Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer


September 2014
Recommended for fans of jeanette winterson, environmental exploration, the New Wierd
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

So is it with Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. Summaries do not do this book justice. Its story colonized me. It was not an invasion; it did not attack my brain, insistent that I continue reading. I was not forced by fear to discover if the hero lives. My limbic system did not spike me with adrenaline until I finished. Instead, slowly, phrase by phrase, the story moved into my head. Area X edged into my imagination. The biologist’s words whispered to me. Leafy tendrils unfurled around me, gently scenting the air with greenness.

The basic plot: a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist are the twelfth team sent to explore the mysterious, primitive, Area X. Other expeditions have all gone drastically wrong, but due to an inability of technology to function in Area X, no one knows exactly how or why. In order to maintain control over the trip and the experience, the team is stripped of their personal identity, leaving only their roles to define themselves.

The biologist narrates their experience in Area X, providing a touchpoint for the reader’s conception of the world Vandermeer is working in. I found the combination of the uncertainty of the background world, the mystery of Area X and the beauty and specificity of the writing irresistible.

I thought again of the silhouette of the lighthouse, as I had seen it during the late afternoon of our first day at base camp. We assumed that the structure in question was a lighthouse because the map showed a lighthouse at that location and because everyone immediately recognized what a lighthouse should look like. In fact, the surveyor and anthropologist had both expressed a kind of relief when they had seen the lighthouse. Its appearance on both the map and in reality reassured them, anchored them. Being familiar with its function further reassured them.

In fact, it functioned as a lighthouse for them, adrift in Area X and from each other. The biologist is a solitary woman, and her self-containment makes a profound statement. Of course, they all are particularly isolated–there is a strange lack of emotional connection between them–but the biologist’s fascination with the creation around her sets her apart.

The tension lifted somewhat, and we even joked a little bit at dinner. ‘I wish I knew what you were thinking,’ the anthropologist confessed to me, and I replied, ‘No, you don’t,’ which was met with a laughter that surprised me. I didn’t want their voices in my head, their ideas of me, nor their own stories or problems. Why would they want mine?

I finally realized the deep sense of familiarity I had reading: Jeanette Winterson’s profound, substantive writing style (Lighthousekeeping) collaborating with David Quammen’s enthusiasm for biology (I really need to bump him up on the to-re-read list). Together Vandermeer has created a sophisticated blend of science fiction, vaguely ominous, reminiscent of Sherri Tepper mid-career. Identity, connection and environment are all major themes threading through Annihilation,  themes that are often shared with the writers mentioned.

For some, the pitch-perfect writing won’t be enough to sustain them through slow plot build and even slower resolution. Like The Night Circus (review), this isn’t a plot-driven story as much as one based on both character and ideas, with writing that is truly well-crafted. It worked for me, yet I’m also left with the feeling that I might just want/need to read it again after finishing the final book, Acceptance. It’s that kind of story.


Michael Matheson has a nice literary review/critique at ChiZine.


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Death Without Company

Death Without Company

September 2014
Recommended for fans of character driven mysteries, dry humor, the West
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

Walt Longmire is sheriff of the least populated county in one of the least populated states, or so he likes to remind us. The population is so small, in fact, he has Deputy Vic hunting up talis jurors (bystander) at the grocery store before a blizzard is due. He’s about to head home when he gets a call from Lucian, prior sheriff and now terror of the Durant Home for Assisted Living. A resident has died and Lucian wants the room sealed  and an autopsy on the deceased. When Walt questions why,  Lucian has a response:

He looked old just then; small, old, and tired, as I had never seen him before. His eyes returned to the dead lights of the tree. ‘She was my wife.’

Walt is shocked, but despite his doubts as to the likelihood of a murder, he does some investigating. The deceased woman, Mari Baroja, controlled lucrative mineral rights on a large piece of land, and the heirs are circling with lawyers in tow. Walt has his hands full; he’s still mourning the end of an almost-relationship, a blizzard looks to be settling in, the department needs a replacement deputy, and his daughter is on her way back to Wyoming from Philly. Dealing with Lucian and hiring new blood brings back memories of when Walt himself applied and first met Lucian.

Understated, subtle humor weaves through the book, particularly in Walt’s inner thoughts. Humor of the confrontational sort is gleefully provided by Deputy Vic. Walt’s humor, however, never overpowers to the mood or situation:

I walked between the two people at the desk and loomed over Janine, whom I had a special fondness for whenever I remembered that she is Ruby’s granddaughter.

He finished his coffee and dropped the cup into the biohazard container with the gloves. I agreed with his diagnosis and tossed mine in too

…knowing that he and XX were in cahoots, cahoots being a legal term in Wyoming, see cahooting in the first degree, intent to cahoot, and so on.

