“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”
A lot of times, it’s the books that initially fly under my radar which end up impressing me the most. This was the case with Karen Memory, whose description didn’t actually appeal to me at first. After all, as much as I love steampunk, I’ve read so much of the genre that admittedly I’ve gotten a lot pickier in recent years. It’s going to take more than just airships and clockwork gadgetry to entice me these days.
The moment I read the first paragraph though, I knew I was going to be in for a treat. It’s not even just the “Old West” feel of the setting (which I’m a sucker for and gets me every time) that caught my attention, but the distinct and down-to-earth voice of the narrator which immediately tugged at something in my heart. Right away, I knew I wanted to learn more about her. I wanted to get to know her and hear her story.
Our protagonist Karen Memery turns out to a young “seamstress” (a euphemism those around her parts use for prostitute) working for Madame Damnable at one of Rapid City’s more upscale establishments. It’s late 19th century and the Pacific Northwest is at the height of another gold rush; like any frontier town that’s sprouted up around the mining industry, life is rough and the folks even rougher. Working girls like Karen at the Hôtel Mon Cherie know that the best way to survive is to stick together and look after one another, but not everyone is so fortunate to have an employer like Madame Damnable or friends to watch their back.
The calm is shattered one night when two young women arrive at the Mon Cherie seeking help and protection. This is how Karen first meets and falls in love with Priya, a prostitute who managed to escape the horrific conditions of a rival brothel, but not without its mean and nasty proprietor Peter Bantle in hot pursuit. Thwarted, Bantle vows to make Madame Damnable and her girls’ lives a living hell, and with what appears to be mind-control device in his possession, he might be more dangerous than anyone believed. When the flogged and bloody corpses of women start appearing around town, one begins to wonder if all of this is connected somehow. A new lawman rides into town with his Comanche partner on the tail of a vicious serial killer, and together with Karen and the friends, this ragtag but resourceful crew is determined to get to the bottom of this conspiracy.
At times, Karen Memory did feel very much like my perfect book. It is imaginative steampunk that feels fresh and full of life, served up as a rich blend of mystery, suspense, action and romance. The end result is difficult to describe, but delightfully easy to enjoy. As I said before, I have a weakness for westerns and stories that take place during the expansion into the western frontier, so I was charmed at once by Rapid City, resplendently brought to life by Elizabeth Bear’s evocative and vivid descriptions. Despite a healthy dose of fantastical steampunk, we never lose sight of the distinctive characteristics or nuances of this particular era.
Karen herself is an amazing one-of-a-kind character, telling her story with a candidness that I found very charming. The narrative style won’t be for everyone, riddled with its colloquialisms and informal jargon, but it worked surprisingly well for me. It made Karen feel so real — I could practically hear her voice and imagine her mannerisms in my head. I’ll say this — whoever is narrating the audiobook will have her work cut out for her, as it’ll be hard to top what’s already written on paper. Usually prose littered with slang and grammatical errors, whether they’re intentional or not, would drive me nuts (especially my personal pet peeve, “would of” instead of “would’ve”, which Karen repeatedly commits). That I was able to overlook them in this case says a lot.
No doubt the book would not have been the same without Karen’s unique voice, but the other ladies at the Hôtel Mon Cherie surely deserve a mention too. This entire cast of brave and capable kickass women will rock your world and fill you with admiration. After Karen, I’m especially taken with the character of Madame, inspired by the real Mother Damnable, Mary Ann Conklin who ran Seattle’s first hotel and high-class brothel. For a certainty, this novel features no shortage of spirited women will go to great lengths for those they love and what they believe in, and will not back down without a fight.
Karen Memory is a book about a lot of things – solving a mystery, hunting a merciless killer, saving the city from evil, and all the spectacular drama that comes along with such activities. But at its heart, the book is also about forging friendships, growing up, and chasing one’s dreams. Behind the rollicking adventure is also a softer, more introspective side to the story that will surely resonate with a lot of readers.
Final verdict? I would definitely recommend this. It’s actually my first book by Elizabeth Bear, but regardless of whether you’re a long-time fan of the author or relatively new to her work like me, you really can’t go wrong with this one. Check it out....more
It’s Great Britain versus the United States in this paranormal historical novel about the search for immortality. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his widow Mary Todd Lincoln is determined to never let anyone experience her grief again, forming the impetus behind the Eterna Project, a secret group of scientists and researchers tasked to find a cure for death.
Across the ocean, Queen Victoria creates special division in charge of investigating all matters of the supernatural and paranormal, codenaming it “Omega”. Hungry for everlasting power and expansion, the queen appoints Harold Spire of the Metropolitan Police to head up Omega, charging him to find the ruined Eterna laboratory in New York, where she is convinced someone has survived with a sample of the immortality compound. Meanwhile, American Clara Templeton is also searching for Eterna. Grieving for her lover who worked on the secret project and died in the catastrophe that destroyed the laboratory, she will do her best not to let the any of the research fall into British hands.
The book is an interesting blend of genres with a unique premise, though it may take quite a bit of investment to get into the meat of the story. It’s up to the reader to get caught up, since we’re essentially dropped into the wake of the destruction of the Eterna laboratory and deaths of all the scientists and researchers. But perhaps most bewildering of all is the prologue which introduces readers to the character of Clara as a young girl, being confided in by Mary Todd Lincoln after the assassination of the president. Thus we learn that Clara possesses special abilities, ones that allow her to commune with the dead, but that she also a mystic of sorts who recalls all the memories of her past lives.
Even after finishing this novel, I’m still unclear as to the significance of Clara’s abilities in the bigger scheme of things. They don’t benefit her in any clear way, and certainly not on the Eterna project as she isn’t even directly connected with the work. They don’t even come in handy when it comes to communicating with her dead lover, since she blocks everything out. As far as I can tell, her psychic talents are there to make her stand out and be more interesting than she really is. The truth is, Clara is aloof, uninspiring and devoid of much personality, and unfortunately her powers actually don’t do much to improve things. In fact, I think they make an even bigger mess of her character. Whether her abilities will come into play later on in the series, only time will tell.
On the British side, we have Harold Spire and Omega. I found Spire to be a much more developed character than Clara, and more sympathetic due to his tragic past and the unusual relationship he has with his father. There are also more interesting characters in Omega; secret agents and spies and circus performers, oh my. My only criticism is that, while assigned the job of tracking down Eterna, the plot ends up spending more time focusing on Spire as he investigates another seemingly unconnected case. This robs the story of a lot of the suspense, especially if you were anticipating a tension-filled “arms race” type competition between the British and Americans from the novel’s description, with the two nations scrabbling to be the first to find the secret to immortality. This is not that kind of book, which was somewhat disappointing, though I ultimately didn’t mind the new direction.
The Eterna Files ended up being an enjoyable read, if at times disorganized and convoluted. In the jumble of themes and ideas and plot points, I can glean the overall picture and take a good guess where author Leanna Renee Hieber is taking the story, even though the narrative stumbles in the pacing and is slow in pulling it all together. Once everything resolves, however, it’s a lot more compelling....more
Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm is certainly a strange book and not what I expected at all. My first venture into this renowned author’s work notwithstanding, even I could tell this was quite a departure from his older work, involving no small amount of literary experimentation – and not least because of the novel’s semi-autobiographical nature in which Moorcock chronicles the shift of his craft from sci-fi fantasy pulp fiction towards a “new wave” and more modernist tradition.
The first book of a new trilogy, Moorcock’s latest novel presents to readers a semi-factual, semi-fictitious version of the author’s younger self growing up in post-World War II London. We follow Michael Moorcock as he navigates the world of science fiction and fantasy publishing, starting out as editor of his Tarzan Adventures fanzine at the age of 17 and eventually moving on to bigger and more prominent roles in the industry – including his controversial position as the editor of British science fiction magazine New Worlds during the 60s and 70s.
While the character talks about much of his writing, the narrative is also laced with a heavy dose of fantastical elements. Between sections detailing Michael’s personal and professional life, the book slips in and out of reality to feature an alternate world called Alsacia, a hidden sanctuary and home to both historical and legendary figures like Prince Rupert of the Rhine or Dumas’ musketeers. It’s a place where death does not exist and time flows differently, where heroes from different centuries can share a pint and rub elbows down at the tavern and no one will bat an eye. The first time young Michael accidentally stumbles into Alsacia, he meets the beautiful Mol Midnight, literally the girl of his dreams who later on becomes his muse for a number books and stories. And so begins his long relationship with this mystical place and the denizens within. Thus Michael finds himself torn between two worlds, the real London where his career and family reside, and Alsacia where he can indulge in wild romances and adventures. Before long, he can hardly ignore the whispers of what he calls the Swarm, always calling him, tempting him back into the sanctuary where he can find solace from the pressures of the world.
As someone previously unfamiliar with Moorcock’s work, I found myself intrigued by the premise of the book. Unfortunately, I was also frequently frustrated with the seemingly disorganized and irregular pacing of what at times barely passes for a plot. As previously mentioned, a huge chunk of the novel is written in a semi-autobiographical style, where readers are swept along on lengthy descriptions of young Michael’s professional and social life, which include his experimentations with sex, drugs and music. I wasn’t so fond of the explanatory narrative and found myself less interested in the nitty-gritty details of his editing and writing, but when it came to the character’s internal insights into the evolution of his style, I was perhaps more enthusiastic.
As a character, Michael’s motivations were hard to grasp. He’s an unsettled and indecisive narrator, not to mention frequently unreliable which made it more difficult to find him sympathetic. He would alternate between being selfless and self-pitying, especially where the needs of his young family are concerned. The times he steps through the veil into Alsacia are the highlights, however. Regrettably I found these to be too few and far between especially in the first half, or else I might have had an easier time getting into the book; instead, I had to push myself through most of the beginning.
On the other hand, I didn’t expect to enjoy the blurring of reality and fantasy as much as I did; there was always that uncertainty lingering in the background, mixing in that element of the unknown which made the situation more compelling as Michael became more entrenched in the business of Alsacia. This novel is definitely the first of its kind that I have read, and even knowing that most of Michael’s personal details had to be completely fabricated, the questions it made me ask were the sort that were entirely different and unique.
