The Secret Fire came as a bit of a surprise to me. When I was offered a review copy I hadn’t really registered that the book would be out and while I’The Secret Fire came as a bit of a surprise to me. When I was offered a review copy I hadn’t really registered that the book would be out and while I’d heard of C.J. Daugherty before, her writing partner Carina Rozenfeld was unknown to me. Yet when looking at the synopsis and reading about how the book came about, I was intrigued enough to say yes and I’m glad I did. The Secret Fire was an engrossing adventure, which I tore through only taking a break to sleep.
What made The Secret Fire so gripping is hard to gauge. At first glance, the plot seems to be your regular supernatural YA girl-meets-boy and saves the world narrative, and it is, but when you get into the story it is also more than that. The character arcs for both Sacha and Taylor are about more than their having to save the world or falling in love, it is also about coming to terms with their respective family histories and situations; about learning to be yourself in the face of other people’s expectations and standing by your decisions.
Taylor and Sacha are mirrors of each other in many ways. Taylor is a ‘good girl’, well-behaved, geeky straight-A student, where Sacha is your typical bad boy with a golden heart. Taylor is an English girl with a French surname, Sacha a French boy with an English surname. Taylor has a best friend and a boyfriend, Sacha is a lone wolf by design. They both have a younger sister of roughly the same age, but Sacha seems closer to his than Taylor is to hers. They are very much two sides of a coin in an ages old battle. Yet once we scratch the surface and we get to know them better, Taylor and Sacha turn out to be far more alike than you’d expect. I loved the take on the curse and the prophesied fate, since it was a nice spin on a familiar tale. Also, surprise demons are always a bonus.
Sacha’s reaction to his curse – his lack of regard for any risks he takes and his self-imposed emotional isolation – felt quite believable. It seemed plausible that he’d test the limits to his curse to the extreme, just to show the world that he isn’t afraid. His introduction in the first chapter was fabulous. I loved his bond with his mother and little sister. He’s shut them out so they won’t be so sad when he eventually dies, yet at the same time he’s deeply hurt by the fact that his mum wants to pretend everything is fine and normal. He loves them both a lot and he doesn’t want to leave them, especially after they’ve already had to deal with the loss of his father.
This is very different from Taylor’s family. Her dad is out of the picture by choice, but she isn’t as deeply attached to her family. She reconnects with her grandfather in the book and there is clear affection there, but Taylor seems far more attached to her best friend and later Sacha and her teacher Louisa than she is to her mum and sister. Taylor is a great character who seems for more action-oriented than Sacha. She’s the one who searches out her grandpa, who decides to travel to Paris and find Sacha. She’s also the one with an active power, where Sacha has a passive curse. The character who really stole the show, however, was Louisa. I loved her raucous personality and her freeing influence on Taylor, who she challenges at every opportunity. She also inserts a bit of levity and humour at opportune moments to keep the narrative from becoming too bleak.
One thing I did wonder after finishing the book was how the authors wrote it. Did they each write a different viewpoint, with one writing Taylor’s point of view, denoted by a sun, and the other taking Sacha’s point of view, denoted by a moon, and writing the chapters headed by a combined sun and moon together? Or did they write everything together? I haven’t read either before so I can’t tell, but I wonder whether readers who know their writing can tell. I appreciated the vivid descriptions of Paris though, as I’ve visited Paris several times and I recognised the feel the book evoked. I also liked that it specifically mentioned that Paris is more than the iconic centre of the City that’s often portrayed on screen, but also the less grandiose suburbs and banlieus we often don’t get to see.
I enjoyed The Secret Fire greatly, more than I had really expected. It is an exciting adventure, a lovely romance, but most importantly it is a story of two young people finding themselves and deciding to save the world in the process. If you enjoy supernatural YA, with witches, demons and all that entails, then The Secret Fire by C.J. Daugherty and Carina Rozenfeld will deliver them in spades.
**spoiler alert** Stripes Publishing took on YA horror this year with their new series Red Eye, which has resulted in four very entertaining books so**spoiler alert** Stripes Publishing took on YA horror this year with their new series Red Eye, which has resulted in four very entertaining books so far this year. Tom Becker’s Dark Room is the fifth, and last for this year, and it adds to the series with a great murder mystery, which I enjoyed very much, though I did have a big problem with its villain. As a warning, I won’t be able to discuss what made the antagonist so problematic for me without giving away their identity. So I will warn you now there will be a massive spoiler and before I head into my discussion of the murderer, I will give another spoiler warning. So if you don’t want to know, you’ll know when to stop reading.
Let’s start with the positive. I really liked Darla, our main character. I thought she was interesting and believable and I especially loved how conflicted her feelings towards her dad are. Her father, Hopper, is not quite father-of-the-year material—he’s an alcoholic grifter, who’s had to cut and run to stay out of trouble more than once. Yet for all his faults – and Darla is all to aware of his faults – Darla loves her father deeply and she wants nothing more than to have a normal, stable home life with him. She oscillates between love, anger, disappointment, and hope and I was really rooting for her to get that happy ending of the white picket fence in the end.
