The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

the-fall-of-the-house-of-cabal

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of Cabal
 ★     ★     ★     ★     1/2

So much is quotable here, so much extreme deliciousness.

The Brothers Cabal are back together, each having done a bit of personal growth. One of the rewarding arcs of the series is how Johannes has thawed–just a little, mind you–in acknowledging brotherly affection, even displaying concern for boon companions.

“Here, Cabal paused. Yes, he had done good. By accident, as a by-product, by serendipity. But yes, he had done good. He just didn’t see why people kept wanting to rub his nose in it.”

Howard doesn’t spend much time rehashing past plots, noting that “In an ideal world, the reader would have the common courtesy to have read all the previous novels in this series and retained sufficient of the plot that a pithy summation would be unnecessary. As has been noted by observers more perspicacious than the author, however, it is far from an ideal world and a distinct proportion of those reading these words will have had more pressing matters than to avail themselves of the four novels preceding this one. To these people, the author says, ‘Yes, four. You jumped in at Book Five. What are you like?'”  This is a book that benefits from the gestalt of the series, as characters and settings from prior books make often critical reappearances here. That said, one reviewer noted that even though she had not read other books in the series, she found this quite understandable. Still, one of the delights that a series brings is the meta-story, the development of characters and relationships.

Characters were interesting, particularly the delightful spider-devil Madam Zarenyia. Really–for the second time this year, I’m enjoying spiders–her personality sparkled through the pages and her joie de vivre had me laughing out loud. Thankfully, Howard’s footnote sent me searching back to the story in which she first appeared, “The Long Spoon,” which was equally entertaining.

“‘I do so hate all this shilly-shallying. May I get all leggy and start killing people now?’
‘You may not, madam, but that time is drawing close.’
She nodded sagely. ‘Deferred gratification. I’ve heard about that. So this is what it feels like. Hmmmm.’ She considered this new sensation. ‘It’s slightly irritating.'”

Horst perhaps suffers more in this book as a foil to Johannes, a straight-man for the others’ cleverness, and a stand-in for the reader. I missed his daring and active personality in this book, although he does get his moment to shine in the last section.

“‘No?” Horst’s expression was of somebody trying to play a game wherein the other player keeps ‘remembering’ rules that tip things in his favor.”

I generally love Howard’s writing style, a take perhaps on the ornate styles of Victorian tales (my historical fiction experience is sketchy). It’s structurally and conceptually complex, although with enough sarcasm, asides and social commentary to make it amusing, even more so when it switches from verbosity to bluntness.

“As he did so, the battle suddenly attenuated, its combatants thinning out like magic lantern projections when the curtain is drawn back and daylight re-enters the room. Now they looked like ghosts, and now they looked like suggestive shapes in the evening mist rising from the damp land, and now they were gone altogether.

Cabal cared not a jot. His main concern was how on earth he was supposed to entertain himself for a full day in a place as devoid of interest as Perkis Moor. After all, it was only haunted, and the ghosts were boring.”

The plot centers on Johannes gathering companions and embarking on a journey to five different locations to open the door to eternal life. Not for himself, mind you. The different locations are a way to delightfully revisit settings of the prior books and try out different styles. It plays to Howard’s strengths as a short story writer. The culmination of the quest is altogether satisfying, an ending I couldn’t really have predicted, though a door was left somewhat ajar so what a tale may be continued. Personally, when I heard the series was ending, I promptly went to Howard’s page to discover more, and from there went and joined a Patreon for his works. Such delightful writing should be rewarded.

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Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

castle-hangnail

Read February 2017
Recommended for fans of fairy tales and clever girls
 ★     ★    ★    ★    ★    

Castle Hangnail is unbelievably charming and one of the first reads of the year to make it to my ‘to buy’ list. To be fair, there are a few issues, but any book I finish and immediately start reading is a solid five-star read.

Castle Hangnail is in need of a master or mistress. No matter if it is an Evil Sorceress, Loathsome Hag, Vampire Lord or an ordinary Mad Scientist, the Board of Magic cannot let a magical building stay untended. The castle’s Minions have been doing the best they can, but they’ve just received notice that there will be no more extensions, so they need a master, fast. When twelve year-old Molly shows up at the door claiming to be a Wicked Witch, it seems miraculous. To take ownership, Molly has Tasks to complete, including acts of Smiting and Blighting, and winning the hearts and minds of the townsfolk, “however you like,” said Majordomo. “The old Vampire Lord like to keep the hearts in jars in the basement, but he was rather old-fashioned. You could just grind them all underfoot and demand tribute if you like.”

