My enjoyment of this trilogy peaked with the first book, The Ladies of Mandrigyn, which is fantastic. And, sadly, decreased from there. This book follMy enjoyment of this trilogy peaked with the first book, The Ladies of Mandrigyn, which is fantastic. And, sadly, decreased from there. This book follows the further adventures of Sun Wolf and Starhawk, now reunited with their mercenary band, which is threatened by a mysterious magical force bent on causing every kind of catastrophe imaginable.
One of the nice things about this trilogy is that each book has a self-contained plot arc, but they also build on one another. Given all the changes in our protagonists over the last two books, a good portion of this one is spent on their renegotiating their roles within the troop, which does not make everyone happy.
Overall, this was an entertaining read, though somewhat slow going (Hambly’s style is a little dense for genre fantasy) and a bit on the darker side. I enjoyed the continued story of Sun Wolf and Starhawk, but missed the great secondary cast from the previous books, especially Mandrigyn. Here very little personality accumulates in the secondary cast, and the mercenaries almost all felt interchangeable to me. At any rate, this is worth reading if you enjoyed the first two and happen across a copy, but you probably don’t need to hunt one down to make your reading experience complete....more
I enjoyed this, a cozy fantasy novel set in modern California. It reminded me a bit of Elfland, with its real-world though non-urban* setting and itsI enjoyed this, a cozy fantasy novel set in modern California. It reminded me a bit of Elfland, with its real-world though non-urban* setting and its focus on a close-knit and eccentric family with hidden magical powers – though A Fistful of Sky lacks the romance and melodrama of Elfland, as well as Elfland’s ethereal qualities. There’s lots of magic in this book, but it’s grounded in mundane reality.
Gypsum LaZelle is 20, but she still lives in her parents’ mansion, along with three of her four siblings. She’s accustomed herself to being the only “normal” member of her family, when she suddenly discovers a powerful and potentially sinister magical talent. Most of the book is about Gyp’s struggles to understand her new powers, her changing family relationships and her search for her own identity. Coming-of-age stories are common in fantasy, but this one is handled well, in particular the positive message about body image. Gyp is chubby, and perfectly comfortable with that, a state of affairs even her image-conscious mother is forced to accept. (Too bad the cover artists couldn’t accept it too; that’s a beautiful design, but the slender silhouette does not fit this character.)
This is a quick read, often humorous, with lots of dialogue. Gyp has a good first-person voice and is endearing, though it’s hard to tell what we’re meant to make of her family; she loves them very much and yet they have a nasty tendency to use coercive magic against each other, and her, at every opportunity. In many ways the book reads as if it were Gyp’s diary, sometimes bogging down a bit in the record of her every spell and the mechanics of her magic, sometimes with an eye to insignificant details such as seating arrangements. And the phrasing often sounds more like the way a young person would speak than polished prose. But it managed to pull me into Gyp’s life, and the uses to which she puts her magic are funny and entertaining. She and her siblings are liable to run amok experimenting with their powers, and no one gets too worked up about the results, which sort themselves out one way or another; for a fantasy novel, this is remarkably chill.
So, I would recommend this book, when you’re in the mood for fantasy without dire happenings or much in the way of plot, just growing up and having fun with magic. The fantasy genre can be dark and violent, so this is a nice change of pace. The story is set around Christmastime and would make an enjoyable Christmas read.
* I'm classifying this as "urban fantasy" anyway, because I'm not sure how else to label a fantasy novel with a modern, real-world setting....more
I enjoyed this final book in the trilogy, though not as much as Lightborn. Using the first third of the book to** Spoilers for earlier books below **
I enjoyed this final book in the trilogy, though not as much as Lightborn. Using the first third of the book to catch up on a plotline that runs concurrently with the second book works fairly well, and though the ending is rushed and leaves some threads hanging, it isn’t as bad as I’d been led to believe.
This is the book that shifts the focus to fighting Shadowborn, but as a reader not crazy about action scenes I enjoyed these parts without feeling that the fighting dragged on too long. Unfortunately, characters tend to be blasé about events that ought to be horrifying; for instance, Telmaine never does seem to care much about the supposed best friend who took a bullet for her and died in her arms (presumably because the supposed best friend lacks plot importance), nor, despite their posturing at the end of the last book, are the Lightborn appropriately furious or frightened by faceless enemies attacking the heart of their power, in a way that threatens their survival as a people. Instead they simply take the opportunity to maneuver for advantage, presumably because author and readers know the Darkborn won’t repeat it and aren’t really trying to wipe them out. It is too bad the author felt this trilogy needed evil villains as an organizing principle, because far more interesting conflicts are brushed aside to make room for fighting them.
Still, I did enjoy these books. There are some very strong moments and unexpected plot twists, and somewhere along the way these characters endeared themselves to me. Sinclair is especially good at creating strong secondary characters: my favorites were Olivede, Phoebe, Farquhar, and Laurel. (Laurel is notable for being not only badass but also pregnant. Not for any plot-related reason, not to create some cheap tearjerker moment, but because while you wouldn't know it from most fantasy, people can't reproduce without sometimes being pregnant.) And I appreciate that despite the focus on it in the first book, the love quadrilateral doesn’t take over the story and that the author doesn’t pair everyone off at the end.
Overall, this is a fun fantasy trilogy that, while it has plenty of flaws, is still as good as many more popular works and deserves more attention than it gets. Not world-changing, but a good find and enjoyable while it lasted....more
It’s tricky when a trilogy’s middle book is your favorite – how do you recommend something that in no way stands alone? But this was the book where thIt’s tricky when a trilogy’s middle book is your favorite – how do you recommend something that in no way stands alone? But this was the book where the trilogy worked its magic on me, taking over my life for at least a week, and these days the books that can pull me in so thoroughly are few and far between. Still, it’s tempting to just call it magic because it's hard to explain why a book that would seem like a typical work of genre fantasy to most readers worked so well for me.
Lightborn picks up where Darkborn left off, but uses the risky technique of dividing the prior book’s point-of-view characters – now geographically distant and pursuing two distinct storylines – into separate books, so that this one focuses on events in the city and leaves Balthasar and Ishmael in the Borderlands for the sequel. In addition to Telmaine, we have three new POV characters: Floria (who turns out to be more food taster than assassin – to my relief, as assassins have been done to death in fantasy); Fejelis, a Lightborn prince; and Tam, a mage and Fejelis’s mentor. This volume also shifts from the prior book's tight focus on the protagonists’ adventures and romances to a larger story of political intrigue encompassing two parallel kingdoms.
And while the political intrigue might first seem all stylized dialogue and far too many new characters (Sinclair introduces characters willy-nilly in the last two books – more than she can use, which is a shame, since many are potentially fascinating), this is where the book shines. The Shadowborn, our requisite evil villains, are never very interesting, but the human conflict is, and there’s a lot of that: hardliners and peacemakers, mages and non-mages, Darkborn and Lightborn. The book’s best moments come from the inevitable conflict between two sympathetic groups who are fundamentally isolated from one another. Take, for instance, this ominous declaration:
“My lords . . . on the other side of sunrise there are powers we do not understand, powers that may exceed anything we can match, and whose motives are unclear.”
Standard fantasy speech . . . if it referred to the villains. Not only does it not, it could come from either Darkborn or Lightborn with equal right. It’s when these groups are pitted against one another, through the actions of a few warmongers and of well-intentioned people working with limited information, that we see genuine suspense and real consequences. This is the closest I’ve seen fantasy come to a portrayal of the lead-up to a modern war.
(It’s a shame Sinclair remembers by the third book who the villains are, and has Darkborn and Lightborn treat each other with a degree of trust and goodwill that, under the circumstances, would be extraordinary even among humans who can actually meet face-to-face. (view spoiler)[Inexplicably, none of the Lightborn ever interpret the attack on the mage tower as an attempt at genocide, despite the fact that they require artificial light to survive even a few moments in darkness, and that magic dies with the mage. So wiping out the mages would be lights out, literally, for the entire race. That the Darkborn hardliners never pause to consider this makes sense, because hardliners generally do fail at cultural differences; that the Lightborn themselves respond only with modest outrage lacks credibility. (hide spoiler)])
Otherwise, this is a fun fantasy book, with a swiftly-moving plot, entertaining characters and some unique worldbuilding. The introduction to Lightborn society is enjoyable; I especially liked the enchanted lights that function like solar panels. There’s a high number of interesting female characters who interact with one another, although the major players are primarily male. There are a few great character moments as our protagonists begin to come into their own. This is not great literature, and on several occasions characters' reactions to events make more sense viewed through the prism of plot than that of actual human psychology. But I started the third book right away, so this one must have done something right.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is a cross between urban fantasy and mannerpunk, likely to move into epic fantasy in the sequels. By which I mean it mixes action scenes and captThis is a cross between urban fantasy and mannerpunk, likely to move into epic fantasy in the sequels. By which I mean it mixes action scenes and captures/escapes/rescues with formal social encounters and an adherence to societal norms, all of it with a potential Ultimate Evil brewing in the background. My thoughts on all aspects of the book are mixed, so I'll take them one at a time.
The Worldbuilding: This book's novelty is primarily in its world, divided into two societies, Darkborn and Lightborn. The Darkborn are blind, use sonar ("sonn"), and burn to death in sunlight, while the Lightborn are sighted and dissolve in darkness. Though they share cities, the two groups can never come face-to-face, and each has its own rulers and social norms. This book focuses exclusively on the Darkborn, rather than introducing us to two societies at once, and that works well, especially since they are the stranger and more interesting race.
