For a long time I’ve wanted to read something by Karen Lord, so I was excited when I was given the opportunity to review the audiobook of The Galaxy Game. This latest novel by Lord sounded very promising, featuring a compelling blurb that teases a fascinating premise and hints at some action. Thus I admit I went into it with high expectations, but regretfully came out of the experience feeling rather underwhelmed.
I also feel that I should state that The Galaxy Game is a sequel, which I did not realize until I was about half way through the book. It probably would have eased some of the initial confusion, but I still don’t believe it’s entirely necessary to have read the first book The Best of all Possible Worlds before reading this because I was able to piece together a bit of what happened and follow the main story without too many problems. Plus, while it’s true I might have gotten more out of the story if I’d read book one, doing so still probably wouldn’t have negated some of my issues with this novel’s structure or stylistic choices.
In the book we’re introduced to Rafi Delarua, a teenager who is all but imprisoned in a place called the Lyceum which is a school for young people with psi powers. In a society that deeply mistrusts psionically gifted individuals, Rafi has to endure the education and various treatments designed to control those like him. It doesn’t help either that his father’s unethical use of his powers has left Rafi and his family a legacy of disgrace.
Rafi knows it would have been different if he had lived on the planet of Punartam, where psi abilities would be seen as the norm. So the first chance he gets, he escapes the Lyceum and makes his way there. Punartam also happens to be the home of wallrunning – his favorite sport. With the help of his friend, Rafi manages to find a way to not only play but also to train with the best players. Coming here didn’t mean the end of all his problems, however. There are new deals taking place, changes happening in the dynamics between civilizations in the galaxy. Learning how to integrate into a new society is challenging enough, but now Rafi finds out he will also have a role to play in the coming political storm.
It actually sounds more dramatic than it is. While I wouldn’t call this book dull, it did feel like a considerable amount of time was given to explanations of societal themes and classifications. Like I said, if I had read The Best of All Possible Worlds I might not have felt so lost, but regardless, I don’t typically mind putting in time to familiarize myself with a story’s setting. I didn’t even have a problem with the instances where I had to listen to a few sections of the audiobook over again to ensure I understood the significance of certain details. Lord has actually created a very unique and robust world here, which I really enjoyed. No, my struggles with this book had less to do with the deluge of information at the beginning (though it did make for a rough start) and more to do with the bizarre switches in narrative voice and points-of-view, as well as jumps in the plot.
In some ways, listening to the audiobook alleviated this problem. Narrator Robin Miles’ voice work is really impressive here, especially when it comes to her talent with accents. The result is that it didn’t matter how many times we switched POVs, Miles’ use of different voices made it immediately clear to me which character we were supposed to be following, saving me the time to figure it out. The convoluted plot, however, was another matter. This isn’t a light tale to begin with, and the exposition further weighs things down. The story also takes its time to get going, so some soldiering on is required to get to get to the part where it begins to find its stride, which is quite a bit to ask of readers (or listeners, in this case).
One final thing: I wish there had been more wallrunning. What we get in here does not make the sport sound as exciting as it should, also perhaps because it is so difficult to visualize what the players are doing. Rather than getting me pumped up, the action scenes instead made me feel bewildered and out of my depth.
All told, The Galaxy Game was not what I expected. In spite of a fascinating world, I wish there had been more substance to the characters and plot. Narrator Robin Miles did an excellent job, but even her fabulous performance could not resolve the flaws I found that were inherent to the story. However, I think I would have struggled even more with this book if I had read it in its print form. If I had known ahead of time that this was a sequel, I probably would have started with The Best of All Possible Worlds as my first Karen Lord book, and not least because it is book number one – it also appears that the consensus from those who have read both books is that The Galaxy Game was not as strong as its predecessor. When I read that one I will most likely seek out the audio version as well, especially since Robin Miles is also the narrator, and I expect the experience will be more positive....more
When it comes to Young Adult fiction, David Hair hasn’t just broken the mold. He’s completely shattered it. His book The Pyre is a substantially revised edition of his 2010 novel Pyre of Queens, inspired heavily by Indian folklore and mythology, even incorporating a reimagined version of the epic Ramayana. The entire novel takes place in India, following the lives (and past lives) of a trio of Indian high school students.
Two story lines occur in tandem over the course of this novel. One takes place in 769 AD in the royal court of Ravindra-Raj, the mad king of Rajasthan. His people live in the shadow of his tyranny, and anyone suspected of sedition or rebellion is quickly tortured and killed. Fearing that Ravindra will come for him next, Madan Shastri, Captain of the Guard, redoubles his efforts to show his loyalty even though his king’s cruel commands sicken him. The court poet Aram Dhoop is a bookish man who is unhappy with the way things are, but lacks the fighting skills or courage to do anything about it – that is, until Ravindra suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances and Aram learns that the king’s wives are to be burned to death on the pyre along with their husband’s body. Aram had fallen in love with the newest of the wives, a young woman named Darya, and in a moment of daring, the poet rescues her from the flames and whisks her off away from the palace. As the guard captain, Shastri is ordered by Ravindra’s son and heir to go after them. Reluctant as he is, Shastri has no choice but to obey.
However, all was not as it seemed. Ravindra’s death and the burning of his wives was actually a part of the mad king’s schemes all along. His plan to rise again as Ravana, the demon-king of the Ramayana was thwarted by Darya’s escape, and now he’ll make them all regret it – for a long, long, LONG time.
Fast forward to a high school in the city of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, in the year 2010. Nerdy Vikram, athletic Amanjit and beautiful Deepika are three students whose lives are changed forever when a strange phenomenon is triggered the first time they all find themselves together in one place. Soon, they’re working together to solve the mystery of how the three of them are linked, and the answers they seek may be hidden in the past.
Before reading The Pyre, the only other works I’ve read by David Hair were his Moontide Quartet books, pure epic fantasy albeit with some influences from real life locations, cultures and religions. This book, however, is impressively solid mix of Hair’s understanding and respect for Hinduism, the rich mythology and history of India, as well as the realities of modern life in that country today. The amount of research and care that went into this book to make it as accurate as possible must have been astounding.
Also, for a book that’s being classified by many as Young Adult, it is actually quite mature. Even though the three main protagonists are teenagers, adults will have no trouble enjoying this. David Hair doesn’t pull punches or talk down to his audience, even when it comes to the portrayal of difficult or sensitive themes in both the historical and modern-day timelines. Reflective readers will also find plenty in this book to discuss or think about.
The book is not without its flaws, though in the overall scope of things, they can be considered pretty minor. I thought the story was a little slow to take off, and generally I found the storyline with the three teens in the present to be more interesting and engaging than the storyline with Aram, Shastri, and Darya in the past, though that may be a very personal preference. Even with the very obvious love triangle thrown in, I simply found life Hair’s description of Vikram, Amanjit, and Deepika’s day-to-day lives in modern-day India much more fascinating and unique. After all, how often do I get the chance to read something like that? Whereas, the past storyline didn’t feel that different from reading historical fantasy.
All in all, if you enjoy books that are creative retellings of myths and would like to broaden your horizons beyond stories inspired by the western tradition, you definitely need to put this one on your list. The Pyre is a great opportunity to experience a story featuring diverse locations and characters, not to mention a wonderful read all around....more
In this day and age where one can’t even walk into a bookstore’s sci-fi section without a few dozen dystopian titles getting thrown in your face, I have to say Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife really impacted me in a big way. It put me in mind of an eccentric high school teacher I once had, who was a little obsessed with doomsday scenarios. He used to be fond of saying that if the civilizations were to crumble or if the whole world were to go to war, it wouldn’t be over things like a pandemic or nuclear war. No, it would be for water – fresh, drinkable water without which none of us can survive.
Indeed, Bacigalupi paints a rather bleak, hellish picture of a place where water is scarce and more valuable than gold, a resource for which people are willing to kill and destroy. Drought has ravaged the American Southwest, changing the physical and political landscape. States like Nevada and Arizona clash viciously over shares of the Colorado River while bigwig California looks on, and states like Texas and New Mexico have long since given up the ghost. Las Vegas employs mercenaries like Angel Velasquez as “Water Knives”, hired to “cut” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its boss, Catherine Case. This ensures continued survival for her lush arcology developments in the hot desert, where the rich luxuriate in cushy comfort while elsewhere cities like Phoenix dry up and stagnate for lack of water.
This book follows Angel as he travels to Phoenix to investigate rumors of a new water source for his boss. The story is told through two other perspectives, including a journalist named Lucy Monroe, as well as a young Texan refugee named Maria Villarosa. Desperate and destitute folk like Maria are struggling to make a living in the city while dreaming of one day having enough money to escape north. Lucy, on the other hand, could have left any time she pleased, but years of living in Phoenix has led her to adopt it as her home, and you get a sense that she’d do what she can to try to help the city. When it appears that California is finally making its move to monopolize the river, Angel, Lucy and Maria end up coming together in a precarious alliance to stop a conspiracy and secure a future for the people of Phoenix.
There are many unsettling themes in this book, and not least of all because the scarcity of potable water is a reality for many people in the world. Talk of droughts in California and in the American Southwest in the news today makes The Water Knife seem less like science fiction and more like a commentary on current issues. If seeing pictures of the immaculate green lawns and freshly filled-pools of the rich and famous during a drought make your blood boil, then this book will take that fury to a whole new level. It’s really hard to read about this divided America where characters like Maria were driven out of Texas after their water got shut off, only to be treated like interlopers when they have no choice but to migrate to Arizona. Girls like Maria’s friend Sarah turn to prostitution as a last resort, servicing those wealthy corporate types for whom a single shower may use up more water than a poor person in Phoenix might see in an entire week. Then to rub salt in the wound, the girls’ money gets taken away by the local gangsters, never allowing anyone a fair shot to work themselves out of this nightmarish situation. There’s a lot in this book that’s hard to take.
It’s also heavy on graphic violence, descriptions of torture both during and after the act, and generally features many scenes of groups of people doing terrible, unspeakable things to other groups of people. If you are squeamish about such things, you should probably go in prepared to read some pretty sick stuff. To the book’s credit, while there’s certainly no shortage of examples in here when it comes humanity’s lowest moments, there are nonetheless many instances of characters stepping up to show an extraordinary amount of bravery and compassion. Despite being categorized as a sci-fi thriller, The Water Knife is also a very human story, where characters are intimately touched by plot events as well as the lives of other people.
The book isn’t exactly a light read, even in the audiobook format I listened to, with its heavy themes and also some parts which are quite drawn out with descriptions. But for all their lengthiness, I think I have these sections to thank for making the world of The Water Knife one of the most detailed and fleshed out dystopians I’ve read. Southwestern America has reverted back to a kind of wildness, a melting pot of disparate rhythms and cultures where Red Cross aid workers, rich Chinese businessmen, underworld crooks, poverty-stricken refugees, sensationalist media journalists, religious evangelists, and dangerous mercenaries all commingled together in a dying city. This also makes the audiobook of The Water Knife worth experiencing, as narrator Almarie Guerra delivers a performance filled with a great variety of accents and voices, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.
