Infidel by Kameron Hurley. OMG.

Read August 2015
Recommended for fans of fantasy, kick-ass plots, Abercrombie
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.

I had to remind myself to breathe when I was reading Infidel. Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame series is simply amazing. So many themes packed into each page; action, honor, faith, regret, resolve, all woven into a fast-moving plot, character exploration and innovative world-building. It feels real and harsh and heartbreaking. When I finished late at night, I felt rather the same way I felt when I finished The Last Argument of Kings, only more so.

Yeah, that.

Infidel takes place six years after the events of the first book, God’s War. The countries of Nasheen and Chenja remain at war with each other, as they have been for the last hundred years. Nyx worked as a bel dame for Nasheen, a government enforcer/assassin, but after making some very questionable decisions, she’s been working a mercenary. She has a new team, a young shifter boy named Eshe and a hardened ex-veteran, Suha. The story begins in the midst of bodyguard detail for a diplomat’s daughter, in the setting dreaded by all bodyguards everywhere, the crowded shopping district. Nyx realizes they are being boxed in and manages to scare off one assassin and behead another. When she learns the assassin might be a rogue bel dame, she journeys to the headquarters of the guild and meets with a former colleague. What follows is a fast-paced hunt through the countries of Umayma.

As the second in the Bel Dame series, more details of the world are fleshed (ha-ha) out, so to speak. For those that struggled with the world-building in the first book, Hurley is kinder here, filling in more details about the neighboring countries and the history of various peoples. A little more is also filled in about the emigration from the moon to Unamya, and the unclean areas that remain even after colonizing. The insect-based magic and technology continues to play a vital role in the plot, and despite my own bug-aversion, it’s very interesting.

Plotting is fast. There’s more nation-politics than I usually like in my book, but it is built organically, connected to personal actions and motives that make it both plausible and interesting. Something in Hurley’s plotting feels unusual to me, and I think it’s partly her ability to sustain tension through small event arcs, and then repeating them at escalating frequency. It has the satisfying feeling of building to a crescendo, resolving small conflicts and then creating bigger ones. It helps too that the world she’s built allows for a certain kinds of rejuvenation, provided one has the money, connections and time. What I discovered this time was that very little of the details were predictable, and I loved that.

‘So what the hell’s wrong with me?’ Nyx eased off the marble slab.
‘Besides your deviant moral flexibility and severe phobia of emotional commitment?’ Yahfia asked.
‘I consider those virtues,’ Nyx said.

Characterization is outstanding. Nyx is not an easy person to like, but she has an idea of honor and protection that makes her accessible. Her cynicism brings a dry, biting humor to her character and her story. Rhys, an educated exile, provides a way for Hurley to engage in more sophisticated cultural analysis. One of the fascinating aspects of the story is the attraction that Nyx and Rhys have for each other despite enormous cultural and emotional differences.

‘If you weren’t what you are, and I wasn’t what I am, we’d both be dead,’ Rhys said. ‘And we would have nothing to speak of.'”

Why have more people not read this series?  I highly recommend it, particularly if you enjoy some of the darker fantasy such as Weeks or Abercrombie. I particularly recommend it because of the nuanced character development and the unusual world-building. Definitely personal library-worthy.


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Magic Shifts by Ilona Andrews

Magic Shifts

Read August 2015
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy, kick-ass plots
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

The Kate Daniels series was originally plotted to end at book seven, culminating with the classic father confrontation (“I am your father”). While Magic Breaks had a satisfying ending, there was material that felt like it was catering to new readers (in response to a hardcover edition) as well as providing Easter eggs for fans, such as ‘guest appearances’ by former characters, making it a less than stellar read. Apprehensive of the next, I delayed ordering.

Silly rabbit.

Magic Shifts hits its first fight within three or four pages and doesn’t let up until the epilogue. Fast paced, it’s filled with plot lines that open up the series to continued development. Kate Daniels and Curran the ex-Beast Lord have moved with their adopted daughter Julie to a new section of Atlanta, giving the Andrews a new setting to play in and new interpersonal dynamics to explore (it becomes a bit of a running joke how often Kate and Curran run into people that say, ‘yeah, the Beast Lord is such a jerk’). In book seven, Kate experienced the potentially trope-ridden ‘power-up’ syndrome, but the Andrews compensated in very clever ways. (view spoiler) One of those obstacles involved a new area of mythology, a particularly great idea since it broadened the world-building. But the new beings didn’t exist in isolation; they had implications for some local creatures as well. Just really interesting stuff.