The world's limitations make for great narrative potential: the Darkborn can't step outdoors in daytime on pain of death, no matter the extremity, whether medical emergency, house fire, crime, natural disaster, the list goes on. It's quite an obstacle to normal life as well. Now if you are already thinking, "why don't these people just live underground, or at least build sealed walkways in urban areas?" you are thinking more critically about this premise than I did - until the author waved the holes like a matador before a bull, that is. As one character offhandedly informs us, the Darkborn in the city where our story takes place once had tunnels, but bricked them up after the Lightborn made the streets safe for their use at night (presumably by sealing their windows). So, somehow we are supposed to believe that these people are capable of discovering electricity, inventing the steam engine, and various other mechanical and engineering feats, but are so stupid as to destroy their 24/7 safe passageways in favor of roads whose use entails instant immolation approximately 12 hours out of the day? I want to give the entire race a Darwin Award.
Moving on, the Darkborns' other notable attribute is their blindness. So social norms have built up around the use of sonn, and meanwhile I was surprised by how little I noticed that nothing is described in color. However, while sonn is limited in range and has to be "cast," otherwise it reads like vision; characters are capable of perceiving details like facial expressions, scars, and the material and cut of clothing, which seems a bit unlikely and unimaginative.
The Characters: Unusually for fantasy, two of our three protagonists, Balthasar and Telmaine, are a happily married couple with two young children. (By coincidence, this is not the first such fantasy book I've read in the last few months; the other is Dragonsbane, which I'd recommend over this one.) Balthasar is a gentle doctor and scholar, while Telmaine is a socialite from a noble family who married down, at least in the eyes of her family and friends. Unfortunately (at least to me), this setup does not prevent the book from containing a whirlwind romance subplot and a love triangle: enter Ishmael, our standard-issue grizzled warrior with a tragic past (yawn). Fortunately, Balthasar and Telmaine both handle their spouse having a crush outside the marriage like adults.
Of the three protagonists, Telmaine is the most prominent (and the only one to reappear in book two), and the most controversial among readers. My response is ambivalent. On the one hand, she is a dynamic character in the process of unlearning the prejudices of her society, and by taking an active role and succeeding dramatically at key moments, she makes a good heroine. On the other, she has quite the sense of entitlement, seen particularly in her secretly reading the minds of those closest to her and covertly learning their darkest secrets, without apparently considering the violation of their privacy and autonomy. Also, the author seems to want to prove that Telmaine is Not Like Other Women (at least in society) despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that she actually is traditionally feminine. Which just makes it look like she surrounds herself with vapid and small-minded people who obsess over trivial breaches of etiquette. Fortunately the book also includes some interesting women outside of high society; by far my favorite character is the mage doctor Olivede.
The Plot: Entertaining, despite a few clichés and the characters' constant repetition of their story to every new person they meet. The plot moves quickly without subsuming character development or worldbuilding, and the author allows us to figure out the world as we go. This book isn't quite standalone; while it ends at a logical point, it's a breather rather than a resolution. But it did keep my attention and provide enjoyable reading.
And despite all my reservations, and the fact that I am not a big fan of sequels in general, I've moved on to the second book, so in the end this one did its job. The writing is smooth if occasionally over-the-top, the characters are believable if not especially deep, and it's a good fast read. If nothing else, it makes for fun escapism....more
An obscure fantasy classic, if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron. This little gem was first published in 1926, then re-released in 2005 with a beautiAn obscure fantasy classic, if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron. This little gem was first published in 1926, then re-released in 2005 with a beautiful cover (and too many typos – I have no patience for publishers milking a dead author’s work without bothering to copyedit, even if they do have great cover artists).
Lud-in-the-Mist is set in a fictional land reminiscent of pre-industrial England; it feels like a precursor to Tolkien’s Shire. Of all the modern fantasy I’ve read, the book that feels most directly influenced by it is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Like Strange & Norrell, this is more literary fiction than genre fantasy; there’s a political edge to Lud-in-the-Mist, and many classical references (I’m sure I missed most of them), and that forbidden, life-altering fairy fruit is certainly symbolic of something, though interpretations vary. Also like Strange & Norrell, the book deals in part with the relationship between the human world and faerie – which is neither good nor evil, but mysterious and sinister in its occupants’ murky motivations. The real world is here, too, out of the corner of your eye; though it's set in a fantasy world, the occasional reference to, say, eighteenth-century Rome, reminds readers that fantasy stories weren’t always told the way popular epics are today. The omniscient narrator – familiar with both Dorimare and our world – adds a certainly chilly distance entirely appropriate to the story.
With that, I’ll refrain from describing the plot – all you need to know can be found in the blurb – and merely say that this is a well-written, vivid little book, both unearthly and firmly grounded in reality. The characterization is solid, without clear heroes and villains; the closest this book has to a protagonist is a somewhat pompous, boyish politician, but both he and his country are changed irrevocably by the events of the book. And the ending is very satisfying. All in all, this makes an excellent adult fairy tale, recommended to those who like their fantasy novels to be good literature as well as fresh and imaginative....more
Warning: slight spoilers below. But stuff I’d have wanted to know.
An obscure epic fantasy that came highly recommended (by Kate Elliott, for instance.Warning: slight spoilers below. But stuff I’d have wanted to know.
An obscure epic fantasy that came highly recommended (by Kate Elliott, for instance. I like her books and the way she talks about books, particularly the social consciousness with which she reads, but I have to stop taking her fantasy recs. They’ve ranged from so-so at best – Daggerspell, Banner of the Damned – to unreadable at worst – Irons in the Fire, bleh). But in the end this bored me so much I took nearly a month to finish it, a bad sign for an adventure fantasy book of under 400 pages.
Wells must have heavily workshopped the first sentence – for that matter, the first chapter – because this book started off very well, only to disappoint within the first hundred pages. Here’s the opening line:
“It was nine o’clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself that would bring in a verdict of natural causes in court when someone banged on the door.”
Who could read that and not want to know more about Tremaine, and what has brought her to this point? Not me. Too bad the characterization turns out to be so flat. Tremaine is supposed to be suicidally depressed, but she doesn’t come across as suffering from depression at all, more like a morbid smart-aleck, and once her suicidal inclinations have served their plot function (getting her into a dangerous adventure), they soon disappear, only to be ultimately explained away by magic. I am not sure why Wells felt an external force was needed to “explain” why Tremaine was hit harder by events than others; why isn’t it enough that she’s a different individual, one more prone to depression?
Not that there’s a whole lot of individuality to anyone in this book. Even many of the most important secondary characters, like Florian and Gerard, can be easily summed up as “nice people, who do magic” – more plot function than personality. And the minor characters? Forget about it. I still can’t tell you who that guy Niles was, though apparently he had some importance. And I regularly read books far more populated than this; I keep track of characters like it’s my job.
But back to that beginning. When a character worries about a court verdict in the first sentence of a fantasy novel,* I expect a story built around a highly structured society: something like His Majesty's Dragon, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. For the first few chapters that’s what we get, as Wells builds a fascinating fantasy version of London during the Blitz. But all too soon, the leads are dumped on a remote island and spend 100 pages running around tunnels and fighting. That was where it lost me, and by the time we return to the original setting toward the end of the story, I was so bored by these shallow and static characters that I no longer cared. Nor did the worldbuilding turn out as deep as expected; this is more the kind of fantasy where people conk enemies (mysterious evil invaders with no discernible reason for their belligerence, natch) over the head than the kind dealing with social intricacies.
That said, obviously there is an audience for this kind of thing, and the plot isn’t quite as silly as you might expect from some of the blurbs (which make it sound like it’s all about uncovering the secrets of some magical object – there is some of that, but it isn’t overwhelming). It is not as dire as a lot of fantasy out there, and the writing isn’t terrible, so if you are a reader more interested in plot than character, this may be for you. But after this bait-and-switch I won't be reading the sequels, so I'm glad there's at least a bit of resolution here.
* This part of the sentence apparently meant nothing, just another way of saying "trying to find a way to kill herself that would look like natural causes." I hate it when I'm paying more attention to what a writer is saying than the actual writer is....more
I loved The Ladies of Mandrigyn, so came to this book with some trepidation, knowing that the only recurring characters would be Sun Wolf and StarhawkI loved The Ladies of Mandrigyn, so came to this book with some trepidation, knowing that the only recurring characters would be Sun Wolf and Starhawk. As it turns out, while Mandrigyn is epic fantasy, The Witches of Wenshar is a murder mystery in a fantasy setting; not being a mystery fan, I felt it less enjoyable, but also found this one a less accomplished novel than its predecessor.
This book begins nine months after the end of Mandrigyn, with Sun Wolf on a quest to find a magic teacher.* He and Starhawk arrive in a small desert kingdom, where they meet a woman who claims to teach magic. But they soon become embroiled in a mystery, as people keep turning up dead by some apparently supernatural means.
On a theoretical level, I admire Hambly’s choice to write a sequel that’s a radically different sort of story: life moves on, and realistically our heroes wouldn’t encounter villains trying to conquer the world everywhere they go. And as someone who doesn’t read mysteries (they creep me out, like horror films), I do think this is a good one: while I had my suspicions early on, it's a good story, with some interesting red herrings and twists along the way, as well as a solution that seems much more obvious in retrospect than at the time.
But aside from the fact that I’m less interested in this kind of story, much of what I liked about Mandrigyn was missing here. The secondary characters have less depth and emotional range, and the narrative sympathy is parceled out in more conventional ways: in Mandrigyn, Hambly encouraged readers to like virtually all the secondary characters, even the prickly ones who caused trouble for our heroes. In Wenshar, the love is reserved for the young prince and princess, while characters with more potential wind up with little sympathy or growth, and are ultimately dismissed as unpleasant or pathetic. The end of this book also seemed too tidy. (view spoiler)[Basically, everyone who contributed to the murders is killed off or runs away, without our heroes ever getting their hands dirty. One of the great strengths of the end of Mandrigyn was that Hambly didn’t go for the easy drama of killing people off (though okay, I loved those characters so I’m glad she didn’t!); instead, everybody has to continue to deal with each other: the newly liberated women and the traditionalists, the rebels and the captives and the collaborators. Here, virtually the entire secondary cast except the prince and princess is either murdered or self-disposing, so nobody has a serious think coming; nobody’s left to cause trouble. (hide spoiler)]
Less investment in the story also meant I noticed the faults in the writing more: Hambly does have a tendency to unnecessarily spell things out, and her style is rather less than polished. Too often the sentences, while grammatically correct, trip me up and force me to re-read just to figure out what they’re saying.
