This review contains minor spoilers for Hounded and Hexed.
Hammered is the third book in Kevin Hearne’s The Iron Druid Chronicles. This novel marks the end of Hearne’s rapid-fire monthly releases, but also marks the beginning of many more adventures for Atticus and Oberon. Atticus is bound by an old promise to help his vampire lawyer, Leif, take down the biggest douchebag in the world’s pantheons: good old Thor himself. However, this turns into a bigger challenge than even Atticus could have predicted.
So. Much. Darker. Hexed was subtly darker than its predecessor, but Hammered takes the grit to a new level. There really is no guarantee that the characters you’ve come to know and love will make it through this unscathed—or even alive. The violence and gore are upped in this book, too. Hearne is clearly turning this series into a more emotional, complex ride than the light-hearted Hounded suggested at the beginning. Although Atticus’s sharp wit and references to pop culture and literature remain (in fact, I think the amount of references even increases in this book), his long history is revealed to be frequently sad and painful. His true age—that is, twenty-one centuries old instead of a mere twenty-one years—is a lot more apparent in Hammered. Atticus really isn’t the same happy-go-lucky Irish-American that he seemed to be in the first book.
Some slow or awkward moments, but overall fast-paced Those of you already familiar with Hounded and Hexed will find the same great qualities to love in Hammered: quick plot twists, battles of strength and wit, and effortless narration of the most complicated action scenes. In Hammered, though, Hearne also experiments with some new elements in the text—and not all of these are successful.
The least successful are the chapters narrated by a series of characters other than Atticus, as each newcomer explains why they’re out for Thor’s head. These chapters are painfully flat. Atticus’s voice is charming, witty, and a pleasure to read—and these new characters are, well, not. Hearne puts a good face on the attempt but all the new characters’ jokes and quirks feel like superficial and last-minute additions to a necessary plot device. The good news is that these chapters don’t run for very long and soon enough you’ll be comfortably back in Atticus’s head, raring to go.
The other awkward addition is more palatable, but still brought my nose out of the story to think, “Huh?” Some very significant experiences in Atticus’s past come up for the first time in Hammered, and it felt unnatural that they only came up now, three books into the series, instead of playing a role since the very beginning. I’ll let you discover what those experiences are for yourself.
A wild ending to whet your appetite The best part of Hammered isn’t until the very end. Although the immediate challenges faced in Hammered are resolved, Hearne leaves the series with a deliciously scary mystery to keep us hooked until the fourth book is released next year. After being pampered by three releases in three months, I expect to have a really tough time waiting for the fourth! I still have the feeling that Hearne has only scratched the surface of Atticus’s world, and that the adventures in store for our favourite Irishman will only get better. Some secondary characters are solidified into a main cast, and others are sadly dropped by the wayside. The Iron Druid Chronicles is thankfully still developing into a dynamic series unafraid to stay new and exciting.
Why should you read this book? This has become an ongoing refrain in my reviews of The Iron Druid Chronicles, but Hammered is—like the others—a great read. Hearne’s experimental forays into other characters’ heads may have been ill-advised, but all the same Hammered delivers the action-packed excitement and wit that you’ve come to expect. You’ll be left begging for more at the end. If you’re already a fan of the series, this is a must-read....more
Lydia Millet is an award-winning writer best known for her works for adults; her most recent accomplishment, a collection of short stories called Love in Infant Monkeys, was one of three finalists for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. And so her newest novel, a middle-grade fantasy called The Fires Beneath the Sea, seems like a big departure for her. In Fires, Cara and her brothers are trying to cope with the sudden disappearance of their mother, only to realize that their mother’s been drawn into something far more serious than family problems – and now they’re sunk in it, too.
Expertly researched and timely Kirkus Reviews calls the novel an “eco-fantasy,” and I can’t think of a better word than that to describe it. Although the mystery only just begins to unfold in this first book of the series, it’s still clear from the start that Cara’s mother is deeply connected to the ocean and that something serious and dreadful is going on beneath the waters. Every clue leading Cara and her brothers Max and Jackson onwards is somehow tied to the ocean’s creatures and ecology, and lovable, genius Jackson – Jax, for short – manages to insert some humor and information with his nearly robotic recitation of scientific research on the environment. Millet graduated with a Master’s in Environmental Policy, and it shows in the best way.
The novel’s setting, Cape Cod, is also fantastically realized. After finishing the book, I felt like I lived there my whole life. Biking, swimming and boating – Cara’s family is believably outdoorsy and yet also totally modern, too.
Also really creepy By far, the best part of The Fires Beneath the Sea is the Pouring Man. He could turn into a classic villain of children’s literature. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let me just say that he is one of the creepiest, scariest characters I’ve encountered in middle-grade fantasy. He really gets you looking over your shoulder for the next few days after finishing the book. I found the siblings’ final conflict with the Pouring Man to be somewhat anticlimactic and even cliché, but this being a middle-grade fantasy for readers still new to the genre, I expect the intended audience won’t feel the same way as me.
But something’s missing Some young adult and middle-grade books extend far past their audience and become adult favorites, too. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that to be the case with The Fires Beneath the Sea. It’s certainly a good book, but it lacks the humor, sparkle and depth of characterization that make the truly great young adult fantasies capture the imagination of everyone, despite their age. The characters’ depth, of course, will likely increase as the series continues, but the humor and spark may never show up. This was a surprise to me, actually, because I adored the dark humor in Millet’s adult books.
Why should you read this book? If you are a fan of middle-grade fantasies, or if you know a middle-grader looking for a new series, then give this book a try. For it’s intended middle-grade audience, Fires is a solid environmentalist fantasy. If, however, you’re looking for another Diana Wynne Jones, J. K. Rowling, Garth Nix, Suzanne Collins, or any other author whose books snap up grown-up readers as much as young readers, then The Fires Beneath the Sea likely isn’t for you. It’s a solid middle-grade fantasy, yes, but there’s not too much here that will surprise people very familiar with the fantasy genre.
If you’re instead looking for a good read for grown-ups, I’ll go ahead and suggest Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Only marginally fantasy, sure, but it’s still fantastic....more
Kevin Hearne’s Hexed follows hot on the heels of Hounded, the first book in Hearne’s urban fantasy series, The Iron Druid Chronicles. Only a few weeks after Atticus’s showdown with Aenghus Og, Atticus is already mired in the affairs of warring Polish and German witches, rogue demons, Bacchants from Las Vegas, and the first Druid initiate in centuries. He has also developed a sudden (and unfortunate) reputation among all world mythologies as a badass god-killing machine.
Characters: Once again, purely brilliant All your favourite characters from Hounded are back: Granuaile, Hal, Gunnar, Leif, Widow McDonaugh, the witches, and (of course) the irrepressible Oberon. Every character’s personality is sharp and unique; if you’ve been following the series, you’ll know that Hearne’s writing is super fast-paced, and that extends to his ability to create a real character in a few paragraphs.
A few new characters are also introduced. The most interesting are the individual witches left over in Radomila’s Polish witch coven, and also one of the many incarnations of Coyote, the trickster god of several Native American tribes. It was a relief to see Hearne finally introduce Native American mythologies, considering the series is mainly based in Arizona. Overall, though, there are fewer new and hilarious characters bouncing around than in Hounded. I was a little disappointed – mainly because the characters in Hounded were all so darn fantastic, and I was hoping for more – but at the same time, at a certain point an author has to start working with what he has.
Plot is exciting and oriented towards the Big Picture In hindsight, I appreciate Hounded as a fun, action-packed introduction to the world of Atticus. It’s relatively self-contained. Few plot threads linger into the next book. The Atticus of Hounded is more happy-go-lucky and unbelievable than the Atticus of Hexed. And with Hexed, Hearne dives right into the meat of the story, bypassing any more introductory heart flutters and cutesy personalities.
The events in Hexed are clearly meant to send the reader tumbling down the rabbit hole, and I can already foresee – albeit murkily – that some of the decisions Atticus makes in this novel will have serious repercussions for him down the road. Although the immediate conflict in Hexed is handily resolved in the end, there are far more threads left untied that I am eager, and a little afraid, to see addressed later in the series. Atticus’s characterization, meanwhile, deepens and ‘fills out’: we learn more of his history, more of his motivations, and more of his weaknesses – all in that snarky, sassy, charming and loveable voice of his, of course.
Perhaps a little … darker? The difference in atmosphere is subtle, but I did detect a darkness in Hexed that certainly was not present in Hounded. Unlike in the series’ debut, some non-criminal and named characters meet their end in Hexed. The violence certainly seems more pronounced. And Atticus shows the hint of a dark side when he’s battling his enemies. This grittier feel is so subtle and natural that Hexed really doesn’t feel like a departure from the first book, but I do think that Hexed is a better reflection of what The Iron Druid Chronicles will become as Hearne gains more confidence.
Why should you read this book? I said it about the first book and I’ll say it again: It’s got oodles of personality, lots of action, and a hunky Irishman on the cover. What more could you want? But seriously. Hexed is a fantastic sophomore effort by Hearne and gives a very promising glimpse into the future of the series. If you enjoyed Hounded – or if you were waiting for the second book to drop – then there’s no doubt in my mind that you will love Hexed. Give it a try. Oberon is waiting....more
The Killing Way by Tony Hays is marked “an Arthurian mystery” on the front cover, a brilliant concept that immediately drew my attention. More of a historical mystery than a fantasy — though with Druidic magic still at the forefront of everyone’s minds — The Killing Way begins the story of Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, Arthur’s most trusted friend. Malgwyn reluctantly becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving all of Arthur’s court and a dangerous plot to overthrow the king.
Well researched and original Tony Hays clearly knows his stuff; the Author’s Note at the end of the book offers a clear explanation of all Hays’ choices concerning the historical context. In the book proper, hardly a paragraph goes by where some new Roman, British or Saxon habit isn’t introduced, but Hays could have provided these historical tidbits more naturally. Malgwyn’s first-person narration frequently pauses in the middle of conversation to give the reader an explanation of one thing or another, but many of those explanations were unnecessary given the helpful context. I wonder whether Hays fell prey to the “Look at all the research I’ve done!” form of over-sharing that is common to fantasy and historical fiction writers alike.
That said, Hays’s vision of Arthur is unique and refreshing. There is no Camelot, only a grim, wartorn Britannia on the brink of collapse. The vicious murder of a servant girl casts a critical light on the hypocrisy of knighthood, and, for that matter, the knights themselves are cruel and far from perfect. Mixing murder mysteries and Arthurian romance is an unusual choice, but The Killing Way shows that it can be done.
Familiar characters and some great new ones Later additions to the Arthurian myth such as Lancelot and Galahad aren’t found in The Killing Way, but Hays made the happy decision to include Guinevere, Merlin, Kay and a host of others you’ll recognize if you’re familiar with the legend. By the time the story starts, Merlin is a forgetful old man whose magic, if he ever had any, seems pretty well vanished. Guinevere is a beautiful nun whose relationship with Arthur has shamed her in the face of everyone at court and prevents Arthur from ever marrying her. Kay is a lovable knight whose personal connection to the murder at the novel’s heart makes The Killing Way more than an impersonal mystery, but an important and emotional journey to find closure.
The best character of all, of course, is Malgwyn himself, and you won’t find him in any traditional Arthurian lore. His wife butchered by the Saxons, his arm lopped off in battle afterwards, Malgwyn is a bitter man soaked in alcohol whose most fervent wish is that Arthur had just let him die on the field instead of bringing him to safety. Malgwyn is not a perfect character, though, and in a few scenes he’s downright annoying. His worst character trait is his headlong descent into damp sentimentality any time he thinks on his daughter, and his few attempts at sarcastic humor leave a lot wanting. But Malgwyn is the grim and realistic foil to Arthur’s idealism and self-righteousness, and I look forward to seeing how the men’s relationship develops.