On a personal level, I appreciated the general lack of teenage angst that played a role in earlier stories, as well as pulling back on Kate’s “I don’t want people I love hurt” mentality. We’ve also passed beyond the self-doubt phase of Kate and Curran’s relationship as well, and instead start to see the push and pull of an equal–and respectful–relationship. That puts the focus back squarely where it belongs, in my opinion–on the clever world-building of shifting Atlanta, the myriad of problems it creates, and the external relationships effecting Kate and Curran’s lives.

As always, the humor made me chuckle. In an era of stagy self-awareness, it is often misused, but here it is appropriate to character and situation. Kate herself is challenged by admitting emotional intimacy, but there were a couple of scenes where her attempt being funny is quite touching because she is trying so hard to minimize fear and loss.

This one kept me up far past a sensible bedtime, just so I could find a good place to stop. But I never did… until the end.

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The End is Nigh, edited by Adams and Howey

The End is Nigh

Read August 2015
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse, short stories
 ★    ★    ★    1/2


Oh apocalypse, how you fascinate us. There’s probably been doomsayers since the beginning of time, but it seems like you’ve really come into your own in the era of climate change, burgeoning population and widespread weaponry. The End is Nigh is the first book in a three-part series edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (of Wool fame) is centered around the events leading up to apocalypse scenarios. I came at this series backwards, beginning with the end book and moving on to The End is Nigh. These stories mostly felt like teasers, world-builders with ambiguous endings which will lead up to the events in The End Has Come (review).

See Althea Ann’s excellent summary for a brief description of each piece.

Five-star: Tananarive Due’s story, “Removal Order” is about a young woman taking care of a cancer-ridden grandmother as her community is evacuated. Haunting atmosphere, interesting angle on the approaching devastation, it was one of the small, quiet, haunting stories of the apocalypse. David Wellington contributed a straight-up infectious-zombie story as it was beginning to break, a classic take that was well done. “Goodnight Moon” by Annie Ballet is about seven astronauts and was an absolutely perfect bottle story of impending disaster and loss. Will McIntosh’s “Dancing with Death…” has a fascinating premise of an infection that causes a locked-in syndrome. Perfect. I should look up more McIntosh. “Love Perverts” by Sarah Langan dealt with teenagers coping with changes as the end of the world approaches, and how one teen’s sexuality might have lead his parents to abandon him. Emotionally real. Another author worth checking out.


Four-star: Robin Wasserman examines the irony of an experience con artist leading an end-of-the world cult, reunited with a believing teenage son. Jake Kerr’s “Wedding Day” wonders what would happen if we knew about an eventual asteroid impact from the perspective of an unmarried lesbian couple. It’s a modern twist on what it means to be connected. Tobias S. Buckell contributed a buddy-movie scenario where two friends are trying to make money catching a hacker. Unbeknownst to them, the hacker has specific future plans. It had a snappy pace. Seanan McGuires “Spores” was a nice character piece about a scientist with OCD. Heavy on the message, it excelled in atmosphere and character. Howey’s contribution, “In the Air” was notable for centering on a government worker who has foreknowledge of the upcoming disaster but doesn’t share his knowledge, and how it plays out in his personal life. Ford’s period piece on a Chinese man working in San Francisco during Haley’s Comet was atmospheric, just seemed to suffer from choppy writing.

Three-star: Desirina Boskovich experiments with aliens who want to transport Earthlings to a heavenly paradise. Heavy-handed in its religious and social themes, I did enjoy the budding relationship between two main characters. Charlie Jane Anders has an interesting beginning to her apocalypse; a couple of outcast kids and a camera becoming Youtube sensations in “Break!Break!Break!” Examines viral media and society but again, thematically heavy-handed. The voice of the teenage daredevil felt very real with interesting sentence structure–the author has a gift for characters. I was a bit underwhelmed by Ken Liu’s “The Gods Will Not Be Chained,” considering his reputation. While it definitely provided the needed foundation for his story in the last installment, it was equally heavy-handed in building artificial intelligence and bullying. On the up side, it gave me some fun ideas for emoji communication.

I liked Kress’ story about a single mom struggling with raising two kids on a shoestring budget. The conclusion was a little… hmmm, and I didn’t quite see where it fit in with the apocalypse, but it was well-told and felt real. While I loved Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman series, he tries an interesting approach with his piece, about a world who suddenly starts hearing the ‘voice of God,’ except a young girl. The parents, worried that she will not be saved, struggle with what to do. It creates a nice horror feeling but feels heavy-handed as well. Jonathan Maberry’s story about a man who specializes in extracting people from cults was competently done but felt slightly didactic.

