Murder by Other Means is the second novella in John Scalzi’s The Dispatcher series and I wanted to like it more, but this is one of those cases where comparisons to the first book will be inevitable. Long story short, those are some mega huge shoes to fill, and while this sequel certainly wasn’t bad, it also didn’t quite meet those high expectations either.
Before I get into the meat of the review, I think a crash course on the world of The Dispatcher is in order. Basically, the entire premise of the series revolves around a strange phenomenon that suddenly became reality for everyone on the planet, forever changing the way they think about death. For you see, it has now become nearly impossible to kill anyone. Oh, death still occurs, if it happened to be natural or by accident or suicide. But for some reason, if you were murdered, i.e., your life was deliberately taken by someone else, there was actually a really good chance you’d come back to life—999 out of 1000 times, to be precise. In those cases, the victim’s body would disappear and they would be “reborn” naked, as safe and as whole as the day they were “killed”, right back in their homes. No one knows why it works this way, or how it happens. Everyone has sort of just accepted it, just like how you, as the reader, are expected to accept it and don’t ask too many questions.
But then, you might ask, what happens to the 1 in 1000 that are murdered? Don’t they come back? Nope, those are the unlucky chumps that drew the short straw, and they stay killed—dead. But for a lot of people, that’s a chance they’re willing to take—like those who are ill and are undergoing a risky medical procedure, for instance. Something goes wrong? No problem, get someone to murder them, and BAM, get a do-over.
Needless to say, a system like this is rife for abuse, leading to the government to create a whole new role, and that’s where our protagonist Tony Valdez comes in. He is a Dispatcher, an officially licensed killer. The rules surrounding his profession ensures that those utilizing his services do so safely, lawfully, and humanely. But of course, not all Dispatchers stick to “authorized” jobs, many of them taking contracts from private clients ranging from unscrupulous businessmen to wealthy thrill-seekers since that’s where all the big money is. Tony has always tried to stay above board, but now that times are tough, he’s willing to bend the rules a little, depending on the circumstances. And anyway, this latest job he’s been hired for by a private law firm isn’t the worst he’s had to do, as far as shady deals go. But then, when people connected to the firm and those who have been in contact with him start dying under mysterious circumstances, Tony can’t help to wonder if he’s made a big mistake.
The driving force behind this series is an interesting and wildly imaginative concept, of a caliber I would have attributed to an author like Brandon Sanderson if the details surrounding it hadn’t been so macabre. The reality is, though, you do lose a lot of the novelty after the first book, so for this sequel I’d hoped for Scalzi to build upon what’s already there to keep things fresh. Let’s face it, there’s plenty he could have done, limitless possibilities he could explore, given how I’m sure we all have questions. I’ve already suspended my disbelief far enough to go along with anything he might throw my way, but instead, he decided to play it circumspect and go with a rather unremarkable mystery plot.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good mystery. This also being a novella though, there just wasn’t much in the way of development, surprises, or any interesting twists and turns. That said, as long as you don’t mind a more simplistic noir story, Murder by Other Means will still provide a satisfying amount light, easy entertainment. The plot might be undemanding, not requiring the reader to be on alert for any false leads or clues, but that isn’t to say the book was dull. You’ll still get plenty of Scalzi’s brand of humor, as well as the occasional glimpse into the wild and crazy things that people in this world will get up to now that murder is almost impossible. So, even though you’re pretty much led by the nose, at least you’ll have fun.
Ultimately, I’m glad there was a sequel to The Dispatcher. If future books are in the cards though, my hope is that we would get a fresher angle to explore the series concept, or a more original story at the very least. Still, Murder by Other Means made for a fine diversion, and I appreciate the ideas in it for being far more introspective and unique than some of the contrived stuff John Scalzi has been putting out in recent years. There’s a lot of potential here, and I would love to see that developed to its fullest....more
Deep beneath the sea, the last surviving nuclear submarine Leviathan carries a crew made up of a fundamentalist order of monks who believe they hold the power to bringing about the Second Coming, to be unleashed when the time is right. Set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future, We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep follows Remy, our protagonist who was rescued from the surface and raised to be a Cantor, singing the Hours in a choir of young boys.
But Remy has a secret. He is in fact a she, the only girl on board—a truth known only to the “Caplain” of the Leviathan. Because of this, he bestows upon Remy the missile launch key before he dies, trusting her judgment to keep it safe and make the right call when the time comes. As a new Caplain comes into power with his own ideas and unbending view of how to run the ship, Remy finds it increasingly difficult to keep all she knows concealed, especially when a close friend of hers returns from a surface raid describing the disturbing things he witnessed. Moreover, a prisoner from above is also brought on board, revealing to Remy even more truths about the outside world and further altering her frame of mind.
