I don’t know if you heard, but dystopian fiction is big in the young adult market right now. And by big, I mean it took over from the vampire craze su...moreI don’t know if you heard, but dystopian fiction is big in the young adult market right now. And by big, I mean it took over from the vampire craze surrounding Twilight a few years ago. The major star of this movement is The Hunger Games Trilogy, but there are an increasing number of dystopian offerings available. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons is one of them.
Dystopia meets post-apocalyptic If you’ve read any amount of dystopian fiction before, you know that there are two genres it likes to intersect with: dying earth and post-apocalyptic. Article 5 is a bit of the later. After a hugely destructive civil war, the United States has fallen into the hands of a highly conservative militant government. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and democracy itself are gone. Instead, the dictator and the Federal Bureau of Reformation have issued a series of moral articles to which everyone must comply. This has put added stress on a population that’s already been decimated by civil war, relocation, and food shortages. Entire cities have been abandoned under the order of the new government, and the country is rife with lawlessness and unrest.
Our protagonist Ember and her mother are taken into custody for non-compliance with article 5, which outlaws children born out of wedlock. Even though Ember is seventeen years old, and the FBR has only been in control for around three years, they don’t intend to grant Ember and her mother an exemption. The rest of the book follows Ember as she gets a good, hard look inside the system of the FBR and just what this new government means for her and society as a whole.
No fluffy bunnies here Young adult literature often gets a bad rap for being too much about romance and sparkly vampires. This is not Article 5’s sin. In many ways, this book pushes the envelope. It’s one of the darkest young adult books I’ve ever read. Ember is physically abused, sees people die, and spends most of the book in very real and justified fear for her life. All of this happens directly on the page, and is not just referenced in passing to dilute its impact. By the end of the book, she’s seventeen going on thirty because the seventeen year old she started the book as cannot survive in this world. Her companion through much of the book, Chase, has been abused even more than she has and has a major case of PTSD. In short, this is not a book for those under twelve. This is definitely a book that should come with a disclaimer recommending that you know what you, or your teenager, are capable of dealing with before you pick it up.
Ember is a protagonist who isn’t going to take anything lying down. She’s a real go-getter, and by the end of the book she’s in the position to save others instead of needing others to save her. She doesn’t give up, no matter how many mistakes she makes. It’s her drive that pulls you through the book. I also liked that Ember isn’t the kind of girl to just fall into a boy’s arms. Even though Chase was Ember’s boyfriend before he was drafted into the FBR as a soldier, she isn’t interested in getting back together just yet. She’s got other things to do, like finding out where her mother is and figuring out where and how they’re going to live. At the same time, both Chase and Ember have to deal with how the FBR has changed them both. That’s not to say the romantic tension isn’t there; it is. It’s just being allowed to develop and mature, unlike the the somewhat shallow and unrealistic relationships often featured in young adult books.
Why you should read this book? If you enjoyed The Hunger Games, this will be exactly what you’re looking for. Fast action, tension you could cut with a knife, and a strong critique of certain aspects of our current American culture. However, if you like your dystopia a bit more literary, or perhaps you like your young adult fiction slightly more watered down, this is not going to be for you. Again, if you, or your teenager, are not ready to deal with things like executions and torture, leave this book on the shelf for a while.(less)
Greatshadow is the newest offering from James Maxey, best known for Nobody Gets the Girl and The Dragon Age Trilogy. It’s the first installment in The...moreGreatshadow is the newest offering from James Maxey, best known for Nobody Gets the Girl and The Dragon Age Trilogy. It’s the first installment in The Dragon Apocalypse, with book two, Hush, scheduled for June of 2012.
Our protagonist is Infidel, a magically overpowered woman working as a mercenary and occasional thief. She has super strength and is impervious to most damage. When her closest friend dies, she decides to take one last big job so she can retire in style. Her best chance is to join a team of heroes heading out to kill the primal dragon of fire, known as Greatshadow. His horde is legendary, and it’ll take everything Infidel and her companions have to get it.
Pure and unabashed sword and sorcery On the surface, this is a tale about stereotypical heroes straight out of 1980s fantasy pulps. You’ve got a group of inhumanely talented people, some of whom have never really been challenged in their adult lives. I’d expect a book like this to be rather dull and emotionally uninteresting. Where’s the challenge, after all? However, Maxey does a fantastic job with this. First, the book is told from the point of view of Infidel’s dead companion Stagger. He’s a relatively average guy, for a ghost, and is a far more relatable as a narrator than Infidel would have been. Additionally, for all their super powers, this is a group of deeply flawed people. The paladin archetype is a fanatic who can’t see the forest for the trees. The strong man isn’t as dumb as you might think, but his deformities (which cause a speech impediment) limit his ability to interact with the other characters. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. For all their powers, they aren’t gods.
The other thing that saves this book is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Infidel is the type of girl you don’t touch in a bar. She might take exception, rip off the arm that’s groping her, and beat the offender with his own severed limb. There’s a part of me that appreciates the dark humor in that image. On the other hand, this isn’t an innately humorous book. It’s more what would happen if you had a group of people role playing these twelve characters: stupid, crazy stuff. Every once in awhile I’d read something that would make me giggle, and then I’d move on to the rest of the action feeling reinvigorated.
Not terribly predictable Okay, so it’s a sword and sorcery book. You have a group of heroes, they go out to slay the dragon, some of them die. After all, what would be the fun if they all walked away without a scratch? What made this fun for me were the twists and turns Maxey took to get there. Dead didn’t mean dead, right from chapter one when Stagger dies only to haunt his knife for the rest of the book. I was entertained to see just how some of these characters died and how some of them managed to survive. And with so many characters there for different reasons, whose ultimate goal is going to the one that is fulfilled?
This book also has a secondary plot line (which you could argue may actually be the main plot line), which is the relationship between Infidel and Stagger. They both have a lot of thinking to do on what their relationship was, and what it could have been. This is made more complicated by Stagger struggling to come to grips with the fact that he’s a ghost, and his inability to affect anything in the physical realm. It’s Stagger’s growth as a character that really fleshes this book out, and keeps it from becoming just another sword and sorcery tale of dragons and heroes.
Why you should read this book? Two words: it’s fun. In fact, I think this is the most fun book I’ve read in months. It plays with archetypes, it’s intense with just a bit of silly, and there’s a nice romantic arc. In short: win. Lots of win. Can it be June so I can read the next book now?(less)
The Fairy Godmother is the first book in Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series. Published under Harlequin Romance’s Luna imprint, the series seems targeted primarily at female romance-fantasy readers.
Loosely based on the Cinderella folk tale, The Fairy Godmother follows Elena Klovis, a girl all set up to be Cinderella—but the kingdom’s prince is just a child! When she takes matters into her own hands to escape her Wicked Stepmother, accepting a position that she thinks is as a maid-of-all-work, she instead finds herself offered an apprenticeship to a Fairy Godmother, Madame Bella, who is getting on in years. It’s there Elena learns about the magical force called The Tradition which tries to force people in the Five Hundred Kingdoms down traditional paths from stories and fairy tales.
Unusual pacing This book can essentially be divided into two distinct yet cohesive halves—Apprentice and Godmother. The first half has something of the feel of a training montage or a collection of short stories as Bella teaches Elena about magic and how to manipulate The Tradition to achieve happy endings. This half, while not contributing much to the plot of the book, provides an introduction to the world, politics, and magic system of the Five Hundred Kingdoms without ever feeling too much like an info dump. All this background learning sets up not only the rest of the book, but the following books in the series as well. As she learns, Elena has a number of little adventures, keeping the pace from lagging too badly.
In the second half, Elena is deemed ready and becomes the Fairy Godmother herself, Bella vanishing into retirement. The overall plot of the book doesn’t really start until after Elena ventures forth to perform the very Traditional task of testing Questers, when she undertakes the redemption of arrogant Prince Alexander, who failed the first test of his Quest. He certainly doesn’t want her help, and she certainly doesn’t want him around, especially not with The Tradition trying to force the two of them together. The pace picks up even more when Elena is called upon to battle an evil mage from an unfamiliar Traditional line.
Unique magic system While much of The Fairy Godmother may seem familiar, with its references to stories such as Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea, and Sleeping Beauty, The Tradition is a unique, fascinating source of magic. It’s a mindless power that will try to force you down the familiar path if your life starts to resemble a tale. The Tradition can be tricked or diverted, but it can’t be ignored. The power it brings to bear can be used for either good or evil, and it doesn’t care if the tale has a happy ending or not; good magic users like Godmother Elena try to ensure happy endings and to prevent evil magic users from preying on innocents. This system of magic leads to very interesting moments, as Elena learns how to twist The Tradition to her own purposes.
Great Fae and Wild Fae also make an appearance with magic of their own—magic that the humans and the house brownies don’t entirely understand.
Romance novel characters The main characters of The Fairy Godmother are likeable and not completely flat—just mostly. Elena’s only flaw is that she’s still learning her role as a Fairy Godmother; she’s noble and good and clever, and even her inexperience doesn’t stand in her way. Alexander starts out as a pompous, arrogant ass, but he feels his behavior is entirely justified, and from his flawed perspective, his behavior is understandable. With Elena’s unwelcome help, he becomes a perfectly charming prince, with just a slight surprise twist. The secondary characters, the brownies who help around the house, are each unique individuals; they are definitely not cookie cutter characters. Yet they aren’t developed much, either.
This book isn’t epic fantasy, though, and doesn’t need epic characters; it’s romance-fantasy, and these characters do fit the story quite well. They aren’t morally ambiguous or deep, they aren’t tortured souls, but they are likeable. As romance novels go, this one has much more interesting characters, who do undergo more development, than in a typical romance.
Five hundred kingdoms Yes, there really are five hundred kingdoms in this world, a fantasized version of medieval Europe. Only a few of the kingdoms are fleshed out in this volume, though Elena herself has charge of a dozen or so. The different kingdoms have different politics and different attitudes toward magic, and provide ample possibilities for settings of future books in the series.
Why should you read this book? As one of the few books to ever make me laugh out loud, I can recommend The Fairy Godmother wholeheartedly to anyone who doesn’t mind romance. This is a light, fluffy cotton candy novel, great for a quick read. However, it’s also intelligent with its references to classic fairy tales and creatures such as brownies, mirror-slaves, glass mountains, and more. Those who love the old tales will have fun spotting these various references and tropes. And those who may be bothered by sexual content can be assured that the few erotic scenes can be skipped over without missing anything crucial to the plot.(less)
Grave Mercy is Robin LaFevers’ first foray into young adult literature and is the first volume in a contracted trilogy. This book has been getting a fair bit of marketing and buzz on the web, which I think it justly deserves.
Set in Brittany at the end of the 15th century, Grave Mercy follows Ismae, a peasant girl born under unusual circumstances. When she is fourteen, Ismae enters a convent as a novice. Except this is not a normal convent; it’s dedicated to the service of St. Mortain, the Breton patron saint of death. Rather than preparing to take vows as the Bride of Christ, she’s trained as an assassin. Three years later, Ismae is sent out on the final three trials she must pass before being allowed to take her final vows.
Some complex history If you’ve never studied the history of France and England during the late Medieval and Early Renaissance periods, let me sum it up for you: complicated. France and England have mostly stopped fighting over territories in what is today northern France by the time the book opens, but that means that the French crown can now turn its attention to the smaller independent duchies on its borders, such as Brittany, the northwestern-most region of modern-day France. While previous English monarchs might have been interested in backing these duchies as a way to limit French power in the region, Henry Tudor (Henry V) is still busy consolidating his realm after the end of the Wars of the Roses and doesn’t have much help to send. Ismae’s trials center around the ascension of thirteen-year-old Anne as the Duchess of Brittany while France tries to bring Brittany under its authority.
