Ian McDonald grew up in Belfast, a city known for the turmoil and unrest it has endured because of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Some of McDonald’s novels allegorically explore the causes and results of a divided city. In Sacrifice of Fools, McDonald presents a vivid and lively conflicted Belfast, and then he throws a third element into the mix: aliens.
The Shian are a peaceful alien species who, upon arrival on Earth, are allowed to settle in Belfast in exchange for sharing the secrets of their technological superiority. The Shian are humanoid in appearance, but have enough biological differences that they cannot successfully mate with humans. They also have very different languages, laws, culture, and customs. While their similarities make them attractive to many humans (and weird fetishes evolve), the differences cause misunderstandings and culture clashes.
The Shian Welcome Center is manned by Andy Gillespie, a human (Protestant) ex-con who knows more about the Shian than almost any other human because of something that happened to him while he was in prison. Andy is able to understand much, but not all, of the Shian language, so he can help them transition to life on Earth and to navigate through the oddities of human civilization. Especially Belfast. When some of the Shian are murdered at the Welcome Center, Andy, who has a felony on his record, is the prime suspect. If Andy doesn’t figure out who the actual culprit is, not only is his personal freedom at stake, but so is the peace of his city and, in fact, the world. As he investigates he is joined by a Shian lawyer and followed by police detective Dunbar, a (Catholic) woman who has her own personal struggles and prejudices to deal with.
Once again Ian McDonald gives us a fascinating what-if scenario set in a familiar city that has become almost unrecognizable due to the influence of advanced technology and, in this case, an influx of aliens. As the humans try to understand their new alien neighbors, the Shian, in turn, try to understand Belfast and the humans who live there. This is not an easy thing to do since even Belfast’s human citizens have trouble understanding and getting along with each other.
Sacrifice of Fools is a murder mystery that has a lot to say about language, dreaming, psychology, eugenics, gender, sexuality and genetics. Children play a major role in the story. They’re not point-of-view characters, but they’re often in the background and the three main characters’ actions are affected by the children they are responsible for. This is perhaps a metaphor that represents the entire story (I need to be vague here so as not to spoil the mystery), but I’m not sure if McDonald actually intended that.
Sacrifice of Fools is often violent, gruesome and ugly. It’s disturbing in so many ways which, of course, is exactly how Ian McDonald wants it to be. I listened to the audio version produced by Audible Studios. It’s narrated by English actor Sean Barrett who sounds (at least to this American) like he was born and raised in Belfast. He’s brilliant. If you’re going to read Sacrifice of Fools, I definitely recommend the audio version.(less)
In Winter’s Shadow is the final book in Gillian Bradshaw’s DOWN THE LONG WIND trilogy, an elegantly written historical fantasy about King Arthur that’s inspired by the Welsh legends. While the first two books, Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer, have focused on Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain), this last novel is written from Gwynhwyfar’s perspective. You certainly don’t need to read the previous books to fully appreciate In Winter’s Shadow, but if you’re a fan of the time period or the legends, you’ll probably want to read Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer at some point. They are lovely historical stories.
In In Winter’s Shadow, Gwynhwyfar gives us some of the history of the Roman Empire and its relationship to Britain. She tells of how when Rome left, the petty kings of Britain squabbled amongst themselves and were in danger of being overrun by the Saxons until Arthur declared himself emperor and forced them to unite. She also gives some of her own backstory — how she hates women’s work, prefers to study, and was her father’s pet. She spends her days working tirelessly to advance Arthur’s kingdom while he’s away on campaign. She runs her household, manages supplies for Arthur and his soldiers, and extracts taxes from the petty kings and the church. It is hard to deal with a war-torn country, plotting kings, and resentful clergy.
Gwynhwyfar desperately wants a child who will be Arthur’s heir. So far she has miscarried the children she’s conceived. She fears that Arthur will divorce her, but he refuses. She is jealous of Medraut, Arthur’s bastard son whose mother was the evil Morgawse. Medraut’s presence at Camelot reminds Gwynhwyfar of her barrenness. It frustrates her that Arthur has a son out of that hateful relationship with his stepsister, but can’t get one out of love with Gwynhwyfar. Medraut is still disrupting the unity of Arthur’s band and Morgawse haunts Arthur and Gwynhwyfar’s relationship. Thus, Morgawse, even though she’s dead, still threatens to bring Arthur — and all of Britain — down.
All of this is a lot of stress for Gwynhwyfar, which explains why she makes a couple of REALLY BIG mistakes, and why we, the readers, feel empathetic toward her even as we realize she’s being REALLY STUPID. The consequences of Gwynhwyfar’s sins are severe and instead of making Arthur’s reign more secure, she ends up destroying everything.
