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:
Ding-dong.
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 come up for air so that I could just stay submerged a little longer.

It begins with a professional priest, Kai, diving into an infinite pool, attempting to rescue a drowning idol. Or maybe she’s a goddess–Kai is no longer sure which–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 prolonged convalescence and a new position in the order.

In another part of the island, Izza, a fifteen year-old refugee 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. Sometimes, it is a little like poetry. Occasionally sentence are 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 would also like to acknowledge Gladstone’s fabulous characterization of women–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 Issue 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 muscles exercises, the thoughts examine, the deep breaths, the laughs, the weary muscles at the end. 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 Martha Wells’ inventive world-building, or Liz Williams’ Detective Chen, 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

Characters
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

World-building
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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The Secret Place by Tana French.

The Secret Place
Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of psychological mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★

Here’s how I imagine it went down:

French and her besties are at their high school reunion weekend. They’re sitting around drinking wine and reminiscing when someone decides to pull out the old ouija board from the attic storage. Much to their surprise, they channel Agatha Christie’s voice from Cat Among the Pigeons. Flush with success, they try again, and discover Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (review here).

Alright; maybe I just have my own upcoming reunion on my mind. But I was captivated by the way The Secret Place integrated the turbulent days of youth at a girls’ boarding school with a murder investigation by Dublin’s finest, proving again that French has talent in spades. If there is one thing her prior four books in the Murder Squad series have made clear, French is great at character creation. And atmosphere. Oh, and dialogue. Okay, fine; she’s good at all the components that make a book enjoyable. This time she’s also nailed the police procedural aspects of the case.

The story begins with Holly and her three friends hanging at a playground, musing on the end of summer and their upcoming year together at boarding school. Fast forward to Detective Stephen Moran at the Cold Cases Unit. Holly appears at the police station requesting a meeting with him, six years after when they last met in events covered by The Faithful Place. The exclusive boarding school she resides at has a noticeboard where students can put up anonymous confessions. Holly has found a postcard with an old picture of murder victim Chris Harper.  The words “I know who killed him” are pasted across in cut-out letters. Moran seizes the opportunity to wedge his foot in the door of the Murder Squad, and personally takes the note to the case’s lead detective, Antoinette Conway. As she is currently without a partner, he offers her the benefit of his disarming interview skills when she returns to the school to re-interview the students. What follows is an exploration of what led to the death and how the detectives retroactively piece the story together.

The plot timeline is unusual, as it combines the current investigation with viewpoints from the girls and from Chris during the prior year. The investigation takes place within one incredibly busy day, while the events in the girls’ lives cover the entire previous year at school. It’s an interesting kind of time shifting for a murder mystery, but I came to enjoy it. Instead of learning about the prior relationships and circumstances through flashbacks, we live it with four of the girls and the victim, bringing a heightened sense of doom to their daily lives.

Characterization is stellar. The introduction to Murder Squad Detective Conway:

Antoinette Conway came in with a handful of paper, slammed the door with her elbow. Headed for her desk. Still that stride, keep up or fuck off… Just crossing that squad room, she said You want to make something of it? half a dozen ways.

Or the (re-) introduction of Detective Frank Mackey:

I know Holly’s da, a bit. Frank Mackey, Undercover. You go at him straight, he’ll dodge and come in sideways; you go at him sideways, he’ll charge head down.

Marvelous, really; contrast that with the books that focus on the appearance of the character first, or contain long soliloquies where the character helpfully identifies their history and preferences. In the prior examples, French distills two very different personalities into brief thoughts, so that when we finally meet them, dialogue can be focused and snappy, but still shaded with the layers of meaning from knowing the character. It is a beautiful technique that mirrors real life; if you follow me through my day, I don’t muse on each person interact with; rather, our interactions are defined partially by our history and word choice describing it would reflect it. French’s writing captures that shading without huge, potentially distracting expository swathes.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most was the delicate balance between Moran and Conway. As her fierce personality is evident from the start, I was fascinated by Conway’s attempt to develop a working relationship with her. Initially, Moran is ingratiating himself out of expedience, but it becomes clear Conway understands his intentions. French does a nice job of keeping both Moran and the reader off-balance, guessing at what Conway thinks while having a sense of where it is going.