Ahh, the characters. Although there are humans in the village, Castle Hangnail is strictly inhabited by the magical, along with three ravens and a roost of bats. There’s the very conservative butler guardian Majordomo, an ancient and sewn-together type of man creature who has been with the Castle as long as it has been in existence; the ghostly suit of armor, Edward (of the rusty knees); the Minotaur, Cook, who has an antipathy against the letter ‘Q’ ever since her husband ran off with an encyclopedia saleswoman; Pins, the tailor and burlap doll and his sidekick goldfish; and Serenissima, the steamy offspring of a djinn and a mermaid.

“Pins lived in a small room over the laundry with a talking goldfish. The goldfish was intensely nuerotic and convinced that she was always sickening for something. Pins took very tender care of the fish and was currently knitting her a very small waterproof scarf.”

Vernon is also an artist, and one of the delights with the print edition is illustrations throughout the text, the small bats in the corner by the page numbers, and the curious way the page background turns black with white text when we come to a night scene. It also gives a hint into Molly’s ethnicity, described as “a plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair. She was wearing black boots with metal caps on the end.” The illustration looks pleasantly multi-ethnic, with a wide nose and shaded skin. Interestingly, the one human we get to know and like the best is a middle-aged black woman with grey hair. Always a pleasure to find inclusive young adult that does not assume white as the character norm.

“‘I didn’t used to be able to make my clothes invisible too. That was awkward.’
‘That was my pastry,’ said Majordomo.
She swallowed and grinned at him. ‘That’s how you know I’m a Wicked Witch.’
Pastry-theft was not on the same level as lightning, but it would have to do for now.”

Plotting moves quickly, and while some of it is predictable–Molly will, after all, have to own up to her deception–completing the tasks takes magic, mundane problem- solving, kindness and ultimately, teamwork. There’s a great balance between self-reliance and teamwork. Its very much geared to the late grade school/early teen years in how development of confidence and consequence is dealt with. It reminds me of the slightly older-geared Year of the Griffin, a perennial favorite and re-read, and of The Ship Who Circumnavigated… by Valente, without the ornate imagery.

One of the interesting things about this story is that the reader is flipped back and forth between Molly’s and Majordomo’s perspective. It’s curious, and definitely two sides of the life spectrum; the pre-teen finding her confidence and the very, very old person confronting a new way of thinking about his world.

I’m not entirely sure Molly is truly on the ‘wicked’ side of the scale. One of my problems with the story is that it never really confronts that fact that Molly would be considered ‘wicked’ by many for her deceptions, but instead has to ‘prove’ herself in other ways. I think the implied message is that one can still be a good person and not be entirely full of sweetness, sparkles and pink bows, and that even occasional naughtiness can be appreciated. It’s a great message in the land of Barbie and the enduring fascination with pink Princesses of all brands. It’s also a good message for all of us older people that have learned to behave. Highly recommended, and definitely gift-worthy.

 

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Nine Goblins by T. Kingfisher

nine-goblins

Read February 2017
Recommended for fans of fairy tales
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

Kingfisher wants to turn idea of goblins and elves on its head. Perhaps this is a side story to Lord of the Rings, where a band of somewhat lovable, somewhat gross goblins

There are some fabulous explanations of grumpy people goblin psychology as well: “Wherever a goblin happens to live, he complains about it constantly. This is actually a sign of affection. A desert goblin will complain endlessly about the beastly heat and the dreadful dryness and the spiky cactus. He will show you how his sunburn is peeling and the place where the rattlesnake bit him and the place where he bit the rattlesnake. He will be thoroughly, cheerfully, miserable.”

As fun as that is, I can’t help but think that would be more fun to see this evolve in dialogue. In fact, it does, later in the tale during dinner, and the explanation happens as an aside in a few quick sentences. Nonetheless, the descriptions are charming, playing with our expectations of romantic views of soldiering, elves and healing:

Goblins march badly… On a good day, they will stay in step for nearly a minute before somebody gets bored, or trips, or stumbles, or forgets what he’s doing and begins skipping. Small knots break off. Officers ride around on their pigs, shouting orders and leaving havoc in their wake.”

Still, despite the amusing descriptions and interesting world-building, pacing could have been improved. It isn’t until 25 to 30 percent into the book that a major event happens that sets up the conflict for the rest of the story. The conflict is interesting in a benign way, but then it takes an ominous turn once the goblins discover an abandoned farm and dead animals. It makes for an uneven tone, and there’s a weird little bit of storyline involving mental illness and power that made me just a tiny bit… squidgy.