When Darla and Hopper land in Saffron Hills, it is the gazillionth time Darla has to start over in a new place and a new school and, understandably, she’s not looking forward to making new friends. Thus the way she falls in with Sasha and Frank was a pleasant surprise to Darla, but to me too. I really liked Sasha and Frank. Sasha is wonderfully cynical, hiding her vulnerable heart under a layer of darkness, while Frank is the ultimate good guy, best friend. But they also typify the weird division in Saffron Hills. It seems as if its inhabitants are either filthy rich or those who work for the filthy rich, there doesn’t seem to be an in-between. There is a stark division between the privileged and the not-so privileged, with a side-order of the right/wrong side of the tracks, and it was interesting to see how Becker uses it and which characters did and did not realise their privilege or lack of it.
Becker’s treatment of Leroy Mills was also an interesting reflection of this. He is positioned to be a natural suspect for being the Angel Taker, yet this is highly reliant on his existence on the fringe of respectability, not on his actions, at least not at first. I loved the balance between him being scary and actually very well-meaning. Becker is adept at showing us how people are never just one thing. The Picture Perfects – Saffron Hills’ West Academy’s five King and Queen Bees – are shown to be far more than just the shallow sides they present to the world. For example, Natalie McRae isn’t just a self-obsessed beauty queen, but she’s also highly insecure and desperate to live up to her mum’s expectations.
Dark Room focuses on the darker side of social media – the obsessive instagram selfies, the mean Plain Girls stream, and the anonymous blog talking about the Angel Maker murders – yet it seems more a comment on the nature of the users than the tools themselves, since the Angel Taker doesn’t actually seem to be using them to select his victims. Some of the twists in the story were surprising and while I figured out the identity of the Angel Taker long before Darla did, I did get their motivation wrong. And that is where I have to head into spoiler territory. So if you don’t want to be spoiled on the killer’s identity, either skip till the last paragraph or click away.
Spoilers beyond this point! While the characters are ethnically diverse, there seemed a weird lack of LBGTQA* characters, which was a shame. There is also a somewhat problematic treatment of a trans character, which left me feeling uneasy about its use as a plot driver. The killer is revealed to be the same, returned to avenge themselves, managing to stay unsuspected due to having surgically changed their appearance from male to female. And this is where the trouble starts for me. Because it feels as if it is reducing the complexity of being transgender and all of the hardship transgender people encounter in their lives to simply deciding to change your sex from one to the other for expediency’s sake. In fact, the character doesn’t feel as if they actually are transgender, they just use it for disguise purposes. Also, having the trans character being the villain feels off and could be seen as a harmful stereotype. It left me really conflicted and a little annoyed, because Dark Room isn’t a bad book; I enjoyed it very much, but I also think good representation of diverse characters is important and this didn’t feel like it was. Make of that what you will.
Dark Room was an entertaining read, which I enjoyed very much, but for its problematic reveal at the end. Still, if you enjoy a good murder mystery horror story, you should definitely give Tom Becker’s Dark Room a shot. Even if it is not perfect, it is perfectly legitimate to like a problematic thing, and I liked Dark Room, despite its flaws.
The Hypnotist by Gordon Snider is my first foray into early twentieth century San Francisco and during the Great Earthquake to boot. Well, in a straigThe Hypnotist by Gordon Snider is my first foray into early twentieth century San Francisco and during the Great Earthquake to boot. Well, in a straight historical fiction sense at least, as I adore Mercedes Lackey’s The Fire Rose, which is set at the same time, but has a whole different explanation for the earthquake! But the synopsis for Snider’s novel sounded intriguing and the strong bonds of friendship between women that seemed at its core were a strong draw as well. Snider certainly delivers on the latter, but The Hypnotist wasn’t always an easy or pleasant read for me, mostly due to its prose.
I found myself having a hard time reading for long stretches of time and at the same time having a hard time picking the book back up when I had been away from it. It was as if it took me a while to sink back into the writing and the rhythm of the book before the reading got easy again, yet to get to that point was hard, as I kept drifting away. To be fair, this struggle with concentrating might also be on me, as I was really tired and just starting my vacation when I read the book; a different reader might not have this problem at all. But for me it created a choppy and uneven reading experience, which drew away from the book’s wonderful characters and interesting story.