The setting is immersive, bringing back memories of adolescence in all its insecurities:

Two years on, though, Becca still hates the Court. She hates the way you’re watched every second from every angle, eyes swarming over you like bugs, digging and gnawing, always a clutch of girls checking out your top or a huddle of guys checking out your whatever. No one ever stays still, at the Court, everyone’s constantly twisting and head-flicking, watching for the watchers, trying for the coolest pose.

and glories:

Darkness, and a million stars, and silence. The silence is too big for any of them to burst, so they don’t talk. They lie on the grass and feel their own moving breath and blood… Selena was right: this is nothing like the thrill of necking vodka or taking the piss out of Sister Ignatius… This is nothing to do with what anyone else in all the world would approve or forbid. This is all their own.

It is worth noting for those who are new to French that while The Dublin Murder Squad is nominally a series, the connection is through the web of relationships in the police department. Each story tends to focus on a particular member of the squad and their emotional entanglement to the case at hand. Although they may reference events in a prior story, they usually aren’t spoilerish, nor is reading them in order needful. In this case, French seems to draw back from a detective’s emotional dissolution and instead focus on a more positive resolution.

I found The Secret Place to be a complex, satisfying story, delicately balanced between mystery and character story. There was no part that I was even considered skimming, as the flashbacks held as much interest as the police procedural. In fact, reviewing was a challenge, as I kept thumbing through my notes, tempted by my saved passages to re-read. Though I read an advance copy, I suspect this is one I’ll have to add to the paper library.

 

Many thanks to NetGalley and Viking for providing me an advance copy to review. Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the magical writing.

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The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The Girl who Fell Beneath Fairyland
Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of Valente, purplish prose, shadows
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

 

Once you’ve been to a world filled with magic, what happens next?

September first visited Fairyland in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.  Young, carefree and heartless: her adventures there exposed to her wonders and dangers; she formed new friendships with barely a thought for home. Now September is back in Omaha, Nebraska, at the end of a very long, non-Fairyland year. It’s been tough; though she has a secret she carries “with her like a pair of rich gloves, which, when she was cold, she could take out and slip on to remember the warmth of days gone by,” she is more ostracized than ever by her classmates. Even worse: her shadow is still missing, left in Fairyland, and her father remains away at war in France. Like most storybook heroines returned to the real world, she has hopes of returning to a land of magic: “being quite a practical child, she had become very interested in mythology since her exploits on the other side of the world, studying up on the ways of fairies and old gods and hereditary monarchs and other magical folk.” (See what Valente does there? Clever, clever!)

But September is under a very large misconception about magical journeys. She assumes that since the dictatorial Marquess is no longer the ruler in Fairyland, her return will mean only joyful reunions, not questing or testing.  But how wrong she is, because her missing shadow has grown into herself and become quite wild–she’s appointed herself the Leader of Fairyland Below, and taken a new name: “‘Halloween, the Hollow Queen, Princess of Doing What you Please, and Night’s Best Girl.” The Wyverary stopped. ‘Why, she’s you, September. The shadow the Glashtyn took down below.“” Even worse, now other shadows are going missing and it may be Halloween who is to blame.

When September finally makes it to Fairyland and is–in a sense–reunited with her friends the Wyvern and the Marid, she’s actually reunited with their shadow-selves–so very different than the friends she knew. Even more significantly, she’s a year older and now a teenager, so her heart has done some growing since she was last in Fairyland. More risk and more conflict: “For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown up hearts never learn it.

And there’s the crux of both the beauty and difficulty of Valente’s story: September’s wondrous journey through Fairyland Below is edged with sadness and loss about our shadow-selves and the dark, wanting pieces of ourselves we don’t always acknowledge. September’s missing companions, the question of her shadow-self’s freedom, even the visual dimness of the setting reinforce the sense that there are many sides to a story. The whimsy is still there, but it is an adult-edged whimsy, where reindeer are worried about being caught by (marriage) hunters, kangaroos mine jewels for/of their memories and the Alleyman sieves the shadows from Fairyland.

“‘No one said this was a bad place,’ she told herself. ‘No one said the bottom of the world was somewhere terrible. It’s only dark, and dark’s not so frightening. Everything’s dark in Fairyland-Below. That doesn’t mean it’s wicked.‘”

Because of the complexity and challenge of the message–a different version of growing up, if you will, more like a type of growing out and understanding–I’m not entirely sure Valente’s whimsical tone and imagery works quite as well for me as the first one did. Or, perhaps it does, and really, I’m just not as comfortable with the message. It’s hard to tell.

Stylistically, it is worth noting (again, as always) that Valente is a superb writer. I recently picked up another young-adult book by a writer who has wonderful adult works, and I was struck by how simple both the structure and language were. The Girl series doesn’t oversimplify for its readers; it will challenge and please at any age. This is the type of book whose color blooms as the reader ages, one that can be read at nine, fifteen and twenty-eight, and find it enjoyable each time. Highly recommended to fans of playful imagery, sophisticated prose and small diamond bits of hard truth hidden by shadows.