Stiff, unnatural prose Unfortunately, The Killing Way has a serious flaw: unwieldy, pompous prose and dialogue. The novel’s blurb says that Malgwyn “looks more like a CSI investigator than a scholarly Brother Cadfael,” but Malgwyn’s narration isn’t nearly as fast-paced, funny, or human as a CSI show — and for those of you who’ve seen CSI, you know that’s a pretty damning criticism of the book. Hays has only to pick up any high fantasy novel to see that fiction set in the Dark Ages need not adopt the same regal formality of the time period. And if one does choose to use regal formality and pseudo-medieval sentence phrasing, it had better be downright beautiful — but Hays fails on that score, too.
And what about the mystery? For a book that calls itself an “Arthurian mystery,” the mystery side of things is only so-so. It’s clear from the start that the culprit is one of Arthur’s political enemies, and it doesn’t seem to matter which one of those enemies it is. The uncomplicated mystery didn’t bother me too much, though, since I found the real story was Malgwyn’s slow redemption and growing relationship with his family.
Why should you read this book? Do you love Arthurian legend? Then you’ve got to read this book. Even though the writing is stiff, the concept and characters are still worth sinking your teeth into — if only to see whether you’ll want to continue the series. But if you don’t share my love for the Matter of Britain, I think there are better ways to spend your time....more
Another spooky urban fantasy, Feast by Merrie Destefano offers an unlikely interpretation of mythical chupacabras and one isolated town’s dangerous encounters with them. Madeline MacFadden is a recent divorcee, single mom, and uninspired horror writer – but she has fond memories of her childhood summers spent at Ticonderoga Falls, and so she and her nine-year-old son trek there together in the hopes of reinvigorating Maddie’s creativity. But as Maddie finds inspiration in her old haunts in the woods, she also starts to find that some of her most horrific and fantastic dreams as a child might actually be memories.
Confusing point-of-view changes The premise behind the book sounds promising, right? Mysterious monsters, a stifled writer/single mother and her relationship with a young son – this is all good, dark, creepy stuff to work with. Unfortunately, the plot is muddled by frequent point-of-view changes (think every few pages) that don’t often seem necessary, as well as a convoluted timeline that spans decades.
To make matters worse, Ash, the main male lead (also a mysterious monster – hint: chupacabra), suffered some sort of tragedy and curse long ago that is never made entirely clear. We know, vaguely, that he’s tied to Maddie’s small town. We know he’s somehow in charge of the other mysterious monsters. But the details? They’re a lot fuzzier, and some terms – Guardian, Legend Keeper – were tossed about without any actual explanation or, seemingly, relevance. Feast feels like a much larger story squished into a small package – and not in a good, “this is fantastic world-building” way, but in a confusing, poorly-thought-out way.
A forced romance Few urban fantasies go on for long without some sort of romantic tension or interest being introduced. Feast is no exception. The difference, though, is that the romance between Ash and Maddie is completely unconvincing: Ash is still hung up over his long lost love, while Maddie is in the middle of a divorce and, until the last third of the book, shows absolutely no interest in her mysterious monster friend. If this were a series, maybe this kind of awkward romance would be forgivable since I could expect it to develop more realistically in the following books – but it’s unclear whether Feast is the start of a series or not, and as a standalone (if that’s what it is) this romance simply doesn’t work.
Another major problem in the romance department: we don’t have much idea of what Ash looks like to Maddie in his true form (that is, when he’s not shapeshifting). How am I supposed to fantasize about a sizzling couple if I can’t picture the man in my head?
Darklings or chupacabras – huh? Although I’ve been referring to the monsters as chupacabras in this review, Destefanos generally uses the term ‘Darkling’ in her novel (though she also calls them chupacabras and shapeshifters).
You heard me. Darkling.
Call me crazy, but anything that ends with a ‘ling’ just isn’t particularly scary. Darkling sounds cute and fuzzy. Ash and his often murderous friends are anything but (unless they choose to shapeshift into bunnies, I suppose). Many of these supernatural creatures’ traits – shapeshifting, dream-eating, social hierarchy – seem pulled out of thin air and remain largely unexplained for the course of the novel. Although vampires and werewolves are no more believable than Destefano’s Darklings, at least the former two creatures have a long and solid history to draw upon. These Darklings are hardly chupacabras and do not remotely resemble anything else. Their insubstantial description and lack of real-world mythological counterpart made Feast feel equally insubstantial and abstract; I couldn’t get a feel for the Darklings’ physical presence or, more importantly, their physical threat to the forest’s human inhabitants.
Destefano is, in fact, a good writer The only redeeming factor of Feast is that Destefano is a talented writer and many of the descriptions and action sequences are put together flawlessly, so long as you don’t look too deeply into characterization or plot. My dissatisfaction with Feast hasn’t put me off of her other novels, and I’ll likely take another chance on her work again if I come across it.
Why should you read this book? Feast is a confusing, mediocre urban fantasy with a romance that falls flat at the last minute. Although Destefano shows talent as an author, this is not her best book; I’d recommend reading her more acclaimed Resurrection Chronicles....more
Hounded is the spectacular first novel in The Iron Druid Chronicles by debut author Kevin Hearne. A unique urban fantasy with a Celtic bent, the Chronicles follow Atticus, the planet’s last and certainly most charming Druid. This young Irish lad – well, he looks twenty-one, but he’s actually a couple of millennia old – has plenty of enemies scattered around the globe, but he just wants to spend his days working at an occult bookshop in Arizona with his talking Irish wolfhound. Unfortunately the badass Celtic god of love is in serious need of his old magic sword, and Atticus really doesn’t want to return it…
Breezy, hilarious and totally addictive Told in first person by Atticus himself, Hounded can’t be put down. I read it in less than a day. Atticus is sassy, no-nonsense, and unremorseful in going off on his own personal rants in the middle of a conversation (the difficulty in finding a perfect fish’n’chips, anyone?). The combination of a modern world with old school Celtic mythology (and a few other pantheons, too) is brilliant, and Atticus’s voice, though definitely Irish, doesn’t veer into an unintelligible dialect. The novel’s concept is similar to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but it’s made original by Atticus’s light-hearted storytelling and his outsider status from every social circle (mortal, godly, witching, lupine …) he encounters. Hounded is the kind of book that you put down, wrinkle your nose and say “Gee! Why didn’t I think of that?”
If you think Atticus is great, wait ‘til you meet Oberon. The beauty of Hounded isn’t in Atticus’s narration, though. Not at all. Hounded’s charm lies entirely in the secondary characters: Oberon, the lovable Irish wolfhound; Leif, an Icelandic vampire-attorney, and his many werewolf co-workers; a hot Irish bartender possessed by a Hindu witch; Mrs. MacDonagh, a neighborly Irish widow who’s fine to let you bury a corpse in her yard, so long as the dead arse is British; and the list goes on. Hearne treads a perfect line between hilarious quirks and real depth, and even the goofiest sideshow character is easy to care for after you get to know her a little.
The plot itself: predictable, but still fun There aren’t too many surprises in Hounded. In fact, the one time I thought I’d pegged a good surprise coming up, it turned out that Hearne didn’t even take advantage of the opportunity. Instead Hounded employs your typical action-adventure formula: suspense, killing, mystery, revelation, suspense, killing … You get the idea. Some later plot elements came out of left-field – demons, for one thing (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler) – but they weren’t the real mind-blowing surprise you’ll find in some thrillers.
That’s all right, though. Events move so quickly – and the writing, sex, and violence are all so dazzling – that you’ll hardly have the time to notice. Besides, the characters and the witty narrative are why you’ll pick up and read this book anyway.
Why should you read this book? You might not be able to tell, but I’m actually restraining myself in this review. This book is wonderful! It’s got oodles of personality, lots of action, and a hunky Irishman on the cover. What more could you want? Hearne does a surprisingly believable job of mishmashing world cultures and mythologies into one madcap, witty, intelligent adventure with a cast you’ll fall in love with. Hounded doesn’t have the meaty substance of high literature, but it’s certainly worthier fare than most of what you’ll find in the urban fantasy section of your bookstore these days....more
The Hyponist is a genre-bending thriller by established author M. J. Rose. Although it’s third in The Reincarnationist series, The Hypnotist works perfectly as a standalone despite some recurring characters. FBI special agent Lucian Glass is still in pursuit of Malachai Samuels, a man criminally committed to acquiring a list of ancient Memory Tools that reputedly give a person the power to learn of his or her past lives. A list of those tools could be hidden in a statue of Hypnos, currently held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and undergoing a dangerous, international dispute of ownership. But more than just a tale of high stakes art theft, The Hypnotist is also about Lucian’s own emotional journey. It turns out that what’s happening in the present day may have all too much to do with what’s happened in the past.
Tightly plotted and exciting You’ll find no fluff in The Hypnotist. Rose switches between different characters and centuries masterfully, and her writing is lean and straight to the point. At first the changing cast of characters confused me, but soon I was swept up into the many energetic, intricately connected storylines. Reincarnation provides a very handy tool for exploring vastly different settings and characters all in one book – you’ll see a little of everything in here.
Rose’s knowledge of fine art was also a pleasure to encounter. The politics behind conflicting claims of ownership was fascinating, and though I’m no expert, Rose at least gave the appearance of being authoritative in her explanations. Detailed, real locations like the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave the less plausible scenes some realism, and I had as much fun learning about art and its conservation as I did following the twists and turns of the plot.
One weak character At the centre of The Hypnotist is an uneasy romance between Lucian and Emeline. Some backstory: when Lucian was a young man, he was badly injured and his girlfriend at the time, Solange, was murdered in an art theft that wouldn’t have happened if Lucian had only arrived on time for their dinner date. Ever since, Lucian’s memory of Solange has filled him with guilt and prevented him from finding a real, adult relationship.
Enter Solange’s cousin, Emeline.
Does Emeline possess Solange’s soul, reincarnated? Similarities between the women seem to exceed mere coincidence, but guilt-ridden Lucian doesn’t want to believe he has a second chance to atone for his past. Romantic tension predictably abounds between Lucian and Emeline – but somewhere in the is-this-reincarnation-or-not mystery, Emeline loses any sense of individuality or even personality. She doesn’t act like a reincarnation of Solange’s soul (if, in fact, that’s what she is). Instead, Emeline is more like Lucian’s idealized, teenage memory of Solange: perfect, hazy, insubstantial.
The other characters, happily, are much more engaging and unique.
Not quite fantasy Many people believe in reincarnation, and so I hesitate to call reincarnation the unreal element that makes this novel ‘fantasy,’ but apart from reincarnation, there really isn’t anything fantastic – in the magical sense – about this book. The Hypnotist and its characters treat reincarnation in such a scientific, matter-of-fact way that the novel still doesn’t feel like a fantasy even if you do think that reincarnation is supernatural, magical and unrealistic. The Hypnotist is definitely speculative fiction, but that’s about as close to fantasy as this book gets.