The Hypnotist’s strong suit is its protagonist, Marta Baldwin. Marta is a fabulous character, whose drive and independence jump off the page. I really liked her spirit and her determination to manage her own life and not be defined by the men around her. The way she stood up for herself, to her brother and other men who patronise her, was wonderful and sadly even over a hundred years later very familiar. I also liked her very modern conviction that it was better to teach the impoverished how to budget and manage their money than just giving them a one-time handout. And that one of the main steps was making sure that not all the money was blown on payday on booze and other entertainments, preferably by having the wife manage all of the finances. She’s also fiercely loyal to her friends and not afraid to reconsider her opinions on people, such as happens with Angela Cummings, the society wife who falls from grace.
Marta isn’t the book’s only unconventional woman, she is joined by the ineffable Lillie Collins, a young socialite who is anything but conventional or demure. I adored Lillie and her ‘take charge, can do’-attitude. She is loud and brash and couldn’t careless about society’s bad opinion, though both she and Marta acknowledge that she can only afford to be due to her affluent background. Marta’s assistant Missy is a clear counterbalance, as she can’t afford to be anything but respectable and even then is vulnerable to popular opinion, just as the afore-mentioned Angela, who is dropped from society when her husband leaves her.
Snider’s female characters were far more interesting to me than his male characters. While Byron is definitely sympathetic, I had a harder time with Byron’s friend Charles, who rubbed me the wrong way due to reasons best left out to avoid spoilers. Similarly, I had a hard time with the Hypnotist. Snider wrote his point of view in the first person and seemed to be trying to create a sense of sympathy for this awful man due to his past, but it had the opposite effect on me. I really disliked him and I found his point of view hard to get through, always being glad when we moved away from him and back to another character.
The plot of The Hypnotist is quite interesting. The reader is presented both with the mystery of Marta’s trying to discover who the Hypnotist is and with a story arc dealing with Marta’s struggle to gain control of her own financial circumstances and inheritance and saving her house. The culmination of the story in the Great Quake was very well done and I found the passages dealing with Marta’s passage through the wrecked city some of the most powerful scenes in the novel. The utter devastation of San Francisco and the fires and survivors roaming the streets created an almost post-apocalyptic impression.
While I struggled with the book, in the end it was a worthwhile read and one whose protagonist was quite memorable. Marta, and Lillie too, were the highlights of the book and they are certainly the sort of characters I like to read about. If you enjoy a mystery starring a smart, independent woman then The Hypnotist definitely provides that in spades.
Stephanie Saulter’s evolution series has been one of my favourite series published in the past two years. I was blown away by her debut Gemsigns andStephanie Saulter’s ®evolution series has been one of my favourite series published in the past two years. I was blown away by her debut Gemsigns and thought the follow-up Binary was even more fabulous. So my expectations for the final book in the series Regeneration were sky high. I was wondering how Saulter would end her series and whether she’d stick the landing and bring it home in style. I shouldn’t have worried, because spoiler for the rest of the review: I loved it. As this is the concluding book of a trilogy, there will be spoilers for the previous two books, so consider yourself warned on that front.
If the central question to Gemsigns was “What makes us human?” and that of Binary was “Where do we draw the line?” then the central question to Regeneration is “What happens when the status quo is challenged?”. The gems have found their place in society and the gillungs, the gems who were adapted to amphibian life, have created a vibrant community on the banks of the Thames; not just managing to build their own way of life, but developing a revolutionary way to store energy that will cause a giant shift in the power balance of the energy market. It is here that the main conflict of the story has its roots, because the establishment doesn’t want to let go of its power and privilege that easily. Saulter explores privilege from the point of view of those that lack it and shows lengths the establishment will go to in order to retain it.
Facing the establishment are most of the characters the reader has previously come to know and love. In fact, several Gemsigns characters missing from Binary return to the page in Regeneration, Most notably Gabriel, Gaela and Bal. When we last saw him, Gabriel was an adorable, but precocious child; in this book he’s become a young adult, whose innate talents have put him in a position with huge responsibilities, perhaps more than should be asked of someone his age. But then Gabriel has always been extraordinary and he has had to learn to cope with prejudice from all fronts – both norm and gem alike – due to his telepathy. Saulter makes this explicit in the way people keep checking whether Gabriel is wearing his headband, which serves as a hands-free communication device, but in his case also blocks his ability to read others' thoughts. They don’t just check whether he’s wearing it, but also that he has it turned on. What most people don’t realise, is that Gabriel wears his headband not just to protect their privacy, but to protect himself from their uncensored thoughts. I loved how Saulter played with this and how she has Gabriel use his powers in different situations. Gabriel’s powers aren’t just scary or useful, they are also used as comic relief in the interactions he has with his little sister Eve. When Eve wants to annoy Gabriel, she’ll try to provoke a reaction from him by thinking “bad” thoughts at him, which cracked me up, as it is such a sibling thing to do.