It’s not all bad, though. The leads are still enjoyable, and I liked their relationship: Sun Wolf and Starhawk are together now, but they aren’t angsty or obsessive about it; they act like the mature adults that they are. Nor has being with a man turned Starhawk weepy or fretful. One of the things I’ve always liked about Starhawk is that, although she’s a warrior woman, she’s never self-righteous or superior about her lack of femininity, and her non-traditional choices don’t prevent her from liking and befriending other women. That continues to be the case here, though I would have liked to see more of her friendship with Kaletha. Starhawk's level of comfort with herself and her choices is unusual in fiction, and refreshing. I also liked the setting, which steps away from the pseudo-European fantasy mold and includes an interesting clash of cultures.
All in all, this isn’t a new favorite like The Ladies of Mandrigyn, but it’s good enough for what it is. If you’re a fan of both fantasy and mysteries, it’s worth a shot.
* It’s not entirely clear to me why he needs one, as between chosen-ness and the anzid plus one cram session in the last book, Sun Wolf is always capable of whatever magic the situation calls for. But anywho.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I am not the biggest fan of young adult books, but had hoped this one would appeal to adult fantasy readers as well. After plodding through the firstI am not the biggest fan of young adult books, but had hoped this one would appeal to adult fantasy readers as well. After plodding through the first 80 or so pages, I did find it entertaining, but with a variety of problems and inconsistencies that make it hard to recommend.
Summers at Castle Auburn is the first-person narrative of Corie, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman. She spends her summers at court with her older half-sister, and the rest of the year with her grandmother, a village herbalist. At the beginning Corie is 14, and her biggest problem is reconciling her crush on the crown prince with her adoration of her sister, who’s betrothed to him. By Parts 2 and 3 she’s a few years older, and finally noticing the problems in her world: the prince’s erratic and dangerous behavior, and the kidnapping and enslavement of the aliora (elves or fairies of some sort).
It’s a predictable plot, but I enjoyed predicting it. And the aliora subplot is handled well; Corie begins the book accepting what she’s been taught, and with a vested interest in the system, because she loves having aliora servants. But once she sees the suffering this situation causes, she begins to rethink her assumptions.
The romance doesn’t work so well: both Corie’s and her sister Elisandra’s romances are treated as mysteries, with all four players either hiding their feelings or not realizing them until near the end. To the extent we can predict the eventual pairings, it’s through knowledge of fictional conventions and the process of elimination rather than actual chemistry; the relationships are left undeveloped.
And the end is unconvincing: (view spoiler)[while I applauded Corie’s actions in freeing the aliora, it’s hard to envision the nobility accepting her as queen after that. They’d paid a fortune for their aliora servants, and not only that, they’d paid most of it to Corie’s uncle, whose estate Corie and her sister had since inherited. Both the practical and the moral implications of this situation are ignored. (hide spoiler)]
As for the characters, Corie is a typical YA female protagonist: headstrong, rebellious, naïve, and trained in herblore. (More than one problem is solved with herbs so convenient it’s as if they were invented for this plot. Oh right, they were!) Shinn does a good job with Corie’s voice, however, and the writing flows smoothly. Elisandra and Uncle Jaxon are interesting characters, but most of the supporting cast is flat. I was especially put off by the treatment of Angela, Corie’s best friend after her sister. Angela is one of those stock female characters whose only personality trait is a love of gossip. Because Corie wants to know what’s going on, she cultivates a friendship with Angela despite thinking of her as “the shallowest woman I’d ever met.” Which speaks poorly of Corie as a friend, but is also hypocritical, as the two girls’ desire to keep up with goings-on at court is essentially the same.
As for the worldbuilding, this is one of the cushiest, most egalitarian quasi-medieval settings I’ve encountered: everyone bathes regularly; the village wise woman is not only literate but has bookshelves full of novels; the nobility are on friendly terms with their guards and servants, who can all be seen sitting around a campfire together having a chat; Corie takes a gap year to do some waitressing and save money. To lovers of YA fairytale fantasy, I imagine this is a feature rather than a bug, but the setting isn’t charming or dreamy enough for me to cheerfully overlook anachronism. And the naming conventions are all over the place: the only rhyme or reason I see is that the characters Shinn likes get fancy invented names (Elisandra, Coriel), while the ones she doesn’t have commonplace and undistinguished ones (Bryan, Megan). It’s hard to imagine “Bryan” as a crown prince, while Corie gets a princess’s name despite her low birth.
In the end, if you want to turn off your brain for awhile, this isn’t the worst book you could pick, but you could do better. The writing seems intended to appeal to adults as well as teens, but it's not a book I’d recommend to adult readers.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
So many books, so little time! I think I am done with this one, not so much because after 70 pages very little had happened as because the protagonistSo many books, so little time! I think I am done with this one, not so much because after 70 pages very little had happened as because the protagonist is just too stupid to live. She finds out that she might be the daughter of a guy who's promised to sacrifice the life of his firstborn child in exchange for power. Mere days after this revelation, she decides it would be a good idea to hang out with a strange older man who seems unduly interested in her (we've already established that she's not that attractive, but looks a lot like her mom), and who shares at least some of the traits of this villain as he's been described to her. Not only that, she tells him exactly when she was born! You know, just so he can confirm that she was in fact conceived at the right time to be his offspring. This woman is 24 years old! I'm quite sure I had more sense than that at half her age.
I was also amused at the very long conversation that establishes all this backstory - or more precisely, the fact that while it took me about half an hour to read, it apparently took the characters all day to have. How slowly do these people talk?...more
Though skeptical of this book at first, I wound up having a great time with it. Illusion is one of those books that recreates real historical events (Though skeptical of this book at first, I wound up having a great time with it. Illusion is one of those books that recreates real historical events (the French Revolution, in this case) in an alternate world with a bit of magic, and this is a great example of why I love such novels: when done right, they provide the depth and texture of real history along with the adventure and possibility of a fantasy novel. And Illusion is excellent on both counts.
One of the book’s great strengths is its plot, focusing primarily on the life of a young noblewoman, Eliste vo Derrivalle. There’s a lot going on, and the pacing is just right, moving quickly enough to be gripping but taking long enough to fully develop the situations presented. And it’s unpredictable enough to be genuinely exciting; halfway through I realized I had no idea what would happen next, which is a rarity for me these days and kept me glued to the pages.
If you want that same experience, I suggest you stop reading this review now, because while I try to avoid spoilers, there will be plot details below.
The primary reason for my skepticism about this book is that it’s rather unsubtle, particularly at the beginning; the first chapter is as obvious about explaining the class divisions in Vonahr as it is in explaining the characters. Partly this seems to be mistrust of the audience's ability to read between the lines (which fades after the early chapters), but partly it’s just because there is so much going on in this story--covering two years of enormous and complex upheaval--that if Volsky never resorted to showing rather than telling, it would be a trilogy. I’m a big fan of standalone fantasy novels, so I reconciled myself to the occasional summary.
So, other than the great story, what I love about this book is the complex and realistic way it deals with class and revolution. The upper classes are neither excused nor demonized; the revolutionaries have a wide range of agendas, some better than others; no group is portrayed as a monolith, as even mobs are made up of individuals. People’s ideas and feelings don’t always match: there are nobles who appreciate democratic ideas, but only as abstractions; there are committed revolutionaries offended by poor treatment of the king. There are of course ideological divisions among the revolutionaries, with chilling consequences in practice. There are enormous changes to the society as a whole, beyond simply the effects on our protagonists.
The setting, meanwhile, is detailed and believable, from the provincial plantations to the lavish court to the streets of the capital. The chapters set on the streets are especially impressive: fantasy readers might anticipate a lucky break for our heroine, but instead the situation is handled with the utmost realism. By which I don’t mean these chapters are “gritty” in the sometimes gratuitous way of 21st century fantasy, but that Volsky captures what it would really be like to be homeless and penniless, rather than some romanticized fantasy version of it.
As for the characters. Eliste is a strong heroine who slowly grows and changes through the events of the novel. She comes from a privileged background and has picked up most of the prejudices of her class, which sees itself as a different species from ordinary mortals, but while she begins the book spoiled, we can see that she has a better nature. By the time the story is in full swing, it would be nearly impossible not to root for her. There’s less complexity to the secondary cast, though they work well enough in their roles: I enjoyed the proud and unbending Zeralenn, the kind and unworldly Uncle Quinz, the frivolous and mercenary Aurelie. The love interest, though, is annoying perfect, and the villain gets a lot of scenes in which he, of course, acts villainous (I have little patience for villain chapters in fantasy for this reason)--it is interesting, though, to see a fantasy villain who uses words and political maneuvers rather than might, and who has to win allies rather than having them automatically by virtue of his villainy.
Finally, I have some reservations about the end, particularly the romantic aspect (a small but important part of the book). Volsky seems to misidentify the biggest obstacle to the relationship as the characters’ unwillingness to admit their feelings, when the real problem is their lack of respect for each other. Eliste is mostly there by the end, but he’s still calling her “an impossible child.” Ew.