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Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones.

Year of the Griffin
Re-Read August 2014 (last read August 2011)
Recommended for fans of schools of magic, griffins
★    ★    ★    ★    ★

Every now and then I have the urge for a comforting re-read, a diverting read that will be unlike real life enough to hold back the flood for a couple of hours. Year of the Griffin is one of those books for me, a lovely, reliable story about a group of young adults (both human and otherwise) at a school for wizards. Predating Harry Potter by three years, Diana Wynne Jones made her own foray into the traditional field of English magical schools and succeeds in marvelous, whimsical fashion.

Elda, the youngest griffin daughter of the famous wizard Derk, has enrolled at the nearly broke Wizards’ University without her father’s knowledge. It isn’t long before she meets a like-minded and curious group of friends: Ruskin, a revolutionary dwarf; Olga, a mysteriously wealthy and beautiful woman; Claudia, the outcast half-Marshwoman sister of the ruler of the Emperor of the South; Lukin, the heir of the (impoverished) Kingdom of Luteria, and Felim, incognito from the country of the Emir to prevent assassins from learning his location. During introductions on the first day, Wizard Corkoran realizes his plan to solicit their families for more money won’t work since the students are either poor or in hiding. Unfortunately, he’s rapidly distracted by his project to land on the moon and forgets to pass the word on to the administrative team, thus setting a wild chain of events in motion. Subsequent events include a flying horse, a bushel of oranges, a trip to the library, assassins, pirates, adventures in cooking, more griffins, a statue, twue wuv and cats.

Characterization is fun; all are reasonably developed and their bonding over shared academic and family frustrations seem entirely natural. In the long tradition of magical schools, it is refreshing to have a griffin and dwarf be part of the student mix, along with a few other representatives of countries/kingdoms in this world. It creates an interesting sense of diversity within the group. When their families come into play, each student gains a little more focus and detail. There is also an innocence and ingeniousness about the students that makes their efforts toward improvement quite sweet and not at all malicious. Eventually, a few members of the group and incoming supporting cast end up pairing off, but any romance is gentle and exists mostly in the area of hand-holding and shared company. The setting feels like a typical medieval fantasy setting, with carts and horses, fires for warmth and the like. It isn’t too fleshed out, but allows Jones to concentrate on characterization and action.

Plotting is fun. Driven initially by the disclosure that the six are currently students at the university, the converging families and chaos propel the action forward. When the six students realize trouble is headed their way, they band together. The spell-traps they create to protect one of their members are priceless fun.  Corkoran’s focus on the moon shoot is especially entertaining from a real-world point of view.

I actually read this long before Dark Lord of Derkholm, so although it says “sequel,” don’t be put off. Most of the main characters from Dark Lord are only peripheral, and the preceding events are only responsible for the ruins of the college, not really what is happening to it now. The prior parallel worlds do help explain away some of the similarities and the stereotypes, quite clever on the part of Jones. However, the tone and conflicts of the two books are different enough that I wouldn’t call them a duology at all. Consider the second an insightful “whatever happened to –” installment.

Though the characters are young adult and the resolutions of issues neat, it is not a simple story by any means in concepts or language. Overall, it is very light in tone, the perfect kind of read when one needs a happy ending.

Highly recommended.

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The Burglar on the Prowl by Lawrence Block. AKA, WTF.

The Burglar on the Prowl
Read August 2014
Recommended for people who don’t mind a date rape
★    

If you are willing to gloss over a significant character relationship, it might theoretically be an entertaining read.

Seriously, Block. What’s the author of the finely tuned Matt Scudder mysteries thinking? Please tell me this was subbed out to a ghost writer, because your introduction of the Barbara Creely character is awful.

Burglar stared off promising, with a unique voice compared to Block’s other works, and with a man who clearly enjoyed his illegal activities, even as he was aware of how problematic they were.

Bernie Rodenbarr is set up to be a somewhat loveable anti-hero, the classic criminal with ethics (he only steals from the rich, etc, etc), and it mostly works, until he’s under the bed at a woman’s house as she is about to get date-raped. And he just hides there and listens, because he’s essentially afraid of harm from the rapist. Although I appreciate that Bernie is sharing an honest reason, it had a significant downgrading on my enjoyment level. After the rapist finishes, he tosses the apartment looking for money and valuables. He threatens to degrade the unconscious woman further, but is luckily stopped by circumstance. Bernie feels sorry for the woman and makes an effort to “clean up” the mess the rapist/robber made by putting things back, replacing money in her wallet, flushing the condom, etc. Kind, I suppose. But how fucking obtuse: I know what will solve the problem! Let me erase it for you and we’ll pretend it never happened!