But Gabriel’s family unit isn’t the only one we get to check in with. We see how Mikal and Sharon Varsi have moved up the professional ladder and have created a wonderful family. We learn that Aryel and Eli have taken Herran’s hint and are a loving and devoted couple, as are Rhys and Callan. I loved seeing Herran again as he was my favourite character from the previous book. Of course there are also wonderful new people to meet, such as Agwé, Gabriel’s best friend and colleague, and her foster parents Pilan and Lapsa. And on the more adversarial side, Saulter created some fascinating antagonists in Moira Charles and Abraham Mitford (and isn’t that just a name with delicious connotations?), not to mention the biggest and baddest adversary of all of them, Zavcka Klist. Klist is an amazing character. I loved her story arc and the way she is taken somewhat by surprise by her cult-following when she is released. Saulter’s development of Klist character is masterful, though hard to discuss without creating spoilers for the plot. Just believe me when I tell you she is brilliant.
Regeneration’s plot is a combination of political thriller, police procedural, and a House-style medical mystery all wrapped up in a race-against-the-clock conspiracy bow. The story unfolds over a very limited amount of time, but there is so much going on that the book flies past. This is aided by a super-smooth writing style that makes you gobble up pages without realising time is passing. As with the previous two books Saulter switches between a limited number of main third-person omniscient points of view, with several occasional points of view interspersed. I love the way she builds up her narrative , sometimes showing us the same situation from different viewpoints and sometimes deliberately withholding information from both the reader and specific characters. It makes for gripping reading and a very immersive experience.
Regeneration is a fantastic finale to one of the best SF series of the past five years. In my opinion, the ®evolution series is one of the most under-appreciated series out there. While the tech and other SFnal elements of the future Saulter created are fascinating and original, the true heart of the series is found in its characters and what they say about humanity and its society, past, current and future. I’ve been singing this series praises far and wide and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favour and go and read Gemsigns, Binary, and Regeneration as soon as you can, just to see how fantastic SF can be.
In some way writing a review of Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice feels somewhat redundant, as it seems as if everyone has read this book orIn some way writing a review of Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice feels somewhat redundant, as it seems as if everyone has read this book or has at least heard about it. In fact, it swept the SFF awards in 2014 in an unprecedented way. On the other hand, much of the conversation about Ancillary Justice has focussed on Leckie’s choice of gender pronouns and treatment of gender in the narrative. In my opinion this does a disservice to both the book and the author, because Ancillary Justice is far more than an experiment in gender approach. In fact, my attention was much more drawn by the narrative techniques Leckie uses to convey Breq’s dual nature as a ship and an ancillary, and by the question of what it means to be sentient if not autonomous.
Leckie tells her story in two different storylines, one set in the book's present and one in the past. It is in the past setting that we get to witness the complexity of the relationship between a ship and her ancillaries. Ancillaries are part of the ship, the AI that is the ship can monitor the ancillaries and see out of their eyes, essentially be part of their mind. This allows the ship to be present in several places at once, creating an almost omniscient first person narration, since the book is told in first person throughout. Of course this omniscient first person allows for a greater view of all the action when ancillaries are in different locations at quite a distance from each other or in different rooms, but the scattered viewpoint is especially effective when Justice of Toren has several ancillaries watching the same event from different angles. Early in the book Leckie has a scene where Justice of Toren is talking about herself as being active in a number of placing, casually calling the ancillaries herself, claiming them as part of her own consciousness, effectively erasing them as separate entities. Yet at the same time, there are scenes where the ship is talking in dialogue with one of her Esks, almost verging on talking to herself, but actually not quite doing so, which felt alienating. It was also a good way to remind the reader that Justice of Toren — and Breq for that matter — isn’t human, but an AI and as such has very different priorities. And these reminders are necessary, because both the ship and Breq feel very human at many points in the book.
Breq's humanity and Justice of Toren's personhood are a continuing theme in the series and are set up as a question from the beginning quite clearly. At the time of writing this review, I've read the entire trilogy — not quite, but almost back to back — so it is hard not to look at the series as a whole and tease out what started where. Yet the plight of the AI ships and stations who are sentient individuals, but cannot be autonomous is shown from the start. The AI's in Leckie's world are powerful presences. While created and consisting of non-organic matter, they feel love, anger, grief and other emotions and feel them deeply. Despite this they are considered machines, meant to obey their Radchaai masters, which quickly felt wrong to me as the reader. In a similar manner, the ancillaries are literally slaved and slaves to their ship. An ancillary is created from a human body, most often those captured in war, the individual’s mind wiped and their body fitted with cyborg components so they can be accessed by the ship, much like separate nodes in a computer network. They are like a mirror to the ship AI’s: ships are sentient and individuals, but they cannot act autonomously, while ancillaries are sentient and autonomous, but at their core no longer individuals. In fact, Breq doesn’t consider herself human anymore.