I enjoyed the plotting, which was complex enough that the ending had a surprising twist. A nice variety of people are introduced that give flavor to the small town. Many had very little to do with the case, appreciated in a mystery, when all too often each character has a concrete plot-related role. Santiago Saizarbitoria is a prospective deputy who seems almost too good to be true with his polite demeanor and a surprising facility with languages. I found myself enjoying witnessing Walt, Ruby and Vic adjust to the newcomer. Despite twenty-five years as a deputy, Walt discovers there is still more to learn about the people in his life:

I looked up at the large map of the county that was illuminated by the flat, winter sun and wondered where the hell I was. The place on the wall wasn’t where I happened to be as of late; I was in a strange new place, a place where the people I had safely put on shelves were wandering around getting into messy things.

What draws me to the series is the writing. Issues of race and ethnicity are woven into the story in a matter-of-fact way, an appreciated and realistic nod to diversity. Johnson is very good at being evocative, describing people and scenes without distracting, ostentatious prose. The tone is perfectly in keeping with the character of collegiate sheriff whose values are rooted in the simple life:

Passion is a strange thing, a thing that warps and twists everything with which it comes in contact. It was like the combination of moisture and sunshine on wood; sometimes it turned out all right, most of the times it didn’t, but you couldn’t ignore its strength.

If I have any complaint, it is the first person flashback that is used for Mari, a flashback that comes through Lucian’s storytelling, not through any other experience.  Awkward and overly explicit for the situation, it also involves one of my least favorite justification crutches, likely the biggest reason for my half-star decrease.

Nonetheless, Death Without Company remains well worth reading; a library summons prevented me from the re-read I would have liked. I highly recommend it to fans of Nevada Barr and Colin Cotterill, as well as anyone who wants an enjoyable mystery.

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Harbinger of the Storm by Aliette de Bodard

Harbinger of the Storm

September 2014
Recommended for fans of Martha Wells, inventive fantasy, otherworldly detection
 ★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

I loved researching and writing ethnographies in anthropology class; the idea of describing cultural norms in the hopes of understanding as well as to speculating on their function in society. A study of a culture’s biology, if you will.  Aliette de Bodard’s series Obsidian and Blood (Bodard’s site) reminds me of an ethnography, but instead of the dry, pseudo-scientific tone discussing a culture in general, Bodard gives us the personal perspective of Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, as he seeks to protect his country from the fallout of a leader’s death. It’s the best kind of cultural story-telling, immersing me in a time and I place I can barely imagine and yet offering non-judgemental insight on ways of thinking and ancient lives.

Map of Tenochtitlan

It begins as the Mexica (Aztec) Empire is undergoing a period of political change. The Speaker, the leader of the Empire, is the link between the Hummingbird God and the people of the Empire. But the Speaker is at the end of his life and his death will break that bond, allowing the star demons and other malevolent gods to intrude into the Empire. The Empire’s only hope is to quickly choose and invest another Speaker, but unfortunately, Council politics stand and power games in the way of a quick decision. When a low-ranking member of the Council is brutally murdered, Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, knows that this is only the first of many deaths to come.

Characterization is fabulous, with complicated dynamics between characters impacted by character growth. Teomitl, brother to one of the candidates for Speaker, has been Acatl’s apprentice for some time now, and it might be time for Acatl to let him find his own path. There are a variety of adversaries, each providing a different kind of dynamic. There are the star demons and various gods who would like to see the Empire end so that they can take power in their own hands. Then there are the Council members, who may want the good of the Empire–if they get power in it. Their faith in the relationship to the gods may be tenuous at best, so they aren’t as motivated as Acatl to protect the people from the star demons. As Acatl meets each member, the reader gets a sense of a wide variety of motivations in the Council.

Plotting was enjoyable. I found it adequately complex, nicely balancing the spiritual with the corporeal. I tend to get annoyed by dream-walk type segments and appreciated how Bodard balanced the spiritual experience of traveling to the spirit worlds with that of the Fifth World (the one the Aztecs live in). It was one of the most interesting aspects to the writing, the complexity of the situation facing Acatl and his constraints both physical and spiritual.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this series is that by the end, I’m not entirely sure about the supernatural aspects. Apparently, there was a major eclipse about the time this story was set. I don’t doubt that the members of the real Empire believed in the gods and demons to greater or lesser extent, just as they did in the book. But I find myself wondering if the experiences with the gods in the story were ‘real’ or just their interpretation of phenomena, along with dream states/visions. In the end, I don’t know that it matters, but it says a great deal that one can walk away from a ‘fantasy’ book with that sense of possibility. In this way, Bodard did come close to an ethnography, helping the reader understand and interpret the experience the way a member of the culture does.