I have a feeling this is a very special trilogy in the making, but the ultimate payoff may require too much investment for some readers, including myself. Michael’s exploits with the various adventurers from Alsacia were exciting towards the end, but I wish more of the book had been dedicated to that aspect of the story. There are some great ideas in here, if somewhat radical and on the experimental side, but my experience was mainly dampened by the slow pacing of the plot as well as a lack of direction for most of it. An interesting novel overall, and in the end I’m not sorry I read it. The style is not exactly to my tastes, but it’s broadened my horizons....more
The Secrets of Life and Death was an interesting novel, a mix of dark noir fantasy mystery and historical fiction, using the true story behind the notorious figure of Countess Elisabeth Bathory as a basis. I actually learned quite a bit from this book, as I was previously unfamiliar with Bathory before reading this. Between the years of 1585 and 1610, she and four other collaborators were accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of girls, earning her the label of most prolific female serial killer in history.
The book is told through various narratives in two different timelines, the first one set in modern day England where Professor Guichard is called in to consult on a series of occult symbols drawn on the dead body of a teenage girl. His own investigations into the case lead him to Jackdaw Hammond, a mysterious woman harboring a big secret of her own. For you see, Jack is actually dead, living on borrowed time made possible by powerful magic.
Insight into such magic could be gleaned in the second timeline through the writings of Edward Kelley, the assistant of John Dee. The narrative begins in 1585, as Kelley and Dee are summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his gravely ill niece, Elisabeth Bathory. As events unfold, the two men learn there may be something more sinister behind the nature of the countess’s sickness, but the type of sorcery required to cure her may be even worse.
I enjoyed the premise behind this book, and felt the author utilized a very creative way to tell a story, with the two storylines playing out at the same time being the best and most notable aspect. However, as intriguing as I find this format, it’s not without its drawbacks. Any author who engages in this back-and-forth style of storytelling commits themselves to a fine balancing act, with the goal of making both threads entertaining and engaging to the reader. This novel falters a bit here, starting out with both the modern and historical narratives going strong, but gradually the account of Kelley and Dee’s exploits in Poland began to drag for me. There just wasn’t enough going on there to carry the momentum past the middle.
In contrast, I found Guichard and Jack’s story much more interesting, no doubt due to my fondness for mysteries and investigative cases. The modern day story also appealed to me more because of Sadie, a young girl who was “rescued” by Jack, but why or how that was achieved was not revealed for a long time, and the circumstances behind the enigma was what held my attention.
At the same time, I think more time could have been spent on beefing up the present day storyline, and I would have been perfectly okay with the decision. There was a lot more information I would have liked to know about “borrowed timers”, not to mention Guichard and Jack’s relationship felt rushed and could have used more development. More details into Jack’s past wouldn’t have hurt either, as well as her history with Maggie, the old woman who had saved Jack the same way Jack had saved Sadie. Jack’s motivation to try to save other borrowed timers like herself remained unclear to me. I find it hard to understand why she would step in and alter the fate of others, as it were, when she had been through the same process herself and knows fully well how painful and lonely it can be. Unlike Maggie, Jack didn’t have a personal stake it in, and being aware of the weighty consequences of saving a “borrowed timer”, you’d think knowing all the facts, the wiser decision would be to leave things well alone.
All told, The Secrets of Life and Death was a good book, with only some minor issues. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to history buffs with an interest in the crimes of Elisabeth Bathory, or if you have a penchant for dark historical fiction in general with a splash of the modern....more
Age of Iron ended up surprising me in many delightful ways, but what I didn’t expect at all was how addicting it was. It simply grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. It’s dark, brutal, violent and gritty, and yet I was completely immersed in its harsh, war-torn world.
We begin the story with an introduction to Dug Sealskinner, a mercenary on his way to join up with King Zadar’s grand army at Maidun Castle, hoping for a way to earn some steady coin. But then he is waylaid at Barton, a town that gets attacked and annihilated by the very same people Dug had wished to join. In the aftermath, he meets up with a strange young girl named Spring, and together they encounter Lowa Flynn, formerly one of Zadar’s favored fighters who now finds herself on the run and seeking revenge on the king for her murdered band of warrior women.
King Zadar is a tyrant like no other with his twisted sense of how the world should be. His betrayal of Lowa and failure to capture her has earned him a dangerous enemy, but his killing and pillaging across the country has also made him the target of a young druid named Ragnall, who too seeks to make his way to Maidun to rescue his kidnapped fiancée. Ragnall and his mentor Drustan end up joining with our trio, and together the five make up a rather motley party of unlikely adventurers, all with a common foe.
Very little is known about life in Iron Age Britain; that the book began with this fact and a “this is what really happened” kind of statement in its foreword made me wonder what I’ll be in for. Large swaths of the book filled with history lessons, perhaps? But no, while we do indeed get a torrent of rich, scintillating details about the world, all of it no doubt painstakingly researched and cross checked and checked again by the author, none of it felt blatant or overtly shoved down my throat.
In fact, Watson placed storytelling and characters first, which is what I think made the book’s pacing so successful. He gave backstories to even the more minor characters, in a way that didn’t bog down the story but instead enhanced it, as every detail seems purposely placed to provide insight into the people and life at the time. The plot is also constantly driving forward, and there aren’t many places where it loses steam. History clearly has a role in this book, but the ultimate goal here is epic adventure, and we certainly don’t sacrifice storytelling or momentum.
It also wouldn’t feel complete without a bit of magic, which brings us to the druids. I admit I was very much drawn to the mention of them in the book’s description, as I’ve always been interested in the subject. And the druids of Age of Iron are fascinating indeed. There are all kinds of druids – healers, soothsayers, magicians, some who are benevolent and others who are bloodthirsty and depraved. This latter sort of druid seems to get the most attention, in the form of Felix, the druid who serves King Zadar. As cruel and wicked Zadar is, Felix makes him look like a snuffling choir boy. Some of the druid’s deeds are hard to read about, described in all its gruesome, gory details, and Watson doesn’t spare his readers one bit in this area.
I guess here’s where I should mention that no one is safe in this book – men, women, children and animals are all subjected to some horrific, violent fates, and it can get quite graphic – disturbingly so. If you’re squeamish or turned off about that kind of stuff, here’s a caveat: you might want to stay far away.
And yet, Age of Iron isn’t all doom and gloom, and blood and guts. There is humor, and there are inherently good people in this book. However, none of them are so black-and-white as that either. Characters like Dug, Lowa, Spring, and Ragnall serve as good counterpoints to the depravity and viciousness of people like Zadar and Felix, but our so-called heroes aren’t without their weaknesses. They may endear themselves to you, make you laugh or make you root for them, but be prepared to despise them sometimes too, because in the end they are also flawed people and simply trying to survive a world trying to do them in. I was all the more impressed by the well-roundedness of these characters, and whether you love them or hate them, I thought they were all very developed and well written.
Needless to say, I can’t wait for the next book. Age of Iron is one hell of a novel. The polish and skill in the writing makes it hard to believe it’s his fictional debut, but you can bet Angus Watson’s got my full attention. I’ll definitely be watching for his future works as well as the progress of this series with great interest....more
I wish I could write a more positive review for this book, I really do. The Shadow Master has so much going for it, including a setting resembling an alternate-history Renaissance Italy, with just a touch of that steampunk flavor with its clockwork inventions and automatons. We also mustn’t forget the biggie for me – a plot thread about a pair of star-crossed lovers separated by the warring between their families. I do get a kick out of Forbidden Love. This book just seemed made for me, and indeed I liked a lot of its separate parts. I’m just not sure how well I liked the whole.
If the book’s description didn’t make you think it already, then I’m sure its epigraph “A plague a’ both your houses!” certainly would – the basic plot is very much reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. However, this is not a romance. In fact, one of my biggest disappointments was not feeling any connection at all between the two young lovers: Lucia, daughter of the Duke of House Lorraine and Lorenzo, whose loyalties lies with the House Medici.
With the two families at each other’s throats, the future of Lucia and Lorenzo’s relationship hangs in the balance, but without first being convinced of their bond, I found it hard to stay interested. Their love story, which should have served as the starting point and foundation of the novel, didn’t initially captivate me, and as a result the rest of the story failed to deliver the desired impact.
But as I’d alluded to, there were quite a few things I enjoyed about this book. I enjoyed the appearance of several historical figures including Galileo and Leonardo Da Vinci, even though they weren’t contemporaries, but their “war of the wits” gave the Medici vs. Lorraine battle a certain fantastical flare. Both are reluctant geniuses caught in the conflict between the Houses, receiving pressure from their leaders to design and build magical inventions that would give their side the advantage. The city is also threatened by plague, a problem literally at its doorstep as hordes of the sick and dying amass outside the gates. The first half of this book was quite engaging for these reasons.
Around the 60% mark, however, events of the story suddenly made a turn for the confusing. Kidnappings and assassination attempts and negotiations become entangled in mystical machines, madmen and ancients. The events were so jumbled and disconnected that I’m still a bit uncertain as to what really happened.
I think the language and the author’s writing style might have also made following the story a little more difficult. I didn’t click with some of the dialogue between characters spoken in riddles, and at times the prose also had a tendency to feel overly embellished with the use of euphemisms, especially during moments of intensity. Torture scenes or sex scenes were made incredibly awkward by terms like “serpent of sin”, “tower of ivory”, “fountain of relief”, “cave of wonders” and “mountains of the goddess”. There was speculation between me and another blogger that some of these were done purposely for the sake of satire, which I admit was something that hadn’t occurred to me. It’s possible, I suppose, though if that’s the case it’s not presented in a very obvious manner.
If the last half had been tightened up and more clear and consistent, I might have enjoyed The Shadow Master a bit more, but as it is, the book feels slightly unfinished and rushed. I had pretty high hopes, but in the end this one just didn’t work very well for me....more
One of the most common things you'll hear about books these days is that everything seems to be a series. I know I myself have talked about series burnout on more than a few occasions and expressed a desire to see more stand-alones. However! Every once in a while the news of an unexpected sequel will make me jump up and down for joy! And this is most definitely one of those times.