Why should you read this book? The Hypnotist is a great book: exciting; full of plausible, complex characters (Emeline is the only exception); and a lot of excellent details to make the plot feel believable. But to call The Hypnotist a fantasy would be unfair and inaccurate. I’d call this a modern-day, romantic thriller with a “what if” hook: what if reincarnation played a significant role in individuals’ lives? It’s a good book, but a departure from RD’s standard fare. Just keep that in mind if you buy it....more
The Red Wolf Conspiracy is debut novelist Robert V. S. Redick’s first installment in The Chathrand Voyage series. Pazel Pathkendle is a lonesome tarboy hailing from one of Arqual’s many conquered territories. After a series of unfortunate events – perhaps, Pavel wonders, orchestrated by his mysterious friend Doctor Chadfellow – Pavel ends up on The Chathrand, a vast and ancient ship that is the pride of her country. The crew’s apparent mission is peaceful: they are to carry an important Arquali general’s daughter overseas to marry a prince of the Mzithrin, Arqual’s traditional foe. But the ship’s secrets run deep, and soon Pazel finds himself battling for more than just his own life in the midst of a conspiracy years in the making.
A completely new and sparkling world Redick has created a wonderful and immersive world. Animals mysteriously awaken and find themselves with the powers of thought and speech. The ixchel, tiny humanoids reminiscent of the Borrowers, scurry about the holds of ships in fear of loathsome humans (giants), pursuing their own unfathomable ixchel goals. Murths, or sea-people, equate language with magic, and murder men for their own survival. A long-lost, manic god-king seeks power over every nation on the planet. Alright, so not all of that is completely new. Yet Redick’s enthusiasm for the world of Alifros is infectious, and each fantastic element is happily well-realized and serves a purpose in the plot.
Apart from the grandly fantastic, The Red Wolf Conspiracy focuses on Alifros’s most vulnerable citizens. Pazel never lets anyone forget that his home, Ormael, was invaded by Arqual and that its men were slaughtered. Neeps, a sympathetic tarboy, is similarly disenfranchised. Thasha, the general’s daughter, is being forced into a marriage against her will, while Felthrup is a woken rat and is surely one of the most miserable creatures to ever creep in fiction. The Red Wolf Conspiracy is all about the underdog; there’s no all-powerful nobility here.
Quick, playful writing and characters And yet this novel is a riot! Redick’s crisp prose keeps the plot bouncing along despite the twists and turns, and every scene is infused with a dash of good humor no matter how grim things get. It reminded me of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series: although both series share an epic and serious adventure, the authors still manage to keep the tone light-hearted and even occasionally funny.
The light-hearted characters help. Every character in The Red Wolf Conspiracy has a ton of heart and is immediately relatable. Although, once again, the protagonists are inexperienced kids thrown in over their heads, Pavel and Thasha’s individualism makes this tired old trope feel fresh and modern. Aside from the typical third-person limited perspective, Redick also tosses in several excerpts from Alifros documents, such as the Quartermaster’s hidden diary and Captain Rose’s letters to his family. These excerpts are full of the outrageously inaccurate assumptions that only fictional characters can make, and they often had me laughing out loud even as they advanced the sinister plot.
Bit off a bit more than he could chew Of course, it becomes difficult balancing this many characters and plot threads, and The Red Wolf Conspiracy unravels a little at the end. The last few chapters are a disappointing fizzle compared to the action-packed book that came before: the villains are unsatisfactorily scary, and the climax relies on a few too many coincidences. However, I attribute these flaws to the fact that this is Redick’s first published novel. He’s still mastering the craft; with such a fantastic opening (and middle), the disappointing fifty or so pages at the end really don’t matter. If Redick can regain the strength and exuberance he maintained for most of the novel, The Chathrand Voyage will be one of the top fantasy debut series published in the decade.
Why should you read this book? Life at sea? Pirates? Tiny people and talking animals? You got it. This is epic fantasy at its theatrical peak: wonderful characters, swashbuckling action, political intrigue, and an enormously rich and developed world. Get swept up by The Chathrand, but be prepared for a rocky ending – here’s hoping the sequel, The Ruling Sea, achieves this story’s true potential....more
The Stolen Moon of Londor, A. P. Stephens’ first book in The White Shadow Saga, is a traditional high fantasy that follows a band of adventurers–elven, dwarvish, and wizardly–on a quest to recover a magical object that will restore their pseudo-medieval land to prosperity. In this case, the magical object is one of the twin moons, and the moon’s absence has lately allowed mysterious evil forces to terrorize the land of Londor’s law-abiding citizens (and, of course, to provide foes for our questing adventurers).
Sound familiar? If you made a list of every fantasy stereotype from the last thirty years, you’ll likely find some form of it in The Stolen Moon of Londor (though dragons and unicorns have yet to make an appearance). This novel has it all: haughty elves; bumpkin humans; an arrogant, ignorant prince; a rogue with the heart of gold; a wise old wizard; aggressive mistrust between races; bloodthirsty werewolves; a mysteriously vanished object of power; dark, unfathomable forces of undiluted evil… I could go on. Interestingly, the lone dwarf character in The Stolen Moon acts more like a hobbit than a dwarf–but even so, hobbits are not exactly a cutting-edge invention in fantasy these days.
Although Stephens does little to distinguish his fantasy races from their many appearances in other novels, Stephens does change up the story in one significant way by making the quest object a moon. This choice lends the novel a mythic quality, as the characters are not chasing some small magical sword or orb, but instead something so large it’s nearly impossible to imagine how someone could have stolen it at all. I wish that the other clichés were as deftly re-imagined.
Too many main characters There is no one protagonist in this novel. There aren’t even two or three protagonists. Instead, The Stolen Moon of Londor gives an equal spotlight in a relatively short book to all nine of its adventurers; in fact, in some unfortunate cases, the viewpoint character changes even within the same paragraph. Because of this, many scenes lack focus and emotional punch even when it’s clear that there is potential for emotion in the event.
It’s also difficult to connect to any of the characters, who often feel one-dimensional and underdeveloped. Apart from Prince Arnanor, however, who remains shallow the entire time, most of the characters are strengthened over the course of the novel. Hopefully this indicates that the next book in the series, Shameless Wonders, will do a better job of developing the characters and representing them believably and emotionally.
Traditional style of writing For the most part, the prose strives for that kind of lyrical formality found in older fantasy epics–at its best in the work of Tolkien; at its worst in every fantasy spoof you’ve ever read. At first I was surprised that Stephens had decided to go this stylistic route at all, since most fantasy writers today choose a lighter, contemporary tone, but Stephens’ traditional style suits the novel’s mythic and traditional structure. As for how well the novel achieves this goal of lyrical formality… well, it often succeeds quite handily, but at other times the novel descends into convoluted, awkward, and presumably unintentional hilarity.
The dialogue between the characters occasionally feels wooden, and their motivations are sometimes too obviously and bluntly made explicit in conversation. The dialogue especially suffers when it happens between villains and the protagonists; some of the villains are not particularly menacing and instead come across as goofy evil henchmen when they explain their plans to the adventurers. On the plus side, though, Stephens does a killer job with battle scenes, where the formal style disappears and our valiant adventures can get down to beating the crap out of baddies.
Why should you read this book? The Stolen Moon of Londor is an uneven attempt at an epic adventure fantasy in the style of genre books from a decade or two ago. If you’ve missed the past few years’ lack of merry bands of warriors seeking magical objects, then reading this book may feel like you’re coming home again. The writing and character development, however, leave a lot to be desired. Fortunately, the book’s final chapters leave me hope that the series may improve as the author continues developing his craft....more
Blood of the Maple is a contemporary romantic fantasy by Dana Marie Bell. Though it works perfectly well as a standalone, it marks the beginning of a new series called Maggie’s Grove. After sexy vamp Parker Hollis unintentionally attracts a psychotic witch admirer, he’s cursed to drink only “green, leafy blood” for the rest of his unnatural life – but unfortunately he just can’t bring himself to kill the witch in order to break the curse. When Parker’s best friend dies (to return later as a ghost), Parker moves to Maggie’s Grove, and its small, magical community is actually quirky enough to accept him. There Parker also finds Amara, a redheaded, inexplicably unpopular dryad whose tree-like blood drives vegetarian Parker wild. Unfortunately, Parker’s witchy stalker is not so pleased with Parker’s newfound love, which leads to a final showdown involving the whole town and several thousand angry plants.
Lots and lots and lots of sex Uncomfortable with explicit sex in your novels? Drop this book and run. Now. Don’t even bother finishing this review.
But if you love your novels steamier than a sauna full of playboys, then this one is for you. Blood of the Maple is unexpectedly and deliciously erotic. It treads a fine, often wavering line between sexy and straight-up erotica. There’s oral, there’s vaginal, and there is certainly some backdoor lovin’ between our two hetero protagonists. There is even some secondary man-on-man love (or, more accurately, man-on-ghost)–but that’s just pennies compared to what Parker and Amara get up to. Like I said, if you love your fiction hot and heavy, Blood of the Maple delivers, and how! Just know what you’re getting into; this novel relies far more on sex than on plot or the fantastic to deliver its thrills.
Surprisingly hilarious Apart from the sex–which, really, you can get from any good fanfic–Blood of the Maple is fun because its characters are so darn hilarious. There are pop culture references and one-liners aplenty, and the zany banter between Parker and his ghostly best friend Greg had me laughing out loud more than once. The prologue, while perhaps necessary to understand the novel’s context, was a little too… earthy, shall we say, for my own taste. But toilet humor remains popular and you may find Parker’s situation perfectly hilarious.
And, of course, you just can’t get away from how altogether ridiculous the plot behind Blood of the Maple really is. An obsessive stalker witch who controls plant weeds? A vegetarian vampire turned on by a tree dryad? A ghost having sex with a psychic? It’s crazy, it’s completely over-the-top, and if you can take off your serious hat for a second, you’ll roll with the chaos and love it.
Characters need more development Although a fun read, Blood of the Maple still has its problems (though if you’re only reading it for the sex, you’ll be a-okay). For me, the main problem was that Parker and Amara hardly take the time to say “hello” before they fall head over heels in love and in bed. This is explained away by some new and convenient vampiric lore–auto-soulmates for vampires, essentially–but it makes for a bit of a shock to anyone expecting the main romantic relationship to face realistic conflicts and develop at a reasonable pace.
Furthermore, the secondary characters, while funny, feel like sketches rather than completed personalities. The cast is large for such a short book (short by fantasy standards, anyway), and seemingly every single character, no matter how minor, faces his or her own romantic dilemma. This leads to an overwhelming number of subplots which fail to resolve or even be significantly explored by the end of the book. Of course, these subplots are likely establishing directions for the series’ future–but in Blood of the Maple, the first book of the Maggie’s Grove series, there are just too many problems and not enough text to make the reader care about all of them.
Why should you read this book? Blood of the Maple offers great sex scenes and a lot of laughs. It’s a sexy contemporary fantasy that doesn’t aspire to great literature at all; instead, it’s light, fun, ridiculous, and easy to read. It may lack depth, but that’s not the point. So long as you know what you’re getting into ahead of time, you’ll have fun meeting the wacky citizens of Maggie’s Grove and their many romantic combinations....more
Hidden Cities is the final installment in Daniel Fox’s Moshui trilogy. The first book, Dragon in Chains, and the second, Jade Man’s Skin, have already been reviewed at The Ranting Dragon. Hidden Cities begins with the exiled boy-emperor’s first victory against the rebels, but this victory is slim indeed and only happens with the luck of the dragon. In the battle’s aftermath, concubine Mei Feng convinces the emperor to send the secretly treacherous general Ping Wen across the strait to the mainland to govern the coastal city of Santung. Ping Wen soon encounters Tien, a doctor’s niece, who, in between healing rebel and imperial soldiers alike, has discovered a library full of secret, mystical books that may help recapture the all-powerful dragon. Throughout the epic battles and intrigue, many more small yet significant lives are woven, like the two broken children destroyed by war, a jade miner torn between two loves, and a mother-cum-priestess who fails to save her daughters.