A few completely missed me. Megan Arkenberg tries to incorporate concepts with virtual reality and art in the face of disaster. I found it mostly confusing and had little connection with the characters. Scott Sigler’s story about an annual dudes’ hunting trip was a miss, which was partially my fault. I knew where it would end from reading book three, so I wasn’t interested in the “first contact” exploration in book one. Matthew Mather’s “Enlightenment” on a literal interpretation of eating the body was just Concept Yuck, but I have little horror tolerance. It didn’t really fit with the collection. Paolo Bacigalupi’s piece on water shortages and journalism was a ‘meh.’ McDevitt gave a terribly ironic twist to his professional astronomer who wants so desperately to be named after an astronomical feature.

Really, the collection excelled as character pieces, apocalypse or no apocalypse. The authors often used impending events as a backdrop to exploring emotional and philosophical issues. On to the middle book of the series, where we see if this book acted more as foundation pieces for action in the next.



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The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex

Read August 2015
Recommended for agnostic fans of Lovecraftian spy thrillers
 ★    ★    ★    1/2

I’m thinking 2013 was a weak year for the Locus Awards. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed The Apocalypse Codex, and there was a lot there that made me smile and snicker. But it didn’t contain the ideas that challenge, or writing that mesmerizes, or even characters that intrigue. It mostly just seems a high-level spoof, full of witticisms and social commentary, oft applied with heavy instrument.

I mean, yes, a phrase like: “Fucking netbooks; you can’t even use one to beat an alien brain parasite to death without it breaking” is going to make me pause, then giggle (reminding me of “[it] hung in the sky much the same way that bricks don’t“). There’s a great deal of that incidental humor, demonstrated again in a throw-away conversation while ordering coffee:

‘Mocha venti with an extra shot for me, no cream,’ I add.
‘Anything else?’
I shake my head and she wanders off. Johnny looks suspicious. ‘Since when do you speak Starbucks?’
I shrug. ‘It’s not as if I can help it; they’ve got our office surrounded, and they don’t like it if you try and order in English.’

I laughed, no doubt; I’ve purposely ordered a “medium,” curious to see if the barristas speak English.

Poor Bob; he seems destined to re-confront the scary forces that inhabit the deep. This seemed a re-tread of earlier adventures, particularly The Atrocity Archives (review), so it didn’t really engage me. It was pretty clear to absolutely everyone but Bob what was going on: portentous conversation with new manager, bureaucratic training, travel (to America), sacrificial goat, confront evil, portal to a wasteland, yada yada. This time, Bob meets with a man in charge of External Assets, and Bob is told that his job is to maintain contact with a free-lance witch-bodyguard team while maintaining official plausible deniability (“your mission, should you choose to accept it…”). It’s a chance for him to show managerial skills, and Bob’s willing to take the bait opportunity as the team investigate an American evangelist who is getting suspiciously close to the British PM. Arriving in Colorado under deep cover, each member of the team soon discovers their opponents are more than they appear.

Stross’ writing seemed particularly choppy this book. The introduction warns that Bob will be narrating bits alternating with reconstructed third-person view. Other perspectives include the evangelist, each member of the free-lance team, the administrator who gives Bob the mission and even an opposing operative. Considering this is book four, there is also a lot of world-building/back-story in the beginning chapters. It had two effects: one, it added to the sense of choppiness. A section covering a caper by the witch-bodyguard team showcased their skills but did little for story development. Two, the repeat world-building added to the feeling of re-creating the same story. We’re told a number of times how the Big Bad is coming, which will then proceed to eat humanity like a bag of fish and chips–otherwise known as How Bob Lost his Atheism. Then there is the routine: Bob has dinner with his wife; he trudges into the office and is surprised by visitors; he drinks coffee; he complains about management training; he accepts compliments telling him how talented he is, he has dinner with friends. I have to say, this is one book where I didn’t wonder how the protagonist managed the minutiae of daily life. In other series, authors often use the orientation time to develop other aspects of the protagonist’s life in order to create the feeling of a well-rounded character. Here, not so much.

Once we got to America, action was steady, always escalating, and if there were narrative changeovers, at least it tended to further the plot. I enjoyed some of the devices the team used to manage problems, particularly the tattoos and the paper chain.  Persephone, the witch, gave insight into using power differently than in the technological world. Unfortunately, the ending was no less choppy than the beginning: it culminated in a chaotic action scene with a vague sense of resolution and then closed with a “classified” type file that explained events from another point of view. With an epilogue to boot, so while I feel satisfied by knowing the events, it’s the kind of satisfaction that comes from a debriefing, not from a build-climax-finish.

Writing is smart (see above quotes) with above average vocabulary and plenty of ideas bouncing around and references. I understand this isn’t the kind of style where I’ll get that artistic word-smithing that makes me sigh in awe. Stross does a decent job of evoking the otherworldly horror, so points for that. It just seemed like the same otherworldly horror, so no chills or anxiety. Really, they are clever works but mostly seem like a smart upgrade of the Robert Asprin I read when I was younger.

