Released earlier this year in the United Kingdom and then released in the United States in September, The Grim Company is Luke Scull's debut novel.
Welcome to the Trine, a world where wizards have murdered the gods. Nigh-immortal, these Magelords have taken control of a divided world, many of them ruling large cities. After hundreds of years of a despotic rule, the people of the Grey City of Dorminia are ready to rise up against the Magelord Salazar. Enter two orphans, a pair of Highlander mercenaries, and a couple of double agents in the forms of a mage and a manservant. Despite the initial tensions between the members of the group, this ragtag rebellion somehow manages to find its feet. Through setbacks and various troubles that arise, they push on until they confront the tyrannic Magelord for the fate of the Grey City.
Some interesting aspects Upon starting my read of the novel, I was pleasantly surprised by the various twists Scull made on my expectations. Given that it was a united group of wizards who threw down the gods, I was expecting there to be some uniformity in their powers and tendencies. Not so. Each Magelord has their own personality, their own strengths and weaknesses in their power. These differences and developments also extended to the cultures each Magelord ruled over. In particular, the culture and powers of Highlanders of the North caught my interest—and the Shaman Magelord of the North was definitely the most /human/ of the immortal wizards.
Most of the major players also surprised me. They weren't your typical "perfect" adventurers that so many authors try to use in their first attempts. No, each character had their own trials and tribulations, and each had a couple of different layers as to what made them tick. All in all, very decent work for a debut novel.
Hype falls short Heralded as the first book in a dark epic fantasy trilogy, the novel has been highly praised by many publications such as Tor.com, the Fantasy Book Critic, and the Daily Mail. The premise is rather intriguing and so, given all the hype, I was very excited to have this book arrive on my doorstep.
Upon reading, one of the first characters we are introduced to is Davarus Cole, an orphaned youth trying to fill his father's "hero" shoes. And who is, in all honesty, a cocky douchebag. And his mindsets don't change until the very last chapters of the book. He's rude, uncouth, and so caught up in his narcissistic hero worship of his image of himself that I could not bring myself to like him. Which is unfortunate, as nearly a quarter of the book is spent with the character. It took me a solid two weeks to read this book, as I had to stop after almost every chapter with him to let my brain reset.
The geography and layout of the world itself was another element I found lacking. Taking a look at the map, it's almost the typical LotR-knockoff, very similar in layout to that of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance series: you have the cities on the coast and in the center of the map, an expanse to the North that's mysterious and dangerous but inhabited, little-known cities to the east across a desert, tribal mercenary lands in the tropics to the south, and a mystical, mythical land to the west across a sea.
Granted, the world makes logical sense. However, given that the map was the very first piece of the story you get, it turned me off of the novel just a bit from the get-go.
In addition, upon reflection after finishing the novel, the title struck me as rather misleading. Because of the title and the synopsis, I expected something a little more Lord of the Rings in setup, and a little more… grim, really, in nature. However, the characters listed in the synopsis were only ever completely together in one scene. Period. And the "grim," "dark," and "gritty"? Yeah, not so much. The atmosphere was more of a halfway point between being a dark fantasy and something like your typical Tolkien atmosphere.
The little things add up.
Redeeming qualities All of that being said, however, there are some bits of the book that truly shine. I loved the two Highlander mercenaries, Brodar Kayne and Jerek the Wolf. Brodar is one of the main focus characters, and Scull does a fantastic job expressing just how weary Kayne is after all he's been through—and how he still finds the will to press on. It should stand to reason, then, that my favorite storyline in the novel was the one centering around the travels of Brodar Kayne, Jerek, Sasha, and Isaac. Their story didn't just have engaging characters—it had layers.
The antagonists of the book got their fair share of screentime during the novel, too. And these I loved almost as much as the moments with Brodar Kayne. It's very much a grey area of antagonist, no Epic Good versus Epic Evil here. In fact, the antagonists seemed more realistic than some of the protagonists at times.
Also of note are Scull's action and battle sequences. While his intrigue storylines and… well, almost every other kind of scene in the book… are a touch lackluster, his knack for creating balanced and flowing fight scenes is phenomenal for a debut author. It was the reason why I couldn't put the final fifth of the book down.
A lot of potential The thing to keep in mind with The Grim Company is this: it is a debut novel. And as such, it's not going to be the most ZOMGAMAZEBALLS thing out there. However, it is a very solid first step for Scull, and there are many areas in which he has a lot of potential to realize. The first is in his pacing. The first three-quarters of the book dragged—a lot. But then Scull hit his stride in the lead-up to the climactic battle sequences, and the pace flowed and kept my interest all the way through to the end. The second is in his characters—a few of them have been developed wonderfully, but the rest definitely have some layers that can be added and explored.
The third is in his cliffhangers. Because more happened to pique my interest in the last two chapters of the novel than in most of the rest of the novel's entirety. Character developments, revelations, slight resolutions, all of these things are used by Scull to leave you wanting more.
Why should you read this book? This is not going to be a book I recommend to people who are looking for the best of the genre. Because it's not, yet. However, if Scull ups his game in Book 2 (The Sword of the North, out June 2014), this novel will be worth the read, so I am yet hopeful. With an intriguing setup, engaging characters, and an ending that will leave your curiosity piqued, Luke Scull's The Grim Company is a fairly solid debut novel that has a lot of potential with which to grow and go places.(less)
In this seventh installment of Seanan McGuire's bestselling urban fantasy series, October "Toby" Daye is finally getting her life in gear. She's doing her job, her squire's training is progressing, and she has a boyfriend in the local King of Cats, Tybalt. However, it's not all green fields and rosebuds in Toby's life. When the local changeling population begins to drop dead of goblin fruit overdose, Toby investigates and takes the problem to the Queen of the Mists in hopes of resolving the issue. Naturally, this backfires and Toby suddenly finds herself in exile. Backed into a corner, with problems from the past resurfacing, information comes to light that the Queen may not actually have a legitimate claim on the throne, and Toby must do the only logical thing:
Overthrow the Queen.
A vibrant, living world One of the things that sells a novel for me is a well-realized world. This is especially true when considering urban fantasy settings. Because there, not only do authors have to create their own world, they have to make it mesh with a world that is already familiar: our own. There are very few who do this as well as McGuire—not only has she created a supernatural world that has history, has weight, but she's also fit it into our reality so well that it's nigh-seamless. The Toby Daye series is one of the best examples of solid urban fantasy worldbuilding I've ever encountered.
And beyond that, McGuire's propensity to uncover new corners of the world never ceases to please. In every book, there's something new, details that come to life as they're brought into the reader's focus. The same holds true with Chimes at Midnight, though where in previous books it was predominantly locations that got the new spotlight, here it is more of Faerie's history and culture than anything else. Which is wonderful. (Side note: the mass market paperback has a kick-ass short story featuring a pair of the Firstborn, and it's totally awesome.)
A roller coaster of a plot I should elaborate. One of the things I have come to love and adore about McGuire's work is her knack for keeping the plot twists fresh with each book. With Chimes at Midnight, McGuire outdoes herself. Whereas all of her plots can fit the roller coaster analogy—starting off with a bang, sharp twists and turns, etc—this book is more akin to riding a roller coaster while blindfolded. The twists in the story? You know they're coming, but you don't know when or how until you're right there in the moment. McGuire pulls stuff out of the hat I didn't even know was in the hat to begin with.
And that's just real damn nifty.
The calm before the storm After finishing my read, Pink's "Glitter in the Air" comes to mind whenever I reflect upon this book. And I think it's for the following lyrics:
And it's only half past the point of no return The tip of the iceberg The sun before the burn […] It's only half past the point of oblivion The hourglass on the table The walk before the run The breath before the kiss And the fear before the flames
It seems to me that we have now reached a vital point in Toby's story. The closing of Chimes at Midnight leaves things in a more easygoing, lighter place than some of the endings of previous installments. Things are starting to look up for Toby.
So, like in any good series, this means it's about time for Toby's world to come crashing down around her. Book eight, The Winter Long, is gonna hurt. But I wouldn't trade my seat on this ride for the world.