Breq’s view of her own humanity very much influences her actions and decisions throughout the novel's present-time storyline; it lends her a certain careless disregard for her own safety and survival. To me this came to the fore most clearly in her relationship with Seivarden, one of Justice of Toren’s former lieutenants. Breq saves her without quite knowing why, whether it is simply the right thing to do, out of a sense of loyalty or duty, or even just pity. And despite this and the fact she didn’t even care for Seivarden all that much in the past, Breq goes through great trouble to help Seivarden get back on her feet. Seivarden for her part was also a quite fascinating character. The way Leckie deals with her addiction and how she transfers her dependence on kef to a dependence on Breq to give her direction and meaning was both heart-breaking and fantastic. Heart-breaking because that transference prevents her from truly healing and fantastic because it felt real.
Those were just the things that stood out to me way more than the gender pronoun element of the book, which I’d honestly largely stopped actively noticing by chapter five or so. Of course, there is much more that makes Ancillary Justice a fantastic read. There is the awesome setting of Radchaai space which is endlessly fascinating. There are numerous mysteries to solve, both past and present. And there is some amazing action to be found in the book. Ancillary Justice is a riveting read and if you haven’t yet read it, you absolutely should, because it is bloody amazing....more
It is no secret that I love Kate Elliott’s writing. I think her Crown of Stars series is criminally underrated and more people should be reading KateIt is no secret that I love Kate Elliott’s writing. I think her Crown of Stars series is criminally underrated and more people should be reading Kate Elliott, period. 2015 is a busy book year for Elliott, as her collection The Very Best of Kate Elliott was released in February and in November her newest adult fantasy book, Black Wolves will be published by Orbit as well. But August sees Elliott stepping out into a new arena, the wonderful world of YA, as she’s publishing her first YA novel, Court of Fives in a fortnight. That makes this fangirl very happy obviously, because I get to read three new Elliott stories this year. Court of Fives is my second Elliott read this year, and it was even more fantastic than I expected, which is a pretty high bar to jump.
It’s hard to put a finger on which aspect of Court of Fives I enjoyed the most; Elliott combines fantastic characters with a fascinating world and a fabulous plot. The elements that spring to mind most readily are the political schemes by the head of Garon Palace, the athletics and intricate strategics involved in The Fives, Efea’s national sport, the examination of privilege and class, and the different family dynamics portrayed in the narrative. Elliott interweaves intimate storylines, such as the struggle to save Jes’ sisters and mother from their fate, or the day-to-day of Jes’ training in Garon Palace’s Fives Stable, with ones that affect events on a grander scale so skilfully that they all seem equally immediate in nature.
Central to the story, especially Jes’ arc, is the game known as The Fives. In the Fives, five contestants strife to conquer five different types of obstacle courses that test the competitors on strength, agility, analytical insight, and daring, in what is essentially a big game of ‘Capture the Flag’. I loved Jes’ passion for her sport and how dedicated she is to her craft. It is also a fascinating game with a lot of symbolism included in its play that seems lost to the general population. Elliott slowly reveals more of the underlying meaning of The Fives rule system and I can’t wait to learn more about the history encapsulated in them.
Fives is also used as a political game piece, with the possession of a successful Fives Stable being an object of prestige among the nobles of the Empire. The political intrigue included in the novel was fascinating, both in what it revealed about the world of Efea and Saro-Urok, but also in it the examination of colonialism, privilege, and class that it underpinned. Efea was originally colonised by the people of Saro-Urok and even after they broke away from the mother Empire and became their own country again, those of Saroese descent, called Patrons, are still in a position of power of those of Efean descent, called Commoners. And mixing of the two is still frowned upon, especially in the upper classes.
Enter Jes and her sisters who are very much the products of a relationship between a Patron man and a Commoner woman. I really liked this aspect of the story, especially as the relationship between Jes’ parents clearly is a love match and the events that tear them apart are clearly not motivated by expediency on Jes’ father’s part, but by his fervent desire to keep the family safe. Jes’ mistaken assumptions about her father’s motivations and her fear for her sisters and mother cause her a lot of anguish, but her resilience and strength are remarkable and I loved how she decides to take matters into her own hands. The sisterly bonds between Jes, Maraya, Bettany, and Amaya were wonderfully drawn and their dynamics great, especially as Elliott proves that no matter the love and closeness between siblings, they can still have surprising secrets from one another.
Kalliarkos’ family forms a stark contrast to Jes’ loving family. Ruled by a domineering, power-hungry uncle, Kal is basically meant to be a pawn in his uncle’s bid for power. Luckily he has the support of his royal grandmother and his uncle from his mother’s side, the renowned Fives adversary Southwind, who together with his confederate, General Inarsis, help Kal achieve his dream of becoming a successful adversary in the Trials and stay out of the army his uncle Gargaron wants to force him into. The friendship that springs up between Jes and Kal over their shared love of Fives slowly blossoms into something more and I loved the way Elliott spun it out, especially once the stakes are raised late in the book.