LaFevers has managed to write one of the best historically accurate novels I’ve read in a long long time. She’s paid an incredible attention to detail. The details of this fictional Anne’s situation match with the historical Anne of Brittany. The situation within the Church passes the believability test. As someone who studied far too much history in college, I was surprised to find myself nitpicking only on the historical fashion details, which is unusual for me when reading a work of historical fiction. And honestly, fashion details at the level I can nitpick at are just not that important. However, while I could fill in a lot of extraneous details about the situation that LaFevers doesn’t go into, it’s not necessary to read the book. You don’t need to sit at a computer on Wikipedia in order to understand what’s going on. LaFevers gives you more than enough to walk into the book with no previous knowledge of what was going on in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Still a romantic teen fantasy The key to Ismae’s story is that her order of nuns have supernatural powers, making them all uniquely suited to their roles as spies and assassins for the Ducal family of Brittany. Each woman is a little bit different, and Ismae appears to be one of the more talented members of her order. As much fun as it is to have a superpowered assassin running around Renaissance Europe, this is a young adult book. Ismae has a very definite and obvious love interest, although I am happy to tell you that LaFevers has spared us the love triangle that’s been so popular of late.
While a seventeen-year-old in Renaissance Europe, male or female, is going to be considered a full grown adult, this book is targeted at modern seventeen-year-olds. Therefore, the book is not nearly as dark or gritty as it could have been. The situations Ismae finds herself in have been limited to a PG-13 capable audience and have not crossed the line into fully adult situations, no matter how much dancing along that line LaFevers does. I think my one real complaint about this book is that she didn’t cross those lines: I would have enjoyed an ‘adult’ version of this book more than the simplified young adult one. However, this book is still very accessible to an adult audience. You won’t be choking on the cotton candy or worried about a highly romantic but ultimately abusive relationship. Ismae is emotionally older than her target audience, and her choices are reflective of that. I also have a deep respect for LaFevers’ writing skill. She’s given us a seventeen-year-old female who fits in her historical time and place while remaining accessible to a modern audience.
Why you should read this book Keep in mind that this is a young adult romance. If that’s not your usual taste, that may be the only reason to leave this on the shelf. For Grave Mercy is a well written, extremely well-executed novel of historical speculative fiction. Add in supernatural spies and assassins, as well a good bit of ass-kicking heroine, and how could you go wrong?(less)
Patricia Briggs is one of the current leaders in urban fantasy with her two companion series Mercedes Thompson and Alpha and Omega. Briggs’ newest work, Fair Game, is the third full length novel of Alpha and Omega, starring Anna Latham and Charles Cornick.
Werewolves have been exposed to the modern American media, following the Fey out of the shadows. Not everyone is happy about this, especially since werewolves represent a huge unknown. A serial killer in Boston has begun to target werewolves, and the FBI has requested expert help. What could possibly take out werewolves without any apparent issue? Anna and Charles are sent in to solve the case.
Short and sweet This book is relatively short, which I appreciated. There’s no extra fluff cluttering everything up and the pace is fast, which makes the book feel even shorter than it is. Briggs does a great job of keeping the tension pretty taut, letting up only so that she can surprise you to greater effect later on. I also enjoyed the tension between the different groups involved with the case. You have the FBI and the werewolves, of course, but that attracts the attention of other government agencies as well. While this book is an obvious (and conscious) ode to police procedurals, it’s not relying on sleight of hand to carry the plot. Instead, Briggs has done her homework on the FBI and on serial killers, presenting a believable scenario.
Moving beyond the romantic start The novella that spawned this series, Alpha and Omega, is a romance. Cry Wolf, the first full length novel, is as well. In Hunting Ground and now in Fair Game, Briggs is swiftly stripping away the emphasis on the romantic line, while still leaving Anna and Charles’ relationship as a major theme in the book. They’ve been married several years at this point and are quite beyond the courting stage. Briggs understands that, and I’m thankful for it. The real thrust of this book is solving a crime, and it would have been so easy to allow the personal conflicts between Anna and Charles to overshadow that. While I could perhaps have done with a little more fleshing out of the sub-plot, overall I was satisfied.
Why you should read this book? If you’re a fan of the Mercedes Thompson series and haven’t picked up the Alpha and Omega books, it is high time you did so. The ending of Fair Game has a major series plot development point that is going to affect Mercy and her crew. Why not get the news firsthand? If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, I consider Briggs to be a must read. However, Fair Game is effectively book nine (as both series build off each other), so I would not start with this book. And of course, if you’ve been keeping up with Briggs’ work, this book is a shoe-in for your to-read shelf. It’s a fast and entertaining read, and I couldn’t put it down.(less)
Our favorite debut of last year was unquestionably Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, a dark, brutally captivating tale of epic fantasy—or low; opinions on that were divided. This August will bring us King of Thorns, the second volume in The Broken Empire and sequel to Prince of Thorns. What he started in his debut, Lawrence expands in King of Thorns. Again, this is a breathtaking, captivating, and violent venture into a wonderful world filled with morally ambiguous characters and compelling world-building.
Little Jorg, all grown up Four years after the events in Prince of Thorns, Jorg is all grown up. He’s no longer a prince, but the king of the Renar Highlands. With an invading army at his doorstep, the King of Thorns is about to marry the daughter of an ally. King Jorg is a new person, smarter and more tranquil, yet still his old, cruel self. Lawrence did an amazing job bridging four years and bringing us a new character that still retains so much of who he was before. Of course, the way this story is told provides aid in reconciling the old and new Jorg. It is again from the viewpoint of Jorg, but with shifting timelines—facilitated by flashbacks to the four years between then and now and by pages from the diary of his love interest.
No man is born evil This is no fairy tale filled with cheesy fantasy tropes; it is instead a dark type of realism. A character isn’t just evil, but evil for a reason. That element was present in Prince of Thorns, but with a dash of sympathy, it is perfected in King of Thorns. Where Prince Jorg was mostly just a morally ambiguous, cold-blooded murderer, King Jorg is growing up and his brutality has become more reflective. In King of Thorns, we get acquainted with Jorg’s backstory, which is no longer limited to the repulsive kind of violence we saw in Prince of Thorns, but instead the kind that makes you want to shout out and end the injustice done to the young prince. All of a sudden, it becomes very clear that Jorg wasn’t simply born the warped boy he was in Prince of Thorns, but he became who he is today by his own poor choices and the evil acts of others.
An example of this is a flashback scene at the beginning of the book, where young Jorg’s father, the king, has noticed the boy loves his dog—ironically named Justice. Jorg is forced to harm the animal or watch it die at the hands of his father. When Jorg chooses the first, it isn’t enough for his father, who then murders the helpless dog in front of Jorg. The injustice done to Justice is heartbreaking and the prose in this scene is both compelling and repellent. Scenes like these will haunt you long after finishing King of Thorns, proving once more why Mark Lawrence was last year’s best debuting author.
Darn it, Lawrence, I don’t want to love this guy! Somewhere through all that, in the story of a boy that lost everything he ever cared for—the dog he once loved, his family murdered before his eyes, friends lost, the woman he loves hating him—I began to identify with Jorg Ancrath.
Actually, in an unnerving way, Jorg was always relatable. Throughout King of Thorns however, I didn’t just relate to him; I began to care for him as well. He is still the horribly evil boy he was in Prince of Thorns, the focus of so many concerned reviews. Yet, this time, there is another side to him. He is a human being who’s been through worse things than any man deserves. I both pity and admire him. More than that, I admire Lawrence for writing a character both so awful and lovable whom I wish to hate with all my heart but have come to love instead. This sympathetic angle is a brave step away from the successful formula of Prince of Thorns, but Lawrence pulls it off brilliantly.
Science fiction-esque fantasy Another step onward from his debut is Lawrence’s world-building. In Prince of Thorns, he started dropping hints about the origin of his world. The attentive reader could soon come to realize that the fictional world of Prince of Thorns was rooted in our own. King of Thorns goes above and beyond mere hints. If it were debatable whether Prince of Thorns was low or epic fantasy, I don’t think anyone will disagree that King of Thorns is most definitely epic fantasy of the very best kind. The world, unfamiliar last time, is fully fleshed out now. The Broken Empire is a post-apocalyptic version of earth, where science has breached the veil between magic and reality and a nuclear holocaust has brought us back to the dark middle ages. Somewhere underneath the soot and dirt of this fantasy is an entire world of science fiction, and King of Thorns shows us the tip of the iceberg. Somehow, Lawrence gives me the impression that the backstory isn’t just intriguing—I really hope he will write it someday—but has a lot to do with where the story is now, and where it is headed.
This science fiction-esque approach to fantasy world-building gives King of Thorns a unique flavor. Magic—of which we see a lot more than in the first book—isn’t what it seems. Somehow, there is a scientific foundation to it, hidden behind the lack of understanding by the characters. Tools left behind by The Builders—the more developed former civilization on earth—twist and spin this story around. With such elements at Lawrence’s disposal, the obvious trap would be to use them as a deus ex machina, but proper foreshadowing serves us explosive battles in a surprising yet inevitable style. There is just one exception, a key element of the story’s shifting timelines—a magical box in which Jorg’s most horrible memories are locked away—that feels like a cheap narrative resource to add suspense. However, while I feel Lawrence could have handled this better, it never subtracted from the reading experience.
Why should you read this book? King of Thorns reads like a landslide rolling down a cliff. Undiscriminating, it carries everything in its path along a trail of destruction, taking the lives of innocent bystanders and reducing whole villages to rubble. There is no stopping this landslide. All you can do is follow it on its set course until the spectacular ending and the silent void that follows. Like that landslide, this savage, vicious, and dark story rushes onward with a pace that takes a reader’s breath away. If you haven’t read Prince of Thorns, I suggest you do so soon, because this sequel comes out this summer, and it’s even better than the first part! After the horribly amazing ending that changed everything, I am left stunned, panting, begging Lawrence for more.(less)
Wicked City is the second installment in Alaya Johnson’s Jazz Era Zephyr Hollis series, which begins with Moonshine. Set in 1920s New York City, the series follows Zephyr Hollis, a vampire’s rights activist and charity worker who comes from a vampire hunting family.
Wicked City opens six months after the close of Moonshine, during which Zephyr has done relatively little to deal with the aftereffects of her actions. They’ve now collected interest and require some attention ASAP. Not only is she not fulfilling her responsibilities to the djinni Amir, but she’s now under investigation for harboring an underage vampire. In order to stay ahead of the game, Zephyr must enter the realm of politics and do some good deeds for the Mayor without attracting even more trouble. If only it were that simple…needless to say, if you haven’t read Moonshine, it is required to really enjoy Wicked City. Everything here hinges on the previous book, and there are no recaps to catch up with.
A very, very busy book At just over 300 pages, Wicked City is on the short side for fantasy nowadays, and Johnson has packed every nook and cranny of it with plots. So much so that I’m not convinced that all of the plot lines she has going were served as well as they could have been. The pacing is frenetic, and the bouncing between plot lines is not always as smooth as I like. By the time the book ended I really felt that to really do this story justice, the book could have been a good hundred pages longer. I wanted things more fleshed out, with a few more peaks and valleys with the pacing.
I also missed some of the Jazz Era atmosphere that was everywhere in Moonshine. In this book, Zephyr isn’t visiting speakeasies, attending protests, or singing at swanky parties. She’s not even doing a great deal of charity work, as NYC would essentially shut down every summer before the invention of air conditioning. This is the only Jazz Era urban-noir fantasy that I know of, and I wanted more of that little spark that sets it apart from everything else.