So, kudos and all for entertaining me, but really–is this the best they could come up with? Might have well been the 2015 Hugos.

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Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews

Magic Breaks

Re-read August 2015
Recommended for UF fans
 ★    ★    ★    ★

I re-read this yesterday as a way of keeping awake post night shift (switching one’s body clock around can be a pain in the neck. Sometimes literally). It’s a challenging reading mood–I need something to engage me without too much brain-work, but not stupid enough that I lose my very limited patience. And what do you know? Magic Breaks worked.

At first, there were doubts, largely arising out of the structure and pacing of the initial pages. Magic Breaks opens with a ‘Thank you to the readers,’ which, while kind, seemed misplaced and more appropriate to end notes. It helps to have the knowledge that this was originally conceived as the final book in the series arc. However, the wild popularity of the series and the development of a number of storylines has meant that the authors could legitimately continue to play in their world and so another three book arc is in the works. Gratitude is followed by a listing of ‘Cast of characters,’ clearly misplaced. If you haven’t read all the books by now, book seven is a lousy place to start. If one must include it, an appendix is most appropriate. Finally, we get to the meat of the book, or so it seems: chapter one. Only it isn’t; it’s pretty much a short story that helps fill in details for those who might be new to the series with a segue into the beginning of the plot at the end. Again, can I stress, lousy place to start? I don’t know; I don’t market these things. It is the debut of the first hardcover in the series, so I understand the publisher positioning it to appeal to a new audience.  The first chapter was pre-released on the Andrews’ website, so it served as a nice teaser/short for fans. I just wish it would have been a little less obvious that the beginning wasn’t geared to new readers or as a marketing tool.

So when the plot actually starts,  Pack Leader Curran is called out of town to meet with an outlying wolf-pack who owns a silver mine and is indiscreet about buyers. Oh-so coincidentally, he is gone during the mid-winter Conclave, the meeting between the opposing factions of The People and the Pack. Curran expects no trouble, so of course the reader realizes there will be plenty. At the Conclave, Roland’s second-in-command Hugh appears, dumping a murdered vampire navigator’s body on the group and accusing the Pack of the murder. Kate conceals shock at Hugh’s reappearance, endeavors to discover the details of the crime and navigates a politically acceptable solution, all while worrying about Curran’s safety. At the tension-packed (ha-ha) follow-up meeting, she’s mysteriously teleported with Ghastek to a water-filled prison and then things really spiral out of control.

For me, pacing was one of the biggest troubles of the book. The beginning filler and the slow start lead to action-packed investigative scenes which mostly alternate from pauses to explosive action. In theory, pauses are appropriate for planning the explosive action, but it feels more like a campfire that’s having a hard time catching. Story drags again when Kate is imprisoned. The first time I read it, the prison scene was an eye-rolling waste of time that mostly served to reinforce sentiment the series reader already knows. But in terms of a conclusion book, time spent on reflection makes sense, as well as those moments of emotional intimacy with a nominal enemy.

After rescue (seriously, how can that be a spoiler?), the action accelerates, and even if it’s still along the lines of “how will we escape?” it proves engaging. Nice character interaction, interesting world reveals, family revelations and psychedelic architecture all contribute to the kind of action, dialogue and inventiveness that made me a fan of the series. The ending was absolutely perfect, both in structure of the story and in emotional tone. I could see how the dramatic arc could have ended at this point and would have found it satisfying. However, I’m sincerely glad the Andrews are continuing the series, because I think there’s so much more of their interesting world to visit.

Three star beginning, five star ending. Averages, you know?

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As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson

As the Crow Flies

Read August 2015
Recommended for Longmire fans
 ★    ★    ★   1/2

Mystery writers seem particularly drawn to serialize their creations. Perhaps because the genre allows a plot arc to be completed while building on a foundation of familiar characters and setting. However, as the series goes on the challenge becomes bringing a sense of freshness while allowing the familiar to cradle the reader in comfort.  As the Crow Flies manages to capture the spirit of the Longmire tradition: the desolate Western setting, the trials of family, the work of law enforcement, and cultural aspects of the West. In this installment, Sheriff Walt Longmire is tasked with finalizing details of his daughter’s wedding. A problem in venue sends him and best friend Henry Standing Bear out to some picturesque cliffs, where he and Henry witness a woman falling to her death.

Johnson’s sense of place continues to be evocative, and this time action nicely clicks along with a variety of leads to pursue and incidents that spur Walt’s continued involvement in the case. As the death takes place on tribal lands, the reader is given a tour through some of the areas outsiders rarely see, except perhaps the local casino. I thought Johnson did a nice job of being value-neutral with the setting but still descriptive. Walt continues to play doting–but semi-absent–father and has an emotional moment or two where he has to accept emotional fallout from his choices. Pacing is steady and has a balance between the familial and the mystery plot lines.

