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.(less)
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!(less)
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.(less)
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.(less)
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. (less)
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.(less)
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. (less)
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.(less)
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.(less)
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. (less)
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 dr...moreA 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.
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.(less)
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.(less)
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 because...moreA 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 editi...moreThank 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.
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 as...moreThese 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. (less)
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 Worl...more3.5 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.
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.(less)
I loved Rick Yancy's The Monstrumologist so much that I quickly picked up this one, the second book of the series. Now that I've finished it, I'd prob...moreI loved Rick Yancy's The Monstrumologist so much that I quickly picked up this one, the second book of the series. Now that I've finished it, I'd probably hesitate to say that it was as strong as its predecessor, but nevertheless I wasn't disappointed. This sequel had all the horror elements in it that made the first book great; its only fault was that I found it just slightly less suspenseful.
The Monstrumologist first introduced us to the series' young narrator Will Henry and his work assisting the eccentric Dr. Warthrop in the grisly business of the study of monsters. We're thrown back into the late 1800s as Will documents in his journal their trek through the heart of the brutal Canadian wilderness, in order find traces of a missing friend who is believed to have been taken by a creature known as the Wendigo. Warthrop, however, does not believe the Wendigo actually exists, but takes the mission anyway as a favor to the woman who was his former fiancee, and to her husband who happens to be the missing victim.
Anyone who's ever gone to summer camp and sat around a campfire telling scary stories at night should know about the Wendigo, a demonic creature appearing in the legends of the Algonquin peoples of the northern United States and Canada. Once again, I found it really neat the way Rick Yancey was able to work a well-known myth into the story, along with the documented yet controversial condition called Wendigo Psychosis, whose symptoms include an intense craving for human flesh.
I also loved, loved, LOVED the character development. Strange as he is, I find myself a big fan of Dr. Pellinore Warthrop's character, just from what I got reading The Monstrumologist. This book carries that on further, going a little deeper into his past history and personality. He's such a complex and subtle figure, with so many layers to his personality that go unsaid, yet they come through so clearly in Rick Yancey's writing and storytelling. Will Henry's relationship with the doctor is a veritable quagmire of volatile emotion and dynamics, and to me it's an incredible achievement on the author's part in the "Show, don't tell" department.
Anyway, the same caveats I provided for the first book also apply for this one; some of the scenes in here are absolutely not appropriate for the faint of heart or younger readers, despite its YA designation. Older teens will probably find it okay, but keep in mind it's still pretty gross stuff. It's true that I didn't find this book as suspenseful as the first one, mostly because I felt it had a slower start, but its overall story and the atmosphere are no less unsettling. Like I said, I eat this kinda creepy stuff up, so I'm definitely looking forward to starting the third book in this series.
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 this...moreWow, 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.
I won't claim Young Adult speculative fiction as my main interest, though lately, it does feel like I've been on a...moreAlso reviewed at The BiblioSanctum.
I won't claim Young Adult speculative fiction as my main interest, though lately, it does feel like I've been on a YA kick. I like picking it up occasionally, but it always seems like my favorite books in the genre are the ones that can be enjoyed by all ages, the ones that don't scream "YA!" the instant I open the book and meet its teenage protagonists. You know what I mean.
That probably has a lot to do with why I absolutely adored this book. I wanted a change from the paranormal high school romances, and the fact that The Monstrumologist is horror, told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, and takes place in late-1800s New England are all big pluses. The novel is presented as the diary of Will Henry, an orphan working as an assistant/apprentice to the odd Dr. Pellinore Warthrop who is a monstrumologist, someone who studies monsters.
Still, some caveats: while this book is technically categorized as YA, I still wouldn't recommend this lightly to any young reader. It contains plenty of content that are what I call the 3GRs: gross, gruesome, graphic. No question about it, if adapted completely faithfully, a movie based on this novel would get an R-rating...a solid hey-kid-how-the-hell-did-you-sneak-in-here-without-an-accompanying-adult resounding R-rating.