And, without looking back, I set out towards the top of the hill–unprotected and unwarded, alone with a wounded man and a coward–knowing the each moment that passed brought me closer to unconsciousness.

I could have spared a prayer, had I believed any gods but the Southern Hummingbird were listening.”

I enjoyed this one even more than the first. Perhaps it is because I’m a little more comfortable in Bodar’s Mexica past. I’m not even sure what one would name this strange mix of historical, mystery, and fantastical. I just know that it’s a very satisfying read; if you are looking for a different take on a fantasy mystery, the Obsidian and Blood series is a great place to begin.

Drawing of Tenochtitlan, from U.Minnesota-Duluth

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The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson. Yum.

The Cold DishPreview Changes

Read September 2014
Recommended for fans of weatherbeaten sheriffs, dry humor and great characters
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

I knew in the first four pages that I was going to enjoy this book.

It begins with Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, sitting in his office, watching the geese fly south. Ruby, dispatcher/receptionist, interrupts his musings to tell him he has a call from Bob Barnes,  who wants to report a dead body he discovered when he and his son went to collect their sheep.
She leaned against the doorjamb and went to shorthand, ‘Bob Barnes, dead body, line one.’
I looked at the blinking red light on my desk and wondered vaguely if there was a way I could get out of this.
‘Did he sound drunk?’
‘I am not aware that I’ve ever heard him sound sober….

‘Hey Bob. What’s up?’
‘Hey, Walt. You ain’t gonna believe this shit…’ He didn’t sound particularly drunk, but Bob’s a professional, so you never can tell.

He takes the report from Bob, verifies the information on the phone with Billy, Bob’s equally drunk son, and just as he’s about to hang up,

“‘Yes sir… Hey, Shuuriff?’ I waited. ‘Dad says for you to bring beer, we’re almost out.’

Walt tells Ruby “that if anybody else called about dead bodies, we had already filled the quota for a Friday and they should call back next week,” and heads to his car. He swings by the drive-through liquor store, and on his way out of town, passes by one of his deputies who is seriously irritated with traffic detail and delegates the job to her instead.

This is no ordinary sheriff, and this is no ordinary gunslinger book. Sheriff Walt has lived a hard fifty years, most of it in the immediate area, unless you count college in California and those years in Vietnam. His best friend is another Vietnam vet, a local Cheyenne Indian, Henry Standing Bear. Walt’s voice is dry, humorous, self-depreciating, and more than a little depressed.  He’s also more than a little obsessed with the rape of a Cheyenne girl, a case that has been bothering him for the last three years. Unlike the typical detective haunted by an unsolved case, Walt caught the guilty parties, but justice wasn’t handed out for a variety of social and political reasons. When the body Bob finds turns out to be one of the lead defendants, Walt suspects someone is out for revenge, possibly even Henry.

Like many mystery investigators, Walt is emotionally wounded, carrying grief from his wife’s death three years earlier.  Henry has had enough and believes its time to encourage–or kick–Walt out of his rut, and Walt finds personal motivation when a beautiful local woman, Vonnie, flirts with him. As much as it is a story about a murder, it is also a story about Walt and his friendship with Henry, as well as small town dynamics and the complex relationships that hold people together.

The characters feel human, and even brief appearances feel nicely developed. I enjoyed the acidic, opinionated Ruby, Walt’s two deputies, Vic and Turk, each going through their own challenges. The idiotic over-confident twins were enough to make Walt and me long to shoot them. The lingering sadness of the Cheyenne girl’s father, Lonnie, and his admittance of human frailty along with his laughable speech patterns made him one of the more moving characters. The prior sheriff, Lucian, comes out of retirement from assisted living to give Walt a hand, and while he adds some politically incorrect spice, he’s somewhat redeemed through his honesty and honor. I also appreciate that women appear in many different roles in this book, as friends, fellow professionals, love interests. It’s a nice change from the mysteries where women show up only as victim/love interest.

There’s nice moments of humor threaded through this book. Most of it comes from Walt’s dry law enforcement humor, the kind that is meant to keep the devils at bay more than mock others. He reflects at the death scene, where the dead body has been lying, examined and nibbled by a flock of sheep,

Yea, verily, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will live forever. If I don’t, I sure as hell won’t become an unattended death in the state of Wyoming with sheep shit all over me.”  