While I enjoyed it, two concerns hung in my mind. One is that Walt is becoming even more of the awful trope known as the Great White Hope (with thanks to Claudia for verbalizing my concern). In prior books, Walt seems to narrate from bridge status, neither insider nor quite outsider to Native culture, but in this one he becomes much more of a cultural insider. I do think Johnson avoids a lot of the more stupid and common stereotypes of the U.S.’ Native population, whether desperately poor, meth-runners, or charity cases, but in this one he strays far into Mystic Connection With the Earth stereotype (for the love of all that is stereotypical, dear writers, will you stay away from the ‘blind-woman-who-sees-all” character?) In the last book, Walt had a spirit guide on his journey through the wilderness, so while this plot line could have been developed as part of an emotional/spiritual growth story, it does not quite achieve that prominence. I’d also allow for the possibility that Walt is rejecting the opportunity for spiritual growth, but Johnson doesn’t seem to be exactly headed there either. He just presents it, and while Walt will skim across his experiences in his thoughts, he won’t discuss or even inwardly acknowledge the opportunity. In Johnson’s favor, it should be noted that he does seem to achieve a nice balance in acknowledging differences in the Native cultural landscape and generally presenting characters as complicated and multi-dimensional.
So at the moment I draw up neutral, and will await where Johnson goes next.

My other concern is that this book is heavy with “instruction” to a new tribal police chief, Lolo Long who happens to be a woman and a war veteran. Walt flat out tells her she is wrong for the job, which is probably one of the harshest things I have heard Walt say in six books. I couldn’t tell if he meant to kick her ass into gear, but she responds to the tough love by looking to him for advice. While in theory finding mentors in your field is a great idea, particularly ones that have an extensive network and can assist in opportunities to develop your own relationships, it’s a little weird that Walt half-heartedly takes on the role when he is an outsider in many ways. To his credit, Walt seems sincere in his advice and wish for her success. On the negative side, the fact that Walt considers it appropriate to give her advice seems wrong in so many levels. First, Chief Long clearly has PTSD, so a really thoughtful mentor and fellow war vet should address it. Second, Walt is a physically dominating person–he frequently references college football and we know he’s over six feet tall with equal mass. And that, my friends, is something I know a great deal about, as the daughter of an equally large male police officer. Being a male, large, white and an officer allows for implicit force and explicit authority, and whether Walt acknowledges it or not, he brings that to every interaction. Although Chief Long is described as statuesque or something, she is still female and Native so the ‘authority’ she brings to interactions stems from different sources. Techniques that work for Walt are not going to work for her, although the advice to de-escalate situations is well-given and deserved. It’s well-known in the law enforcement field that female officers tend to be much better at managing confrontation so it resolves in a more peaceful manner. There’s a variety of factors that play into that dynamic, and it just strikes me as odd that Walt doesn’t acknowledge any of them.

Ultimately, I enjoyed reading As the Crow Flies, but it did require a degree of willful suspension and concentrating on following the story. It does deliver nicely on series premise and there’s a satisfying emotional core to the book that makes it a pleasant palate cleanser. It was a great way to lull my reading brain before tackling more gripping reads.

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The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett. Or Trudge.

The Troupe

Read July 2015
Recommended for people who enjoy theater
 ★    ★    ★    


Alas! I come to this book through backtracking through Bennett’s bibliography, first starting with City of Stairs (review) and following with American Elsewhere (review). I mostly fell in love with his writing and sense of place, and while The Troupe has ingredients of those, it lacks the nuances of the other two as well as the sheer inventiveness of Stairs.

Clearly not destined to be my favorite of his works, I kept hearing echoes of the young adult classic, A Wrinkle in Time, the ballad of Tam Lin and–hush, now–the Piers Anthony Incarnations of Immortality about Nature, Being a Green Mother. I suppose that’s a clue that I’m old: when everything reminds me of something else. But one that’s one of the benefits of being old as well; the ability to recognize the conceptual lineage of a work and its place within the cultural field. 

George Carole is a sixteen year-old piano prodigy who has been making his living playing for vaudeville shows. He’s not just earning a living; he’s seeking the leader of a vaudeville troupe, Silenus, who he suspects is his father. The troupe he travels with is known nationwide, composed of four unusual acts including a puppeteer, a dancer-singer, a strongwoman, and a remarkable musical chorus act that no one can exactly remember.  When George goes backstage after witnessing their performance, he has an opportunity to warn them about some suspicious men in gray who are following the troupe as well. A narrow escape results in George’s accompanying the troupe. From there, George works to integrate his talent, learns–but only a little–about each of the performers, and struggles with telling Silenus his secret. Silenus is on his own mission: to discover portions of the First Song, the song that called the world into creation, and is willing to put his troupe into danger to recover pieces of it.