Court of Fives is a delight and once more proves that Kate Elliott is a fantastic storyteller. I loved this first book in the trilogy and I think this book is a great example of the fact that YA doesn’t equal childish. Court of Fives is complex and covers difficult topics in its pages, without being preachy or talking down to its audience. I hope this book will draw many new readers to Kate Elliott’s writing both new and old. I know I will be pre-ordering my copy of the next book as I can’t wait to discover what is next for Jes and Kal. I you only read one YA fantasy this summer it should be Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives.
This book was lent to me in ARC form by a friend....more
After last year's wonderful Blade of the Samurai, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to review its successor Flask of the Drunken Master,After last year's wonderful Blade of the Samurai, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to review its successor Flask of the Drunken Master, the third in the Shinobi Mysteries by Susan Spann. The book definitely didn't disappoint, though it doesn't stand alone as well as Blade of the Samurai did. The consequences of the power vacuum after the death of the Shogun in the previous book are felt throughout the narrative and there are some characters from the first book in the series, Claws of the Cat, that make a return appearance. Still, Spann returns us to Hiro, Father Mateo, and Kyoto for another interesting murder to solve.
The main characters of the series remain its principal strength. Hiro and Father Mateo are great characters, whose chemistry works really well. The interactions between them, including Hiro's exasperation at Mateo's social blundering and the priest's disapproval of Hiro's taking liberties with the truth when necessary, remain my favourite thing in this book as well. I love how Hiro uses Mateo to ask questions that Japanese tradition and politeness prevent him from asking without giving offence. Their relationship has blossomed into friendship of the years spent together; Hiro doesn't only protect Mateo because he gets paid to do so any more, he genuinely cares about the priest. But this growing closeness also brings conflict as the priest isn't afraid to call out Hiro when he feels he is disrespecting him by tuning out whenever Mateo discusses his religion.
Spann uses the above-mentioned conflict to illustrate the inherent tension between Hiro’s innate feeling of superiority over Mateo – not just due to his Samurai status, but also due to Mateo’s being a foreigner – and the respect he has for the priest. This resonates with the larger narrative where class differences and the various power differentials between them play a large role. The contempt the samurai guards show those they consider beneath them, whether they are commoners, merchants, or a foreigner like Father Mateo is palpable and they crossover into abuse more often than not. Similarly, the way Akechi uses her Samurai status to intimidate those from the classes below hers to pay up their debts, trusting in her higher status to keep her safe from repercussions. But we also see the flip side, when Hiro and Mateo encounter several eta or untouchables and Hiro has to persuade Mateo to leave the eta alone for their own sake, because his insistence on talking to them might bring them trouble and embarrasses them to boot.
The Samurai are such an important and threatening presence due to the power struggle over the empty seat of Kyoto’s shogunate. It’s a conflict that bleeds through the narrative, influencing trade deals and upping the tension in Kyoto to the boiling point. It’ll be interesting to see if and how this situation shapes the plot of the next book. And hopefully several of the returning characters from this book will return in the next one as well. Ginjiro and Tomiko, the father and daughter who run Hiro’s local sake brewery and who we’ve met before, play central roles in the plot. As does Akechi Yoshiki, who is the daughter of the first book’s murder victim. They were all interesting characters, especially Tomiko and Akechi, who are anything but traditional women and I’d love to see them again.
As is often the case in modern day crime shows, it’s all about the money in this case as well. The concept of debt, whether monetary or of honour, is intricate and complicated, doubly so in the honour-driven Japanese culture. It is Hiro’s honour debt to Ginjiro that seals the deal on him assisting in tracking the true killer, even if he’d been inclined to help Ginjiro and his family without it. Debt and money-lending plays an important part in the economy of Kyoto and it too is very much class-restricted, with money lenders only giving loans to specific groups of people. Follow the money is always wise advise and I loved the places the trail takes Hiro and Father Mateo in Flask of the Drunken Master.
This third entry in the Shinobi Mysteries was just as entertaining as its predecessor. Spann has clearly done her research on Japan in the sixteenth century and it shows without being overbearing or overwhelming. Add to that two charming main characters supported by a great cast of secondary and background characters, a good plot, and a nice twist or two and you have a recipe for a great murder mystery. I really enjoyed Flask of a Drunken Master. Hopefully, Hiro and Father Mateo will return in the future, because I’m curious to see what happens in the struggle for the shogunate.
When I read the synopsis for JR Vogt's Enter the Janitor I was immediately intrigued, because who could resist the phrase "supernatural sanitation comWhen I read the synopsis for JR Vogt's Enter the Janitor I was immediately intrigued, because who could resist the phrase "supernatural sanitation company"? Furthermore, the grumpy. old mentor figure paired with a newbie overcoming all odds, is one of my favourite tropes, in whatever media form you can imagine. Vogt's interpretation of the eternal battle between order and chaos also seemed as if it would be really funny, though I did wonder whether its premise of magical cleaners wouldn't become shticky or repetitive. So I went into the reading hopeful, but wary. Yet Vogt completely sold me on the story, because it was entertaining, charming, and had far more emotional resonance than I'd expected.
