t read very much historical fiction, and those I do read are usually the ones that have some sort of unusual hook, like TWO SOLDIERS IN WWII RUSSIA LOOK FOR A DOZEN EGGS FOR A WEDDING CAKE! (City of Thieves) or WOMAN TIME TRAVELS TO SCOTLAND AND HAS LOTS OF SEX! (Outlander). In comparison, Hild is rather tame, and MUCH more in depth.
Hild is Nicola Griffith’s examination of the early years of St. Hilda of Whitby, about whom almost nothing is known, except that she was probably one of the most influential women who ever lived. (Really, you should click that link at the top — it’s very interesting.) Griffith became obsessed with St. Hilda after visiting the ruined abbey where St. Hilda once lived, did a shit-ton of research into the middle ages and how women lived, and then decided to write this book. And her decision to not ignore the realities of women’s lives back then, which mostly featured around raising children and weaving, was a brave one. I mean, women did nothing back then, how could a book like that possibly be interesting?
It helps that our protagonist is not just any woman, but the niece of the King, and daughter of the man who should have been king, had he not been poisoned. And that Hild’s mother prophesied before she was even born that she would be “the light of the world,” a prophecy that her mother works hard to make come true, and which Hild herself fulfills not by any mystical means, but by being observant and clever and using common sense. She becomes the King’s seer, predicting events and advising him before she even has her first period. She is instrumental, in Griffith’s version of the story, in shaping her world even as young as the age of seven.
The book follows her from the age of three, when she learns her father has died and has to immediately seek the succor of his brother (who probably was the one who had him killed) for protection, all the while fearing he might see them as a threat. Due to her precarious position, she also seeks to learn how to defend herself with the help of her half-brother Cian (a character Griffith created), a gesith (knight) in the King’s court. Cian’s position is similarly precarious. He believes he is the bastard son of one king, Ceredig, a lie his mother and Hild’s mother let him believe to protect him. If Edwin King knew Cian was really the son of his late brother, he would likely see him as a threat and have him killed. As a result, Cian and Hild’s relationship becomes rather complicated. Anyway, he teaches her to wield a staff, and to properly fight with her seax (a gift from another King), because it was expressly forbidden for women to learn to fight with a sword. So Hild held a position few men, let alone women, ever held: king’s advisor, seer, warrior, landowner, with the freedom to speak as she pleased to men of authority.
God, there’s so much in this book I still want to talk about. How Griffith treats class, and the intermingling of the different races (Wealh (British), Anglo-Saxon, Franks, etc.). How Hild, a speaker of multiple languages, acts as a bridge for all these different peoples. How the whole book is a sneaky exploration of how the coming of Christianity to Britain changed the political and cultural landscape. The way she treats gender and sexuality (which was much more fluid back then, before the coming of Christianity). How she works all of this subtly into a book-long metaphor about women and weaving and family and friendship, and knitting things together. UGH SO GOOD.
This is a long book, but it’s worth it for the feeling you have almost immediately that you’re the one who’s time-traveled, back to the 7th century in England, before England was even a thing. It’s almost unbelievable how Nicola Griffith is able to create such an intense, detailed world inhabited by real people out of the bare scraps of historical record, but then again, I suppose a science fiction author is inherently suited to this kind of work — worldbuilding is kind of in the job description. This time, the world she’s created just so happens to have once been real. This book probably isn’t for readers who demand lots of fast-paced action and plot. It’s a leisurely one that demands you pay attention to it, that you bask in the words and the atmosphere they create, that you linger over them with your thoughts. That you spend actual time with these characters, and get to know and love them. If you’re not a reader who can put that much mental effort into reading, don’t bother with this one. And please, if you do, don’t blame the book if you have a bad experience.
Griffith’s afterword makes it clear she’s not done with Hild’s story, and she’s currently working on a sequel that will take us into Hild’s adult life, where she will have to do much less guesswork, as Hild’s life from that point is part of the historical record.
1899. On a ship bound for New York in the middle of the Atlantic, a Golem comes to life. Soon after, her master and sole reason for living, dies. A li1899. On a ship bound for New York in the middle of the Atlantic, a Golem comes to life. Soon after, her master and sole reason for living, dies. A little ways across the water, a Jinni turned human emerges from more than a thousand years of captivity in a flask in the shop of a tinsmith in lower Manhattan, thousands of miles away from his home in the Syrian desert. Both are out of time and out of place. Who are they in such circumstances? And who will they become?
So begins Helene Wecker's debut novel, which reached inside my body and grabbed my guts with such force, I couldn't let go of it until I'd finished.
I hate to oversell it, because I know how weird some people get about that sort of thing. Afterwards they come at you with knives. You said this book was amazing! You said it would cure cancer! You said I would get laid after! Honestly, I don't know what they're thinking when this happens, because reading is always very personal, at least the way I do it. So maybe it won't be overselling it if I say to you all that I loved this book because it felt so very personal. Because even though fantastical things were happening all over the place and its events occur over 100 years ago, this book is one of the most *real* books I've ever read. The atmosphere, the characters, the culture. Everything about it.