I can't remember the last time I was this creeped out by a book. Again, here I am shocked that this is actually YA -- for two reasons, really. First, the horror aspects were extremely well done, and while the book's breakneck pace wasn't so surprising, the quality of writing and descriptiveness is of a caliber I wouldn't expect from a young adult novel. And second, maybe I'm just not savvy enough to the stuff going on in today's YA fiction scene, but I was completely blindsided at how violently and vividly gory this book was.
Of course, good horror isn't only about the blood and gore. Thankfully, the author has the other factors covered too, with plenty of suspense and atmosphere-building. It always impresses me when a book can immerse me so deeply and grab me like this, as in like, wow, I'm so glad I'm not a claustrophobe too, or those last few chapters would have been even more unsettling.
In fact, much of the book actually feels specifically crafted to enthrall and frighten, with a deliberate shock-factor involved perhaps, but I was still more than happy to go along with the ride. After all, I love this kind of stuff. My friends in my gaming circle will know how obsessed I am with a paranormal/horror-themed MMORPG called The Secret World, mostly for its spooky setting and atmosphere. I have to say The Monstrumologist sucked me in immediately as well, exactly because it was dripping with those very same vibes. I just eat this stuff up.
Anyway, in my humble opinion, it was the monsters that made the book. Rick Yancey chose to make it about Anthropophagi, which means "people eaters"...enough said. While they're not Yancey's original creation (mythology or literature buffs will probably recognize Anthropophagi from Shakespeare), the unique spin he adds to the creatures makes them absolutely terrifying.
For example, the book begins with a grave robber showing up at Warthrop's house, presenting him with the corpse of girl with a dead Anthrophage wrapped around her body. She has half her face eaten off, her throat is chewed up, and then a tiny fetus of an Anthropophagus is found in her womb. Ick, ick, ick! See what I mean about disturbing imagery and description intended to give the reader chilling thoughts? If that stuff makes you uncomfortable, I would stay away.
The other factor that adds to the creepiness is the characters. I loved our main protagonist Will Henry and the narrating style the author gave him, which is believably suited to that historical period. That's another reason why this book doesn't read like a typical YA novel; not only has Yancey adapted the vernacular and vocabulary to the times, Will Henry also lacks the modern preteen/teen protagonist attitude that's so common in YA fiction.
Still, as much as I adored Will Henry, compared to the rest of the cast, he was probably the most normal and boring. Dr. Pellinore Warthorp, if he were alive today, would probably have been diagnosed immediately with a personality disorder, but he was also very interesting, filled out and well-written. There are so many layers to him that I spent half the book trying to make up my mind about his character, and actually enjoyed figuring him out along with Will Henry. Then there was Kearns, who is, in a word, insane.
Anyway, bottom line? I think I've found a new favorite young adult author, and his name is Rick Yancey.(less)
Try as I might, I just couldn't get into this. I think I've mentioned in reviews of the previous books that my two favorite things about this series i...moreTry as I might, I just couldn't get into this. I think I've mentioned in reviews of the previous books that my two favorite things about this series is 1) the dynamics in the relationship between Laurence and his dragon Temeraire, and 2) the fact that they two of them get to travel and adventure in such exotic places. Ironically, all that stuff with the war against Napoleon and the French, I can take or leave. Which makes me wonder if I might be reading the Temeraire series for all the wrong reasons.
No one gets to take a trip to China or Africa or anywhere so exciting this time around. The story takes place back in Europe, back to the Napoleonic War side of things, which I suppose is the raison d'etre for all the characters if you think about it. And yet, I just found it all so dreadfully boring, and actually struggled to make myself get through the book. Granted, that was one hell of an epic battle at the end, but I'll still take the adventures in faraway places over all the tedious war planning and aerial dragon fighting scenes any day.
There were a few highlights, nonetheless. I was itching to find out what had happened to Laurence after the unfortunate events of the last book when he was imprisoned and tried for treason. I was glad to see that thread in the story resulted in the first real source of strain between Lawrence and Temeraire. I'd really wanted to see a wrench thrown into that partnership for a long time, and if that makes me a terrible person, so be it; things were getting way too cushy between them lately and their interactions were getting stale. I just wanted to see something interesting happen in their friendship again.