 Then there’s Al, providing some much-needed comic relief for the reader–and for Walt–at a particularly tense moment:

“There was a halfhearted attempt at a Tiki theme with native paintings of naked women and carved wooden sculptures as decoration. The most amazing stacks of magazines and catalogs towered against the walls; National Geographic and American Rifleman made up the visible majority. It was like being in the dead letter office on Fiji.”

Writing is pleasantly sophisticated for the genre, and nice mix of dialogue and description. While Walt and Henry may make Lone Range references, they also reference Steinbeck, Shakespeare and even throw in a little French. For those who enjoy it, there’s also a fair bit of local history mixed in, particularly relating to General Custer and the Sharps gun. Most of the violence occurs off-scene, and is not particularly gory. Thriller elements come late in the story. There’s some semi-mystical elements that I found interesting, creating a strange parallel to my most recent read, Harbinger of the Storm, about a priest and his search for killers, both corporeal and supernatural. It cemented my feeling that this case was about Walt more than Melisaa; his need for resolution, his need to move on; his need for trustworthy friends. The spiritualism added moments of moving imagery to an already emotionally complex book.

  I’m looking forward to checking out the next book and seeing where Walt is headed.

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‘Til the World Ends by Julie Kagawa, Ann Aguirre and Karen Duvall. Or sooner. Hopefully.

'Til World Ends

Read September 2014
Recommended for fans of the authors
 ★    ★   

On Labor Day Weekend, Half-Price Books 20% off sale was completely irresistible. Really.

I couldn’t.

So I headed over and found a few books I knew were delightful and one I thought may be interesting:


Just guess which one was the dud.


Here, let me help you:
Death of the Necromancer review:…
The Shadowed Sun review:…
Review for Retribution Falls:…

But I’m a fan of the apocalypse genre, and I’ve heard both Aguirre and Kagawa’s names for quite a while. And, I often enjoy short stories/novellas. And, sale!, right?


Dawn of Eden, by Julie Kagawa: A woman running one of the last open clinics for victims of the Red Lung disease takes in two strangers, one of which has the disease. Unfortunately, his disease has mutated, spreading like wildfire among the already dead. The handsome living stranger, Ben, soon convinces Kylie they need to abandon the clinic and head to his estranged childhood home at a ranch in Illinois.

Overall, I was disappointed in the writing. Language was acceptable, if slightly slightly flat. Plotting was completely predictable, with eye-rolling character decision-making. A vaguely interesting disease premise/world-building was severely hampered by super-tropey characters that may indeed be deemed Too Stupid To Live. Alas, they do: apparently it is a prequel to one of her more popular series.

Thistle & Thorne by Ann Aguirre: A woman in the slums has a job forced upon her by the local gang-leader. Although it is a set-up, she becomes the excuse for a brutal campaign.
This was the standout in the collection. Just enough bones of some interesting world-building, decent plotting, and somewhat standard characters that actually have some depth to them. Slight beginnings of a romance that did not in any way interfere with problem resolution.

Sun Storm by Karen Duvall: yet another woman working at a hospital (sigh) in exchange for her demented father’s care. She’s a Deviant, a person who has been exposed to the devastating sun-showers and lived, developing a super-power. She meets Ian outside the hospital, and he tags along as she goes on a run to warn a nearby town of an incoming storm.

A meh, although it might appeal to fans of superheros and Rachael Cline’s weather-related UF. Characterization is an inconsistent mess. Interesting world-building. Amazingly bad dialogue.

Truly, I’d advise a pass, unless you are a fan of any of the authors. It did convince me that Aguirre will likely be worth checking out further, while Kagawa won’t.

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A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

A Local Habitation
Originally read 2011
Recommended for fans of McGuire, folktale characters
 ★    ★    1/2 

The second installment of the urban fantasy October Daye series, A Local Habitation was initially an improvement on Rosemary and Rue, especially due to the integration of unusual beings from folklore–the Bannick cleaning scene was a fun interpretation of cleaning fairies, and the hippocampi fish tank was clever. (Aside-I would dearly love a little Spike of my own). The opening scene with an inebriated October escorting her almost equally inebriated friends to the train was fun, and dialogue with Tybalt well-written–a little bit flirty, but without all those smoldering glances and peering through eyelashes that show up in less well-written UF. I liked the Luidaeg, even if her and October’s dialogue did start to remind me of Wesley and the Dread Pirate Roberts. The demonstration of October’s skills and the nighthaunt background was very interesting, and well done, with that eerie touch of folklore menace (fae are not nice, after all). Certainly, McGuire has a gift for character creation and dialogue.