Characters are fun and well… humanized, for lack of a better word. There’s Sings-to-Trees, the only elf who seems to enjoy getting dirty in the course of his healing duties, and Sergeant Nessilka who is doing her very best to keep the goblins alive. So: high marks for world-building and language, medium marks for storytelling, and lesser marks for plotting. Bonus marks for having a story that conveys the somewhat stupid–but sincere– and… organic charms of goblins. It’s a nice tale, but Kingfisher’s other works are even better–particularly those as Ursula Vernon.

 

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Johannes Cabal short stories by Jonathan L. Howard

a-long-spoon

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of Cabal
 ★     ★    ★    ★    ★   

When the giant spider devil appeared in The Fall of the House of Cabal, it wasn’t long before I was giggling. How can you not at a devil who uses the ‘Girl Guide’ oath to ‘dub’ clauses on her swearing the traditional binding oaths? When one of Howard’s less sarcastic footnotes pointed me toward the novelette where she first made the acquaintance of Johannes, I had to stop and read it, particularly after it referenced Cabal turning into a haddock.

A classic set up with Johannes Cabal as the reserved straight-man and Zarenyia the playful and quite bored devil provides engaging dialogue as they set on an adventure. The word-play consistently amuses: “She was undoubtedly female, and probably very attractive in a shallow “really rather beautiful” sort of way.” I chuckled out loud when Cabal tried to explain the metaphor “a long spoon when one sups with the devil” to her– it was the sort of dialogue that puts one in mind of Abbott and Costello. I’m not sure how well this would play for people unfamiliar with the series, as part of the joy is knowing Cabal is not only the extreme stereotype of the logical scientist, but a bit of a misanthrope in his views on humanity.

Against all common sense, I’m beginning to like you,’ he said.
‘Even though I’m a devil and I have a lot of legs and I devour the souls of my prey through the expedient of lethal orgasms?’
‘I’m still waiting for you to raise a bad point.’
She slapped him lightly on the back. ‘You charmer.’

It reads a bit like Howard was channeling Douglas Adams, as there’s a bit that involves Chaos (which sounds remarkably like the Infinity Drive). Delightful, and I’m glad it’s on my kindle and available for re-read.

You can purchase it–which I recommend, as encouragement and support for the author–but it is also available for free on Tor.com’s site: http://www.tor.com/2014/12/18/a-long-…

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exeunt-demon-king
Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of ghost stories
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

It is Christmas and Police Sergeant Parkin has stopped by Johannes Cabal’s house to collect his annual donation to the police benevolent fun. Johannes finds himself unexpectedly moved by Parkin’s neutral views on his necromantic work:

“‘Could…’ Cabal floundered in the unfamiliar waters of social interaction for a moment. ‘Could I interest you in a drink before you go?'”

They end up sitting by the fire, drinking and exchanging stories, when Johannes decides to share one of his early encounters with a ghost who was responsible for the deaths of four theater actors.

The description mentions pant-o-mime, and it’s more than a bit misleading. The British version of the term refers to a low-brow production, often for children, with slapstick, music and jokes, usually performed around Christmas time. Most empathetically not soundless people in an invisible box. It’s nicely done, although it lacks some of the word-play and humor of later Cabal stories. An ominous atmosphere develops, making it feel like a traditional ghost story crossed with Phantom of the Opera. It has very little of Cabal’s trademark acerbic wit, being more focused on the dynamic between the ghost and Cabal. Still, a fun quick read.

*************************************************************************

ouroboros-ouzo

Read February 2017
 ★     ★    1/2

My first experience with ouzo is with Douglas Adams in Life, the Universe and Everything. Being from farm type, working-class people in the German and Scandanavian hinterlands of America, I had absolutely no idea what it was. In those days, kids, there wasn’t any internet. You wanted to know what something was, you looked it up at the library using the encyclopedia (think ‘Wikipedia’ with actual, real references, complied by educated people) or using the Mirriam-Webster dictionary you had lying around the house. Being unwilling to stop reading for a pesky definition means I often pieced together meaning based on the text. Somehow, I developed the idea that ouzo was a lot like olive oil, a point of confusion which persisted through the book but which was fortunately, rather unimportant.

Ouzo appears again, when Johannes is willing to pay out a special gold coin’s worth of difficult favors to see if his current line of research will pay dividends. Silly, crabby Johannes, who can’t see the future for what it is (and seems to share a disturbingly similar and simple impression of ‘choice’ as Blake Crouch in Dark Matter). I feel this one would have benefited from a bit more fleshing out, a bit less holding things back at the beginning for the sake of surprise, and a bit more dialogue. It has an interesting core. The best part was the afterward, where Howard shares that the title (and then story) came about after a Twitter dare with Kadrey and Wendig. Twitter has much that is inane and hollow to answer for. Luckily, this story isn’t one of those howls in the ether.