Unfortunately, the high points were also dampened by things that disappointed me. Why, for instance, does Laurence seem to be the only one in the entire military with even a shred of morality or conscience to do the right thing? It just feels strange, considering there are all these people in the Aerial Corps, most of whom should understand the love for dragons or at least understand why Laurence felt he had to do what he did.
Then there was the matter of Temeraire and his cause to champion more rights and better living conditions for dragons. He makes headway in this book, but also has to learn that gaining more rank and standing in the military also means accepting all the rules and disciplinary actions that come along with it. But gosh, he is just so, so naive. We've been repeatedly told that Temeraire is extraordinarily intelligent for a dragon, and yet so many of his thoughts and his actions in this book show otherwise.
My thoughts on the subject of the war and fighting notwithstanding, this installment just felt a lot weaker than the previous novels, with a lot of the things making up the story and characters unraveling and falling apart. Hopefully next book will pick up again.(less)
It's been a while since I've come across such a difficult book to write about. Part of the issue involves the subject matter, themes, and ideas in Fir...moreIt's been a while since I've come across such a difficult book to write about. Part of the issue involves the subject matter, themes, and ideas in Firebrand which all seem at variance with each other. This in turn gives me mixed feelings about the novel, because I struggle to even pin it down.
For example, at once it has the features of a historical fiction and yet also major elements of fantasy, specifically those pertaining to Celtic mythology. A big chunk of the book takes place in the Middle Ages, at the height of moral panic and mass hysteria over the devil and fear of witches. Unbeknownst to the humans, however, another world exists beyond the Veil, home to a race of beautiful immortals called the Sithe.
One of these beings is sixteen-year-old Seth, sent away from home by his insane mother Lilith who is adviser to the even more insane Sithe queen Kate. Seth grew up under the care of his father as a result, and became close to his older half-brother Conal. So when Conal is exiled to the other side of the Veil after a tiff with Kate, Seth follows voluntarily. The siblings are then forced to live amongst the mortals, attempting to hide their differences and Sithe powers in an atmosphere of danger, paranoia and superstition.
The book opens with a scene that tells the reader right away that the two of them have already failed. Caught up in a witch-hunt, Conal has been captured and is headed for the stake to be burned. I have to say it felt strange to have the climax of the novel presented to you in its first several pages, but it's also quite effective. Seth is left with not many choices, and you are left wondering what he might do and how the brothers got into this mess in the first place. The rest of the book tells that story.
It's entirely possible this is what made Firebrand feel so disjointed for me. At the same time, I also feel like there's not enough context given throughout the novel, certain sections giving me that strange sense I'm missing out on huge chunks of the story even though I know I'm not. It feels like there's an expectation for me to know everything that's happening around these characters, and even though Seth is the narrator, I often have trouble following his train of thought as he moves from action to action. It's like we're not always there with him in his head, perceiving or understanding things the same way he does.
Also, despite the ages of the main characters and the particular themes in this novel, I would hesitate to really categorize this book as Young Adult. This is just another one of those aforementioned contradictions I spoke of, because despite the nature of the marketing material and blurbs I see covering the dust jacket of my hardcover, it just doesn't read like YA. I can't really put my finger on why, as I wouldn't say it's inappropriate for the young adult audience either. I suspect the immortality of the Sithe characters may have something to do with it, as I see a stark difference between them and typical YA protagonists when it comes to their attitudes, way of life, and beliefs.
Whatever it is, somehow I just don't feel Firebrand fits the mold. For better or worse, I also think that about many other aspects of this novel. It was certainly a bit different, and the positive thing is I didn't dislike it -- in fact, I enjoyed reading this, but I don't think I can say I really loved it either. I think if its story and themes were more cogent, my thoughts and opinions on this book might have ended up less ambiguous.(less)
I really enjoyed this book for a number of reasons, and not for the very least because I love historical novels or the fact it has "Boleyn" in the tit...moreI really enjoyed this book for a number of reasons, and not for the very least because I love historical novels or the fact it has "Boleyn" in the title. Within the genre, books involving European monarchies are usually among my favorites and it's always hard to resist any story involving the lives of Henry VIII and his wives, so you can imagine how my interest was immediately piqued.