Though the story is slow and repetitive at first, In Winter’s Shadow eventually takes off and becomes quite compelling. Gwynhwyfar faces several moral dilemmas that are just as relevant today as they were back then. Is murder ever justifiable? What about adultery? When our leaders fail to act, when is it okay to take matters into our own hands?
In Winter’s Shadow is tragic and painful. It’s a disaster story. It’s the story about how well-meaning people can royally screw things up. It’s about the end of personal relationships and the end of an empire. Gillian Bradshaw succeeds in making both seem equally tragic. Once again, I listened to Nicole Quinn’s narration of the audio version. She has such a beautiful voice and I especially liked her in this book because it’s told from a woman’s perspective.(less)
"Marina once told me that we only remember what never really happened. It would take me a lifetime to understand what those words meant. But I suppose...more"Marina once told me that we only remember what never really happened. It would take me a lifetime to understand what those words meant. But I suppose I'd better start at the beginning, which in this case is the end."
Oscar Drai is an apathetic student at a boarding school in Barcelona in 1980. While he isn’t too excited about his studies, he is enamored with the old quarter of Barcelona where his school resides, and he escapes to explore the city every chance that he gets. When we first meet Oscar, he has just been picked up by the police because he’s been missing from school for a week. They find him confused and walking dazedly around the city. He is quickly processed at the police station and sent back to school. Then he tells us the story of the strange and tragic events that have just happened to him.
There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and sha...moreThere are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead. —Arthur Machen (quoted as an introduction to “The Horror at Red Hook”)
Everyone must read a little Lovecraft and Blackstone Audio’s recently published edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft is, in my opinion, the perfect way to do that. Like re-animated corpses, Lovecraft’s most popular stories from the 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines are brought back to life by some of the best readers in the business: Paul Michael Garcia, Bronson Pinchot, Stephen R. Thorne, Keith Szarabajka, ... Read More: http://www.fantasyliterature.com/revi...(less)
Editor, publisher, and essayist Lou Anders’ debut novel is a sweet Middle Grade story inspired by Norse legends. Frostborn, the first in a series, has two likeable heroines. The first is Karn, the son of a prosperous farmer who’s head of their clan. Karn is his father’s heir, which secretly infuriates Karn’s uncle, a twin who is only a few seconds younger than Karn’s father. However, Karn isn’t interested in running the family farm and being clan chief. He spends his time playing a strategy board game called Thrones & Bones and he’d like to have some adventures before settling down. Karn’s uncle would be thrilled if Karn would leave home, but his father is determined to make Karn a worthy successor. When the uncle tries to take Karn out of the picture, Karn is forced to flee.
Our second hero is Thianna, the daughter of a frost giant and a human woman. Because of her mixed heritage, Thianna is small for a giantess (but still bigger than humans) and is mercilessly teased by her peers. Thianna ’s mother met the frost giants when they sheltered her when she was on the run from wyvern-riding warriors. She died after Thianna was born and now those warriors have come looking for Thianna because they think she has something they want. She makes a daring escape.
That’s how Karn and Thianna end up on the run together. They make a good team. The giantess is big and she knows how to fight. Karn isn’t very physical, but his wits have been honed by all the time spent playing Thrones & Bones. He can often talk his way out of a dangerous situation, which can be pretty funny sometimes. The kids complement each other and together they face two-headed trolls, a dragon, wyverns, a draug, and an undead warrior named Helltoppr. They travel through a winter landscape that features high cliffs, freezing river rapids, avalanches, blasted cities, and dead forests. There’s a wonderful chase scene in a crumbling coliseum. When the action slows down, Karn and Thianna entertain us with a bit of banter. Lou Anders perfectly balances the terror, humor, excitement, and emotion. Both kids mature as they discover inner strengths they didn’t know they had.
As Karn and Thianna start to figure out what’s happening to them, they realize that not only are they and their families in danger, but so is the realm they live in. Their clans are isolated from the outside world, and this is the first time they sense that their lifestyles, and probably their lives, are being threatened. Anders doesn’t give us the details, but hints at evil goings-on in the wider world. Whatever Thianna’s mother had seems to be the key. Frostborn ends at a satisfactory stopping place, but it’s obvious that the story will go on.