Murder can be seen as the follow-up to Mayhem, the chilling paranormal horror novel by Sarah Pinborough that was published last year from Jo Fletcher Books. Sort-of-but-not-really about Jack the Ripper, the book and its clever combination of historical fact and fiction intermixed with supernatural elements quickly vaulted it onto my list of all-time favorites.
I should probably mention too that Mayhem works perfectly well as a stand-alone, but that I was also thrilled when I found out about Murder for reasons beyond the fact I am such a fan of its forerunner. Sarah Pinborough clearly had a lot more in store for Dr. Thomas Bond, the protagonist in these books. It should be noted that the real Dr. Thomas Bond was a very important figure in British crime history, best known for his work as the police surgeon on a lot of the Whitechapel murder investigations between 1887-1891. I’ve always believed that the best horror stories are rooted in reality, and being aware of the shocking turns in Bond’s career and later years also made me really excited to see what the author would do next.
Once again, Sarah Pinborough succeeds in bringing life and depth to her characters, several of whom were figures from history. A lot of the gruesome events described in this novel also actually happened, even the line in the description about bodies of children being pulled from the Thames (see the Victorian England baby farm murders). Pinborough flawlessly weaves a thread of supernatural into the story, but even then things can sometimes get too real. I think that’s why historical horrors are often so effective at terrifying me!
So now I’ll try my best to explain why I simply adored this book without giving away any spoilers for Mayhem: First, I love how these books aren’t about any one killer or murder case. Rather, all that serves as a backdrop in order to focus on something a lot more otherworldly and evil. Malevolence has settled upon London, and Dr. Thomas Bond is inextricably linked to it. Try as he might, he can’t escape the pull of the past. Because of this, Bond becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator, and having been familiar with his steadfast pragmatism up until this point, his downward spiral only makes the situation even more disconcerting. Like in Mayhem, Bond’s chapters are the only ones written in the first person, while others are in the third person. This point-of-view switching allows us to see a fuller picture, and it works even better here since our main protagonist’s credibility has been severely compromised.
Ms. Pinborough doesn’t hold anything back. Despite the kind of person Bond becomes, I felt for him; I really did. But clearly the author knows what needs to happen, and she carries out the plot with a cold eye and sees it all through mercilessly. And honestly? It made for an amazing book. There were some truly unexpected turns in the plot. At times, I couldn’t even believe it. You’ll be appalled and filled with hatred. Your heart will break. And you’ll also marvel at the amazing things the author has accomplished here with character development.
This book was just so good. Dark, disturbing, and full of tension -- just the way I like my horror. It was not a fast-paced book, and yet...the story had this way of worming into my mind. This is definitely the kind of book you'll find yourself thinking about even when you’re not reading, and hoping that it won’t be long until you can pick it up again....more
The first time I heard about author Aidan Harte was last year when his novel Irenicon was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar award for best debut. Talk about an impressive series starter. The book's historical overtones set in a fantasy world, along with a subtle touch of magic put me in mind strongly of the works by Guy Gavriel Kay, and if Harte's prose lacks Kay's poetic quality then he more than makes up for it with its boldness and intensity.
I also learned the meaning behind a new word: Irenicon, from the Oxford Dictionary "a proposal made as a means of achieving peace." The book's title is a reference to the river which cuts through the middle of the city of Rasenna, ironically named for so many reasons, least of all its brutal history. Blasted into existence by the Concordian Empire using Wave technology developed by their brilliant engineers, the new river effectively divided Rasenna both geographically and socially, sparking wars between powerful families and ensuring that the city will never be able to rise up against Concord. But the Wave also brought other unexpected consequences -- such as the river becoming sentient. And it doesn't seem to like humanity very much.
Central to the conflict is Sofia Scaligeri, future Contessa of Rasenna, brought up and trained by her mentor the Doctor Bardini. Her life changes forever with the arrival of Giovanni, the engineer from Concord tasked to build a bridge across Irenicon as a display of the empire's strength. Their meeting results in discord among all parties, and as the feuding between the different factions in Rasenna have always been at a fever pitch, the presence of a Concordian in their midst have not helped matters. But while the friction and dissension may be at the forefront of this narrative, what I also saw in it was a very twisty and poignant love story. Maybe I'm just a romantic at heart.
Sophia is a great protagonist. At first, I hadn't expected a teenage girl to be at the heart of this story; it just didn't seem to be that kind of novel. But I guess I should have taken a better look at the cover -- which is gorgeous and very dramatic, by the way -- which features a young female warrior at the head of a mounted army. I bring attention to it because it's a very accurate depiction of the character's personality -- strong, and a little stubborn perhaps, but also very skilled, having been groomed to become the leader of a city on the verge of tearing itself apart. But despite her age, this is still a very adult novel, full of complexity and deeper themes. I also wouldn't exactly call it fast-paced, taking a rather measured approach to setting the stage, but in so doing we get really well-rounded portrayals of all the characters involved.
I think the unique setting also bears mentioning. Very early on, we find out about book's world and its version of Christianity, where baby Jesus never escaped the clutches of Herod's forces and thus never grew to adulthood to spread his word. While the universe of Irenicon is home to magic and all sorts of uncanny technologies, there is a very powerful alternate history vibe. Take the names of the people and places, for example, which gave me a strong impression of Italy circa the medieval period. It's fascinating, and if anything I wish the setting could have been expanded further. There were several instances of characters contemplating religion, but those moments never extended very far, and I also wouldn't have minded even more world-building.
Nevertheless, the author did an incredible job providing a vivid backdrop for all the action and the emotion, deftly filling in the spaces with historical and cultural context. Harte has a very interesting biography, and no doubt his experiences in writing, art, and the media have given him a unique perspective with which to approach this trilogy. This first book is full of unexpected surprises, and how cruel is the last line, leaving me speculating! Distinctive and a little unconventional, this debut is a little tough to pin down, but I can also understand all the praise for it. I look forward to seeing how the writing evolves, along with how things will play out in the next book....more
I love books that keep me guessing, books like The Oversight which had me hanging on every word. It had me wondering from the start: Just who or what is The Oversight? Are they the good guys or the bad guys? Who are their enemies, and their enemies' enemies for that matter, and why is it that every time I think I’ve got a bead on what’s happening the book decides to drop a bombshell on my head and look out, it's a trap!? It's all plot twists and hidden agendas galore with this one!
Accomplished children's/YA author Charlie Fletcher takes readers on a journey steeped in magic and mystery in his first adult novel, offering a wonderful and genuinely captivating tale which historical urban fantasy fans will surely adore. Headquartered in a Neo-Gothic Victorian-like version of London, the Oversight is a secret society that has since dwindled down to a mere five members after a tragedy devastated their numbers thirty years ago. But five, being a sacred number, is enough. Five is all The Oversight needs to keep things running, guarding the borders between the magical and the mundane and protecting the unsuspecting public from the nasty things that go bump in the night.
But creatures from the Otherworld aren’t the only threats. Danger comes in the form of more earthly foes as well, from sinister factions to witch-hunters who won’t rest until they see the last remnants of the Oversight destroyed. When a young girl with special abilities shows up at the Oversight safehouse, Sara Falk wants badly to believe she has found a fellow Glint and potential new recruit in Lucy Harker. However, it soon becomes clear that Lucy’s appearance is part of a more sinister and unsettling plot to strike at the Oversight. The question is…just whose plot is it?
Stick with this book, and sooner or later you will find out. Admittedly slower to start because this is the kind of story requiring plenty of time to build itself up, the setting will nonetheless pull you in straight away with its incredible atmosphere. I reveled in this dark, magical side of London. Anything can happen, so prepare to see some truly bizarre and uncanny sights. Fletcher’s prose will put a spell on you, wickedly leading you down twists and turns with his artful storytelling. He made me think I knew what was going on, only to surprise and humble me by showing me just how little I knew. I was very impressed with the way he revealed his secrets, meticulously setting up the stages of the plot so that one revelation always led to another, and things are never as they appear.
From the city streets to the countryside with a traveling circus, this book will also take you to all sorts of places and introduce you to a host of interesting people (and creatures). Even now, I can’t decide what I liked better, the characters or the setting. The world was what originally made me fall in love with the book, but I was also taken with the group of personalities making up the Oversight. Fletcher didn’t have to resort to any overloading of background information to convey the weight of the history and connections between the five members – Sarah, Cook, Mr. Sharp, Hodge and The Smith. Strange creatures from folklore also lend their nightmarish presence to this world, but even they were hard pressed to be less creepy than some of the truly disturbing human antagonists.
I haven’t enjoyed myself this much in a long time. I was also quite satisfied with the ending, which caught me unawares considering how dire and heartbreaking some of the events were. A major conflict was resolved but the path is paved for so much more, which is the way I like my series starters. Remember: “When they fall, so do we all”, and the future looks quite desperate for our characters. Fortunately, there’s also hope for this steadfast group of friends. With such high stakes, I just can’t wait to find out what happens next....more
I didn't think I was going to enjoy this book at first. Thank goodness I was wrong! Still, can you really blame me for having my doubts? After being inundated in recent years with the dozens upon dozens of movies, TV shows, video games etc. all featuring the same mindless gory battles against the shambling, moaning hordes of the undead, my initial thought was: been there, done that, now what more can this zombie book offer?
Well, this is the review where I happily eat my words! I should have known better anyway, because Ragnarok Publications has never let me down. As it turned out, Those Poor, Poor Bastards had a lot more to offer than I'd anticipated, in addition to that charming little title. The book did contain some of the usual trappings you'll find in a lot of zombie stories, but there were some twists as well, and I loved how the authors took the familiar and created something new. Also, while I haven't read enough of the Weird West sub-genre to consider myself a fan, a description like "Zombie Western" wasn't really something I could resist.
It is 1868, in the Sierra Nevada. The book begins with Nina Weaver and her father Lincoln riding into Coburn Station only to find that everything has gone to hell in a chuckwagon. The "Deaduns" have arisen and are sowing bloody carnage all over town, forcing the living to band together in order to survive. In typical fashion, you end up with a large, diverse ensemble cast. And like watching The Walking Dead, you just know before you even begin that many of them are going to end up zombie food before this whole thing is over.