I don’t think I ever have tried ouzo, but it seems to be one of those drinks that one kicks back with a rush and a grimace, and given it’s connection with some of the weirder stories in literature, I think it’s safest to stay away.

*******************************************

 

the-death-of-me

Read February 2017
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

Johannes needs to run to town and pick up a few things, only in his case it doesn’t come close to a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. This is a fuller story, more developed, with the acerbic tone that so characterizes the series.

“Walking helped him to think and, today, he was thinking what an unpleasant day it was to be walking… Cabal regarded sweating as one of Nature’s more subtle revenges upon humanity and its pretensions to Prime Species.”

In the traditions of many a Grimm fairy tale, he meets a black coach drawn by black horses, a mysterious and beautiful woman inside.

“They looked at each other for a long moment, she in her widow’s weeds, he in his disgruntlement.”

It is dark tale, giving some background to Cabal’s environment and showcasing his immoral side, so recently found in  “Johannes Cabal the Necromancer.” Mood is well developed. I don’t suggest it if you are looking for a charming protagonist, but it’s a rather interesting little challenge.

Read it at Tor: http://www.tor.com/2013/09/10/the-death-of-me/

*************************************************************

Last, but not least,
The House of Gears, April 2011.

Read February 2017
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

 

“He liked to believe he was a practical man yet sometimes practicality weighed against his dignity, and his dignity was a high horse he kept permanently saddled.”

This is Johannes Cabal in fine fettle, irritable with the world at large for the inconvenience, and predisposed to murderous thoughts, as long as it removes the annoyances. Besides, one is always in need of fresh parts.

“‘Your fame precedes you,” he simpered, like a man who is reading How to Simper in Five Weeks and is up to day three.
Cabal looked at him, silently appalled. If the horrible little man asked him for his autograph, he decided, it would be necessary to kill him.”

It’s a story full of detail and world-building, or, at least, house-building. Cabal is still on his search for the antidote to death, which leads him to the mysterious Monsieur Samhet. There’s a strong steampunk component that will likely appeal to steampunk fans. It was well done, but thematically, it’s just not to my optimal tastes. Apparently, I prefer giant lady-spiders. Who knew?

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The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch. Or, Audio is Awesome!

the-hanging-tree

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy mixed with police procedural
All the stars

I know, I know: I’m always waxing enthusiastic over Kobna’s reading of this series, but the audio version of a story set in London, filled with a wide variety of characters, brings a whole new level of appreciation to the story. Kobna’s work on the London stage since 2003 would seem to be ideal preparation for the range of accents, voices and emotions used in the Peter Grant series. One official site lists a dizzying array of accent skills, along with fluency in English, Fanti and Ghanaian, (site: https://www.spotlight.com/interactive…) put to good use on the occasions Peter’s mum makes an appearance.

In this particular book, much of it takes place in the world of the ‘posh’ elite, giving us a chance to appreciate a range of upper-class/highly educated accents. Somehow, Kobna is able to give us the sassy tones of Bev, the clipped tone of Lady Ty controlling her temper, Nightingales’ measured and articulate speech along with the working-class, foul-mouthed drawl of Inspector Seawoll and the swarmy, entendre-laden tones of Reynard the Fox and make me believe each character. That, to me, is flipping ah-maz-ing. For comparison, one of the first audiobooks I listened to was a female reader for Stephanie Plum book, and her voicing of the males in the books felt so false, so awkward, that I was thrown out of the story every time they spoke. Not so here. The only misstep to me is the brief appearance of American Kim Reynolds. Other Americans fair better. I’d also like to remember that one dangerous moment for Peter (oh, shush; there’s many in every book) where Kobna drops his voice nearly to a whisper to read, sending chills up my spine. Just perfect.

To my delight, there’s an interview at the end between Aaronovitch, Holdbrook-Smith and one of the marketers from Gollancz that answers many wonderings. For instance, it seems Ben can’t avoid Kobna’s voice either, and sometimes when he writes he thinks of how the words will sound when read, particularly because Peter is prone to long chunks of distracted thought ‘missing a full stop.’ And, somewhat reassuringly, other listeners would agree with me that the only voice not done wonderfully is the American. Kobna’s mock-outrage at the charge is endearing.