Middle Grade readers are sure to love Frostborn and, as an adult, I liked it, too. It’s an exciting fantasy adventure and I’m looking forward to the next THRONES & BONES novel. I listened to Listening Library’s audio version which is 8½ hours long and narrated by Fabio Tassone, a European actor. He gave a great performance. I’ll definitely choose this format for the sequel.(less)
The Naked Sun is the second of Isaac Asimov’s books about police detective Elijah Baley and the humanoid robot R. Daneel Olivaw. Asimov wrote the first book, Caves of Steel (reviewed by Steven), as the answer to John W. Campbell’s challenge to create a science fiction murder mystery. Asimov succeeded, of course, and chose to give us another installment. You don’t absolutely need to read Caves of Steel before reading The Naked Sun, but it’d probably be a little easier if you did. The Naked Sun takes place a couple of years after the events of Caves of Steel, in some far-future Earth after humans have created and evolved separate cultures by settling other planets. Elijah Baley lives in New York City, which is overcrowded and domed. The people of Earth have become afraid of the outdoors, open spaces, and even their own sun. The “spacers” despise the crowds and germs of Earth, so they choose to live in separate areas when they’re forced to visit Earth. In Caves of Steel, Elijah was assigned to solve the murder of a spacer. Against his wishes, he had to work with Daneel, who was sent from another planet to help with the investigation. At first Elijah hated the robot, but the man and machine ended up forming a bond based on mutual respect and appreciation. Now, because of Elijah’s brilliance in solving the spacer murder mystery, he has been summoned to the planet Solaris to solve another murder. Elijah is afraid to leave Earth, but his success will mean advancement that will give his family more status and comforts. He is delighted when he discovers that Daneel will be joining him again.
Just like the first murder mystery, this one is complicated, convoluted, and difficult to solve. The man who was murdered was alone except for his robots. Everyone knows that a robot cannot hurt a human being (remember Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?) yet that seems to be exactly what happened. Of course, Elijah will eventually figure out whodunit, but he’ll come to several wrong conclusions before finally cracking the case.
Asimov’s murder mysteries are entertaining. Elijah and Daneel are great characters and the settings are unusual. Asimov uses the mystery to explore the complexities and implications of the Three Laws. Could a robot commit murder while still technically obeying the Three Laws? Asimov spends a lot of time on this topic and it’s a nice exercise in logic to contemplate how the Three Laws could fail.
A problem I have with many of Asimov’s stories is that I can’t believe in the societies he proposes. In this one, Solaris is populated by only 20,000 humans who’ve spread out so that they never need to see or touch each other except for the purpose of breeding children. Therefore, they’ve evolved a revulsion to their fellow humans. They only visit each other virtually and they have an aversion to affection, marriage, and children, to the point that these words are considered obscene and many Solarians will become psychotic if they have to physically be with other humans. Yet they still keep the institution of marriage (which they despise) so they can create fetuses which they then turn over to the government to raise. (You’d think this high-tech society would just use artificial insemination, but if they did the story wouldn’t work, so they don’t.) Despite the absurdity of Asimov’s society, I appreciate his conclusion about the importance of human connection.
It seems to me that Asimov was more interested in exploring evolutionary psychology and the Three Laws than in creating a believable story. His writing style is more concerned with getting ideas across than making them beautiful to read. And of course there’s the sexism — most of Asimov’s female characters (when there are any) are stupid whimpering damsels in distress. But if you’re looking for a novel with challenging ideas, likeable male characters and a complicated mystery to solve, The Naked Sun might be just what you want.
I listened to William Dufris narrate the audio version of The Naked Sun. He gives an excellent lively performance, just like he always does. This audio production was originally released by Tantor Audio several years ago but was just re-released by Random House Audio this month. It’s almost eight hours long.(less)
Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is a fascinating short novel by Ian McDonald. At the beginning of the story we meet Ethan Ring, who’s feeling conspicuously tall and red-headed as he chants in a Buddhist temple. Ethan and his friend, a famous Japanese manga artist, are on a bicycle pilgrimage in Japan. Neither of them knows what kind of demons the other is struggling with, and neither does the reader at first, but as they journey on, their stories come out and even though each man’s tale is different, they realize that both of them are searching for redemption and peace.
Many stories deal with a hero’s search for redemption, but Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is unique. The setting is a neo-feudal Japan where tech corporations are the fiefdoms and gangs of armed vigilantes threaten citizens’ peace and security. This is jarringly juxtaposed (to excellent effect) with the peaceful contemplativeness of a Buddhist pilgrimage. Like other works of McDonald’s that I’ve read, Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone reminded me of William Gibson’s stories. Both writers like to explore the effects of large impersonal mega-corporations and high technology on familiar settings.
Another fascinating juxtaposition stems from the reason that Ethan is seeking redemption. He and one of his college buddies have created something beautiful that has been perverted and made into something horrible. His girlfriend, an artist, warned Ethan of the dangers, but he ignored her. That ended their relationship and it turned out that she was right. Now Ethan suffers from both the loss of that relationship and the guilt he feels about the destruction he has inadvertently caused. While he tries to use his discovery for good, he knows that it has too much potential for evil and, therefore, it’s better for the world if he keeps it secret. This is a difficult moral quandary for Ethan.