This is the first book by Paolo Bacigalupi I’ve ever read, but if this is the kind of originality and well-rounded quality I can expect from his writing, it certainly won’t be the last. I really enjoyed The Water Knife, and I look forward to checking out the author’s previous work as well as his future books.
The Price of Valor is the third book of The Shadow Campaigns, of which five books have been planned so we are officially now past the half-way point. An epic fantasy series is often at its most precarious when we get to this tricky place between the introduction and the ending, where arguably the best action and excitement is usually packed. However, it appears Django Wexler is not content to slow things down or let his story languish. Not only does he succeed in carrying through the momentum for the rest of the series, he’s also transformed this middle book into an important turning point.
So far, each installment of the series has given readers something different. Book one The Thousand Names threw us into the middle of a war and treated us to many scenes of large-scale conflict and sweeping battles. Book two The Shadow Throne reined in the scope, concentrating instead on the politics and subsequent revolution in the capital of Vordan. Now book three The Price of Valor is like an amalgamation of both, so that half the narrative remains in the city in the wake of the successful uprising, while the other half takes us back onto the bloody battlefields.
In the wake of her father’s death, Princess Raesenia is now the queen. After an attempt is made on her life, she suspects that the new leader of the Deputies-General is responsible, and goes undercover to search for evidence. Remaining behind in the capital as the representative of the army, Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire finds himself teaming up with the young queen, tasked to protect her and to help her root out those who want her dead. Little does he know though, Raesenia might have a secret or two up her sleeve which would actually make her rather hard to kill…
Meanwhile, Winter Ihernglass is back out in the east, trying to win the war for General Janus bet Vhalnich. She has been promoted and given her own regiment to command, including the new all-women company called the Girl’s Own, though ironically Winter’s own gender still remains a secret to the army, save for a few individuals who are in the know. Among those who are aware of Winter’s secret is her lover Jane, whose hatred for the contingent of Royals in the regiment is making Winter’s job very difficult. Lurking behind the scenes are also the agents of an ancient order called the Priests of the Black, whose Penitent Damned will harness the power of their demons to do whatever it takes to stop the Vordanai army and retrieve the priceless magical artifact known as The Thousand Names.
I was so pleased to see that the military action is back in full force for this sequel. Taking a break to delve into political intrigue and rebellion in book two was a nice change of pace, but I admit my interest mostly lies in the war campaign and the huge battles. Wexler doesn’t disappoint, throwing in plenty of heart-racing encounters with the enemy. Reading some of Winter’s chapters was a little like watching a session of wargames play out across a vast gameboard, with troop actions directed by a shrewd chessmaster who is aware of every piece’s location at all times. In point of fact, these qualities closely describe Janus bet Vhalnich, the military genius whose presence is actually quite limited in the first half of the novel, which made the wargames analogy that much more apt in my mind.
The general’s craftiness is not lost on Jane either, and Winter’s storyline is also made more interesting by the increasingly strained relationship between the two women. Winter’s loyalties are put to the test when she is made to choose between the two things she holds most dear, and I have to hand it to the author for not making that choice trivial. There’s a lot of development to Winter’s character in this book, and I respect her all the more for the difficult decisions she’s had to make about her lover, whom I’ve taken to calling “Insufferable Jane” due to all the problems she’s caused (and that’s already one of my more polite names for her). The road to the eventual camaraderie between the Girl’s Own and the Royals was also fun to read, and made for a good side plot to lighten up the otherwise heavy narrative focused on intense fighting and the resulting casualties.
Still, I was wrong when I thought the best part about this book would be the military action, because what surprised me was how much I enjoyed Marcus and Raesenia’s storyline back in the city of Vordan. Raesenia really grew on me back when she was introduced in The Shadow Throne and I was happy to see her return as a POV character in this one. To see her partner up with Marcus – who has always been my favorite character in these novels – was a real treat. Together they make a great team (and dare I hope, could Wexler be planting the seeds of something more happening between them in the future?) and their investigations into the corrupt government saw their Vordan chapters culminate into one hell of an epic showdown with the Patriot Guards and the Penitent Damned.
Speaking of which, we’re definitely making some real headway into the overall story. I’ve been wondering since the end of the first book when we’ll see some major advancement into the conflict caused by the discovery of The Thousand Names, and when the Black Priests will show their hand. Looks like this book is where it all happens. I did say The Price of Valor is a turning point, and you’ll see why. Even after three books, the impact of the stories have not dulled a single bit.
Needless to say, I’m very excited for the next installment. It’s easy to get caught up in The Shadow Campaigns. Django Wexler’s riveting world of dark magic and martial action featuring strong characters – and especially strong women – is one I’ll want to visit again and again. Military fantasy at its finest....more
In a small island town on the coast of South Carolina, everyone disappears. The military, scientists, and media are all perplexed. Rewind back to a day before, when everything still seemed hunky-dory. There’s David Ribault, smarting over the arrival of a slick Northerner named Rawson Steele who has come blazing into town looking to buy up property. Davy returns that evening to the home he shares with his girlfriend Merrill, to find her and Rawson leaning close to each other on the porch, talking. Jealousies flare, tempers rise, and Davy and Merrill end up having a huge fight, ignoring the sage relationship advice of “never go to bed angry.”
It’s a decision that both of them will come to regret. Without waking Merrill or leaving a note, Davy wakes up in the dead of night for a meeting and confrontation outside the town with Rawson Steele. However, Steele ends up being a no-show. Morning has come by the time Davy decides to head back to the island, but it is already too late. Everyone in the village gone without a trace, including Merrill.
This mysterious and spooky scenario has the feel of a Stephen King story all over it, starting with an unexplainable paranormal event that disappears the entire population of Kraven Island, eventually culminating into an end with lots of panic, terror and paranoia. But that’s pretty much where my comparison ends, because Where is a very unique novel that does its own very unique thing. Kit Reed’s choice of writing style for this book is interesting, adopting an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative for most of it. Reed also makes a story decision that I personally find very bold, in that she shows both sides of the mystery and lets us see through the eyes of the missing. We get chapters from the perspectives of Merrill, her brother Ned, as well as their overbearing and unstable father, who along with all the townsfolk have been mysteriously whisked away to another plane of existence. Time moves differently in this strange new dimension, and the longer the missing are trapped, the more the feelings of helplessness and fear seem to warp their minds.
Where is a real head-trip, and it’s good at playing on readers’ fear of the unknown especially when it comes to unsolved mass disappearances. Its story even makes references to high-profile incidents like the Lost Colony of Roanoke as well as missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Coverage of such incidents make a lot of us anxious and uncomfortable, particularly when they happen in more modern times when it really hits home that neither science nor technology can prevent or explain every case, and the book is written in a purposeful way to stir up all these unsettling emotions. Through Davy’s chapters I could feel his guilt and frustration, because sometimes not knowing can be even more painful than the truth. Through Merrill’s, I could feel the rising tensions and the collective fear ultimately becoming too much for everyone to bear. Throughout the novel there is a pervasive sense of eeriness that I really enjoyed.
As for where the book stumbles, the aforementioned quirks in the writing style could pose possible obstacles for readers; I personally found the 13-year-old Ned’s chapters very difficult to read because he uses bad grammar, bad punctuation and run-on sentences galore. Where is also a very short novel and I didn’t feel enough time was given to develop the characters or story. Someone like Merrill’s arrogant and power-hungry father was given an intriguing chapter where we were able to glimpse his very disturbed mind, but for the most part he came across like a caricature. I didn’t get a good feel for any of the characters which is a shame, because without the emotional connection in what should be a very emotional tale, this book falls a bit flat. The ending also came very abruptly, leaving me hanging on this mystery that doesn’t really offer a solution or much closure.
Still, right up until the ending, I was really enjoying this book. I wish the ultimate payoff could have been more satisfying, but I also can’t deny that for the most part Where is a very eerie and atmospheric novel. The build-up of tension alone makes this one a worthy read, and be prepared for some chills if you find you get spooked by unexplained phenomena or stories about strange mass disappearances....more
I’m not usually one to pick up novellas outside of a series’ main books, but for The Shadow Campaigns I’d gladly make an exception – which should give you a hint into how much I love this series. A couple of years ago when Django Wexler released the prequel short story The Penitent Damned for free, I snatched it up and read that one too. It introduced us to a young female thief named Alex who possesses a demon inside her that allows her to do some incredible things, giving her an edge over others in her trade.
Now Alex’s tale continues in The Shadow of Elysium, but it is told instead through the eyes of a young man named Abraham, a character who also has a demon inside him. The novella opens with the two of them in chains, traveling on a prisoner wagon to the fortress-city of Elysium to start a lonely and brutal life under the watchful eyes of the Priests of the Black. Every other chapter we get a glimpse into Abraham’s past as he tells of his life growing up in a remote village, the day he discovers his demon and the healing powers it grants him, and the events that led up to his arrest. Eventually things converge into the present, and Abraham has decided to stage a daring breakout. But then, there’s his fellow captive Alex. The young woman’s abilities are a mystery to him, but he has no doubt that they must be dangerous if the guards feel the need to keep her sedated at almost all hours of the day – which means she could be their greatest chance for escape.
The Shadow of Elysium can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone, no prior experience with The Shadow Campaigns series is required since these characters and events are completely apart from the main story. You don’t even need to have read The Penitent Damned. It’s a great place for new readers to jump on board but also a wonderful experience for fans of the series because it adds so much in terms of world building. This novella’s main focus is Abraham anyhow, a deeply personal tale that does a way better job exploring a protagonist than most short fiction I’ve ever read. We’ve not seen first person narration used in this series until now, but it works extraordinarily well for Abraham’s story and it was probably the foremost reason I took to him so quickly in just a handful of pages. A lot of short stories and novellas have disappointed me in the past because they don’t leave much room for character development (which is why I typically avoid them), but this isn’t a problem here. In fact, I find the storytelling well-paced and very balanced.
Now I realize complaining that a novella is too short is a bit like complaining that ice cream is too sweet, so I’m not going to do it here; but I do, however, want to say I wished it hadn’t ended so abruptly. It was a deflating moment when I turned the page with excitement expecting another chapter to see what became of Abraham and Alex, to discover that the remaining 25% of the book or so was actually a preview for the third novel of the series The Price of Valor. To Wexler’s credit though, he definitely made me want more. And considering how I’ve been looking forward to The Price of Valor for almost a year now, I certainly couldn’t remain glum for long.