October spends a lot of time running around a maze-like converted warehouse with people dying around her–after awhile, I started to wonder if I was reading a Scream script, since it lacked the horror of a truly suspenseful setting. There’s a brief acknowledgement of this when she orders everyone to stay in groups of two for “safety,” but then promptly lets some of them run off or go do some crucial job by themselves. [ Needless to say, they died, except for the killer. (hide spoiler)] The teen mock-horror flick connection comes particularly clear when the entrance gates fall on her car as they are returning, presumably preventing her from ever leaving the estate again.

However, plotting and mystery building remain terribly weak; it wasn’t surprising who the villain was, and one of the ‘twists’ was only a surprise to October. I don’t mind figuring it out as much as I mind watching her flail her way through an investigation acting like a victim. Hercule Poirot I’m not, so if I can figure it out, there isn’t any reason why the main character shouldn’t. Really–my eyebrows go up any time someone in a modern setting claims they “won’t get a cell phone”–clearly some plotting device will pivot on being unable to connect at a crucial moment. Yes, I understand that October is a technophobe. But if she doesn’t rely on modern gadgets for investigative assistance, than she should be a lot better at using her own people investigating skills. Dead giveaways hidden below page break.

Most disappointing is when the story started to break down about halfway through the book. I realized that McGuire most often is uses a modern American female voice to embody October’s inner narrative, and suddenly the premise of her as changeling falls apart. When heading back into the investigation, October suddenly digresses to medieval knight imagery and ‘how there aren’t heroes anymore.’ She carries on this line of thinking for about a chapter, at one point bemoaning a “shortage of problems that straightforward” like giants or witches. But hero mythology is from the non-fae perspective on faerie, so it’s disappointing to hear such mundane human observations when October usually is intent on telling the reader how it is in fae. (She really should have mocked heroes as gold-seeking musicians looking for a sugar mama).

Overall, McGuire seems to be an idea genius, but suffers from plotting and a slightly dumb heroine. I read slowly and thoroughly in the beginning, enjoying the set-up and the characters. Half-way through, I started to skim because, well, frankly, I could without losing sense of the story, and I have limited tolerance for the “lost with a killer after us” plot. Re-reading at slower speed actually highlighted narrative problems I had glossed over.

Ah well. I’ll check out the next from the library to see if they improve.

Fun line: “The technology that was in its infancy when I had left had grown into a spoiled teenager by the time I returned, complicating everyone’s lives and making a nuisance of itself down at the mall.

Continue reading

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Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone. Or, full of fabulous.

Full Fathom Five

The last read of August 2014
Recommended for fans of Martha Wells, inventive fantasy
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

–Ariel’s Song, from  The Tempest, Shakespeare

Deep breath: a dive into the water, immersed in something alien, and yet familiar.  This is the best I can summarize Full Fathom Five, an inventive fantasy that had me riveted, fighting the need to finish the story so that I could just stay submerged a little longer.

It begins with a professional priest, Kai, diving into an infinite pool in an attempt to rescue a drowning idol. Or maybe she’s a goddess–Kai is no longer sure–perhaps the division between her work with idols and the forbidden worship of gods isn’t as clear as she thought. Her superior, Jace, and friend, Mara, witnessed Kai’s jump and do not believe Kai heard the idol speak. Kai’s injuries, both spiritual and physical, result in a prolonged convalescence and the loss of her prior position in the order.

In another part of the island, Izza, a fifteen year-old refugee and street thief, is refusing to take lead of her rag-tag group of urchins. The oldest child usually becomes the ‘priest’ of the group, leading and providing solace through stories about their god, but Izza doesn’t want the responsibility.  In a moment of compassion, Izza rescues a foreigner, clearly a representative of a god, and thus forbidden. The island Kavekana is one of the few places in the world that has maintained its independence in a world beholden to the power of the gods or the Death Kings. Like a fantasy Switzerland, religious neutrality has financial and power implications; their neutrality has allowed them to sell idols and priests who act as religious savings accounts, allowing owners from other countries to protect, hide, or leverage assets. And, like Switzerland, there will come a time when circumstance will force the island to declare itself, no matter how much the island priests want to maintain independence.

‘Okay,’ Cat said. She stood and offered Izza a hand up, which Izza didn’t take. ‘It’s not all bad,’ she said as they walked back into the warehouse together. ‘Being a priestess, I mean.’ ‘No,’ Izza admitted. ‘But the congregation can be a pain.’

Gladstone’s sophisticated writing is one of the pleasures of the book. On the second time through, reading through the scenes at the bar with the poetry slam, I realized that Gladstone reminds me of Zelazny, able to capture a depth of emotional detail without purple prose. Sometimes, it is a little like reading poetry: sentences truncated, occasionally extended; he uses language like an song, conveying meaning with format as much as word:

Before the cable car, before pilgrims travels from around the globe to Kavekana, before the gods sailed off to fight the world’s wars, priests had only climbed the mountain on holy days: a journey of fear and trembling that began with this walk down a narrow dirt path through dense forest that smelled of motherhood and rot.