Why the resonance? First of all, I connected strongly to Dani, the germaphobic student. I liked her feistiness and her grit and the way she wouldn’t let the story damsel-in-distress her, despite its numerous attempts to do so. Instead, she always at least tries to get out of the hairy situations she landed in under her own steam, yet at the same time she isn’t afraid to accept help when she needs it. Also the way Vogt handled her phobia and OCD traits was respectfully done, with humour, but it never felt malicious or rigidly stereotyped. We also get to see Dani push through her fear when needed, which is a struggle that people with phobias/anxiety/OCD live with every day. Dani is also wonderfully acerbic, which just made me laugh a lot.
Her mentor is equally dry and cynical. Ben is an older man, dealing with the accompanying aches and pains, and generally presenting himself as a grumbling old-timer. Yet he is far more than an old wash-out, as we learn throughout the novel. He has friends and enemies in high and low places and it’s these bonds that drive much of his development. I especially liked the way he still loved his late wife and that even in her absence, she still motivated him to be better. He reluctantly bonds with Dani, coming to care for her almost despite himself. Their relationship was a delight and central to the narrative. It is through Ben we learn most of what we know about the Cleaners. The characters that make up this strange group were a nice mix of good and bad people, showing that right and wrong can exist on either side of the divide.
Vogt created a really interesting world. The explanation of how and why the Cleaners exist and the nature of their magic was cool. I loved the idea of a fight between Order and Chaos, but them both being trumped by the power of Entropy. Most people just overlook the existence of magic in the world completely; its manifestations are so related to dirt and muck, that they just think it is natural and Cleaners are just cleaners. I found this a very clever way to incorporate magic into the real world without having create really elaborate reasons why people in that world wouldn’t notice the huge hulking magical monsters in their midst. And the fact that many of the monsters were composed of muck and grime never came across as over the top or gimmicky.
Where one might expect the book to linger on the induction of Dani into the Cleaners, the plot pretty much gets going from the get go. The book is fast-paced and I found myself surprised by some of the turns it took. Dani and Ben need to figure out the reason for the rash of unexplained magical manifestations and what they discover was unexpected.
Enter the Janitor was grand fun; witty and humorous without becoming shticky. I really enjoyed the story and the characters that inhabit it. Dani, Ben and company are easy to root and cheer for and I hope we’ll get to do so again in the future. With book two announced for next year, it looks like we'll certainly get that opportunity. Enter the Janitor wraps up most of its threads, so it will be interesting to see what Vogt will put the team through in The Maids of Wrath. Meanwhile, if you're looking for a fun, fast-paced adventure, give Enter the Janitor a read.
The centre of the cover and the absolute star of the book is Kayla Reunimon a.k.a. Shadow Panthe. I adored Kayla. She is a fantastic character, both aThe centre of the cover and the absolute star of the book is Kayla Reunimon a.k.a. Shadow Panthe. I adored Kayla. She is a fantastic character, both as Kayla and in her persona of Shadow Panthe. Much of what defines Kayla and by extension Shadow, is her family past and her fierce protectiveness of her little brother, Corinth. Kayla fled her home world with Corinth after seeing most of her family killed by a traitorous scientist from her home system of Wyrd space. I loved the setup of the Ordochian Empire and their magic system. The most powerful Wyrd are born with telepathic powers and they are always born as fraternal twins in a girl/boy combination. The bond between the siblings is strong and to have it broken is intensely traumatic. This is why Kayla fixes onto her younger brother, taking the places of his twin and feeling all of the pressure to keep him alive and safe.
Once Kayla is recruited to be a body double for a princess in the Empress Game, she is forced to broaden her focus and allow more people in. It’s no longer just Corinth with whom she has a connection, but she has to learn to allow herself to care for other people too, most notably Malkor, Isonde and Malkor’s team. I loved the slow dance of her relationship with Malkor. For each step they take to close the distance between them, they both back away two more and they really have to work on communicating and allowing themselves to care. This is aided by the almost Arthurian triangle between Malkor, Ardin and Isonde, which though less tragic, is nonetheless clearly evoked is only through the resemblance of Ardin and Isonde’s names to Arthurian characters.
The characters in The Empress Game are wonderful, but the action included in the story is equally compelling. Mason includes several different layers of conflict in the narrative. The most visible one is getting Isonde on the throne and married to Ardin, which plays out both on the tournament fields and within the palace halls, but there are also the conflict between Wyrd and Sakien Empire and of course, Kayla’s quest to get revenge for her family. I found all of these gripping, but the tournament plot line was the most fun for me. I loved the ritualised combat aspect and the excitement of following the matches, scoping out the competition, and plotting their defeat either by combat or diplomacy.