Overall, I found this book to be great fun, very readable and surprisingly complex, especially once you get past those first couple of chapters. An excellent example of historical fantasy, and one that left me wanting more from this author....more
This book wants to be Jane Austen with magic. It's entertaining enough if you like Regency domestic dramas and are looking for a light read, but that'This book wants to be Jane Austen with magic. It's entertaining enough if you like Regency domestic dramas and are looking for a light read, but that's the best I can say for it.
Shades of Milk and Honey follows the typical Austenian marriage plot: two daughters of the landed gentry seek eligible husbands, people are mannerly and attend balls and dinner parties, etc. The book seems to be set in an alternate world, where magic is considered a ladylike accomplishment like painting or piano playing, although the existence of "glamour" does not seem to have altered the history or culture at all.
I was initially drawn in by the premise and the quasi-period tone, and this proved to be a quick read: just under 300 pages, and very easy reading despite the suggestion of 19th-century style. The plot is entertaining, though entirely predictable, and proved compelling enough for me to finish quickly. But in retrospect it was unsatisfying, borrowing far too heavily from Austen rather than breaking any new ground. Almost the entire cast consists of stripped-down copies of Austen characters: Jane, our protagonist, is a mixture of Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price; her younger sister Melody is Marianne Dashwood with a liberal dose of Lydia Bennet; their parents are Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; there's a Mr. Wickham, a Lady Catherine de Bourgh, even a neighbor who reminded me of Harriet Smith.
And they spin through the expected scenes (walks in the garden, strawberry-picking, etc.) without spark or individuality; characters' relationships with each other are uniformly one-note and their interactions bland and repetitive. Jane is the only one with any depth, and she's too dense to be believed. This is a woman who can't even guess who her sister's secret lover is despite the fact that he visits the sister every day and both are acting besotted. In the end the book feels like fanfiction: you might read it because you like Austen, but there's no reason to be interested in Kowal's characters for their own sake. And the plot unravels at the end, with an action-heavy climax that feels out-of-place and melodramatic in a book that's otherwise stuck slavishly to Austenian tropes, followed by a hasty wrap-up. As for the romance, to the extent it works at all it's because the novel's structure makes it inevitable, not because there's any reason for the two to be attracted to each other or believable growth of affection between them.
As for the writing, it's readable, but very unsubtle and often abrupt. Kowal has a clunky tendency to repeat words several times within a couple of sentences, and to tell the readers what she's already shown. There are also some anachronisms in the language: for instance, Jane identifies another character as suffering from "depression," a term not used to refer to the psychological condition until the 1860s, and more importantly, one that rings jarringly modern for the Regency illusion the book tries to sustain.
The final verdict: Okay if you're into Austen fanfiction and looking for a beach read, but not a book I'd recommend....more
An entertaining dystopian/superhero novel that never reaches its full potential. I was intrigued by the description and the first few pages, but in reAn entertaining dystopian/superhero novel that never reaches its full potential. I was intrigued by the description and the first few pages, but in retrospect the story itself is a bit of a letdown.
Santa Olivia is set along the U.S.-Mexico border in what's implied to be the not-so-distant future. The book starts strong, the first 40 pages following a young woman named Carmen living in a militarized outpost, before moving on to the real protagonist, her daughter Loup. Loup has superhero powers that she tries to hide, including the inability to feel fear, and from the beginning of the tale it's clear she's on a collision course with the town's military rulers.
This book is fun and easy to read, propelled by lots of dialogue and a setting full of inherent danger. However, particularly in the second half of the book, the plot becomes increasingly predictable and seems to be treading water on its way to the climax. The dystopian elements are underutilized--we never learn what's going on in the wider world--and, more importantly, so is Loup, who never comes into her own. It seems as if Carey has missed the point of superhero stories, which are all about wish-fulfillment: we're supposed to revel in the crazy challenges thrown at the heroine, vicariously enjoying her ability to overcome with ease obstacles that would be insurmountable in real life. But Loup spends the book holding back, not doing much; she pulls off some pranks with help from friends, and then spends the whole second half of the book training for the climactic fight: a boxing match scheduled for her convenience, with quite surmountable odds, from which she has nothing to gain if she wins and nothing to lose if she quits.
Some of you would respond that this isn't meant to be a traditional superhero story: it's meant to be a commentary on the superhero story, and in particular how that story changes when the superhero is female. I'm of two minds on that one. Certainly the book plays with and comments on gender tropes. But sometimes it's a bit muddled, leaving me uncertain just what it's trying to say. For instance, Loup's love interest is a girl, one much girlier than herself, and at some points Carey implies that someone as physically tough as Loup has to have a girlfriend rather than a boyfriend. But then, Loup's father also has a hard time finding someone who's attracted rather than repelled by his overly-powerful mutant body, so it's not clear that Loup's unsuccessful physical relationships with men have much to do with gender expectations. Meanwhile her physiological lack of fear sort of works as a commentary on the way women are controlled by fear, but it's also pretty weird--Loup does feel pain, after all--and there's no reason she couldn't fight the system while experiencing fear if she were put in a situation that compelled her to do so. This aspect of the story also seems less successful because there are other female superheroes in fiction, whose stories don't require such contortions: for instance, Katsa of Graceling, published a year before this one (hardly the best-written fantasy novel ever, but a far more satisfying superhero story).
Plot aside, the book is adequate without being exceptional. It's mostly populated by stock characters: the kindhearted older brother, the embittered old coach, the band of orphans with one personality trait apiece. Loup feels somewhat hollow. Her love interest, though, is well-characterized and their romance is cute--if heterosexual it would likely have been too generic, but as is it kept my interest. The setting is well-drawn, though I wanted to see more of Carey's world beyond the single town. The writing is adequate and the dialogue has flavor and does a good job of contributing to the characterization.
In the end, this is a worthwhile piece of entertainment if you're looking for something fairly light, but that emphasizes relationships more than action. As a dystopian fantasy story it works well enough, though it doesn't have the sort of fun and excitement I expected when I read the word "superhero."...more
I really enjoyed reading this: fun, funny urban fantasy with engaging characters and a strong sense of place. Not being a big fan of series these daysI really enjoyed reading this: fun, funny urban fantasy with engaging characters and a strong sense of place. Not being a big fan of series these days, I’m not rushing out to grab the sequel, but probably will read it at some point.
Midnight Riot (aka Rivers of London) is set in contemporary London, starring Peter Grant, a rookie cop who discovers he’s sensitive to magic. There’s a murder mystery, some feuding river spirits, some feuding cops--there’s a lot going on for a short book, and it’s fast-paced and a quick read. I take it the premise has been done before, but I love the juxtaposition of supernatural and mundane and thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of magic and supernatural creatures with police procedures and bureaucracy. And I enjoyed it in spite of not being a mystery fan; the mystery elements are engaging and just creepy enough, without overwhelming the book.
Meanwhile, the characters are just plain fun. Peter is an appealing protagonist whose first-person narration is not just snarky but genuinely funny, and his outlook is always entertaining, from his deadpan observations to doing "science" experiments with magic. He’s not a Chosen One--he’s a little easily distracted to be a great cop, and has to really work at the magic--which is nice; he struggles and makes mistakes just like everyone else. It’s a plot-driven book and so the characterization isn’t the deepest ever, but the cast is vivid and enjoyable, brought to life by strong dialogue and detail. In addition to Peter, I’d happily read more about Leslie, Nightingale, Beverley, Mother and Father Thames (no relation, as they’d be quick to tell you!), even Molly. And while it’s sad that this is in any way notable, the degree to which Aaronovitch respects his female characters stands out. Peter appreciates the boobs, because he’s a young heterosexual man, but the neither he nor the author gets stuck on boobs to the detriment of characterization, nor are women Peter is attracted to defined by their response to his advances.
There’s also a lot of detail about London in the book; far from being a generic setting, it’s drawn with closely-observed detail and the reader gets a real sense of the place as a modern, diverse, tourist-ridden city. You can tell Peter loves it even while he’s constantly frustrated by, for instance, the traffic.
My one complaint about the book is that some plot elements don’t quite add up. At times characters make decisions that seem driven more by plot necessity than common sense, or make leaps of logic that bear fruit only because the author requires them to. (view spoiler)[Peter's deductions after Nightingale gets shot are basically a giant plot hole. He concludes, first, that Pyke must've known about their plans in advance because it's not that easy to get a gun. Well, or Pyke might have possessed someone who already had a gun--but why would he even need to, when in the very first scene he was able to pull a giant bat out of thin air to kill somebody? So that's strike number one--number two is that Peter then says Pyke must either be able to see the future, read minds or have one of the officers in his corner. Well, or maybe he was just eavesdropping? Seems like it'd be an easy thing for a ghost to do, being "corporeally challenged" and all. Peter is right in his deductions, but only because Aaronovitch says so.
Also, I kept thinking that Nightingale was a terrible supervisor, in that he takes Peter into these dangerous and volatile situations, expecting him to play an important role, while giving him zero information about what to expect, even when there's an opportunity to do so. Obviously, an author can't brief the readers because that would make things boring, but when plot necessity shows through this way it throws me out of the story. (hide spoiler)] And the river spirits subplot, while entertaining, doesn’t go very far, with its resolution seeming unnecessarily drastic. (view spoiler)[A hostage exchange isn't really a solution to a problem anyway; it's a way to ensure compliance with the solution. But I didn't see any reason they'd need to take those measures to ensure compliance, when there didn't seem to be much at stake. (hide spoiler)] And not being a big series reader, I was a little disappointed at how much this book reads as the beginning of a series, leaving many questions to be resolved in future volumes. There is a complete plot arc here, however.
