Knowing something about my reading tastes, my friend Henrik was kind enough to offer me a review copy of this book; and now it seems that I'll have th...moreKnowing something about my reading tastes, my friend Henrik was kind enough to offer me a review copy of this book; and now it seems that I'll have the honor of being the first person to review it here on Goodreads! I'm guessing that I'll be the first of many; even though it's often hard for small-press publications to get the notice they deserve, I'm hoping the quality of the contents and the built-in appeal of this volume will make it an exception.
I've classified this as science fiction, because Hex Code, the title novella (which makes up over 100 pages of the 177-page book) is definitely that. The rest of the contents, though, is more varied; one story is supernatural fiction, two are descriptive fiction, and there are also four short poems. Besides the consistent high literary quality of the material here, the unifying thread is an examination of the dark side of the human soul and the more somber aspects of modern social life. But they're examined from the perspective of a vision that's itself fiercely moral --even if the behavior of the characters often is anything but.
As I often do, I read the shorter pieces first, and Hex Code last (even though it's placed first in the book). This was probably a good thing; the latter is so powerfully emotionally evocative that the other stories and poems, if they were read afterwards, might seem a bit anticlimactic. Nonetheless, the three short stories here are very effective, well-crafted works of fiction that merit attention in their own right. "Darkride" is a brilliant ghost story with a twist, very much in the classic tradition that avoids explicit gore --but be warned that it is a "dark ride" indeed. "The Pain Lab" grows out of the author's strong convictions against cruelty to animals, and gives us a grim look at the thinking and practice of researchers who justify torturing their fellow creatures on utilitarian and "humanitarian" grounds. Yes, it's fiction --but its horrific quality comes from how true it is to life; it wouldn't surprise me to read about something similar in a newspaper. Mayer was a good friend of the late great Karl Edward Wagner, who figures posthumously in "The Man Who Collected Wagner." Set in KEW's home town of Knoxville, this one will appeal the most to those who've read a lot of Wagner's work and know a bit about his life, and/or those who are familiar with the atmosphere of an SF/fantasy fan convention. (Though if you're not familiar with the latter, this will give you a vivid cynical introduction to the sordid underbelly of one, complete with alcohol, pot, lechers on the prowl, petty jealousies and ego trips, and shallow cultural illiteracy galore --of course, here there's something even worse waiting in the wings!) But that's not a necessity for appreciating the story as a chiller.
Since I'm more into fiction than poetry, the latter didn't make as much of an impression on me; but it's accomplished poetry, mostly rhymed and not unnecessarily opaque. Two pieces are well-done poetry of the macabre and ominous, appealing by creating a menacing atmosphere ("The Room" has only four lines --but it doesn't need any more!) The other two, however, are more mainstream, being serious explorations of some of the more unhappy possibilities of real life.
If they're read first, these shorter works can be appetizers for the main course Mayer offers in the Hex Code, which is one of the most imaginative takes I've encountered (and I've read several!) on H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Actually, strictly speaking, it takes off from August Derleth's reinterpretation of the Mythos, with two contending pantheons of primeval demigods, one malevolent and the other more benign --or, at least, less nasty!- and seeking to restrain the former. (When you first start reading it, you're apt to feel that you're missing some key back-story, but stick with it; that's part of Mayer's artistry, and you'll soon catch on to what's going on.) This will have the most resonance for Mythos fans, and avid computer gamers, but you don't have to be either to really get into it (for instance, I played a few rounds of a computer game exactly once, back in the 90s, and you've seen how I rated this!). Excellent characterization, perfect pacing, and consummate literary craftsmanship make this a compelling read. Few writers bring out so potently the utter malignancy of the Great Old Ones, with their anti-love, anti-ethics world-view of total selfishness and egoism; but the horror isn't of an escapist variety, because, as Mayer reminds us, we live in a real world where this same world view has been adopted by hordes of human beings, including virtually all of the power elites. And he lays bare, with the same precision as the great classical authors, the many ways that humans can get caught up in serving self, ignoring our consciences and instincts, and justifying behavior we know we shouldn't be doing. The last chapters of the novella in particular are an agony of suspense, with your heart in your mouth for the fate of characters you've come to like (not to mention the world!). Mayer plays the reader like a fiddle, throwing our emotions back and forth like some carnival rides throw the body; two days after I've finished the read, I still have gaping holes in my viscera (okay, figurative, fortunately!) and nerves rubbed raw. That's a tribute to the power of the author's writing.