Characterization was done well, particularly considering there was a range of character age and experience levels. Characters were people, not tropes, most clearly demonstrated in the ambivalence and sympathy for the characters working against the leads. I enjoyed  Gladstone’s  characterization of women in the story–they were well-rounded people, not sexualized props. It is also worth noting that one character is transgender, part of a larger idea of identity, and not mere inclusion for Serious Issues or tokenism.

Mapping her scars, she imagined her next trip to the beach, once she’d healed.
What happened to you? the boys and girls would say.
Myself, she thought, and showered, and gritted teeth rather than accept the pain.

Narrative alternates between Kai and Izza, in a third person format. Each section tells the story, in basically linear fashion. The straightforward structure contrasts nicely with the sophistication of the world-building. There’s very little telling here; since the fantasy elements of gods and soul-coins contrast with the urban fantasy feel of tequila shots and poetry slams, it helps to have a linear narrative while the reader pieces the world around them.

Some reviews note plotting was slow; I’d disagree, arguing that the action-driven plot of many books and movies has left us with difficulty appreciating the slow build. Like going for a swim, I know there’s a gestalt experience at the end that will make plodding to the pool and jumping into the cold water worth it. The pleasure is in the warmth through exertion, the thoughts examined in silence, the deep breaths of air, the laughs, the weary muscles at the finish. On the other hand, while I had a a few suspicions where the plot was heading, Gladstone was still able to surprise me with his twists. He really is a clever writer; normally, I focus more character, avoiding thinking too hard about the world politics, but he slips major concepts like religious orders and power brokering in and all of a sudden, I understand the issue. The personal is political, and its a sharp writer who can make that clear in a book without long blocks of text which my eyes have a sloppy habit of skimming over (tl;dr, which I only recently learned stands for ‘too long, didn’t read.’). Somehow, there’s a balance between the smalls steps our characters take as they set down the path to fundamental change, giving a greater appreciation for the struggle and betrayals.

This is the third book in ‘The Craft Sequence.’ Gladstone is doing extremely interesting things with this series, essentially creating each book as a stand-alone story. To date, the books have been set in different areas of his world. In the case of Full Fathom Five, I’d recommend Three Parts Dead (review here) be read first, as historical references that play a role in this book are best explained there, along with the reappearance of three characters, one or two who are farther in their own development arcs. It isn’t strictly necessary, but you’ll catch the deeper currents that way. If you are a fantasy fan, particularly of Zelazny’s mesh of inventiveness and language, or Martha Wells’ imaginative world-building, or Liz Williams’ Detective Chen melding divine, urban and fantasy worlds, I strongly suggest you check The Craft Sequence out.

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Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds.

Terminal World
Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of classic sci-fi, The Gone-Away World
 ★    ★    ★    1/2 , possibly 4 stars.

Terminal World is my first Alastair Reynolds, a science-fiction writer known for galaxy-spanning space operas, and has a plot and tone pretty much the opposite of space opera:

Meroka, meet Doctor Quillon,’ Fray said. ‘He is, as you correctly surmised, the new package. I’ve just been telling him you you’re going to do such an excellent job of getting him out of Spearpoint.’

‘Hope you told him it isn’t going to be no joyride… Looking at three hard days to get you out, if all goes to plan, which mostly it won’t. Three days of dirt and worry and less sleep than you’ve ever had in your life. Then we have to find the people Fray’s lined up to take you to Fortune’s Landing, and hope they haven’t changed their minds.’

‘You can throw in danger as well,’ Fray said. ‘Cutter’s ticked off some angels. They’ve got deep penetration agents in Neon Heights, and they’ll be aiming to stop him from leaving town.’

The story begins with a perspective bait and switch as we follow two employees of a morgue wagon waiting for their 9 to 5 to be over. En route home, they are diverted to pick up a body on a nearby ledge. Surprisingly, it is not just an ordinary body–it is the body of an angel, an advanced human from a more elevated and technologically superior zone. There’s a certain morgue coroner who pays a little extra for unusual specimens, so the two attendants deliver the body to Dr. Quillon. It turns out the angel is just barely alive, having made the one-way journey to warn Quillon the angels are coming for him. Quillon heads to his friend and underworld contact, Fray, a former policeman. Fray’s been expecting trouble ever since Quillon revealed who he is and strongly encourages Quillon to leave the city quickly.  Fray provides an escort, Meroka, to lead Quillon out of Spearpoint. She’s a fierce fighter with a tendency to shoot second, cuss first, and has a chip on her shoulder when it comes to anything angelic. The two leap from frying pan to fire as they try to escape Spearpoint. The only possible refuge is the Swarm, the only other large colony of people on the planet. Before they reach Swarm, they’ll have to cross a wasteland, avoiding roving bands of Skullboys and the carnivorous cyborgs, the Vorg. And from there, it gets stranger.