Johnson does a fantastic mystery I don’t read a lot of mysteries because I tend to put the puzzle together a little too soon. A good author will give me the pieces, but interest me in how it plays out so that I don’t stop reading somewhere in the middle. I love an author who blindsides me, and Johnson did. While I figured how the murders were done, I did not see the who-done-it, and I seriously felt like clapping when Johnson made the reveal. It was truly masterfully executed and the real highlight of the book. It made up for the lacks I listed above, and let me end the book on a positive note. She also left a bit of a cliffhanger, and I’m impatiently awaiting the next installment to see where Johnson is going to take us.
Why you should read this book Well, first, because it’s unique. The Roaring Twenties were a good time for a lot of people, and make for fun books. Second, because you liked the first book. If you haven’t read Moonshine, you should go read it now and then pick up Wicked City. If you like noir mysteries, vampires, and a dash of historical settings, this is a series for you.(less)
Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds’ latest novel, is everything its mesmerizing title and equally captivating cover promises: a utopian science fiction novel showcasing an optimistic daydream of our future one hundred and fifty years from now, where our grandchildren have battled global warming head on and turned the world into a better place for all.
Exorbitant daydreaming I say daydream because, ultimately, that is what Blue Remembered Earth is: Reynolds’ daydream of a future where Africa has become the dominant power, and crime, war, disease, poverty, and violence are a thing of the past. It is a future where our planet, now rendered more blue by the changing climate, is fading away on the horizon as mankind gradually explores new territories in outer space. In this fantasy of a brighter future, Reynolds holds nothing back. The reader is taken from one impossibly unrealistic place to another, from super slow robot wars on the dark side of the moon—seriously, who would be interested in robots fighting slower than the eye can see?—to underwater cities back on earth, where humans have genetically engineered themselves into mermaids and full-sized whales.
At the background of this exorbitant fantasy—almost as an excuse to write a book about his wildest dreams—Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth is about the African Akinya family and their hunt for truth. After the death of Eunice, his grandmother and the founder of the family dynasty, Geoffrey Akinya is reluctantly sent on a mission by his cousins—the new family patriarchs—to retrieve a mysterious box from the moon. What follows is a quest from Earth to the moon, to Mars, and back to Earth and the moon again to discover a vague and mysterious secret Eunice left behind, a secret that may change the world forever.
Treasure hunt Don’t expect a wild and epic quest, though. While this quest could have been very interesting, the execution is poor at best. Think of Blue Remembered Earth as a Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) thriller without the thrill. As in Brown’s books, Geoffrey’s quest leads him and his sister from one clue to the other, following a trail his deceased grandmother left behind. Unlike in Brown’s books, however, this quest is lacking in suspense and backbone, has some serious pacing issues—I put the book away many times because it was just too slow—and doesn’t offer anything in the way of pay-off. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of twists along the way, but a more perceptive reader will probably see each of them coming from miles away. The ending, too, is rather underwhelming.
This adventure is shown through the eyes of two incredibly well fleshed out but intensely annoying characters: Geoffrey Akinya and his sister Sunday. In them, Reynolds has created truly believable, ambiguous characters who are completely unfit for the action they are thrown into. Unfortunately, the realism of these characters is evidenced in a series of irking traits and the ability to make the worst decisions imaginable. If you are looking for heroes to root for and emotionally invest in, Blue Rememered Earth might not be the right book for you.
A marvelous world Blue Remembered Earth isn’t all bad, though. Reynolds clearly had a singular reason for writing this book—showing an optimistic future—and he does that well. While I had personally hoped for more substance, I cannot deny that the utopian picture painted here is an intriguing one. I don’t think I have ever seen a book that put this much effort into world building, and the world revealed throughout the book is a world I would gladly live in. There are no holds barred in the detail with which this utopian future is laid out before us. This eye for detail, combined with some wonderful prose, makes a reader feel like he’s living in Reynolds’ future.
When all is said and done, Blue Remembered Earth holds plenty of promise but doesn’t cash in on most of it. It so obviously strives to be a philosophic exploration of a utopian future with themes of broadening horizons and the repercussions of technological advancement. Instead, these themes are lost in the underdeveloped story and poor narration, driven by the author’s own interventions to make a contrived, unrealistic treasure hunt seem realistic.
Why should you read this book? If you wish to immerse yourself into a well-developed, brighter future, Blue Remembered Earth should be your next read. However, don’t read this book when you are looking for a good and entertaining story. Blue Remembered Earth is a slow quest with irritating characters, set in a marvelous future version of our world. I can only hope that Reynolds puts more thought into the story of the next volumes of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. If that’s the case, I might even consider picking them up.(less)
Being a beginner in the world of reading comics is difficult. Seriously, sometimes I think comic publishers make resources hard to find on purpose. One can spend hours searching the internet to find out where to start. DC made it easier for us with their New 52, but what I really wanted was to read Marvel comics without having to read thousands of pages of backstory.
Solving my problem—and that of many others with me—Marvel introduced something new last year: Point One. Point One (or .1 for short) comics are starting points within the continuity of comics. Basically, when a Point One comic comes out, Marvel is saying, “Hey look, newbies, here starts a new story for our superhero, buy this comic!” It’s a great concept, possibly better than the complete reboot DC did. After all, it provides a jumping off point within the continuity, instead of rebooting the entire continuity.
To launch their Point One issues, as well as to lay a foundation for their 2012 stories, Marvel released a 64-page issue, also titled Point One, in September 2011. Promising to be a starting point and must-have for new readers, this issue contains six small stories that hint at things to come. Those stories are bound together with the story of a Watcher that sees the past, present, and future. The story of the Watcher, however, felt forced, incomplete, and unnecessary.
The first story is titled Nova: Harbringer. It is designed to tease at the big crossover event of Avengers vs. X-Men, a separate comic series which started last month. While I did not enjoy the manga-style art, nor the writing—for example, after a planet is blown up, the main character simply says “Epic fail.”—the story somehow intrigued me. A two-page spread showed exactly what will be at stake in AvX.
The second story was a lot more epic than the first. Age of Apocalypse: The Myth of Man gives us a preview of a future earth where mutants have destroyed humans. This story will return for one issue in The Uncanny X-Force #19.1, and from there, it will get its own comic, titled Age of Apocalypse. The writing is great, and the story is intriguing.
The best of the six stories in my opinion was the third, Scarlet Spider: The Scarlet Thread. Where the other two stories left a lot to be guessed by readers, Scarlet Spider actually gives a great introduction to this new character who gets a new series of his own. I am definitely interested in this series, and can’t wait to find out more about the character of Scarlet Spider, who was first introduced during the Spider Island event.
From there, Point One went downhill rapidly, starting with the fourth story, Yin and Yang: a cliché tale of conjoined twins who can, between them, manipulate fire and ice. While this story still had something interesting, the cut-off felt merely annoying to me. This annoyance was amplified when, no matter how much time I spent on Google, I had no clue where these characters would pop up next. All readers really know is that it will have something to do with The Avengers.
The low point of Point One was reached with Doctor Strange: The Shaman of Greenwich Village—a weird, random story of incomprehensible events that happen within both the waking world and a character’s dreams. The problem is that there is no way of telling the two apart. Doctor Strange will return in a new series called Defenders. This is one comic I will stay far away from.
Last comes the story of Avengers: Age of Ultron, teasing a new dystopian type event. In this story, we meet a future Spiderman and Hawkeye, on the run from weird robots. This story was intriguing, good-looking, and pretty cool. It’s definitely too short, but based on the event it hints at, The Age of Ultron already seems like it will be a must-read series.
In the end, Marvel’s Point One is really just one big trailer to their new season of comics. It may add some cool teases for fans of these comics, but it absolutely doesn’t do what it promises for new readers. Sure, I’m intrigued about some of these comics and events, but in hindsight, I would rather just have started reading at the beginning of those stories. If this issue is aimed towards new readers, it fails completely. It took me way too much effort to even find out where these stories continue.(less)
A couple months ago, someone gave me the first six issues of the Game of Thrones comics. It took me a while to start reading them, but once I did, I realized once again how awesome the person who gifted them really is. This comic, adapted from the George R.R. Martin story by Daniel Abraham—known for his Long Price Quartet and, more recently, The Dragon’s Path—with art by Tommy Patterson, is quite the read. Simply put: it made me devour the pages and left me wanting more.
One of the amazing things about A Game of Thrones: The Graphic Novel is the art. It’s beautiful and fits the world perfectly. In particular, the White Walkers in the first issue were wonderfully created. One problem I did have with the art, however, is that Patterson seems incapable of drawing women of varying ages. I found myself puzzled about who was who on several occasions. For example, Catelyn Stark—mother of five—looks like she’s in her twenties, with a perfect figure.
The story in this Game of Thrones comic adaption is quite wonderful, too. It stays surprisingly true to the novels, yet is a lot more accessible, and it reads as effortlessly as watching an episode of the HBO show—but without the ridiculous amounts of additional sex scenes. I was also pleasantly surprised by the way some characters, like Theon Greyjon, are depicted. All in all, everyone who loves A Song of Ice and Fire or HBO’s Game of Thrones should definitely check out these comics.(less)
Fury’s Big Week is essentially the introduction to The Avengers. This 96 page comic, combining eight volumes and released in trade paperback on May 16, ties all the films in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe together. The common threads in this story are Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. From their viewpoint, we see the things that went on behind the scenes of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and the ending of Captain America.
While the story of Fury’s Big Week isn’t particularly special on its own, it’s this connecting of all films that makes the comic a must read for all fans of The Avengers. Suddenly, it turns out that the events in The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor all took place in the same week. What’s more, Fury’s Big Week uses hints already present in the films to make it happen. One could say this prelude forms the blueprint to the entire first part of Marvel’s big, epic storyline.
The art of Fury’s Big Week is great, though some characters, like Hawkeye and Coulson, are a little hard to recognize. They don’t look much like their big screen versions. Their personalities, though, are much like that in the movies, making this Avengers prelude a treat for every fan. In fact, Hawkeye and Black Widow are actually given the personality they so lacked in The Avengers.(less)
“With great power comes great responsibility.” The Spider-Man films turned that line into a cliché. Marvel’s new comic series, Scarlet Spider, gives a twist to the infamous line: “All the power, none of the responsibility.” It’s the best way to describe Kaine Parker and his alter ego, Scarlet Spider.
Scarlet Spider was first introduced in Spider Island as a flawed clone of Peter Parker, created by one of his enemies to kill Spider-Man. Parker fixed him, however, and now he’s been given a second chance. True to his tagline, Scarlet Spider feels little of Spider-Man’s responsibility. Yet, the Peter Parker is strong in him and, despite his attempts at pretending not to care, he soon becomes Houston’s very first superhero. This struggle between seeking for personal gain and helping those in need forms the core of Scarlet Spider and is intriguing to witness.
An interesting series with beautiful artwork, Scarlet Spider more than lives up to the expectations created in Marvel’s Point One. This captivating story combines all the good things of Spider-Man—breathtaking action, likeable characters, humor, and creative villains—with an intriguing, no-nonsense, morally ambiguous main character. I’ll definitely continue buying these issues, and I can very much recommend Scarlet Spider to all fans of Spider-Man.(less)
The Avengers has made Black Widow quite popular, so it comes as no surprise that Black Widow has recently received her own three issue story arc, titled Black Widow Strikes. The events in Black Widow Strikes take place between Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, when Black Widow returns home to Moscow on an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. mission to retrieve stolen Stark technology.