Hack critics typically sneer at "genre" fiction; it's the province, they tell us, of inferior writers (and readers), with nothing to say to the real world. As usual, they're wrong. Mayer shows himself here to be a writer of the first rank, exceptionally adept for one writing his first (hopefully of many!) book. And as the greatest fiction has always been, these are ultimately stories about good and evil --from the pen of a writer who's cast his lot with good-- and about what ideas shall inform our treatment of our fellow humans (and other creatures).
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the multi-talented Mayer, who has a background in art, also illustrated the book with several excellent full page drawings in black and white. These definitely enhance the visual appeal of the book, which is a good-quality hardcover (relatively rare these days from a small press!).(less)
For various reasons, I'm running behind schedule in reviewing this novel; usually I like to write a review of a book right after finishing it. But bet...moreFor various reasons, I'm running behind schedule in reviewing this novel; usually I like to write a review of a book right after finishing it. But better later than never! :-) The author is a Goodreads friend of mine, and donated a copy of the book to the library where I work. (At the time, I hadn't said I'd read the book; so the donation wasn't made with the expectation of getting a review.)
To put the book in its broader literary context, it has features of the mystery genre, but I wouldn't classify it as a "mystery" in that sense; it doesn't have a sleuth as such, and it doesn't follow the usual plot arc nor all the conventions of a typical mystery. Rather, I'd classify it more as a straight action-adventure tale. It also fits solidly into the tradition of "Christian fiction," in the Christian book trade sense; an avowed goal of the author's (which she achieves) is to write a book free of bad language and sexual content, and to share the gospel with non-Christians. (More on that below.) But while much of fiction in this tradition falls into the light romance category (and might be said, at the risk of stereotyping, to appeal more to female than male readers), that's not the case here. We have some loving married couples here, but there's no "boy meets girl" storyline; most of the major characters are male, and the action emphasis would appeal to most males. (As well as to many females; I've got several female family members and friends who like an action read!)
Dare does several things well here, which earned her the three stars. Her prose style is mostly serviceable, despite a few awkward sentences and grammatical slips; it gets you into the story and doesn't turn it into a train wreck of butchered English, unlike some self-published efforts. While her characterizations aren't particularly sharp, at least two of them are memorable; and I came to care about the people in the book and to get invested in what happened to them. The plot is fast moving, and contains some genuine surprises; and she proves to be pretty good at writing dialogue, especially sarcasm and male banter (and husband-and-wife banter). Her action scenes can be edge-of-the-seat, even jaw-dropping in one case; there's no shortage of jeopardies and physical challenges, and she handles the fire-house/paramedic milieu (Jess' husband and other key characters are firemen) with an assurance that suggests she knows about it first-hand or through close family. (Her scenes of suspense and danger in the choking, searingly hot nightmare of a burning building are very gripping.) The same could be said for her knowledge of horses. There's not much texture to the narrative to give it a strong sense of place (it's set primarily in and around a small city or large town in Illinois, but we don't know exactly where in Illinois --it's a big state!); but when she does try to create texture, as with her descriptions of the natural world in autumn, she has good results, and I'd only wish she'd done more along that line.