Overall, a very fun, fast read that you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying. Now I think I’ve talked myself into seeking out the second book!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I’ll begin by saying that I loved this book. Fiercely. To the point I wasn’t ready to let go when it came due at the library, so I ordered my own copyI’ll begin by saying that I loved this book. Fiercely. To the point I wasn’t ready to let go when it came due at the library, so I ordered my own copy. Does that mean it’s without flaws? No, which is why I’m giving 4 stars. But it’s one of those books that reminded me why I still read fantasy, even though I’ve become a much more analytical reader than I was when I fell in love with the genre as a kid. Because the rare books that engage my emotions this way, that have me passionately invested not only in the characters’ fates but in their every interaction, are almost always fantasy.
So here is the setup: the city of Mandrigyn has been conquered by a power-hungry wizard, and all the men who marched out to fight him were either killed or taken captive to work in the mines. The women, led by the charismatic Sheera, have formed a resistance movement, and blackmail mercenary captain Sun Wolf into training them to fight. Meanwhile, his lieutenant, Starhawk, sets out on a quest to rescue him. At first glance it’s very much a genre fantasy novel (just look at those names), without literary pretensions, but while there’s plenty of adventure and fighting, the plot turned out to be a thoughtful one, surprisingly free of cliché, even though it was published in 1984.
What I loved most about this book are the characters. Hambly makes liberal use of stock character roles, but don't be fooled: within them are real, three-dimensional people. The book turns the typical fantasy setup on its head: instead of a lone heroine surrounded by men, we get a hero (Sun Wolf) surrounded by women. As a woman, I love to read about women doing things, and was a little surprised at just how much fun this setup was. For once, someone was telling me the kind of story I want to read! And while Sun Wolf and the few other male characters are believable and entertaining (I especially loved Sun Wolf's snarking about his drunken barbarian ancestors), it's with the women that Hambly really shines. Her female characters are a diverse group, in personalities and lifestyle choices and everything else, yet even the most difficult ones are rendered with sympathy and without quick or easy judgments. Hambly takes types of characters who in any other book would be vilified, or who would be dismissed as shallow and uninteresting, and not only turns them into well-developed and sympathetic characters, but gives them hopeful endings where any other author would have killed them off.
The book is also surprisingly thoughtful in other ways. For instance, Starhawk's quest might at first seem like a sideshow--after all, we know where Sun Wolf is--but her journey turns out to be the moral center of the book. Hambly could have gotten away with idealizing the mercenaries (making them disciplined professionals who would never harm a non-combatant), but instead she draws a less flattering picture, and forces Starhawk to re-evaluate her worldview as she comes into close contact with civilians. And then there's the society of Mandrigyn itself, which historically adhered to strict gender roles but is thrown into upheaval during the story. The consequences of abrupt change are dealt with, and it isn't always pretty. Which leads to a perfect bittersweet ending: not bittersweet in the easy way of most fantasy novels (where the protagonists get everything they're fighting for, losing a friend or two along the way), but in a way that's realistic and earned and leaves the characters with plenty of challenges ahead.
All this is not to say the book is perfect, because it isn't. There are some plot elements I wasn't thrilled with: Sun Wolf and Starhawk are often slow to draw obvious conclusions (though perhaps as mercenaries they weren't intended to be the brightest bulbs on the tree), and Sun Wolf has a bit of better-at-everything-than-everyone syndrome. The worldbuilding is mixed. Hambly does an excellent job with visual and sensory description, as well as with the macro changes in the society. But the details don't always quite coalesce. For instance, the requirement that women in pre-conquest Mandrigyn wear veils in public is often referred to as a touchstone for the degree of repression that existed, but contrasts with much of what we see: there are female gladiators; even people who are ashamed of their looks fail to take advantage of the custom; and the rebels show up for battle training in not much more than bikinis. Sure, they're self-conscious at first, but in a society with such high expectations of modesty I'd have expected them to devise far less revealing workout clothes, especially since this training happens in winter. None of these inconsistencies threw me out of the story, but they seem odd in retrospect. Finally, as for the writing, it was good enough to keep me in the story, but it is genre fantasy, so expect unnecessary adverbs and unusually expressive eyes and so on.
But I hope you won't take my quibbles too much to heart, because in the end this was a fantastically fun book that I loved to pieces. It's a story about excellently-drawn, lovable characters who grow and change and have exciting adventures, and really, what could be better than that?...more
Abandoned at page 65. This book is written as if it were literary fiction--slow-paced and character-driven--but it just isn't that good. The writing iAbandoned at page 65. This book is written as if it were literary fiction--slow-paced and character-driven--but it just isn't that good. The writing is definitely nothing special and the characterization is clunky. Interesting premise but nothing about it made me want to read more....more
Wow, this is an excellent book. Unusual and brutally sad, but excellent.
You’ve probably already read the description of this book: it’s about a characWow, this is an excellent book. Unusual and brutally sad, but excellent.
You’ve probably already read the description of this book: it’s about a character living her life over and over again, vaguely aware of what’s happened before and able to make changes and correct her mistakes. Ursula is born to an English family in 1910, and goes on to lead a series of lives, intersecting like puzzle pieces. This is anything but a straightforward narrative, sometimes jumping backward and forward in time, sometimes repeating the same scenario in several variations, sometimes splicing two or even three scenes together. But if you’re ready to pay attention and go along for the ride, if you like puzzles and complex structures and piecing things together as you read, it’s enormous fun.
Well, I say that, but at the same time it’s a tragic, sometimes harrowing book. Ursula dies any number of painful and detailed deaths: sickness, murder, suicide, the Blitz.... I wasn’t expecting how disquieting it would be to read all the stories leading up to these deaths. And yet, I wanted to read on, to see what other possibilities life had in store for the characters. It’s a vivid cast, sometimes changing (in some lives Ursula marries or has a child, in others she doesn’t), but more often staying the same (Ursula’s parents, her sister and three brothers, her eccentric aunt are all recurring characters), and I found their development deeper for the fact that they were living different lives. Perhaps the author had to know her characters even better than usual to imagine how they would have changed had their lives turned out differently.
On a technical level, I’m impressed with Atkinson's writing. She has a gift for detail, the lines of dialogue that encapsulate a personality, or the vibrant or visceral descriptions that bring a place to life. The story moves fairly quickly, without much time for lingering over the scenery, but I still had a strong sense of the places Ursula inhabits, inextricable from the emotions associated with them--that’s strong writing. Atkinson has a distinctive style, with some quirks a lesser writer wouldn’t be able to pull off (run-on sentences, for instance), but her writing is assured enough that they read as choices rather than mistakes.
The choices I question are in the development of the premise. It begins well enough, but the way Atkinson deals with the multiple lives is a bit inconsistent. Sometimes Ursula remembers enough to avoid death or misfortune, but then she dies three times in almost exactly the same way, for no reason I could discern. For much of the book she’s troubled by déjà vu, and seems to be the only one reliving her life, but especially toward the end, others start making different choices too, even before Ursula is born. And then, in what seems a last-ditch attempt to add some greater relevance to the story, Atkinson spends all of about 10 pages on the Ursula-kills-Hitler subplot introduced in the first chapter, without doing anything with it. An author toying with the idea of changing history, but shying away from imagining how history might actually have changed, is my biggest pet peeve in time travel books.
And I’m not sure this book needed any greater relevance. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction, bringing to life the time and place in vivid detail. It has just the right mix of familiar-seeming characters and locations with a dizzying array of fresh stories and realistic depth. It’s one of those books that looks at what women’s lives are really like without being heavy-handed about it, so that I suspect many readers miss how feminist it is; Ursula’s older sister, her aunt, and her female friends and colleagues all play key and largely positive roles in her life, and she pursues a career despite knocking up against the glass ceiling. It is a thinking kind of book, a portrayal of life where nothing is inevitable and two equally plausible choices can lead to wildly different results.
So, would I recommend this? Yes, if you’re open to non-linear storylines and willing to put in the effort. It’s the kind of book that rewards reading and re-reading. But keep something lighter on hand at the same time. You may need it....more
I had a great time reading Elfland, and also enjoyed Midsummer Night, so was looking forward to this one. But despite a promising beginning, this bookI had a great time reading Elfland, and also enjoyed Midsummer Night, so was looking forward to this one. But despite a promising beginning, this book soon lost me and became a drag to finish.
Grail of the Summer Stars is a more direct sequel to both Elfland and Midsummer Night than the latter is to the former, although it could still be understood in isolation. It introduces a new protagonist, Stevie, who begins the book as curator of a metalwork museum, and returns to Mistangamesh from Midsummer Night. I was initially drawn into Stevie's story and intrigued by the mysteries that confront her. Around halfway through, though, it becomes a save-the-world sort of fantasy novel, and falls increasingly into cliché.
Whether you like this installment may depend on what you liked about the previous ones. For me the heart of the earlier books was the interpersonal relationships, and the fantasy aspect added some fun spice. This book is very heavy on the fantasy elements, and I found the characters hard to believe in or care about, perhaps because those fantasy elements define the key characters’ psychologies. Mist was a particular problem for me--he’s such a generic love interest (of the hot 30,000-year-old reincarnated dude variety) that I never believed in him or found him interesting, and thus had no investment in his romance with Stevie. Meanwhile, many of the characters’ crucial choices make little sense (“okay, I’ll help you destroy the world if you let my friends go”.... that makes sense how? If the world is destroyed, your friends still die). Warrington can write normal human life and relationships well, but perhaps because of the enormity of what’s at stake here, much of the book fell into clunkiness and cliché, and the more I read, the less invested I was.
Many of Warrington’s quirks from previous books also return here, and annoyed me more than they had in the past: the sexualized or just plain sexual sibling relationships (view spoiler)[I figured Warrington must be an only child, and checked her website to make sure: fortunately she is, so we don't have to worry about where these creepy relationships are coming from (hide spoiler)]; the recurring idea that people who commit crimes ought to just be forgiven and anyone who tries to bring them to justice is at best misguided; the tendency of characters to wear their hearts on their sleeves even when that’s not supposed to be their personality.
