This novel is incredibly satisfying, despite being fairly uneven technically. The characters are charismatic; the mystery, though fairly simple, maint...moreThis novel is incredibly satisfying, despite being fairly uneven technically. The characters are charismatic; the mystery, though fairly simple, maintains an excellent sense of tension due to the stakes; and the world is fascinating, lovingly detailed, and fairly unique among fantasy worlds. I stayed up all night to finish this, and immediately wanted to read the next in the series. (Sadly, neither of the two other Astreiant books are available in any of the library systems I have access to.)
It's actually a little surprising to me, how much I enjoyed this book, because there were several elements of its execution that normally irritate me. Scott & Barnett had inconsistent control over POV -- most of the book is told from a tight third-person viewpoint centered on either Rathe or Philip, but every once in a while they slipped into a third-person omniscient, or switched POV from Rathe to Philip mid-section. Now this isn't uncommon, particularly in fantasy from the 80s/90s, but it always bothers me. The prologue, which let the book pass the Bechdel test on the very first page, was in the POV of characters that did not appear again until a couple hundred pages in, which again isn't really uncommon in high fantasy novels, but again, usually gets under my skin.
And oh, the info-dumping! There are a LOT of passages that are just the characters thinking about how their world works, how peoples' stars affect their chances in life, what the various political factions think of each other, all things that people don't actually think to themselves in real life but which they do in fantasy novels because the authors have put in a lot of work into building their worlds and want the reader to see it. Normally this is a cardinal sin to me; I would much rather just be thrown into the world and forced to figure out what's going on for myself. But here I was willing to forgive it, because the world was legitimately fascinating. The entire social order is built around astrology, so everyone knows the time of their birth down to the hour or better, and their stars determine what careers will suit them, and they go to astrologers often to get readings for what their near-future might hold. There are masculine stars, which encourage people to wander, and feminine stars, which encourage people to settle, so for the most part women hold political power by virtue of being landowners while the militaries and trading companies are dominated by men, but plenty of men have feminine stars and plenty of women have masculine stars. Stars also determine when it's propitious to marry or have children, so same-sex relationships are common and same-sex partners can have legal standing entirely separate from marriage, which is (I think) heterosexual and focused exclusively on property.
This is what perplexed me most about Scott & Barnett. On the one hand, as I said, there were quite a few heavy-handed info-dumps about astrology and politics, and I was fine with them because they were interesting, but I still noticed them. But the world-building around gender and sexuality was just as interesting and different from the norm as the political and magical systems, and Scott & Barnett conveyed that information in my preferred fashion -- the characters simply used the terminology as was appropriate, and I was left to infer what it all meant on my own. I don't know if one author handled the politics/astrology and the other handled the gender/sexuality, and that was the cause of the difference, or if they left the gender/sexuality world-building mostly oblique so that it could fly under the radar of more conservative fantasy readers; but either way, though I did not mind the info-dumping, I wish the astrology/politics world-building had been handled as subtly as the gender/sexuality world-building was.
It was, of course, for the gender & sexuality world-building the I picked up the book -- I'm always looking for SFF that has alternate gender roles and more expansive ideas of sexuality than is typical. On the sexuality front this book satisfied completely; as I said, queer sexualities are incredibly common and entirely unremarkable in this world, and that is delightful. On the gender front my reaction was a bit more complicated. On the one hand, it's world where political power is mostly concentrated in female hands -- Chenedolle is ruled by a Queen, all the prospective heirs are female, most property owners are female, and property passes down to daughters. And this is one of the rare books that I placed on my GoodReads "A Passel of Women" shelf -- there are women everywhere in this world, as pointsmen (police officers), pickpockets, tavern keepers, and shady financiers. The preferred gender-neutral sentence construction is "she or he" instead of "he or she." The book passed the Bechdel Test despite having male leads.
But. There was a pattern that I noticed about halfway through the novel, and it's one that I do not like. Despite all the women in the book, somehow, the characters that actually moved the plot were all male. The two leads, of course; but also the butcher that reported the missing apprentice that got the action started; the drunk journeyman that was the main instigator in Philip's changes of fortune; the necromancer that helped Rathe put the pieces of the mystery together; the traders who provided a crucial piece of evidence; the shady businessman who was more involved than he knew. Now, it's possible that this was a deliberate choice by Scott & Barnett. After all, if feminine stars are about stability and masculine stars about change, then it is vaguely in keeping with the focus on astrology for the men to be astrologically more inclined to be the movers and shakers of plot. But really, I'm pretty sure that's a terrible bit of fanwanking on my part; I strongly suspect that despite women having equal or greater power in the world, the men have greater power in the plot because that's how insidious sexism is.