The main problem here is something that's endemic to self-published first novels which haven't been edited by anybody (either working for a publisher or free-lance): the author hasn't developed the kind of careful craftsmanship and attention to significant detail that would avoid major errors, and with no vetting by anyone else, nobody caught these. (There are a number of simple proofreading issues as well.) In the first chapter, a barn burns to the ground --but the same barn is standing, and used, more than once later in the book, with no notice of the anomaly. (Dare has noted, in a personal message, that she herself never caught the discrepancy, and that a friend who did thought the couple had a second barn; but very few small farmers have multiple barns.) Also on the subject of barns, nobody in real life stores handguns in the barn rather than in the house! At another point, a driver accelerates his car to 90 mph in order to pass a farm vehicle going 10 mph --and the farm vehicle subsequently passes him again, without speeding up. Between Chapters 1 and 2, the town where Jim works changes from Spring Valley to Springbrook. There are various plot developments that aren't, per se, implausible, but which needed more explanation than we get. At times, Dare tells when she should show; and I'd have appreciated more back story on some characters, and earlier introduction of some elements so that they don't come across as much as convenient spur-of-the-moment inventions. All of the characters have the same speaking style, and it varies inconsistently between formal and more colloquial. These aren't all of the editorial issues, but they're the major ones.
The Christian elements in the story are prominent. Two couples who are at the heart of the story are church-going believers; the role of prayer in their lives, and quotation of Scripture, bulks large. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and indeed is realistic in that context. It's also a plus that the Christian characters aren't portrayed as perfect plaster saints; they have their shortcomings, and they wrestle very much with the problem of theodicy here --faith in the face of bad things that happen to good people isn't automatic. But a lot of aspects of evangelical lingo and subculture are taken for granted, whereas for many non-Christian readers they wouldn't be; and this can unnecessarily distance the characters and their world from those same non-Christian readers. If an author wants a book to reach that audience as an evangelistic tool, that's a hindrance. Moreover, the presentation of the gospel near the end of the book is so detailed theologically, and goes on so long, that it would almost certainly come across as "preachy" and off-putting to most non-believers. That kind of discussion, again, is realistic in a context where someone has spiritual questions; but secular readers looking for entertainment don't want to be beaten over the head with those questions when they aren't thinking about them themselves. IMO, a short and pithy planting of a seed that can grow later is a preferable strategy. True, fiction writers as diverse as Evelyn Waugh (in Brideshead Revisited), Sigrid Undset, and Krisi Keley manage more sustained treatment of spiritual searching. But they integrate it into the text of the story better, and don't make it come across as a sermon from somebody who has all the answers to someone whose search has a tacked-on feel. The intent here is good, but the execution lacking.
Overall, though, I think Dare's writing has promise, if she develops discipline with it. I'd like to read a version of this book that had a good re-write, and I think it might earn four stars --or more!(less)
On reflection, I reduced my rating to four stars because, while I did really like this short story, calling it "amazing" would be a stretch; I need to...moreOn reflection, I reduced my rating to four stars because, while I did really like this short story, calling it "amazing" would be a stretch; I need to be less prodigal with my five-star ratings. But four-and-a-half would be a fair measure, because I did find this a truly good read.
As the short Goodreads description indicates, this is a sort of prequel to the author's Iron Druid series, written after the first novel, but set earlier and published earlier. It's set in modern Tempe, Arizona (which I'm guessing is Hearne's home town, though his profile doesn't say), and features Atticus, a 2,000+ years old "Druid" and his wolfhound Oberon, with whom he shares a telepathic link. (That feature resembles the bond between spacefaring vet Hughes and his dog Victrix in a still unpublished story cycle by Andrew Seddon, which I beta read, though the latter link is the result of neuro-scientific experiments, while here it was no doubt forged by magic.) Atticus needs to keep a low profile, because he's seriously on the bad list of some very dangerous enemies, the Tuatha De' Danann of Celtic mythology (a race which I'd heard of before and which, from my limited reading on the subject, is one that's actually shrouded in a great deal of mystery --scholars don't agree on exactly who or what they were). But that doesn't keep him from crossing paths with the occasional Celtic god, gnome clan, or vicious kobold. :-)
My reading in the "urban fantasy" sub-genre has been confined to the work of Charles de Lint, but I'm interested in branching out; this series certainly seems promising (and I have the series-opening novel on my to-read shelf)! Atticus is an engaging protagonist, smart and wry-mouthed, not reckless but endowed with the same kind of curiosity that killed the proverbial cat, and with a sense of responsibility that trumps his caution and self-interest. Hearne creates a complex magic system that has its costs and limitations (rather than a deus ex machina device that does anything he wants it to), but the explanations of it held my interest and didn't feel like info-dumps. He's an able story-teller, and his actor's narrative voice is richly humorous --a couple of times, it had me laughing or chuckling out loud. The human-dog interactions are enjoyable (okay, Atticus claims not to be "human," but you know what I mean!), and while the story here isn't philosophically or spiritually deep, it's delightful entertainment. There's no sex here, and while there's some bad language (the few obscenities come from half-drunken characters who are meant to --and do-- come across as coarse and stupid) it isn't so extensive as to seriously mar the story or to appear unrealistic.