But, while this book was definitely not what I was hoping for, you might enjoy it more, particularly if you like save-the-world plots, non-human protagonists and books that are heavy on the fantasy elements. Warrington still writes good imagery and humorous British dialogue, and the writing style and pacing are similar to the previous books in the series. Still, for me it was a disappointment.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The preface drew me in with its strong voice and promise to relate the adventure-filled career of a lady naturalist in an alternate Victorian age, stuThe preface drew me in with its strong voice and promise to relate the adventure-filled career of a lady naturalist in an alternate Victorian age, studying dragons. The book itself is entertaining, but doesn't quite live up to that promise.
A Natural History of Dragons is the first in what looks to be a long series of fictionalized memoirs of Isabella, Lady Trent, a dragon naturalist. In this book, Isabella briefly takes readers through her childhood, courtship and marriage, then moves on to spend the bulk of the pages describing her first scientific expedition: from her quasi-English homeland to the quasi-Eastern-European mountains. Very little is known about dragons in this world, and Isabella and her companions seek them out with limited success, while meanwhile she must struggle against the restrictive gender expectations of her time.
This is a short, quick read, and an entertaining novel. It's not action-packed and the dragons' appearances are fairly limited, but if you enjoy historical fiction as well as fantasy, you and this book will likely get along well. The older Isabella, the supposed author of the memoir, has a strong and believably Victorian voice, and the world is interesting and grounded as much in historical fiction and anthropology as in fantasy, such that it feels more real than your average secondary world. Isabella is a bold and active protagonist, always up for an adventure. And the book does a great job of making fantasy elements feel realistic; dragons here are just another species of wild animal (albeit a particularly difficult one to study), and are given an entertainingly scientific treatment.
But while the book is certainly competent, some problems hold it back. The character development is nothing special, and Isabella's adult voice is more engaging than her 19-year-old personality; despite her interest in science, she tends to come across as a silly heroine who's always running off and getting into trouble. The action elements toward the end feel rather forced, and the book brings little new to the treatment of its themes. Finally, filling the entire (short) book with only one of Isabella's many expeditions seems a little indulgent, and one wonders if a memoirist would really record so much minutiae in the story of her life. I'd happily have read a longer novel about her, but am not sure my interest will extend to the half-dozen or more books that Brennan will need, at this rate, to tell the complete story. Which is too bad, because Isabella will likely only get more interesting as she matures.
At any rate, an entertaining book, and worth a read if you enjoy historical fantasy or want to read about women scientists or a scientific treatment of dragons. If you like this, you will probably also enjoy Tooth and Claw, a similarly Victorian fantasy in which all the characters are dragons....more
I had a great time with Elfland, and while I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much, it’s still a pleasant, engaging and mostly well-written novel.
MidsumI had a great time with Elfland, and while I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much, it’s still a pleasant, engaging and mostly well-written novel.
Midsummer Night is a standalone fantasy loosely related to Elfland, but you could easily read this one first. It is set on an old estate along the modern-day Scottish coast, which has been troubled by meddlesome faerie folk. The story centers on three women: Gill Sharma, who comes to the estate to recover after an accident puts an end to her athletic career; Peta Lyon, an art teacher; and Dame Juliana Flagg, an enigmatic 60-something sculptor and owner of the estate.
I was surprised to find how different this book is from Elfland, although both have engaging plots and characters, similar pacing and lovely imagery. While Elfland is a family drama-cum-romance starring the faerie folk, Midsummer Night is the almost creepy story of its primarily human protagonists’ encounters with the faerie world, containing fewer family bonds and no star-crossed lovers. (While I loved the romance in Elfland, this book didn’t need one, and I admire Warrington for not shoehorning one in anyway.) There are also fewer melodramatic elements, although there are some hidden affairs and mysterious parentages in the story's past.
Like Elfland, this one is a bit of a slow starter, and it wasn’t until Chapter 3 that I was convinced I’d like the book. But the plot soon becomes exciting and immersive, the writing and dialogue are good, and the imagery and atmosphere excellent. The characters are interesting and I mostly liked them, but wasn’t quite as convinced as I was in Elfland. There, I was impressed by Warrington’s ability to create in Rosie a character who’s warm, sensitive and communicative, and yet feels real and unidealized. Here, I got the impression that Rosie is the type of protagonist that comes most naturally to the author, and was less than completely convinced by the brusque and reserved Dame J. Along the same line, there are moments when the villains are much more transparent than I was willing to credit.
Overall, though, this is an enjoyable and satisfying book, and if you like fairy tales grounded in the modern world, you will probably like Midsummer Night. I certainly plan to read the third book in this trilogy once it is released....more
This is the third McKillip book I’ve read, and my clear favorite so far. The spare, detached style puts one in mind of a fairy tale, but the story worThis is the third McKillip book I’ve read, and my clear favorite so far. The spare, detached style puts one in mind of a fairy tale, but the story works because it’s a very human and emotional one; in the end the narrative detachment doesn’t distance the reader from the tale so much as prevent all the strong emotion from dragging it into melodrama.
The blurb is all wrong (and the cover seems to be based on the blurb): it’ll tell you it’s about a 16-year-old and implies that this is one of those tiresome stories celebrating its isolated heroine’s choice to give up solitude and learning in favor of marriage and motherhood. [Sidenote: I really have no patience for those books' aggressive rejection of unconventionality in favor of traditional choices and have to wonder about their appeal. Is it because most people make conventional choices (hence, why they're conventional) and want to feel vindicated?] Actually, after Sybel accepts a baby to raise in the first chapter, the book skips 12 years, and the real story is about how she is dragged into the scheming and enmity between kingdoms that she had tried to avoid.
I really enjoyed this: it’s a quick read (sure, there are 343 pages, but they’re tiny pages), and the story is compelling and feels fresh even though it was published nearly 40 years ago. It’s stripped down to the essentials, with the worldbuilding relegated largely to the background. The characters are well-drawn and come alive in the details, and their dialogue rings true, grounding the story in reality without jarring with the elevated tone of the narrative. I liked Sybel, with her pride and her lack of sentimentality or social skills, and quickly came to care about her story. But even the minor characters are well-drawn and their relationships believable. I especially liked the romance, which is sweet without being overly perfect, and the fact that Sybel needs her man to love her, not to rescue her or solve her problems for her.
The one thing I disliked was the ending: McKillip has a reputation for fuzzy sorts of climaxes and that is the case here; I also found Sybel’s abdication of responsibility rather less than triumphant, although that may have been the point. (view spoiler)[I had it all worked out that the Liralen was one's own soul, and that Mithran had lost his soul through his nefarious deeds and Sybel risked losing hers if she continued her quest for vengeance. And then it turned out to be the Blammor, and.... what? There must be some symbolic meaning behind that that I don't understand. (hide spoiler)]
Overall, a well-written fantasy tale that uses no more words than necessary to tell an affecting story, and does a great job of combining fairy tale and reality. Some have classified it as YA, but this is one of those books you can tell was written before such classifications existed: younger readers could certainly enjoy it, but there’s nothing immature about this story, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to adults.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Jo Walton is an author who can be trusted to come up with fresh ideas and stories, a rare bird in the fantasy genre. Here we have “time zones3.5 stars
Jo Walton is an author who can be trusted to come up with fresh ideas and stories, a rare bird in the fantasy genre. Here we have “time zones” in which time passes at different rates, gods with hive minds, and, most unusual of all, nontraditional family structures. Lifelode centers on a nuclear family consisting of two husbands, two wives, and five kids with every possible combination of parents, in a world where monogamy is a curiosity. The central plotline--involving a woman fleeing a wrathful goddess--isn’t so different, but the way it’s told is, both the fact that the entire story (even flashbacks) is told in present tense as if everything is happening at once, and the focus of the narrative. The character with the largest chunk of pages is the housekeeping wife, and the book focuses on the family and their daily life rather than the large-scale conflict or the transient characters.
Although I’ve rounded my star rating down, I liked this book: the characters are believable, the writing solid, and the small details bring the world to life. Walton manages the focus on daily life in a quasi-medieval setting without its becoming either dull or saccharine (though it is in some ways a warm and fuzzy sort of book), though I’m sure it helps that the book is quite short. I also enjoyed the characters’ attempts to settle the goddess situation through negotiation and lawsuits rather than resorting only to violence.
There are a few issues, though. One is the beginning: the first 30 pages or so are unnecessarily confusing, bombarding the reader with names with little to no context, and causing me to spend a lot of time flipping back and forth to figure out who these people were. (I’m including a character list at the end of this review for that reason.) This despite the fact that the invented words fit very well into the story, their meanings immediately recognizable from context. Second, toward the end my favorite character is killed off in what feels like a cheap shot; it contributes little to the plot, and the reactions of characters who should be devastated come across as obligatory. Between this book and Among Others, I get the sense that Walton either isn’t comfortable writing about grief or isn’t interested in it, so, why?
Overall, though, a solid fantasy story that didn’t blow my mind, but that is worth reading, especially if you want a break from typical fantasy fare. It was apparently published as a limited edition, and is therefore expensive, but do grab a copy if you can find one.
Taveth: Cook/housekeeper of Applekirk Ranal: Husband of Taveth, runs the farm at Applekirk Ferrand: Lord of Applekirk, lover of Taveth Chayra: Wife of Ferrand and lover of Ranal; a potter
Perry: Adult daughter of Taveth and Ranal; a weaver Kevan: 14-year-old son of Taveth and Ranal; becomes a lawyer and judge Melly: 8-year-old daughter of Taveth and Ferrand; powerful at magic Hodge: 6-year-old son of Ferrand and Chayra; heir to Applekirk Tydsey: baby daughter of Ranal and Chayra
Hanethe: Wizard and former lord of Applekirk; great-grandmother of Ferrand
Jankin: Visiting scholar from Marakanda
Gislain: Priestess and lover of Chayra Hilden: Lover of Kevan (gender unspecified)...more
This book is not awful, but it’s a forgettable little urban fairy tale with some significant weaknesses that make it hard for me to recommend.