Beautiful and heartrending Once again, Fox’s prose astounds. Each book in Moshui improves upon its predecessor, and Hidden Cities is full of the rich, magical, transportive writing that makes this series so unique. I’ve raved about the writing in every review, but Fox’s style is worth it. Like I’ve said before, the book’s poetry may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I will say that Fox has definitely improved his game. The action scenes in Hidden Cities, unlike in Dragon in Chains, are always immediately exciting and breathtakingly described at the same time. Despite my understandable desire to find out what happens at the end of Moshui, I’m still glad I took the time to read this book slowly and savor the language. It’s fantastic in all senses of the word.
No punches pulled The characters of Moshui’s first two novels are lively and vivid, and Hidden Cities is no different. Major characters like Mei Feng, Han, Yu Shan, and Jiao achieve even greater depth and emotional resonance, while previously minor characters like Tien, Ma Lin, and Chung are happily given more prominence.
That said, don’t expect everyone to get a happy ending. Every character in Moshui goes through hell and none of them emerge unscathed. In some places the emotional pain is so potent that the novel becomes hard to read – which is, really, the mark of a truly excellent book. Two moments even made me cry. You may not end up in tears – Fox’s gorgeous writing never makes you forget that what you’re reading is purely fictional – but nevertheless, Fox is unafraid to take his plot to its natural conclusion, and for many characters that’s not a happy place at all.
But for the reader? It’s immensely satisfying.
Missed potential … or is it? This is a nearly perfect book, and yet I can’t give it five stars since, as an epic fantasy, Moshui fails to reach its potential. The culture and religion remain vague, while the large cast, crammed into just three books, isn’t quite done justice; some emotional scenes and dark decisions feel too short, too unexplored. Also, the ending of Hidden Cities leaves a lot of important questions unanswered. I finished the book uneasily balanced between feeling a wistful desire for more in the knowledge that all good things come to an end, and also feeling downright upset that the author didn’t finish what he started.
And yet … I can’t help but hope that this feeling of incompletion is intentional. There are enough loose ends straggling at the end of Hidden Cities that, perhaps, Daniel Fox has another series set in this world hidden up his sleeve. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to return to the world of Moshui. (And if it’s not the case, I’m very disappointed.)
Why should you read this book? With Hidden Cities, Moshui: The Books of Stone and Water trilogy improves in every category that made Dragon in Chains so worth reading in 2009. This trilogy isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly one of the most excellent fantasy series in recent years. Fox’s beautiful style makes this series utterly unique, and the many sophisticated characters are unforgettable. This is a book to savor slowly at night before bed....more
The Choir Boats starts off Daniel A. Rabuzzi’s Longing for Yount, a new pre-steampunk fantasy series for young adults. Set in London, 1812, this novel follows the adventures of merchant Barnabas McDoon, his nephew Tom and niece Sally, and, far, far away, a mathematical genius named Maggie who recently escaped from slavery. The adventure begins when Barnabas receives in the post a key, a book, and an invitation to “find his heart’s desire” – which he immediately leaps upon but has hardly begun before enemies and intrigue crawl out of the woodwork.
An engrossing and fun-filled fantasy world Daniel Rabuzzi’s London is everything you’ve ever dreamed of. In this world Sam and Frodo are historic facts, two great men who did that thing with the ring, and mentions of characters from Austen and the Horatio Hornblower series, among many others, drift in and out of the text with a warmth and familiarity that will make you smile. Rabuzzi’s historical knowledge is impressive and he weaves accurate information about the time period with completely believable information about Yount, a strange, endangered land that somehow lies parallel to the world of Barnabas McDoon.
Rabuzzi supports this charming world with a rich vocabulary of marvelously invented words, from terms like “fulgination” and “eudiometry” to character names like “the Cretched Man” and “Salmius Nalmius.” But never fear: even the foggiest word becomes clear in Rabuzzi’s witty prose, and his inventions just beg to be read aloud and chewed over. The book has a fantastic presentation, too, and Deborah Mills’ illustrations match the text’s mood wonderfully.
Classic and enjoyable writing In the same vein (and era, for that matter) as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Rabuzzi’s writing seems less of a modern creation and more as if it’s been pulled directly from 1812. His language is completely immersive, but at the same time he maintains a sort of buoyant good humor that makes clear why The Choir Boats is considered young adult fiction.
Occasionally the prose gets bogged in detail. Rabuzzi obviously revels in the world he’s created, but at times he revels a little too much. The details can be overwhelming. That said, I always found the setting and the characters interesting enough to make even these slower sections feel engaging, and despite the occasional overload of detail I was never tempted to put the book down; in fact, I could hardly put it down at all! For slower readers, though, or for those seeking a fast book to skim, Rabuzzi’s extravagant prose may prove daunting.
Believable characters with a spark of superhuman interest Barnabas McDoon, the Cretched Man, Sally, Tom, and Maggie – don’t get me wrong, all of Rabuzzi’s characters are fully-realized and compelling. But they’re also all larger than life. The Choir Boats and its denizens never let you forget that the book is a work of fiction, a marvelous story, and the characters don’t feel like someone you know but rather someone you wish to know but are a little frightened of, too. It’s a refreshing change from today’s focus on hyper-realistic characters, and is also a distinctly YA move, though Rabuzzi never descends into farce or exaggeration.
Rabuzzi does an excellent job, too, of depicting the actual young adult characters. Tom and Sally have a perfectly believable sibling rivalry without coming across as contrived or binary. Sally in particular is a plausible young woman with all the insecurities and brilliance that comes with being eighteen, although Tom also comes into his own later in the book. Maggie remains an enigma throughout; facing her own problems and removed from the rest of the goings-on, Maggie is clearly important but by the end of The Choir Boats it’s still difficult to decide exactly how she fits into the rest of the story. That, I’m sure, will be revealed in A Tax From Heaven, the second book in the series.
Why should you read this book? In my opinion, The Choir Boats is the most underrated young adult title of 2009, although it’s by no means limited to young readers. It’s a gorgeous and light-hearted story, chock-full of clever words, characters, surprises, and one truly spectacular twist at the end. If you’re seeking an engrossing and entirely unique world to sweep you off your feet, look no further. It’s not particularly fast-paced but it’s wonderful all the same: the perfect book to curl up with in the evening and read all night long....more
The Ale Boy’s Feast is the final installment in Jeffrey Overstreet’s Christian-inspired fantasy quartet, The Auralia Thread (read the first three books’ reviews: Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, and Raven’s Ladder). House Abascar remains in shambles and Cal-raven must fight his way through a crisis of faith to rescue his people from the worst threat yet. The mystery behind Essence and the Deathweed is finally revealed, and all of the major characters from the previous three books–the ale boy, Auralia, Cyndere, Ryllion, Jordam, and Emmeliene, among others–make appearances, confront their mistakes and seek redemption.
The search for salvation The Ale Boy’s Feast is darker than the first three in the series. Increasingly complex characters make mistakes or reveal themselves to be misguided all along, and Overstreet does not hesitate to kill or de-glorify characters we’ve grown to love. It’s a violent book, although less so than most mainstream fantasy, and the emotional pain experienced by every character is even worse than the physical.
And yet the reason the novel gets dark is so that its characters can finally find peace and redemption, even if it only comes after death. None of the characters, even most of the villains, leave the novel unchanged, and, through Cal-raven and his kingdom, Overstreet expertly explores the struggle between dispensing justice and learning to forgive. Despite its darkness, The Ale Boy’s Feast ultimately ends The Auralia Thread on an uplifting, hopeful note, yet it’s still populated by mostly realistic characters.
A surprising ending to the series But the ending is unexpected. A certain stalwart character is revealed to be delusional. Other characters abandon their motivations from the past three books, and move on to new journeys. Opinions change and beliefs are shattered. It’s certainly not at all what I was expecting.
As fiction, I consider the ending unsatisfying. None of the characters end up where I thought they would. Underdeveloped love triangles are resolved implausibly. And the main characters’ worldview, painstakingly established in the first three books, doesn’t play the role you’d expect in this last novel. As symbolism, though, the ending should be commended for exploding and complicating the too-easy answers given earlier in the series. The Ale Boy’s Feast forces you to think about the relationship between faith and art. The process may be uncomfortable, but I assure you it’s worthwhile.
Beyond Christian fantasy With this complicated ending, The Auralia Thread quartet expands beyond simple Christian allegory. This isn’t Biblical and the Expanse isn’t real, so its mechanics don’t correspond exactly to real-life Christian beliefs. A woman becomes pregnant before marriage, and that’s all right. Many people express skepticism, and that’s also all right. Good people die. A few good people go (physically) unrewarded. Although the quartet is obviously inspired by the Christian mythos and, more generally, by the importance of religious belief as a spiritual and moral guide, The Auralia Thread doesn’t adhere slavishly to those concepts. Instead, it asks questions of them. It’s not an easy confirmation of someone’s faith; it’s a constructive exploration.
Of course, some aspects of this series are still simplistic. The true villains – the Seers and Deathweed – remain underdeveloped to the end. It’s never clear why they want to murder humans and take down House Abascar and the others, other than their own pure malevolence. I think it’s telling that, of the normal and human inhabitants of the Expanse, none of them are purely evil. It’s all a misunderstanding. If those bad characters could only learn the truth and understand the world’s reality, they would no longer do evil things. Of course, if you’re a Seer or Deathweed, then you’ve no hope of redemption at all. There is no overlap.
Why should you read this book? Although The Ale Boy’s Feast doesn’t redeem the series’ flaws, it is worth picking up for its thoughtful complexities and positive message. The Auralia Thread is not at all typical epic fantasy, but if you enjoy an emphasis on thematic symbolism in your fiction, with a Christian and generally religious touch, you may fall in love with these books....more
Raven’s Ladder is Jeffrey Overstreet’s third installment in The Auralia Thread, a Christian fantasy series that started with Auralia’s Colors and continued with Cyndere’s Midnight. Raven’s Ladder brings us back to familiar characters like King Cal-raven and his fabled mother, Jaralaine, while featuring a supporting cast of characters introduced in Cyndere’s Midnight, including Cyndere, Jordam, Ryllion, and Emerienne. In Raven’s Ladder, House Abascar is still in shambles and as Cal-raven struggles to find a new home for the survivors, he must also face the Bel Amican Seers’ evil scheming, a vicious new underground enemy, and his own wobbling faith in the Keeper.
The best book in the series so far Raven’s Ladder is a vast improvement over Cyndere’s Midnight and even surpasses Auralia’s Colors. Overstreet has really come into his own: his writing is confident and the characters are completely believable. Cal-raven has always been my favourite character, and it was a real pleasure to read about his all-too-human flaws: arrogance, lack of faith, and impulsiveness, among others. In the previous two novels, the characters were fairly black-and-white compared to most of today’s epic fantasies; in Raven’s Ladder, however, the characters become much more complex and find themselves struggling not only against distinct enemies, but also against their own flawed natures.
In many ways, the chapters can be read as character studies; sometimes the most action happens in the characters’ own heads, rather than at the end of a sword. Compared to the wooden characterizations in Cyndere’s Midnight and even Auralia’s Colors, the characters of Raven’s Ladder are entirely and wonderfully human.
Grittier and deadlier Although each book in The Auralia Thread has featured some violence, in the first two books the violence felt somewhat removed and unreal; it always happened to unimportant secondary characters and was always perpetrated by the bad guys. In Raven’s Ladder, the violence is real and bloody and grim, and in one of the most poignant scenes of the novel, it’s committed by someone whom we all know as one of the good guys (although, to be fair, Overstreet still shirks giving this character full responsibility of the consequences of his or her actions). An important character dies and another character faces despair because of it. Raven’s Ladder feels more mature and intelligent than its predecessors, and Overstreet’s world now feels less like an abstract fairy-tale and more like something recognizably inspired by real life, as fantastic as the window dressings are.