The setting for Terminal World is a fascinating concept. It takes the idea of microecosystems as applied to mountains and does something quite similar with technology. In ecosystems, a different biome corresponds with shifts in elevation, small ecosystems adapted to changes in atmosphere and precipitation. Lower levels in the Sierra Nevadas, you might see mixed grasslands and woodlands, mid-levels are varieties of pine forests, and at the highest alpine elevations, there will be no trees at all. 

So it is with Spearpoint, a needle-like tower extending into the upper atmosphere of the planet–only instead of environmental zones, there are technological zones.  The highest up, the closer you are to ‘angels,’ flight, and nanotechnology. Next level down, electricity and computers. Further down, the industrial age. Go further, and you descend into Horsetown, where mechanical items barely function. To complicate travel, as life crosses ‘zones,’ it is subject to ‘zone sickness’ (the world’s version of altitude sickness), particularly if the shift from one zone to the next has a steep technology curve. I was impressed with the world-building and thought zones were an extremely creative idea. While they aren’t well explained at first, the journey and careful reading elaborates on many details–except how they originated. The ending has some explanation, but I rather thought there were more fantastical overtones than science ones.

Characterization was my sticking point, the reason I was able to set it down for a week or two and pursue shinier books. It was hard to find emotional resonance with any of the characters. Given the length of the book, I didn’t have the feeling that I knew very much about the major players, even by the end. Although the narrative is largely from Quillon’s head, I found him the least interesting. Inconsistent in ideals and action, he acted more as a mouthpiece for philosophical/moral issues than a person with his own drive. Although his concerns often served to move the plot forward, I did a flashback to the old days of literary fiction and sci-fi when the story was a treatise about human nature as much as plotting. I appreciated two of the female characters, and found they interested me more than Quillon. Meroka, Quillon’s guide out of Spearpoint, is the loner guide, cynical and practical. Curtana is an airship captain, almost loyal to a fault and devoted to her ship. I enjoyed their characters and their determination. I was less enamored of a mother-daughter duo who were essentially defined in terms of their relationship.

Plot is sweeping in scope. While it initially has a feel of detective noir, a dark and dangerous night, it quickly segues into a fugitive chase, ricocheting from hazard to hazard. When Quillon and Meroka meet the airship-borne Swarm city, the prior defenders of the Spearpoint, the story shifts again. It becomes more about city politics, ethics, exploration and a potential rescue mission. The result is an amazing variety of ideas and events crammed into one book; while I found each discrete segment told well, it doesn’t quite gestalt at the end.

The ending was the really most disappointing aspect of the story. Not because there was one (I really only have so much endurance for extreme length), but because it went into a slightly mystical scenario that turned out to have little resolution.

Overall, there’s a little bit of kitchen sink to this story that makes it a bit indescribable. It has the length and detail of Way of Kings, the action of The Iron Jackal, but without the brisk dialogue and personal characterization to propel it into five-star territory. Certainly entertaining, but as always, your mileage may vary.

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The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian

The Accidental Alchemist
Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of light paranormal romance, Libriomancer, gargoyles
 ★    ★    1/2 

Look at that cover! Is that not striking? I tend to be a fan of block printing, so when I was perusing NetGalley, it caught my eye. I checked out the description and thought alchemy, herbs, a gargoyle and Portland sounded like an interesting combination and worth my time.

Your results may vary, based on how much time is available.

After years of wandering the country in her Airstream trailer, Zoe Faust is looking forward to rehabilitating her new home in Portland, Oregon. Her plan for anonymity  take a dramatic turn when she opens her crates and discovers a gargoyle named Dorian who is seeking her help. He’s brought an alchemy text from his father, hoping Zoe can translate the formula used to bring him to life. While Zoe is trying to wrap her head around the concept of a live gargoyle, they are interrupted. Dorian grabs the interloper, who turns out to be a local teen, Brixton, dared by friends to enter the neighborhood haunted house. Before Dorian and Zoe can swear him to secrecy, Max Liu, a local detective, stops by to check on Brixton when he fails to return to his friends. After the guests leave, Dorian cooks dinner, and they head to their respective activities. When Zoe wakes, Dorian is gone, and when she returns from a morning walk, she discovers someone lying on her front porch, dead. Detective Liu interviews her and becomes somewhat suspicious. Zoe initially is concerned Dorian might have accidentally killed to protect his secret, but her theories are quickly sidelined when she discovers some of her artifacts have been stolen as well–along with Dorion’s precious alchemy book. Zoe and Dorian begin a race to find the book and decipher the text while navigating Portland and investigating their new neighbors, alternately helped or hindered by Brixton and Liu.