What else can I say but if you haven’t picked up The Thousand Names yet, what in the hells are you waiting for, go out and get it, go out and get it NOW! But okay, if you’re still on the fence and not sure if you want to take the plunge into yet another epic fantasy series (I understand, as they do demand a lot of your time), I urge you to check out The Shadow of Elysium. Like The Penitent Damned, it serves as a fantastic introduction to Wexler’s writing and gives a taste of what The Shadow Campaigns has to offer, and it’s an even better novella. A wonderful place to get started....more
I really enjoyed Seriously Wicked, though feel I should also preface my review with the note that I’m probably not the intended demographic for this book. Young Adult and Teen Fiction is a genre I dip into quite frequently, but I was initially thrown off a bit by this novel’s tone and writing style which felt skewed even younger, maybe preteen (back in Grade Five and Six, we were already reading books about high schoolers, so it’s possible). It took some adjusting, but once I was able to get used to the crushes on “boy-band boys” and girls named Sparkle, I felt I could give this one a shot. And really, it was a lot of fun. If it were possible to go back in time, I probably wouldn’t hesitate a second to hand this one off to my 11 or 12-year-old self.
The story begins with an introduction to our 15-year-old protagonist Camellia Anna Stella Hendrix, whose days consist of figuring out ways to foil her adopted witch mother’s plans for world domination, running around town collecting strange and sometimes disgusting ingredients for her magical spells, and all the while trying to pass her algebra test and not get distracted by the cute new boy in town. However, the witch Sarmine’s latest plot to take over the world by harnessing the power of a dying phoenix on the night of the big Halloween dance might complicate matters slightly.
Actually, scratch that. Matters are complicated by A LOT when Sarmine’s failed demon summoning session ends with the demon taking over the body of Devon, the aforementioned cute new boy in town. Now on top of not flunking algebra, Cam has to worry about getting the demon out of Devon and preventing the school getting destroyed. Can things get any worse? Well, yes, yes they can. Hunting down hidden phoenixes and chasing after demon-possessed boys is just the beginning.
As you can probably tell from its description and cover, Seriously Wicked is a fun, quirky book – emphasis on the quirky. Like I said, the story is probably geared more towards preteens or young teens, which might account for some of the silliness. It’s a very lighthearted and upbeat book, which means it’s probably good for providing some cheerful, innocent entertainment for folks of all ages. Its lightness and YA designation notwithstanding, the story actually has a lot of complexity, quite a few not-very-obvious twists and turns, as well as many instances of Cam finding very creative and outside-the-box solutions to her problems. Readers will adore Cam, whose quick thinking and determination can help get her out of any difficult situation, from dealing with high school mean girl cliques to procuring a source of goat’s blood for Sarmine’s spells.
My final verdict is, if you’re an older teen or adult looking for more age-appropriate reading, Seriously Wicked probably will feel too immature for you. However, yours truly did her best to put herself in a middle-grader’s shoes and was still able to find plenty to like about the book. Those curious about Tina Connolly’s work but aren’t into Children’s or YA fiction could probably check out her Ironskin series which is said to be quite good, and having read the second book Copperhead I can attest to that. If you don’t mind a cute, charming read that clocks out at just a tad over 200 pages though (so it’s also very quick), give this one a go....more
Mother of Eden certainly wasn’t a bad book, not bad at all. Still, I have to say it’s a far cry from the first book, which I absolutely adored.
First, it’s important to know that Mother of Eden isn’t exactly a direct follow-up to Dark Eden, taking place roughly five or six generations in the future. Be aware that if you are thinking of reading it as a stand-alone though, you’ll miss out on a lot of the background information in the first book. Remember how I’d ended my review of Dark Eden with the theory that characters like John Redlantern, Tina, Gerry and Jeff would eventually become the stuff of legends to their descendants, much like how “First Couple” Angela and Tommy became revered by Family? Turns out that is exactly the case, so it wouldn’t hurt to be familiar with the events of book one.
Still, the world of Eden has changed a lot since John Redlantern first destroyed Circle of Stones and took his supporters away from Circle Valley and over Snowy Dark. There are now thousands of humans living across the planet, divided into two main groups: Johnfolk, those who were descended from John and his followers; and Davidfolk, descendants of those who remained with the original Family led by David, John’s greatest rival. There are quite a few offshoot populations as well, and our protagonist Starlight Brooking is a young woman from one such tribe, a member of the Kneetree Folk who live on a tiny island far away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of Eden.
But Starlight has always wanted something more out of her life than just catching fish and making boats. She convinces her uncle, brother and a couple friends one day to travel with her to Veeklehouse, a kind of trading port where many of Eden’s tribes converge to buy and sell their goods. There she meets handsome Greenstone Johnson, a Johnsfolk man from across Greatpool who came in his colorful wraps and mighty sail boats to trade his shiny metal. Greenstone is drawn to Starlight right away and asks her to return with him to his home of Edenheart, and sensing her chance for a great adventure, she agrees. After all, Greenstone isn’t just a descendent of John, he’s the great-great-grandson of John himself, and is a prince of sorts among his people. Starlight is even more excited when she discovers that as Greenstone’s “Housewoman”, she’ll get to wear the legendary Gela’s Ring and take on the mantle of Mother of Eden.
As she soon discovers though, living in Greenstone’s home of New Earth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, life is downright unpleasant if you’re not one of the “Big People”, and even “Small People” make themselves feel bigger by pressing semi-intelligent creatures into slave labor. If you’re a Batface or have any other type of physical or mental deformity, you’re immediately relegated to the lowest rungs of society and it’s the metal digs for you! Greenstone himself isn’t a bad guy, but his father the Headman as well as Edenheart’s Chiefs and Teachers will throw you to the Fire if your beliefs deviate from the “correct” version of history, and if you’re a woman you’ll have no say in how Edenheart is run because your opinion means nothing.
This is how Starlight quickly realizes that even though she is the Ringwearer and the beloved Mother of Eden, she actually holds little to no power at all. And that is NOT all right with her, and neither are all of New Earth’s injustices. Starlight’s character is probably my favorite part of this book; she plays a similar role to John Redlantern’s from the first book, but for one key difference to me: while both John and Starlight are initiative-taking people who are constantly seeking something more, John sought glory only for himself, versus Starlight whose ultimate goal was to better the lives of others. Huge respect. I found myself rooting for her every step of the way.
Now for the book’s not-so-great parts. Like Dark Eden, it carries on its commentary on the evolution of civilization and culture, language, religion, etc. But whereas the social-fiction elements in the first book were more understated and nuanced, Mother of Eden has a clear message and it is delivered with the subtlety and grace of a wrecking ball. Never mind that I agreed with and admired Starlight for everything she tries to do for New Earth, like fighting to give better quality-of-life for Small People and a voice to women, or the fact that I loved this book for its heartfelt attempt to honor the role of motherhood and the power of a mother’s love. All that’s fine and good but only when it doesn’t affect the quality of writing or give rise to frequent character actions and dialogue choices that feel incredibly awkward or out-of-place. Too bad that in this case, I felt it did.
My biggest problem with Mother of Eden though was the ending. Even if I hadn’t found it unsatisfying – and it really was off-putting – I still probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it. The thing is, “unsatisfying” endings I can live with, but “incomplete” is a whole other matter. Unfortunately, everything after the climax felt rushed and not entirely all there, with multiple skips of varying degrees in time and a lot of important events happening off the page. Up until that point, the author had more or less kept us in the loop with what’s happening across multiple locations by giving us a wide range of character perspectives. But when it came to the ending where it really mattered, the scope narrowed so much that I was left wondering what happened to a major character, whose fate was only then mentioned in passing in one of the final chapters in Afterwords section (and I felt that character totally deserved to be handled better than that).
Maybe a sequel to Dark Eden really wasn’t needed, but nevertheless I’m not sorry I read the book. It was fascinating to see what Eden has become. If Chris Beckett were to write a third Eden book I would likely still read it. Hopefully it would redeem that disheartening ending....more
The Gabble and Other Stories is a collection of short fiction set in the universe of the Polity series by Neal Asher. I’ve been curious about his books for a long time now, especially since his work has been described as being close to Splatterpunk, a sub-genre often characterized by its depiction of gory graphic violence, fast-paced action, and a tendency to push the boundaries especially in horror-themed sci-fi.
I was not disappointed! Indeed, The Gabble ended up being a lot of fun and I enjoyed a lot of the stories in here. Being an anthology, I also went with the assumption that this book would work well as a stand-alone read, and thus a good place to jump on board. I think for the most part my instinct was correct, though I do have more to add to this. I will go into the details below in my in-depth analysis of each story, but I did notice a couple trends in my overall experience:
1) My favorite stories tended to be shorter ones, while the longer novelettes are perhaps too steeped in the Polity lore for me to get into as easily.
2) If the main focus of a story is aliens or alien culture, there’s a good chance I loved it!
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Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck – 4 of 5 stars A pair of incestuous siblings hires a guide for a killer safari on the planet Myral in this adventure tale that ends in terror as a Gabbleduck appears through the mist and hunts them in return. Honestly, you couldn’t have found a better opener for this book of short stories. The Gabbleduck is of course the creature featured on the cover, a cool and scary looking thing with too many limbs and a duck-bill like mouth full of sharp teeth. Its comical appearance belies its deadly predatory tendencies, and should at once tell you the kind of weirdness you’re in for. Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck is a fantastic introduction to this anthology, to Neal Asher’s writing style, to his world of Polity, to the eponymous alien, and heck, just to everything! I wish more of the stories were like this one.
Putrefactors – 5 of 5 stars A bounty arrives on a planet to kill his target and instead uncovers a corrupt plot that spells dire consequences for the colonists there. By the time he realizes he himself is caught up in the conspiracy’s net, it is too late. Hands down, this was my favorite story in this collection. It was totally awesome, featuring concepts that will leave you feeling disgusted and truly horrified. Not to mention, I will never look at the phrase “a good friend” the same way again.
Garp and Geronamid – 3 of 5 stars Garp is a former policeman and a reification, a corpse kept alive through advanced tech because he simply could not stop doing his job even after his death. Geronamid is an AI, who in this particular story is implanted into a body of an allosaur. Yes, you read that right. An allosaur. Fascinating ideas in this very cool story, but the heavy involvement of things like politics and the underworld drug trade made this one harder for me to follow. It’s got some great twists and turns though, and a sensational finish.
The Sea of Death – 3 of 5 stars Two characters discuss the millions of frozen sarcophagi found below the surface of Orbus, each filled with the remains of aliens that bear some resemblance to humans. This is one of the shorter stories in this collection and can truly be read as a standalone, albeit it is not very exciting and ends quite abruptly. Not bad, but with such an interesting premise, I’d hoped for a bit more.
Alien Archaeology – 2.5 of 5 stars Another tale featuring the Gabbleduck, Alien Archaeology is a novella – and therefore the longest story in this collection – that greatly expands our understanding into the history of alien life on the many worlds of Polity. But what should have been an exciting plot and engaging experience instead left me feeling cold. I could barely keep myself focused while reading, and felt no connection to the characters. The title and some of the mildly cyberpunkish themes of the story intrigued me, as well as the idea that Gabbleducks are actually the “devolved” descendants of the Atheter race. But I just couldn’t get into it. I can definitely see someone who is more familiar with the Polity universe or Neal Asher’s work liking this one way more than I did, though.