Later, Bernie goes back to the neighborhood and hangs out at a bar that seems like the woman’s type, hoping to run into her. To see if she’s okay? Nice thought, but no. To try and warn her that her she needs to start playing it safer? Wow, you’re kind of a Pollyanna, aren’t you?

No, he meets her, they have a creepy conversation about how it seems they’ve been “emotionally intimate” before, he goes home with her that night, and spends the night having sex.

Oh, not so he’s a stalker or anything–he’s friendly and doesn’t use roofies, which makes all the difference.
Then, within a week, he’s telling her the truth about his occupation… and how he first met her. And you know what? She’s okay with it.

What
the
fuck?

The self-disclosure is literally taken care of in a couple of paragraphs. This is despite Bernie earlier reflecting on a conversation with his friend Carolyn about how merely feeling burgled felt like a violation. He tells Barbara she’s been roofied and date-raped, along with being robbed. Her reaction? She swears for a minute and then focuses on which window Bernie was going to use to escape.

I will say it again:

What
the
fuck?

Add in a shitload of coincidences, which Bernie self-references twenty times if he does it once, and the ridiculous Hercule Poirot denouement, and I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that this is a spoof. In which rape is how you meet your next date.

Need I say it again?

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Inspector Hobbes and the Blood by Wilkie Martin.

Inspector Hobbes and the Blood
Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of pulp, puns, supernatural detectives
★    ★    ★    1/2  

Don’t you have those days when your brain just needs a break? I’ve been swamped this summer by the seriously un-fun Understanding Pathophysiology. After reading four or five chapters a week, there’s times when my brain craves a bit of shut-off, but my body isn’t ready to sleep.  That’s what television is for, right? And sports? But honestly, I’d rather read about silly people and needless danger than watch it, and that’s where Martin’s Unhuman series with Inspector Hobbes fits in. Well, Inspector Hobbes isn’t senseless so much as Andy Caplet is, the diffident reporter assigned to follow Hobbes. Think Sherlock Holmes with slightly more bestial tendencies and Lou Costello as Watson. Think modern English town with supernatural beings just trying to live their lives without harassment, whether its chomping on old bones or standing in a field thinking trollish thoughts. Think–dare I say it–puns.

Andy Caplet is a struggling reporter unexpectedly assigned to follow Inspector Hobbes, one of the fearsome successes of the local police force. The assignment is surprising as Andy’s most notable story to date was his unsuccessful attempt to do a piece on a show-winning hamster, resulting in nasty bite and an unflattering bit of press. Hobbes is focused an unlikely series of events relating to Mr. Roman, whose house was burgled, a violin stolen, and Mr. Roman subsequently found dead, apparently a suicide. When Andy follows Hobbes to the cemetery where Mr. Roman was found, he discovers a newly-opened grave and is almost victim to a ghoulish cover-up. It is the beginning of Andy’s introduction to the unhumans around him, and he decides to stick with Hobbes in hopes of an award-winning story. Perhaps even a book!

The basic premise of Inspector Hobbes is done well. The unfortunate Andy contrasts nicely to the enigmatic, powerful and intelligent Hobbes. Plotting moves quickly from event to event, establishing interesting characters along the way. Particularly entertaining was Mrs. Goodfellow, Hobbes’ live-in cook, housekeeper and friend, with her dental obsession and her tendency to tread quietly. I appreciated the the way Martin hints to the reader and Andy that something about certain characters may not be quite human, a much more enjoyable type of character development than the long-winded info-dump. Hobbes, of course, is the biggest mystery of all–what is he, exactly? And does it matter?

In truth, and in his own way, he’d looked after me. He was an enigma. He was a monster. He was a policeman. He was someone I out to be writing about.

Andy, being more of the anti-hero type, frequently leaps to the wrong conclusion, misleading himself and the reader. Although bumbling, he isn’t quite incompetent, and is sincere, so I found him more tolerable than in the second book, Inspector Hobbes and the Curse.

One of the few problems I had with the writing was what appears to me as a tendency to run-on sentences and excessive commas. It could just be my personal fondness for semi-colons and colons showing, but I did find it initially distracting. I think as the action picks up, the commas diminish–or else my mental filter blotted them out. An early example:

As I landed and turned around, the magazine fluttering to the carpet like a dying pigeon, the blood pounding through my skull, my shin bruised from a sharp encounter with the table, the old lady, standing by the sofa, gave me a gummy smile. Though I coulgh have sworn she did not have a single tooth left in her head, I thought a positive response was appropriate.