You know how some books, no matter how hard you try, might just not be for you? This was my experience with We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep. I even restarted it multiple times, as each time I had stalled not long after I began. At first, I blamed the various distractions in my life from pulling me away from it, but eventually, I had to face the truth. I was just not gelling with this book. Everything about this story from its concept to the atmosphere should have pulled me in, and that’s how I’d wanted it to be, but it didn’t happen. My attention would consistently wander while trying to read, and I was always struggling to immerse myself.
Part of the problem is the writing style. It’s not the easiest to get into, and this being a novella, its short length meant I never really got a chance to get used to it. That said, I want to make it clear the technical aspects of the writing were mostly great, even too crisp and rigid in some places. Some might describe the prose as lyrical, but for me it felt clunky and lacking in personality, resulting in certain action sequences and emotionally charged scenes feeling too sterile.
There’s also not much of a plot, yet somehow it still felt like there wasn’t enough story to fill the relatively small number of pages. World-building was on the sparser side as well, and most of the time I felt disconnected to Remy and had a hard time getting into her headspace to understand what made her click. The singing was an intriguing element, I’ll admit, but like so many other aspects of the world, it felt untethered from the rest of Remy’s reality. Even if it had been the author’s intent, I still think this idea should have been better conveyed, not to mention the ending left things off feeling slightly unfinished.
Credit where credit’s due though, one area I thought the book excelled was its atmosphere. It’s claustrophobic and oppressive, and given how most of the story takes place in the ocean’s depths within the guts of a nuclear submarine with a fanatical doomsday cult onboard, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
But at the end of the day, it’s a shame to come to a book and not feel adequately prepared or in the right mood to enjoy it, and although I tried my best, ultimately this might just be a case of not the right book for me. Still, there are clearly good qualities, and judging from the loads of positive reviews from other readers who loved the book, it’s probably worth checking out if the premise speaks to you....more
Lately, I have become much more circumspect about the YA books I pick up, especially debuts. However, there were several things going for A Dark and Hollow Star which made me decide to throw caution to the wind and just go for it.
But first, this book is an urban fantasy style story about the Fae. For hundreds of years, they have lived among humans in secret, using their powerful magics to successfully shield and hide themselves even in a bustling, built-up metropolitan city like Toronto, where the Unseelie have actually established their Court. Unfortunately, that fine balance is now in jeopardy, threatened by a series of ritualistic killings pointing to a possible serial killer on the loose—one who is specifically targeting Ironborn, the half-fae.
An Ironborn herself, Arlo Jarsdel has cause to worry. Even though she is descended from the royal fae bloodline through her mother, her father is a mortal, and her human heritage means she has yet to manifest any magical powers with which to defend herself. Caught between the two worlds, Arlo doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere, and for the longest time, her only close friend was her cousin. However, that was before she meets Nausicaä, a mysterious Fury who had been exiled to earth for an unforgivable crime. But in truth, Nausicaä is on a mission of revenge, hunting the real culprit, and after the Fury saves her life, Arlo agrees to help her in her quest.
Meanwhile, out in the Nevada desert where the fae of the Seelie Court dwell, Prince Vehan is determined to prove his worthiness for the crown he must one day wear. He and his guardian Aurelian Bessel have caught wind of the Ironborn killings and believe that they are part of larger plot to further destabilize the peace between the fae and mortal realms. Together, Arlo, Nausicaä, Vehan and Aurelian must prevent the coming war from tearing their worlds apart.
As always, I’ll begin with the positives, and undoubtedly one of the strongest aspects of A Dark and Hollow Star is the world-building. While faeries in urban fantasy stories are nothing new, the sheer number of factions and characters involved in this book ensured a steady flow of interesting court dynamics and intrigue. It’s also clear that the magical systems and rules for Fae powers were inspired by certain gaming mechanics, particularly tabletop and roleplaying games, which are close my heart.
And speaking of topics that are near and dear to me, it thrilled me how so much of this novel took place in Toronto and read like a love letter to my hometown. The author made the setting come to life with her rich descriptions of the diverse neighborhoods and cultures of the city, displaying a natural talent for creating a breathing, pulsing milieu.
Now, as for what I thought could have been better, the characters immediately come to mind. Like so many new authors, I think Ashley Shuttleworth mistakenly believes that having good diversity equates to having good character development. The queer and transgender rep notwithstanding, I found these characters rather bland. When it comes to their personalities, they’re virtually indistinguishable from of sea of other angsty brooding YA protagonists that are riddled with clichés, not to mention they’re your typical boilerplate depictions of the Fae.