In the interview, Ben mentions that he doesn’t have a ‘meta’ plot all worked out for the series, that his philosophy is ‘take care of the story and the meta will work itself out.’ I think that explains a great deal about the immediate and meta plotting of the books, which might prove unsatisfying for those who look for an explicitly “progressing” arc rather than episodes in the adventures of life (Note: I too wish my own meta-life would make more progress, but my approach to my own life must be something like Ben’s writing). At any rate, my take-away is that Kobna and the series are reassuringly linked. Thank the urban-fantasy audio gods. Or the river ones.

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Nemesis by Agatha Christie

nemesis

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of Miss Marple
First published 1964
 ★     ★    1/2   

Nemesis. For such an ominous title, Christie presents a rather philosophically reserved and sedentary work. Miss Marple of the pink fluffy wool and knitting needles, has been left a bequest by Mr. Rafiel, the debilitated rich man she met during A Caribbean Mystery. The bequest is conditional; she must investigate and elucidate a certain happening within a year. No more information is provided. The premise intrigues her and she accepts the challenge. She takes some small steps on her own, although she also receives a brief post-mortem letter from him, containing little more detail except that he would like to send her on a particular coach countryside tour.

It’s a mildly-intriguing set-up where the reader and Miss Marple are in similar straights, waiting to discover what the mystery is. Unfortunately, it is very slow going, and because Miss Marple is unsure of her task, much of her conversations are fishing for information, but what sort of catch? It is a very internally-based story, relying on Miss Marple’s internal dialogue, and the sharing of long stories with various characters. It occurs to me that it is about the exact opposite of another recent read, Dark Matter, which had frantic pacing and a staccato narrative. Take, for instance, the first part of this paragraph from Miss Marple:

“Mr. Rafiel had made arrangements. Arrangements, to begin with, with his lawyers. They had done their part. At the right interval of time they had forwarded to her his letter. It had been, she thought, a well-considered and well-thought-out letter. It would have been simpler, certainly, to tell her exactly what he wanted her to do and why he wanted it done. She was surprised in a way that he had not, before his death, sent for her, probably in a somewhat peremptory way and more or less lying on what he would have assured her was his deathbed, and would then have bullied her until she consented to do what he was asking her. But no, that would not really have been Mr. Rafiel’s way, she thought. He could bully people, none better, but this was not a case for bullying, and he did not with either, she was sure, to appeal to her, to beg her to do him a favour, to urge her to redress a wrong. No. That again would not have been Mr. Rafiel’s way. He wanted, she thought, as he had probably wanted all his life, to pay for what he required. He wanted to pay her and therefore he wanted to interest her enough to really enjoy doing certain work.”

It goes on this way for another ten to twelve sentences, as she mentally works her way through interpretations of Mr. Rafiel’s motivations and plans. But you can see this is rather sleepy stuff, that we are mostly inside Miss Marple’s head as she speculates and dissects the situation. It picks up a little bit when she’s invited to a house part-way through the trip, but the dialogue gives only some respite, as many times she employs her nattering, ditzy elderly persona to elicit more information. She talks to a man with the Home Office and another man with the Church and listens to their stories as well as their views on the psychology of the crime.

The setting was nicely developed; I certainly felt like I was on a rather dull coach tour with a bunch of tourists. The gardens, the surface conversations between strangers, the options for the hardy and the elderly all captured that bus tour feeling. Eventually there is a mild atmosphere of oppression, much like the air outside before a mild storm, but nothing quite suffocating. Nothing worth of the ‘nemesis’ label. The denouement is a bit… anti-climactic, and to make it worse, it is a trick used by Miss M. before.

It occurs to me that despite the inner dialogue, I don’t remember very much about Miss M. personally, which is a shame. Still, it was mildly interesting putting the pieces together, even if I did have the tendency to nod off from time to time. I’m totally sure it was me. Mostly. Partly. But I always enjoy a little bit of Miss M. from time to time–after all, after Nancy Drew, she is the female investigator I’ve known the longest.

 

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A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

a-caribbean-mystery

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of Miss Marple
First published 1964
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

One’s time period can be such a bother, don’t you think? Or, in some cases, very inspiring. I, for instance, never thought I’d see the time when a Cheeto could become president. I mean, president of the Frito-Lay Corporation, sure. But an elected position? A victory for processed foods! Out with the vegetable gardens, in with the snack machines! Wait, not that kind of orange finger food? Oh. Oh, well… nevermind. Back to what I was saying about inspiration. I mean, hey–I’m in my forties. I actually had a grandmother who referred to black Americans as ‘coloreds.’ Think about the sea of societal change iin this time period, from the court case upholding desegregating schools in 1954 (way to go, independent Justice Branch!) to an actual African-American President of the U.S. in 2008. That’s pretty amazing. Sometimes I think I’m in the right epoch, and other times I don’t. I mean, processed snack foods–gross.