And then, of course, there is the love. And not just romance. This book is NOT a romance, although there is a love story in it. Mostly this is a story about two people (plus the side characters, who are fleshed out in a lovely manner) who have to figure out how to live in a world they weren't built for and have no experience with. I don't think it's a coincidence that Wecker set her story in turn of the century New York when so many people were immigrating to America from The Old Country, whichever Old Country you prefer, although this book mostly focuses on the Little Syria and Hebrew neighborhoods. It's a world in which everyone has delineated roles, and they cling to those roles in the face of the large and unfamiliar country they are now inhabiting. The contrast between all these immigrants and the Golem and the Jinni makes for a very satisfying read. (The contrast between all the different settings and cultures was great as well.) There's also some lovely meditation on religion and faith, but again mostly it's all about the characters. And I won't spoil it, but there are some pretty great plot twists as well.
I checked this book out of the library, and am regretting it. The actual physical book was *gorgeous*. Thick paper, set in old timey typeface, with navy blue-tipped pages. I need to own it in hardcover immediately, considering how much I ended up loving it (I stayed up way too late last night finishing it, and am now wasted for my work day, but it was totally worth it)....more
Wow, that wasn't what I was expecting AT ALL. In a good way. For me, this is the best of the series.
So, fair warning, this review will be chock-a-bloWow, that wasn't what I was expecting AT ALL. In a good way. For me, this is the best of the series.
So, fair warning, this review will be chock-a-block full of spoilers, so stay away, far far away if you don't want to get spoiled all to hell.
Usually, I try not to put spoilers (at least, ones involving twists and resolutions of the plot) in my reviews, but in this case, it's impossible to say what I want to say without talking about several key elements of the plot. If you're wondering whether you should read this book, obviously I think the answer is yes, and that's really all you need from this review. If you've already read it, or just don't mind being spoiled, or even if you're curious and like spoiling yourself on purpose, by all means, read on.
First things first, I had assumed after the ending to the last book that Harriet had been found alive -- Bradley was deliberately vague in his wording, and for that I curse him. May his socks never stay up on his legs. I'd suspected for a while that Harriet was some sort of spy, and after the ending to the last book, had convinced myself she'd been found alive after having been prisoner for years, as Flavia's father had been. I was all ready for Flavia to meet her long-lost mother, and all the conflicts and tensions that would come along with that, while still allowing for a fairy-tale ending. But I should have known better. This is not that sort of story. This is the sort of story where death is a main character, and grief and melancholy his sidekicks. This isn't a story about a precocious little girl getting her mother back, but a story of loss and disillusionment, of growing older.
Because of course Harriet is dead, and it's merely her remains that travel home to Buckshaw so that her family may finally be released from the Limbo of having a loved one who is only 'missing' (but presumed dead). For my part, the realization that my assumptions had been wrong hit me like a punch to the gut.
The actual plot of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is the most mystery-lite book in the Flavia de Luce series (and that's saying something). There is a man who is pushed under a train at the beginning of the book, but his death is overshadowed by the arrival of Harriet's casket, and the presence of Winston Churchill (yes, that one). And Flavia ends up solving his murder more as an afterthought (and after Inspector Hewitt, might I add, which is a first). Instead of poking around like she usually does when death lurks in her vicinity, Flavia is mostly only concerned with her mother, Harriet. Piecing together the strange behaviors of the De Luce clan, her mother's last days, and finally get hard, cold facts about her mother's disappearance all those years before. And that's not even mentioning her scheme to resurrect her mother with chemistry and present her to her father on the day of the funeral as a surprise.
It's moments like that one that make me love this series. Flavia is on the brink of adulthood in this book, and yet she's still innocently optimistic in the flexibility of reality (or maybe the possibilities of the imagination) enough to believe that her beloved chemistry has the power to bring her mother back to life. If only her mother's body had been preserved in that glacier . . . Of course, she abandons her plan to revive her mother, derailed by real life, and by her own set of realizations about her family, her mother's life and death, and the fact that she's actually growing up. It was fascinating and not a little moving to watch as she coped with her lingering feelings of invincible childhood schemes at the same time she was being invaded by the more adult feelings of finality and loss, grief and responsibility.
The wrap-up of the mystery was a bit too quick, and as I noted before, Flavia is much more passive in this one, but I didn't mind. The rich amount of emotional depth more than makes up for the lack of trickery and puzzling out of clues. With all the plot holes closed from the other five books, you'd think this was the final book in the seires: Harriet's will. The fate of Buckshaw. Why Flavia's sisters resent her so much. Why her father never talks to her. Why her laboratory is always perfectly stocked, etc.
This was originally supposed to be the final book in the series, but Bradley expanded his contract, I believe, to another set of six books several years ago. Before I read this book, I wasn't looking forward to those next books. I wasn't looking forward to watching the mystery of Harriet dragged out over even more interminable space. I wasn't looking forward to having Flavia participate in even more unlikely murders in her tiny village, or to watching her linger in childhood longer just so Bradley could milk her for more money. All of those concerns were answered in this book, however, and Flavia's future lies in Canada now, at the school her mother attended that was "the making of her."
I'm excited to see where Bradley takes this series in the future. Even if it's not perfect, it's still fun, and the decision to finish so many storylines and drastically shake up the status quo of his series leads me to believe Flavia's in safe hands.