Why should you read this book? If you're a newcomer to the series and you read this book, you'll be able to follow along pretty easily. Not everything will make complete sense, but it's doable. You should, of course, begin with book one (Rosemary and Rue). If you've read the first book or three but are on the fence about continuing? Don't. Stop. Because this book is an epitome of everything that makes the Toby Daye novels one of the best urban fantasy series on the market, right up there with Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files: tight and believable characters, a gorgeously realized universe, and so many unexpected twists it's almost like they're going out of style. Chimes at Midnight is definitely my most favorite Toby book to date.
Garrett received an ARC of Chimes at Midnight courtesy of DAW Books.
A collaborative effort between film director Guillermo del Toro (known for films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy) and author Chuck Hogan, The Strain was originally conceived as a series for television; it is now the first in a trilogy of vampire novels.
The Strain has a relatively simple premise: a plane touches down in New York City, and all but four of the people on board are dead. Of course, given that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what happened. The Strain then proceeds to follow primarily the scientist Ephraim Goodweather, but also a multitude of characters who are caught in the path of the supernatural infection that begins to spread across New York City.
Vampires that are actually scary (thank goodness) We all know that vampires have become incredibly romanticized in recent years, and I’m not going to go into a lengthy tirade on the subject. Suffice to say: it’s not too often that we get vampire fiction which features vampires that are actually scary, and so I find it immensely refreshing when we do. The Strain is one of those stories that goes for the all-out scary vampires, and it does it right. These are vicious, bloodsucking creatures that share a lot of similarities with traditional vampires; however, there are some interesting new twists as well. Del Toro and Hogan take the elements of vampire mythology we’ve seen countless times before and weave them into something fresh and re-contextualized for the modern world. This approach, the meshing of new and old elements into something all its own, works surprisingly well.
A scientific approach While maintaining elements of traditional vampire mythology, The Strain takes a very scientific approach to its subject matter. It’s no mistake that the book’s primary protagonist is a scientist: every aspect of the vampires is dissected and analyzed from a scientific perspective. Instead of just magically infecting people by biting them, the vampires strike with a fleshy “stinger”; this stinger injects victims with parasitic worms that spread the infection. This is only one aspect of how these vampires function, however, and much of the book is devoted to unraveling the scientific rationale behind their anatomy. I’ve never seen vampires approached in this way, and I really enjoyed it; by explaining seemingly supernatural characteristics through science, these modern-day vampires feel credible in a way that most others don’t.
A well-rounded cast of characters The Strain features a surprising number of viewpoint characters, and the book’s perspective jumps frequently between them. This can be jarring and sometimes frustrating as the frequent perspective shifts don’t feel completely necessary, but it’s not a major detriment to the book. With characters only being presented in short snippets, I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of characterization. Most of The Strain’s characters are complex and flawed, and one of my favorite aspects of the book was getting to see how they perceive each other differently. The Strain may not need as many point-of-view characters as it has, but for the most part, the relatively large cast works well.
Setting up the story The Strain is not a stand-alone story; it is very clearly the first section of a larger arc. This works both for and against the book. On the one hand, most of the book is just setting up the conflict that is to come in the trilogy’s next two entries, The Fall and The Night Eternal. The vampires themselves don’t really start appearing until about halfway through the book; if you’re reading The Strain, you’re obviously reading it for the vampires, so it is worth noting that this aspect of the story doesn’t become prevalent until a couple hundred pages in. On the other hand, despite focusing on such extensive buildup, this book is not boring. Del Toro and Hogan ratchet up the tension for a long, long, long time, and so when the action finally lets loose in the second half of the book, it hits hard.
Why should you read this book? The Strain isn’t without its flaws, but most of them are relatively minor. It’s an incredibly effective vampire novel, and while it focuses mainly on exposition and setting the stage for the next two books in the trilogy, the engaging cast of characters and high levels of tension still make it an engaging read. For fans of vampire fiction (vampire horror, that is), The Strain is definitely a book you’ll want to check out.(less)
This review contains spoilers for all previous Harry Potter books.
A lot happens in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Instead of the usual pattern from the other books with a before school introduction followed by the school year and subsequent shenanigans as the conclusion, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows takes a very different route.
A change Most notable is the change of pace when our two heroes and one heroine face their adventure outside of the walls of Hogwarts. While it is no more dangerous than the tumultuous times of the first six books, the stakes are higher than ever as the trio race around, trying to stop Voldemort from doing the classic big bad and taking over the world.
Wrapping it up The writing in itself is beautiful, tying all the elements of the series that seemed so disparate at times into one perfectly linked pattern. It balances the heavier themes of the later books as well as the darker mood with the classic camaraderie and wide appeal.
Everything is on the line With the government infiltrated and in shambles, Dumbledore dead by Snape’s hand, our three main characters on the run, Death Eaters in positions of power and everything else that could be going wrong doing just that, the story moves at a tremendous pace with the unstoppable momentum of a train at full speed. It would be very easy for the series to derail and at times it admittedly gets close. However, Rowling successfully carries the series to the end.
Impact of emotion The emotion of the last books is something to be mentioned. With the last two books each resulting in increasingly emotional deaths of beloved characters, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows could be no less painful or risk becoming anticlimactic. Twists and turns reveal hidden truths; people die and stories draw to a close. It is a sign of impact when such emotion is invested so broadly in a franchise, and Harry Potter is no exception. Its fan base, the self-proclaimed Potterheads, made their depth of emotion widely known.
Predictable combat The action and battles that occur in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are well written, if predictable in that Harry Potter uses his default spell, the infamous ‘Expelliarmus’. It may be symbolic of Harry’s choice not to be a ruthless killer like Voldemort, but after numerous books in which he rarely breaks from using it against other wizards, it becomes a tad trite. While other characters are fighting in often creative and unique ways, Harry sees fit to throw his straight punch every single fight.
The boy who lived has grown up The characters are now grown up. They started out as children, thrust into this world which they barely grasped, staying ahead by little more than luck. Now they are grown up, dealing with the tail end of adolescence and all its baggage. Harry thankfully tones down the angst as the series winds down, coming to accept his fate with more elegance than he had mustered in previous books.
Why you should read this book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a spectacular conclusion to a monumental series. Characters blossom into their full potential and stories wrap themselves up to form a cohesive picture. J. K. Rowling finishes the series with a masterful flourish and an almost serene epilogue that does the Harry Potter immense justice.(less)
Constructed from the unfinished writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin is a stand-alone story from the First Age of Middle-Earth taking place long before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. While approximately 75 percent of the book previously appeared in various sections of Tolkien’s other writings, his son, Christopher Tolkien, edited the entire tale together into a single book for the first time. It was published in 2007.
The Children of Húrin follows the family of the titular Húrin who is captured by the Dark Lord Morgoth and then refuses to submit to his will. Angered, Morgoth curses Húrin’s family, sentencing darkness and despair to follow them throughout their entire lives.
The early days of Middle-Earth The Children of Húrin is set thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, but the time difference doesn’t feel as significant as it is. While The Children of Húrin is located in a region to the north of the area in which The Lord of the Rings takes place, Middle-Earth feels very much the same as it does in Tolkien’s more famous work. Hobbits aren’t present in this story, but men, elves, and dwarves all play significant roles, and the antagonism between them is sharp and primal. Instead of Sauron, this story features Morgoth (with Sauron as his lieutenant); his role in The Children of Hurin is virtually identical to Sauron’s in The Lord of the Rings, but he is not the primary antagonist of the story.
The Children of Húrin is much smaller in scale than The Lord of the Rings, focusing primarily on the trials and tribulations of Húrin’s family, and most specifically his son, Túrin. As the entire story takes place within the context of a war with Morgoth and only contains a snippet of this great conflict, I imagine some readers could find it frustrating that the events of this war are never resolved within The Children of Húrin. I, however, appreciated the story’s tight focus, and fortunately, the events of the war with Morgoth are detailed in Tolkien’s other writings; The Children of Húrin can serve as a starting point for delving into the mythology of the First Age, and if it inspires you to dig deeper into the history of Middle-Earth (as it did for me), Tolkien’s writings on this era are readily available.