Yet the central reason for the Empress Game – winning the council seat for the Empress Apparent – it did leave me with questions. What happened if the reigning monarch doesn’t have a male child? Or if the Emperor Apparent is gay? The heteronormative nature of this tradition is at odds with the fact that same-sex couples are treated as equal and unremarkable. Trinan and Vid, two of Malkor’s team members, are to all intents and purposes a couple, but it’s never explicitly announced, it just is, which would indicate this isn’t something shocking or uncommon. How then is this provided for in the rules for the Empress Game? It would have been interesting if Mason had addressed this in some of the exposition on Sakien Empire politics included in the narrative.
I found the juxtaposition of the combat in the tournament and the combat in the Blood Pit quite interesting. Both feature women fighting and both are cutthroat, but one is portrayed as a place where the women are in control and the other portrays women who have no choice but to fight, whether through circumstance or because they are slaves. The tournament features princesses fighting to gain powers and a prince, while the Blood Pit is nothing more than women fighting each other for the (sexual) titilation and gratification of men. Yet even at the tournament there are people who just attend the tournament for the excitement of seeing women fight. There seems to be a comment in here on the commingling of violence, lust, and power, which leads to some very problematic outcomes both in the culture depicted in the book and in our own.
Rhonda Mason’s The Empress Game is a wonderfully engaging and entertaining debut. A fantastic space opera tale, featuring fabulous world building and captivating characters, Kayla’s tale has great crossover appeal, being a fun read for both adult and older teen readers.
James P. Smythe is award-winning SF author, whose previous works came highly recommended by many of my SFF blogging friends. And while I always meantJames P. Smythe is award-winning SF author, whose previous works came highly recommended by many of my SFF blogging friends. And while I always meant to read his books, I never got around to it, as I so often don’t these days. But with his first YA novel I decided I had to get in on the action and see whether I’d love his writing as much as so many of my friends do. After reading Way Down Dark the answer is a resounding yes. Chan’s tale is brilliant and the setting of the Australia was breathtaking. There is a huge twist in the second half of the book. It is hard to talk too much about the plot without giving spoilers so I will focus on the characters and the setting.
The tone of the novel is set in the starting sentence of Chan’s narration, in which Chan confesses to helping kill her mother. It’s quite an entrance and Chan starts as she means to go on. She is tough and self-sufficient, a hard nut, who has to suppress her more humane instincts to survive in the hellhole that is the Australia. For me it was this inner struggle between her survival instincts and her humanity that made Chan’s development in the early part of the book stand out. Once she lets her mother’s admonitions to be selfish and survive go, she truly comes into her own and becomes the leader she was meant to be. It is in her bonds to those closest to her – Agatha, Mae, and Jonah – that we see her development clearest, especially in her attitude towards Agatha.
Agatha is akin to a grandmother figure to Chan and the one alternative point of view we get throughout the novel. Her’s is a flashback narrative in which Chan is told about her true parentage and how Agatha and Riadne, Chan’s mother, got to know each other. The somewhat terse relationship between Chan and Agatha is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. The two other important characters, Jonah and Mae, are a little older and younger than Chan respectively, and they provide some interesting interactions for Chan. I loved that there wasn’t an actual romance in the narrative; though Smythe certainly teases the possibility of it, Chan is just too busy surviving to think about love and flirting in more than passing.
While I absolutely enjoyed the characters and the plot, the setting aboard the Australia is crucial to the book and an absolutely slam-dunk for me. The atmosphere of this enclosed, isolated, pressure cooker of a ship is electric and fascinating. While in the main narrative we see the total breakdown of society on the Australia, in Agatha’s reminiscences we see how the society developed into its various factions and classes. I loved the differences between the Lows, the Bells, the Pale Women and the Free People. They were each clearly a reflection of our own current society, but magnified into almost a stereotype. Smythe has also considered the economics and ecological realities of such a closed system as the Australia. There is nothing coming in or going out, so trade relies on barter and everything is recycled or dumped into the pit. Foodstuffs are either grown in the Arboretum – providing the necessary oxygen in passing – or processed from bugs into some sort of protein goop.
Way Down Dark is wonderfully written, with a fast pace and fantastic action. Smythe also is very deliberate in choosing his names: the Australia, Riadne, Rex, Jonah—they all have added connotations, beyond the obvious. This may have been my first Smythe book, but it certainly won’t be my last as I absolutely adored it. Way Down Dark is one of my favourite YA books of the year so far. On the Australia you fight or you die, but surviving Australia doesn’t mean Chan will be safe in the next book. I can’t wait for book two, Long Dark Dusk. If you haven’t yet picked up James P Smythe’s first YA foray, you should run, not walk, to the nearest bookstore and get yourself a copy of Way Down Dark asap.