The twoThis book is not awful, but it’s a forgettable little urban fairy tale with some significant weaknesses that make it hard for me to recommend.
The two protagonists, Serana and Meteora, are fae sisters exiled to the human world after offending their queen. The premise is a good one, and the book is at its best when dealing with the challenges the sisters face in ordinary life: they lose their eternal youth and are forced to come to terms with suddenly old bodies and drastic changes in the way others view them as a result. Meanwhile, the contemporary world proves an endless source of confusion: "eagle mail” (the U.S. Postal Service) is difficult enough; cell phones blow their minds. Mixed in with all this is a standard good-vs-evil (Seelie vs Unseelie) plotline, which works well enough once it finally gets going toward the end, but the middle section feels overlong and draggy.
The authors clearly had fun writing the book, which is told from the point-of-view of eight characters, some in first person, some in third, one even in second (fortunately this character doesn’t get much page time). I don’t know whether I should be impressed or depressed by the fact that the sisters’ voices and personalities are indistinguishable despite the fact that they were written by two different authors (per Yolen’s website, each took one of the sisters as well as a handful of secondary characters). Unfortunately, the character development is less than impressive--both appear to be frivolous and hedonistic as faeries, but once transformed into older women without magic, they almost immediately become fretful and kindhearted, taking a benevolent interest in the lives of the humans they so recently disregarded. And while the relationship between the two is meant to be the cornerstone of the book, it fell flat for me; the sisters spend almost the entire story physically separated and there’s no real conflict between them. I don’t mean I didn’t want them to have a positive relationship, but fiction requires some sort of tension to stay interesting.
Meanwhile, there’s the writing. Most of the time it’s adequate, but there are some truly cringeworthy sentences: “Standing outside the tattoo parlor, Sparrow hesitated before she went in” or “Marti blushed, and tried to wave away the compliments with a perfect berry-colored-nailed hand.” That’s not to mention the astonishing bit of authorial laziness that has the Latino grocer speaking Babelfish. A professional should know better than to include a language she doesn’t speak without having someone who does check over it first.
Overall, this book was a disappointment, neither as entertaining as I’d hoped nor as well-written as I’d expected. Making the mysterious older women the protagonists is an interesting departure from the typical fantasy tale, but this book went on too long without bringing the depth of characterization that would have made that story stand out. Sort of cute, probably fine for younger readers, but not one I’ll be recommending....more
I picked this one up under the mistaken impression that it was written for an adult audience. For YA, it’s certainly not bad, and it’s a quick and easI picked this one up under the mistaken impression that it was written for an adult audience. For YA, it’s certainly not bad, and it’s a quick and easy read, but not what I’d hoped for.
The Bird of the River is a simple fantasy tale about a teenage girl, Eliss, who loses her mother and gains a job on a riverboat. As the boat travels up the river, Eliss deals with her unhappy mixed-race little brother, a young nobleman on a secret quest, and a mystery surrounding attacks by monster pirates. There’s little magic, so the fantasy label comes mostly from the world Baker has created: different from the norm in the warm climate and a few imaginative elements, but for the most part a typical fantasy world, complete with elf-like people, an assassins’ guild and bad economics. (view spoiler)[How can you write the phrase "a town of goldsmiths" without realizing the problem with that? Really, a town in the middle of nowhere with one inn but a whole bunch of jewelers? (hide spoiler)]
The plot is quite simple as well, although entertaining enough. Rather than being divided into chapters, it has regular line breaks throughout, such that it's easy to stop and start wherever you want. For YA, the characterization is pretty decent. Cliché fantasy elements abound: for instance, Eliss discovers her extraordinary natural skill (as a lookout) and that she’s beautiful but didn’t know it. (view spoiler)[Part of me likes that her skill is something atypical for a fantasy novel and prosaic--instead of being or quickly becoming an awesome swordfighter or mage or whatever, she's super-skilled at some unsung, everyday task. But then, being a good ship's lookout seems like it would depend far more on experience than innate talent--and is it really realistic that among experienced sailors, one lookout would be that much better than another anyway? (hide spoiler)] But there are some complexities as well, such as one character's struggle to break away from his upbringing. It is nice that the book focuses on working-class people and deals with classism and racism. But it still feels quite young: YA for the most part, although in some ways it’s less mature than typical YA; the romance, for instance, is middle-grade, with no acknowledgement that Eliss and her love interest might want any sort of physical relationship (even so much as kissing).
At any rate, I don’t regret reading this book, and it does have some chuckle-worthy moments as well as some worthwhile deeper ones, but overall it was too young and simple for my tastes. I would recommend it to younger readers, or to adults who like YA, but not to a general adult audience.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Hey, this is really good! It doesn’t beat out The Ladies of Mandrigyn as my favorite Hambly, but that’s because Mandrigyn is awesome; this is a strongHey, this is really good! It doesn’t beat out The Ladies of Mandrigyn as my favorite Hambly, but that’s because Mandrigyn is awesome; this is a strong second. Please ignore the cover and blurb, though, as they appear designed to fool you into thinking this is a different sort of book from what it actually is. You’d never guess that Jenny is the main character, for instance. I’m not sure why the deception, as this will be immediately obvious to anyone who opens the book.
Jenny and John are not your typical fantasy couple. She’s 37, he’s a couple years younger, and they have two young sons. John is a minor lord and renowned dragon slayer, but we first meet him knee-deep in pig muck and the dragon slaying wasn’t romantic either. Jenny is a witch, and lives apart from her family to better practice magic, but the time she’s devoted to family and community has still hindered her development of her talents. Yep, it’s family vs. career, but unusually, Jenny is far more bothered by the magical potential she’s sacrificed for love and family than the other way round.
The plot is fairly straightforward: a starry-eyed young messenger, Gareth, begs John to come kill a dragon, and the trio sets out to do so, though the ugly political situation will turn out more dangerous than the dragon itself. It is a fun plot, satisfyingly wrapped up at the end of the novel (there are sequels, but they were written many years later and apparently aren’t up to snuff). There is a bit of journeying, but it doesn’t go on too long, and if the action scenes sometimes seemed a bit drawn-out to me, I say that as someone who isn’t looking for action-based fantasy anymore.
What I do look for in fantasy are great characters, and this book has them. It is a very small cast, with only a few secondary characters in addition to Jenny, John and Gareth, but the principals are interesting, textured, and well-developed, such that it’s easy to believe these are real people. Often in fantasy novels heroics inspire no more than a shrug from me; the standard fantasy hero is courageous in such a knee-jerk, pre-programmed way that it’s hard to be moved once you’re over age 16 or so. But such is not the case in Dragonsbane: this is a mature fantasy novel (in the best sense of the word, not the “full of gore and sex” sense), with mature heroes who are heroic in a real and believable way.
Speaking of heroics, this is one of those fantasy novels that takes pains to distinguish the myth from the reality; Gareth, a lover of dragon-slaying ballads, is perhaps intended as a stand-in for the typical fantasy reader, whose illusions are shattered as the story progresses. Today, with the market swamped with “gritty” fantasy, this is nothing new, and Hambly’s use of realism for shock value may seem a bit dated. Presumably when it was published in 1985, the practicality and realism actually was subversive. But it doesn’t go over-the-top in grittiness either; the reality is more prosaic and more complex than Gareth expects, but heroism still exists. And some of the subtle commentary on fictionalization is just as relevant today. For instance, in the ballad, John rescued “maidens” from the dragon. In reality, it was a boy and a girl (though really just a boy, because the girl was already dead). This is exactly what we do in real life! I remember being shocked – shocked! – to learn that 2/3 of murder victims in the U.S. are male; in fiction it’s skewed at least as heavily the other way, because Victims Are Female.
As for the writing, in general it’s better than most fantasy, though Hambly’s sentences still sometimes trip me up. It is nicely visual, with good imagery. The point-of-view is a bit odd, though. We spend the book in Jenny’s head, but in the first couple of chapters, many of the observations are Gareth’s: the village is squalid, John is a yokel, the boys are urchins. This weirdness fades after the beginning, but there’s still the occasional description requiring familiarity with a place that Jenny doesn’t know. This too may be a result of changes in the genre; authors today stick tightly to their POV character’s head, making deviations jarring.
Overall, I really liked this book – fantasy that can be enjoyed by thinking adults, with strong, believable characters and an intriguing take on dragons. Definitely recommended....more
I liked this book, although I liked Fudoki, Johnson’s later novel, better.
This one is a fairy tale retelling set in medieval Japan, about a fox who faI liked this book, although I liked Fudoki, Johnson’s later novel, better.
This one is a fairy tale retelling set in medieval Japan, about a fox who falls in love with a man and turns into a human (or an illusion of a human) in order to have him. It’s told in epistolary form, through the diaries of the three main characters: the fox, the man, and the man’s wife. Multiple narrators are the curse of the ambitious debut author, but while all three voices clearly come from the same writer, this didn’t bother me here, perhaps because of the fairy-tale ambiance and the elegant prose. Additionally, the book switches between narrators every couple of pages, which helps counteract the story’s very leisurely pace and keep readers’ interest.
There is a lot to admire here: well-drawn characters, a strong sense of a place and respectful, apparently well-researched handling of the setting, the insertion of non-embarrassing bits of poetry that the characters often use to communicate. Johnson does a great job of creating and maintaining a mood: pensive, reflective, almost melancholy, which fits the story exactly. And the themes of wilderness vs. civilization and illusion vs. reality are well-handled and leave room for reflection. The foxes’ world is an illusion: but how much of human civilization is a fiction in one way or another?