The violence is such that I’d no longer recommend this series for young people. Despite the moralistic undertones, this is a story for adults, not children.
More heavy-handed religion Depending on your tastes, this may or may not be a bad thing, but the fact is that Raven’s Ladder once again ratchets up the religious factor in The Auralia Thread. There are very obvious parallels to Christian beliefs, and these parallels are about as subtle as the ones in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (which is to say, not very subtle). Overstreet rarely descends into preaching, but the blatant Christian allegory that lies under the fantasy plot will definitely irk those less religiously-inclined.
One flaw that does exist, regardless of your religious beliefs, is that Cal-raven’s crisis of faith isn’t very believable. Although otherwise an excellent character, Cal-raven’s spiritual doubt lacks conviction, and the pages where Cal-raven weighs non-believer arguments against his faith are purely excruciating. Cal-raven’s spiritual doubt feels like a convenient way for Overstreet to write a little more about his Christian message, instead of like a genuine character development.
Why should you read this book? If you’ve enjoyed The Auralia Thread so far, you’re bound to be impressed and blown away by Raven’s Ladder. It exceeds its predecessors in every way. However, the religious message only gets stronger as the series continues, and if you are at all wary of mixing your fiction with religion, you are better off spending your time elsewhere....more
Akata Witch is a young adult standalone novel by the award-winning Nnedi Okorafor. Our protagonist is twelve-year-old Sunny, who grew up in America but lives in Nigeria. Though she has West African features, Sunny is also albino, so she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. But then Sunny meets Chichi and Orlu, and Sunny learns that there’s a whole magical community known as the Leopard People hidden in her town. Sunny – a “free agent,” a person born with magical power despite no magical parents – is invited to join this community. Soon Sunny is making friends and taking classes in magic, and things start looking up – until a magical serial killer known only as Black Hat begins murdering children in nearby towns. Then it’s up to Sunny and her friends to figure out a way to stop him.
A new world that feels familiar and intimate Fantasy is infamous for being primarily inspired by Western European cultures and primarily populated by white people, which is a real shame since fantasy lovers live all over the world and come in all skin tones. Akata Witch is a phenomenal departure from tired old tradition, and Okorafor works some serious authorial magic in making an unconventional fantasy location – Nigeria – feel as familiar and homey as any whitewashed, vaguely European setting.
Part of this familiarity comes from Okorafor’s excellent choice to include excerpts from an imaginary book called Fast Facts for Free Agents at the beginning of each chapter. Not only has this imaginary book got some serious attitude, but it allows the reader to learn right alongside Sunny about the Leopard People and their headquarters, Leopard Knocks, without resorting to info dumps.
Comparing Akata Witch to the Harry Potter books is inevitable; there’s the same misfit protagonist, hidden magical community, magic school, and theme of growing up. I think this is a cheap comparison, though; Akata Witch has an entirely different tone and is, in some ways, a more mature book when it comes to romance, parents, and conflict between friends. However, I will say that, like in J. K. Rowling’s novels, the world in Akata Witch is utterly immersive and imaginative. You’ll want to live right there in Leopard Knocks with Sunny by the time you’ve finished this novel.
The characters’ friendships make this book really special The world-building in Akata Witch already makes this book special, but what really sends it over the top are the real, believable, and wonderful relationships between Sunny and the three other magical students: Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha. Within pages of first being introduced to the characters, I felt like they were lifelong, real world friends of mine. They’ve each got distinct personalities and are as complicated as real people; they never feel like caricatures (which, to return to the Harry Potter comparison, is an improvement over some Hogwarts residents!).
The growing friendships – and, perhaps, romances – between this magical quartet make Akata Witch more than just a fantasy adventure. It’s also about growing up, learning how to trust other people, and finding your place in your community. This is young-adult fiction at its finest.
The Black Hat plot is slow Leopard People face many magical dangers, but for Sunny and her friends, their most fearsome enemy is Black Hat: the magical serial killer who once trained, like them, at Leopard Knocks. Sunny, Chichi, Orlu, and Sasha must band together to form an Oha Coven: a magical combination of two girls and two boys, along with a few other special elements, in order to defeat evil.
Unfortunately, the final battle against Black Hat feels too easy and anti-climactic. Black Hat is so mysterious for most of the novel that he feels underdeveloped. Fortunately, there are many more excellent secondary story lines, and of course the real story in Akata Witch is Sunny finding her place in her family and in Leopard Knocks. It’s easy to overlook Black Hat’s failure to thrill.
Why should you read this book? Akata Witch is everything you could ask for in a young-adult novel: sensitive, immersive, exciting, and unique. Sunny is a strong and captivating female protagonist, and her friends are equally powerful secondary characters. Problems with the storyline about Black Hat are overshadowed by Okorafor’s wonderfully rhythmic style, the many secondary plots, and the all-around fabulous world-building. Best of all, Akata Witch ends with the potential for a series. I really, really hope Okorafor revisits Sunny and Leopard Knocks soon!...more
Cyndere’s Midnight is the second book in Jeffrey Overstreet’s series, The Auralia Thread. In the first book, Auralia’s Colors, we were introduced to the magical Auralia, the conflicted Prince Cal-Raven, and the nameless, unassuming ale boy. Now Cyndere’s Midnight takes us away from House Abascar all the way to House Bel Amica, where heiress Cyndere loses the men she loves and must choose between giving up on life or following the seemingly hopeless dream she once shared with her husband: taming the beastmen who killed him.
New faces and stories Cyndere’s Midnight is populated by characters barely mentioned in Auralia’s Colors. The main characters — Cyndere, Emeriene the Sisterly, Ryllion the guard, Mordafey and Jordam the beastmen — are entirely new. A few familiar faces make reappearances, like Cal-Raven and the ale boy, but the real, emotional storyline wholeheartedly belongs to Cyndere and Jordam. Cal-Raven and the ale boy are only used to drive the plot forward.
I have mixed feelings about these new characters. Cyndere and Jordam are certainly more believable and relatable than Auralia, and their relationship is fascinating and complex – all positive changes from the first book. At the same time, however, the enormous jump from Auralia’s Colors to Cyndere’s Midnight was unexpected and unsettling. Some of the conflicts in Auralia’s Colors are left unresolved at the end, but these conflicts are still only briefly addressed in Cyndere’s Midnight. I missed the first book’s focus on the ale boy and Cal-Raven, even as I was happy that Auralia had taken a backseat.
Villains: good or bad? Most of the villains in Cyndere’s Midnight are beastmen. Addicted to a dangerous substance called Essence and bloodthirsty to the point of complete stupidity, these beastmen are unable to string a full sentence together and seem to spend most of their time on slobbering and infighting. With the exception of Jordam, the beastmen are shallow characters and, due to their low, animal intelligence, they don’t make very satisfying villains. For one thing, they are just so plain dense that, if it weren’t for their size and numbers, they’d pose no threat at all. For another, the beastmen’s evilness either stems entirely from the influence of Essence, or from the mere fact that they’re beastmen, who are generally understood to be evil. These facts prevent Overstreet from exploring the darkness of human nature and choices, since Overstreet can instead handily point to other causes that explain his beastmen’s flaws.
There are also some villainous humans, whose names I’ll keep secret since they would spoil the story. One of these human villains is believable and fleshed out fairly well, but the other – the really evil one – is completely unexamined. We have no idea what his motives are or how he came to be the way he is. My hope is that this villain will become clearer in the next two books of the series, and that Cyndere’s Midnight is just meant to be a mysterious introduction of the man.
The writing takes a while to get going Jeffrey Overstreet’s writing is, like last time, enjoyable and poetic. Unfortunately, however, I found his penchant for metaphors overwhelming at the beginning, and even though I was immediately drawn to Cyndere, it was still difficult to feel her emotions through the heavy veil of symbolic language. And even though it’s no secret that her father, brother, and husband are all taken from her by the beastmen – that’s all mentioned in the book’s blurb – Cyndere’s Midnight still insists on describing each death for several pages. The book would have been much improved had Overstreet started Cyndere’s story after all of the men’s deaths and instead jumped right into the action.
On only a tangentially related note, the Christian symbolism is more obvious in Cyndere’s Midnight than in Auralia’s Colors. The Christian element still isn’t overbearing and rarely bothered me while reading, but for those of you allergic to religion, you may want to keep this in mind when deciding whether to start the series.
Why should you read this book? If you enjoyed Auralia’s Colors, you will likely enjoy Cyndere’s Midnight – but just a little less. The characters, while generally more appealing than those from Auralia’s Colors, are still entirely new and may prove a bit of a shock to anyone expecting more about Auralia, the ale boy, or Cal-raven. However, despite the new characters, and despite the shoddy villains so far, Overstreet’s vision for the series is still obviously guiding the plot’s progress. By the end, you’ll start to see promising threads from Auralia’s Colors weave into Cyndere’s Midnight, and I am still eager to see what new surprises Overstreet will reveal in book three, Raven’s Ladder....more
A Discovery of Witches is Deborah Harkness’s first book in the All Souls Trilogy, an urban fantasy starring vampires, witches, daemons, and even the odd Oxford professor or two. Diana Bishop was born a witch, but ever since her parents’ mysterious deaths when she was seven years old, Diana has steadfastly denied her magical heritage and now makes her way through life on entirely human terms. But everything changes when she accidentally calls up a magical book in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library – a book that no one has seen for hundreds of years – and Diana finds herself up against dangerous, mythical creatures determined to unearth Diana’s deeply hidden magic powers.
Did I say urban fantasy? Because this book is actually a helluva lot like romance. In fact, A Discovery of Witches is a thinly-disguised riff on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, with perhaps a smidgeon more sophistication. The gorgeous, overprotective vampire and the hapless heroine will evoke a certain amount of déjà vu in any reader familiar with good old Edward and Bella, and Harkness’s lovebirds also focus on the same romantic angst: ‘Does he really love me?’
If you go into the novel expecting a romance, you won’t be disappointed – in fact, you’ll likely be pleased by the sexual tension (and beautiful bodies) that underscores every plot point. But if you’re looking for more traditional fantasy fare, this isn’t it, and Harkness’s prose has none of the elegance that might allow it to transcend its genre. Although there is definitely more meat on this plot’s bones than just the agony of young love, there is still a fair amount of sighing and nuzzling that will likely turn off readers not expecting it. I suspect the book could have been improved with a bit of judicial cutting in that area, but for the most part – with one notably dull exception in a moody French castle – the plot zips happily along and there is plenty of suspense and adventure to occasionally distract our hero and heroine from, well, each other.
Fun and quirky If, like me, you’re bored at the book’s unoriginality in the beginning, you’ll find the story really starts zipping about halfway through the book, when it adopts the historical mystery feel of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Harkness’s inventiveness also shines in her quirky secondary characters, which are not only witchy and vampiric but, in some exceptional cases, feline and architectural (try to figure that one out!). Although A Discovery of Witches obviously owes much to Twilight, this new novel is much more playful and adventurous. I appreciated the frequent references to historical texts, and it was especially fun reading about the relationships between famous people in history and our vampiric lover – vampires live a long time, after all.
Harkness’s take on vampires, witches, and daemons is also pretty interesting, although it’s clear she’ll have some fleshing out to do before the end of the trilogy. The protagonists’ battle against xenophobia and forbidden love holds obvious parallels with today’s battle for same-sex relationship rights, and although at first I was a little sceptical of how aggressively other characters reacted to this love, I had only to remember real-life historical (and modern) equivalents to realize that, yes, in fact, people often get violent over other people’s choices of romantic partner.