Put a big group of people with disparate personalities into a stressful situation and you'll also inevitably get your clashes and alliances within the ranks. There are the good folks like Nina and her pa, the priest Father Mathias as well as the charming James Manning. On the other side of the fence you have the less savory types and troublemakers like the Daggett brothers or the scummy Mister Strobridge. Then there are those caught in the middle who just aren't sure. With tensions this high and a swarm of Deaduns at the door, it's the perfect set up for explosive conflict. Emphasis on explosive.
So far, with the exception of the western setting, things might be sounding rather familiar. But then, the authors work their magic and you suddenly realize there is way more to this story. Bucking tradition, we're actually given an explanation into the Deaduns and how they came to be. Their origins and motives, not to mention the actual reveal itself, were so unique that it completely threw me for a loop -- in a good way! I have to say this ended up being a delightfully fun read, in all its blood-splattered glory.
Those Poor, Poor Bastards also taught me something important about myself -- that I will never be too old or too jaded for a good ol' zombie story! What a fast-paced, crazy wild book. I think I'll just end this review with a suggestion to the potential reader: there are a lot of characters, so definitely try to tackle this novel all in one go if you can, ensuring that the dozen or so identities will always remain fresh in your mind. Besides, it shouldn't be too difficult -- because once you start reading, you just might find it hard to stop!...more
V-S Day is a bit of a departure from my usual reads, but I've made made a resolution this year to tackle more books that are outside my comfort zone. And while I may not be a World War II buff, I do love novels of alternate history and have seen authors come up with some terrific ideas when it comes to this era and genre.
To tell the truth, I almost balked and ran after the first chapter. It wasn't WWII history that made me hesitate, but in fact it was the rocket science that intimidated me. To be fair, it doesnt take much to make me feel out of my depth; a few mentions of things like insulated hoses, radar arrays, and liquid oxygen and nitrogen tank pressurization and you'll find me starting to sweat. I can't help it, I just start to feel my attention waning whenever descriptions get the least bit technical.
But then, things turned around completely. The book may have opened on the scene of a hectic space-plane launch in 1943, but suddenly with the next chapter we are looking in on a gathering of family and friends in the present day. As it turns out, this is a reunion party for a group of pretty important people, made up of the brilliant scientists who thwarted a Nazi plot to attack New York City in the war during the 1940s. Of course, due to its highly classified nature, no one had any idea about it.
But now, journalist Douglas Walker is here to find the truth, interviewing the men about their time with Robert Goddard, inventor of the liquid-fuel rocket, and their project that changed the world. To counter the Nazi's development of a manned orbital spacecraft capable of traversing long distances to drop a bomb on the United States, Goddard and his team had to figure out a way to build their own spacecraft to take down the enemy's rocket. Thus, a race between two secret military projects was born.
But before I go further into what I thought about this book, I have to say it was the espionage angle that finally got me on board. When rocket science fails to hook me, I can always count on the plot elements that have to do with spies and intelligence gathering to get me excited. And once that got me into the story, I just ate it right up and blew through the pages.
In the end, I actually came to follow the progress of the American program with much enjoyment, and in a way the rocket ship project itself became a central character, and -- believe it or not -- my fascination with it eventually overshadowed my interest in the human players. This was a rather new experience for me, where the scientists became almost the supporting cast, while the research and development of the spacecraft Lucky Linda actually took center stage. For someone who typically places a lot of emphasis on characters in a novel, I was surprisingly okay with this.
It also wasn't until later when I read the author's afterword that I found out, at one point, the story of V-S Day existed in the form of a screenplay. That actually made a lot of sense. Reading this book did make me feel uncannily like I was watching it in a movie or a series on TV, thanks in part to the flashback style and the way the events were told through the eyes of multiple major and minor characters. If anything though, I thought the chapters that gave us a glimpse into von Braun's program in Germany were the weakest, though I saw the need for them, since the reader has to know the progress of each side to get a sense of the urgency and what's at risk.
At its heart, V-S Day is a book about a very different space race in a time where rockets only existed in science fiction magazines or in the minds of those who dared to dream. I ended up enjoying this book quite a bit, and was glad I didn't let myself put this one down. The final revelation at the end was a nice touch. However, it was the climax that made it all worth it, with the tension culminating into a conclusion that made me understand the reason for all the build up. ...more
The fascinating concept behind this book was what first drew me in and made me decide to take a chance on it. Featuring a kickass nineteenth-century female demon hunter on a journey across the globe to track down and kill some very unconventional monsters, Netherworld appeared to have everything I was looking for and sounded very promising.
The book follows Lady Diana Furnaval, a young widow who has inherited much more than her husband's estates after his death. Lord William Furnaval turns out to have been one of the last guardians of the mysterious gateways that lead into Netherworld, the place where demons and other malevolent spirits make their homes. With him gone, it is up to Diana to take up the mantle to secure these portals, though she is determined to take things one step further and close them forever.
Diana's personal mission takes her to gateways located in faraway places. In China, she meets and befriends a young Cantonese sailor named Yi-kin, who accompanies her and her cat on their demon hunting adventures. Retracing her husband's final journey, she also uncovers some disturbing information about his death which leads her to believe there is much more to the story.
After reading this book, my general impression is that Lisa Morton is definitely familiar with the ingredients which make up an effective and compelling tale. And yet, while all the elements were in place, the actual storytelling felt disorganized and inconsistent, with the pacing feeling very rushed in certain places. For instance, I had a hard time getting into this book because the several of the opening chapters felt so disconnected and unfeeling, especially with the quick play-by-play explanation of the circumstances behind Lord William Furnaval's death, as well as the portion taken from his journal.
To its credit, the book falls back into an easier groove after this point, though the ending once again runs into issues with uneven pacing. The climax and conclusion felt glossed over, and overall the story had so many plot points and ideas that it was difficult not to wish for things to slow down a little, just to catch my breath and enjoy the different places and people Diana encounters. The book isn't that long to begin with, and yet we go from Transylvania to India to China to America to England and to Ireland, and in each place we only get to stay long enough for the characters to kill a few demons and close a gateway.
There's just so much more that could have been explored, and given how the author seems quite fond of providing historical details of the different locales Diana visits, I don't know why she didn't seize the opportunity to flesh them out. After all, I love how the story delves into legends and lore outside of the Western tradition. In particular, I enjoyed the inclusion of Chinese vampires or jiangshi (called goong-si in this novel because it uses the Cantonese dialect) and it's clear Lisa Morton did a lot of research into them to ensure her descriptions and translations are as accurate as possible. It's always interesting whenever I see an unconventional take on supernatural monsters, and in this case we're looking at them through the lens of other cultures.
Overall, I think I expected more from this book. The story itself was admittedly quite enjoyable, though the haphazard pacing and execution of ideas took a lot of the fun out of it. Here and there, I have to give it major points for moments of ingenuity, but in the end this just wasn't my cup of tea....more
Of the many re-tellings and interpretations I've read based on the King Arthur mythos, I think M.K. Hume's is probably the most "scholarly" version I've ever come across. As an expert on Arthurian literature writing the series as more of a historical fiction than a fantasy, the author clearly went to great lengths to find the most accurate accounts of Arthur's reign. Still, she ultimately chose to tell the legends her way, and there are certainly no shortage of surprises here.
This is the second book of Hume's King Arthur trilogy. The first book Dragon's Child was about how Artor (Arthur) won his crown to become High King of the Britons, while Warrior of the West takes place approximately twelve years after that. The story almost feels like it is split into two parts, with the first half of the novel focusing on the war against Glamdring Ironfist and his army of Saxon invaders.
But while it was undoubtedly the right call for Hume to open the book with the excitement and conflict of a war campaign, I personally found the events of the second half of the novel more engaging. Having driven back his enemies, the rest of the book centers around Artor's efforts to establish his throne and his need for a legitimate heir. This, of course, is where Wenhaver (Guenevere) comes in, and the interesting part begins.
I have to say this book's characterization of Wenhaver is one of my favorite portrayals of King Arthur's queen that I've ever encountered. Simply put, she's a terrible, vicious person, little more than a spoiled child accustomed to using her beauty to get what she wants. In her afterword, Hume confesses that she has never much liked Guenevere or her character's relevance as someone who could bring ruin to an entire kingdom for the love of another man, and yet could still retain her likeability as a person. I've never thought about it that way, but the fact that Guenevere and her part in the legend has always been heavily romanticized is true enough.
However, in this story Wenhaver is a vile, jealous and sadistic character who cheats on her husband out of spite. Hume also leaves the character of Lancelot out entirely, which makes sense because she is staying faithful to the older versions of the legend (Lancelot is thought to have been absorbed into the Arthurian tradition after he was introduced by the French romances). But while there's no love lost between king and queen, Hume cultivates her character relationships in other places.
As a counterpoint to Wenhaver, we have Nimue, known commonly as the Lady of the Lake who enchants the heart of Merlin. Nimue is the polar opposite of Wenhaver, being a sweet, kindly and down-to-earth young woman -- which again is an intriguing portrayal of a key figure that is very different and unique. I love the background Hume has written for Nimue, while still managing to tie in a lot of the elements from the more popular versions of the legend, including her relationship with Myrddion Merlinus.
In spite of this, the story also feels grounded in historical reality, which I'm sure is due largely to Hume's research and academic expertise. The nature of the writing style also puts you right there, and is quite effective at emphasizing the brutality of the times. In some ways, the starkness of the prose makes the violence seem so much worse, making me feel a lot more squeamish. Indeed, the author does not spare us from the darker, bloodier side of forging a kingdom.
As you can see, the book veers off a great deal from the more "accepted" versions of the King Arthur legend, but that is also what I love best about it. The way Hume weaves her own personal imaginings into a framework which brings together myth and legend with historical accounts is what's making this series stand out for me. It's true that these novels lean further into historical fiction territory than fantasy, making them quite different than the type of books I'm currently reading now, but I'm definitely looking forward to checking out the conclusion of this trilogy....more
The Doctor and the Dinosaurs is my first venture into Mike Resnick's Weird West Tales, and actually my first exposure to the author, period. Like many kids growing up, I went through a phase in my childhood where I was just nuts for dinosaurs. I suppose a part of that love has stayed with me all this time, because when I saw the cover and description for this one I just couldn't resist.