The only noticeable real flaw here is that Atticus' narrative and speaking voice comes across as too modern and colloquial to be what we'd expect from a character who's lived as long as he has, and whose English would obviously have been learned long before the 21st century. (Vampire narrator Valery's voice, in Krisi Keley's On the Soul series, provides a much more convincing example of how such a person might be expected to speak.) Similarly, where Seddon's Victrix thinks like we might expect a dog to think, Oberon's mental voice sounds more like that of a smart-mouthed human. And though this is the opposite of a flaw, Hearne obviously has a serious knowledge of Celtic mythology; there are points here which will resonate more with readers who share that kind of knowledge more than I do. (For tyros like myself, reading it with a good guide to Celtic myth at your elbow might be a useful idea.) One point I do know, though, is that Druids were simply the priestly intelligentsia of Celtic society; some may have claimed to shape-shift, as Atticus does, but they didn't live for thousands of years and were definitely human. So this might be a lapse in the accuracy of Hearne's use of his mythological background, though I'd like to see more of how he explains this in Hounded. Nonetheless, this is a really entertaining tale, and a great appetizer for the series; definitely recommended!(less)
The length of time it took me to read this fast-paced action novel is deceptive. I started reading it as a free e-book, having taken the author up on...moreThe length of time it took me to read this fast-paced action novel is deceptive. I started reading it as a free e-book, having taken the author up on an offer he made in one of my groups, and I read in that format only intermittently; it doesn't fit into my schedule well. Some time later, he generously offered me a signed paperback copy (with no request for a review!); and I was delighted to accept, since I already knew I wanted a hard copy! From that point on, it flew pretty quickly; the narrative drive and suspense kept me turning pages as fast as I could. It's easy to imagine many readers finishing it in a few days --less time if they're able to read it nonstop, and most would want to!
Brave, principled action-oriented heroines are an enormous draw for me in fiction, and Pia Sabel is one of the most outstanding characters of this type that I've ever encountered. Seeley's skill in bringing her to life is unquestionably the key to the novel's success; she's an intriguing, fully round character with a complex past that shapes her. (Not all of this past is revealed here --the author has stated elsewhere that he wanted to spread the revelations out over three books-- and what is revealed is exposed gradually, sometimes in a way that can create a bit of confusion; but stay with it.) Even as a young child, her life was impacted by violence; her (adoptive) father is an enormously wealthy business tycoon with a drive and determination that he's passed on to her; she's rich in her own right from stocks he settled on her, gifted with a tall, strong physique developed as an athlete, and highly trained as a boxer. She's not a superwoman, and not without her inner demons; she's also lacking in security and combat experience, despite growing up around security operatives, and she can be dangerously brash and impulsive; but she has believable strengths that counterbalance these weaknesses. (One is native smarts, which she's used to applying in competitive situations, and an ability to read people --though she doesn't always realize when she needs to let these skills kick in.) Above all, she's a caring, highly ethical person who genuinely wants to help others, whether it's with her money or with her fighting ability.