Take Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, for instance. If only we could have left a bunch of her era’s prejudices and populist ideas out of the book, it’d be much more tolerable. Did we need to have the social commentary on the marriage and procreative habits of the islanders? Not necessary to the plot in the least, and yet it gets mentioned a number of times, at least four or five, I should think. Along with the weird psychoanalysis of women in general. Please. Skip those bits and you have a delightful mystery in a beautiful setting, although one can’t help wish–just a little bit, says Miss Marple–for some actual English weather (not me, though. I can totally not wish for English weather).

Dear Raymond has sent Miss Marble on an island vacation, to rest her rheumatism and test her skills. Not long after Major is telling her a story about a murderer, he himself it found dead. Mon dieu! Wait, wrong character. But Miss Marple is too genteel to use exclamatory phrases. It’s a gentle kind of narrative at first, where Miss Marple looks back on life, human nature, the challenges of aging, and picks apart the relationships of the other guests at the resort. Surprising to me were the short bits that included a third-person perspective of another couple of characters. It was obvious Christie was using it to build suspense and as a red herring, but I was a bit surprised to note such a cheap trick. Ah well.

It really was a fun little story, with some interesting twists and a multiple body count to keep the reader in a state of fear. The resort proved to be a typical Christie setting of the isolated manor house/guests, leading to a limited pool of suspects. This one, I remembered reading before, so I can’t say whether it surprised. But I enjoyed it and polished it off quickly.

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Red Knight Falling by Craig Schaefer

red-knight-falling

Read January 2017
Recommended for those times you want UF action without overt sexism
 ★     ★    ★   

Urban fantasy often falls into what I think of as ‘gym reads.’ They tend to be light-weight philosophically, action-focused with streamlined writing. Good gym reads are well written enough that they don’t remind me I’m pedaling or stepping away in repetitive motion, and great ones may even get me working harder with adrenaline, or keep me on the machine longer than I planned. Schaefer’s Daniel Faust series is definitely one of the latter, so I was looking forward to giving his spin-off series starring Agent Black. This is the second book in the series, improving somewhat on the first.

Holly Black is back for her second mission with the Vigilant Lock, a secret arm of the government created to deal with occult threats. Actually, first they have an unofficial mission: hunting down the tech genius who orchestrated the death of former team member Mikki. Things go a little off the rails and the team ends up in hot water with their boss after someone gets cell phone footage of a team member running over a suspect. Further recriminations are put on hold for their real mission: recovering the Red Knight satellite that seems to attract a hostile unknown entity.

Action is steady, if not always logical. The team heads to Oregon, posing as civilians while they narrow in on the landing site. Things go haywire when other unknown agencies, mercenaries, and Dark Forces become involved. They end up flying to Florida, to Chicago and California as part of the mission to prevent the apocalypse, dealing with double agents, a boss that occasionally seems to work against them and trouble in their own unit. The ending was satisfactory and paves the way for the next mission.

Characters feel like any standard team operation show. We have the prodigy, awkward computer geek, the wheelchair-bound psychologist who provides the logical thought (I think?), the Almost-Dark-Side berserker and Harmony. There are side involvements regarding personal dating-type relationships with some of the team members (of course, not the logician) to give them a little more depth, but for me it felt rather single note. I enjoyed Jessie’s personality, however, and would happily give a spin-off with her a shot.

Every now and then, a world-building problem intrudes, much as in the first book. My first misstep was at 12% when one of the team members asks Harmony, who is a witch, “Do you miss it?… The days when you didn’t know what you know. The bliss of ignorance. You can’t see the world like they can, not anymore.” Seeing as how Harmony’s father was killed and her mother taught Harmony witchcraft, and she worked for years with the Bureau, including chasing down the miscreant Faust, I’m puzzled where this sentiment came from. More importantly, at one point Harmony and teammate Jessie decide to investigate a supernatural ‘neutral zone.’ They encounter a rather powerful demon that controls the building and they proceed brazenly, threatening to take it into custody, shoot or torture it for information. All while above a room full of folk with magic powers, in a neutral territory. I hate it when lead characters are TSTL.

Still, it was an enjoyable distraction, but I’m definitely looking forward to return to the Faust series. Recommended for those times you want lots of UF action without overt sexism.

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Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

dark-matter

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of John Scalzi and Jason Bourne
 ★     ★     1/2

“No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens: a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting it. No time to flinch or brace.”