Still, despite all those little critiques, this book was simply fun. I did see where the mystery was headed in advance, but that didn't detract from the tension through the middle of the book because though I knew what was going on I did not know that everything would end well. The climax felt a little rushed, mostly because it wasn't until the climax that I was actually convinced that the astrology-based magic actually had power in the world rather than being superstition, but it was still emotionally satisfying. And despite my reservations about the narrative's gender equality, the world itself is exactly the sort of place I like to spend time, the sort of place I wish was more common in SFF -- one not enslaved to our too-narrow ideas of gender and sexuality, and with swashbuckling heroes and magic to boot. All in all I am very happy I read this, and will be seeking out more of the authors' work as soon as I can.(less)
I hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age pl...moreI hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age plots, and love-practically-at-first-sight, and absolutely anything having to do with Fate. This book has all of those things. So why did I read it?
I love high fantasy. You must understand that I define epic fantasy as only those fantasies where the plot involves the saving of the world, while high fantasy is simply any fantasy taking place in a secondary world. Obviously, the two sub genres overlap quite a bit. So while I try to avoid it, I do sometimes end up reading an epic fantasy novel, if the secondary world seems interesting enough.
This one was.
So much high fantasy takes place in a generic medieval Europe, particularly France and the British Isles; a small but visible minority takes place in vaguely Arabian or Chinese settings. I don't think I have ever encountered another fantasy novel that draws on Hawaii for its backdrop, as this one does. It's set in Hawaii only as much as Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series is set in France or Robin McKinley's Beauty is set in England -- which is to say, Johnson took the names and some elements of the geography and not much more -- but just that much difference was enough to pique my interest and put this on Mt. TBR.
Unfortunately, there is a danger attendant upon breaking that sort of new ground. A fantasy novel set in generic medieval Europe can draw on a wealth of world-building tropes that an average fantasy reader will expect and accept with no further explanation; a fantasy novel set in an unfamiliar setting has to be built from scratch, and the average fantasy reader (at least if the average fantasy reader is at all like me) is likely to interrogate the world-building a bit more closely.
So, for example, I loved exploring the world of Johnson's outer islands -- that world made sense given my knowledge of Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia. But when the story moved to the inner islands, which are temperate rather than tropical, the world started to feel. . . confused. I believe Johnson was trying to evoke Japan, but little European influences seemed to sneak their way in -- a character playing a lute, another character using nightshade and bitterwort in a potion. Of course, this IS high fantasy, and the whole world is made up, so using European-derived items isn't inherently WRONG. . . but when the world feels so different, I found it distracting to see something suddenly the same.
Still, while I became less enamored with the world as the novel went on, I was pleased with the level of technical prowess Johnson showed in this, her debut novel. The pacing was a bit uneven, but I never found the somewhat convoluted plot hard to follow. And while I always felt distanced from the individual characters and their mental/emotional states, I was very much invested in the survival of the world as a whole, and the climax of the novel was therefore intense and effective. The cliffhanger ending (another reason I hate epic fantasy) worked, at least in that it made me want to run out and grab the next book immediately. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that this series is that most frustrating of types: doomed forever to be unfinished because it was dropped by the publisher.(less)
I get why a ton of people love this book. The magic system is incredibly well-developed and fairly interesting -- I may not like magic that works by a...moreI get why a ton of people love this book. The magic system is incredibly well-developed and fairly interesting -- I may not like magic that works by a system of arbitrary rules, but I know plenty of people who read just for such things. The plot is fast-paced -- I may be tired of stories where the all of the conflict derives from the protagonist not having information that everyone else in the story has, but again, I am aware that this is simply one of my own person pet peeves. And, of course, while recent years have started remedying the defect, we have a long way to go before I start complaining about reading about too many spunky heroines, even if they're only sketchily developed.
But there were too many little things that annoyed me about this book for me to love it, or even really like it, despite the fact that I blew through it in half a day.
To start, while it's clear that Nix spent a lot of time developing the magic system, with its Charter Magic vs. Free Magic and bell ringing necromancy, I would have enjoyed the book more had he spent just as much time developing the rest of the world. The Old Kingdom is vaguely medieval England; Ancelstierre is vaguely early-20th century England; but neither place feels like more than a bare-bones sketch. And while Nix was apparently trying for a pseudo-England with more gender equality (Sabriel is takes classes in both fighting and etiquette at her posh all-girls boarding school, and it's clear that gender is no bar to Sabriel being respected as the Abhorsen) his imagination seemed to fail him in really extrapolating how different that world might be. So, for instance, there are still mores against unmarried men and women traveling together -- mores that include placing the blame all on the female partner -- and every person with any power Sabriel meets is male, and she's surprised when she finds a dead mage who is female. (The book passes the Bechdel Test on the strength of two half-page long conversations Sabriel has with female children.) The world is also strangely empty of people, which is all the more noticeable because of how many Dead there appear to be.