Around her, the author has created an edge-of-the-seat plot which opens with a man's head being blown off on the second page, and keeps up the pace until the end. As the Goodreads description notes, piracy and money laundering are the engines that drive the action (though Seeley thankfully doesn't dwell on the intricacies of the latter!), and it includes life and death jeopardies for our heroine, along with plenty of gunfighting and hand-to-hand combat on land and water. I'd characterize it primarily as action-adventure, but it has elements of the mystery genre too, with a criminal mastermind whose identity is hidden through much of the book, and will take some twists and turns to reveal. (I guessed one of Seeley's secrets early on, but not all of them.) Although Pia stands out, other characters are well-drawn also, and Seeley gives us two other strong female characters in action roles: Sabel Security's Major Jonelle Jackson, and Agent Tania (no last name given) both of whom I expect we'll see more of in later books. He develops the geographical settings --Geneva, Cameroon, Lyon, Vienna-- with an assurance and vividness that suggests that he's actually been to these places; and there's none of the awkwardness here in handling language that's so often associated with first-time, self-published novelists. He also knows soccer, and he knows about guns, high-tech communication equipment, etc. (Some of the terms, like "Bluetooth," were new to me, but that's not a flaw; most readers of this type of fiction are more familiar with this sort of technology, and I could either get the meanings from context or muddle through anyway.) IMO, most of the plot developments and motivations stand up well to examination. As an added plus, there's no sex; and though some of the characters sometimes do use profanity and obscenity (the phrase "swear like a trooper" has a basis in fact, and several Sabel Security people got their start in the military; Tania, who has the worst mouth, also grew up in inner-city Brooklyn, where we can surmise that clean language wasn't universally modeled), I could tell that the author used some restraint in this area. Of course, action adventure is going to be about violence, but Pia's no homicidal maniac; while she packs bullets as a last resort, her Glock, like other Sabel security firearms, is equipped to shoot quick-acting tranquilizer darts, and one of her first acts as head of the company is to require these to be used as a first resort in all cases. That's a feature which is unique in my reading experience, and I think it's pretty cool!
If I could give half stars, this would be a solid four and a half; I debated long and hard whether to round up or round down. What flaws did I find in the book? First, the descriptions of action scenes were often, for me, hard to follow visually; that is, from the language used, I couldn't always exactly picture the action in my mind without it seeming awkward (that may be because I haven't engaged in that sort of fighting, and don't have the experience to picture it with), or because I couldn't get the physical layout of the setting, as in the floor plan, etc. Second, a feature of Seeley's writing style here is that he suddenly drops bits of information that Pia or other characters have known before (but we haven't) into the mix at moments when they can be useful, in a way that sometimes makes them come across as confusing, or as a Deus ex machina, or both. It would have made the narrative smoother, IMO, to introduce these earlier, and I don't think it would have required info-dumps to do so. There's also a basic credibility problem; under the circumstances, I don't think Alan Sabel would realistically have sold her the control of his security firm, and I don't think it's realistic to imagine the top leadership of the firm being involved in field operations with nobody minding the store at headquarters. (Of course, the author's purpose demands that Pia be in the field; and the premises of action heroine fiction not infrequently do strain believability a bit.) But these weren't deal-breakers; and in the end the strength of Pia's character made me round up. She's a stellar action heroine for the 21st century, and I'm already a committed fan who wants to read every book she ever stars in! My recommendation doesn't carry the weight that genre author Zoe Sharp's does; but nevertheless, I'm proud to add my endorsement to hers. If you're an action-fiction fan, you need to make Pia's acquaintance ASAP, and I think you'll be glad you did!(less)
As the second volume of the Hunger Games trilogy, many of the comments I made in my review (www.goodreads.com/review/show/297275418 ) of the first boo...moreAs the second volume of the Hunger Games trilogy, many of the comments I made in my review (www.goodreads.com/review/show/297275418 ) of the first book apply to this one, too. That review should probably be read before this one; the series opener definitely should be read before this second installment. (Some series can be read out of order; this is NOT one of them.) If you haven't read the first book, this review and the above Goodreads description will obviously contain some spoilers.