While the story of Black Widow Strikes is definitely a good read, it doesn’t do much with Black Widow’s character beyond what the film had already established. That just isn’t enough for me. In my opinion, one of the biggest (and only) shortcomings of The Avengers was the way Black Widow was presented—it felt like she was there for her looks, and was hardly given any personality or backstory.
The same is true for Black Widow Strikes: too many shots of Black Widow in her underwear, and hardly any focus on her personality. In fact, the only thing Black Widow Strikes establishes is that she feels very sorry for herself.
Don’t get me wrong; Black Widow Strikes is still highly entertaining, especially for fans of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson or those who want to see more of the organization behind The Avengers. The art is wonderful and the story is enjoyable. Just don’t expect to be wowed by Black Widow’s amazing personality.(less)
Nuclear holocaust. Global warming. Robotic overlords. Zombie infections. These are all fairly commonplace apocalypse scenarios within speculative fiction today. Ilona Andrews’ debut novel, Magic Bites, steps outside this box with an apocalypse caused by magic.
The world has been taken over by magic. Magical surges kill most technology when they occur, causing phones to go down, cars to fail, and skyscrapers to collapse. Vampires and shapeshifters have come to public awareness, if not acceptance. The government has military organizations of magic users to counter supernatural threats. However, they are often caught by red tape, as per government usual. Then there’s the Mercenary Guild, who will take care of your problem—if you can pay their (usually hefty) fee. Finally, there’s the Order of the Knights of Merciful Aid, who will aid you in exchange for a smaller fee—but with the caveat that they do things for the good of humanity, not the individual.
Enter Kate Daniels, a member of the Mercenary Guild who is thrust back into working with the Order when her legal guardian, the knight-diviner of the Atlanta Chapter of the Order, is killed. And with him having been the only family Kate had left, she is out for vengeance. However, things become complicated as she is drawn into a power struggle between the Masters of the Dead (the controlling force behind vampires) and the Pack (the paramilitary clan of shapeshifters). These two factions blame each other for a series of bizarre deaths—and Kate’s guardian may be part of the same mystery. To top it all off, Kate gets thrust into the middle of this magical maelstrom and finds that she might just be way out of her league…
An apocalypse like nothing you’ve seen Andrews creates a very unique feel with her magical apocalypse setting. This is one of my favorite aspects of this novel because the magical surges are very random and unexpected. It’s almost like a tabletop RPG where the Game Master continues rolling dice until he gets a natural critical and Bad Stuff Happens™. The idea that magic wreaks havoc with the physical nature of the world entertains me to no end, and the solutions humanity have put forward to adapt to the changes are intriguing and continued to pique my curiosity throughout the entirety of the novel.
On another note, this sense of unpredictability coupled with the nature of some of the supernatural elements present throughout Atlanta give Magic Bites a distinctly darker atmosphere than other urban fantasy novels I’ve read. While not the grittiest, feels-like-you’ve-got-a-rock-in-your-eye setting I’ve come across (ahem, Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire), it definitely has a darker streak underlying everything. And, for the most part, it works.
Fantastic supporting cast The supporting cast within Magic Bites truly breathes more life into the world and the characters. We get to see aspects of the Masters of the Dead and the vampires in Kate’s interactions with Ghastek, one of the local Masters. The Pack is fleshed out when Kate involves herself in a matter directly pertaining to the Beast Lord—the alpha of the alphas, leader of all the various were-groups within the Pack. I wish we’d get some more details on the workings of the Masters of the Dead and those of the Pack, but that’s what future installments are for, right?
However, my favorite character interactions within the novel happen between Kate and Derek, whom Kate refers to as her “teenage werewolf sidekick.” Assigned to Kate by the Beast Lord as a bodyguard, Derek is a perfect example of what I imagine a teenage werewolf in the paramilitary Pack would be—a combination of teenager angst, insecurities, “me-much-macho” bravado, and the discipline he must learn to control his inner beast. Kate’s interactions with him are loaded with impatience and humor, which brings the novel to a very relatable level. All-in-all, I’m very impressed with how much Andrews has fleshed out her primary supporting characters, and I look forward to learning more in the next installments.
Snarky heroine with a can of ass-whoop As fantastic as the supporting cast of characters is, the protagonist herself is what drives this novel home and has made this series a permanent resident on my shelves. Kate is one hell of a snarker, much akin to Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. Not only that, but she also knows how to kick ass. Liberal amounts of ass. About halfway through the book, Andrews begins dropping hints that there is definitely more to Kate than meets the eye and that she knows it. This is one of the more infuriating (and effective!) tools an author has at her disposal, and Andrews wields it with great precision, teasing the reader with the slightest sense of “I know something you don’t know” that had me silently begging for more. And through all of this, Andrews manages to make Kate seem completely human through her various flaws and insecurities—no small feat.
Why should you read this book? As a debut novel, Magic Bites hits all of the points that make me want the next book, and want it NOW (as a matter of fact, I went out and bought the next two books a couple days after finishing this one). While a fantastic effort for a debut novel, there are some distinct points that could be fleshed out, and I hope Andrews takes those steps in upcoming installments, as the premise of the book and the nature of the setting have a lot of promise for much more to come. All-in-all, Magic Bites is one hell of a start to an edgy urban fantasy series that has a lot of potential, and I greatly look forward to seeing where this series leads.(less)
It will hopefully be obvious to anyone who has read the Inheritance trilogy—or read our reviews of The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods—that N.K. Jemisin is an exemplary innovator of the fantasy genre. Her fresh take on epic fantasy pushes the boundaries of imagination, and her work might well be destined to become a literary classic one day, with its ingenious new settings, themes, viewpoints, character dynamics, and magic.
With The Killing Moon, first in the Dreamblood duology, Jemisin continues this trend. While The Killing Moon is her first more mainstream novel, using viewpoints and themes that fans of epic fantasy are better used to, it remains refreshing with its non-western setting, strong female protagonist, interesting character dynamics, and wonderful magic system. Jemisin does this like only she can, successfully blending traditional high fantasy with contemporary literature and creating a masterwork that further underlines Jemisin’s rise to genre stardom.
Questions of culture The riveting setting of The Killing Moon is the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, which is modeled after ancient Egypt. When you think of a setting modeled after Egypt, you might expect gods with the heads of crocodiles and dogs, pyramids, and pharaohs. Nothing is further from the truth. Instead of looking at the superficial elements of ancient Egypt, Jemisin dedicated herself to building a fictional culture based on the ancient Egyptian culture. Don’t expect stereotypes here; the worldbuilding in The Killing Moon runs much deeper and is, because of it, much more brilliant.
This cultural model forms the foundation of the novel’s themes. While, as I stated above, the themes of The Killing Moon are more mainstream than other elements of this story—The Killing Moon is an epic about a war between two nations—Jemisin wouldn’t be Jemisin if these themes didn’t run deeper than they appear at first glance. Magic is the defining trait of Gujaareh’s culture. Gatherers harvest their magic from the dreams of others. Their duty is to kill those judged corrupt, leading them into a blissful dream world of their own creation and gathering their magic in the process. This magic creates a moral rift between Gujaareh and its neighboring nations, who are appalled by the Gatherers’ practices.
Driven by character The Killing Moon is the story of Ehiru, a Gatherer, his apprentice Nijiri, and Sinandi, an emissary from a neighboring culture. These characters are each of them unique and well-written. The dynamic between them is astounding. There is the relationship between the old and lackluster Ehiru and his faithful, loving, and energetic apprentice—and it is extraordinary how casually Jemisin writes about homosexuality, making it an integral part of her characters yet never drawing attention to it directly. In stark contrast stands the relationship between the strong and headstrong Sinandi and Ehiru, which is driven by Sinandi’s culturally defined hatred of the practices of the Gatherer combined with her growing respect of the type of man he is. On their own, each of these characters discovers a deep-running corruption at the heart of Gujaareh—a corruption that may lead to a war between Sinandi’s nation and the powerful city-state. They find themselves working together to save both of their nations from imminent doom.
Minor pacing problems While the elements described above are sufficient to make The Killing Moon one of the year’s best books, I did have some problems with its pacing and the way high fantasy tropes were blended with contemporary themes. This composition of tropes and themes creates a book that reads much like a traditional epic, yet slows down at times to establish focus on cultural and moral themes. At some instances during the first half of the book, the pacing of The Killing Moon took me off guard because of that. Fortunately, the pace picks up for the second half—the breath-taking conclusion, especially, sets a frenetic pace. Despite these problems, Jemisin’s gorgeous prose and the depth of her narration ensure that The Killing Moon never had a completely dull moment.
Why should you read this book? Jemisin’s innovative blend of high and contemporary fantasy elements should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading traditional epics, as well as those tired of reading the same recycled tropes over and over again. The Killing Moon is an honest and gorgeously wrought work of art, driven by strong characters and unique cultural and moral dilemmas. Its inventive worldbuilding and creative magic make this novel a true jewel of epic fantasy. If you’ve always wanted to check out Jemisin’s work but haven’t gotten around to it yet, The Killing Moon provides the perfect place to start. It will hopefully establish her much deserved position as a giant of fantasy with a more mainstream following.(less)
Seawitch is the seventh novel of the nationally bestselling Greywalker series by Kat Richardson. Private investigator and Greywalker Harper Blaine is back in Seattle after the the events of book six (Downpour) took both her and her boyfriend out of their comfort zones and to a national park near Seattle.
Harper Blaine used to be a smaller-time private investigator–that is, until she died for two minutes. Now, she's a Greywalker, someone able to see and interact with the Grey, the plane of the ghostly and otherworldly, and home to ghosts and other entities. Due to this ability to tread the very thin line between the living world and the paranormal realm of the Grey, Harper lands some decidedly "strange" cases.
The ghost ship Seawitch disappeared twenty-seven years ago and hasn't been seen since—until now. Now, it's the subject of Harper Blaine's latest case, a case that has her teaming up with Detective Rey Solis of the SPD, a man well-skeptical of anything falling outside of "normal" logic. On top of a partner who doesn't really trust her, Harper must also navigate her way through this case while avoiding destruction, ghostly and paranormal threats and death.
You know, the usual.
Delves a little deeper Seawitch, like all of the previous Greywalker novels, expands Richardson's unique magic and supernatural system. We see a little bit more of Harper's view of the Grey and of the mortal world. In particular, there is a focus on the Guardian Beast of the Grey and Harper's relationship with it (y'know, it being her boss and all). The magic of the system also gets some screen time as Harper's understanding of it grows. In addition to the supernatural growth, Harper's physical boundaries are expanded. The nature of her case means that, sooner or later, Harper will have to spend some time on boats and out on Puget Sound, something that hasn't really happened in the course of the series thus far.
The only detracting aspect in my mind comes from my having read the rest of the series, actually. In Seawitch, there simply isn't as much development and discovery of the Grey and the various other supernatural elements as there has been in the previous novels. Much of this can be attributed, however, to the idea that Harper's experiences have finally reached the point where she is no longer coming upon absolutely new things around every corner. This is not a bad thing or a good thing, it just is, but it made the book seem less in comparison.
Thicker writing than a typical urban fantasy Having just burned through five different novels within two weeks, I became aware of something I'd always registered unconsciously but never actively realized: I read the Greywalker novels more slowly than I do the majority of urban fantasy. After thinking on it, I believe this is due to Richardson's specific writing style. There is just something about it, some combination of Harper's narrative voice and Richardson's descriptions that forces the reader to slow down and process all of… well, all the things (ALL THE THINGS!). To put it in perspective, I can go through one Greywalker novel in two days if I have nothing else going on (including my day job). In the same amount of time, I can go through three or four other urban fantasy novels. Seawitch was no exception to this trend set by the previous installments in the series.