Not the Tolkien you know If you’ve read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, you’re familiar with the kind of stories Tolkien tells; be warned, though—content-wise, The Children of Húrinis very, very different from Tolkien’s more famous works. All of Tolkien’s traditional traits are here: the distant viewpoint, the telling of the story as if relating a long-lost legend, the lavish world-building that hints at the vast mythology of Middle-Earth without explicitly revealing it, and of course, the ever-present orcs, elves, and dwarves. However, The Children of Húrin is a much darker story than either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; it plays out more like a Shakespearean tragedy than anything else. I expect that this aspect will be the most divisive amongst readers of the book. Don’t go into The Children of Húrin expecting whimsical hobbits or grand quests: this is the story of a family unraveling under the weight of the curse placed upon them—it’s not a particularly pleasant story, nor is it emotionally fulfilling. This wasn’t a detriment to the book in my case (I love those kinds of stories), but if you don’t enjoy tragic tales, The Children of Húrin may not be the book for you.
Why should you read this book? If you’re a fan of fantasy, and especially if you’re a fan of Tolkien, The Children of Húrin is a must-read. I’ve made numerous comparisons to Tolkien’s other works, but I do believe that The Children of Húrinmust be taken in the context of these other works; if you’re new to Tolkien, The Children of Húrinis not the book to start with—it will be most effective for those who have already enjoyed Tolkien’s other writings and want to delve deeper into the mythology of Middle-Earth. For those who do love exploring this mythology, however, The Children of Húrinhas it all: the brevity and quick pace of The Hobbit, the epic storytelling of The Lord of the Rings, the solemnity and pathos of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the detached narrative voice of an ancient myth. Its tone and content are more reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire than Tolkien’s other works, and this won’t appeal to everyone; for me, however, it was a breath of fresh air. I’m a huge fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but The Children of Húrin is far and away my favorite of the three; this is Tolkien at his absolute best. If you do choose to give The Children of Húrin a shot, I recommend reading the illustrated edition (this is only the hardcover version, I believe), as Alan Lee’s artwork is gorgeous and greatly enhances the reading experience.(less)
Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament is the debut novel from author S.G. Browne, and it follows the first person narrative of Andy—whose major defining characteristic is that he’s, well… a zombie. Killed in a car accident and reanimated shortly after, Andy now lives in his parents’ basement and attends a zombie support group hoping to find some way to integrate back into society.
A somewhat refreshing take on the zombie genre With many zombie stories arising in recent years in books, movies, television, and video games, the genre has been wearing itself rather thin. Like many others, I’m a fan of zombie stories, but also like many others, I’m starting to get a little bored with the genre. I know that Breathers, with its narrative told from the perspective of a zombie, isn’t the first story of its kind, but it’s the first that I’ve been exposed to.
I enjoyed being able to read a zombie tale that isn’t endless gore and soul-crushing despair, but instead more of a story that deals with discrimination and disability in an unfriendly society. At its heart, Breathers is a novel about a minority trying to find its place in a world that is unwelcoming to it, and the parallels to real-world struggles for equality are obvious. Browne uses the zombie genre as a lens to gain perspective on these themes, and while Breathers doesn’t contain any radical insights regarding the nature of prejudice or discrimination, it’s an interesting approach to a well-worn genre. I also appreciated Browne’s use of satire, as it lends an edge to a story that otherwise could’ve fallen very flat.
Comedic, but dark There’s no question that Breathers is a comedy. Andy has a very dry sense of humor, and his sardonic first person narrative works well in the context of the book. This is fortunate as the plot of Breathers doesn’t really start moving until over halfway through the book, so you’ll be relying entirely on Andy’s narrative voice to get you through a large section of the novel—but since Andy’s voice is fun, quirky, and entertaining, this isn’t a major issue. Breathers never made me laugh out loud, but it kept a smile on my face for a few hundred pages.
What surprised me most about Breathers was how dark it actually is. The novel opens with Andy having killed his parents (it then skips back in time to build up to this), and there are a few moments of surprising brutality throughout the book. This isn’t a dark novel in the sense of it being grim or depressing (quite the opposite, in fact), but these moments give the book a sense of weight that effectively counterbalances its comedy, and they are the sole reason Breathers amounts to anything more than meaningless comedic fluff. While seemingly jarring in comparison with the rest of the book, I appreciated the dark moments in Breathers immensely.
Why should you read this book? Breathers is a lot of fun. Andy’s first person narrative is quite funny, and the book takes an interesting approach to a tired genre through the use of themes that are highly relevant to the real world. Breathers is a quick read, and while it may not be particularly deep or insightful, it’s more than entertaining enough to be worth your time.(less)
Cinder, Marissa Meyer’s debut, is a science fiction romance that is both clearly inspired by the tale of Cinderella and clearly for teenage readers. In this future world, androids are as common as pets, while cyborgs are ostracized and loathed. The descendants of the humans who colonized the Moon have evolved into Lunars with their own culture, their own leadership, and their own magic powers. While a plague ravages Earth and tensions mount between the Eastern Commonwealth and the Lunars, Crown Prince Kaito urgently seeks out a mechanic to repair his broken android. The best mechanic in New Beijing is the sixteen-year-old Lihn Cinder, a cyborg.
Predictably clichéd Any book that uses one of the most well-known fairy tales of all time as inspiration does risk being predictable. The reader expects that Cinder will be forced to live a life of drudgery by her despicable stepmother yet somehow fall in love with the prince and escape to his ball in the end. I didn’t read it to find out if she’d make it to the ball; that was pretty much given. It’s the unique spin this type of book gives to the familiar tale that keeps me reading. Unfortunately, even in its unique spin, I found Cinder to be pretty predictable. The big reveal at the very end of the book was so heavily foreshadowed that I predicted it after reading about a quarter of the book.
Many of the problems Cinder faces feel very common to teenage romance, to the point of being cliché. (I hesitate to call it young adult romance, because that suggests a level of maturity. Cinder does not act like an adult, even a young one.) She has predictably low self-esteem—moping to herself about her “metal monstrosities” and “mousy hair”—and a skewed sense of interpersonal ethics. He won’t like me if he knows the truth, so I’ll just lie to him. Yeah, that always turns out great.
Unexciting characters Prince Kai is the cookie cutter Prince Charming. He’s nice, likable, and, of course, rich and powerful. Unfortunately, there isn’t much more to him. He’s a flat character, there to fill the role of Cinder’s love interest. As for Cinder… well, she’s more pitiable than likable, and it’s difficult even to have much sympathy for a protagonist who behaves as stupidly as she does. Many of the challenges Cinder has to face as the plot thickens are problems she herself causes with her foolish behavior or, even more frustratingly, nonexistent problems that she only imagines.
Beyond these two, there aren’t any characters of significance. Cinder has her horrid stepmother and two stepsisters, one horrid and one nice. She also has a cute, occasionally clever android. Prince Kai has an adviser. There’s a doctor around who’s trying to research a cure for the plague, and the Lunar Queen shows up to force the Emperor into a marriage treaty. None of these characters, however, receive more than minimal development or characterization; they’re simply props to fill the background.
A fun read Despite my complaints, I really did enjoy reading Cinder. I breezed through it quickly; it’s neither a long nor deep book by any means. I’ve read a number of Cinderella-based stories over the years—it’s always been my favorite fairy tale—and this one was certainly unique. I don’t think I’ve ever read another science fiction Cinderella, and I’ve definitely never read one where the oppressed heroine is a cyborg. The novelty of that alone was enough to carry me through the book, and I had a lot of fun reading it. I might not read the rest of the series, though. It was the lure of my favorite fairy tale, retold, that pulled me in, but while the series continues to follow Cinder, each book is based on a different tale. Scarlet is based on Red Riding Hood. Cress, expected in 2014, is inspired by the tale of Rapunzel, and Winter (2015) will feature Snow White.
Why should you read this book? If the familiar tropes commonly found in young adult books don’t bother you or you have a particular taste for science fiction flavored teenage romance, you’d likely enjoy Cinder—especially if fairy tale inspired books are your thing. Otherwise, only pick up this book if you’re looking for a cotton candy read. It’s not very intelligent, but it is quick and fun.(less)
Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders is the debut novel by Richard Ellis Preston Jr., and it is a thoroughgoing steampunk tale of high adventure and action in a future dystopian United States.