Except with this book, there's a twist. Whether or not that's good or bad will depend on what kind of historical fiction reader you are. For myself, I typically don't mind reading historical novels that include a fantasy element or touch of something different, so in a way this was right up my alley. In the case of The Boleyn King, the thing to know is that it is an alternate history, a re-imagined account of what might have happened if certain events hadn't played out the way they had.
In fact, I thought the main idea behind the book was quite an interesting and very creative one. It basically asks: What if Anne Boleyn did not miscarry in 1536, but actually gave birth to a son, the male heir Henry VIII so desperately wanted? The boy grows up to be Henry IX, also known as William. Though he is young, all signs are pointing to William becoming a good and competent king, but his reign is put to the test when conspiracy invades his court and war with the French looms on the horizon. Despite being watched over by Anne and her brother the regent Lord Rochford, William only trusts three people in his life: his older sister Elizabeth, his best friend Dominic, and his mother's young ward Minuette.
This is not your typical historical novel. The setting as well as some of the characters are real, but that's pretty much where it ends. It's not so much a book depicting actual events or the perspectives of historical persons than it is one giant "What if?" scenario, so the author has a lot of freedom to do some very neat things with the story and characters without the usual constraints, and her re-imagined history and characterization of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn's son is a very intriguing one.
It also made me realize the story has so much potential. The Boleyn King is only the first book of a trilogy, so I'm looking forward to seeing what else has been planned for the setting and characters, especially if Laura Andersen decides to give more involvement to actual historical persons and events. So far, much of the plot has been given to romance, but there's also the mystery, intrigue and politics that she established and I would very much love to see that those aspects get as much attention as the relationship details in future books. Since I think this is shaping up to be a historical romance series, I think the author struck a very good balance. Like I said, the idea has so much potential, and while I enjoy the romantic drama, I just wouldn't want to see it overshadow everything else she has set up here.
I think the untapped potential also exists for the characters. Right now, my feelings for them are somewhat mixed. The story is told through the perspectives of the "Four Stars": William, Elizabeth, Dominic, and Minuette. I like William, though I think his characterization could stand to go a bit further than just your teenage king full of youthful arrogance and bravado who longs to prove himself, but I have a feeling that will develop more as his character matures in future books. Dominic feels like the familiar romantic young adult hero, whose honor and pride prevents him from telling the woman he loves how he feels, which leads to a lot of brooding and pining on his part. I might have been more frustrated with the slew of relationship conflicts that arise from this, if I hadn't been so busy sympathizing with him the whole time.
Elizabeth is my favorite, but I noticed that in this book she is very similar to a lot of the other depictions of her in historical fiction -- serious, austere, and collected. Now, I can understand why the author would do that for a someone like, say, Anne Boleyn, who is often characterized as sharp and crafty because of her reputation, so it's just going with the grain by portraying her like that too. But in an alternate history where King Henry VIII gets his son by Anne, I figured that spending her life growing up alongside a boisterous little brother who is heir apparent might have had a greater effect on Elizabeth's personality.
Once again I'm just contemplating at the potential for something more, but it's really not that big a deal since I still really enjoyed Elizabeth's character overall. In contrast, I did not care for Minuette at all. She's a little too idealized for my tastes, a bit too perfect. It seems everyone loves her sweet, kind nature, no one at court is immune to her charms, the men in the book are tripping over themselves and each other for her affections, and all of them are like, "What would we ever do without our darling Minuette?" Her character was too much for me, too many pros, not enough cons, and I just would prefer it if she'd been a little more balanced.
The way things are going though, I think the characters will probably grow on me in the next book, because I already know I'll be picking it up when it comes out. This was a very creative idea for a historical novel and I'm really curious to see what it'll lead to and how far it will go. Alternate history stories are often filled with imagination and wishful thinking, but I find pondering "what could have been" can also be quite entertaining and a lot of fun.