The writing is exacting, but not magical. It lacks the playfulness in both language and ideas evident in Stairs (see my review for examples). At times, it starts to hit that magic, chiefly in scenes that lend themselves to fantastical description: “With the perverse, determined steadiness of a crab molting from its shell, the shadow produced the image of a man in a gray coat and black bowler, and then it seemed to somehow fold up inside him once it was done” and I can hear the same writer that enchanted me in Stairs. For the most part, however, we are inside George’s head, and although George ends up in some marvelous places, he’s largely preoccupied with his own needs, demonstrating little curiosity and introspection about what occurs there. Sadly, it ends up hamstringing Bennett’s ability to evoke the wonder in those situations.

Characterization is perhaps one of best aspects of the book, depending on one’s tolerance for immature youth and arrogant, autocratic men.

George gave her the sort of impatient look that can only be given by the very young to the very old…

About a third of the way through The Troupe, I started remembering Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time. Mind you, though I long considered it a fabulous book, Charles Wallace was one of my least favorite people in it, so it’s not a comparison to be desired. Prodigy, fatherless, lacking compassion yet blessed with insight; both Charles and George are emotionally young and make plentiful mistakes. Given the time period and his financial independence, George is almost painfully young, and reminds me of a pre-adolescent, not a teen. As a character, George seems more suitable for a young adult book. The other members of the troupe provide some much-needed relief from those two, but again, they only shine as George relates to them, except the Puppeteer.

Judging by the four and five-star reviews I’ve seen, this book resonates for many people. There’s some character twists near the end that I appreciated, particularly about the troupe. The opposing forces were interesting and villainous in different, although largely predictable, ways. Which essentially sums up my reaction: interesting but predictable.

For me, The Troupe doesn’t have enough inventiveness to move it above a ‘liked it’ reaction. Perhaps I’m unfairly comparing it to Bennett’s later works. At least I wasn’t drawn in by the marketing, which states “Vaudeville: Mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd. A world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.” I get the feeling that the blurb-writer didn’t read this one at all. I’d say it’s the opposite, and not about vaudeville at all, but about dual narcissistic quests through unusual setting: George’s search for a father and Silenus’ quest to own a song. It isn’t a culture clash at all, but a metaphysical journey, and while Silenus employs deception to achieve his ends, I wouldn’t rate any of it ‘wickedly delightful’ scale. A further note for horror fans: I’d also say marketing was deceptive there as well. One horror-like vinette about the puppets, otherwise the horror is on the scale of Grimm’s fairy tales. Certainly read The Troupe if reviews sound appealing, but don’t be misled by the book description.

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The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart

The Story of the Stone

Read August 2015
Recommended for storytellers
 ★    ★    ★    ★   ★   


In a review of Hell is Empty, I noted a story told by Virgil White Buffalo, that ended with Walt Longmire asking, “‘And the moral of the story is?’
He raised an eyebrow, and it was as if the dent in his forehead was looking to dig deeper. ‘What is it with you white people and morals? Maybe it’s just a story about what happened.’

And that is the essence of Master Li stories. They are old myths, storytelling at the knee of a master; the advanced version of What Happened that Time on the Mountain. Morals may be enforced, lessons learned, principles illustrated, but those are all secondary or even tertiary goals. First and foremost is the work of a story: to entertain.

‘But how can I tell The Story of the Stone?’ I wailed. ‘In the first place I don’t understand where it begins and in the second place I’m not sure it has an ending and in the third place, even if I understood the ending it wouldn’t do me any good because I don’t understand the beginning in the first place.’
He gazed at me in silence. Then he said, ‘My boy, stay away from sentences like that. They tend to produce pimples and permanent facial tics.’

I may be in the minority, but I found The Story of the Stone even better than its predecessor, The Bridge of Birds (review). While Bridge was a rollicking adventure through the countryside, Stone is a mystery, one that needs to be solved the old, old, old fashioned way–by doing all of it yourself, including the autopsies (“My boy, we’re going to perform the most delightful autopsy in history“) and dream journeys through the Hells.