One of my Goodreads friends thought it was completely unrealistic that the Panem government allowed both Katniss and Peeta to survive at the end of The Hunger Games. I don't, but it's important to be clear that the decision was a very grudging one, made only in the face of the credible threat that the couple's mutual suicide would mean the Games would have no winner, which would result in serious disaffection among the Capitol's own residents. (Disaffection in the Districts, of course, would mean nothing --although, as we find in this book, the Capitol may have underestimated what thoroughly desperate and disaffected people might do.) It was also, by necessity, a snap decision made without any reflection. But the evil President Snow and his regime aren't gracious losers, and they don't plan to let anybody get away with anything. So the stage is set for the tautly suspenseful intrigue in this volume.
The Goodreads description accurately portrays the premise as the book opens, a few months after the 74th Hunger Games. From the turning of the cover, Katniss and those close to her are walking a tightrope, and the tension mounts steadily --until both narrator and readers are back, against all custom and expectation, in the horror of the Arena, with its pulse-pounding fear and its gut-wrenching, lose-lose, kill-or-be-killed choices. For me, all the strengths of the first book are here as well; there's no second-book-in-the-trilogy slump, and this is no time-marking place-holder --the plot will be advanced in very significant, and often very surprising ways. Collins develops her fictional world a bit more (note to the author for the next edition: a map of Panem would be even more useful here than in the first book!), as well as her characters, new and old.
Katniss in particular (who's 16 at the end of the first book, and 17 by the end of this one) grows here, as a result of a few epiphanies that cause her to look at others, and her lot in life, in a more mature way. Some reviewers take quite a negative view of Katniss' character; one of my Goodreads friends found himself frequently not liking her, and characterized her as a "selfish, thick twit." We can freely concede, I think, that there are times when she does appear thick, if only because she views events from within a box of socially-conditioned pessimism; the reader, who's able to see outside that box, is apt to correctly interpret some events well before she does. But I can understand what shapes her pessimistic perspective. On the score of selfishness, though, I have to differ. This is a girl who's ready to sacrifice or risk life and limb to protect others that she cares about, who goes hungry in order to give food to strangers, who feels compassion for others at every turn and naturally thinks about their needs. (In all honesty, I wonder how consistently some of us older people would do the same as readily, in her situation!) Yes, her narrative voice unblinkingly describes the horror and ugliness of her situation, and the realities of life for everybody in her world. If that wasn't a constant backdrop, and usually at the forefront, of her consciousness, I submit that she'd be the most unrealistic and out-of-touch fictional character since Dr. Pangloss. For the most part, on the rare occasions when the horror of her circumstances overcomes her and she loses it for a time, I'd say she's entitled --and afterward, she bucks up and keeps on trucking. (view spoiler)[Yes, I do fault her, at the book's end, for not handling the situation better, even though I understand her resentment at being kept out of the loop and used, and her despairing grief for Peeta; she's got a temper, but that doesn't justify clawing Haymitch's eye and face, or shutting everybody out the way she did. But sometimes we all do unjustifiable things, because we're fallen humans, not angels in disguise. I don't think all fictional protagonists are obligated to always be angels in disguise all of the time. Real people sometimes learn and grow through their mistakes, and I'm hoping she will, too. (hide spoiler)]
Some critics of the series sneer at Katniss' complicated feelings for both Gale and Peeta as a juvenile, high-school style triangle, with the implication that any mature and responsible female would have experienced total clarity and honesty about her feelings from the get-go, with no complexity or ambiguity whatsoever; and that if one imagines a female falling short of that standard, her ditherings about the matter should be beneath the notice of a serious author. Well, that's one perspective. Personally, I think it's possible for a woman (not necessarily just for an immature girl or a "twit," but for any woman under certain circumstances) to have romantic feelings for two guys at once, and for her not to fully acknowledge or understand all of her own feelings. (No, I'm not a woman --but I am a guy, and I think the same range of possibilities exist for males' feelings, too.) And I think any honest and realistic depiction of the possibilities for human feelings is grist for serious literature, as long as it's not treated in a superficial or over-the-top way, which I don't think Collins does. I was originally motivated to read the series by a sort of challenge to compare/contrast Katniss and Bella in the Twilight Saga, and found some similarities as well as differences; to further provoke Twilight haters to gnash their teeth, I'd say this is one of the former. :-) (To continue the analogy, you could say I'm solidly rooting for "Team Peeta" --though I like and respect Gale, too.)