Now, this is not to say that Richardson's writing has any blatant problems or that the flow is stilted, as that is most certainly not the case. Richardson's writing flows—just at a slower pace than that of series like Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files or Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid Chronicles. In my opinion, it's a nice change of pace from the usual fare.
Organic character developments By far, my most favorite aspect of Seawitch comes in the form of its characters. I love everything Quinton, and we get glimpses into his past and family life in this novel. He also goes so far as to call out Harper, pointing out some of her own character flaws—something which makes them both more human. And that doesn't even take into account their reactions to the situation and that particular conversation.
However, it was Detective Rey Solis and his family that were my absolute favorite parts of Seawitch. A lot is revealed about Solis and why he does what he does. His reactions when confronted with the reality of the Grey and of the paranormal are completely believable. Subsequently, he becomes much more likable than he was in previous novels.
Oh. And his wife is awesome. Just a heads-up.
Why should you read this book? If you're returning to Harper's story, you won't be disappointed. While Seawitch doesn't expand the world as much as previous novels, Harper is still her kick-ass self—and a bit more so, as she is more confident with the whole "taking charge" thing in Seawitch than in previous novels. Quinton makes his appearances, and the glimpses of his past are enough to leave any fan wanting to know more. If you're a newcomer to the series, you might end up a bit lost at the beginning, but not too terribly. As always, Richardson's unique system of the Grey captivates, and the sheer amount of character development is admirable. With this latest in the Greywalker series, Richardson has crafted a well-balanced urban fantasy novel with a kick-ass heroine who isn't afraid to take names, a story that will appeal to both mystery and paranormal lovers, and a fantastic supporting cast of characters that bring an exquisite level of believability to Harper's world.
Oh, and did I mention mermaids? 'Cause there were mermaids.(less)
In the House of the Wicked is the fifth installment in the Remy Chandler series by New York Times bestselling author, Thomas Sniegoski.
Remy Chandler, a Boston-based private investigator, isn’t your typical private eye; while he wears the guise of a human, he is actually much more: a fallen angel. Once known as Remiel of the Heavenly Host Seraphim, Remy left Heaven of his own accord after witnessing the destruction and bloodshed of Lucifer Morningstar’s war with the Almighty. He became curious about God’s favorite creation and decided to spend time on Earth discovering, learning. Falling in love.
Now, after his wife has passed away, Remy has averted the apocalypse of the Four Horsemen, faced the Morningstar in Tartarus, prevented another god from claiming enough power to change the world, and gone up against a corrupted Malachi in an attempt to save the Garden of Eden. During this time, Remy kept his angelic and human natures apart, allowing him to hide his true identity. But both of Remy’s natures are now sharing the same space, and Remy can feel himself becoming more and more volatile despite all of his efforts to control it.
To make matters worse, Ashley Berg, his longtime dog sitter who is like a daughter to him, has been kidnapped by a once-formidable sorcerer. This sorcerer wants his revenge upon those who wronged him in the past, and he is determined to use Remy as his instrument of revenge… and if Remy doesn’t play along, Ashley will die.
Flying solo Due to some of the circumstances within In the House of the Wicked, Remy is unable to use his angelic powers for the majority of the novel. It makes for a very different read than the previous four novels in the series. It’s a change of pace that throws the already-long odds into the realm of nigh-impossibility, all the while making Remy’s actions more believable than at almost any other point in the series. It also forces Remy to slow down and think before he acts. Since he cannot summon up the Seraphim to just batter through all of his problems, Remy has to play a sneakier, smarter game than ever before. And that is most definitely a welcome change of pace to the series.
Upping the ante While Sniegoski gave us a hint of the underlying plotlines of the series in book four, A Hundred Words For Hate, this is the first Remy book where details from all of the previous novels really begin fitting together. And quite frankly, it scares me. I fear for the well-being of Remy and those around him. The world looks like it’s going to get much, much worse before it gets better.
And that’s awesome.
Sniegoski does some fantastic foreshadowing for these plotlines throughout the novel. Some of it comes from Francis (a mercenary angel also living among humanity), some from Remy himself, and yet some more from the Grigori (those cast out of Heaven by God for teaching humanity dark secrets). But the real kicker comes in the epilogue of the novel. If you’ve seen Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, it was very much akin to the first post-credits scene. If you haven’t, let’s just say that many of the events can be theorized to have been manipulated by an off-screen character. And the implications of that are breathtaking. I cannot wait to see how Sniegoski plays it in future novels.
That’s quite the character you got there… Remy himself is one of my favorite urban fantasy protagonists and one of my favorite characters of all time. He gets a lot of time to reflect in this novel: about how he wants to live his life now that his wife has passed away; how to balance the dueling natures inside of him; how to help his friends cope with the realization that there is more out there than humanity knows. His relationship with his Labrador, Marlowe, is heart-wrenching and wonderful. It’s gut-wrenching, too—to watch Remy, unable to draw upon his angelic abilities‚ deal with the realization that he can no longer communicate with Marlowe. The scene brought tears to my eyes.
On top of Remy and Marlowe, the supporting cast gets a lot of screen time. Francis, Ashley, and Detective Steven Mulvehill all find new things within themselves. Francis has to deal with working under a new employer—which has some definite perks, he will admit. I look forward to seeing how being set against his best friend in the future will affect him‚ because Francis isn’t particularly known for his compassion and morals. Ashley gets tossed headfirst into Remy’s world, under what is most definitely not the best of circumstances. She shows the whole variety of human reaction to her situation, ranging from panic and denial to eventual calm levelheadedness. Mulvehill, after the events of A Hundred Words for Hate, isn’t talking to Remy; he’s still in denial about everything that happened and hopes that by ignoring things, they will just go away. However, when something puts Boston, and likely the entire world, at risk, Mulvehill goes out to help instead of hiding. Seeing him take that leap was refreshing, and I hope it means that his friendship with Remy can—and will—be mended in future novels.
We’re also introduced to one hell of a new character during the course of In the House of the Wicked: a hobgoblin by the name of Squire who currently resides in the shadow realm. Squire is one of those “retired good guy” characters who has convinced himself of the uselessness of being a hero, and is resolutely telling himself that he’s only looking out for Number One. However, as events progress, we see him come to grips with the fact that he misses fighting the good fight, and he ends up getting involved and helping Remy out in a number of ways. I really hope we see him again—and I think we will, as that much development time usually isn’t spent on a throwaway character.
Why should you read this book? If you’ve read and liked the first four installments in this series, you won’t be disappointed. Sniegoski ups his game in this most recent Remy adventure, and we begin to see some of the grand scheme he is setting up for us. The conflict and situations within this novel are refreshingly personal, bringing the forefront of activity back to the Boston area. The characters are varied and very well-developed, bringing life and humanity into this novel largely centered around the angelic pantheon. With In the House of the Wicked, Sniegoski has crafted a very powerful, very personal tale that is equal parts gut-wrenching, heart-warming, and awe-inspiring. In short, it is definitely my favorite Remy Chandler novel to date.(less)
The sixth installment of New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, Ashes of Honor, returns us to San Francisco and the world of changeling October Daye.
It’s been a year since the events of the previous novel, One Salt Sea, and Toby still hasn’t fully recovered from the personal losses she sustained during that time. She’s been trying to keep her focus on her responsibilities as Sylvester’s knight and putting in hours training her squire, Quentin—not to mention trying to pay the bills—but it’s not been working so well. Things have gotten to the point where even her most supportive allies are beginning to worry at her increasingly reckless behaviors.
And to top matters off, she’s just been hired to find yet another missing child—except, this time, it’s the changeling daughter of her fellow knight, Etienne. Her name is Chelsea, and, like her father, she is a teleporter, able to open portals between the various realms of Faerie and the mortal plane. She is also the kind of changeling from legend—one with all of the power and none of the control—and is opening doors that have been sealed for centuries, releasing dangers never meant to be seen again. Oh, and there’s the fact that she could destroy the entirety of Faerie if she isn’t found.
Toby must find Chelsea before the world ends, facing unknown deadlines and unknown worlds in her attempts to avert complete disaster. And to further complicate matters, things are stirring in the local Court of Cats, and Tybalt needs Toby’s help with the greatest challenge he’s ever faced.
The worlds next door One of my favorite things about this series is the sheer diversity of the various areas of Faerie that McGuire introduces us to. In each novel, she branches out a bit further, filling in a section here, revealing a bit there. It’s almost like seeing a tree from a distance and then coming closer to focus on an area of leaves and see all of the details. It’s very smooth, the way McGuire incorporates the worldbuilding of the otherworldly realms of Faerie into our own, familiar world. Some have said that urban fantasy isn’t as “good” as epic fantasy because the world is already built. I would direct those of that mindset to McGuire’s work, because not only does she create entirely new worlds, she melds them seamlessly with our world and all of its own history and character.
A more straightforward plot than usual One of the things I really started noticing about halfway through the novel is that the overall plot of Ashes of Honor isn’t all that complex compared to the last couple of installments in the series. Sure, it has its surprises—this is Seanan McGuire we’re talking about, after all—but all in all, it’s one of the most straightforward of the series. There’s no discovery of multiple plots going on at once, decisions having to be made to save one thing or the other, etc., etc., et al. Rather, the initial problem is just escalated—repeatedly. The more Toby finds out about her case, the more she realizes just how much danger they (and the world) are actually in.
However, this straightforward plot isn’t a bad thing. Because of it, Ashes of Honor turns into much more of an internal journey for Toby. Many of the events that occur over the course of the novel force Toby to step back and reevaluate what she knows, how she behaves, and how she feels. As she hunts after Chelsea, so does Toby begin to establish and realize who she is as opposed to who she was. It’s a refreshing change of pace and it feels like the logical next step in Toby’s story, and I believe McGuire executed it exceptionally well.
Beautifully crafted characters and relationships While Toby’s internal, personal journey is more than enough on its own to make Ashes of Honor stand apart from the rest of the series, the level of character work McGuire throws into the mix makes the book shine. As previously stated, Toby undergoes a deeply personal journey, and has to rediscover who she is. This includes her relationships with everyone around her: May, Etienne, the Ludaieg, and especially Tybalt, to name a few. We garner more insights to the workings of Faerie and the various courts and territories (such as Tamed Lightning) because of these evolving relationships. Some new faces are met, and the amount of life and utter believability McGuire manages to give them in a short time is nothing less than breathtaking. Etienne is quite thoroughly fleshed out as a character, and we get to see how Quentin has matured over the last year. Oh, and Tybalt does some decidedly badass things. Again.
And speaking of Tybalt, Ashes of Honor also gives large glimpses into the workings of the Court of Cats, as well into a good chunk of Tybalt’s past. For Toby isn’t the only one going through an internal journey. For both their sakes, Tybalt has to come clean about some rather important things, putting it all out there—something that doesn’t come easily to him. It’s a wondrous thing, to see how these two characters who were once on opposite sides have grown to depend upon each other.
Why should you read this book? Seanan McGuire has done it again. I always think that the most recent Toby novel will be my favorite, and every time, McGuire ups the ante and puts out a better one. Ashes of Honor finds the balance between being introspective and being action-oriented, and holds that balance exceptionally well. The worldbuilding is natural, flowing, and organic. The characters are real, dynamic, and their relationships are completely believable. With Ashes of Honor, McGuire has crafted a deeply personal and intense story that will keep you on the edge, hoping to be pushed over. In my opinion, it is, hands down, the best Toby to date.(less)
May, June, and July of 2011 were great months for urban fantasy enthusiasts. For the guys, urban fantasy gained one badass dude with one hell of a smart mouth. For the ladies, urban fantasy gained one badass dude with one hell of a drool-worthy body.