Don't let your settings grow up to be cowboys A common problem I've found with a lot of steampunk is the way that the setting completely takes over the entire process of your story. I know that steampunk is more than just a genre. There's fashion, music, lingo. For the fans of steampunk, it is as much a movement or a life choice as a mere setting. But seriously. I have never read so much otherwise pointless description of how many gears and pipes and crap are stuck to someone's hat. This book clocked in at 456 pages, and I honestly feel like a solid 100 could have been cut just reducing direct description of steampunk elements.
I know it's a debut novel, and I know that the setting is not the traditional Victorian England that the majority of steampunk is set in, so a certain degree of over-narration is inevitable, but there was way too much telling and not nearly enough showing going on. Speaking of the setting, Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders takes place in a future Earth, after what I generally presumed to be a nuclear apocalypse (at least, they're soundly in nuclear winter, though some plot elements suggest the apocalyptic event was chemical in nature rather than nuclear. It's never spelled out). That on its own is pretty cool. However, there are a lot of strange disconnects in information supply. The protagonist is given cause at one point to wonder "What's a subway?" when he hears another character use the word. Yet then they know exactly what a locomotive is when one is menacing them. Given that this is the future, subways would have been used much more recently in their timeline, and locomotives brought back and put into use after the disaster. On more than a few occasions I found it a little off-putting what we're expected to believe survived and what didn't.
You do the debut that you do All of this, however, is really to be expected for a debut novel. It can take a long time for an author to settle into a new setting even when they're an experienced writer generally. A lot of exposition needed to get crammed into not a lot of space, and I think that Preston Jr. is still finding his voice and settling into his groove. The world we saw, if a little disjointed, is still quite interesting. I was engaged, and enjoyed my trip through this grand adventure. There was a certain 1940s serial adventure vibe to it. A sort of Rocketeer meets Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with a pinch of Raiders of the Lost Ark for flavor.
I'm willing to grant Preston Jr. some slack for this being the first entry out of the gate. The whole story was basically built to give baseline world knowledge and point squarely at a sequel, and I'm definitely willing to give the next novel, Romulus Buckle & The Engines of War (releasing November 2013), a try, as well. I'd just like to see a little less Basil Exposition, less emphasis on pointing out how steampunk everything is, a little more showing by doing, and more depth into the action elements. We had a few fights that were really excellent to read, and the gadgetry is cool and flashy and exactly what steampunk is supposed to be.
Why should you read this book? You should read this book because it has a lot of potential. It has some flaws, but they're all understandable as growing pains for a very complicated setting in a new world in a new book by a new author. As a post-apocalyptic world goes, I quite like it, and I'm excited to see more. I'm not the biggest fan of steampunk, and it does get laid on a little thick, but it still makes for an entertaining adventure story.
Dan received an advanced reader copy of Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders courtesy of 47North.(less)
Clockwork Princess is the third book in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy, which is a prequel to The Mortal Instruments series (originally a trilogy, Clare has signed for an additional three titles). Clockwork Princess follows Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince.
Tessa Gray is an American girl lured to London by the dark magical forces of Mortmain. She escapes their clutches with the help of two Shadowhunters, Will and Jem. With the help of Will, Jem, and their allies, she sets out to find out why she has been targeted and to stop Mortmain from destroying the Shadowhunters.
No real surprises If there is a young adult author out there who gets nearly as much flack as Stephanie Meyer, it’s Clare. She’s been dogged by plagiarism accusations (to my knowledge these have never been backed by litigation) since her fan fiction days under the name Cassandra Claire. Since then, she’s come under attack for writing the same story three times. While I can’t speak for The Mortal Instruments, I will say that I’ve been struck by The Infernal Devices’ similarity to her fan fiction. I’ve read in several places that these same similarities can be seen in The Mortal Instruments. Further, this is a young adult novel and follows several standard tropes, most spectacularly the love triangle.
Clare also hasn’t grown as much as a writer as I could hope for in Clockwork Princess. Everything was foreshadowed so thoroughly that nothing was deeply surprising. At no point was I on the edge of my seat wondering how it was all going to work out. The only plot twist I didn’t predict was the exact form of the deus ex machina at the end because I didn’t have enough information from earlier in the trilogy to make the connection (hence the deus). Had I been familiar with The Mortal Instruments, I may have seen it coming. However, I knew some form of deus ex machina was coming because there’s a whole lot of sameness in this book.
No, I don’t hate the book Clare has always had skills as a writer. She’s very good at making conflicted yet sympathetic characters whom readers can invest in. Her Shadowhunter world in The Infernal Devices is well built, with a lot of places she can explore in future books. All of the pieces that first attracted me to Clare’s work are still in Clockwork Princess; I just expected more from this book than what I got. It feels like Clare is resting on the accomplishments she’s already made instead of moving forward to seek new ones and grow as a writer. Granted, with how well her books are selling, I don’t know how motivated I would be to push myself were I in her shoes.
Why should you read this book? The Infernal Devices is an entertaining young adult steampunk fantasy. There aren’t a lot of those, which makes the series worth reading just based on that. Clare is a talented storyteller, and her tales do stick with you in a good way after you set the books down. However, this is a young adult series, and does suffer somewhat from the constraints of its target audience and publisher enforced restrictions. It is a simple, quick read that may not satisfy lovers of door-stopping tree killers. And it is ridiculously similar to Clare’s other works, which bored me. Had the trilogy been longer, I don’t know that I would have stuck it out.(less)
Frost Burned is the seventh book in the Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series by Patricia Briggs. There are also three full-length novels and one novella in the companion series Alpha and Omega, making this the eleventh prose installment overall in this universe.
Mercy, a shape-shifter living in the Tri-Cities of Washington, has recovered from the events of her honeymoon, and is dealing with the fey cutting all contact with humans following the events in Fair Game (Alpha and Omega). That is, until her husband Adam and the rest of the werewolf pack are abducted. Mercy needs to rally what forces she can to get them back in one piece and figure out who is behind the plot.
A middle novel In every series, there are books that don’t change the game but fill in small details and explore dark corners of the universe. Most of the time, these books are laying the groundwork for the next game-changing novel. That’s what Frost Burned is. There aren’t a lot of changes for Mercy and Adam that happen as a result of this novel. Rather than major shifts in character, characters are, instead, further refined. We find out a little more about characters we don’t see often, and there are a few plots with side characters that reach their next step while a few new ones begin. But there’s nothing ground breaking or earth shattering here.
That’s not to say that Frost Burned is not an entertaining or worthwhile read. In order to have "peak" books, you must have slower "valley" books. There are surprises in store for you as the book shows what allies Mercy can find, how those allies interact with each other, and who the main villain of the book is. I won’t say more than that for fear of giving it away, but this book is set up to be the start of a longer, universe-wide plot arc, even as Mercy’s personal life calms down for a bit.
Really about the secondary characters From time to time, I enjoy it when an author gives some spotlight to secondary characters. And Briggs shines the light on a lot of them in Frost Burned while still leaving Mercy prominently in the role of protagonist. Not only do these secondary characters make appearances, but many of them get to grow and change as characters. It’s so easy as an author to have secondary character growth happen offstage, and it’s wonderful to read an author who’s not afraid to have it happen on the page. And to manage the growth of multiple secondary characters at the same time without losing track of the main plot? Brilliant. If you’re expecting a messy book from what I just said, don’t. Briggs runs a tight ship even when the whole team is on the page. And for fans of Alpha and Omega, there’s even a secondary cross-over character who gets some serious page time.
Why should you read this book? Patricia Briggs has fairly earned her place as one of the cornerstone authors of urban fantasy. While Mercy Thompson is not one of the longest or oldest series out there, it is one of the best-selling. For lovers of urban fantasy, I and many others would list Briggs as a must-read. That being said, this is the eleventh book between two intertwined series. If you haven’t read at the very least the majority of the previous Mercy books, you will be lost. I would also highly recommend a quick read of Fair Game, if not all of the other Alpha and Omega titles. You’ll be richly rewarded if you do, and a bit lost if you don’t.(less)
A Discourse in Steel is the second book in Paul S. Kemp’s new sword and sorcery series, Tales of Egil and Nix. In this book, our intrepid heroes try once again to retire, and fail once again to avoid falling headlong into crazy adventures and deadly peril.