This is the fourth book of the series starring Doc Holliday of American Old West fame, but if I'm not mistaken, each installment can be read on its own. We seem to be catching our protagonist at a pretty bad time though, as the book opens on Doc bedridden and coughing out his lungs in a sanitarium, dying of the dastardly consumption. But then he is visited by the medicine man and great chief Geronimo, who grants him one more year of life in exchange for a favor.
Doc Holliday is tasked to stop two paleontologists who have been carrying out their digs on sacred Comanche burial grounds in Wyoming. Sounds easy enough. But that was before Doc learned that the two scientists involved are none other than Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, two men who hate each others' guts and are locked in eternal competition. Time is running out and the Comanche medicine men have made things clear: stop desecrating their lands or they will unleash a horde of monsters, the kind our world has not seen in 65 million years.
A crazy blend of steampunk, fantasy, alternate history and western, this book was as much fun as I thought it would be! I've never had the pleasure of reading a "true" dime novel from the latter half of the 1800s, but I wouldn't be surprised if Mike Resnick is in some way emulating the spirit and style of the popular fiction in those days. As you would expect from the above synopsis, the book's story and characters are more sensational than deep, with an entertaining plot that contains more clever, snappy dialogue than exposition. Nevertheless, that's the kind of book it was intended to be. In that sense, it does the job and does it well.
This book was also such a treat for the part of me that still loves dinosaurs. We all know there's no shortage of stories about the Old West featuring famous gunfighters like Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Cole Younger, and the list goes on. But while this series also features an impressive list of shootists, I loved how this particular story directed its focus to another significant event that took place during America's Gilded Age -- the Great Dinosaur Rush. For one, the hatred between Cope and Marsh was so intense, their rivalry so frenzied, that the two men actually spawned a period in paleontological history known as the Bone Wars. It's fascinating stuff! I was happy to see a spotlight on this idea, and an entire story built around it.
Is The Doctor and the Dinosaurs a little over the top? Perhaps. But is it fun? Definitely. I picked up this book hoping for an afternoon of fun, light reading, and that's exactly what it delivered....more
Dan Simmons has always been hit or miss for me, but I have to say his historical-horror novel The Terror about Franklin's lost expedition to the arctic remains one of my all time favorite books ever. While his newest novel The Abominable may not be a follow up, it certainly can be considered a companion piece; the fact that both books seem to share the same vein made me hopeful that Simmons will blow me away again.
Unfortunately, that just didn't happen. Still, the book started promisingly enough, with an introduction from the author that really isn't an introduction at all. Instead, it's an interesting little meta-story about how Dan Simmons came upon a manuscript of this book, starting with a visit more than ten years ago to a former mountaineer named Jake Perry in a Colorado nursing home. The Abominable is essentially Jake's account of his 1926 expedition to Mount Everest, which Simmons receives in the form of a whole stack of notebooks hand-written by the old man.
Thus it was not so surprising that most of this book read like a memoir. What did surprise me, however, was how little action there was in a book supposedly touted as a "thrilling tale of supernatural adventure". A good chunk of it felt more like a guide to mountain climbing, complete with descriptions of climbing techniques and equipment which Simmons goes into with exhaustive detail.
Okay, I'll give that it's interesting and all, but where's the relevance? I was more than a quarter of the way through this book (and that's about 150 pages in this monster of a novel) and they still weren't even in the Himalayas yet. At a certain point, I just desperately wanted the story to get moving, and the last thing I needed was yet another dozen or so pages on ice axes and 12-point crampons. At the end of this book, I felt like knew the ins-and-outs of how a Primus stove works more intimately than some of the main characters. This really bothered me, especially since I've never known Simmons to be the kind of author to flaunt his knowledge or research prowess by overwhelming the reader with unnecessary info dumps.
When he does get around to the action though, it can be very suspenseful. If I'd ever entertained thoughts of becoming a mountain climber, this book pretty much killed them dead. Mountain climbers are insane; I'll settle for living their adventures vicariously though books like this one, thanks. That being said, readers with a fear of heights might have a rough time with this, and of course Simmons is also the master of pushing his characters to extremes by placing them in these horrible, godforsaken situations. And it doesn't get any scarier and more extreme than on Mount Everest.
To date, more than a thousand people have reached Everest's summit including a thirteen-year-old, but it's still one of the most treacherous mountains in the world, killing climbers every year. Can you imagine what a nightmare it must have been like in the 1920s? Climbers back then didn't have our current tech, didn't have the kind of safety gear and improved equipment we have today. It was less than a hundred years ago, and conquering Everest was still just a dream. Or more like, a hopeless challenge. When you read The Abominable and take in the struggles of Jake Perry and his companions, Simmons doesn't let you forget that for a second.
Nevertheless, this book fell short of my expectations. Its dragging pace played into this, certainly. By the time things really started to heat up it was already three-quarters of the way through the book and a little too late. Still, it was the climax and big reveal that disappointed me the most. Without going into spoilers, let's just say that one of the reasons I loved The Terror so much was its touch of the supernatural. From its description, The Abominable looks like it teases the same, but things didn't actually turn out that way. The big twist was ultimately a let down, and I'll just leave it at that.
Bottom line, this book was not as good as I thought it would be, though it is not without its high points. History buffs with an interest in Everest and mountaineering will find the some of the details here fascinating (the doomed 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition and the deaths of renowned climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine served indirectly as a background for this novel) and a few sections of the plot are genuinely terrifying. Still, it is very little payoff for the amount of effort. The Abominable was a decent book, but I just wished it had been more the "bone-chilling, pulse-pounding story of supernatural suspense" its description vaunted. ...more
I was initially drawn to The Falconer thanks to that striking cover. Just absolutely gorgeous! And then I read the book's description and saw that the story was no slouch either. A mix of paranormal fantasy and historical fiction, the Fae, and a spirited heroine made this one sound very inviting.
It is Scotland and the year is 1844. A year has passed since Aileana Kameron was found standing over the dead body of her mother, covered in blood. Everyone thinks she has something to do with it, but Aileana knows the truth. It was a faery who killed her mother and ripped out her heart.
Now all Aileana wants is revenge. As a result, she lives a double life, pretending to be interested in frivolous things like dances and dresses when making her appearances in high society, but when the light fades she goes out hunting. Night after night, she tracks and kills Fae, using the skills learned from her mentor, Kiaran MacKay. Kiaran, who is a faery himself, has his own reasons for wanting to see his own kind dead, but Aileana doesn't care, not as long as their goals align...and as long as she doesn't get too close.
Despite bits of historical context hinted here and there, the setting didn't actually feel like historical fiction to me. Or very Scottish, for that matter. Elizabeth May has pretty much created her own world in The Falconer; the place and time period don't matter all that much to the story anyway, but the light flavor of steampunk is a nice touch. The world is filled with all sorts of wonderful contraptions, like tea dispensers and floating lights, and Aileana is something of a tinkerer, designing and creating weapons and even her own flying machine.
Aileana herself is a great character, as fiery and determined as that amazing cover makes her out to be. When it comes to female protagonists in paranormal fiction, she ranks amongst the best I've ever met, mostly because she comes off as able and intelligent rather than irritating in her conviction. However, if I had to pick a favorite character in this book, the honor would go to her pixie sidekick-like companion Derrick. I loved that humorous, honey-guzzling little guy!
I also didn't realize until after I finished reading that The Falconer has been categorized as Young Adult. I suppose in retrospect, the book contains quite a few trappings of the genre, but honestly, they didn't jump out at me at the time. Aileana is 18 years old, but her experiences have made her older than her years, and even the story's love triangle, which I usually dread, was bearable because it wasn't quite like a real love triangle. Even as a YA novel, I feel The Falconer has excellent crossover appeal.
My final thought, and perhaps also a warning, is that this book ends in a cliffhanger, perhaps one of the more infuriating ones I've encountered in recent years. The final scenes with Aileana and Kiaran against the Fae threat were so intense and suspenseful! And when I saw that there were still quite a pages left in the book, I got all anxious and prepared for the conclusion to be revealed...only to find out that the last chapter was actually a Bestiary. Arrrggh!
So bravo, Elizabeth May, you have me hooked. Some might say The Falconer is pretty standard in terms of paranormal fantasy, but so help me, it was a fast read and such good fun. ...more
Angry Robot may be one of my favorite speculative fiction publishers, but when it comes to their Mystery/Crime imprint Exhibit A, I have to say I'm pretty much clueless. Naturally, I was curious about their books, and Letters From a Murderer immediately caught my eye. After all, historical fiction is one of my favorite genres after science fiction and fantasy, and Jack the Ripper is the subject of another great book I read recently, and for that reason my interest in Ripper stories was still very much piqued.
However, there is one notable aspect about this Ripper story -- it takes place in New York, 1891. This was around the time when the string of brutal murders in Whitechapel and east London seemed to have stopped, leading authorities to speculate that the killer must have died, gotten arrested, or moved on. So when the book opens with a prostitute in New York found murdered in a similar way, uncomfortable questions are raised about whether or not the Ripper might have crossed the Atlantic.
While I know it's not exactly new, this idea is something I've personally never encountered before in a Jack the Ripper related novel. There are whole new dynamics at work here, admidst the complexities of the city's criminal underworld as well as dark secrets in the main character Finley Jameson's past. As one of the original English pathologists on the Ripper case, Jameson is teamed up with New York detective Joseph Argenti, and together they try to catch the murderer before he can claim more victims. The "Letters" in the book's title have a two meanings, referring to the messages the killer sends to the press taunting the police, as well as the symbols found carved onto the victims' bodies.
I enjoyed this, even though I'll admit I didn't fully appreciate the cleverness of the story until well into the book, when the major "twist" was revealed to shake things up. Before this, the book held my interest but did not exceed my expectations; the plot held a lot of the usual elements I would expect from a novel of this genre and type. In this historical mystery, the "history" takes more of a backseat as this is a mystery-thriller first and foremost, complete with gang violence and corruption, conspiracies and lies. Some of the characters fell into familiar archetypes, like the mob boss Tierney (evil and insane) or Jameson's assistant Lawrence (the troubled but brilliant intellectual). On the other hand, this can be seen as a postive if you prefer books that are reminiscent of classics like Sherlock Homes, as this one definitely has that vibe.