Acephalous Dreams – 2.5 of 5 stars Another story featuring the A.I. Geronamid. After the discovery of a Csorian node, a death row prisoner is offered the chance to clear his sentence if he agrees to test drive the device. Having a bit of alien brain implanted in your head versus execution…should have been an easy choice, right? This is another story that should have been awesome, but again it didn’t quite grab me. I liked it, but with such an ambitious plot, I think this one would have worked better given more pages to develop. I might have enjoyed it even more if it had been a full-length novel.
Snow in the Desert – 4 of 5 stars Snow is an albino living in the desert…and everyone wants his balls. Literally! His unique DNA means that he has an exorbitant bounty placed on his testicles. While everyone is hunting him, Snow does what he can to survive the numerous attempts on his life as well as the dangerous conditions of his hot, arid planet. I really liked the crazy, over-the-top premise and nature of this offering. A fun and action-packed novelette.
Choudapt – 3.5 of 5 stars Perhaps a cautionary tale into the dangers of mixing alien DNA just to gain an edge. We venture a little into horror territory here. Truly terrifying. Truly enjoyable. Don’t want say anything more than that for fear of spoilers.
Adaptogenic – 3 of 5 stars It all began with an auction. Two relic hunters go searching for a missing piece of a puzzle, and their efforts land them on a strange planet at the worst time possible. An enjoyable yarn, but not the most memorable. I had to go back to the book to remind myself what happened because I hardly remembered the nitty-gritty details of it, especially since some of the better stories have already gone ahead and the bar to impress me now is set pretty high at this point. Not bad though, and I don’t remember disliking the story when I read it.
The Gabble – 4 of 5 stars We end the same way as we began – with a Gabbleduck! Researchers want to uncover the secrets behind these mysterious and frightful beings. Like Alien Archaeology, this story reveals a little more about the history and connections between different species, especially when it comes to Gabbleducks and Hooders. The Gabble is a great closer for this collection, wrapping things up with a solid tale that ties together threads introduced in some of the previous stories in this book. It’s not an overly powerful or profound offering, but it cuts deeply all the same, making it an apt conclusion.
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On the whole, this is a great collection. Like all anthologies, it has its ups and downs, i.e. some stories are better than others. I’m admittedly not a big reader of short fiction because I so often find stories to be too short (“I want more character development! More world building!”) or too long (“Wait, what’s going on? Am I supposed to understand this part? But I haven’t read the original series, there’s just too much I don’t know here!” etc., etc.) My experience with The Gabble was not so different, but I did enjoy myself more than I expected.
I think this is a decent place to start if you’re curious about Neal Asher’s work and want to give it a try, or if you want just a taste of what Polity has to offer before taking the full plunge. Being new to this universe, I have to say I was pretty impressed, and if you’re already familiar with Asher’s Polity series, you’ll probably enjoy it even more. My interest is certainly piqued; I might have to check out his other books now....more
Boy is a Mage, brought up on lessons about the power of illusions, taught that reality is a sham and that people are shadows – and oh, no matter what you do, do NOT trust those lying, stinking Mechanics.
Girl is a Mechanic, a master of logic and equations who prides herself on the fact that no machine is beyond her abilities to fix, and of course, Mechanics are just so much better than those useless Mages.
Then boy meets girl. Everything changes. Alain and Mari come together after their caravan is destroyed by bandits, only managing to survive the treacherous journey back to civilization with each other’s help. They begin to discover just how much their Guild elders have kept from them, secrets and misconceptions that have been keeping the Mage-Mechanical rivalry alive for all these hundreds of years.
Then the power of Foresight unexpectedly comes to Alain. He learns something that Mari doesn’t know – that she is in fact the prophesied chosen one who will unite the two great guilds and save the world. As the two are sent to Dorcastle amidst rumors of uncontrolled dragons and sabotage, Alain can hardly begin to describe the way he feels for Mari, but he does know staying away from her as his masters had ordered is not an option.
The Dragons of Dorcastle is a sweet little story about the serendipitous partnership between two people from different divides, who end up realizing they were wrong about everything they thought they knew about the other. I’d never read anything by John G. Hemry AKA Jack Campbell before, though I do know a bit about his military sci-fi Lost Fleet series, which I can’t imagine can be any more different than this book, a Young Adult-ish fantasy and steampunk romance.
Surprisingly though, this was very good. A little standard, perhaps, and playing a bit too safe when it comes to ideas. However, seeing as this book was originally written to be an audiobook exclusive for Audible Studios, it wouldn’t surprise me if a fun and practical story like this – intended to appeal to a wider and more general audience – was a conscious decision. And it was probably the right decision; I can see it being the perfect choice for anyone in the mood for an entertaining and light read looking to pass the time, though it’s possible that diehard genre readers may be left unsatisfied.
But hey, here be dragons. Well, okay, maybe not exactly. I don’t actually hold this against the book, but I think it’s worth mentioning anyhow that I find the title a bit misleading. There’s some dragon activity for sure, though it doesn’t come until very late in the book, and relatively briefly. Relating this to my thoughts above, I can’t help but to think the name was another clever move to boost appeal. Granted, the story does present a rather intriguing mystery about the dragons at the end, so even though they aren’t the center of attention, we are left with some major dragon-related questions to ponder and there’s no doubt they will play a bigger role in the next book.
Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is its focus the characters. Most of the book is spent developing the relationship between Alain and Mari, even when the two aren’t even in the same scene. We’re in their heads all the time, experiencing their thoughts and emotions as contemplate the other. The narrative does an especially good job with Alain, whose capacity for emotions has been all but stripped by the Mage guild. The way I looked at the situation, it’s actually a lot like reading about Spock falling in love. That is to say, it’s no easy feat. The author deserves my admiration for pulling it off.
Let’s face it, too: I’m a sucker for Forbidden Love. Despite being YA and the style of prose leaning towards younger audiences, I really enjoyed the delightful romance blooming between Alain and Mari. It’s a relationship I find more “cute” than “passionate”, but nonetheless it worked surprisingly well for me.
In the end, The Dragons of Dorcastle is not a terribly original or noteworthy book, but I really liked it. Its down-to-earth style, entertainment value, and wonderful characters made it very hard for me to resist its charms. All told, a very good book to just curl up and relax with....more
I admit The Wrath and the Dawn wasn’t initially a book I was drawn to, but as time went by, the concept started to grow on me. I still would have preferred a stronger fantasy component, but its hook – the fact that its story is inspired by A Thousand and One Nights – became more intriguing the longer I thought about it.
The book introduces us to sixteen-year-old Shahrzad, getting ready for her marriage to Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. It’s a sad affair for her family, who all believe it will be the last time any of them will see Shazi alive. Everyone says that young Khalid is a monster, for what kind of man would take a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise the next day? Shazi, however, had volunteered herself for this, and she has a plan (arguable, but more about that later). Not long ago, her own best friend was taken and killed by the Caliph. Now Shazi is determined to find out why Shiva and all those other young girls had to die, and she won’t stop until she gets her revenge.
Things are not as they seem, though. Shazi may have escaped death for a day by captivating Khalid with a story, cleverly withholding the ending by the time dawn arrives, forcing the Caliph to put off her execution in order to find out what happens. The more time she spends with the boy king, however, the more she realizes he is not the monster everyone made him out to be. Still, he did kill all those women, and the reason for that is a closely guarded secret that no seems to know or want to talk about. While seeking answers, Shazi finds herself slowly drawn to Khalid and even begins to fall for him. But when her first love Tariq learns of her marriage to the Caliph and comes riding to her rescue, Shazi will have to make a choice.
I found this book to be one part romance, and one part A Big Question. The former is relatively straight forward; Shazi marries Khalid, realizes that he’s actually not that bad, the two fall in love. It happens very quickly, almost too quickly for my tastes. Here’s another Young Adult novel, where in its eagerness to get its two lovers together, we lose out on a lot of the emotional layers that make the relationship convincing. And how was Shazi supposed to take revenge on the Caliph after marrying him anyway? She didn’t even really try. Her half-baked plan didn’t seem to go much farther beyond enticing him with stories (and I do wish she had been able to tell more of them), so all I can see is the instalove being a decision of convenience. Thing is though, I could easily look past this in favor of what I really felt was the most interesting aspect of the whole book.
Enter the big question: Why did Khalid kill Shazi’s best friend Shiva and all those other wives of his? That’s the mystery that really caught my interest and kept me reading, and it was treated in the exact opposite way as the romance, an intricate puzzle that slowly unravels. For that I was very happy, and I liked how the author took the time to make the answers worth it.
I was also most impressed with Shazi’s character above any of the others. I liked that she had such class and dignity, but also a strong personality that wouldn’t stop her from teaching a lesson to someone who shows her disrespect. She’s also truly fearless, as evidenced by the calm and quiet way she decided to volunteer to marry the Caliph knowing very well it could mean her death, and also by a scene where she strikes out at an attacker even when she very literally had a blade to her throat.
There was really one factor about the writing that made me stumble. Five words: Attack of the purple prose.
“But the thought that she might lie to him – that those eyes, with their unpredictable onslaught of colors, flashing blue one instant and green the next, only to paint his world gold with the bright sound of her laughter…”
Occasionally there will be a glaring overkill of these flowery phrases or paragraphs. I think it’s pretty common with relatively new authors who are also extremely talented writers though, who maybe just need to know when to dial it back a little.
Still, on the whole I do think Renée Ahdieh writes beautifully and has a bright writing career ahead of her. While it may not be perfect, The Wrath and the Dawn impressed me and so I’m on board to see what happens next....more
I’ve been wanting to read Exile by Betsy Dornbusch for a while, so I’m glad I was able to finally tick this off my list. Something tells me I might have enjoyed this more if I had read this a few years ago though, before I’ve had more experience reading fantasy fiction under my belt, because then some of its shortcomings might not have been as noticeable for me. It is a good book, but like many reviewers have pointed out, it is not without its flaws.
Exile introduces us to its protagonist Draken Vae Khellian, the bastard cousin of the king and a former guard commander, fallen far from grace and now chained up on a prisoner ship’s hold. Draken’s wife was found brutally murdered and he has been falsely accused for the crime, even though the circumstances around her death stinks of dark sorcery. Draken is summarily banished to Akrasia, a land of magic and wildness, a far cry from his homeland of Monoea. Grieving and alone, all he can think about is clearing his name and getting revenge on his wife’s true killer.
In a stroke of extraordinary luck, very early into his exile Draken encounters a sorcerer of death magic named Osias along with his half-Moonling servant girl Setia, who save him from possession by a malicious spirit called a Bane. He accompanies them both to the palace where he learns of the Akrasian queen’s plight – her land is in turmoil and on the brink of revolution, and no doubt even now her detractors are planning conspiracies and assassination attempts against her…
In fact, one was going down right that instant, putting Draken in the perfect position to rescue her and gain her trust. She subsequently grants him the prestigious post to guard her safety, and Draken swears to track down the assassin who attempted to kill her.