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 wa...moreA 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.(less)
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. Othe...moreI 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. This is the second installment of Maurice Druon's The Accursed Kings, perhaps better known these days as the French historical fiction seri...more3.5 stars. This is the second installment of Maurice Druon's The Accursed Kings, perhaps better known these days as the French historical fiction series that played a part in inspiring George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. The books depict a most tumultuous time in the history of France, leading up to the Hundred Years' War.
The previous book ended with the death of King Philip IV. Everyone is thinking the same thing: that it appears the Templar curse is still running rampant through the French court. Eldest son Louis X takes the throne, but with his wife Marguerite of Burgundy and her cousin Blanche still imprisoned in Chateau Gaillard for adultery, he can neither produce an heir to secure the succession nor take another wife while technically still married.
This being a period of time in which the royal court was rife with scandal and corruption and when loyalties could be bought and sold, I have to say that this story practically writes itself. The title itself is a major spoiler, but history also gives us a clue as to what to expect. There aren't too many surprises here, and like a TV producer planning out a season's episodes, Maurice Druon chooses to save the juiciest bits in history for his book's climax and ending.
So it didn't surprise me that this book started out kind of slow; there's a lot of character development and build up of the story. Even though I knew what to expect, the fun was in sitting back and watching how Druon tells it, letting him lead me through the complicated tangle of lies and intrigue.
The writing style continues to be a challenge, but I realized with this book that it's not so much the French-to-English translation that's the cause. Most often it's the author's omniscient narrative mode jumping into different minds and different times, sometimes even talking about future events like a history book that creates the most distraction.
Even past the translation I could tell Maurice Druon was a witty guy, though; there's subtle humor in the writing, especially when we get into the characters' thoughts. I'm really liking the character development in this series so far; some of them in this book you'll simply love to hate, because they are just so despicable. It's this aspect that reminds me so much of GRRM's ASoIaF. The only solace I get is knowing that sooner or later, they'll get theirs.(less)
This book could have been a story arc in a comic book, and I mean that in a good way. In fact, I'm thinking that could be why I liked this book so muc...moreThis book could have been a story arc in a comic book, and I mean that in a good way. In fact, I'm thinking that could be why I liked this book so much. You have British warlocks versus Nazi Germany's engineered super soldiers in an alternate history of World War II.
At this point in the story, the U.S. is still out of the picture and the Soviet Union only gets involved later in the book. The British have discovered that Nazi scientists have been developed a technology to create a group of "supermen" -- there's a guy who can manipulate fire, a woman who can turn invisible, another dude who can walk through solid matter, etc. The British know they're screwed unless they come up with something fast, so they end up recruiting a bunch of their warlocks to counter the enemy.
But the story is a lot darker than it sounds, or at least that's how I felt. There are parts that were really emotionally disturbing and/or upsetting to me; the whole book just has this heavy, gloomy vibe surrounding it, which isn't uncommon for books that explore the theme of whether the ends justify the means -- because there's a catch to the warlocks' power. Apparently, it comes only from a group of omnipotent extra-planar beings called the Eidolons, demon-like creatures who demand a "blood price" for their services.
Not to mention that the book's main antagonist, the Nazi's super-soldier pre-cog named Gretel is one crazy scary bitch. She's even crazier and scarier than the Nazi's mad scientist. The people on her own side are afraid of her. Heck, her own brother thinks she's nutters. And yet, her personality is handled just subtly enough so the reader doesn't simply brush her off as just another cookie-cutter psycho supervillain. Personally, I found her fascinating in a creepy, discomforting sort of way, because you're left wondering what could anyone with the perfect ability to see the future and manipulate events possibly have planned for the world? It hurts my head just to work out the paradoxes, and quite frankly I don't really want to think about it at all.
Like I said, there were parts of this book that really disturbed and upset me, but not in the way that would make me want to put it down. Most of the time, it was the penetrating feeling of dread that hit me as I was reading, the anticipation of impending disaster or of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's a good, suspenseful fear, and I suppose it speaks well of the author that he was able to make me feel this way, because it doesn't normally happen unless I get emotionally invested in the story or the characters.