Still, I prefer Fudoki: Johnson’s writing style, while good here, improved between the two books, and Fudoki has more relationships between women and less icky sex and obsessive romance. (The romance between the man and fox here may not have been intended to be romantic; in any case, it isn’t.) But if you’re looking for a good historical fantasy or fairy-tale retelling and don’t mind a slower pace, you could do far worse than The Fox Woman....more
Technically, Elfland is urban fantasy, but forget everything you normally associate with that phrase; this is a family drama with a fairy tale or twoTechnically, Elfland is urban fantasy, but forget everything you normally associate with that phrase; this is a family drama with a fairy tale or two in its ancestry. A bit like a contemporary Juliet Marillier.
The book centers on two families in small-town England: both have children, who begin the book as teenagers but quickly grow into young adults. Both families are “Aetherial,” meaning they have otherworldly origins, but have chosen to live on Earth--and now find themselves stuck there. But while there’s enough magic in the book to keep it from becoming too mundane, the fantasy elements play a relatively minor role. Very little time is spent in the Otherworld, despite what the title and cover might have you believe; Warrington evokes a sense of wonder about it, undiluted by a drawn-out quest or travelogue. Elfland is, first, a family drama, and second, a romance. It’s also a melodrama, but while that normally means “cue detached eye-rolling,” this one completely worked for me, probably because it’s so easy to believe in the characters and get caught up in their stories.
I had a fantastic time with this book, finding it more enjoyable and immersive than anything I’d read for awhile. The characters are real and complicated people who are easy to sympathize with. Rosie, who is probably the protagonist (though the book is told in third-person and often shifts to other POVs) makes an excellent heroine: she’s nice, but in a way that feels genuine and realistic--not at all one of those too-good-to-be-true types that authors create when they’re afraid of giving their leads flaws. And she’s reasonable, which makes her easy to relate to. The same goes for her family: the characters and the way they communicate with each other are positive, making them easy to like, but always feel real and never contrived or saccharine.
And the romance is a lovely slow burn that I did not expect to like (based on the identity of the love interest), but did. The book is very positive about women and sexuality: Rosie goes to college, dates, has some sex, and this is treated as perfectly normal and healthy and not something that need be dealt with in great detail (although there are some explicit scenes later in the book).
The writing itself is nothing to write home about, but there is some great imagery, and Warrington does a good job with the modern (and very British) dialogue. At times the plot felt like a bit much (there’s perhaps one murderous rage too many), and occasionally a male character would seem a tad too sensitive, but by the time I’d gotten a couple of chapters in, I was thoroughly enjoying the book and was not put off by its imperfections. So, while not great literature, Elfland is still a lovely work, and one I’d recommend to those who like their fantasy firmly grounded in the real world....more
Bitter Greens is a lot of things: historical fiction, historical fantasy, fairy tale retelling. Most importantly, though, it's great fun, containing gBitter Greens is a lot of things: historical fiction, historical fantasy, fairy tale retelling. Most importantly, though, it's great fun, containing grand stories worthy of fairy tales, with the complexity and historical background of a good adult novel.
Slightly over half the book is narrated by Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a lady-in-waiting in the court of Louis XIV of France. (She was an actual historical writer, one of the first to tell the Rapunzel fairy tale.) We first meet her at age 47, when she's banished to a convent for offending the king; her chapters alternate between her struggle to adapt to her new life and her dramatic backstory. While these chapters have a fairy-tale style, Charlotte-Rose's story is strongly grounded in the turbulent historical era and contains little to no magic.
The rest of the novel is a retelling of "Rapunzel." The majority of these chapters focus on Margherita, the young Rapunzel character, but there's also a chunk belonging to Selena, the witch, in which we get her tragic backstory. These sections contain strong fantasy elements, but still have a historical framework: Italy, particularly Venice, in the 16th century.
The plot jumps around in time, looping backward and forward through the characters' lives; this works well, as connections and similarities between the three main characters build throughout the book. The plot is highly entertaining, Charlotte-Rose's story as much so as the Rapunzel tale. (I can see why Forsyth decided to devote so much time to the writer, as hers was clearly a story begging to be told. The more unlikely elements, such as the dancing-bear scheme, apparently come straight from the historical record.) For me at least, the balance of fairy tale and realism is just right: the story has the larger-than-life quality of a fairy tale, without becoming too simple or dreamy. In isolation, Charlotte-Rose's story might seem a little too easy or cliché, but interwoven with the Rapunzel tale it works splendidly.
The protagonists are the sort of heroines one would expect in a modern fairy tale: brave and good and resourceful. Charlotte-Rose and Margherita seem created with an eye more to making them likeable than realistic; but they are indeed likeable, with sufficient depth to sustain their ultimately satisfying stories. The characterization might at first appear black-and-white, but soon proves somewhat more complex. And while Margherita fills the traditional Rapunzel role, she's a capable girl who provides an answer to many of the problems modern readers have with the character (for instance, why she doesn't just climb down on her own hair).
Selena's story, though, is rather less satisfying. She reads like a darker echo of Charlotte-Rose, and while the author probably didn't intend this interpretation, I find her chapters most interesting when viewed as "the witch's backstory as imagined by Charlotte-Rose." Her character doesn't quite come together the way the other two do, and the inevitable tragedies in her life--having nothing to do with old age--don't explain her obsession with eternal youth. But, in fairness, I may be overly critical on this point--since reading Wicked I've found all other attempts to create wicked witches totally lame.
Bitter Greens has a good sense of place, and does a great job of maintaining that perfect fairy-tale mood. It's not great literature, but the writing style is adequate. Do note that this is definitely a book for adults, with some rather explicit scenes. These become rather repetitive: there are at least 5 relationships in the book, and while they go in different directions, most of the sexual encounters feel nearly interchangeable.
Finally, the historical element is quite interesting; the author clearly did her research, and the French sections in particular are full of lively detail without bogging the story down.
In the end, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fantasy or fairy tale retellings. What I don't understand at all is why it's been published nearly a year in Australia and has yet to come out in the U.S. This seems like a book that would have a large and appreciative audience--better get on that, publishers!...more
The real review is here! Some of you who liked my pre-release comments might want to retract: no offense taken, I promise.
This is a 3.5-star book, rouThe real review is here! Some of you who liked my pre-release comments might want to retract: no offense taken, I promise.
This is a 3.5-star book, rounded up because Goodreads still doesn't have half-stars. Cold Magic is still my favorite of the trilogy, but I do think this one works better than Cold Fire.
Like the first two books in this trilogy, Cold Steel gets off to a rocky start: it begins with a dream sequence (!) and the first 100 pages feel a bit frantic and disjointed, as the protagonists hurry back to Europa to get into position for the final installment. Once the plot finds it feet, though, it's good fun, with all the daring escapes, rescues, battles, love scenes, shifting allegiances and political upheaval that one could hope for. The downside is that there's perhaps too much packed into its 600 pages: while I don't think of this trilogy as YA, the pacing here is exactly what I wanted as a teen, each new twist raised and resolved within a couple of chapters. But as an adult, whether because of the instant gratification or because the tone is fairly uniform, I found it difficult to get invested: the book would be on to a new situation before emotions had time to develop.
The best thing about this book, and the reason I wish I could have loved it, is its thoughtfulness. Its progressive, feminist ethos informs every aspect of the story, keeping it fresh where it might otherwise have been just another fantasy adventure. If you've been looking for an epic fantasy series that's about changing the world rather than maintaining the status quo, this is it. But it's no good-vs-evil story: even within the ranks of those who want to upend the caste system, there are divisions and it's unclear who's in the right. I especially appreciated Elliott's leaving the political situation unresolved: because progress doesn't end, nor does it reach a point where all major obstacles are overcome.
Meanwhile, it's always a relief to read a fantasy book whose author has clearly thought about her representation of people, through, for instance, having a mostly non-white cast and positive portrayals of women in all walks of life. Cat and Bee both come into their own in this installment, and there's a host of other strong women as well; I would have liked to see some of them developed more, but what's notable is that the book portrays a wide variety of women worthy of respect, rather than one "exceptional" girl (just like real life). Cat's strength comes from both her ability to handle herself in a fight and her success in more traditionally feminine roles (I especially liked her bonding with Andevai's mother and little sisters). Relationships are also handled in interesting ways: Bee discovers sex and makes the most of it--which surprised me, though it shouldn't have--while Cat and Andevai have to figure out how to make their marriage work despite sometimes-conflicting goals and loyalties.
But ultimately this is entertainment reading. And it did mostly entertain. It has its weaknesses, such as enemies and powerful figures who seem rather too willing to engage with Cat and Bee on their terms, and some dialogue that sounds more declamatory than natural. But it also has plenty of strengths: characters seem like genuine products of their culture and families, for a fast-paced set of books the characters and their relationships are well-developed, and there are moments of real humor. The alternate Earth is fully imagined, with cultures that feel real and complex, and the first book's tendency toward awkward exposition is thankfully reduced here. I even enjoyed the spirit world (an element of fantasy books for which I generally have little patience), which creates a powerful mood but remains mysterious, without bogging down the story.
So in the end I'm rounding up in spite of the fact that, for me, this book skimmed the surface emotionally, because I found much to appreciate here and would like to see more books along this line. For those who have read the first two books, this one provides a satisfying conclusion, and I would recommend this trilogy to those looking for something different in fantasy.
My pre-release comments:
I am in love with this cover!
Good lord, why would anyone give a book 1-2 stars before it's even published?? If you're so convinced it's going to suck, find something else to read. I'm tempted to give a high rating to counteract this, but I don't believe in rating books before reading them....more