Has the issue become apparent yet? Draken seems to have the extraordinary ability to be in the right place at exactly the right time, despite starting out his exile with nothing but the clothes on his back – no food, no money, no friends, no nothing. Within what feels like mere moments of his landing on the shores of Akrasia, he’s found himself in the personal service of its monarch.
In spite of this, I found the beginning of the book very interesting. The world building is strong, with its myriad peoples, cultures and religions. The “arse-end of the world” that is Akrasia really isn’t so bad, and the strange land was actually a wonder for me to explore with its Moonlings and spirits. I was a big fan of the magic and its mysteries, and necromancers like Osias captured my curiosity with the dark nature of his powers. My first impression is that the world of Seven Eyes, named for its seven moons, sounds like a very beautiful and magical place for a fantasy setting. There’s also a lot of depth to its history and political landscape.
The story and characters admittedly pale a bit compared to the world building, but I was nonetheless satisfied. The sequence of events in this book aren’t so much predictable as they are much too convenient to be believable, but even though that skepticism kept me from engaging with the story fully, it was still an enjoyable read. I liked Draken’s characterization, though I found his healthy sexual appetite to be quite a turnoff, considering the all-consuming grief he’s supposedly feeling for his wife. For all his sadness, it was a short mourning period, apparently.
All told, Exile is a decent book, and with its in-depth world building but simplistic plot, I’d say it’s probably more suited for new-ish readers to the fantasy genre. There are a lot of punches you have to roll with, but nothing major that would be a deal breaker. A light, entertaining fantasy novel that has all the right stuff, just in imperfect amounts, but still quite good....more
Humor, as we all know, is subjective. Especially satire and parody. Case in point, the man I married can watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the nine hundredth time and still bust a gut laughing, while I’m sitting there beside him on the couch rolling my eyes because the movie stopped being funny after the first time (and I expect I will catch a lot of grief for that blasphemous confession). What I find funny/not funny might not be the same as others, which is why I feel it is necessary to preface this review with a big YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY. There are many great things about this novel: it’s clever, it’s entertaining, and it has its uproariously funny moments. On the other hand, there are parts where the humor simply did not work for me. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work for you! Because it is so difficult to put a score on books like this, I’m actually going to leave my rating off for the blog.
The hilariously titled Witches Be Crazy pokes fun at one of my favorite fantasy themes – the epic quest. The story begins “once upon a time in the middle of nowhere” – in this case a desert oasis village, home to an unassuming blacksmith-turned-innkeeper named Dungar Loloth who hears tell of strange happenings in Jenair, the kingdom’s capital. The ruler King Ik is dying, if not already dead, with only his long-lost-but-now-only-just-found daughter to succeed him.
No, as a matter of fact, Dungar doesn’t think that sounds very legit either. Convinced of witchcraft, Dungar sets off on a journey to expose the princess for what she really is, and plans to kill her before she can set her evil plans in motion. Along for the ride is Jimminy, an insane hobo who loves to sing off-tune and drive Dungar (and me) crazy. Surviving each other is just the beginning, though. Together on their way to Jenair, the two companions get to come face-to-face with many more dangers, meet other questing adventurers, and run afoul of plenty more beloved genre tropes.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you might have noticed we participate in a weekly meme called “Tough Traveling”, a feature inspired by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones, a parody tourist guidebook that uses humor to examine the common themes in fantasy fiction. Tropes are popular for a reason – they’re tried and true and entertaining to boot, but it’s also very fun to recognize and affectionately make light of them, which is why I was drawn to the description of Witches be Crazy in the first place. Logan J. Hunder’s debut succeeds at lampooning many of the genre’s most established and cherished clichés, starting with character archetypes. I loved this book’s introduction, which featured many quotable gems such as this one about the ridiculously beautiful Princess Koey:
“She was known to have left the castle and made a public appearance only once. It is said that during this appearance her skin, which was oddly tanned for someone who had apparently never been outside, emitted a light more radiant than that of the sun and her smile was so alluring that a flock of birds splattered themselves all over a tower because they were physically unable to watch where they were going.”
The book is full of moments like this that will make you chuckle – because they reveal the illogical nature behind so many of our favorite tropes. The prologue made me optimistic for the rest of the book, though as I read on, I realized that I prefer a subtler kind of comedy. After the first handful of chapters, it’s clear that there was not going to be much variation to style of humor employed by the author, which consists of mostly punny wordplay and slapstick. If you enjoy that, then you are sure to be in for a real treat. For me, however, there was just not enough variation to the repertoire. While I had an excellent time with the beginning of this book, I have to admit the novelty gradually lost its appeal.
The story read like a series of skits – Dungar and Jimminy are plunged into one situation after another, some of which will be immediately familiar to avid readers of fantasy. You have the gladiatorial arena. A stint on a ship with a fearsome band of pirates. A magical tree with malicious nymphs. This random assortment of events made for an outrageous yet amusing plotline, though ultimately they featured a similar routine played out over and over. By the time Dungar and Jimminy got to the village populated by bigoted Amazons, I was just worn down and ready for this story to end. It might have been oversaturation for me at that point, but I really could have done without that entire section with the all-women village, which I did not enjoy or find funny at all. But like I said, to each their own.
In the end, I think a novella of this type of story would have been perfect for me, but a full length novel was perhaps more than I could manage. It was a fun book, but simply featured too much of the same kind of humor and ran too long for my tastes. I have no doubt that Witches Be Crazy will garner a lot of fans though; to me this is the kind of book with “dedicated cult following” written all over it, much like other parodic classics like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. If the novel’s description sounds like something that would interest you, it might be worth giving it a shot....more
Last year I discovered the awesome world of magic, demons, and sentient spirit-imbued weapons in Seth Skorkowsky’s Dämoren, so when I was offered a chance to read the sequel, I didn’t hesitate.
Hounacier builds on the first book, which introduced us to an order of modern-day knights called the Valducan. All the monsters or the world are actually human beings possessed by demon, and the type of demon in turn determines the type of monster and the transformation into werewolf, ghoul, lamia, wendigo, etc. A Valducan knight makes it his or her life’s work hunting and killing these demons, with the help of a holy weapon which the knight is bonded to with their whole heart and soul.
Book two expands upon these themes, but the story is also very different. For one thing, we have a change in protagonist. While Dämoren follows the life of a rogue demon hunter named Matt Hollis, Hounacier instead features another Valducan knight named Malcolm Romero. Dämoren was a jet-setting action/adventure thriller that took us on an ass-kicking demon hunt across the globe, while Hounacier takes place mostly in New Orleans and the story reads more like a mystery. The pacing is thus slower, but this is a good thing because it also sets the book up nicely for a heavier and more macabre horror vibe.
This dark fantasy series just got even darker, which is how I like it! Eleven years after he faced his first demon and became apprenticed to a Voodoo priest, Malcolm receives news about the grisly murder of his mentor. Now he returns to New Orleans to in order to catch the killer, armed with his holy weapon, a machete named Hounacier. As the investigation deepens and the details surrounding it becomes more disturbing, Malcolm finds himself betrayed. With his soul violated and his holy blade stolen from him, Malcolm is plunged into a nightmarish existence of violence and terrible dark magic. Seth Skorkowsky kept me on my toes the whole time, and it’s such an intense and brutal tale that I couldn’t even begin to guess how everything would turn out.
In many ways, the scope of Hounacier is smaller than that of its predecessor; we’re mainly in a single setting, there aren’t as many characters, and we also don’t see a big variety of demons in this book. Still, the narrower focus serves an advantage here, because it immerses us deeply into the culture and traditions of Voodoo magic. The author has clearly done a lot of research in order to make his portrayal of it as authentic and accurate as possible.
We also get to know the protagonist a lot better. Malcolm was a side character in Dämoren, one of the lead knights who gave Matt Hollis a hard time because the Valducan believed Matt was demon-touched. So in the first book, Malcolm was painted as this huge asshole and admittedly that’s how I remembered him too. Imagine my surprise then, when I read Hounacier and realized how much I liked him and sympathized with him. Malcolm is awesome – he’s interesting, deep, and conflicted, and this makes him an engaging character to follow. I think I ended up liking him even more than Matt Hollis. The powers granted to Malcolm by the mystical properties of his weapon are also unique and new. Matt Hollis may have his blood compasses, but Malcolm Romero has his magical tattoos, including one that can see through your soul to tell if you’re pure or tainted by a demon. Very cool stuff.
I would consider these Valducan books to be Urban Fantasy, but there’s also a great deal of Horror thrown into the mix. The horror element is even more prominent in Hounacier, as we follow the trail of a murderer and then come face-to-face with a werewolf demon. The werewolves here are the savage, psychotic and bloodthirsty variety, with the monster in control rather than the human. More than once, the terrifyingly gruesome scenes in here evoked a visceral reaction from me. If you like your UF dark, brutal and completely unflinching about the fact, then Valducan is the series for you.
One final thing I’m grateful to Mr. Skorkowsky for is that these books can be read as stand-alones. Hounacier has some connections to Dämoren, like Matt Hollis showing up near the end to team up with Malcolm, etc. but for the most part both novels are self-contained stories. Pick up either one (they’re both good!) and read away. Highly recommended....more
I went into The Gracekeepers very carefully. From what I’d heard, it sounded a lot like the kind of literary magical realism which would require an active engagement of the reader’s imagination in order to fill in the gaps, and books like this with their haunting, dreamlike style can either be a huge hit with me or it can fall flat. After completing novel, I think my feelings hover somewhere in between. Overall I enjoyed the story, but also felt there was a lot that kept me from connecting with it fully.
To start, The Gracekeepers takes place in a world where the ocean has flooded most of the earth, so its people have learned to adapt. Those who have taken to the sea and made their permanent homes aboard ships and other vessels are referred to as damplings, while those who have remained on land are known as landlockers. A class disparity exists between these two groups, with damplings regarded as second-class citizens and often looked upon with condescension and suspicion by the more well-to-do landlockers.
The story focuses predominantly on two characters, North and Callanish. North is a young woman who performs with her trained bear companion as part of her act with the traveling circus ship Excalibur. The circus’s captain and ringmaster Jarrow “Red Gold” Stirling has dreams for his son and North to marry and settle on land in a house he’s spent his whole life saving up for, to the displeasure of Avalon, Jarrow’s pregnant wife who wants that house for herself. Meanwhile in another place, Callanish lives a solitary life while dutifully performing her role as a gracekeeper, an undertaker of sorts who lays the dead to rest at the bottom of the ocean. Callanish and North meet in the wake of a great storm after the crew of the Excalibur is forced to make their way to the gracekeeper to seek her services, and the two are drawn to each other immediately.