Diana Bishop is a little nonsensical A Discovery of Witches’ big flaw is Diana Bishop herself, the main character. Although she begins plausibly as a sporty, workaholic intellectual, Diana devolves with frightening speed into another Bella-like goofball, giving up all agency and, seemingly, brains to her new boyfriend. She shows some half-hearted spunk in a couple of key places, but mainly she lets her hunky vampire do all the work and the thinking. For a woman who used to be an accomplished professor and athlete, her independence evaporates pretty darn quickly. I suppose this can be excused as romantic escapism – this isn’t a feminist treatise here – but not only is her complacency annoying, it also seems out of character considering her personality before she meets you-know-who.
My other problem with the heroine is difficult to explain without resorting to spoilers, which I’ve sworn upon my mother’s health never to reveal in a review. Suffice it to say that, for a history professor, she demonstrates a remarkable lack of concern in the face of some disturbing historical information regarding someone she cares deeply about – a lack of concern that, to me, either reveals Diana is seriously cold-hearted or that she doesn’t know as much about history as she thinks. I have hope – albeit a weak hope – that the second book will resolve some of my issues with Diana’s character, although this particular, spoiler-ridden problem will likely never be fixed to my liking.
Why should you read this book? If you liked Twilight, I can almost guarantee that you’ll like A Discovery of Witches. If you more generally enjoy urban fantasy with a bucket of romance, you’ll also probably like A Discovery of Witches – although Diana’s general incompetence may inspire an occasional wave of fury. (Well, it did for me, anyway.) However, if you’re allergic to heavy doses of romance, you had best stay far, far away from this one; for all its historical tidbits and magical happenings, A Discovery of Witches is a romance through and through....more
The Goddess Test is the first novel in Aimée Carter’s new series for young adults, Goddess Test. Kate’s mom is terminally ill and wants to move back to her childhood home for the last few months of her life. For Kate, this means moving to a new high school – but unlike most, she’s not interested in making new friends or dating. Kate just wants to spend as much time with her mom as possible. With the sudden and miraculous appearance of Henry – tall, dark, and handsome – Kate realizes that she may be able to have more time with her mom than she expected. But it comes with a cost: Kate must undergo seven tests, administered by the Olympian gods, to determine whether Kate can become an appropriate Queen of the Underworld to replace the long-lost Persephone. And the King of the Underworld? That’s Henry. Or as the Olympians call him, Hades.
Breezy and short I finished The Goddess Test in a couple hours. This isn’t only due to the novel’s brevity; Carter’s writing is swift, clear, and all too easy to get lost in. Kate narrates the story in first person, and she is a no-nonsense gal. Pages whip by before you’ve even realized you’re at the halfway point. This novel isn’t one to sink your teeth into, but it is a light and fun story that will keep you planted in your seat until you’re done.
But darkness hides behind the breezy style, too. Carter wisely chooses not to dwell on this darkness, but Kate is obviously a troubled girl and, particularly at the beginning, you can tell she is really suffering. The novel is refreshingly as much about Kate’s relationship to her dying mother as it is about Kate’s budding romance with the dashing Henry. Kate’s thoughts on dying and loss are poignant without being saccharine, and her relationship with her mom is the most natural and touching relationship in the book.
Greek mythology takes a backseat I was really excited to encounter Greek mythology in The Goddess Test, but unfortunately it takes a backseat to the novel’s plot and character requirements. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the book’s still good, mythological accuracy be damned – but it is important to lay out what you can expect from this series. Henry is nothing like the traditional Hades; our Henry is kind, sweet, tortured, and (duh) gorgeous. Henry just wants somebody to love. He’s not exactly fearsome.
The other gods are the same way. There’s very little connection between the gods as they appear in The Goddess Test and as they’re depicted in real Greek mythology. Carter’s gods are manageable, timid, and unnoticeable to the human eye. In fact, there’s not much difference at all between eighteen-year-old Kate Winters and the ageless, immortal Henry. Again, this isn’t a problem with the novel (nobody’s ever actually met a god to verify their personality type), but if you come into The Goddess Test expecting a young-adult, lovey version of N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, or even Marie Phillips’ Gods Behaving Badly, you’re in for a shock. The Goddess Test isn’t about gods. It’s about romance.
The romance builds a little too quickly Kate and Henry meet. They make a deal. They talk a bit. And suddenly Kate finds herself wanting desperately to save Henry’s life, bring him back from the abyss of loneliness, and make herself into his lovely and eternal (literally – gods don’t die) wife. All this at the age of eighteen years old.
Actually, all of those things could be plausible. A writer could make me believe in them. But my main problem with The Goddess Test is that there just isn’t enough build-up to make the couple’s devotion to each other believable. What is it about Henry that makes Kate fall for him so fast? Why is she so certain she’s not making a mistake? I’m sure that as the series progresses, this romance will deepen and feel a little less like puppy love on steroids – but in this first novel, it just didn’t make sense to me. Although all the characters are individually interesting, most of the connections between the characters felt underdeveloped.
Why should you read this book? It’s fun, it’s fast, and there’s just enough depth in Kate’s relationship to her mom to anchor the novel in reality, too. It’s a light, easy read, and if you’re sick of vampire romances, why not try godly ones instead?...more
Daniel Fox’s Jade Man’s Skin is the second book in the Moshui trilogy inspired by the culture and legends of feudal China, and continues the events set in motion in Dragon in Chains. Han’s dragon is now dangerously free and rules both the strait and the sky, but she finds a greater enemy than Han in an ancient sea goddess who claims possession of the waters and is ready to defend them. On land, the exiled boy-emperor finds courage – or is it foolishness? – in his magical jade, and he decides to fight back against Tunghai Wang and the rebels no matter what his beloved concubine or bodyguard might say. And now, caught between the struggles of goddess, dragon, and emperor, civilians like Tien, Ma Lin, and Chung fight for their loved ones’ survival any way they can, and find themselves embroiled in far more than just their own concerns.
A fantastic middle book Like its predecessor, Jade Man’s Skin is gorgeously written and a true pleasure to read. Unlike in Dragon in Chains, however, Daniel Fox has found a better balance between luxuriant prose and tense action. Despite a slow start, after the first fifty pages or so Jade Man’s Skin is often supremely exciting, and even during its contemplative moments, the writing is still more fleet-footed and less self-conscious than Dragon in Chains. This is a marked improvement and leads me to hope that the third book, Hidden Cities, will be even more exhilarating.
Another plus is that Jade Man’s Skin is, while certainly a building block for the series, still remarkably cohesive on its own. Of course it would be impossible to read this book as a standalone, but the ending is satisfying and Fox pulls together enough threads in the climax that I finished this book with a contented sigh rather than any anxious scrabbling for the final book. I’ll definitely pick up Hidden Cities to find out what happens, but Jade Man’s Skin is a fantastic read in its own right, as well.
Characters are more strongly developed In my review of Dragon in Chains, I remarked that Han and Mei Feng’s naïveté occasionally exceeded believability, particularly regarding their relationships with other characters. In Jade Man’s Skin these problems are, while not resolved, at least far enough in the distant past to be less cause for concern – Han has been free of slavery for some time now; Mei Feng is very settled into her role as concubine. At this point in the story I am fully convinced of Mei Feng’s complicated attachment to the emperor, regardless of how implausibly that attachment may have developed. In Han’s case, he has changed so much as a person since his introduction as a character that his growing maturity and relationship with Tien feel completely natural.
Several minor characters from Dragon in Chains play a more important role in Jade Man’s Skin. Tien is a breath of fresh air as a young, intelligent woman who relies on her knowledge to gain power, unlike Mei Feng who relies on the emperor for influence (although Mei Feng is still a dynamic and influential character in her own right). Chung, Mei Feng’s messenger, is a lovable and highly relatable man just trying to do right by the one he loves, a tough soldier named Shen. On the other hand, Ma Lin still only makes a small appearance in this book, which is a real shame since she’s one of the most sophisticated and intelligent characters in the series, and Imperial General Ping Wen also isn’t used to greatest effect – however, I hold out hope for these two in the third book in the trilogy.
The dragon and the goddess The battle for power between the dragon and the Li-goddess is the most fascinating and underplayed storyline in the book. Both characters – perhaps ‘forces’ is a better word – are so inhuman, so otherworldly, that it’s a real delight to read Daniel Fox’s human characters’ interpretations of the dragon and goddess’s motivations. The relationship between humans and the divine, or between humans and the natural world, is an age-old but relevant theme that I truly hope Fox exploits further in Hidden Cities. In Jade Man’s Skin, the actual mechanics of religion and dragon imprisonment remain frustratingly elusive, but if Fox makes good on his promise, Hidden Cities should be wonderful.
Why should you read this book? If you enjoyed Dragon in Chains all, you have to pick up Jade Man’s Skin. It improves upon nearly all of the first book’s flaws and continues to build and improve upon the promise of this epic fantasy. Although once again this is not a perfect novel, its positive features far outweigh the negative if you appreciate delicious writing and slow, deep character development....more
Inspired by the culture and myths of feudal China, Dragon in Chains is the first book in Daniel Fox’s Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water trilogy. Four main characters’ stories are bolstered by a large supporting cast, and the action ranges from a slave boy’s efforts to subdue the chained dragon beneath the sea, to a jade miner caught up in banditry and addiction, to a young fishergirl’s sudden plunge into imperial politics when the young emperor-in-exile chooses her for a concubine. These disparate storylines, all equally important, slowly and inevitably lock together in preparation for the next book in the trilogy.
Lush, mouth-watering prose Daniel Fox’s writing is luxuriant and sensuous. He takes time with his phrasing, and some passages are even more gorgeous read aloud than on the page. He is obviously enamoured by the historical period that inspired the series and relishes the descriptions of his world. On some rare occasions, the poetry of Fox’s writing veers into awkwardness, but for the most part the text is completely immersive.
The downside of such beautiful writing is that it occasionally overshadows the action scenes, which need faster-paced prose to convey their urgency. Some potentially exciting events wallow instead, as Fox sacrifices immediacy for a pretty turn of phrase. Other reviewers have bemoaned the lack of action in Dragon in Chains, but I think there is actually an enormous amount of action in the book—it’s just buried beneath paragraphs of poetry.
Engaging characters, but occasionally unbelievable Most of the characters in Dragon in Chains are complicated and wonderful, and I found myself emotionally attached to them very quickly. Most of the main characters—Han the slave, Mei Fung the fishergirl, and Yu Shan the jade miner—tend towards youthful naïveté, just like in most fantasy epics, but the cast is refreshed by Mei Fung’s old grandfather and fearless Jiao the bandit. The emperor isn’t anyone we haven’t seen before: young, controlled by his powerful mother, and exiled by rebellious forces. This is fairly typical stuff. But the imprisoned, otherworldly dragon is promising and the pirate captain, Li Ton, is deliciously, understandably villainous. (But he’s not a villain, mind you. It’s more complicated than that.)
The naïveté of Han and Mei Fung, however, occasionally exceeds plausibility. Han accepts his changes in ownership with hardly a shrug, his loyalties shifting easily from owner to owner, and Fox spends too little time on the relationships between Han and his various owners to account for these flexible loyalties. Mei Fung is even worse. Although in every other way an excellent character, she shows nearly complete disregard for her old fishing life once the emperor takes her for a concubine. How does she so readily adapt to imperial life? Doesn’t she miss her family and friends of old? And why does she so quickly feel affection for a man who bought her? The absent answers to these questions bothered me for the entire book.