It begins in their home, with Number Ten Ox worrying about Master Li, “He never spoke to me about it, but he was old, old almost beyond belief, and I think he was afraid he’d drop dead before something interesting turned up.” The ‘something interesting’ turns out to be the abbot of a monastery in the Valley of Sorrows who brings a mystery: A monk has been murdered and a forgery of an an ancient stolen manuscript found in his hands. Even worse, the Laughing Prince, who has been dead for seven hundred and fifty years, seems to be responsible. Master Li is certain there is a rational explanation, so he and Ox set off for the Valley, just in time for the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts and a re-appearance of the horror. Solving the mystery of the murdered monk will mean learning about the Laughing Prince, meeting Prince Liu Pao, his current living descendent, discovering the Laughing tomb, visiting the capital city and the Captain of Prostitutes, and journeying to a barbarian kingdom find a talented song-master. That’s not all, mind you, but I don’t want to give the impression that solving the mystery means any less of a scope of adventure than Bridge, just that the adventures are more focused.

“One-Eyed Wong and his beloved wife, Fat Fu, have worked very hard to earn the reputation of running the worse wineshop in all of China. The notoriety gives them a clientele that is the envy of the empire”

Characters are delightful, from Master Li and his slight flaw, to the eternally-innocent Ox, to two new companions, Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn. Moon Boy has the ability to seduce anyone he meets–male or female–providing the opportunity for a nudge-nudge-wink-wink that adds some silly fun to the story.  In the wrong hands, this kind of characterization could edge into simple caricature, but Hughbart does a perfect job of rounding out each character, respecting their eccentricities, and providing justifications for their traits.

If it was a coincidental collapse of a tunnel and the release of old acids, as I suggested to the prince, it’s the kind of coincidence that deserves priests, prayers, and an elaborate theology.

The writing is clever, with bits of humor scattered through, partly due to the word-play and partly moments of sheer fun (there’s a scheme to obtain tracings of sacred stones that’s laugh-out-loud). There’s awe at the mysteries of the universe. Surprisingly, there are some horror elements, which I should have expected since the Laughing Prince has been dead for seven hundred and fifty years.

Li Kao, you wouldn’t do that, would you? he said pleadingly. “He’s only a boy.”
“And a delightful one, so I’m told,” Master Li said warmly.
“A trifle wild, perhaps, but that’s the way of the young,” the toad said. “You have to allow for a little excess in boyish ambition.”
“Youth will be served,” Master Li said sententiously. “Sometimes after having been stuffed with truffles and basted in bean curd sauce,” he added.

These stories may not work for everyone, but I think they should work well for people that love the art of storytelling, that grew up on mythology and fairy tales, and have the patience for apparent detours that develop into the path of solution. I’m reminded of Valente’s The Orphan Tales, Goldberg’s The Princess Bride, Williams’ Inspector Chen series, and just about every myth I’ve ever read. This is an excellent group of books, and I’ll be looking to find them in hardcover for my collection.

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Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson

Hell is Empty

Read August 2015
Recommended for hard-core Longmire fans
 ★    ★   

Current self says, “Self, don’t read this book. Skip it and go to the next Walt Longmire.”
Past self says, “Self, it really bothers me to read a book out of order. What if I miss something? I have to complete them.”
Current self: “Stop being so obsessive compulsive.”
Past self: “I breathe, therefore I am.”
Current self: “Just for that, I’m gonna slap you into next week.”

Johnson tried, he really did. But there’s no mystery here, only Walt chasing down escaped prisoners in the middle of a Wyoming snowstorm in May. One of the prisoners–the important one–is a sociopath who has played a trump card of identifying the burial site of a murdered Native American boy. The prisoners escape shortly after Walt drops them off with the Feds, but Walt gets an inkling something ain’t right, and he’s on their tail in two shakes of a dog’s wet fur. So despite ice-slick roads, snowdrifts and fallen trees, Walt tracks them down to a lodge and then up into the Big Horn Mountain. Along the way he has a mystical journey, encounters lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) and Virgil White Buffalo.

Forget the plot. There isn’t much; it’s a straight-out Fugitive, with a mysticism bonus. I could forgive the wild coincidences and forced scenarios, but what I can’t forgive is Walt’s feeble reasons for the chase in the first place: “it’s my job.” No, it isn’t. Secondary reasons are flimsy (perhaps there are hostages, although they may be helping the fugitives) and flat-out stupid, particularly in light of prior life-and-death experiences when Walt was motivated by family and love. There’s not enough pretense to hang my hat on here.

And the storytelling–good heavens. It stumbles like a drunk cowboy trying to find the gents’ room, bouncing off patrons and doorways, spilling beer on the way. It vacillates from a whole lot of telling to forced metaphors about journeys to scenes that sound like Jack London on a bender. We learn the prisoners Longmire is transporting to the feds are awful people through dialogue lifted from Law & Order. Later there’s a dream sequence/flashback of the murdered child as he was being abducted (which show is that? Criminal Intent? I can’t keep all these devices straight). We have Deputy Santiago reading literature to broaden his mind or something, and while feeding the prisoners at the diner (!) he’s reading (!) Dante’s Inferno, (I find reading Dante less surprising then stopping at a restaurant to give handcuffed prisoners a meal and reading a book while one does it) which will conveniently be placed in the survival pack Santiago gives Walt. Then we have long landscape-gazing sequences where Walt climbs mountains, travels across icy lakes and gazes at beetle-destroyed pines. Foreshadowing isn’t so much heavy as it is crushing as it compares Walt’s journey to Dante’s and warns him about traitors, death and etc. (although I don’t believe sin was discussed).