The best part, however, is something I can't really talk about much in my review for fear of spoilers, but the aforementioned dark secrets in Jameson's past have a lot to do with it. Suddenly, everything that came before in the novel held more significance and meaning, including the details I thought were just par for the course in Jameson and Argenti's investigation. For a book that I didn't think was going to surprise me, it sure threw me for a loop there, keeping me guessing and wondering and beating myself up for not realizing before that this was where the author was going.
Alas, that little side plot in the story was over all too quickly, but the remainder of the book set a much more rigorous pace, with an exciting mix of suspense and mystery as our investigators have to try and solve the puzzle and deal with Tierney's men at the same time. I thought everything unfolded naturally and came together very well at the end, and fans of crime fiction or historical mysteries will probably find lots to like about this one, especially if you have an interest in Sherlock-Holmes-style books or Jack the Ripper stories....more
Interestingly enough, well before this book came into my life, I'd happened to be browsing through the many publishing-related newsletters in my email inbox one day when a deliciously creepy animated gif banner in one of them caught my eye. In fact, it was an announcement for this very title, bearing the tag line:
"Jack the Ripper is terrorizing London. Now a new killer is stalking the streets, the victims' bodies are dismembered and their heads are missing...the killer likes to keep them."
It gets even more intriguing than that. The book's blurb also describes it as a supernatural thriller, and given my penchant for historical horror novels (particularly those featuring a paranormal angle) I just couldn't resist. So you can imagine my excitement when I received Mayhem for review from Jo Fletcher Books, and remembering that banner with its promise of a hunt for a serial killer in Victorian London, I needed little convincing to start this right away.
Still, Mayhem isn't really a story about Jack the Ripper. Between 1888 and 1891 there were a series of murders in or around the Whitechapel area, and the modus operandi of some of these were different enough that investigators theorized that they could have been committed by another person other than Jack. The idea of a separate "Torso Killer" in these "Thames Mysteries" is what forms the basis for this book, and in Sarah Pinborough's version of the events, he takes his victims' heads as trophies.
Though Jack the Ripper doesn't take center stage in Mayhem, his name and his crimes are referred to frequently, and his terrifying hold over East London is part and parcel to the creation of the setting. Establishing that there's the possibility of not just one but two killers stalking the streets creates this sense of dread that is pervasive throughout the novel. Because of the way the plot is set up, even when nothing suspenseful was happening on the page, the book always had me steeling myself in apprehension for something horrible to come along -- that's what a good horror novel does to me.
The supernatural aspect also helps in this regard; as I've said before in my past reviews, I like a touch of that in my horror. In Mayhem, it adds a whole new dimension to the story, making it a lot better than if this had been just a straight-up hunt for an ordinary mundane killer.
In spite of this, much in this book is rooted in reality. The author did her research, and even included events like the true instance of a reporter's dog used in finding a severed leg during the Whitehall Mystery. Also, a couple of the book's chief characters, like those involved with the investigations, were actual historical figures -- the police detective Henry Moore and the British physician Thomas Bond, for example. The latter comes closest to being our main protagonist, with his chapters being the only ones written in the first person, while the others are in the third person. Initially, I found this point-of-view switching to be quite bizarre, but ultimately it worked for me.
Reports from news articles about the killings are also interspersed between the narratives, which not only establishes the timeline but also provides historical context. A work of fiction this may be, but the book never lets you forget that the Whitechapel murders, their victims and their grisly circumstances (especially in the case of Mary Jane Kelly) had really occurred, that at least one insane and very real killer had actually once terrorized London's East End, and I think that's what unsettled me the most as I was reading.
This was a very dark tale, chilling and disturbing without being overblown or excessive. The atmosphere of tension is subtle and builds gradually, but things peaked for me during that terrible scene at the dinner table involving Dr. Bond's revelation. I didn't realize until then that I was just like him -- bracing myself for the inevitable macabre conclusion. This is highly recommended for those who like historical mysteries and crime fiction, particularly if you don't mind a little paranormal thrown into the mix. ...more
These books are still a joy to read, though I've pretty much accepted that none of the sequels in this series are ever going to come close to being asThese books are still a joy to read, though I've pretty much accepted that none of the sequels in this series are ever going to come close to being as good as the first book again. At least this one was better than the last, which sees Laurence and Temeraire back on an adventure again in a faraway exotic place.
This time, the crew finds themselves in Australia, with Laurence having been banished to the prison colony of New South Wales after being convicted of treason. The British Aerial Corps has nonetheless tasked him of taking care of three dragon eggs, in the hopes of establishing a new base in the area. Exile in Australia is proving much more difficult than expected, however, as Laurence and Temeraire are caught up in a political mess involving an overthrown governor and a band of rebels. To escape, they readily agree to take on a mission to seek out a passage through the Blue Mountains.
Rather than fighting flesh-and-blood adversaries, their main enemy this time is the harsh wilderness of the Australian outback. It's not as exciting as some of the past journeys Laurence and Temeraire have been on, but I love seeing them go to new places regardless. Australia is still an unknown factor to our characters at this time, and it's both suspenseful and awe-inspiring to read about their struggles with the land, which includes surviving thirst, poisonous creatures, brutal storms and savage wildfires.
The characters' purposes, however, could have been more interesting. The goal of trying to find a passage through the mountains is as dull as it sounds, though the book picked up when one of Laurence and Temeraire's precious eggs are stolen. But then they spend more than half the book trying to hunt the thieves and track it down, and that was just too much to devote to this side plot. There really was no climax to this tale either, and the book's ending was not anywhere near as satisfying as I'd hoped. ...more
A Study in Silks was a book I won from a Goodreads giveaway. Part steampunk historical mystery and part fantasy paranormal romance, I was initially drA Study in Silks was a book I won from a Goodreads giveaway. Part steampunk historical mystery and part fantasy paranormal romance, I was initially drawn to the story's setting as well as its description of the main character Evelina Cooper as being the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes.
Eveline, however, is not solely defined by her famous uncle, and I liked how Emma Jane Holloway has given her character an exceptional background with which to distinguish herself. Thanks to her Granny Holmes, Evelina was plucked from a childhood of growing up with a traveling circus to be dropped into a world of lords and ladies, and here she must learn to live a life caught between two worlds.
But Sherlock Holmes' work has clearly also rubbed off on her, given how eagerly she aspires to follow in his footsteps. When a young servant girl is killed at the home of her best friend, Evelina does what she can for the investigation, going as far as to use her gift of the Blood, which allows her to communicate with minor spirits and recruit them to her aid.
At first glance, one would suppose there's a lot happening in this novel. In fact, one of the most noticeable features of the paperback when it arrived was how remarkably hefty it was. Coming in at more than 500 pages, it's much longer than I would have expected from a book of this genre and type, and my first assumption was that there would be a lot of world building.
In this, I suppose I was half correct. The setting is ambitious, definitely, in this world of steam barons, demons and devas, clockwork animals and automatons. A little too ambitious, maybe, seeing as I was left wishing more attention could have been given to both the steampunk and magical aspect, putting them in further context. I'd have loved to know more about the deva spirits, for example, beyond simply knowng that Evelina has the power to snare them in her mechanical toys and make them do her bidding.
The fact that A Study in Silks falls more heavily on the "paranormal romance" side of things might have something to do with this. Quite honestly, more emphasis in the story is given to providing juicy details about which character is fancying whom, rather than towards world building and setting up a murder mystery. In truth, if Sherlock Holmes were real he'd probably have a conniption fit over Evelina's methods. While I love her character, I don't actually think our heroine makes a good detective, as she often lets her emotional ties get in the way of her objectivity.
My take: The mystery plot spices it up well, but mainly check this book out if you like historical romance with a little fantasy thrown in, and extra bonus if you are a fan of delicious love triangles, which in itself provides a bit of suspense here. The book is definitely not without its merits, especially if you think you might enjoy the look into its elegant world of Victorian steampunk high society, complete with formal balls and debutantes.
A total impulse read, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I picked this up. I knew next to nothing about the characters or the story becauseA total impulse read, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I picked this up. I knew next to nothing about the characters or the story because believe it or not, I hadn't even stopped to read the synopsis or description (which, when you're a bibliophile, is like totally living life on the edge, I tell ya!)
But perhaps I'm overplaying my daredevilry. The fact is, it's not like this Parasol Protectorate series hadn't been on my radar at all, because I see it everywhere, from people reading it on the bus to copies at the checkout racks at supermarkets. So I had a pretty good idea that these books were wildly popular, and I'll admit I've always been curious, especially ever since stumbling upon a description of it as a "paranormal comedy of manners". That definitely conformed to my impressions of it after seeing that charming cover.
So, discovering that it was a novel about werewolves, vampires and other such uncanny creatures was a real treat for me, as was finding out about the Victorian steampunk setting. After all, this is territory I'm familiar and happy with, and the main character Alexia Tarabotti's life as a "soulless" or "preternatural" sounded new and interesting enough for this book to be right up my alley.
As someone with her unique power, Alexia is able to negate the effects of supernatural beings simply by touching them, thus turning creatures like vampires and werewolves back into their human forms. I have to say I was just in love with this idea! In addition, the book also floated a really neat theory to explain the link between preternaturals and supernatural creatures, utilizing a concept that involves opposing forces and counterbalances. I know I've said this a bunch of times before, but I always enjoy seeing novel ideas like this in the paranormal fantasy genre.
In the book's intro, Alexia's condition as a preternatural was what allowed her to survive an attack by a rogue vampire. In her subsequent investigation into this incident with the werewolf Lord Maccon, they uncover cases of other rogues as well as a disturbing number of missing supernaturals, so now I'm getting really excited, seeing that an element of mystery is in this story line as well. All was going great...until I got to the romance.