Okay, I generalized there. So sue me. The fact of the matter is that with the introduction of Kevin Hearne’s The Iron Druid Chronicles, the world was introduced to the amazing character of Atticus O’Sullivan, a two-thousand-year-old redheaded Irish Druid. And he’s back in the fourth installment of The Iron Druid Chronicles, Tricked.
Being held responsible for the death of multiple Norse deities, Atticus O’Sullivan is a wanted Druid. The novel opens on the scene of Atticus’s staged death for the benefit of the world pantheons. From there, he takes his wolfhound Oberon and his apprentice Granuaile and gets the hell out of Dodge—err, Mesa.
Because Coyote assisted Atticus in the staging of his death, he wants Atticus to help the Navajo people on one of the local reservations. However, this is Coyote, so there are always… unsaid portions to any bargain. Sure enough, Atticus, Oberon, and Granuaile come up against something straight out of Navajo legend: a pair of skinwalkers. Atticus swears that if he makes it out of this alive, he’ll not let anyone fool him ever again.
One would think he would know better than to tempt the universe like that.
Strength in characters A large portion of Hearne’s talent as a storyteller lies in his character work. Tricked is no exception to this. Coyote, as the title of the book implies, has a lot of screen time and is rather thoroughly developed. Hearne gives him a definite air of mischievousness, but flavors him with more moral ambiguity than some authors. Coyote is definitely only looking to further his own agenda, and helps Atticus only so much as it lines up with his goals—which is a truer interpretation of the character than most authors give, in my opinion.
Now, due to the nature of the premise, many of the regulars from the first three installments don’t make any appearances in Tricked, which may disappoint some readers and worry others. However, Hearne compensates for the lack of familiar faces with lots of development for Atticus and Granuaile. We get some of Granuaile’s history in Tricked, and some of her motivations for wanting to train as a Druid become clear. The relationship between her and Atticus also gets a lot of attention, but more on that later. Atticus experiences the brunt of the character development. We learn more about his past, and for the first time, we can really get a sense of just how much two thousand years of life weighs on him—it’s definitely not all fun and games. It gives a whole new depth to the phrase “world weary.”
Glimpses of series plotlines At this point in the series, Hearne has given us enough information to start piecing together some of the underlying plotlines of the The Iron Druid Chronicles. One big clue was Jesus’ major forewarning to Atticus in Hammered—and we begin to glimpse the repercussions in Tricked. Atticus also speculates as to where his future might lead—down some darker paths indeed—but one must keep in mind that such information is, to borrow phrases from tabletop gaming, “character knowledge” and not “player knowledge.” This means that Atticus could be downright wrong about something, so we shouldn’t assume that everything he speculates will come to pass.
However, while the plotlines seem to be heading in a darker, more desperate direction, they don’t seem to be too terribly twisty at this point. The underlying plot doesn’t seem to be as complex as that of, say, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. And that’s okay. Being very familiar with Butcher’s work, however, has my brain’s “default” at the Butcher level of trippy-twisty, and so most other underlying plots tend to seem a bit… bare-boned to me. So while I like the direction the series seems to be heading, I do hope that Hearne will start throwing some major curve-plotty-balls at Atticus—and thereby, his readers—in the near future.
Personal upheavals This isn’t to say Hearne hasn’t hit Atticus with some major-league fastballs already (to keep with the baseball metaphors prevalent throughout the series). However, a lot of these haven’t been directly plot-related, and so don’t affect the large scheme of things. No, these have been smaller, more personal, and revolve largely around Atticus’s relationships. His dealings with Coyote seem somewhat akin to the deal between Lando Calrissian and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. I will admit that there were a couple occasions where I heard someone in my head doing a bad impersonation of James Earl Jones, saying, “I have altered the deal. Pray I do not alter it further.” Needless to say, this tends to tick Atticus off just a bit. Additionally, his relationship with vampire Lief Helgarsson proves to be strained, at best, after the events of book three, and this has near-fatal repercussions.
The part where I have to give Hearne serious credit, though, is in regards to Atticus’s relationship with Granuaile. As anyone who has read the series can attest, there are some serious sparks of attraction flying between these two hot redheads. (Yes, I will admit I ship them something fierce.) However, as much as I would love to see them hook up, there’s that whole student-teacher relationship that should remain sacred. Hearne’s handling of their feelings for each other and changing relationship is remarkably well-done, and even if it isn’t necessarily what some of his readers would like to see, I cannot disagree with how he managed it.
Oberon steals the show… again Order an extra plate of sausage and break out the bacon, because Oberon is back. This is where Hearne’s writing truly excels, because Atticus’s loyal wolfhound is comedy gold, people. It just keeps getting better, and with very little repetition. On top of it all, Oberon gets some truly badass moments in Tricked to go along with his awesome snark.
Someone get that hound a comedy show already!
Why should you read this book? If you’re looking for something with super-gritty realism and a darker, more serious outlook and atmosphere, this probably isn’t the series for you. However, the “lighter” aspects of The Iron Druid Chronicles don’t diminish the quality of this urban fantasy. In fact, its more lighthearted fare really makes the series stand out in today’s batch of urban fantasy. Tricked is chock-full of everything that makes The Iron Druid Chronicles appealing and entertaining: gods aplenty, lots of action, an Irish redhead badass druid, and one hell of a comedic counter in Oberon. This is the point in the series at which we begin to see the possibilities in the future of the series. Things are not as simple as they once were, and this shows Hearne’s growing strength as a storyteller. With Tricked, Hearne has crafted a highly enjoyable, tough-to-put-down read that takes ample amounts of swords, sorcery, and bacon-filled comedy gold, and then shakes, stirs, and serves.
Now, could I get an extra side of sausage with that?(less)
Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear is a loosely themed speculative fiction anthology, edited by Edwina Harvey and Simon Petrie, two of the editors involved with Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. An eclectic collection containing stories from a variety of Australian and international authors, Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear is an engaging body of work that contains a number of excellent stories, quite a few memorable ones, and should have something to suit almost anyone.
Sparks that fly in many directions The title, Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, references the instructions given for lighting fireworks. The anthology itself operates on the concept of a literal or figurative spark and the various possible results of its unleashed potential. This very open theme allows the authors a lot of leeway to let their imaginations run wild, resulting in a hugely varied collection.
Some of the stories engage quite directly with the theme while others are a little more oblique in their connection. Yet as a whole, the collection itself succeeds in its ostensible purpose, showcasing the variety and quality of its contributors’ work.
A little something for everyone Much like lighting a real firework, you never know what you might get next with this anthology. A blazing inferno, a quick flash and burn, a delicate showing of stars, or a disappointing fizzle? Happily, the overall quality of the stories is high, and although personal taste dictates that some stories will appeal to certain readers more than others, none of these stories were duds prone to explode in one’s face. While there were a few stories I might not have picked if I was collecting for an anthology of my own, they were all well written and I could see where their appeal might lie for other readers.
Favorite stories Due to the huge variance in tone, style, and theme between stories, it is quite hard to pick a favorite. The one that resonated with me the most, however, was probably the opening story by Joanne Anderton, “The Bone Chime Song.” Extremely powerful and emotive for its length, Anderton’s story creates believable characters with whom the reader can empathize and offers a fascinating glimpse into a beautifully well-realized fantasy world. A haunting love story of guilt, redemption and necromancy, ”The Bone Chime Song” will leave you thinking long after you finish reading it. All in all, it impressed me and I look forward to reading more of this author’s work in the future.
Following ”The Bone Chime Song” is Sue Bursztynski’s humorous take on the origins of the Trojan War, ”Five Ways to Start a War.” The story consists of five key figures’ rather differing accounts of how the conflict came about, which all interweave to paint a colourful picture of meddling deities, confused mortals, conniving kings, and a bed-hopping prince terrified of losing his royal member to divine vengeance. Helen attempts to avoid the inevitable catastrophe, yet finds that vain goddesses rarely take no for an answer. While I have read a number of retellings of the Trojan War’s beginnings, Bursztynski used the familiar elements in a way that felt fresh and made me laugh, marking her story as another favorite in this collection.
“The Subjunctive Case” by Robert Porteous is a well-crafted paranormal detective story with a distinctly Australian flavor (it’s set in Melbourne and I personally enjoyed recognizing the familiar places in which the story took place). All in all, I thought it was a well-written and impressive work from a relatively new author.
And many more “The D____d” by Adam Browne contains some delightfully weird imagery and tells the tale of Victorian colonialists attempting to terraform hell. ”Mary Had a Unicorn” by Ripley Patton has a distinct moral and is strangely charming for a story about teen drug addiction. And ”The Godbreaker and Unggubadh the Mountain” by Ian McHugh features interesting world-building and appealing, relatable non-human characters.
In most cases I prefer my story morals slightly more subtle in execution than that of Sean McMullen’s ”Hard Cases.” However, the writing was still good and the story was still creepy, despite the somewhat heavy-handed treatment.
I would consider all thirteen stories in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear to be well worth reading, yet unfortunately lack the time required to give them all the attention they deserve. In addition, some stories elude concise summary and may be spoiled in my attempts to explain them. Besides, I did say half the fun was trying to guess what was coming next.
Why should you read this book? Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear is an entertaining and enjoyable anthology containing stories of a consistently high quality with a couple of standouts. It contains a refreshing variety of original fiction with no boring stories or tired clichés. In my opinion, even just my few favorite stories alone were worth the cover price. All in all, I read some great new works by authors I knew, discovered some new authors to keep an eye on, and will look out for any future anthologies by these editors and from this small press.(less)
When the Ranting Dragon was first contacted about reviewing Shadow Show, I was intrigued. A collection of short stories honoring Ray Bradbury? Neat! However, once I got my review copy, I realized how very special this collection is. While Shadow Show was published a little over a month after Bradbury’s June 2012 death, this anthology was not thrown together at lightning speed to commemorate him. This book is actually a carefully curated collection of all original stories and was started well before Bradbury’s death; it even includes a secondary introduction from him. This anthology is meant to honor and celebrate not only Bradbury’s work, but also the influence he’s had on modern literature and current authors.
For those who are unfamiliar, Ray Bradbury was an American author who was extremely influential within his own lifetime. He published twenty-seven novels (the most famous of which is the dystopian Fahrenheit 451), screenplays for movies and TV shows, as well as over six hundred short stories. Bradbury’s earliest work was in the science fiction genre, though he also published in the mystery and horror genres. His work appeared in numerous publications, from niche SF magazines to The New Yorker. This wide diversity has been credited with giving the entire speculative fiction movement greater exposure as more mainstream readers sought out Bradbury’s less mainstream work.
Nothing short of epic Editors Sam Weller and Mort Castle certainly set themselves a herculean task with this collection. How do you celebrate the work of such a prolific and varied writer? And remarkably, there are twenty-seven short stories and two introductions in fewer than five hundred pages. My original thought with this review was to tell you about a few of my favorite stories, but some of them are so short that to spend more than a sentence or two on them would give away the entire story! And I don’t want you to read my three sentence reduction, but the original tale. Don’t worry if you don’t like extremely short fiction; there are some longer, twenty-page stories included as well. They are all exquisitely written by masters at their craft. The SF world is represented by none other than Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Harlan Ellison, Kelly Link, and Audrey Niffenegger. The authors coming from the mystery, adventure/suspense/thriller, and horror genres also read like a who’s who of modern publishing. You literally cannot go wrong with this crowd.
