First, let me say I am a huge Armstrong fan. I love her prose and her characters and the rock-solid world-building that her Women of the Other World sFirst, let me say I am a huge Armstrong fan. I love her prose and her characters and the rock-solid world-building that her Women of the Other World series created, multi-layered and thoughtful.
Which is why I was so disappointed in this book.
There was a species of epic fantasy novel in the late 80s in which authors turned AD&D games into books. The first book is always slow as the characters gain XP, often being herded from one adventure to another as they are force-fed clues to the larger quest. That, right there? That's this book.
What's more, the world is Standard Issue Fantasy (with a few minor twists): supernatural uncharted territory being guarded by a lonely outpost; an ancient line of mystics who have special powers to guard against an ancient evil; those heroines have their power via blood as well as human-level-intelligence animal companions; ancient evils rising from the storied past to threaten civilization; an empire wracked by internal tensions and external pressures. People wear cloaks and carry swords and there are spirits and magic. It's all very derivative and if it sounds a little like Game of Thrones, well, that's pretty derivative, too.
The twist is that the empire seems to be Not!China instead of Not!England and that there are lots of racially diverse characters. (At least one of the hotties seems to be Han Chinese.) But our heroines are, of course, strawberry blonde "Northerners" with blue eyes. Which made me wince a little.
MILD TO MODERATE SPOILERS FOR THE PLOT BELOW HERE
What's more, their party seems to be the Feisty Twin and the Demure Twin, with the addition of an Honorable Paladin with Daddy/Loyalty Issues and a Rogue Thief with Daddy/Dependents Issues. The staid and honorable and thoughtful boy for the impetuous wild twin and the coarse, mischievous, down-to-earth boy for the timid and mild twin. There's a third fella, a handsome prince nonetheless, who I suspect will be tempting one of the sisters but I suspect she'll wind up with her narrative-ly appropriate dude. And I predict a hot girl will show up in book two to tempt the OTHER dude, and there will be teen angst and gnashing of teeth and misunderstandings and miscommunications before everyone winds up in each others' arms.
What's more, our characters rarely (never?) DO any damned thing. They get herded by events from the moment the book starts, with obstacles along the way. The obstacles closely resemble the fight scenes that mediocre GMs would force into each session so that 80s munchkins would get their combat XP. "Roll for initiative. You're facing a Blood Worm! What do you do?" "You've just been kidnapped by Slavers! Roll initiative! How do you get out of this one?!"
But seriously, the whole action of the plot could be summed up in a sentence or two. And I could probably sketch out the plots of the next two books in a few sentences.
I expect better out of Ms. Armstrong. Which is why I'll read book two. But I'm hoping now that our characters have some more XP, they get some agency to go with their character sheets.
A by-the-numbers urban fantasy that didn't add up.
Some very mild spoilers follow.
The IDEA was interesting -- that technology would allow people to acA by-the-numbers urban fantasy that didn't add up.
Some very mild spoilers follow.
The IDEA was interesting -- that technology would allow people to achieve Shamanic trance states and go to the spirit worlds without ritual, drugs, or other traditional methods. And our heroine is a standard UF lead without too much to distinguish her -- hot, skinny, rebel (doesn't' dress like a techno shaman), smart, compassionate, and born with some special ability (in this case, she's a once-in-a-generation slayer, I mean, lightening shaman.) She even has all white hair.
But it just didn't work for me. The book didn't live up to the promise of the idea. The plot seemed unwieldy and too large for the flimsy world-building she provided. All the shamans are women -- why is that? Let's talk about the Kachina a little bit? I wanted a more substantive look at the magic, the textures, and people. And many of the later plot developments/world building aspects seem to come out of nowhere.
The secondary characters read more like a series of quirks built on slightly wince-inducing stereotypes: the lazy New Age yoga teacher, the fierce Asian tiger lady, the giggling naif Asian girl, the mysterious and inscrutable Aztec etc. etc. Big points to the author for trying to include racial diversity in her work! But it also painful that the skinny pretty white girl leads this rag-tag band of reluctant shamans to save the world.