Then there’s the plot, which was full of bloat. Clocking in at more than five hundred pages, this book is significantly longer than your average YA novel and urban fantasy, and no wonder, given the amount of unnecessary repetition and overly elaborate description. The ham-fisted infodumps and other problems that stemmed from this resulted in unstable pacing, which also affected my enjoyment.
All in all, A Dark and Hollow Star was a mixed bag, with as many flaws as there are strengths. On the whole, overused character tropes and genre clichés made this one a run-of-the-mill YA fantasy, though to its credit, the book did get a lot of important things done right and will no doubt appeal to readers who are specifically looking for those aspects which it has to offer....more
The Rivers of London series has been graced with many incredible supporting characters, but none have been as compelling as Abigail Kamara, Peter Grant’s feisty teenage cousin who has been making a name for herself as a young practitioner-in-training and doing some of her own detective work on the side. So you can imagine how excited I was when I found out she was getting her own story in What Abigail Did That Summer, a novella set concurrently to the fifth book in the main series, Foxglove Summer, in which Peter finds himself in Herefordshire investigating the disappearance of some local kids and getting himself entangled in whacky unicorn magic. Meanwhile though, Abigail was back in London, working on a different sort of missing children case…
It is the summer of 2013 and school has just been let out, leaving Abigail with too much time and freedom on her hands. As it happens, an old friend of hers named Natali had suddenly reappeared in her life with an invitation to a “happening”, but when it came time to meet, the other girl is nowhere to be found. Instead, while waiting in the park, she chances upon a boy around her age named Simon, who had come to the same place because he too had been invited by a girl named Jessica, also a no-show. Before long, both Natali and Jessica are appearing on missing posters and the police are asking Abigail and Simon some uncomfortable questions. Though the girls eventually turned up safe and sound and the police investigation was dropped, Abigail senses magical involvement and isn’t content to put it all behind her just yet.
In the meantime, she and Simon have struck up a comfortable friendship, and when he decides to tag along on some of her reconnaissance work, she could hardly say no. Of course, that meant having to introduce him to her other helpers, a troop of clever talking foxes who have come to take a keen interest in our protagonist and her activities.
While What Abigail Did That Summer is technically a novella, it is a hefty one at more than two hundred pages, allowing for plenty of character and story development. As such, while I typically shy away from short fiction, this one was long enough to satisfy my addiction to the Rivers of London books, even though Peter Grant is not in it at all. Still, that’s a good thing—this is Abigail’s story and hers alone, and I loved that we got to be in her head the entire time, experiencing her life, seeing her world through her eyes. In fact, there is hardly any influence from anyone from the main series at all, save for Thomas Nightingale, and that’s only for a few scenes at the end, as well as fleeting comments from the Folly archivist in the form of footnotes explaining some of Abigail’s more slangish vernacular.
But for all that it takes us away from what we’re used to, there’s a lot here that also feels familiar, leaving no doubt this is part of the Rivers of London universe and under the scope of the Folly. It’s true however that we see things through a “younger” lens, Abigail’s POV being limited to what she knows, the people and places she can access. While important side characters are mainly limited to other teens and foxes, I wouldn’t really classify this as strictly YA either, as I imagine it has tons of crossover appeal. We get to learn a lot more about Abigail’s home life, which isn’t exactly hunky-dory, but simply knowing what goes on behind the scenes makes her feel more real to us, defining her character as more than just “Peter’s cousin.” I also adored the talking foxes, especially Indigo, and I’m glad they played such a significant role in the story.
I don’t have any major criticisms, but thought I’d mention this because I found I experienced something similar with The October Man, another Rivers of London novella written from the POV of someone other than Peter, yet whose voice still sounds a lot like Peter. All of Ben Aaronovitch’s protagonists just seem to sound the same to me. To be fair, Abigail’s voice left no doubt we were following a teenage girl, but many of her descriptive patterns and her overall narrative style fit Peter’s to a tee. The author probably isn’t used to writing from another, non-Peter Grant character’s perspective, and it definitely shows.
Still, overall, What Abigail Did That Summer was an entertaining novella, and I had a blast. I’m also intrigued with the way it ended, leaving things wide open for possibly more adventures starring Abigail and her foxy friends. Hopefully, Aaronovitch will explore this avenue, because as much as I enjoy the Rivers of London novels, I’m also having a lot of fun with these “side jaunts” with other characters. They certainly add a bit of fascination and variety to the world of the Folly, and if you’re a fan of the main series, you’ll not want to miss this....more