One of the best parts of this collection is the notes attached to each story by its author. Some are inspired by Bradbury’s work as a whole, but many are tributes to a single short story. For instance, David Morrell’s “The Companion” is a reverse of Bradbury’s tale “The Crowd.” Audrey Niffenegger’s “Backwards in Seville” is in response to Bradbury’s “The Playground.” For those who may be experiencing much of Bradbury vicariously for the first time in this anthology, these notes offer an interesting roadmap to various works they may enjoy. Often in these notes, the authors will tell you just what Bradbury and his work mean to them. For some he served as inspiration throughout their careers, and for others he was a dear friend and mentor. I can’t imagine a more touching tribute for any writer.
Why you should read this book I will be honest with you: short fiction is not my favorite reading. I was sold on doing this review by the list of the authors involved, and I have not been disappointed. If ever there was a short story collection you could not go wrong with, this is it. It’s a literary buffet filled with dishes prepared by award winning chefs. Even if a story is not to your particular taste, you can still sit back and appreciate the craft that went into it. Also, what better way to sample genres you may have read sparingly than with a collection that also includes pieces in genres you’re sure to love?(less)
I first heard about Libriomancer a few years ago while attending a panel that included Jim C. Hines at a convention, and I fell in love with the idea of it. As time passed and the book came closer to completion, every time I heard more about it, I wanted it more. It’s an urban fantasy with comic elements from a writer already known for doing excellent comic fantasy (such as Jig the Goblin series and the Princess series).
Isaac Vainio is a small town librarian in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, aka “the middle of nowhere.” In addition to this, Isaac is a cataloger for Die Zwelf Portenaere, an organization which tries to police the magical community and prevent its detection by the mundane world. However, when the troubles of the magical community result in vampires attacking Isaac at work, it’s time to head south and figure out what’s going on.
Unique magic system If you read this book for nothing else at all, read it for its completely awesome magic system. Isaac is a libriomancer with the power to pull things out of books. Now, there are some limitations to this, like you can only use a book so many times and whatever you use must be able to fit through the book, but there’s still the fact that at one point Isaac fights with a lightsaber. For those who like well-defined magic systems, Hines has done a great job of fleshing it out while still leaving a lot of room to grow in future books. Everything is well thought out and clearly presented, and tailor-made for bookworms everywhere.
Urban fantasy… with a twist Two things I associate Hines with are comedy and turning clichés on their heads. For such a young genre, urban fantasy has developed a disturbing number of tropes. First, there are nearly always vampires. There’s usually a love triangle of some sort. There’s lots of frantically running around, there’s a broken-down magical government, and deep ethical choices. Hines has happily completed the check-list while putting his own unique spin on everything (and yes, that includes the love triangle). Isaac is not a character who is likely to become darker as the series goes on—at least, not until the lines between good and bad are frightfully thin. Hines has also populated his world with flavors from other books, like sparkling vampires known as Meyerii. This is a highly referential work, and only avoids being an outright parody of the entire genre by somehow being utterly original at the same time.
As for comedy, Hines has a distinct taste for the absurd. For instance, the idea of a Yooper (someone from the upper peninsula of Michigan) vampire who’s an avid deer hunter is just… bizarre. Every once in a while, Hines likes to hit you with something from left field, but he always times it so as not to break the pacing of the book. When things are dire, he’s not going to try to make you laugh, he’s going to keep you invested in the plot.
A whirlwind tour Hines, like me, is from the state of Michigan, and he literally takes you all over the state in this book. All told, in the course of a week, Isaac drives over 1,000 miles. I’ll be honest: one of the best things about this book, to me, was reading a story set in places I know. I loved all the little things about life in Michigan that poke out here and there, like the sheer terror driving across the Mackinaw Bridge can be. Most urban fantasy is centered in smaller, more densely populated urban areas. I loved the juxtaposition of starting out in very rural Michigan and traveling through the center sections of Detroit after stopping in a college town. I can’t say that any other book I know does that, and it added an incredible layer of depth to the story for me. And luckily for those of you who aren’t from Michigan, Hines did not write dialogue in the Yooper dialect.
Why you should read this book? If you love urban fantasy, or just love anything to do with books, science fiction, fantasy, or any combination thereof, you will find lots of things to like here. There’s some tongue in cheek, knowing references to a whole list of things, a great story and good story telling. The only thing I don’t like is that now I have to wait for the next one!(less)
A few spoilers from the previous novel, Magician: Apprentice, are scattered throughout this review
Magician: Master is the second novel in Raymond Feist’s best-selling Riftwar Saga. In my previous review, I gave Magician: Apprentice quite a hard time for staying so close to the standard Tolkien-esque tropes (dwarves, elves, etc.). I was not particularly eager to read Magician: Master; I already had a copy on my bookshelf, though, so I dove in. Luckily, Magician: Master ended up being an extraordinary novel, and it is the best follow up novel I have read in years.
When we last saw Pug, he was being held captive by the rift warriors known as the Tsurani. While captive, Pug’s magic is discovered, and the mysterious Tsurani mages take him captive. It is with these magi that Pug obtains a new name and truly unleashes his hidden power. Let us not forget Pug’s best friend, Thomas, who continues to hear whispers from the golden armor he found in the previous novel, nor Prince Arutha who is valiantly trying to gain reinforcements by sneaking into the famed city of Krondor. Of course, many other characters also enlist to stave off the Tsurani threat. While the two sides war with each other, a greater threat lies quietly in wait.
Culture clash Feist does a brilliant thing in Magician: Master: he allows us to see the Tsurani home world through the eyes of Pug. It is fascinating to see the divide between the Midkemians and the Tsurani. We saw a bit of this culture clash in the first novel when the Tsurani were deathly afraid of horses. The difference between the two cultures is especially apparent when Pug sees that the Tsurani revel in arena combat, which is unheard of in Pug’s culture. It is these small details that really lend the book a sense of grandeur and importance. Cross-cultural studies have never been this interesting in the real world.
A bit of a side note: the most interesting aspect of this culture clash comes from each culture’s attitude toward wizards. As shown many times in Magician: Apprentice, wizards are not held in high regard by the majority of the Midkemians. This could not be further from the truth for the Tsuranis, who seem to afford the wizards a sort of deity-like reverence. It is always refreshing to see how one’s culture can color their views on all things mystical.
A fleshed out cast I did not expect that Feist would develop the cast of Magician: Master as much as he did. The most drastic change, of course, is evident in Pug, mainly due to his time with the Tsurani wizards. Gone is the naïve boy from the first novel, and in his place comes a man of great wisdom and honor. Arutha, a personal favorite of mine, gets a bigger role. Throughout the novel, Arutha shows his bravery time and time again, but what is most interesting is his new lease on life and his carefree attitude. Many other characters are more fleshed out, as well; Carline, for instance, is far wiser, and Thomas seems to have developed a case of battle lust. If you enjoy good characters in a classical fantasy setting, I implore you to read this book.
A bit abrupt My main complaint involves some of the ending scenes, though I will not go into great detail in order to avoid spoilers. Although the ending does wrap up this volume, it is unfortunately wrapped in a mangy bow. Many of the plot threads are resolved, but too quickly, and some of the moments that should have been emotionally taxing left a hollow thud because of their brevity. This abruptness appears to stem from the fact that Feist simply did not have enough pages to flesh everything out. The ending is not all doom and gloom, but it still left a sour taste after the delicious bits while I was reading it.
Why should you read this book? I still hold the opinion that Magician: Apprentice was a bit too cliché, but Magician: Master exceeded my expectations in every possible way. The culture clash between the Tsurani and Midkemians presents a sense of anthropological delight that is lacking in my university classes. Almost the entire cast has been greatly fleshed out and improved upon. As noted, my only issue with the book is how abruptly some of the plot lines ended or began, but it does not detract from the novel much. Magician: Master is easily one of the best entries in classical fantasy. You must pick up this gem. Well, of course, after you finish reading Magician: Apprentice.(less)
There’s this relatively new rage in fantasy, and I’ve never been a fan of it. Authors—like Daniel Abraham and Joe Abercrombie—create a rich world with a lot of history, but zoom in on only one aspect of their world’s story in each book. Unlike the stories told in traditional fantasy, these are tales of characters instead of events. Think of it as the siege of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, told solely from the viewpoints of a rider in the army of Rohan and an Orc under Sauron’s command.
Another author from the school of Abraham and Abercrombie—or perhaps the master of said school—is K.J. Parker. I have always been afraid to give Parker’s work a chance. However, when Parker’s latest work, Sharps, came across my path, I couldn’t resist giving it a try—a decision I don’t regret. While characters of other books in this subgenre—might I call it micro-fantasy?—were a turnoff for me, Parker’s characters are wonderfully unique and wholly engrossing. Where I could never really get into the stories of those other two authors, Parker pulled me in from the get-go and didn’t release me until long after I finished the last page.
Ambiguous bastards Now, before you judge my opinion based on my dislike of the aforementioned authors, let me set something straight: both Abraham and Abercrombie are incredibly skilled writers, and their popularity testifies to that. The fault is entirely mine. You see, I am quite particular about my fantasy: I need a conflict of good versus evil. Sharps has that conflict. Sure, the evil isn’t quite as traditional; and the characters… well, the characters are each of them skillfully written, morally ambiguous bastards. But these bastards—a murderer, a drunk, the son of a war criminal (or hero, depending on which side you stand), a whiny girl, and a mysterious soldier—have been united against their will with a common goal in mind: to make sure that the uneasy peace between the rivaling nations of Scheria and Permia is maintained. This goal seems noble enough, as Parker makes abundantly clear through various random viewpoints just how high the economic and cultural stakes really are.
Sabotage and intrigue From the very start, it is unclear who pulls the strings of this team of characters, or what motives are behind it, but the characters themselves—all “regular” Scherian citizens—wish only to do what they came to Permia to do: fence for sport in order to extend an olive branch in this cold war that succeeded a long and bloody conflict—and, if at all possible, make it back home safely despite their fencing tour seemingly being sabotaged at every corner.
This simple premise makes Sharps a marvelous read. Through Parker’s witty narration and intense eye for psychological detail, I immediately cared for the characters. When they were thrust into a dangerous world of political intrigue before too long, I was on the edge of my seat, flipping the pages as fast as I could. The relentless pace with which the characters are sent from one deadly situation to another, without ever truly being in control of their own fates, is breathtaking. The web of political factions and their conflicting motives is perplexing—in the best way possible. Throughout Sharps, only one question burned in my mind: how are these protagonists ever going to make it out of this alive?
Fencing with sharps The best thing about Sharps, however, isn’t the complex scheming and plotting, nor the terrific ambiguous characters. No, the best thing about Sharps is the fencing. The characters were put together for a fencing tour through their rival nation’s cities, and thus, fencing is the unifying theme throughout this novel. Parker’s magnificent prose exalts these fencing matches to a form of art. A deadly art, for while our Scherian protagonists expected to be fighting with blunted instruments, their Permian opponents are using sharps—real weapons that inflict very real wounds. Add to that the fact that Scherian fencing is about grace and elegance, but Permian fencing is about brutally and efficiently drawing first blood, and the protagonists’ objective to stay alive without killing any Permians is suddenly given a very tangible meaning. Perhaps the only fault in Sharps is the fact that there aren’t nearly enough of these high-paced, awe-inspiring, astonishing fencing scenes.