I loved the slow discovery, via flashbacks, of Ethan’s powers — how they work and how they were perverted. In my opinion, the publisher’s blurb gives too much away about this and I would have preferred to have known nothing going into the story. However, even if you’ve read the blurb, there’s plenty of mystery left. I’ll just say that it’s a really cool idea.
A major theme in Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is how the mind can be unconsciously manipulated by a symbol (such as a manga hero), art, or even the typography that a message is written in. The novel also explores heroism, idealism, creativity, perception, religiosity, lawlessness, friendship, guilt, and redemption. As always, McDonald’s prose is rich and vibrant and his dialog is excellent. There’s a lot to get out of this short book and it’s one I’ll likely read again. I listened to Audible Studio’s version which is 4.5 hours long and excellently read by Matt Addis. I highly recommend this version.(less)
Juliet Blackwell’s WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES hasn’t let me down. This is a solid series with a fun setting and great characters. Tantor Audio’s versions read by Xe Sands are terrific and I’m certain that her narration adds a lot to my enjoyment. Honestly, I’ve got a bit of a voice crush on her. I wouldn’t think of reading these books any other way.
In A Vision in Velvet, the sixth installment, Lily’s vintage clothing store is thriving, she has made friends with her neighbors on Haight Street, and she’s got a steady romance going. Life is pretty good. But, of course, soon enough Lily manages to get wrapped up in another murder mystery. This one involves a trunk full of old clothes, a velvet cape, a dying tree in Golden Gate Park, some scientists, psychedelic frogs, The Crucible, and an ancient curse. The mystery gets even closer to home when Oscar, Lily’s adorable shape-shifting familiar, disappears. As you’d expect, Lily eventually solves the case, with a little — actually, a lot — of help from her friends.
The plots of WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES are always associated with some sort of legendary or historical witchiness — in this case the Salem Witch Trials. While the mystery plot is always entertaining, the real draw of this series is the characters. Each one of them is unique, interesting, and evolving. Lily has come a long way from the slightly nervous and awkward woman we met in Second Hand Spirits. That Lily was chased out of her hometown, had no friends, and didn’t trust anyone she met. She hasn’t forgotten those days, so she’s amazed and thankful for what she now has and she realizes how precious it is. Her new status becomes obvious to Lily when the whole neighborhood rallies together to help her find Oscar. It’s quite touching.
Each of the WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES is a self-contained mystery, so you could read A Vision in Velvet as a stand-alone without any problem, but you’ll get more out of Lily’s personal development if you start at the beginning. There is a lot that Lily still doesn’t know about her past and there are lots of paths that her future could take, so I’m looking forward to more in this series. Make sure you try this on audio!(less)
The Unfairest of Them All is the second book in Shannon Hale’s EVER AFTER HIGH series for children. These are tie-in novels for Matel’s line...more3.5 stars
The Unfairest of Them All is the second book in Shannon Hale’s EVER AFTER HIGH series for children. These are tie-in novels for Matel’s line of EVER AFTER HIGH dolls, clothing, diaries, and sundry accessories. I feel like a real chump for obliviously falling into Matel’s greedy little trap, but I love Shannon Hale’s children’s books, so.... so THERE.
The first book in the series (The Storybook of Legends) was sweet and charming, so I went in to this one knowing exactly what I was doing and I found it just as original and adorable as the first one. In The Unfairest of Them All, Raven Queen, daughter of the evil queen, refuses to sign The Storybook of Legends, a contract that would require her to carry on in her mother’s evil role. Raven doesn’t want to be evil, but ... Read More: http://www.fantasyliterature.com/revi...(less)
When Kevin Hearne’s IRON DRUID CHRONICLES series started with Hounded a few years ago, the story starred Atticus O’Sullivan, the world’s last druid, a...moreWhen Kevin Hearne’s IRON DRUID CHRONICLES series started with Hounded a few years ago, the story starred Atticus O’Sullivan, the world’s last druid, and his funny movie-watching Irish Wolfhound, Oberon. In Shattered, the seventh novel (and the first one released in hardback!), we now have two more point-of-view characters. One is Granuaile, the former barmaid who became Atticus’ apprentice and is now a druid in her own right and has her own hound (Orlaith) that she can mind-speak to. The other is Owen, Atticus’ mentor who has just escaped the Morrigan’s time stasis spell. All three of our human POV characters share page space in Shattered as each goes about his or her own dangerous mission.
Atticus spends his time helping Owen acclimate to modern times, getting his magical tattoos fixed, and trying to figure out what Loki is up to and how the gods are lining... Read More: http://www.fantasyliterature.com/revi...(less)