Building on previous successes Second books are always tough. There’s a bit of a push to try and do new things, to stretch boundaries and grow your characters or your setting or your world. There’s also a bit of a pull the opposite way, to stick with what works and play it safe. It’s considered rare enough for a second book/movie/album to be better than the first that it’s a very common topic of discussion in forum communities or conversations with friends and fellow nerds.
In A Discourse in Steel, Kemp finds a very strong balance between those two directions. It is similar enough to the first book, The Hammer and the Blade, that you feel like you’re just picking up and carrying on right where you left off. At the same time, it does expand our knowledge of the characters and their setting enough to not seem repetitious. Given that the events of this new book take place only a few months after the earlier volume, it really does feel like a next installment of what we should almost consider one big long story, and the growth of the world around them is keeping that same pace.
I drew attention in my review for The Hammer and the Blade to the distinction between this being the tale of Egil and Nix or, as it says on the cover of both books, a tale of Egil and Nix. The tone and style of the stories feel like we’re sitting around the tavern, legs propped up on the table with a flagon, while Egil and Nix recount the story for us.
What the fak is this? One thing that did sort of bug me in this book was the presence of the word “fak” and all of the usual extensions of the word. Long time readers of my work (so basically, my family and the other staff of the website *grin*) might remember that I wrote a piece way back when about things that bugged me about fantasy novels. One of my entries was the use of alternate spellings for words we all already know and have in our lexicon. I feel like either you can create a new language for your world or you should just use ours. I feel we gain nothing from putting milk from our kau into our kava. If it looks like a cow, and it functions like a cow, just call it a cow. It isn’t going to kill our immersion. I promise.
I feel the same way about cursing. I can’t help but feel when I see people saying darn instead of damn, or shoot, frick, or dang that they’re actually being a little insulting. I know what you’re thinking, I know what you mean, and you aren’t fooling anybody by manually replacing the word with a tamer one. It’s okay; books don’t have ratings from the ESRB, and nobody reading it is going to see “fak” and not know what you mean. Just say “fuck.” Please.
Hooray for quibbles Honestly, when the substitute of a swear word for a more mild alternative is the only thing I have to complain about, you know this is an excellent book. Egil and Nix are great characters, and Kemp writes them exceptionally well. I really feel like we’re witnessing the reinvention of sword and sorcery. The genre is coming back, and coming back strong.
This is the sea change that was needed to bring back this style of high-action, fast-paced, character-driven story: an ability to still include deeper, more engaging characters that aren’t just machines of death. That’s entertaining for 14-year-olds, but it quickly grows stale as one’s tastes mature. When a character’s primary conflict is, “Shall I kill fifty enemies today without getting a scratch on me, or go for the full seventy-five?” I just lose interest.
Egil and Nix survive these adventures through equal parts experience, cunning, and blind luck. They get beaten, they get knocked out, they actually risk death every time they go into action, and it is so much more engaging because of it. Because they are allowed to grow and develop, have flaws, suffer for their flaws, have virtues, and suffer for those too, they just feel so much more complete. I don’t think we needed Drizzt 2.0, and it’s great to see we didn’t get it.
Why should you read this book? As always with sequels, you should read this book because you read and enjoyed the first book. The reason you should read both is exactly as I’ve detailed above. These are great action-packed adventure stories without all the horrible, flawless Mary Sue characters staying perfect and unchanged through “character development” that almost never challenges the character or the reader. Kemp excels at making the characters feel genuine. You identify with them. I want to buy Nix a drink. Probably scotch.(less)
At the opening of The King’s Blood, we find ourselves back in the remains of the Dragon Empire and the world of the Thirteen Races of Humanity. Geder Palliako is suddenly an important figure in the Antean Court, with the mysterious Spider Priests at his side. Kalliam Dawson, a noble of the old order, works to maintain the tradition of the court while Cithrin bel Sacour struggles to hold on to her branch of the Medean Bank, and Captain Marcus Wester, haunted by his past, works to redeem himself through his protection of the young banker. Intrigue, magic, and blood follow in the second installment of The Dagger and The Coin series.
Like a flower, blooming The Dragon’s Path was such a success because Abraham, in his skill and knowledge of the genre, took his time in revealing his world to us. He began in medias res, and as the novel grew, so did our understanding of the world. Much like that deliberate pace and reveal, The King’s Blood continues this slow gift of information as, chapter by chapter, our understanding of this world grows. Don’t expect an answer to every mystery, but know that some light will be shed on The Dragon Empire, The Spider Goddess, and more.
Pulling no punches Personally, one of the biggest strengths I find in The Dagger and the Coin series is how Abraham is not afraid of posing big questions or challenges to his characters and therefore to his readers. He never presents an easy road for either party, and half the enjoyment of the book is in watching the characters navigate the tangle of larger-than-life questions. Is truth subjective? When is it right to go to war, if it ever is? When do you give up and when do you fight? Abraham throws these questions and more at his characters. Watching how they react will not only fascinate you, it will make you think as well.
Character is king What makes this one of the strongest secondary world fantasies being published today, though, is not the immensity of its worldbuilding or its fascination with big questions, but rather the complexity of its characters. Abraham has created wonderful, strong, incredibly flawed characters, and watching them evolve through this second book is certainly one of the highlights. He allows them to be, well, human. Even the most noble of characters, Kalliam Dawson, is not immune to spite or fear. Watching and hoping a character will make the right choice is all the more devastating when they do not. Feelings such as pain, spite, greed, and fear color the characters beyond simple shades of gray and create characters who, despite scales or wings or pelts, make for some of the most human characters out there.
Why you should read this The King’s Blood is a triumph of secondary world fantasy, continuing to reveal a complex world with amazing, three-dimensional characters. Daniel Abraham is not afraid to push his characters or his readers to the edge, and even when he rewards you, it may still be bittersweet. If you enjoyed the first book, or if you’re looking for a new fantasy series to get into, The King’s Blood and The Dagger and the Coin are well worth your time.(less)
The Hammer and the Blade is a series-debuting novel by New York Times bestseller Paul S. Kemp. It introduces us to the adventuring duo of Egil, a warrior-priest, and his erstwhile companion Nix, a sneak, rogue, thief, and general ne’er-do-well, as they loot tombs, quaff ale, and generally get in over their heads. Hilarity ensues.
A Tale of Egil and Nix The above little bit of subtext appears on the cover of The Hammer and the Blade and represents something I really like and would really enjoy seeing done more often: it drops us into the middle of a world instead of on the edge of one. Us SFF readers, we’re clever people. I trust us to be able to collectively pick up on a story. Many fantasy novels these days (especially those with aspirations of becoming a long series) seem to feel that they must start at the beginning; we need to introduce the characters from scratch, give lots of back story, and work our way into the plot line. We don’t actually need any of that.
We’ll learn about the characters from their actions, and their dialogue. I learned more about Egil and Nix from the opening vignette of their robbing a tomb together than I learned about Rand Al’Thor from three books of prologue. This isn’t “the” tale of Egil and Nix, it’s just “a” tale. There are more where that tale came from, and there are more to come. There’s no promise that the next book picks up where this one left off, and I don’t think we need one. Egil and Nix are already such complete characters to me that I am happy jumping all over their timeline and just enjoying their antics. A bit of the ease with which you settle into their characters is that they are fairly tropey: Egil, the stoic, calm voice of reason… until you piss him off, then he starts smashing alongside Nix, the sarcastic, witty rogue with an eye for the ladies. There’s at least a little bit of Han and Chewbacca influence, as well as some Perrin and Mat. But that’s not a bad thing, either.
To me, Paul Kemp has always been about the development of characters through story. The characters are very real, they evolve, they grow, but they do that through the lens of the events that happen around and to them. We can start simple and fill it in as we go along. It gives the reader a sense of ownership over the characters that is really engaging. If you learn about them in bits and pieces as you go, instead of having this elaborate character study jammed down your throat, it feels more like they are your version of the characters.