The power of jade Jade’s importance in Dragon in Chains is fascinating. Forbidden to any but the emperor, jade isn’t just a beautiful stone but also imparts superhuman strength, endurance, speed, and health to any who spend much time in contact with the stone. I don’t want to reveal too much of the story, but jade’s powers open up a lot of possibilities for future plot lines—possibilities that are not exploited in Dragon in Chains, but hopefully in The Jade Man’s Skin and Hidden Cities.
The other magic system, rune writing, plays an important but understated role. It’s unclear so far whether it only affects the dragon or whether it has further magical uses in the empire. Religion and magic are also, as yet, fairly undeveloped in the book, but there are definitely hints of more to come later in the series.
Why should you read this book? This is a classic epic fantasy set in a more original world than the typical fantastic version of medieval Europe. The writing is glorious, the plot is gripping, and the characters are—for the most part—engaging and believable. Any flaws in Dragon in Chains have ample opportunity to be resolved or explained in the next two books in the trilogy. You’ll likely enjoy it if you enjoyed Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet or anything by Guy Gavriel Kay....more
Enchanted Glass is Diana Wynne Jones’s last published book before her death on March 26, 2011. The novel is a charming young adult standalone in Wynne Jones’s trademark style, beloved by many and unique in British children’s literature. Professor Andrew Hope—he isn’t really a professor; he just happens to work at a university—inherits the old Melstone House and its ornery retinue after the death of Andrew’s grandfather, Jocelyn. Of course, Jocelyn was more than just an old country esquire; he was also the local wizard, and Andrew inherits Jocelyn’s magical field-of-care along with the house. Then Aidan, a clever orphan, shows up on Andrew’s doorstep, and the pair quickly come to realize that there’s more to this whole “field-of-care” thing than meets the eye.
Hilariously quirky characters This will come to no surprise to long-time readers of Diana Wynne Jones: the characters in Enchanted Glass are delightful. There is Mrs. Stock, the commandeering housekeeper who enforces her opinion on proper living room furniture arrangement by cooking up a dreadful cauliflower cheese each lunchtime. There is also Mr. Stock (no relation to Mrs. Stock—it’s just that kind of town), the grouchy, prize-winning gardener who announces his displeasure by dumping an enormous box of inedible vegetables on the kitchen table each morning. There is also Groil, the gentle giant who eats those vegetables after Andrew hides them on top of the woodshed. My own personal favorite is Stashe, Andrew’s bossy sparkplug of a secretary who prowls the house looking for papers to organize and problems to solve, but becomes a problem of her own when Andrew begins to notice just how attractive she is.
The other characters are no exception, and you’ll have fun meeting each in turn. Andrew’s trials with household management are full of gentle, sparkling humor, which more than offsets this next point:
Not all that much happens For all the quirky characters and magical mishaps, Enchanted Glass is surprisingly thin on plot. Although Jones obviously and happily did not intend to write a thriller here, the novel is still more a series of discoveries rather than a series of conflicts. The climax, while hilariously slapstick, is barely brought about by Andrew or Aidan. The villains—drawn from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and from older, deeper English mythology—are funnier than they are scary. And for a long while at the beginning, not too much happens other than Andrew and Mrs. Stock waging war over the position of the piano in the living room.
Joyful, breezy writing Luckily, Jones makes this work. Like I said, the humour is gentle, but occasionally Jones surprises with a wickedly funny joke or adult problem—not enough to be inappropriate for young readers, of course, but adding enough sophistication to make Enchanted Glass a fun read even for an adult. The prose brings the word “rollicking” to mind, and the dialogue is perfect. This is an easy, happy read, and it’s easy to see why it’s great for young readers, but a welcome and refreshing break for older readers, too.
Why should you read this book? Enchanted Glass is a shining example of why Diana Wynne Jones is a household name for children’s literature. Fun, buoyant, and full of good humor, the story is bound to put anyone in a happy mood, and the witty prose is sharp enough for the most discerning reader. Save this one for a sunny day, find a tree to read under, and don’t forget to bring a sandwich....more
A Matter of Blood is the first installment in Sarah Pinborough’s Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, a heart-pounding mix of horror and crime fiction, with a dash of good old speculative fiction thrown in. Cass Jones is a bitter Detective Investigator for the London police force, where every officer quietly takes kickbacks from the local mobsters as a matter of course. Cass’s marriage is falling apart, he’s haunted by a nasty history, and he’s got a bit of a drug habit—and right now he’s also desperately overworked by two violent case loads that aren’t adding up. The only thing that is adding up is the vast amounts of money held by The Bank, a seemingly omniscient corporation founded a few years ago by faceless billionaires in order to rescue the global economy from a recession. And now, for some reason, The Bank is interested in Cass.
Cass Jones, the Detective Inspector Cass Jones is perfect. Not in the sense of a perfect man—no, he’s nowhere near perfect as a man—but he is definitely a perfect character. His flaws range from adultery to unkindness to murder, and while normally that would make for a grim protagonist to follow, Pinborough manages to transform Cass from a ruthless pig to a guilt-ridden, flawed, and sympathetic human. Cass has made some bad choices in his past and he makes some bad choices in A Matter of Blood, but the choices are always understandable. Sometimes his memories are painful to read, but that’s only because Cass’s own pain feels real.
The secondary characters are excellent, as well. Dr. Hask, the criminal psychologist, only makes an appearance a couple times in the novel, but his voice is cool and intelligent, and I hope we hear more from him in the next two books. Bright has the same cunning malevolence as Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar in Neverwhere. Cass’s sergeant, Claire, verges on annoying with her chirpy optimism, but the tense relationship she has with Cass makes her worth reading about.
Creepy and thrilling A Matter of Blood lurks on the edge of horror while delivering the same heart-pounding suspense as a thriller. Some chapters, particularly the ones about The Bank, reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. The supernatural elements are really, really creepy, and Pinborough sent shivers down my spine without even resorting to gore (although she includes that, too). Pinborough’s writing is lean, and thankfully, she doesn’t offer too many details on Cass’s dystopian world beyond the necessities; the dark atmosphere is all you need to understand the setting. The police work all struck me as believable without being dry, and the corruption in the force turns what could have been another typical crime thriller into something truly desolate and gripping.
A slow start A Matter of Blood’s major flaw is its slow start. Pinborough strategically shifts viewpoints throughout the novel, and though most of the time that works, the beginning of the book focuses all too much on the finality of death and the philosophical musings of a psychotic serial killer. I wasn’t really immersed in the plot until after the first thirty or fifty pages; up until then, Cass Jones just seems like a sad and desperate copper. Once his cases start developing, though, the story really gets going. By the second half of the book, I could hardly put it down.
Why should you read this book? This is no airy fantasy. In fact, it’s hardly even science fiction, since the novel’s only set a few years after 2010. But this dystopian page-turner brings together the best of suspense thrillers, horror, and police procedural. In A Matter of Blood, the supernatural elements remain comparably subtle, but it’s clear that in the next two books of the trilogy, those elements will come to the forefront. This is a departure from my usual reads, but I can’t wait for Pinborough’s next installment!...more
Auralia’s Colors is Jeffrey Overstreet’s first installment in The Auralia Thread, a Christian-inspired fantasy series. Found by two worn-out criminals in the woods when she was just a baby, Auralia soon grows into a beautiful, otherworldly young woman who has the magical power to weave gorgeous cloths out of only the forest’s bounty. She charms her poor community with gifts and good nature, and she enjoys a special connection to the wilderness. Unfortunately, however, colors were outlawed in the kingdom’s poor communities twenty years ago, and Auralia finds herself in a world of danger when the king and his counselors learn of Auralia’s talent.
Magical writing Though this is Overstreet’s first work of fiction, he is an experienced non-fiction writer and film critic, and his experience is obvious in Auralia’s Colors. Although he avoids complex vocabulary, the prose is still lush and it has a subtle, mesmerizing rhythm. Overstreet’s wife is a poet and it’s easy to tell that she influenced him in crafting the novel. Overstreet also sprinkles whimsically new yet recognizable words throughout the novel (cloudgrasper trees and spiderbats, for example), hinting at greater world-building behind the scenes.
The narrative arc occasionally feels unstructured; Overstreet hops from character to character seemingly without rhyme or reason. Is this the ale boy’s story? The prince’s? The failing king’s? At first glance you might think that Overstreet has constructed complex characters, none of whom are acting heroically; perhaps there is no single protagonist, like in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet this isn’t actually the case in Auralia’s Colors: good and evil are very obviously delineated and the heroes (and villains) are clear. It’s just difficult to tell who is the focus of the story. Instead of the confusion feeling as if it is carefully and intentionally crafted by the author (as in the case of Martin), in Auralia’s Colors the confusion just seems the unintentional result of an uncertain narrative structure. Auralia’s Colors could have been a stronger novel had it been more precisely executed.
A distant main character Despite the confusion, Auralia is obviously the book’s heroine. She has little in common with her impoverished adoptive family, the Gatherers, and even less in common with the magnificently spoiled royalty within the protective city walls. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Instead, Auralia flits around like a beautiful and perfect changeling. She doesn’t even feel human. And although all that might still have been spun into an engaging character, unfortunately Auralia remained distant to me.
This isn’t so much a matter of believability; instead, it’s a matter of connection. There are as many scenes from other, more vulnerable characters as there are from Auralia, and those other scenes are far more emotive. Despite Auralia’s own youth and vulnerability, her deeply and overwhelmingly good personality prevents the reader—who is, of course, an imperfect human—from empathizing too closely. It’s hard to tell what Auralia really thinks or wants; her goodness, without even a smudge of darkness, is almost robotic in its intensity. I found it much easier to relate to the other characters: the sweet ale boy, the desperate old king, the conflicted prince, the rascally thief.
Fairytales and Christian fantasy I mentioned earlier that Auralia’s Colors is a Christian fantasy. I only found this out halfway through the novel, and learning it surprised me because the Christian symbolism is actually quite subtle—subtler than C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by far, although the two books do share similarities. A person could easily read the book and ignore the Christian implications altogether.
An interesting consequence of its Christian inspiration, however, is that Auralia’s Colors has the glassy texture of a fairytale. Overstreet’s poetic writing, Auralia’s distant personality, and the absence of today’s popular gritty violence and sex make Auralia’s Colors read more like an abstract, philosophical myth rather than a modern-day fantasy novel. It’s a refreshing change.
Why should you read this book? Although it’s certainly not for everyone, Auralia’s Colors is a gentle fairytale for those who need a break from the doom and gloom of much of today’s fantasy. Read it for the beautiful writing, the uplifting story, and—if you’re into it—the Christian symbolism. It’s no page-turner, but it has a charm of its own....more
Pathfinder is Orson Scott Card’s first foray into the entirely new world of the Serpent World series. Pathfinder has a lot in common with Card’s excellent and popular Ender’s Game series from the eighties: a child prodigy is thrown into a dangerous and bewildering situation by the adults in authority. Rigg and his father are trappers in an isolated forest, but Rigg’s education extends far beyond woodsmanship, delving into physics, history, finances, and more. Unbeknownst to Rigg, his father is preparing the boy for a future that will take Rigg out of the woods and into a political minefield—and that’s only the beginning. (You know things are going to get complicated when every chapter is preceded by a man wrestling with physical paradoxes and, occasionally, robots while flying in an enormous spaceship.)