I don't want to make this book sound all doom and gloom, though. It's beautifully written and Ian Tregillis has clearly done his homework on the historical period. Despite the occult paranormal and science fiction elements, you get a highly realistic sense of the war setting. The main characters are also very well done; we see the story play out through three main narratives -- Marsh the British agent, Will the warlock, and Klaus the Nazi super soldier -- and between them I got a pretty clear picture of what's happening on all sides.
It's probably true that the ideas in this novel aren't completely original; you can probably recognize elements of them from other works, but the way Tregillis has mashed them together and the context he uses made this a really intriguing read. I'm really looking forward to picking up the rest of the series if it means I'll be getting more of that good stuff.
Science fiction fans with an inclination towards alternate history should definitely check this out, especially if you have an interest in the WWII era.(less)
George R. R. Martin once wrote in a blog post that if you love his A Song of Ice and Fire series and are looking for "something like it", then you rea...moreGeorge R. R. Martin once wrote in a blog post that if you love his A Song of Ice and Fire series and are looking for "something like it", then you really need to check out The Iron King by Maurice Druon. In the newest edition of the book's foreword, he calls it the "original game of thrones" and credits it for being one of the great historical novels that inspired his own epic series.
Even if I hadn't known all this, the parallels are clear; this is only the first book of The Accursed Kings series and already it has it all, just without the fantasy elements -- conspiracies, assassinations, illicit affairs, royal scandals, rivaling families, public executions, lies, sex, betrayals and torture and poisonings and death curses, oh my.
Originally written in French and published in the mid-1950s, the books in this series were long out of print and apparently quite difficult to get your hands on, until now. Fortunately, the English translation of the first book recently made it back into print (with the rest to follow, I hear), thus resulting in yours truly just about tripping over her own feet rushing to press the "buy" button for the Kindle version. Even without GRRM's glowing recommendation, I'm always up for good historical fiction, especially books involving European monarchies and the Middle Ages.
The Iron King is a fascinating take on the events which preceded and led up to arguably one of the most significant conflicts of the medieval period, The Hundred Years' War. King Philip IV of France, called "The Iron King" because of his aloof nature and severe rule, sentences the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar Jacques de Molay to burn at the stake. Upon his death, the Templar maintains his innocence and publicly curses the three men whom he feels has unjustly put him there: Pope Clement, King Philip, and Guillaume de Nogaret, Keeper of the Seals.
Meanwhile, all is not well in Philip's family. Two of his sons, Louis and Charles are being cuckolded by their wives, cousins Marguerite and Blanche of Burgundy. If that wasn't bad enough, his third son's wife, Jeanne of Burgundy, is also privy to these affairs, even if she doesn't cheat herself. When Philip's only daughter Isabella discovers what the Burgundy women are doing to her three brothers, she begins scheming to expose them, and Robert III of Artois, who harbors a deep hatred for the Burgundys, is only all too happy to help.
The scandal is blown wide open, of course, as we know from the events of the Tour de Nesle Affair. The king and his family recall the the last words uttered by Grand Master Jacques de Molay: "Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret, King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!" Are the troubles involving the unfaithful wives part of the curse? Or is the worst yet to come?
I have to say, I liked this book a lot. The story takes quite a bit of time to get get set up, but then so much of the history and the characters have to be detailed and introduced. As the reader, I felt I needed the ramp-up time to refresh myself on the historical facts and get all those "Philip"s, "Charles"s and "Louis"s sorted out anyway. As always, trying to keep names in order is a common occupational hazard when reading historical fiction about European kings and queens. However, all the people and events Druon decided to include and write about in his storytelling are there for a reason, building up and forming a cogent picture by the end of the book.
Also, fair warning: the writing can be a little hard on the eyes. As with many books translated from their original language, it's not always pretty. I'm not sure this can be helped, and I certainly don't hold that against the author or the translator; sometimes, that's just the way things are. I admit I've had better times with other translated-to-English books, but then again, I've also had worse. The experience was definitely not as rough as I expected after seeing other reviews talking about the same topic, and to me the book was still very readable and easy to get into.