Sword and Sorcery back in vogue? After the recent obsession in fantasy with massive sweeping epic storylines (see the burst of popularity for A Song of Ice and Fire around the HBO release of Game of Thrones, the ongoing popularity of the Wheel of Time, etc.) it was refreshing to get back to basics. I’ve been noticing a resurgence in the episodic, plot driven fantasy of my childhood and adolescence creeping onto the bookshelves, slightly disheveled as if they’ve just come in from the pub. The problems facing Egil and Nix aren’t the types that involve the world hanging in the balance. They robbed a tomb and pissed off a guy who is now causing problems for them. Once this problem is resolved one way or the other, one assumes they’re just going to go back to what they were doing before.
It’s nice to not have to be constantly aware of the wider ranging consequences of a storyline. I don’t have fifty things to keep straight, I don’t have to refer back to the prophecy in the foreword of the book, and I don’t need to try and memorize every character we saw who didn’t die in case they become important later on. I just get to read and enjoy a great story about some cool guys doing cool things. While I appreciate fantasy as high literature as much as (or possibly more) than the next guy, I do feel a little like our zeal to demonstrate to literature snobs that fantasy is a means of deep literary expression that is just as valid as any Oprah Book Club book caused us to stray from the fact that we’re also a genre built around action-packed adventure. Sometimes a longsword is just a longsword.
Why should you read this book? I found The Hammer and the Blade to be an excellent balance of solid worldbuilding and compelling characters with great action, snappy dialogue, and an emphasis on pacing. I’m hoping the next book in the series, A Discourse in Steel (Released by Angry Robot June 25th 2013), carries this on. I had a lot of fun with this book, and anybody who enjoys that sort of “odd couple” adventure watching great personalities clash around an action-packed episodic style storyline will have fun, too.
Egil and Nix are characters I’m hoping to see a lot more of in the coming years.(less)
Catherynne M. Valente is currently best known for her young adult Fairyland Series, but she’s also won awards for her adult novels The Orphan’s Tales:...moreCatherynne M. Valente is currently best known for her young adult Fairyland Series, but she’s also won awards for her adult novels The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and Palimpset. Her writing is utterly unique from concept to style and always a treat. So we here at The Ranting Dragon were really excited to hear about her latest release, a novella entitled Six-Gun Snow White. Released back in January, it’s proved to be a difficult commodity to come across. Subterranean is a specialty publisher, and many of its titles are only available in print for a limited run. The 1,000 signed and numbered limited edition print copies of Six-Gun Snow White have long since sold out directly from the publisher, though e-book copies are still available and print copies are available from specialty dealers.
You all know the tale of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” if not directly from The Brothers Grimm than from Disney and other children’s movies. Valente takes this classic tale and moves it to the American Old West. Snow White is the daughter of a wealthy white man and a Crow woman. When her father remarries a white woman, she finds herself neither white nor Indian in a world that prefers you to be either one or the other.
Incredible authorial voice When I say that Valente doesn’t write like anyone else, I mean it. Sometimes she can even figure out how to not write quite like herself, either. Half of the novella is told as a narration from Snow White, telling how she came to be and the events of her early childhood. Snow White’s language is a fantastic achievement and feels very authentic to someone living on the west coast of the United States in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, she doesn’t speak with an upper crust vocabulary, but with the drawl of someone from the working classes. Her speech is full of old sayings and flowery metaphors common to older forms of English, and I found it a delight to read.
Around the half-way point, Snow White decides that telling the whole story herself is too much of a burden and turns everything over to a third-person narrator. The language shifts, but rather than changing to a modern narration style, Valente shifts deeper into a traditional storytelling style that’s more often encountered from aural storytellers than written ones. Valente draws you deep into the tale and doesn’t let you go easily.
Intriguing changes, but no real surprises What I disliked most about this book is actually what initially drew me to it: the fact that it is a retelling of “Snow White.” I know this story inside out and backwards. I’ve read and seen a lot of iterations of the tale. While Valente makes some changes that are interesting, I wasn’t floored by them. They didn’t illicit new emotional responses to the tale from me. The farther I got into the book, the more I was reminded of Jane Yolen’s Snow in Summer, also a retelling of “Snow White,” even though the retellings have little to do with each other. In short, this is still a fairly basic retelling of “Snow White” with no attempts to disguise it. By the time I got to the real twists at the end, I had lost deep interest in the tale sometime before.
Why you should read this book Anything by Valente is a treat as she’s one of fantasy’s foremost modern authors. If you enjoy her work, are a connoisseur of re-told fairy tales like I am, or like more literary fantasy that uses instances of indirect storytelling, you’ll find something to like here. However, if you only like reading print editions of books, this may be an expensive investment as used copies are currently available from $40. And this is a novella, so even if you read rather slowly it’s a quick read.(less)
The Dead of Winter is the début novel by American author Lee Collins, and billed as "True Grit meets True Blood," it's a paranormal western action mystery (I know right!?). It pits the investigating gunfighters Cora and her husband Ben Oglesby against vampires and other supernatural enemies in the silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado.
Certainly a novel concept It seems so tempting these days to slap the suffix "-punk" onto every genre that already exists. It seems especially common when we get to the Old West: that desire to start gluing gears onto every flat surface and making giant robotic contraptions to menace everybody. So it's actually quite refreshing to see a western that is just a western. Sure, there might be vampires and hellhounds alongside the more usual bandits and sheriffs, but the supernatural elements are a lot easier to wrap your head around when you aren't also trying to deal with technology that is both a lot more complicated and too advanced for the era. There's just something visceral and wonderful about matching a Colt .45 against a vampire.
Collins' integration of the supernatural elements of the story is also fabulously well done. The reason legends like these exist in the first place is that scientific understanding of the past wasn't advanced enough to explain what we've later discovered to be natural phenomena. What we now deride as foolish parochial superstition was perfectly reasonable and logical to people of earlier times. It was not a large suspension of disbelief at all to go from, "People didn't know any better, so they thought a dog with some phosphorous on it was a hellhound" to, "It's actually a hellhound, it's just nobody hangs around or lives long enough to know that's what it is."
Introducing Cora Oglesby The protagonist of this tale is one Cora Oglesby, a sass-talking, whisky-drinking, ass-kicking hunter. In this age of fantasy, covers featuring lower back tattoos, bare midriffs, and increasingly awkward poses, Cora's appearance on the cover of The Dead of Winter was a breath of fresh air. Cowboy boots, Buffalo leather trench-coat, checkered flannel shirt, rifle slung over one shoulder, and rosary clenched in her other fist. Fantastic stuff. She is actually dressed for the work she plans to do, which she does with skill and determination because this is what she's chosen to do.
I'm brought to mind of some combination of all three of the main characters from the Western classic The Good, The Bad and the Ugly alongside Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. From Sergio Leone, Cora gets Clint Eastwood's dedication to doing the right thing. She is religious, and she feels ridding the world of the forces of darkness is doing God's work. We also see some of Lee Van Cleef's interest in the pay. Cora really doesn't care too much about the people in the town of Leadville. She's offering her help for a fair price, and if they don't want to listen to her, they can go hang. From Eli Wallach, she picks up a certain element of the outlaw. She's a vigilante, and the law doesn't much appreciate her swooping into town, guns blazing, causing trouble. From Whedon's vampire slayer, aside from the vampire slaying, you start to get the feeling that Cora has been called to this work. It feels like it's some degree of destiny for her since she seems to find herself involved in the supernatural whether she wants to or not.
Why should you read this book? I really enjoyed this book. Collins has a really gritty style that makes it feel like a western. The dialogue is in the vernacular, but not so far that you have trouble understanding it. The pacing is absolutely perfect, and it doesn't miss a beat throughout. The action is definitely straight out of the Spaghetti Westerns. All of these great pause moments where the characters eye each other across the square, then a sudden flurry of action, and the dust settles. Brilliant.