The ending proved fairly unsatisfying, particularly as Walt persists in failing to discuss the spirits with best friend and Native warrior Henry, and as he persists in failing to acknowledge their influence on his life. I did like Virgil, his stories, and the mountain lion, so I guess that’s something. I was also glad for Hector the prisoner and his unselfconscious, sporadic phone calls providing a few laughs, sadly out of tone with the rest of the story.

My favorite paragraph in the book came after Virgil’s story about the Long Otters eating the young Thunderbirds and the Crow warrior who helped them:
“I nodded my head. ‘And the moral of the story is?’
He raised an eyebrow, and it was as if the dent in his forehead was looking to dig deeper. ‘What is it with you white people and morals? Maybe it’s just a story about what happened.'”

Now there was a story.

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The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross. Fuller and funner.

The Fuller Memorandum

Read July 2015
Recommended for people who enjoy geek humor, spies, supernatural being
 ★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

Bob Howard is having a rough week. His boss has ordered him out to a distant airfield to deal with a supernatural containment issue and in the course of the exorcism, things go very awry. Placed on administrative leave, he’d be at loose ends–except that his boss Angleton gave him an assignment, deputized him for top-secret project BLOODY BARON and has subsequently disappeared. Within short order, his wife Mo is sent on a quick mission-CLUB ZERO–only to return shell-shocked. Even worse, the Russians are sniffing around and there might be a mole in The Laundry. When Bob and Mo are attacked in their home, events start escalating quickly.

If I found the first Laundry files book, The Atrocity Archives (review) somewhat unfriendly with tech-speak, The Fuller Memorandum has become far more accessible. Snarky commentary is scattered fast and furious and ranges far beyond physics and computers. I ‘snerked’ rather often in the first third (that noise you make when you are not-quite soundlessly laughing to yourself), enjoying Bob’s take on:

iPhones (referred to as JesusPhones): “‘Oh, Bob. Don’t you know any better?’
‘It was at least a class four glamour,’ I say defensively, resisting the urge to hunch my shoulders and hiss preciousss. ‘And I needed a new phone anyway.‘”

Lovecraftian horrors: “These things are never terribly good at coordinating a tensegrity structure like a mammalian musculoskeletal system: even when they’re in the driving seat they’re trying to work a manual transmission with automatic-only training.

attempts to scare him:I’m sure it’s all very eerie, but when reality starts to imitate a second-rate computer game you know the bad guys have over-egged the pudding… It’s the sort of tactic that might stand a chance of working if I was a little less cynical…

PowerPoint: “The last time I saw him, he was on what I was sure was a one-way trip to a padded cell for the rest of his life after sitting through one PowerPoint slide too many at a certain meeting in Darmstadt

On communism inhibiting advances in coping with the supernatural in Russia: “Proximate results: they got into orbit using hand calculators, but completely dropped the ball on anything that required complexity theory, automated theorem proving, or sacrificial goats.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. There’s actually a lot of basic religious philosophy in this one, heralded by Bob’s Prologue, “Losing My Religion.” Alas, as he explains, he doesn’t so much as lose his religion as lose his atheism. I found it interesting, particularly when Bob tangentially discussed humanity’s predilection for pattern recognition, but it’s clear that Bob regards all religions as foolish attempts to whistle in the dark (or placate a hideous and uncaring evil). It’s the kind of subtext/ongoing issue that elevates the concepts and the writing in this series above the ordinary kind of fantasy.

As Bob struggles to discover the history behind BLOODY BARON and project TEAPOT, events and consequences become more serious. I thought it progressed organically, with  tension escalating until I was reading faster and faster. Although the ultimate confrontation was somewhat predictable, and telegraphed early on, it remained suspenseful. There was also twist to the Laundry I really enjoyed. It’ll be interesting to see where Stross takes that angle next, as he seems to be building to an ultimate confrontation in CODE NIGHTMARE GREEN, when the other-worlds entities finally take note of the puny humans and decide to go out to our universe for lunch.

It misses 5 stars for me only because of general emotional disengagement; it’s not a book I must have (my preciousss). I suspect that the fast-and-furious witticisms and references keep me more engaged on an intellectual level than an emotional one.

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