The Accidental Alchemist has a number of intriguing ideas that could benefit from another editorial pass or two. Unfortunately, the writing style suffers from over-explanation at the same time momentum is hamstrung by a lack of steady drive.  In narrative terms, it falls solidly into the ‘tell not show’ camp, and Zoe frequently sounded as if she was lecturing the reader instead of musing to herself or thinking through a problem. While it was acceptable in the beginning as we are introduced to Zoe, Dorian, and the world Pandian is building, it quickly becomes intrusive, particularly in the repetition of particular phrases and concepts (‘I have an affinity for plants,’ ‘I’m attuned to the sun,’ ‘I haven’t practiced alchemy in years’ and ‘alchemy is about transformation.’).

Positive aspects include the nicely rounded characters of Dorian and Blue, as well as the spirit of the adolescents hanging around Zoe. However, Liu never really felt fleshed out, nor, oddly, did the murder victim. I had a good sense of setting, with the compact Airstream and the old, rickety house. The atmosphere was built well, giving a good sense of Portland’s greenery, the rain and the underground tunnels. There’s a side theme to the story about healthy cooking which is integrated well. While it is a theme I believe in, it does feel a little didactic. Recipes are included, for those who are tempted by the descriptions. For those that enjoy it, there is a very light romance in the story.

Most significantly, there are a number of logical issues that pulled me out of the story while reading. Most likely, my feeling that these were intrusive is a result of the explanations given; had some of the actions been given without reasoning, I likely would have accepted it as a character trait I would discover more about later. I’ll use the brief summary as a means of showing my issues, but unfortunately, the problems only increase as Zoe faces an actual mystery.

The Accidental Alchemist has the bones of an engaging story with a different take on a genre full of werewolves and vampires. It’s rather a pity it didn’t work out for me, because I was primed to enjoy a light urban fantasy mystery, and the cooking tie-in is a fun merge from the food-mystery genre.  Still, while it is palatable enough to distract for an hour or two, it had the promise of something so much better.

(Specifics on early confusion while reading are hidden below the break)

Continue reading

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Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost. Or, Halfway Good.

Halfway to the Grave

Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of paranormal romance
 ★    ★   

If you love this, great. I’m happy you and Frost have found each other, and I wish you many hot and heavy installments. But I suggest moving on to another review, because I’m going to be very blunt: I remain unimpressed by paranormal romance, and Frost’s Halfway to the Grave seems a rather mediocre example of the genre.

I occasionally get tempted to try paranormal, searching for that one story to surprise me. In this case, a number of friend reviews, particularly Mimi’s review and the fact that Ilona Andrews, co-author of one of my favorite UF series, is besties with Frost, inspired me to give her a try. Unfortunately, Frost has done nothing to change my opinion of the genre.

How to Write a Paranormal Romance

1) Alienated but speshul female lead who is insecure about her looks, inexperienced with dating, and trying to build identity away from her family. Preferably has under-developed magic or physical power
2) Sexxy, hawt (insert other modern adjective) arrogant male lead who dresses well
3) Dull/clueless boy-next-door admirer (of the female lead)
4) Vampires (sparkling optional). Should include a hawt-but-naughty vampire and an Evil vampire
5) Clueless government representative (evilness optional)

Plotting, romantic
1) Female lead needs to learn to trust rakish male lead while male lead needs to fall in LOVE with female
2) Traditional sex scene
3) Female needs to discover her sexual identity
4) Semi-scandalous sex scene (if you are thirteen)
5) Couple challenged by immortal vs. immortal issue

Plotting, external conflict
1) Evil versus good

1) Substitution of ‘real world’ for world-building

Halfway to the Grave is best summarized with an equation: Blade meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, minus Buffy’s compassion, intelligence and self-esteem.

Writing was about average for the genre. The family back story took a vaguely interesting angle on the heroine’s background. The heroine had normal to above average amounts of TSTL moments. I did enjoy one scene with a disagreeable ghost, and even laughed out loud at the end of it. I can’t say that I recommend it any more than any other PNR books. It is worth noting it kept me awake on night shift, so it wasn’t a waste of time, but any enjoyment in the story was almost destroyed by the ending.

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