If westerns have ever seemed too boring or dull for you, this is about as unlike that as you can get while still wearing spurs on your boots. If you enjoy westerns but want to dabble in fantasy, you won't be disappointed either.(less)
Gameboard of the Gods (Age of X #1) is the first book in a new series by Richelle Mead. It takes place in a dystopian future and mainly follows the lives of Justin March, a disgraced former Servitor for RUNA, and Mae Koskinen, the quintessential badass soldier who is assigned to protect him. Together they must work to solve a string of ritualistic, and possibly supernatural, murders that have been taking place during the full moon. Oh, and there are gods in there, too. The characters, though, are the driving force of this novel, whereas the worldbuilding left much to be desired.
So let’s get that worldbuilding rant out of the way first I’ll bet you’re wondering what the hell “RUNA” is and why I didn’t bother to define that acronym in my introduction. Now imagine how you would feel if you had to read over 70 pages—with “RUNA” typed onto at least half of them—without an explanation. Seventy-nine pages. Seventy nine pages before Mead lets you know that “RUNA,” the main setting of the damn story, stands for “Republic of United North America.” This is just one of many, many examples in which Mead does a little too much showing and not enough telling. There are certain aspects of a world or story that simply need to be explained; you can’t just throw term after term at your readers and expect them to know what all of them mean. To be quite honest, I had to do research before writing this review because I am still rather confused about many aspects of this world.
I suppose I should provide a brief explanation of the (poorly-constructed) world in which this book takes place. A virus ravaged the world years ago and as a result RUNA and the EA (Eastern Alliance) swapped populations to try to mix up the gene pool and create resistance to the virus. Religious heretics also apparently had something to do with the restructuring of society (yet another element left unexplained), and Servitors now closely monitor all religious groups. Anyway, those who didn’t want to come to the gene-mixing-religion-regulating party were either imprisoned or fled to the outer provinces. This brings me to my next gripe with the worldbuilding: the provinces. Crime runs rampant, sexism is back in full force, technology is woefully behind that of RUNA and the EA, and women have to be accompanied by a chaperone in public. A chaperone? Is that a joke? What is this, the 18th century? For a book that is supposed to take place in a futuristic society, this makes no logical sense; why would society, even the outskirts of it, devolve so dramatically? Maybe I’m just being nit-picky, but the reasoning behind this (if there even was any) made little sense to me.
I will say, I think this world has a lot of potential, but Mead reached a little too far. It’s certainly an interesting world, but the confusion resulting from poor exposition often distracts from the plot itself.
Whoa lady, calm down there. What about the characters? Worldbuilding aside, I did very much enjoy the characters in this book. Justin March is a former Servitor who was exiled to the provinces, but RUNA calls him in to help investigate the string of ritualistic murders taking place during the full moon; they believe that a man of his particular skills might be able to crack the case. He is a womanizer, a drunk, a druggie, and my favorite character. He’s highly observant, somewhat reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, actually, and he is particularly talented at reading people. Justin’s witty dialogue and sharp retorts were some of my favorite parts of the book, and his introduction is a particularly enjoyable scene. There’s also Mae Koskinen. Mae is a praetorian, an elite group of soldiers with special enhancement chips implanted in them, and she’s one of the best. However, after an unfortunate outburst at her former lover’s funeral, she is assigned to guard Justin as punishment (bodyguard-ing is apparently far beneath praetorians). Mae is also very likeable, though at times she feels a bit too much like the stereotypical “badass” as opposed to an actual person. Justin and Mae also have great chemistry and sexual tension, and their interactions were some of my favorite scenes.
Oh, we also get perspective chapters from Tessa, the sixteen-year-old girl whom Justin brings back to RUNA from the provinces (in a protective, brotherly way, not in a dirty perverted way). Tessa’s likeable enough, but pretty pointless. Tessa’s a smart little lady and Mead must have plans for her later in the series, but Tessa’s main purpose in this book was to serve as exposition; seeing RUNA from her point of view was certainly helpful to the lackluster worldbuilding. Aside from her fresh perspective on RUNA, though, I was left wondering why Tessa was even included. There’s no foreshadowing in regard to her, and even just a hint to the purpose that she will later serve—hell, just acknowledging that she will serve a future purpose—would have been appreciated. As it is, Tessa’s chapters feel pointless.
Wait, where are the gods? Isn’t this their gameboard or something? Oh, right, the gods. Much like this subsection, the gods feel like a bit of an afterthought. We’re mainly reminded of their presence since Justin hears the voices of two ravens in his mind, both claiming to be speaking to him at the service of a god (and the source of many comical conversations). There are also rare hints here and there about gods surrounding Mae, but for a book titled Gameboard of the Gods, the gods played what seemed like a fairly minimal role until the last 100 or so pages of the book. Even then, their motives remain a mystery, but the mystery here is left so vague that it’s more frustrating than enticing.
Why should you read this book? Well, despite my multiple criticisms of this book, I honestly liked it enough that I couldn’t put it down at certain points. The action is well-done, and this book is a fairly quick read. The lackluster worldbuilding is a flaw that I was generally able to overlook because I enjoyed the characters and the dialogue so thoroughly. I also believe that this world, as well as this series, have the potential to be quite good, and will be reading the next book in the Age of X series based mainly on this potential.
Marnie received a review copy of Gameboard of the Gods courtesy of Penguin Books.(less)
In Naomi Novik’s marvelous alternative history Temeraire series, the British armies fight the French warmonger Napoleon Bonaparte—and both armies possess an air force of dragons. It’s a concept that merges everything that’s good about fantasy, combining an imaginative, meticulously detailed historical setting with dragons, swords, battleships, and gunpowder. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Temeraire series is one of my favorite ongoing works of fantasy.
Unfortunately, after five wonderful novels, the sixth installment, Tongues of Serpents, proved lackluster and in want of forward movement. In fact, I would almost propose simply skipping it, as it adds nothing to the series. Fortunately, the seventh volume—Crucible of Gold, which came out last summer—brings a change in pace and a small step back in the right direction. Crucible of Gold once again thrusts readers into a nineteenth century filled with war, political intrigue, and seafaring. However, it continues to exhibit the general lack of direction that plagued Tongues of Serpents.
Spoilers for the previous novels in the Temeraire series ahead.
South American adventure After Temeraire and his captain, William Laurence, were convicted of treason and departed to the Australian penitentiary colony, they have slowly started to get used to life again—that is, until an old friend appears and offers them a general pardon in exchange for their diplomatic assistance. Napoleon has struck a bargain with the Tswana dragons and shipped them to Brazil to retrieve their people, who were enslaved by the Portuguese. It is important for the continued campaign against the French invaders that the African dragons are stopped. Thus, Temeraire and Laurence, joined by old friends, embark once more on an adventure—an adventure that, this time, takes them to South America.
Their adventure, however, doesn’t go as planned. Soon enough, it becomes evident that this novel is by no means about the war against France, nor about the battles between African and Portuguese dragons. Instead, Crucible of Gold is driven by political intrigue and themes of slavery and inequality—themes that have been addressed throughout all of Novik’s books but which are amplified in this latest installment.
A matter of equality In the Temeraire series, we have become acquainted with many different cultures and their varying relationships between man and dragon, each of them skillfully and intricately crafted. The British treat their dragons as nothing more than weapons, tools, and property. In contrast, the Chinese and their dragons live together in equality. Then there are the Tswana dragons who are worshiped as the reptilian reincarnations of deceased tribal elders. Now we meet the Incan Empire in Crucible of Gold, a culture in which dragons are the masters and humans are their property. These dragons and their people add a whole new dynamic to the themes already introduced in Novik’s previous novels and create new problems for the British dragons and their crews to deal with. Suddenly, they are facing other dragons trying to steal their crew members, and soon the British dragons must learn to perceive their captains differently.
Then there is the question of the African dragons reclaiming their people. Through the eyes of the book’s characters, we face the ancient question: is it morally okay for one man to possess another? These are the questions that shift Crucible of Gold’s focus away from action and towards human (and dragon) relationships, and even a hint of romance here and there. However, while these themes sound plenty compelling, the execution felt mechanical rather than emotionally engaging. Some characters, like Iskierka, do get some much-needed moments to shine and develop, but, in general, the events in Crucible of Gold lack any impact on the overall direction of the characters and story.