The prose was another negative. Most of it was fine -- nothing flashy, but serviceable. But every couple chapters there would be a horribly clunky bit of exposition that totally threw me out of things. For example:
She hadn't thought beyond her own concern for her father. Now, she was beginning to expand her knowledge of him, to understand that he was more than just her father, that he was many different things to different people.
Making this hammering of the point home worse, to me at least, is that it comes after only a single incident, not after the sort of succession of conversations implied in the text.
And while the fast-paced plot kept me turning the pages, it really cut into my appreciation of Sabriel as a character. She's traveling for weeks, but because of what I can only assume is a horror of pages of dialogue, the only time she's shown trying to figure out the puzzles set before her or interrogate the people who are clearly withholding information from her is when she's about to be interrupted by yet another attack. At one point she and two other characters spend six days at sea -- but only start to discuss their plans for when they put to shore as they're entering a harbor, so of course their conversation gets cut off. This left me with the impression that she was doing no thinking at all, just falling from one disaster into another and making it out mostly through blind luck and the deus ex machina of her father's plans.
Still, Nix did keep me turning the pages, even if he used a trick like ending the chapters in the middle of the action scenes to do it. And the magic, particularly the bell ringing, was fascinating. And this novel was published early in his career (I think it's his second?), so it's quite likely that he improved in at least some of those areas. I wouldn't recommend against this novel, or Nix in general; it just was not strong enough for me to be excited for it.(less)
This book has, I think, carved out a little piece of my soul.
This is partly because it caused me to have an epiphany that, even if it isn't particular...moreThis book has, I think, carved out a little piece of my soul.
This is partly because it caused me to have an epiphany that, even if it isn't particularly novel, was still needed. But it's mostly because of the characters.
They aren't Romantic heroes -- they take tumbles down passageways, and they get taken out by ignominous bumps on the head, and afterward they hurt for days or weeks, and that affects their moods and their abilities. Their lives are messy, and Isyllt admits "[I] had never set great store on honor -- it was transitory and subjective, and often directly opposed to practicality." But they live in a deeply Romantic world, where breaking an oath can literally cripple you, and the shadows are definitely filled with monsters. And so they love and they hate, they comfort and they hurt, they live and they die in epic fashion, every event a confluence of secret histories and dark magic and tangled politics.
They are exactly the sort of cast that should be the norm in fantasy, but is sadly rare: spanning three (human) races and a wider range of cultures, at least three generations, all social classes, quite a few sexual orientations (hetero-, homo-, and bisexual, plus polyamorous), the able-bodied and those with various disabilities, and three genders (male, female, and hijra, which includes androgynes, FTM, and MTF transgenders). Even the non-human race we see a decent amount of (the vampires) reflects this diversity. And while I'm sure that having more women than men as named characters was deliberate and pointed, for the most part this diversity is simply a reflection of how any city (including fantasy cities like Erisín) looks. It gives Downum's city a wonderfully organic feel, because it's clear that every person the viewpoint characters see has a history, a life outside the needs of the narrative.
And in this novel that wonderful, diverse, non-Romantic cast starts out investigating a couple of mysteries and ends up neck-deep in nefarious machinations against the kingdom -- a plot I always enjoy. The politics are delightfully twisty, and Downum makes it clear that the politics are always personal. There are no characters acting purely out of a lust for power or sheer evilness; all are doing what they think is right, based on the trauma in their past and their conflicting desires. It's not a perfect novel -- some readers will likely want more info about how the magic works, and I found some of the descriptions repetitive -- but right at the moment it feels like a great novel, one I will treasure.(less)
This novel picks up a couple months after the end of The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and if it isn't as surprising as that novel was it is no less delightful...moreThis novel picks up a couple months after the end of The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and if it isn't as surprising as that novel was it is no less delightful. While Starhawk has responded with her usual calm to all the changes in their fortunes, Sun Wolf is still assimilating the new needs his power places on his way of life and his new relationship with Starhawk specifically and women in general. Of course he immediately clashes with another strong-minded, aristocratic, redheaded woman, but Kaletha is very definitely not Sheera Galernas.