After a decade in emergency medical services and another fourteen years in oncology, I can say that this is absolutely true. True, true, true. But what is also tragic is the slow dissolution of options, until world, circumstance, personality, this moment, feel like they limit options until the only thing left is the least objectionable, the least ethically compromised in a sea of no options, the final moment before the illusion of control and choice breaks. Though Dark Matter opens with the former, it sticks with the illusion of choice.

I went into Dark Matter knowing nothing except there was buzz, it was sci-fi, and there was something that ***COULD BE SPOILED.*** It was a big deal in many reviews, whether or not something was mentioned. And that, perhaps, best demonstrates just how limited this story is, that people consider the application of the multi-verse of possibilities a spoiler. I love much in science fiction. I love the way it makes my brain stretch. Sometimes, I love the way it makes me uncomfortable (hello, Octavia Butler!). One of my paragons is Ursula LeGuin, the was she weaves world-building, character and idea together to really explore humanity. To think that one could spoil The Left Hand of Darkness by saying, ‘the aliens change sex’ completely minimizes the intricacy of ideas, the impact of religion, the building of a society, the turmoil of the characters. I’m not being critical of the idea of spoilers so much as the idea that this sci-fi book contains so little that ‘spoiling’ is possible. It’s a Big Idea in need of more work.

So here are my issues, with spoilers. It’s a screenplay. Simply structured, simply written, it is the rat-a-tat-tat of stream of consciousness under duress. Eventually, I found it inadequate to sustain my interest, and generally inadequate to convey the ideas the author wished to explore. Largely as a consequence, the main character, Jason Bourne Desson, remained largely unbelievable to me. I did not feel like he was a researcher, an academic or a professor. I felt like he was an ordinary dude that loved his family a lot, but there was no real belief created for me between the ‘genius-level’ guy that could create this machine and the guy that contained that brain and taught at community college. Had we tapped into Jason’s problem-solving ability sooner, I might have believed they were the same person. But because of the character inadequacies, we get to relax into the idea that the opposition is someone who is quite different than Jason. It makes the set-up that much harder to appreciate. Jason becomes so one-note with his characterization–“Daniela! Daniela!–two notes if you count his son, Charlie–that really instead of becoming sympathetic, he just sounds obsessive. Scary obsessive, by the end. Crouch does explore this idea just a touch at the end with the Jasons that are willing to kill, but ends up ignoring it for a moment of Dani self-determination.

Instead of exploring the truly horrific idea of a number of closely similar but just different enough worlds, Crouch gets distracted by the meta-changes. When Jason is searching for new worlds, he finds an arctic age, one where wolves are in Chicago, where buildings are on fire, the plague, etc. I enjoyed these visions of other worlds, but realized it was a physical sideshow to the fear of the mundane. We later blame some of it on the Box interpreting his state of mind, but I think a more interesting story was where Jason eventually ended: realities that were almost but not quite like his.

How can you recapture exactly the point where your life diverged? (Okay, now that I’m thinking about it, how did Jason end up in Jason2’s world when he was unconscious and freaked out?). This dissonance is explored lightly as Jason frazzles to an obsessive, psychotic state. Here is where I missed the scientist as well, the logician and the puzzle-solver. How many times can you dial the same phone number before you start thinking of other ways to check it out? Honestly, does Crouch know any people in hard science? Crouch wants to have both worlds, the ‘normal’ guy and the genius guy, and doesn’t make me believe they are the same core person. Take away the premise and they are two different people in conflict over a woman, a much less interesting story (also not clear why science-Jason didn’t try and romance adult Dani–there could have been an interesting story there).

Overall, a decent, quick read, but not one that provided a lot of meat to chew on; too single note, too under-written with unsympathetic characters. I’m sure the movie will be a big hit, especially if they get Matt Damon.

 

 
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Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman. Yes, absolutely.

between-two-thorns

Read January 2017
Recommended for people that like Regency romance and elven politics
 ★    

** spoiler alert ** Do not read this review. Unless you are Carol., and unless you are not fond of regency romance and portal worlds. No, this is not a riff on Grover’s Monster at the End of This Book (whoops! Spoiler!)

Carol. You will hate this. Oh sure, it starts promisingly. Sam, looking for someplace unauthorized to pee, accidentally witnesses two very strange-looking men removing a body. His scene ends with a whopper of a spell put on him by Evil Tinkerbell. We switch to Max, an Arbiter lawman, who is tracking down some shady Fae dealings and ends up being ambushed by another Arbiter. The absolute best part about him is that his soul is given a new home in a gargoyle. Then we switch to Cathy, a Fae woman living in Mundania (!), hiding from her family so she can go to school, live a mundane life, and basically not be the compliant, living doll the Fae seem to expect of their women (except when we actually meet the women, they seem pretty much as scheming and power-focused as the men). There’s a moment of interest when she’s in an emporium and encounters the Lord of Fae, who gives her three wishes.