Why should you read this book? In the end, this new direction for the Temeraire series doesn’t work for me. I long for the story to return to where I believe its strengths lie: the war against Napoleon and the battles waged both at sea and in the air, in which dragons and gunpowder are artfully combined. If you’ve come this far in the series, you’ll probably want to read Crucible of Gold as well, if only for the character development and the amazing South American world building. And of course, Novik’s prose and dialogue, which feels at the same time modern and befitting the early nineteenth century, remains astounding as always. I just hope that Blood of Tyrants, which comes out in August 2013, will bring us back to Europe and the true action of the war.(less)
When the daughter of one of Boston's wealthiest is murdered with no apparent cause of death, her family goes to the only person they can: Ethan Kaille, conjurer. Upon investigation, it is readily apparent to Ethan that the girl was murdered with magic. However, he has competition that doesn't appreciate his being hired for this particular job.
Throw in two opposing factions, rising tensions both political and personal, a murderous antagonist so far out of Ethan's league that he's the next city over, and you've got the basics for a pretty typical kickass urban fantasy.
Except Thieftaker isn't your typical urban fantasy. I've got two words for you:
You say you want a revolution… I'm not typically a fan of period works. When I am, they're usually infused with elements that put the historical aspects on the back burner. A prime example of this is Namoi Novik's Temeraire novels. Sure, it's the Napoleonic war, but with dragons. Dragons. 'Nuff said. Another example is Devon Monk's Age of Steam, a steampunk-slash-magic-slash-werewolf tale set in expansionary America. Again, the time period takes a back seat to everything else.
Thieftaker is different than both of those. The magic is subtle enough that you don't get pulled out of the setting. Not only that, but the reminders of the period are nuanced enough that they impart information, add to the story, and are a character in their own right—all while keeping the reader aware that this is not a recent time period. This is due in part to the style of prose Jackson writes. While he could have gone overboard and delved into the English syntax of the time, he didn't—at least, not for descriptions and narration. It's this combination of modern language patterns and period authenticity that really allowed me to stay enraptured.
History has its ghosts However, I bet you weren't thinking of ghosts like these—for the ghosts in Jackson's alternative Boston seem to be the central part of magical power in the world. Whenever Ethan conjures magic, a ghostly spectre dressed in the garb of a knight appears to… help things along, I suppose. In this, the audience is limited by how much the protagonist knows, which isn't much more than expressed here. In my opinion, that's a smart move—I want to learn more about the magic in this world, now. However, the ghosts aren't the source of magical power, necessarily. Many things may be used to fuel a conjuring, from grass to herbs to blood, and we get to see Ethan experiment with all of these throughout the novel.
The primary antagonist of the novel is a big-league conjurer, someone way out of Ethan's depth. It's intriguing to see just how much more potent this conjurer's spells are than Ethan's. In turn, this forces Ethan to play smarter, not just harder—though that in and of itself is no guarantee of survival. All in all, Jackson has made some smart choices, but I was left wondering where else this world could go in terms of antagonists. Honestly, I don't know that there's really anything to top that sort of conflict, so I'm interested (and a little worried) to see what happens in a sequel.
So real, you could touch it Thieftaker exhibits one of the most "real" environments I've ever experienced in a book. While partially due to the fact that I am fairly familiar with Revolutionary-era Boston because I actually paid attention in school (and am an American), I believe this is due mostly to Jackson's command of his craft. Most of the characters seem, well, like actual people. Shocking, I know. Yet even those who got very little screen time read as very vibrant people with whom I could actually see myself having conversations, were I in this particular world. This isn't just for characters of Jackson's creation—this is 1765 Boston, after all, and major players of American history are basically required to make appearances.
I love Samuel Adams. That is all.
On another note, Thieftaker features a cast with a decent portion of female players. Now, not all of these characters are strong, brook-no-nonsense women—because, let's face it, that didn't happen a lot in the eighteenth century. However, I will give Jackson this: he has a very accurate mix of personalities in his characters. There is the tough-as-nails innkeeper, who is absolutely brilliant, but then there is Ethan's ex, who is a more timid, stay-at-home-don't-ask-questions kind of woman, but is equally perfectly portrayed in her own right.
And then there's my favorite: the woman essentially in charge of Boston from the shadows. You know, devious, malicious, and utterly without many morals. If you've read Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, she's akin to how Marcone would be if he were female and in 1765 Boston.
Why should you read this book? There's a lot of good in Thieftaker with only a little bit of not-as-good to mix things up. If you're a fan of urban fantasy looking for something a little different, read this book. If you're a fan of mystery looking for something a little different, read this book. Heck, if you're a fan of fantasy in general looking for something a little different, read this book. With solid worldbuilding, magic system, and characters, Thieftaker is an engaging and intriguing blend of history, fantasy, and mystery that pulls you in and immerses you in its environment until you can't put it down. I eagerly look forward to the sequel, Thieves' Quarry, out on July 2, 2013 from Tor Books.(less)
What if you could simply stop aging? This is the question that lies at the heart of Drew Magary’s debut novel, The Postmortal. Told through what is essentially a series of electronic diary entries written by a man named John Farrell, The Postmortal chronicles the near-future where a cure for aging has been discovered and humanity has taken its first tentative steps toward immortality.
Living forever—that’s great, right? Maybe not. The cure for aging that sparks the world of The Postmortal guarantees that its recipients will never get any older; they won’t feel any older, they won’t look any older, and they won’t be able to die of natural causes. It might seem great in concept, but it’s not as wonderful as you might believe; The Postmortal addresses the consequences of eternal life head-on. One character points out that retirement is no longer an option. A young woman suddenly realizes that she is always going to get her period. As the doctor who gives John Farrell the cure says, not being able to die a natural death only ensures some other form—starvation, disease, perhaps a knife to the heart in some dark alley. The Postmortal takes a serious look at what it would mean to never age, and it’s rarely a positive look.
It’s not post-apocalyptic, it’s pre-apocalyptic The Postmortal is a curious book in that it’s certainly an apocalyptic story, but it’s not post-apocalyptic. Rather, this is the story of humanity rushing straight into an apocalypse—and in a way, that makes it even darker and more depressing than the typical grim tones of post-apocalyptic settings. In The Postmortal, the future promises only to be ever-worse than the present, and there’s no way to stop its inevitable coming. It’s not cynicism, it’s just reality—a very, very unpleasant reality.
While The Postmortal certainly has a satirical edge—and even a few funny moments scattered throughout—I wouldn’t describe it as a light or comedic book by any stretch of the imagination. This book is very, very dark, and it is not a fun read. It even feels like Magary is trying to channel George R.R. Martin at some points; whenever the characters get a little taste of happiness, something has to come along and ruin their lives. I don’t mean any of this as a complaint, however, because Magary handles this aspect of The Postmortal spectacularly. He has a talent for creating emotionally engaging characters very quickly, so it hurts to see them continually and unfairly beaten down by the world. There was one scene in particular that hit me very hard; I had to put the book down, and I spent the rest of the day in a foul mood. Only one other book has ever been able to punch me in the gut with that much force, so I commend Magary for being able to pull it off.
Stumbling over the finish line For all its strengths, there was one aspect of The Postmortal that just didn’t click with me. There is a particular plot thread that is introduced late in the book, and I found it both uninteresting and unbelievable—which was made all the more prominent in comparison to how grounded and genuine the rest of the book felt. Rather than stay consistent to the very last page, The Postmortal devolves into something that comes across as cheesy and very “marketable.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a betrayal of the rest of the book, it just does not mesh with what came before, and it taints an otherwise incredible reading experience. As someone who is often disappointed by endings, this would normally hurt my opinion of the book significantly; however, since the rest of The Postmortal is just that good, it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me.
Why should you read this book? Bothersome plot thread aside, The Postmortal is an absolutely amazing book. While I was making my way through the first three hundred pages or so, I was fairly convinced that it would rank amongst the best books I’ve ever read, and although the final section of the book knocked it down from that potential status, those first three hundred pages remain stellar literature. If you like books that challenge you, disturb you, and sweep you into terrifying fictional worlds that feel all-too-real, then The Postmortal is for you. If you like books with complex characters, razor-sharp writing, and fresh ideas, then The Postmortal is for you. I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you like great books, then The Postmortal is for you. Go read it.(less)