It's also kinda irritating that every single male mentioned in the book is portrayed as having the hots for her, past or present. I'm grateful, though, for SK. There was a character who saved this book from a one-star rating.
Finally, I didn't care for her writing. I really like a smooth transparent prose and she aimed for that but I found myself skipping her dry descriptive passages, then having to force myself to go back and re-read them. The kindle version of this book, at least, was full of typos. She does head-jumping without any warning and it's jarring as heck to read. In particular, her one chapter from the villain's POV is amateurish and pointless.
this series was billed as Firefly meets Vorgosikan. that was overselling it a little but it's a fun fast read. Devi is not unique but she's unusual inthis series was billed as Firefly meets Vorgosikan. that was overselling it a little but it's a fun fast read. Devi is not unique but she's unusual in that she's ambitious, gleefully violent, and still deeply moral. The world building is so interesting that you can hand wave the dodgy bits.
The romance is a bit strained but I like that Devi is still angry and still doesn't trust Rupert....more
Entertaining, as always. I am a little squinty-eyed at her reliance upon coincidence but I'm willing to forgive it if she promises more mice in the neEntertaining, as always. I am a little squinty-eyed at her reliance upon coincidence but I'm willing to forgive it if she promises more mice in the next book.
That said, Alex needs to read more mystery novels. I knew who dunnit in the first chapter....more
I enjoy the Tough Guy Noir books and I'd rate this as a decent if flawed entry into the genre. Most of the flaws could be attributed to the fact thatI enjoy the Tough Guy Noir books and I'd rate this as a decent if flawed entry into the genre. Most of the flaws could be attributed to the fact that this is a first-time author. I'll read another one, much later into the series, to see if it's worth my time.
All books in this category are defined by a set of characteristics that are familiar to anyone who's read a Spenser or Travis McGee book: introspective bruiser of a hero with a strong internal moral code, a pervasive misogyny, some violence (usually brutal), spare prose, tight plot, entertaining secondary characters, some musings on the nature of society, and usually a strong sense of place. Mr. Child succeeds better in some areas than in others.
Bruiser of a hero: Reacher is a bit of a glyph in this. We don't get a strong sense of his personality, despite some thoughtful musing about music in the opening bits. He's just a Generic Bad Ass, without too many differentiating quirks or flaws. Too, he lacks the introspective self-awareness, the unexpected depths and thoughtfulness, that brings depth and charm to most of the heroes in the genre. If Mr. Child was a better writer, I'd say this was on purpose -- Reacher is a new hero, just emerging from the embrace of the Army and finding himself. But it doesn't quite read like that. Grade: C-
Strong Internal Moral Code: On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the law-and-order uprightness of Walt Longmire and 10 is the bleak vigilante justice of Burke, I'd say this falls closer to the 8 or 9 area. You never get a sense that Reacher is at all conflicted about his vigilante killing, or even that he's thought about the moral aspects at all. I don't mind this, I liked the Burke books, but I wish I thought it was delberate on Mr. Child's part. Grade: B-
Pervasive misogyny: Complaining about misogyny in a Tough Guy book is like going to a party of Hugh Hefner's mansion and whining that there are too many busty blondes. Mr. Child comports himself pretty well. There are women, which is an improvement on some. Admittedly, they have no agency and they are all defined entirely by who they are sleeping with, but they aren't gross cartoons. Grade: B
Violence: I don't know anything about Mr. Child, but I'm willing to bet he's never gotten into a fight in his life. The violence here seems Hollywood-esque without the real sense of the visceral flesh-smacking brutality that most authors bring to these sorts of books. It's a suburban kid's fantasy of being a tough guy, with just enough of a pseudo-dark edge to appeal to our modern jaded appetites. It's sounds hollow as a kid in junior high shouting "Hold me back! I know karate!" Grade: D-
Spare prose: He lacks Parker's spare grace here and sometimes verges into choppiness. But it's not too bad and offers small splashes of brilliance: a bloody shirt is an appalling red, for instance. Grade: B
Tight plot: The mystery was decent, but he needed to cut the book in half. And he needs to check his clue dropping habits -- I had some of the major points sussed out before the fifth chapter. And i'd figured out the whole scheme about halfway through the book. And the start was too slow by half. This sort of book needs to move faster, nearly breathlessly. He also relied too much on coincidence, the crutch of a first-time writer. Grade: C
Secondary characters: Pretty good, if a little on-the-nose. The villains have fat hairy guts and a greasy hair and yellow wolf like smiles. The cop/sidekick has an actual backstory, a little development. It lacks sophistication and nuance, but it's a first book and not everyone can write something like Henry Standing Bear first time at bat.