Kirsty Logan has created something very interesting here, as far as her world and characters go. The writing style evokes an image of a gauzy shroud enveloping everything in the story with a light aura of enchantment, even though there is little to no magic involved. As I had expected, a bit of imagination is required to find your way through the mist, because even though the world is fascinating, world-building itself is decidedly lacking. There’s a positive side to this if you like getting just enough to inspire the mind, especially if you enjoy a little ambiguity and speculation. For instance, could the waterworld of The Gracekeepers be our own in some distant future, or someplace else entirely? What caused the divide between damplings and landlockers? How did the rituals of gracekeeping first come about and what’s the significance behind the use of graces, small birds that are starved to death in order to mark the end of the mourning period? There are many things that don’t get explained, but perhaps they don’t need to be – similar to the way we’re content to accept folk or fairy tales as they are, because there is simply no need to question them critically. And certain aspects of the narrative – like Callendish’s backstory – are better off being vague because we already have all the information we need to know.
However, while there are the bigger and more general mysteries that I can abide going unsolved, I still felt there were some specific details lacking that hurt the overall cohesiveness of the story. There are two factions – the military and the revivalists – that are important to the plot of The Gracekeepers, but they felt like such a poor fit with the rest of the book because the parts they played were slapdash and written in so randomly. Individuals like North and Callendish are characterized very well, but when it comes to actual character relationships, the story loses some of its magic. I wasn’t even that convinced of the bond between North and her bear, her best friend and companion since childhood who apparently wasn’t even given a name. There are more examples which I can’t go into for fear of spoilers, but with regards to the writing style, it’s probably safe to say that the emphasis is on atmosphere – which, to the author’s credit, she creates very well – but there just isn’t enough substance for me. I would have preferred more reasons to engage with the story and to see everything tie together more neatly.
Still, I would happily recommend The Gracekeepers, even if it does come with a couple caveats. It’s quite an ambitious novel, very well-written considering how the author no doubt achieved the haunting, dreamy effect she was going for. Not as solid as I’d hoped, but the story is nonetheless fascinating and beautiful, walking that fine line between melancholy and optimism, and I found the characters genuinely interesting....more
Hunt for Valamon was recommended to me by a friend, and it is the first novel I’ve ever read from Australian fantasy author D.K. Mok. I didn’t know much about the book when I picked it up so I had no idea what to expect, but I have to say, I came out of it feeling quite impressed.
Valamon is the oldest son of King Delmar but was never meant to inherit the throne, due to the fact most people consider him to be a simpleton. However, that doesn’t stop all hell from breaking loose when the prince is kidnapped, sparking a frantic search for a noble champion to help rescue him. They end up with Elhan, a spirited and strong young woman whose skills are unparalleled when it comes to the deadly arts of combat. Unfortunately, she’s also cursed and very likely insane.
As if that weren’t enough, accompanying Elhan on the quest to find Valamon is Seris, a humble priest and healer with absolutely no fighting or survival skills whatsoever. Oh, and he’s also hindered by a ton of ridiculous rules imposed on him by his religious order. Despite being polar opposites, Seris and Elhan must nonetheless learn to cooperate as they set out together for the wilderness, embarking on a long and unpredictable journey to bring home a lost prince and prevent a bloody war.
It’s probably safe to categorize this novel as epic fantasy, but I was also pleasantly surprised to discover how different it felt from most books in that subgenre. The language is perhaps the most obvious thing that sets it apart. At times the narrative will feel decidedly modern, and characters will frequently use phrases and terms common in our everyday parlance. It is completely at odds with the fantasy setting, but there’s also no doubt at all this was done intentionally. The stylistic choice might not be for everyone, that’s true; but it does mean a lot of opportunities for humor, more so than you would find in other high fantasy works. So if you like a funny side to your epic fantasy, this just might be the book for you.
The characters are another factor which makes this book so enjoyable. Seris and Elhan are the main focus of the story, of course. Friendship eventually blossoms between them, but their differences in the beginning are marked by clashes and thorny interactions, giving rise to no small number of amusing scenes. But Valamon, the kidnapped prince and objective of their quest, is also a point-of-view character whose perspective adds much to the tale. It is interesting to me that Valamon’s personality and demeanor, along with how others in the book see him, strongly suggests Asperger’s or a similar kind of autism spectrum disorder, and one of the major themes is how everyone feels he is unfit to rule when in reality, the troubled prince is actually much wiser and more perceptive than he lets on.
Other side characters include Valamon’s younger brother Falon, who is the one actually being groomed to rule, as well as Qara, the princes’ childhood playmate who grew up to become a royal confidante and protector. The so-called villains of the novel, the ones who stole Valamon away, also played a big role. The tension created by this balance in perspectives was a good way to show all sides of the conflict and make the book exciting. The story was reasonably well-paced and quite engaging.
The plot and dialogue could probably benefit from a bit of fine polishing, but otherwise I thought this was a fun read that offered quite a few surprises. Hunt for Valamon is refreshing and unique, highly recommended for fantasy readers looking for an adventurous journey. I had a lovely time with D.K. Mok’s humorous and down-to-earth style. It’s also worth mentioning that this was my first introduction Spence City Books and it is great being able to put both a new author and an independent publisher on my list to check out in the future....more
If you recall in my review of Harrison Squared, I described that book as a fun, adventurous mystery which strikes the perfect balance for teen and adult crossover appeal. Well, nothing could be further from my experience with We Are All Completely Fine. Rather, try descriptions like “traumatic”, “disturbing” and “mature audiences only”.
Don’t get me wrong, though; I’ve developed a taste for horror fiction in recent years, and I loved this book. But what surprised me was just how completely different this it from Harrison Squared, which is actually its prequel. In fact, that was what prompted me to pick up We Are All Completely Fine, after finding out how the two books were related, and because I wanted to read more from Daryl Gregory.
The teenaged Harrison whom I first met in Harrison Squared is presently a man in his mid-thirties. Not that he was a jolly personality even at aged sixteen, but as an adult he has become even more gloomy, jaded and world-weary. He’s a famous author now, known for his “Monster Detective” childrens’ stories starring the boy hero from Dunnsmouth named Jameson Jameson, AKA Jameson Squared (things are getting kind of meta here). He’s also seeing a psychiatrist, which is how he eventually landed in a support group with four other members – Stan, Barbara, Martin, and Greta – led by the psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer.
Some reviewers have remarked on the strange quirk in the narrative style, specifically how at the beginning of each chapter in this book an unknown narrator appears to be speaking in the first person, though the usage of the pronoun “we” suggests he or she would be part of the support group. However, after a few paragraphs the narration will invariably shift back to the third person. As strange as it sounds, this style immediately brought to my mind the movie The Breakfast Club. Director John Hughes used a slightly different but similar “breaking the fourth wall” technique with voiceover narration at the beginning of the film, explaining to the audience what’s going to happen and why all the characters were there. This creates a kind of “reflection to the past” effect which helps us gain a slightly better understanding. In the case of this book, it tells you that despite the horror that is coming, you know that at least some members of this group managed to survive and come through intact. Well…mostly.
And perhaps comparing this book to The Breakfast Club isn’t so absurd, if you think about it. Instead of five teenagers who have little in common with each other, all trying to fit in amidst the crushing pressures of high school life, you have five likely-insane adults who have little in common with each other, all trying to get by in their normal day lives without the crushing fear of appearing completely unhinged. The characters in The Breakfast Club find themselves in detention, where none of them want to be. The characters of We Are All Completely Fine find themselves in group therapy, where none of them want to be. Despite their differences, the teens in TBC realize they are more than their individual stereotypes, and band together against a common enemy, Principal Vernon. Despite their differences, the strangers in WAACF realize they are more than their individual fucked up pasts, and band together against a common enemy, an ancient all-devouring evil from another world entirely.
All fanciful comparisons to classic 80s movies aside though, this was a fantastic book. It’s the characters that make We Are All Completely Fine – mainly because they are all so completely not. Everyone in Dr. Sayer’s support group is there because they have experienced something terrifying and traumatic…but also unexplainable. No one would believe them if they told their stories of what really happened to them. Unraveling each group member’s mystery is therefore the first step of this hair-raising journey, and my favorite part of the novella. How does Stan handle his minor celebrity status, after being abducted by a family of cannibals a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and emerging as the sole survivor? What message did the Scrimshander leave on Barbara’s bones twenty years ago, when he bound her, drugged her, and carved up her flesh with his knives? Why doesn’t Martin ever want to take off his sunglasses? And Greta, what awful inconceivable secrets must she be hiding behind her silence?
However, the biggest mystery of all – at least to me – was what on earth happened to the Harrison Harrison that I thought I knew from Harrison Squared?
It does make me wonder now, how I would have felt if I hadn’t read that book first before this one. We Are All Completely Fine reveals no major spoilers but does refer to many of the significant events from Harrison Squared, especially those relating to the nightmarish creature called The Scrimshander. It’s made me rethink everything I read in the prequel novel. How much of it was glossed over, played down for “a story for kids?” Mind you, I want to make it clear that reading this in no way diminished my experience with HS, but I am now looking at it in a whole different light. It’s that meta thing again. In a weird trippy way, the two books actually complement each other very well.
Well, now I realize I’ve gone about this review in a very roundabout way. Partly, it’s because I don’t want to spoil too much of the story. We Are All Completely Fine is an average-sized novella, a very quick read, and yet it is just so densely packed with goodness. It just begs to be experienced firsthand. True, it might not be an easy read at times, with its disturbing themes and bone-chilling violence, but I did also find it tremendously addicting. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book and author. It’s a good place to jump on board if you love the horror genre, or if you’re curious about checking out Daryl Gregory’s work. I for one am looking forward to more from his pen....more
More and more, I’m understanding why these books are so universally loved by urban fantasy readers. I suppose I’m a bit of a late convert; I certainly enjoyed the first two novels of The Others, but I don’t think the addiction really started to creep up on me until this latest installment. I found it difficult to put down at times.
Part of it is the fact that all the seeds planted in the previous books are finally starting to come to fruition. No more messing around, things just got REAL with the Cassandra sangue and the Humans First and Last (HFL) movement. I’m so glad I decided to catch up with Murder of Crows before tackling this one, because my experience with Vision in Silver would not have been so enjoyable otherwise. So if you’re thinking about picking up this series, definitely start from the beginning with Written in Red – and not least because you wouldn’t want to spoil anything for yourself, not when it comes to The Others.
This book continues two major plot threads that have been brewing for a while: 1) the fate of the blood prophets who were confined to compounds and then freed, and 2) the rise of the HFL and their increasingly aggressive resistance against the Others. Both have dire repercussions for the humans and terra indigene living across Thaisia.
With Meg Corbyn’s help, the Others of Lakeside Courtyard are trying to put together a plan to integrate the freed blood prophets into their new communities, helping them deal with the drastic changes to their lives and the uncontrollable urge to cut themselves. The details about the girls’ previous lives at the compound under the Controller just got even more terrible in this book. After what I read in Murder of Crows it’s hard to imagine that things could get any worse, but there you go. Meg may have escaped on her own, but she’s not immune from the effects either; now Simon Wolfgard is even more protective of her, making sure that her own efforts don’t put her even more at risk.