I know, right? Gargoyles and a woman struggling for independence, right? Three wishes? It sounded good enough to get you through the first third or so. But the woman’s character is so 1950s, it’s a serious drag. You rolled your eyes at “A zillion reasons,” she sighed. “If I tell you, will you promise not to tell anyone else?” He could see she was trembling. “I promise.” “My father…is violent when people aren’t as accomplished as he wants them to be. I’ve never been very accomplished.” Trembling. Bah!

She commits the cardinal Carol. sin of manufacturing a fight and telling someone she loves it was all a sham so that she can force him away before she hurts him (!?). Bah! I say again! She ends up going from doormat to aggressively verbally attacking the one man in Fae who is nice to her, to suddenly growing a spine (sortof) and hoping she can manipulate a favor into an escape. Bah! I hate romance tropes. I hate the phrase “words tumbled from her mouth.” What are they, acrobats? Kate Daniels never has tumbling words!

Then there’s the wild inconsistencies. I know, I know. You’ve heard a ton of positive buzz about Newman, especially the Planetfall series. I really hope this isn’t representative, because it’s just silly. How silly? Well, at one point, Cathy carefully memorizes all her account numbers, locations of storage and so forth because she knows she won’t be able to take anything back to Fae from Mundania, and she thinks it could be years before she is back. But then, “She just hoped she could remember how to use them; the Arbiter’s hurried instruction had been given almost a week before.” Alright, so she can do a random bank number but not a plan to activate a device.

Or this piece of writing: “Mr Gallica-Rosa,” she said, with a small curtsy that felt ridiculous in jeans and trainers. “Good day to you. Has your car broken down? Do you require assistance?” The words felt so wrong, like someone else was speaking them. Why would those words feel wrong? Because no one in Mundania says, “good day?” Or “did your car break down?” So strange that that feels wrong. Good day! I say. Good day, sir!

Other building doesn’t make sense. We have Max thinking “Max had no idea how it worked. It wasn’t his place to understand sorcery” and and then literally, one second later, “The Sorcerers, unlike the Fae, were able to embellish an anchor property’s reflection in the Nether, and from the cloister’s design Max theorised that…” What? I thought this wasn’t his place? Can you make up your mind, please?

About 70% into the story, Newman does this HUGE explano-babble by Cathy to explain the world of the Fae to a Mundane. It honestly felt like it should have been earlier or not at all. If we didn’t figure it out by 70%, it doesn’t belong there.

Then there’s a tiny little ‘whilst’ snuck into to perfectly normal modern speech patterns: “I was thinking about this whilst you were asleep,” the gargoyle said. “We need to find out if that kind of corruption is in other places.” Oi! But not a ‘thee’ or ‘thoust’ or ‘Faust’ to be found.

The world-building is horrible. It’s like that Elfland book you hated coupled with Terry Brooks’ Landover series. Portals, blah-blah. There’s the Nether, Exilium where the true Fae live, and Mundania. And the inconsistencies stack up. At one point Cathy thinks “She was thankful she’d been given a refresher lesson on surviving Exilium by her mother, just in case she was summoned back to their patron. It was the longest interaction she’d had with her since returning home.” Okay, first of all, nice ret-con for a section that isn’t going to matter, because, secondly, there is no special trick to surviving in Fae except “don’t touch anything, eat anything or drink anything.” Except a handy silver platter, which is just sitting around a picnic table in Fae, even though they are allergic to it. Which is weird, because I do the same thing, even though I’m allergic to peanuts. They’re always sitting on my dinner table in case I want to accidentally eat them.

One review described it as a cross between Regency Romance and UF. Wish I had seen that review, because Regency is Not My Cup of Tea, and I wouldn’t have started this. I’d recommend it for people that like Karen M.’s Fever series but thought that there was too much graphic sex. And, btw, this really isn’t urban fantasy, because it’s about Fae relationships and politics and has very little impact or action in ‘Mundania.’ Ugh.

There’s also some weird shit about blonde-blue eyed people in Fae that you couldn’t be bothered to read closely enough to work out.

Just don’t.

HK,
C.

P.S. Honestly, might be far more enjoyable for people who enjoy that whole ‘regency romance’/court politics set-up. The writing isn’t terrible. (But ‘trembling.’ Bah!)

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