Finally, one of my Goodreads friends equates the regime in Panem with "socialism." To be sure, any oppressive system that concentrates all power in the State and represses and exploits the masses of people will have obvious similarities to the agenda of today's statist Left. But it will also have similarities to the agenda of the statist Right (another Goodreads friend used the word "fascism"). The basic fact of political life in the developed Western world today is that all of the establishment parties, whether they rig themselves out in "liberal" or "conservative" regalia and shibboleths, share the same Panem-style agenda of support for a Leviathan State run by and for the wealthy and powerful, and against the interests of the ordinary citizenry, who in their view exist to be their servants and doormats. Collins is wise, IMO, to call out that agenda, without identifying it with one or the other supposed "ends" of today's putative political "spectrum." (If she did, half of the potential audience would dismiss and disparage the book without a read --even though the social content of her message would be exactly the same as it is now, or exactly the same as it would be if she reversed the left-right identification.) She's sounded a warning that can and should be heeded by every reader, whether he/she self-identifies with the Right or the Left. That's something future critics, if democracy rises Phoenix-like from its present-day pyre, may yet recognize and praise!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Time travel! A smart, strong-inside heroine who learns to kick some butt! Secrets buried in long-lost documents! Medieval knights, and a castle in the...moreTime travel! A smart, strong-inside heroine who learns to kick some butt! Secrets buried in long-lost documents! Medieval knights, and a castle in the Highlands! Action! Danger! Romance (sort of)! What more could one want for a great read? Well --quite a bit, actually, as the merely three-star rating (rounded up from two and a half!) indicates. :-( At one point, I even flirted with a one-star rating, but I thought this one more fairly recognized the genuine positives. (And my wife --we read it together as our "car book"-- has stated that she'd give it four stars, if she were on Goodreads and rating it.)
The positives are real. First, the Goodreads plot summary is accurate, but it doesn't begin to suggest Grace's situation in much of the book. An intellectual, gentle, slightly overweight woman of about 30, who's never been exposed to violence or significant hardship, in the first chapter she witnesses the sudden, brutal murders of both her husband and her brother, who are her only family and the center of her world. Framed for their killings and forced to flee for her life, with no warning and nothing but the clothes on her back and her laptop, she's forced to learn to survive on the street, and off the grid. Driven by a determination to avenge her loved ones, take down the killer, and translate the documents that contain the mystery he's willing to kill for, and needing to stay alive to do that, over time she believably transforms into a street-smart woman who can take care of herself and fight if she has to. (I didn't put this on my action-heroines shelf, but she visits that territory.) She's a very well-drawn, admirable character that the reader readily likes and roots for. All of the other major characters are also vivid and well-developed, including a really hateful villain. The plot is nicely constructed, in the main; some aspects are broadly predictable, but it also included a couple of major surprises I did not see coming. Howard writes well, for the most part; there are a lot of finely-turned phrases, touches of wry humor that balance the serious tone, and effective construction of scenes and evocation of atmosphere. (One reviewer complains about the time devoted to her paralyzing terror, right after the trauma of the killings, over crossing a street to use an ATM machine, and to her problem in finding a place to relieve herself; but to me this was a way of showing the situation she started from, in all its extreme difficulty, and gets us right inside of her head in the midst of it, with no sugarcoating.)