It’s the HFL storyline that wins, though. This whole ugly situation with anti-Others movement was a lit powder keg just waiting to blow, and the moment has finally come. It also makes you wonder, just who are the monsters here, really? Granted, the Others of the Lakeside Courtyard under the rule of Simon Wolfgard are more benevolent than your average terra indigene, but thus far this series has been painting them as the beasts that they are, the savage predators of humankind. But the depravity of the acts committed by some of the humans in this book are just despicable, not to mention the sheer stupidity of the HFL for even thinking about messing with the Others. THEY HAVE CONTROL OVER THE NATURAL WORLD, PEOPLE! If the elementals want to cause a huge storm or make the waves rise up to sink your ship to the bottom of a lake, they have their ways. For time eternal, humans and the terra indigene have existed side by side but only out of necessity; the former may have developed some useful and advanced technologies over the ages, but it is the latter who control the natural resources. By seeking to upset this precarious balance, HFL is going to open themselves up to a whole world of hurt, and there have already been casualties from both sides. Something tells me that there will be lot more craziness before this is over (*munches popcorn*).
That said though, I think the series also took a step backwards when it comes to certain things, mainly when it comes to the portrayal of Meg’s character. I’ve always wondered why Meg is so special to everyone in Lakeside Courtyard. Yes, she’s a Cassandra sangue, a human-but-not-quite-human-and-therefore-not-prey blood prophet who has stolen the hearts of the Others by helping them a few times, but that still doesn’t really explain why they defer to her or bend over backwards to treat her like a queen – especially since that goes against everything we know about the Others’ nature. Meg is an idealized character, an observation that has been sitting in the back of my mind since the beginning of the series, but it’s a lot more noticeable in this book, enough to finally push me over the edge to question it. It says a lot too, that out of all the books, Meg’s POV was the most limited in this one but I didn’t really notice or even mind too much. It’s a minor flaw, but it bothered me enough that I had to mention it.
Am I really pumped up for the next book, though? Yes, a thousand times yes. I enjoyed Vision in Silver as much as I did the previous two books, but something about it just took it to the next level. Despite my dissatisfaction with Meg’s character, everything else was amazing. The story was superb, more engaging than ever before. The ending was also somewhat abrupt, which was torturous – I wanted more right away. I’m glad I’m all caught up with this series…but of course, that means I now join the waiting game for book four....more
An Ember in the Ashes was a great read, and so far probably one of my favorite “mainstream” Young Adult books this year. I can definitely understand the excitement surrounding it, and the book might actually live up to all the attention. That said, the novel is not without its flaws, ultimately falling prey to the many pitfalls of its genre. For a debut, though? I thought it was fantastic.
The book takes place in the heart of the ruthless Martial Empire, following the strife filled lives of two young people. Laia is a simple Scholar girl, forced to join the Resistance after her brother Darin, the only family she has left, is arrested by the military. In order to free Darin, she agrees to go undercover to spy on the Commandant of the empire’s military academy. Then there’s Elias Veturius, one of best soldiers to ever graduate from that academy. Deep down though, he wants nothing more than to escape from the empire and leave its brutal traditions behind forever.
The empire’s Augurs, however, have a different plan in mind. It has been foreseen that without an heir, the current Martial emperor’s line will end this year. The next ruler of the greatest empire this world has ever seen is to be chosen amongst the finest crop of the academy’s latest graduates – which means Elias is to be thrown into a series of competitions that will test his resolve and push him to his limits. Meanwhile, Laia is tasked by the Resistance to find out more about the process, plunging her into the cruel and unrestrained world of the Trials, binding her fate to Elias’s forever.
The plot is quite intriguing to say the least, in spite of the fact that we start things off with what appears to be the two most foolish protagonists on the planet. Elias, who is about to attempt the riskiest decision of his life by deserting, can’t even seem to muster up the ability to at least look innocent. Then there’s Laia, who keeps berating herself over and over again for being such a useless, weak coward. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that when you say something enough times, you’ll actually start to believe it. Which is why, very quickly, Laia began to really get on my nerves.
But then the amount of character growth by the end of the book, at least for Elias, was astounding. Despite the book having two main protagonists, for me it was all about him. His chapters are more exciting, but more importantly, he has his beliefs plus the determination, strength and courage to stick by them. I’m also captivated by the relationships. A bizarre dynamic exists in Gens Veturius, with Elias’s grandfather General Quin as its patriarch, but it is his daughter, Elias’s mother, who holds the deadliest power. That’s because she’s also the military school’s Commandant. Yes, the very same one Laia was ordered to spy on.
As the Commandant, Keris Veturius is one of the best YA villains I’ve ever encountered. It’s rare that a bad guy actually becomes one of my favorite characters, but there’s a cold, well-crafted complexity to her that we don’t see a lot in this genre, and that immediately made her fascinating. Not only does she have total authority over all the Masks, she also possesses a disturbing tendency to just KNOW things. Her relationship with Elias is also a curious subject. There’s certainly no love lost between mother and son, and in fact the Commandant seems repulsed by Elias. The relationship between Elias and his grandfather Quin on the other hand appears warmer and more genial, and you really have to wonder just what on earth happened to make this family so screwed up like this. We get some hints at the end, but there’s definitely a much bigger story there, and I have a feeling that it might have something to do with the identity of Elias’s father.
I also really like the character of Helene, Elias’s oldest and closest friend at the academy. I really wish she had been a point-of-view character; somehow I think I would have had enjoyed seeing through her eyes more than Laia’s. I think the dynamics between Elias and Helene are also more interesting, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with how their story played out, taking us along on an unpredictable ride full of twists and turns, wondering all the while how things are going to end for these two best friends. There are so much more I want to know about Helene, but unfortunately we don’t get a lot of information. No reason has been given yet as to why they only choose one woman per generation for the military school, for instance. But still, her relationship with Elias interests me, and I’m looking forward to see how that plot thread will resolve.
Now on to the novel’s weaknesses. For me, the big one was Laia. While Elias grew as a character, Laia continued to be infuriating as hell. She agrees to be a spy, jumping into this nigh impossible situation without any serious consideration, fueled only by her obnoxious bullheadedness. She makes a terrible spy too, by the way, and everyone knows this including herself. Yet she never actually makes the effort to find out how to be a better one, and if it weren’t for advice given to her by others she would have kept making the same mistakes again and again. The worst part is, she laments incessantly about how weak she thinks she is, and instead of making me sympathize with her, it just makes me angry. Through all this she never grows her own backbone, until literally the very last chapter when it’s too late for me to care. The rest of the book, it’s always her brother Darin’s voice in her head giving her encouragement instead of her own, Darin giving her a reason to take action instead of her own will. She shows very little growth in that sense, despite the brave face she tries to put on. Her chapters aren’t as interesting either, and mostly I just couldn’t wait until they were over so I could get back to Elias’s point of view.
Also, if I had to pick a few nits, firstly I wished the author had gone with different names for the world’s people rather than “Scholar” or “Martial”. It reminded me too much of Divergent, not exactly one of my favorite YA novels and certainly not a book I’d want to associate with this one. Secondly, there are some logical inconsistencies in the story (like if Blackcliff Academy was such a hotbed for Resistance spies, you’d think the military would have a better system in place to vet their slaves and servants. Of course, if they did, Laia’s incompetence would have never have gotten her through and there would be no story).
And thirdly, there is this bizarre love triangle. Actually, make that two love triangles. When the book started off with Elias and Helene, Laia and Keenan (another Resistance member), I was really hoping Sabaa Tahir would stay on this path with these two pairs and avoid having to resort to overused love geometrics. Alas, ultimately she decided to adhere to convention, and to my further dismay, instead of just having a single love triangle we end up with this two-girls-for-one-boy and two-boys-for-one-girl situation. A bit unnecessary, if you ask me.
So yes, there definitely are some punches you just have to roll with. But fortunately, they are small punches. The last few that I mentioned are insignificant to minor flaws, none of which are nearly as big as the issue I had with Laia’s character, which is probably the main reason I’m not embracing this book as wholeheartedly as I could be.
I really did enjoy this book though, and the fact that I’ve already written so much in this review is probably a good testament to how much I liked it. I found it quite addicting, especially Elias’s chapters and the terrible things he had to go through in the Trials. I admit, when I started the book I truly thought the results of the completion would be a foregone conclusion, but I was wrong – there are a lot of surprises and unexpected twists and turns in the search for the Martial’s new Emperor and Blood Shrike. With the way it ended, I can’t imagine there not being a sequel. Who knows what it’ll be and who knows when it’ll come out, but what I do know is that I’ll be checking it out for sure.
I’m always on the lookout for good Lovecraft-inspired horror, and so when I stumbled upon the description of Daryl Gregory’s new novel Harrison Squared I just knew I had to check it out.
When Harrison Harrison (nicknamed Harrison Squared by his scientist mother, because geek humor is the best kind of humor) was a toddler, his family’s boat was capsized by a giant tentacled sea monster. Officially, the authorities said that it was a sharp piece of metal that claimed Harrison’s leg, and that the storm was what drowned his father, but Harrison knew he did not imagine or hallucinate what he saw that terrible day.
Now sixteen years old, he travels cross-country with his mother to Dunnsmouth, Massachusetts, a quiet seaside town where everything seems creepy as hell. His school is like a labyrinth out of myth, the teachers don’t seem to care whether he shows up to his classes or not, and the other students are like the Children of the Corn. The first night in town, his favorite comic book gets stolen by some weird fish-boy. Then tragedy hits when Harrison’s marine biologist mom goes missing at sea. Refusing to believe she’s dead, Harrison goes investigating. Pretty soon he’s gathered about him a group of unlikely allies to battle the nightmarish Scrimshander, an ancient Dunnsmouth legend come to life.
Why do I love the Lovecraftian subgenre so? For the atmosphere, of course. As a setting, Dunnsmouth perfectly embodies the rural, insular feel of Lovecraft country, belying the terrible secrets kept under wraps by its townsfolk. The horror featured in these stories tend to involve cosmicism and the occult, which is psychologically so much more effective. Daryl Gregory delivers all these aspects, combining both fantasy and horror elements in a neat little package. There’s no small amount of weirdness in the plot, which is usually something I can’t tolerate, but Gregory somehow renders it into a conceivable, real-world everyday kind of weird that his protagonist Harrison takes in stride…so I did as well.
The book will also do well with both adults and teens, striking the perfect balance for crossover appeal. On the surface, Harrison seems to be like a lot of other kids his age, struggling with a volatile temper and his desire to fit in at a new school. But gradually, the reader will learn that he’s also not your typical teenager. Harrison is very well written and convincing; his quiet resourcefulness both charmed and intrigued me, and I sympathized with his fear of the ocean and felt for him when his mom was reported lost at sea. So much of his life has been shaped by the boating accident when he was three years old, and unraveling the mysteries behind his character ended up being as much fun as keeping up with the story itself.