Rigg is brilliant—in all senses of the word Card’s characters are known for being unique and believable, and young Rigg is no exception. Rigg is a phenomenal mix of thirteen-year-old naivety with uncommon logical and rhetorical brilliance; like Ender, Rigg is obviously a genius, and yet the shifting, complicated relationships Rigg forms with his friends and enemies make him an entirely new entity. You’ve never met a boy like Rigg. Instead of solving problems with violence, Rigg uses his cunning brain to get out of trouble, and his altogether unique talent—the ability to sense living things’ paths through space and time—creates mindboggling puzzles that take time for the reader to figure out as well as Rigg’s friends.
Secondary characters, from Umbo to Loaf to Leaky to Param, are also all well-developed. Although Rigg is obviously the star of Pathfinder, there are several hints that the others will take on more prominent roles in future books. The most interesting character of all is Rigg’s demanding father—known to others as the Wandering Man or Wandering Saint—who dies unseen early in the book but has a lasting and palpable influence on all of Rigg’s decisions from beginning to end.
Time travel… wait, what? Card does some complicated things with time travel, philosophy, and physics in Pathfinder—things that most readers may find very difficult to follow. Luckily, all of Pathfinder’s characters find themselves in the same position, and they spend a considerable amount of time—too much time, perhaps—discussing the possibilities and implications of such talents as Rigg and others have. I’m not convinced that Card’s system ever really makes sense, but it’s consistently followed in the book, and somehow he managed not to shake my state of suspended disbelief throughout the whole novel.
The man in the spaceship I mentioned earlier is Ram Odin, an idealistic space pilot from Earth attempting to navigate his ship through paradoxical folds in space and time. These sections following Ram are always very brief—one to two pages at most—and it is only approaching the end that the surprising connections between Ram’s and Rigg’s stories become clear. It’s another credit to Card that Ram’s short snippets offer just as much intrigue and character development as Rigg’s longer chapters.
Straightforward storytelling Card balances the puzzle of time travel with his straightforward, bordering-on-blunt style of narrative. Only in the style is this book’s Young Adult categorization noticeable. Instead of lengthy frilled descriptions of the people and places that Rigg encounters, Card opts for short, simple sentences and reasoning. The style works remarkably well both in action scenes and in reflective or confusing time-traveling scenes.
Other reviewers mentioned being irked by the occasional expository paragraph, but I took it as a symptom of Rigg’s highly logical and highly trained mind. He weighs his options, works through the potential consequences of each, and then makes his decision. Fortunately or unfortunately, Card usually makes these thought processes visible to the reader. I often needed them and always enjoyed them—but perhaps, for some sharper-thinking readers, these explanations will seem too obvious and patronizing.
Why should you read this book? For Card’s thousands of existing fans, regardless of age, this book will be an obvious choice: it’s sophisticated, intelligent, and full of the elements that made Ender’s Game such a hit. For those of you who’ve yet to encounter Card, or those of you who remain unconvinced, I still heartily recommend it. Pathfinder is more intellectual and less aggressive than Ender’s Game, but equally engrossing—and it’s clear that this series will only get better....more
Already known for her impressive short stories, Mary Robinette Kowal debuts as a novelist with Shades of Milk and Honey, an alternative period romance set during the British Regency. Miss Jane Ellsworth tries to forget her plain looks by studying magical glamour; already twenty-eight years old, Jane is on the gloomy edge of spinsterhood. She also worries about her sister, Melody: flirtatious, beautiful and silly, the girl is certain to get into trouble. But trouble only really gets started when the mysterious Mr. Vincent, a serious, talented practitioner of glamour, comes to stay in a nearby mansion.
A promising idea Being an enormous fan of Jane Austen, I was very excited to read this novel. I hoped to encounter another Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, except from a female perspective: something elegant, witty, and full of period details. Adding magic – called ‘glamour’ – as another accomplishment for young upper-class women had the potential to add an entirely new dimension to the rituals of courtship and social nicety, and could provide a refreshing change from the many non-fantasy Regency romances already available. This would be great, I thought.
Lacks Austen’s wit, sparkle, and courage Unfortunately, the reason Jane Austen’s novels resonate with so many people today is because her novels are more than just the story of an unlikely woman finding love. Austen had impeccable comedic timing, a gift for quirky characterization, and, most importantly, a sharp tongue with which she criticized her own hypocritical society. Elizabeth Bennett is an independent, rebellious, and sassy young woman. Jane Ellsworth, on the other hand, is bland, priggish, and timid.
The only character of interest to me was Melody, the younger sister. Though a little stupid, Melody always follows her heart and has an endearingly wicked tendency to lie in order to get what she wants. Apart from Melody, however, Kowal’s characters are uninspired, and the clunky writing is no better. Although the pace picks up at the climax, Kowal then runs into a different problem: Jane’s decision in the end seems entirely out of keeping with her cautious, sensible personality.
Magic is an after-thought Worst of all, perhaps, for a fantasy reviewer is that the magic in Shades of Milk and Honey makes no significant impact on Jane’s society. Despite being able to change temperature and light by glamour, Jane and her peers only use glamour as an art with which to decorate the house. Kowal could have as easily made Jane a painter or a pianist; the absence of magic would leave this book almost entirely the same. The most disappointing part is that Shades of Milk and Honey could have been a different and far more interesting novel, had a little more thought gone into the magic system.
Why should you read this book? Shades of Milk and Honey is not a terrible book; it’s just mediocre. If you’re already a fan of Regency romance, you will likely enjoy it. If you like Jane Austen, you might be disappointed. And if you prefer your fantasy to be full of adventure, style, and intrigue, you had better avoid this one altogether....more
Black Sun Rising is the first book in C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. Although the trilogy is technically science fiction (the planet, Erna, was colonized by humans from Earth over a thousand years earlier), the themes, setting, and tone still firmly place this book in the fantasy category as well.
Imagine a world where a person’s every thought influences the life forms and forces around her. Good or evil, peaceful or aggressive, even sentient or not: every creature and landmass on Erna is affected—or created—by the worries, fears, joys and desires of the humans inhabiting the planet. The Coldfire Trilogy follows a group of adventurers through the lands of the rakh, a species that has become sentient since the human colonists’ arrival.
Fantastic premise This book presents a brilliant and unique premise. The tectonic force that absorbs sentient thought, and then turns that thought into some form of reality, is named “fae” on Erna, and its nightmarish creations named “demons.” Human culture revolves around the fae: cities use wardsigns to protect against demons in the night, technology is unreliable, and some powerful human sorcerers make a living off their manipulation of the fae. The only other sentient beings are the rakh, who were once ordinary animals but were transformed into intelligent, tribal beings by human anxiety. After humanity’s attempt at killing the entire rakh population, the rakh keep to themselves—and murder any humans who cross into their lands.
One of the most interesting features is the Church, established over a thousand years ago by a man only known as the Prophet. He determined that the only way to mitigate the dangerous potential of fae was to not manipulate fae at all. Most fascinating of all, he harnessed the power of human group-think, in the form of religious prayer, to prevent faeborn demons from approaching the church’s surrounding area. By positively directing one’s thoughts and beliefs, the fae’s manifestations can be controlled.
Flat characters Despite the strong premise, Black Sun Rising is weakened by its characters’ lack of depth. Within the first thirty pages I was put off by the romance between the painfully good Churchman-warrior Damien Vryce and the beautiful Ciani, a talented Adept (a manipulator of fae). Where did this romance come from? How did it become so powerful? Why does a man drop everything for someone he hardly knows? None of these concerns are addressed convincingly.
The one exception is Gerrald Terrant, an exquisitely dark anti-hero who instantly injects all the other characters with depth just through their relationships with Terrant. He’s mesmerizing and terrifying; there aren’t many characters who are so heroic and unambiguously evil at the same time. Terrant almost redeems all the other characters’ flatness.
Slow action Black Sun Rising is a whopping 586 pages long. Friedman would have done well to cut a significant portion of the text in order to speed up the action. Characters spend a lot of time agonizing over hard decisions and emotional pain, and despite the explicitly gory ends of several animals (and humans), the plot drags along at a cumbersome pace. Plot twists are slow in coming, and the descriptions of fae, intended to be beautiful, are often boring instead.
Why should you read this book? Despite its many flaws, Black Sun Rising’s unique premise and setting still offer something to think about and enjoy. The characters’ reflections on an abandoned Earth and its comparably dead, unresponsive landscape are interesting, and the developing relationships between Gerrald Terrant and the rest of the cast may blossom into something more exciting in the next two books....more
The Bards of Bone Plain by established author Patricia A. McKillip is a Celtic-inspired standalone novel. Phelan is an apathetic graduate student at a school for bards; forced into the profession by his unmusical father, Phelan just wants to find an easy topic for his final thesis and finish school forever. But when a foreign bard arrives in court with wild music that entrances everyone around him, Phelan becomes unwittingly involved in a dangerous and legendary plot hundreds of years old. Meanwhile, Phelan’s fellow student and former lover Zoe and the archaeologist-cum-princess Beatrice encounter dark mysteries of their own.
Fresh take on some old tropes Celtic fantasies have been done to death, but McKillip refreshes the trope with a compelling world of modern technology touched by medieval details. Bards use trams for public transit; the princess studies archaeology and drives a sweet car. The school for bards was very modern, featuring seminars, teaching assistants, exams and theses, but occasionally a scene hearkens back to ancient times, like when Phelan’s students spent a class sitting in a circle under an oak tree, reciting lines of an enormous ballad from memory. The world and characters are deeply engrossing; I read the whole book in about twenty-four hours.
The magic system is also worth a quick note. Like many other fantasies, the system is based on language, but McKillip’s combination of music, historical ambiguity and scholarship offers the possibility of reading Bards as more than just a good yarn; it’s also an exploration of the real-world force of language. That, of course, has also been done before in many fantasies, but normally those other fantasies focus on the power of imaginative storytelling. Bards extends its look to the power of historical record, too. It’s easy to imagine how alternative and fantastic visions might affect the world, but a little more complex to think on how non-fiction, descriptive records of supposedly historical fact, can affect us just as much.
Interesting side-by-side stories and characters Bards is unconventional in its alternating storylines. McKillip goes from following Nairn, young student-bard of ancient legend to following Phelan and Beatrice in the present. I never found these switches jarring; the stories switch consistently by chapter and also feature markedly different writing styles (both of which are beautiful to read). Nairn’s story also has the added interest of being preceded by excerpts from a historical treatise about Nairn’s life, written during Phelan’s time. Midway through Bards the two stories elegantly converge, and even if you guess the twist in advance — like I did — the characters and the beautiful writing will drag you on happily to the end regardless.
Speaking of characters, a brief note on the women: McKillip’s savvy, mature and independent Beatrice and Zoe are completely wonderful and believable. It was great to encounter complex female characters in a book that easily could have descended into more obvious gender roles based on its medieval influences.
Lack of suspense The book’s biggest flaw is its lack of suspense — and I am not entirely sure that it is a flaw, because it’s possible the book was intentionally written this way. Bards unfolds like a dream, and while that’s pleasant, the dreaminess forbids any sense of urgency. Although there are negative consequences should the protagonists fail, the protagonists never seem to be truly fearful or even all that concerned. And I wasn’t all that concerned, either. The consequences just aren’t negative enough — or maybe they’re just not depicted as negative enough. I think this is primarily the result of McKillip’s trademark dreamy, musical writing style; combined with a dreamy, musical storyline, the language always insists that the reader recognize the book’s essential story-ness, that the consequences aren’t real, and that nobody will actually get hurt.
Why should you read this book? The writing is lovely and the world, with its carefree combination of medieval and modern, is a lot of fun. Phelan, Beatrice, Zoe and Nairn are also all well-fleshed-out characters. Though The Bards of Bone Plain isn’t a serious page-turner, it is still an enjoyable read that will transport you very quickly from mundane reality to a magical, secretive realm....more