Why should you read this book? As a newbie reader of Parker’s works, I cannot compare Sharps to his or her various previous works. I have heard other reviewers say that this novel is his or her first more commercially viable work. The validity of that statement—which may be the reason why I loved it so much—is something I intend to find out for myself; Sharps has inspired me to read more of Parker’s books. It is an incredible story of realistically wrought characters, facing a world of intrigue, with a political complexity matching our own world, where the stakes are intensely high. As a reader, though, I simply wanted the protagonists to make it through the story in one piece. And frankly, that very fact made this novel simply mind-blowing.(less)
Day, the most notorious criminal in the Republic of America, is just trying to save his brother, who is sick with the plague in a family too poor to acquire black market medicine. When June Iparis’s brother is killed while guarding the hospital, she is abruptly graduated early from her military university and sent after the suspected murderer. As the two struggle—June to avenge her brother and Day to save his brother, the rest of his family, and himself—the sinister nature of the Republic becomes clearer.
Shallow characters Full of action, adventure, and daring feats by the fifteen-year-old protagonists, dystopian young adult novel Legend is Marie Lu’s debut novel. The story of Legend is told in alternating first-person perspectives of two characters who may seem familiar. Day is the vigilante wanted for his various crimes against the government—crimes he committed in the first place as retaliation against government atrocities. June fits a different archetype, the government’s darling who slowly turns against them as her eyes are opened. The familiarity of these tropes makes much of this book predictable, and none of the characters are developed much beyond that.
Even as a romance develops between the two perfect little prodigies, they continue to feel flat. Their interest in each other is initially founded on nothing more than physical attraction, and while that changes a little as they gain respect for each other’s impressive capabilities, they never get to know each other on a personal level—perhaps because these characters don’t have much in the way of individual personality to know anyway.
Shocking brutality The military government characters, seen through June’s eyes, seem simply dedicated at first, and as her perspective changes they develop into flat, generically evil. Police brutality, senseless massacres, and totalitarian governments are, unfortunately, a part of the world we live in, and would logically be even more so in a dystopian world. In a dystopian novel aimed at older readers, I could expect such extremes of violence, but I am a little surprised to find them in Legend, which seems aimed more at younger teenagers. Not every young teenager will be prepared to face such harsh realities. More surprising is that, despite the blatant brutality and even sadism of these bad guys, the Republic’s innocent citizens don’t seem to think of rebelling (except for the shadowy Patriots, whom the Republic barely sees as a threat).
Clean wrap-up The story concludes in a way that left the ending with a nice feeling of open resolution; there aren’t any major loose ends left dangling and the overall struggles are wrapped up nicely, while there is still enough remaining open to lead straight into the sequel. Yet Day’s primary struggle to save his family seems meaningless and empty by the end, and June herself is left with nothing to fight for, just something to fight against. While the ending was overall satisfactory, it devalues the rest of the story in my eyes.
Fascinating worldbuilding Legend is set in the future of the United States of America, in a barely recognizable Los Angeles, California. The formerly united country is divided into the Republic of America to the west and the Colonies to the east. The history of how that divide came about is covered up by the Republic’s propaganda, and the viewpoint characters don’t even know the Colonies and the Republic used to be one nation. Many moments offer tantalizing hints at the elaborate and fascinating history of Legend’s world, and I intend to keep reading this new series if only to learn more about the world.
Why should you read this book? Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Legend. If you’re looking for story-driven dystopian entertainment with a fast action-filled plot, and aren’t bothered by flat characters, look no further. The action is gripping and the story engaging. Though flawed, this is nonetheless a promising debut and I expect to enjoy better things from Lu in the future.(less)
Every now and then, I encounter a book that haunts me, but I just don’t have the time to read. Lamentation is such a book. The very moment I encountered a review for it, I ran to the store and bought it. An epic series filled with political intrigue, religion, action, and manipulation—that must be good! Added to that is the premise of a great and powerful city destroyed by an ancient artifact long thought to be nothing but a myth. It felt like a modern version of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but from an author who manages to publish a big volume every year.
However, I was reading other books at the time, thus the book merely sat on my bookshelf for over a year. Then came the day I finally picked it up for Ranting Dragon’s book club… And was intensely disappointed. Lamentation is a decent work of epic fantasy, written by an author who clearly has a way with words, but both the story and characters are lacking.
Destruction? Where?! This is evident from the very start of the novel, when the city of Windwir—a technological and cultural capital of the world—is destroyed. This is an event of epic magnitude, of similar proportions to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. While that event propelled the world into the Cold War, Lamentation‘s event—as seen through the eyes of the five viewpoint characters Rudolfo, Neb, Jin Li, Sethbert, and Petronas—lacks in emotional impact. The characters hardly seem to care at all, continuing with their lives of manipulation and intrigue almost immediately.
The alternating viewpoints of the main characters—nearly every chapter contains each character’s point of view, varying in length from a single paragraph to several pages—made it easy for me to get absorbed into the story of Lamentation. However, the characters soon reveal themselves as shallow, flat, and stereotyped, with a consistent flawlessness to their respective personalities. The good guys are too good, and the bad guy is both too evil—he doesn’t seem to have any higher motivation for his acts—and too stupid to play a genuinely meaningful role in the story, increasing the lack of impact Lamentation had on me.
Prelude to the Psalms Where Scholes truly lost my interest, however, was when he decided to insert prophesies and meaningful dreams into the narrative. These elements appear completely out of the blue, and their contribution to the story is one of convenience, clearly added by the author to create direction for his story.
These prophesies, along with the absence of a believable antagonist, reveal both the biggest strength and biggest flaw of Lamentation because, like so many authors of epic series’, Scholes has fallen into a familiar trap. Lamentation is the first book in The Psalms of Isaak, a series that was intended from the start to have five books. Because of this, there is little incentive for the opening novel to tell its own contained story. Instead, Lamentation reads more like a prelude to the rest of the series. Gradually, Scholes uses a smaller plot to establish a much bigger plot—a plot that never comes to fruition in this book. Instead of being the author of a great epic in Lamentation, Scholes becomes a chess player, moving all his pieces into their necessary positions for the rest of the series. He certainly does this with graceful skill, feeding his readers subtle—and not-so-subtle—foreshadowing and creating a world where every character, good or bad, is seemingly manipulated by a greater force at work. In this lies significant potential for future books in The Psalms of Isaak—of which the next two volumes, Canticle and Antiphon, have already been released. Unfortunately, this potential doesn’t do Lamentation any good. The stakes are too low, the story too meaningless.
No crusades in this one After all my criticism, it must be said that there was one element I truly enjoyed in Lamentation: its world’s philosophy is truly a marvel. Fundamentally, this is a religious story, but this world’s religion differs from our world’s—and especially religion in our history in its peacefulness. Instead of wanting to bring the light to unbelievers, the religious folks of The Named Lands, Scholes’ world, want to guard it. This way of thinking seems almost alien to that of humans on earth, yet it made sense. At some deep level, this philosophy connected with me. That, if nothing else, proves that Ken Scholes is a genuinely talented writer!
Why should you read this book? Lamentation is only for the most patient fans of epic fantasy. Ultimately, the question might not be whether or not Lamentation itself is worth picking up, but whether the continuation of The Psalms of Isaak warrants the investment of hours reading what seems a mere prelude to the series at large. This question, I cannot answer. I may well give Canticle a try, but if I do, it will probably take me another year, if not longer, to get to it.(less)
Empire in Black and Gold is the first book of the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Czajkowski (he has it spelled Tchaikovsky on his books to make his name easier to pronounce for his American and English readers). It is currently eight books long, with the promise of ten books in all.
The kinden In Tchaikovsky’s world, instead of races or nationalities, we see a people somehow descended from/connected to/inspired by insects. These people are known as kinden; we’ve seen Beetle, Fly, Scorpion, Spider, Wasp, Dragonfly, Butterfly, and a few other kinden at this stage.
This mechanism hasn’t been particularly well explained at this starting point of the series, but it seems to generally suggest that regular humans coexisted with giant insects with a relationship that resembles what would probably have been the case had we coexisted with dinosaurs: mostly we’d be lunch. And then, somehow, humans started to live more closely with these insects and then began to take on their characteristics, which seem to be passed on genetically to offspring. It’s certainly an interesting concept, but it runs into a few obvious issues.
Firstly, this process is basically unexplained. Living with giant dragonflies long enough makes it so you can fly? Living with giant scorpions long enough gives you claws? While this is a created world, so the logic needs only be internally consistant, it really did seem strange to me how this would work. There are also no kinden-less humans yet; and crossbreeding is perfectly possible and seems to combine (if dilute) the powers of the parent kinden, which you’d think would have pretty much homogenized the genetic base by now, no matter how insular each type of kinden was. Furthermore, the characteristics gained from their Ancestor Art (the mechinism by which they manifest their powers) seem very arbitrary and, in some cases, confusing. The Spiders are all charismatic, have some kind of mind control, and, I guess, climb well. No venom, no webs, no compound eyes, no multiple limbs. The Beetle-Kinden have a tendency to be overweight, resistant to poisons, and generally stubborn and resilient, but apparantly also industrious. Now, I’m not really an expert on the subject, but although some beetles are quite large, I’m not sure how that ties to being fat.
While it is a novel concept, it felt very handwaved throughout, as though we were just supposed to roll with it.
The Apt In the past (which they call the Bad Old Days, an amusing reversal if nothing else) certain kinden were the masters of the others; the Moth-Kinden basically ran a coalition of some of the other, fancier kinden (Butterfly, Mantis, Dragonfly) and had many of the other more “base” kinden (Beetle and Ant, primarily) as slaves. Legends tell of magic existing, very little technology, and it was a pretty typical-sounding medieval world. Then the Beetles and Ants developed technology, using it to overthrow their masters and gain independence (we’re talking the level of, say… a crossbow).
This creates a distinction between the Apt, those who use technology, and the Inapt, those who don’t—which is fair enough on the surface. But the consequences of this distinction are truly absurd. It’s stated, essentially, that the Inapt kinden simply cannot comprehend technology—can’t use it, can’t deal with it. There’s a scene in the book that actually claims that an Inapt character was totally unable to wrap their head around the concept of using a crossbow. The connection between “I press the trigger,” and “the thing goes,” is apparantly beyond a perfectly intelligent and cultured people who are already using bows (I pull the string back and the thing goes). This one extra removal is too much for their brain to deal with.
Just as above, I have no idea yet whether this is explained more or better in later books, but considering that the debut is what convinces people to read the later books, it’s pretty relevent that this is a concern.
The story In spite of my objections above (I seem to use that phrase in almost every review) I did still enjoy this book. The characters are well written within the contraints of “All X-Kinden behave like X” and the storyline is compelling. The loose confederacy of peoples with an uneasy peace, threatened with destruction from beyond their borders but too blind to see it until it’s too late, makes for great storytelling, suspense and interest in what will happen. Tchaikovsky’s writing is excellent even if I have some issues with the world-building. I was engaged throughout and connected to several of the characters. He also has an excellent villain, one of the best kinds: The Loyal Man, who puts his service above his own morals and then has to wrestle with himself over what he does.
All in all, I’m planning to pick up the second book and see where it goes from there before I commit to reading or buying the full ten, but based on this volume, the series deserves another chance.
Why you should read this book Empire of Black and Gold is a novel about struggling to protect your people from a threat they refuse to acknowledge. To carry on and never give up despite being dismissed, ignored, trivialized. It’s about overcoming odds to achieve any progress you can toward your goals. The characters are interesting and engaging; the storytelling is well paced and captures the interest. Enough things are explained to pull you into the world, and enough are left open to keep you wondering, even though I disagree with some choices for which are which.
If you enjoy unique world/people building, or stories where the heroes are a little less heroic than they could be but still plug away regardless, then this is the book for you!(less)