Admittedly, here's where my enthusiasm began to wane. Now that I'm finished the book, I would definitely classify Soulless as a paranormal romance more than anything. While I have nothing against that particular genre, I still must confess that a book tends to lose me when the relationship drama begins eclipsing everything else in the plot and becomes the main focus. And so when Alexia and Lord Maccon actually started making out and rounding second base on the dirty floor of a dank dark cell while they were being imprisoned by a gang of fanatical torturers, I kinda knew we'd reached my breaking point.
Pages upon pages describing the etiquette of courtship and totally inappropriate moments to get amorous notwithstanding, this was still a very good book. I'm open to the possibility of picking up the next book in the series if I'm ever struck by the mood to read a fun paranormal romance, especially now that I know what to expect!
Thank you to Atria Books for sending me an advanced copy of Dragon's Child in exchange for an honest review! Originally published in 2009, a new editiThank you to Atria Books for sending me an advanced copy of Dragon's Child in exchange for an honest review! Originally published in 2009, a new edition of the paperback and ebook will be available later this fall, thus it was provided to me via Atria's latest Galley Alley program. This book first caught my eye when I found out it was an Arthurian fantasy novel written by an expert on the subject. Like many, I've been exposed to my share of retellings and interpretations of the King Arthur mythos in fiction (there are a ton out there!), but I am most definitely not well-versed in the historical details. This made me curious as to how an academic authority on Arthurian literature would tackle the legend.
Not surprisingly, the novel turned out to be a story of Arthur (known here as Artorex) and his journey from a humble childhood to become the High King of the Britons. Artorex is presented to us as the reluctant hero, whose personal choice would have been to raise a family on his foster family's farm and live out the rest of his days as a simple steward. Fate, however, has set him on another path.
I'll admit that I found it difficult to get into the story at first. The introduction to the hero's journey is a familiar one: the boy who everyone had initially dismissed suddenly discovers that he has a greater destiny. In the next few chapters, his skills are honed and he becomes stronger. He learns to fight, he learns to ride, and he gains all the experiences he will someday need to become a great leader. It was pretty standard, even as Arthurian legends go, and I had to suppress the temptation to skim this section, especially knowing that the real meat of the story had to be just beyond this point.
Thankfully, I was right and the book did get better. Much better, in fact, with the introduction of Gallia, Artorex's first wife. That's right, I did a double-take too when I saw that. M.K. Hume herself wrote in her Author's Note explaining that she once came upon an evocative reference in an obscure text named Guinevere as Arthur's second wife, but even though she could find no other material in her research that even hints at a first wife, the idea stuck. And I have to say, the fact whole epic trilogies can develop and evolve from tiny little tidbits like that is what fascinates me about historical fiction, and why I love the genre.
In this case, I really enjoyed the author's take on Artorex's childhood and teenage years, as well as her reasoning behind why she chose to tell his story the way she did. A lot of attention is given to these formative years, and I was surprised at how engaging the story became after getting past his boyhood training. Even though Hume used a third person omniscient point of view to narrate the story (which I normally dislike, because it tends to distract me from the main character), the focus always remained on Artorex, making his transformation from the boy known simply as Lump to King Artor of the Britons a very drawn-out but believable one.
In the end, I went from feeling luke-warm towards this novel to liking it quite a lot. The writing style can come off as a bit cumbersome at first if you're not used to it, but I later felt it suited the book very well, giving a cold edge to some of the darker and more violent parts of the story. This first book ends with Artorex being crowned the High King, and the best part is knowing there is so much more to his legend, which I'm looking forward to continuing in the rest of this trilogy.
Wow, did that seriously just happen?! Those were the words running through my head when I reached the very end of this book. Just when I thought thisWow, did that seriously just happen?! Those were the words running through my head when I reached the very end of this book. Just when I thought this series couldn't get any crazier with its genre-bending goodness, it decides to throw me for another loop (which in the context of talking about this book is a rather clever pun, now that I think about it. I'm just a little miffed now because I can't explain it without spoiling anything!) The way I see it, as far as those shocking "I-NEED-to-know-what-happens-next" cliffhangers go, Ian Tregillis just raised the freakin' bar.
If I had to go back and talk about the first book of the Milkweed Triptych, Bitter Seeds, I'd probably describe it as an alternate history World War II novel with both fantasy and science fiction elements, mostly due to its main premise involving Nazi Germany's lab-raised soldiers with superpowers versus the British's warlocks and their demons. This second book still has all of that, except it takes place some twenty years later, and even though the war is over, Great Britain now finds itself locked in a precarious power struggle with the USSR.
Now Project Milkweed is threatened when they find out that Britain's warlocks, the country's greatest defense in keeping their enemy at bay, are being killed off by an unknown assassin. Meanwhile, a pair of super-soldier siblings who fought for the Nazis in WWII escape their Soviet prison and make their way to England. One of them is Gretel, the psychopath pre-cog who is still obsessed with manipulating the life of British agent Raybould Marsh. Even after more than two decades, she is still pulling the strings, nudging the future towards her own mysterious agenda.
By all accounts, I should have liked this book more, and I think I would have if it weren't so utterly bleak. I know "Super soldiers vs. Warlocks" sounds like an interesting and unbelievably fun premise -- which it most certainly is, don't get me wrong -- but part of me is still having trouble getting over how dark this series can be sometimes. While I'm no stranger to dark fiction with dreary themes, there's just something about these books that unsettle the heck out of me and chill me to the bone.
I suppose depending on who you are, that can be seen as a good or bad thing. For example, in Bitter Seeds, I found that the disturbing ideas in the first book really worked in giving the story the hard edge it needed. I was able to transform those feelings of dread into suspenseful anticipation which kept me turning the pages, and also because I felt pity for the poor characters who have had such terrible things happen to them or are forced to make these awful decisions.
Unfortunately, my sympathy for the characters ran out and was largely absent for the most part in The Coldest War. The main players were mostly the same, but in the twenty-two years since the events of the last book, many things have happened to turn even the "good guys" into pretty despicable people in my eyes. While the main antagonist Gretel is still as evil as ever, I nevertheless had a difficult time bringing myself to muster up any enthusiasm to root for Marsh or Will this time around. There are no truly upstanding characters in this book, which normally isn't a problem for me; I find I can be drawn to even the most morally corrupted of characters if they are written well, but I honestly couldn't find anyone particularly likeable in this book, with the possible exception of Klaus, Gretel's brother.
Story-wise, though, I am absolutely floored. The ending alone was probably worth all the frustrating moments the characters put me through, not to mention the next book presents the perfect opportunity for many of them to redeem themselves. That last line in the epilogue has got to be the most effective two words in the history of book endings. I can't wait to pick up the third book for the finale, I MUST find out how it all ends.
After having positive experiences with both the first two books in The Monstrumologist series, I eagerly anticipated getting my hands on the third book. This probably explains why I wasn't entirely prepared for my disappointed reaction when I finished. Don't get me wrong; on it's own and outside any biases or pre-conceived notions, this book is a solid horror novel for young adults. But compared to the The Monstrumologist and even The Curse of the Wendigo, I have to say it fell quite a bit short.
The book starts off in a similar way as the others, teasing the next horrifying monster that our characters will encounter next. In this case, it's news clippings and reports about "red rain" and bloody raw meat falling from the sky. These incidents and the disgusting nidus, nests made of human parts and poisonous sputum, are the only evidence of the creature known as "the Faceless One of a Thousand Faces" or Typhoeus magnificum. For monster hunters like Pellinore Warthrop, it is considered the "Holy Grail of Monstrumology."
When a mysterious package shows up at the monstrumologist's door, our protagonist and narrator Will Henry witnesses firsthand how exposure to its gruesome contents rapidly turn the hapless courier who delivered it into a mindless, rotting horror. Dr. Warthrop, recognizing what's inside the package as a nidus, takes Will Henry on a race to follow the trail and track down the magnificum.
I didn't think this book was as impressive as its predecessors, for a couple reasons. Firstly, I'm not sure if this is merely a byproduct of Will Henry growing up over the course of the series to become a teenager in this novel, but this was the first time I actually found his character annoying. By design, he was moody, whiny and childish. I also sensed a shift in his narration style to become more abstract and ineffective, especially since we have so many more scenes in this book involving flashbacks, dreams, and delirious visions.
Secondly, my favorite character Dr. Pellinore Warthrop was largely absent for a big chunk of the story. Interesting things happen when he's around, so when he's not, all we're left with is Will Henry being mopey and feeling sorry for himself. While I can understand that this book is supposed to a deeper exploration into the relationship between the two of them, I can't help but think there had to be a better way to accomplish this. The inaction in the first part of the book was a letdown compared to the action and suspense I'd grown used to from this series, and really only the opening and the ending managed to come close.
On the bright side, I thought this was the most humorous out of the three books so far, with more light moments than I expected to balance out the depressing and melodramatic. While I considered this a positive point, The Isle of Blood just had a very different feel from rest of the series, with many departures from what I thought was the norm for these books. Like I said, it wasn't bad, but I can't deny I was expecting something maybe a little more fast-paced and entertaining, and a little less subdued....more
I absolutely adored this. Magical realism at its finest! And even though it wasn't exactly what I had expected, I can't really say that I minded. OtheI absolutely adored this. Magical realism at its finest! And even though it wasn't exactly what I had expected, I can't really say that I minded. Otherwise, as a character so deftly put it in this book, I would be like "a man who complains that someone stole the eggs from his henhouse and replaced them with rubies."
This fantasy novel is also a touching and meaningful immigrant tale at its heart, combining religion and mythology to tell a story of two supernatural creatures who find themselves in New York City in 1899. Chava is a magically-crafted clay golem, brought to life to serve a husband who dies at sea while on the voyage from Poland. When the ship reaches NYC, she is left directionless and without a master. Ahmad is a jinni, released accidentally after being trapped in a copper flask for hundreds of years. Through free from the vessel, he finds himself still bound to the physical world by a band of iron around his wrist, placed there by the wizard who imprisoned him so long ago.
The story plays out like a fairy tale for adults, complete with elements like love and villains. It is filled with wonderful, fully-realized characters which hooked me from the start. The multiple narratives paint an enchanting picture of the bustling and culturally rich setting of turn-of-the-century New York, where immigrants from so many places around the world settled in the hopes of finding a better life. In this milieu, the golem and the jinni become two more faces in the crowd trying to seek a new beginning in America. Despite being creatures of lore, their struggles and aspirations make them feel entirely too human.