Musings on society: Not bad, but a little heavy handed. Grade: B-
Sense of place Reacher is a vagabond, a wanderer, and I'm a little dubious about the idea of a series that doesn't have that slowly developing cast of secondary characters and a community and sense of place. Those things add serious depth and resonance to the genre and Mr. Child has set his series up so that he can't have those. What's more, he's not so deft a writer that I believe he can really draw a new sense of place each book. It's one of the reasons I'm not sure if I'll continue. Grade: N/A
As always, thoroughly entertaining. Ms. MCGuire's world takes four-color tropes and manages to make them thoughtful and fun, while still examining theAs always, thoroughly entertaining. Ms. MCGuire's world takes four-color tropes and manages to make them thoughtful and fun, while still examining the dark shadows that such bright characters would cast. It's a terrifyingly probable world....more
This is a truly remarkable book. A must-read for anyone who is thinking of writing a historical or fantasy novel.
My only complaint was that it ended.This is a truly remarkable book. A must-read for anyone who is thinking of writing a historical or fantasy novel.
My only complaint was that it ended. And there's a sequel in the works.
The prose is lush and textured, dense and sometimes oblique, but never opaque or overblown. It requires careful attention -- I normally take a day or two to read a book of this size but this one took more than two weeks. Part of that is the simple historical facts -- with complex family trees, shifting alliances, and seemingly everyone's name starting with Æ, it can be tricky to keep the kingdoms, fealties, and marriages straight. But since that's the main thrust of the character's strength and purpose, it is an interesting stylistic choice that supports the central theme. Outside of the political prose, her attention to nature is lovely and expansive without ever being dull or immaterial.
There is the omnipresence, rarely if ever seen in male-centric history or fantasy, of the detailed domestic work that they women did to maintain civilization. Women are seen (frequently) doing the work that kept the men alive -- making food, spinning yarn, weaving, carding, cooking, making mead, tending the ill. This is not just there as set dressing -- Hild gets much of her power from listening during these collaborative chores.
The plot itself is, of course, Hild's rise to power in her uncle's kingdom, from prophesied child to seer. It's a close and beautiful examination of the "soft" power of women, especially in contrast to the swords and fists of men. No one who reads this will ever think again that women were helpless or powerless in the Middle Ages. There is also thoughtful examination of the costs and limitations of that soft power. The frustration and anger that Hild feels when she is made to wait and be calm when she wants to rage and be direct is a palpable thing. Her loneliness as she is exiled from the women's society, because of her unusual abilities, is also palpable.
(Tangent: Another interesting examination of that soft power in a masculine world is Alpha House on Amazon, weirdly enough. I was struck, watching that, how similar the two disparate works were.)
I was struck by how closely reflected our modern (post-"Mists of Avalon") ideas of Morgan le Fey. I wonder if that was a deliberate choice?
I'm also impressed with the even handed portrayal of the shifting religious tides of the time and place. Christianity of the time usually doesn't come out so well in a story written by a woman about a woman. Especially a powerful, intelligent, and uncanny woman.
Withal, one of the best books I've read in years. ...more