Gregory also rounds out the cast with several fantastic secondary characters, including Lydia, a fellow classmate from school; Lub, the half-human-half-fish boy; and last but not least, the most memorable of all for me was Harrison’s Aunt Selena who arrives in Dunnsmouth from New York City to take care of Harrison after his mom goes missing. Breezing into town in a flurry of silks and designer clothes, Sel was not at all what I expected, but it sure made me wish I had more relatives like her.
I had a great time with this book. It’s not a heart-pounding tale of horror, but rather a well-paced delectable mystery that’s also a fun adventure filled with lots of unexpected twists and turns, while exuding an eerie vibe. I enjoyed uncovering the secrets of Dunnsmouth with Harrison and his strange but really cool group of friends, and hopefully there will be some sort of follow-up to this book and that we won’t have long to wait for it....more
I’ve been dreading the thought of writing this review for a while, because I know it’s going to be a doozy. For one thing, I just know I’m going to come off sounding way more negative about this book than I mean to – which just kills me because there’s actually a lot to like here. Sadly, I just can’t talk about any of it. None at all. Yes, you heard that right; most of the good stuff is spoiler territory, so you’re all just going to have to bear with me.
You know how everyone has been saying that the less you know about Alive before going in, the better? Listen to them; they’re absolutely right. The best part about reading this book was being wrapped up in the mystery, slowly gaining more answers the farther into the story you get. However, this does make for a pretty rough beginning, and a fair bit of patience and investment is required to get to the payoff.
First of all, the book starts off sounding like it was written by a twelve-year-old. However, I’m not sure if this even counts as a criticism. Yes, it was maddening, but at the same time also very appropriate. Alive is told through the eyes of a girl who wakes up on her twelfth birthday, but she has no recollection of who she is or what her life was like before she went to sleep. She finds herself in darkness, trapped in an enclosed space that feels disturbingly like a coffin. After breaking out, she realizes something feels seriously wrong. She is supposed to be twelve, but her body looks like it should belong to someone older, like a woman in her late teens or early twenties. She then finds a plaque engraved with her name at the foot of her coffin – M. Savage.
Dubbing herself “Em”, the girl looks around the room and sees it lined with dozens more coffins like hers, but only a handful of them contain other survivors. All of them look physically like young adults, but they also say the same thing as Em – today is their twelfth birthday, and none of them can remember how they ended up in their coffins. In the end, only six of them emerged; everyone else is dead and shriveled in their receptacles or lying on the ground in piles of bone and ash. Because she was the first to break out and wake the others, Em assumes the role of leader of their little group. Now she bears the responsibility of their survival, but they’ll first have to learn to trust each other and work together if they’re all going to make it out alive.
So, probably the most trying part of the book was the first hundred pages or so. It was a little like reading Lord of the Flies except we’re in a labyrinth-like setting and the characters are all pre-teens trapped in the bodies of Abercrombie & Fitch models. Em cannot seem to go five pages without remarking on how strikingly beautiful every one of her companions are, and as a leader she keeps making one terrible decision after another. Like I said, mentally Em is only twelve years old. I’m still not sure how to judge her language, thoughts and actions when they are probably consistent with what the author thinks a tween girl should sound like. Still, I think the writing style will be the biggest hurdle for some readers, since Em also strikes me as an especially petulant and somewhat naïve child with her constant obsession to be in charge.
In spite of it all, the book grew on me. After the midway point, the story gets substantially better as we find out more about the survivors’ situation. I can’t say more without giving too much away though, which is always every book reviewer’s quandary (I’m ever striving to keep my reviews spoiler-free anyway, but in this case Scott Sigler even has a whole afterword imploring readers not to spoil anything via the internet, so I’ll take extra precautions and simply avoid talking anymore about the plot). Suffice to say, in time we do get enough information to piece together some answers. And it ends up being pretty cool.
I discovered afterward that Alive is apparently part of a series called the Generations trilogy. Even so, it could work as a self-contained novel. In light of everything that happened in this book though, I don’t think I can bring myself to stop with just one. I’m very curious to find out what will happen next, so I will most definitely pick up the sequel....more
At first I didn’t think this would be my type of book, with its convoluted politics, bio-engineered super killer soldiers, dispassionate violence and casual sex, not to mention at times the narrative seemed more invested in the technicalities of hand-to-hand combat rather than the time it takes to build a convincing world. I know I’m not exactly selling it so far, but hear me out – because now that I’ve finished Evensong, the heavy emotional impact this book had on me is something I just can’t ignore.
Novels like these remind me why it’s important to step out of my comfort zone, for I ended up liking it a lot. Its dark and cynical futuristic cyberpunk-ish style reminded me a little of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, mixed in with a bit of that 007 Casino Royale vibe when it comes to the main protagonist. A biologically-enhanced operative, Anwar Abbas is an introspective character as raw and edgy as an unpolished stone, hardened by his life and work, but who nonetheless cares about standing up for what’s right.
Anwar is disgruntled when assigned bodyguard duties for Olivia del Sarto, the archbishop of the fast-growing New Anglican Church, but finds himself both repelled and intrigued by his charge’s abrasive candor. The morally ambiguous Olivia has an aggressive demeanor completely at odds with Anwar’s stubborn and systematic approach, but that doesn’t stop the two from plunging headfirst into a torrid affair – albeit one that is initially all sex and no feeling. Anwar is more than happy to satisfy Olivia’s voracious appetites, but stays by her side out of a sense of duty more than anything else, tasked to protect her from shadowy enemies who have threatened to assassinate her during a high-profile U.N summit on water rights.
Character development isn’t exactly strong, with both Anwar and Olivia’s personalities coming across as rather stunted and flat, causing me to constantly question their motivations especially when it comes to their relationship. And yet, somehow their affair manages to evolve into something much more nuanced. It’s not a love story, but at times it sure felt like one, even in all its twisted and dysfunctional glory. Here you have two characters on opposite sides of the spectrum; the harder they resist each other the more they are drawn together, becoming like one another. It sounds deceptively simple, but there’s a lot of synergy happening between the lines. It makes Evensong the perfect example of a story where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
John Love’s writing style also strikes me as a bit eccentric, especially since he utilizes a third person omniscient point of view for this novel, and is quite stark as he goes about his storytelling. For my part, I prefer a more personal touch, but admit that the author’s approach is also well suited for the story and its themes. I enjoyed my fair share of contemplation into the book’s more philosophical subjects – religion, human nature, etc. – but as I’d alluded to in my previous paragraph, I was mostly fascinated with the character dynamics and interactions. The author gradually adds layers to everything, so that the longer you read the novel, the more rewarding the experience gets. Like I said, there’s a combined effect at work here. At some point you’ll definitely get the feel of every piece snapping neatly into place, and suddenly it all makes sense.
I did say the novel had a huge impact on me emotionally. The revelations came at me like an explosion at the end, like one moment you’re traipsing down a sunny country lane and the next you’re blindsided by a Mack truck barreling into you at a hundred miles an hour. As the dust settled, I was left with a numbness, a melancholy that even now I find hard to explain, mixed with shock and disbelief…like, did I just read that?!!! The story definitely touched something deep inside me though, especially in light of the nature of Anwar’s character and the decisions he ultimately decided to make.
Certainly I never expected to be so powerfully affected by Evensong, since it’s such a departure from what I normally read. I can’t believe I almost dismissed this book as “not my thing”, and what a tragic mistake that would have been. I’m profoundly glad that I ended up ignoring my instincts, because against all odds, this book ended up working surprisingly well for me....more
A Murder of Mages is the first book of a series dedicated to the Maradaine Constabulary, set in the same wonderful world as Marshall Ryan Maresca’s debut novel The Thorn of Dentonhill. No need to read one before the other, though; that’s the beauty of it. Despite their shared setting, the series are companions to one another, each featuring separate stories and starring completely different characters.
And having read both books now, I can say they are both equally great. However, A Murder of Mages might have just the slightest itty-bitty edge here, since I admit a penchant for detective stories, not to mention a super soft spot for lady cops.
One of the main protagonists is Satrine Rainey – a wife, a mother of two, and a former street rat and ex-spy. After her constable husband suffers a grave injury in the line of duty, it is up to Satrine to figure out a way to support and care for the family. Using her skills, she is able to fake her way into the Maradaine Constabulary to land herself a job as an Inspector third class, where she is promptly paired up with another inspector who no one wanted to partner with – Minox Welling, an Uncircled mage nicknamed Jinx because his past partners have all met with unfortunate accidents.
Her first day on the job, Satrine is sent out with Minox to the streets where she grew up to investigate the body of a mage found in an alley, staked to the ground with his heart cut out. When more victims of these ritual murders are discovered, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues as the inspectors race against time to track down the elusive killer.
Once again, the author is able to create something altogether unique and fresh by adding his own twist to a familiar idea like the male and female crime-solving duo. I enjoyed the dynamics in the relationship between Satrine and Minox, especially since we know right off the bat that it will be a platonic one. The narrative makes it clear that Satrine has a disabled husband at home who she is deeply devoted to, which in and of itself is an intriguing albeit heartbreaking element to throw into the mix.
Satrine is genuinely one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever met. Without overwhelming us with details, Maresca gives us a glimpse into her rough childhood as a street urchin. After she was recruited by the Druth Intelligence and doing her stint as a spy, Satrine met and married Loren Rainey and they had two daughters. In light of the devastating accident that leaves Satrine as the sole provider and caregiver for her husband and their girls, I really couldn’t blame her for deceiving the Constabulary to get her job under false pretenses. A mother wants the best for her children, and in Satrine’s case she wanted to give Rian and Caribet a good life and a good education, the sort of opportunities Satrine could only dream about when she was their age. It’s hard to fault her for those sentiments.
I didn’t get as deep of a feel for Minox Welling, but he’s a great character as well. Mages are a complex class in these Maradaine novels, as evidenced by the protagonist of Maresca’s first novel The Thorn of Dentonhill. Through Minox the reader was able to get a better feel for how mages fit in this society. Uncircled mages like him appear to be treated with disdain (you’re either a failure, in hiding, or a late-bloomer – none of which are good to be) and even Circled mages seem feared and distrusted by the local populace. Having a child who is a mage is even a source of shame for some families.
Having two series in tandem is certainly a remarkable way to build a world, but it is also very effective. Despite not being a sequel or even a follow up to The Thorn of Dentonhill, A Murder of Mages added a lot to what we know of Maradaine, providing a look at the everyday hustle and bustle of its citizenry from all walks of life. Marshall Ryan Maresca has a true knack for creating rich settings as well as characters that feel very real and well-rounded. There’s always something special to the people he writes about, whether they are mage students or constable inspectors. A Murder of Mages was another hit for me, a fantastic read from a new talent whose star continues to be on the rise....more