Both the golem and the jinni face questions and obstacles that deal with the notion of freedom versus subjugation; how the two characters approach these issues and choose to deal with them is what forms the basis for this story and makes it so interesting. In this novel, everyone you meet will guard their secrets and hold mysteries in their past. As you read on, the fun is in watching all these histories unfold and the connections start to form.
Just simply a beautiful book, and a great choice if you're in the mood for some literary fantasy.
3.5 stars. I think 2013 has seen me branching out into more sub-genres of fantasy than any other year, thanks to participating in events like the Worl3.5 stars. I think 2013 has seen me branching out into more sub-genres of fantasy than any other year, thanks to participating in events like the Worlds Without End's Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. Once, Mary Robinette Kowal fell into the category of "An author I've never read before, but would really like to" and so the book I chose for the challenge was 2012 Nebula Award nominated Glamour in Glass.
Someone once told me that when writing a review, it helps to think about what makes a book different and why readers should care. For this one, the thing that struck me right away was the setting. But while I may have read fantasy fiction aplenty that takes place in this time period, this is the first time I've actually ventured into something with strong elements of Regency romance, complete with the stylistic conventions that bring to mind the works of Jane Austen. This is also the first time I've ever heard the term "Fantasy of manners". Hooray for discovering new things!
It wasn't until after I picked up Glamour in Glass that I discovered it was actually the second book of a sequence called the Glamourist Histories. Normally, I dislike reading books in a series out of order, more out of a fear that I'd get lost than anything. That's why I was happy to learn that you don't have to read the first book Shades of Milk and Honey to follow the story and understand what's going on. The magic system in this book, called Glamour weaving and described with textile-related metaphors, was sufficiently explained and the general idea of it is easy to pick up. I also quickly got that our main characters, Jane and Vincent, were newly married since the last book, and now they're looking forward to settling down to a life of nuptial bliss and doing Glamour together.
However, at the start of this book is also the period following the abdication of Napoleon. While Jane and Vincent are on their honeymoon in Belgium, the deposed emperor escapes exile and makes his return to France, leaving the newlyweds with no easy way to return to England.
Certainly, this book was somewhat of a departure from the kind of fantasy I usually read and the experience was very new and different for me. The language and characters' mannerisms are definitely in keeping with the time period, which I have to admit was delightful and yet frustrating at the same time. Mostly, the frustrations come from the narrator Jane and the way she dwells on issues for a long time and perceives every little indignity as a personal slight to her, especially those pertaining to marriage and her husband.
I find this still bothers me even when taking into account the era in which these books take place, a time when men and women's statuses vastly differ, so I'm not holding that against Jane. Instead, my dissatisfaction of her character stems from from her relationship with Vincent and how often their marriage feels "off". First of all, a big chunk of the novel's conflict is the result of a breakdown of communication between the two of them. I've seen this trope commonly used in romances, but I'm personally not a fan of it.
Also, despite being madly in love, the two of them don't seem to know each other very well. Awkwardly, Jane is still constantly discovering new things about her husband that surprises her or makes her doubt him, and I also found myself questioning why she so often feels the need to seek permission or approval from him for every little decision. I have to assume their courtship mustn't have lasted very long, but perhaps this is where I need to pick up Shades of Milk and Honey to find out.
Speaking of the first book, I do intend to go back and read it. Despite my problems with the main character, I thought this book was well-written and contains interesting ideas. I can't really talk about some of the issues in it without giving away too many spoilers, but suffice to say the emotional reactions of the characters are very well-described, deep, and most importantly, realistic and believable. I also love the idea of Glamour magic, which is just abstract enough to give one the sense that it's so much more than can be put into words. I'm looking forward to learning more details about Glamour in the first book, as well as in future installments of this series.
As you know, every once in a while I will find myself veering from my usual pattern of reading mostly sci-fi and fantasy and venture into the realm ofAs you know, every once in a while I will find myself veering from my usual pattern of reading mostly sci-fi and fantasy and venture into the realm of historical fiction. I admittedly will do this for any interesting looking books about European royals or powerful families, especially those related to either the Tudors or the Borgias. Hence, this book.
Blood & Beauty focuses the Borgia family roughly between the years of 1492 when patriarch Rodrigo Borgia first began his papacy as Pope Alexander VI, and 1502 when his daughter Lucrezia Borgia married her third husband Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. With scandals and rumors aplenty, this was an eventful decade for the notorious family, but also for the rest of Europe as well with their wars and ruthless politics.
First of all, I think that the author made a very brave choice when it came to using the third person omniscient point of view to narrate the story, even though there were both positive and negative sides to this. In getting to know the thoughts and feelings of all the characters in this novel, Sarah Dunant managed to convey the sweeping influence of the Borgias and acquaint us with practically everyone in the family. On the downside, because we don't get to focus on any one POV for long, the connections the reader has with the characters also feel impersonal and distant.
This last point wasn't much helped by the long sections of historical context and fact-dumping that were pervasive throughout the chapters, bogging down many parts of this book. This also made the novel feel more emphatic towards historical events rather than the characters, when I usually prefer it to be the other way around. On the other hand, this allowed us to see the bigger picture outside the personal dramas of the family, shedding light upon the political turmoil in other parts of Europe.
However, at times I felt like I was reading a dramatized history textbook. I would have preferred more emphasis on the characters; though, of all of them, Lucrezia did come across to me as the most well-rounded and fleshed-out Borgia. Still, Sarah Dunant pretty much played it safe with the rest when it comes to the exploration and interpretation of their personalities, and I wouldn't have minded if she'd pushed it a bit further. I'm usually okay when historical fiction writers take liberties, as long as those liberties aren't completely outlandish and mentioned in an author's note.
Anyway, no doubt this period of time was very interesting when it came to the Borgias, but history does show us that the fun doesn't end there. It's why I was glad to hear that Sarah Dunant's already preparing a follow-up novel to this one. This is the first time I've read anything by her, and despite some minor issues I had with Blood & Beauty, I did enjoy it. I would be absolutely open to picking up the next book.
A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Seduction by M.J. Rose to read and review, and I found I really enjoyed it. The novel waA few months ago, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Seduction by M.J. Rose to read and review, and I found I really enjoyed it. The novel was actually the fifth installment in a series called The Reincarnationist, and even though each book can be read as a one-shot, I'd learned that the protagonist Jac L'Etoile actually first appeared in the previous book. Long story short, I was intrigued enough by her character after reading Seduction that I was motivated to pick up its predecessor, and that's how I came to read The Book of Lost Fragrances.
I went backwards in the reading order, so here we're given a formal introduction of Jac L'Etoile and her brother Robbie, heirs to a preeminent French perfume company. Haunted by memories of her mother's suicide, however, Jac moves to America to become a TV host of a show about mythology, leaving her sibling to take care of the family business.
Like all the other books in the series, this one explores themes around the idea of reincarnation and other paranormal occurrences. While going through the old archives, Robbie stumbles across a collection of ancient pottery shards and a family secret about a scent rumored to enable a person to remember past lives. Robbie has big plans for the discovery, but there are others who would do anything to stop them from happening. When Robbie goes missing, leaving the dead body of a stranger at the scene of the crime, Jac and her former lover Griffin North are drawn into the search, becoming embroiled in politics, suspense, passion, and a mystery that goes back thousands of years.
The first thing I gleaned about this book is that it suffers from a problem I also noticed in its sequel, except to a greater degree -- the fact that there's so much going on! We have multiple plot threads and multiple character points-of-view, and when some of these character perspectives are also past reincarnations, it just makes this book feel even more complicated and jumbled. In addition to Jac, Robbie and Griffin, we also have the story lines about the Panchen Lama, the members of the Chinese mafia, the Parisian police, flashback sequences involving a L'Etoile ancestor and his lover, flashback sequences about an affair in ancient Egypt involving Cleopatra's perfume maker, sections about Jac's past and her psychological disorder, sections focusing on Jac's doctor Malachai...I think I've caught most of them, but it's possible I still missed some.
Despite being called "A Novel of Suspense", I didn't find this to be very suspenseful at all, and I have a feeling this is because all the plot threads going on might have "watered" it down a little. I once saw an interview with M.J. Rose in which she said that booksellers often have trouble categorizing her books, and I can see why this would be the case since this series appears to cross multiple genres, including suspense, fantasy, romance, historical fiction, mystery and paranormal. I loved Seduction because it managed to incorporate all these genre elements and still made it work, but I didn't think it did so much in The Book of Lost Fragrances.
In some ways, the writing and characters feel completely different when I compare the two books, almost like they were written by two separate people. TBoLF felt awkward whereas Seduction was incredible; it's like the latter was a more refined and improved presentation of all the ideas put forth in the former. Perhaps it was because of all the subjects crammed into this novel, ranging from ancient Egypt to Chinese politics to Tibetan Buddhism, and how some of the character perspectives jump all over the place in history. The author tried to weave it all together, but it didn't end up very well. The last few chapters of the book started to fizzle out after what I suppose was the climax, because it still had to wrap up all the other story lines.
Also, Robbie and Griffin had little to no presence in Seduction, which might be another reason why I liked that book so much more. I found both their characters extremely unlikeable in TBoLF; Robbie was more like a stubborn child than a grown man in many ways, and Griffin made for a very frustrating and unsympathetic romantic interest. I have to say though, M.J. Rose can write one hell of a love scene. That one torrid and intense chapter notwithstanding, I still couldn't really get into the Jac/Griffin relationship at all, and that was even with the "eternal love" and "soulmates" angle the book was emphasizing.
Anyway, my opinion would be to save this one, and pick up Seduction instead if you can. And one final note: I half read this and half listened to the audiobook. If I could do it again, I wouldn't have opted for the Whispersync bundle. Phil Gigante is a narrator I've listened to and enjoyed for many books in the past, but I admit was a little surprised he was chosen for this one, since it doesn't seem like a book suited for his voice. He also mispronounces a lot of French words, which was a pretty big distraction....more