The Witches of Wenshar delves deeper into the magic system that Hambly has set up for this world, and if none of it rocked my world with originality, its very familiarity let Hambly continue exploring the things obviously dear to her heart: her characters and the role of women in the world. In the course of the novel, Sun Wolf goes through the same series of revelations that Starhawk went through in The Ladies of Mandrigyn when she was stuck in Pergemis with Ram & Orris and their family, and his melancholy as a result is handled with a wonderful delicacy.
This novel is actually better paced than its predecessor was; Sun Wolf and Starhawk are never separated by more than a day's ride, so the shifting between perspectives is much smoother because they are both party to the same events. There are no large battle scenes for Hambly to choreograph, the action all taking place among small bands of people or individuals, so there were never any moments when I lost track of who was doing what. And the denouement, though I could see it coming a mile a way, still drew a snicker from me. All in all, this novel was just as enjoyable as The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and that is no mean feat. I am eagerly awaiting getting my hands on a copy of the conclusion to this trilogy.(less)
There is a lot to like about this book. First off, it's basically an ode to the engineering mindset -- I'm pretty sure it's clockpunk (at least as sur...moreThere is a lot to like about this book. First off, it's basically an ode to the engineering mindset -- I'm pretty sure it's clockpunk (at least as sure as one can be basing their decision on a few sentences in Wikipedia) and even the non-engineer characters share a similar rationalist view of the world. Instead of being vaguely Celtic or French like most high fantasy it's vaguely Italian (judging only by the names and the Guilds though; the geography bears no resemblance to Italy). And, perhaps most unusual of all, it's very much concerned with economics -- there are political and personal machinations, but there is also a keen eye for cost and profit and unequal trade.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot to dislike about this book, for me at least. The biggest issue I had with it was that I'm just not into clockpunk for the same reason I'm not into much steampunk and I'm not into hard SF -- I get really, really bored with long descriptions of technical specifications, no matter what the technology is. This book could have been half the length if those passages were cut out, and none of the story would have been lost. And it wasn't just the ingenious titular devices being described; I was also treated to very long passages about armor, and bows, and the various techniques for hunting boar. I have no clue if Parker was accurate in these descriptions, mostly because I started skipping them altogether.
Second to that in making me grind my teeth was the very rational mindset shared by all the characters. I got that that practice of immediately assessing a situation, breaking it down into its component parts, and then coming up with a solution to work that situation to his advantage is the hallmark of Vaatzes' (the engineer) character; it was a nice change from most fantasy heroes, and emphasized the message that engineers are a breed apart. But then all of the other men who got a turn as viewpoint character thought in exactly the same way, and it just rang false for me. One person, yes, I can see behaving that way; but most people, as far as I can tell, don't have the objectivity to think like that when they're in the middle of a war zone, stuck through with arrows, and that wrecked my suspension of disbelief.
Most of my other issues with the book stem from kind of the same place. A character would do something, or feel a certain way, and I'd buy it; but then three other characters would also behave exactly the same and I'd get frustrated and annoyed. For example, much of the book is about the lengths that people go to for love, and that's a rich (though well-trod) field to play in; but why, for heaven's sake, do all the men in this world have to be in love with only two women? Everybody keeps going to war with everybody else, and the armies are all male, so there should be a pretty severe gender imbalance, and Parker deals with that by having a whole class of women become traders; but it seems like so many women went off to be traders that there are no eligible beauties for the men to swoon over, and they're forced to share! (Not really to share -- this book shies away from actual sex or bad language, though it has no shortage of violence.)
And when we really get down to it, Vaatzes is a monster, and the novel is entirely his story. I found this partly problematic because I have no sympathy for monsters, or at least monsters with as little cause as he had; but I also found this problematic from a structural standpoint, because his machinations drive the entire plot, but because that plot was supposed to largely be a mystery to the reader that meant that all those passages from his perspective had to awkwardly talk around what he was plotting. That's a technique that just bothers me as a reader; mystery novels are so rarely narrated by the great detective to prevent this exact issue, where the character whose head we're in knows something and is deliberately hiding it from the reader. (An exception to this case is when we have an unreliable narrator, which is a technique that can be brilliant, but was not in use here.)
So overall I don't know how the tally sheet works on this novel. It reads very quickly, mostly because as I noted above I skimmed great huge chunks, but also because Parker's style is fairly pulpy; but even that style had its issues, because Parker would throw in very culturally specific references that didn't seem to fit the world (an offhand remark by one character that "the dog ate my homework"?!? really?!?). I can't say I enjoyed it, but I can see why other people would, and I'm totally conflicted about whether or not to read the next novel.(less)