As a side note, although I love paper books, this might be one to read on e-reader. Martin has a tendency to sprinkle a number of English idioms–and by English, I mean country-cultural specific words. And, speaking of abuse of the English language, there’s a story about Hobbes’ stuffed grizzly bear:

The bus knocked him into a music shop, where his muzzle became entangled in an antique stringed instrument that suffocated him. And so my sad tale ends, with a bear-faced lyre.

It was fun and entertaining–and didn’t mention molecular biology once. A perfect beach read, if you should be so lucky as to have time at the beach.

 

Thanks to Julia at The Witcherly Book Company for providing me a copy to review. Which was, of course, provided without a request to actually review it. Thanks!

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Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells

Wheel of the Infinite
Read July 2014
Recommended for fans of Wells, The Blue Sword, fantasy about older women
four stars, three and a half stars, who’s counting?

A woeful number of fantasy readers are unfamiliar with Martha Wells. My proof, you ask? The very fact that rights have reverted back to Wells and she has decided to re-release her books in e-book form. Wide-ranging in world-building and focus, she hasn’t been content to settle down in one fantasy universe and write an endless series (cough, cough, Robert Jordan). I happen to love her fine balance between plotting and world-building, and the way she winds them together with reasonably sophisticated–but non-purplish–language. I’m a little regretful that it took me so long to discover her writing despite my wide-ranging fantasy tastes, and I’d encourage any fantasy reader to check her work out–there’s certainly enough variety that if one book doesn’t suit, there’s likely another that will fit better. And if nothing else, her take on fantasy tends towards the unusual.

Wheel of the Infinite centers on Maskelle, a formerly powerful woman who has left her position as her temple divinity’s living Voice in disgrace. Tet in a society somewhat loosely based on Tibetan Buddhism, there is a pantheon of gods who have spent time on earth and have returned to the Divine Realms. A core ritual of the combined temples is to recreate the mandala pattern of the lands annually or the land will suffer, and this year marks a crucial hundred-year ceremony. Although Maskelle retains many of her powers from her time as the Voice, she’s been traveling incognito, acting as seer for a traveling theater troupe. While looking for herbs, she discovers a river inn overrun with raiders. Feeling rather ornery, she decides to see if there are any honest folk left to rescue, and she instead discovers a foreign traveler captive to the bandits’ amusements. They mutually rescue each other, discovering an immediate connection. He surreptitiously follows as she leads the troupe to the capital city of the Celestial Empire, until a temporary rouse as her bodyguard leads to a permanent association. Once in the city, Maskelle, her new bodyguard Rian, and the troupe quickly become the focus of local politics, both supernatural and corporeal.

As I read, I was strongly reminded of Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold’s 2004 award-winning fantasy novel centered around an older woman, long past her enthusiastic and athletic youth. It was clear that Wells had a similar agenda for Wheel, first published in 2000. In an interview at Tor books, Wells states, “for Maskelle I wanted to write about an older woman protagonist because I’d been thinking a lot about the portrayals of older women in books and movies around that time. I’d seen an older movie that dealt explicitly with the idea that when women reach a certain age, we’re just supposed to retire from life, especially any kind of a sex life. So I wanted to write an older woman who was very much still a force in the lives of people around her. I’d already done that with Ravenna in The Element of Fire, but I wanted to get more into it with a main character.”

Are there some problems here? Yes. It didn’t feel like the same polished writing I encountered in Death of the Necromancer, a fast moving 19th century supernatural murder mystery. While I appreciated the nominally non-Western focus and the general female equality, the world-building wasn’t as sophisticated as in The City of Bones.  The relationship between Maskelle and Rian was rather predictable and not especially well developed, but I did enjoy the easy way they related without a lot of interpersonal strife. I enjoyed Maskelle’s snarky voice, although I wasn’t entirely sure it was culturally congruent until much farther along in the story.  Wheel‘s plotting moves quickly, the characterization is decent, the romance enjoyable without overwhelming the main story and the ending was truly unpredictable. The inclusion and characterization of the theater troupe was a particularly strong aspect, especially the indirect commentary on the role of theater in the community. And the puppets!

Overall, I enjoyed the read, pleased I was exposed to yet another strong entry in Well’s interesting body of work. If you are considering it, check out the first chapter at her site.

 

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