For me, though, the negatives were significant. A major one is the treatment of the Templar angle. Since the 1950s (beginning with a now-discredited hoax which any number of pundits and writers still pass on as fact) a pop-culture mythology has grown up around the Templars as guardians of Deep Dark Secrets that supposedly discredit Christianity. The classical version is that Christ didn't die on the cross, but rather lived on to marry Mary Magdalene and sire the line that became the Meroviginian royal family of France. Howard leaves out the Mary Magdalene-Meroviginian scenario, but she creates her own wrinkles on the theme. Since my background gives me a strong grounding in both serious historical and biblical studies, it disgusts me no end that droves of people who can read choose to ignore the latter and swallow this kind of drivel as if it were a respect-worthy historical revelation (instead of crap on a par with what you might read in The National Inquirer!). It's not helped here by the fact that, even taking the book on its own terms, the Templars' interpretation of the physical evidence is so logically flawed and implausible as to be ludicrous; nor by Howard's waiting until the penultimate chapter to drop this load of manure on the reader. :-( (On the other hand, she does take the existence of God seriously, and has a relatively high Christology; and Grace, in the same chapter, offers an excellent simple explanation of theodicy in terms of free will. So while Christians will have problems with the book, it won't please die-hard religion-phobic readers either.)
Howard's writing background and credentials are rooted in the romance genre; and though the cover of this edition and the cover copy don't clearly identify this book as a romance, it does embody some of the gene conventions. (It's no spoiler that Grace and Black Niall will be a couple, since the description and cover copy tell us so.) One of these is explicit sex; of course, not all romances feature this, but this one does, to a considerable degree. (Not all the encounters are between Grace and Niall; and not all of them involve intercourse, but most do.) These scenes of course, can usually be skipped over (so if you want detailed evaluation of those parts, you're reading the wrong review!), except where crucial dialogue is embedded in them. But the problematic elements here go deeper; for a "romance" genre novelist, Howard can be singularly tone-deaf to what makes for real romance.
Grace and Niall, during the course of the book, experience a cross-time psychological connection (at first, just in dreams) that allows them, at times, to experience each other's voice and presence. This is never explained, and doesn't really come across as credible. But it focuses strictly on intense sexual attraction; there's very little if any element of getting to know each other as anything but sex objects. That continues when they meet in person. Given that Grace, at least, is portrayed as a person who takes sex seriously and has never been with any man but her husband, this comes across, as even she recognizes, as out of character. It isn't really plausible either, and rather than making the relationship come across as a "love for all time," as the cover copy bills it, it seems more like a heat period; I didn't feel any kind of personal emotional connection between hero and heroine for most of the book. And while I respect Grace for her past scruples, the juxtaposition with Niall's background of womanizing, and the unspoken implication that this somehow verifies his virility and desirability as a partner, tends, IMO, to reinforce a really unhealthy double standard for males and females.
A couple more quibbles are worth mentioning. Howard has done some historical research, shown by the array of apparently accurate factoids she can muster here and there. But it's apparent that her research consisted of mining for factual snippets in areas where she realizes that she's ignorant; she does not have a general warp-and-woof knowledge of the medieval world, and that allows her to make a few noticeable (to me, at least) errors. I was also frustrated with Grace for (view spoiler)[not taking Niall into her confidence immediately when she went back in time (hide spoiler)]. On balance, I did like the book; but it wasn't the four or five-star read it could have been with different handling.
Note: While this is clearly speculative fiction, I had some difficulty deciding whether to classify it as supernatural or science fiction. In the end, I opted for the former; but a case could be made for the latter.
Quick added note: When I typed the review last night, it was late and I was in a hurry (I'd twice been run off the computer earlier that evening by a thunderstorm), so I forgot to mention the bad language factor. There is some of this, including a number of f-words, which come mostly from the villain(s); but even the good characters cuss some. (Harmony has the saltiest speaking style of these, realistically for her background.) There were enough extenuating factors that this wasn't a big issue for me, but readers with even less tolerance for this kind of thing will want to be warned.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)