The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell.

The Severed Streets

Read June 2015
Recommended for ?
 Unrateable

Gah!

Imagine you are reading a developed, dark mystery series, tracking a killer brutally slashing his victims until they die. Say you are following around Matthew Scudder as he walks the streets of New York City, questioning prostitutes, greasing a palm or two and generally throwing back a whiskey whenever able. Then imagine Scudder gets a lead, goes to the meet in a dark alley, and discovers the informant is James Patterson. Worse, Patterson lurks in the corner of the alley, watching while some toughs beat the stuffing out of Scudder.

Cornell did something similar in The Severed Streets, and for the life of me, I cannot let it go. It’s a messy, fourth-wall-breaking action that destroys the both the atmosphere of danger and the serious emotional tone of the story. Even worse, the guest star reappears not one but twice later, with an implication of involvement in future events. 

Until that appearance, The Severed Streets was shaping up to be a notable improvement over the first book, London Falling (my review). It begins when London’s supernatural police team hears about a messy locked-car murder of a prominent politician and is sure the details fit one of their special cases. Investigation of the scene proves they are right, but as they start to make extensions into the hidden world of London’s occult practitioners, another message leads them to consider Jack the Ripper as prime suspect. The team will have to go undercover chasing leads from seedy bars to Parliament in order to find the cause of the killings, and the increase in London’s unrest.

Narrative is limited third person, switching primarily between the four members of the team: lead Detective Inspector James Quill, undercover specialists Kev Sefton and Tony Costain, and support from intelligence analyst Ross, but occasionally including viewpoints from victims, informants and suspects. As a device, I generally dislike it, feeling it’s a cheap technique to develop tension and provide information in one easy shot, but Cornell does it better here. Congruity is obtained by focusing primarily on Quill and Ross, and by limiting the non-team viewpoints to a few pages.

“So today was going to be a bit different and he was now in the mental space he associated with being undercover, lightly wearing a role which could basically be described as ‘definitely not a policeman.’

The writing stood out this time. At one point early on I had thought of taking notes, as several phrases impressed me, but talked myself out of it on the theory I would re-read. Since re-reading is most definitely out, I’ll have to resort to skimming. Such a good job of developing atmosphere, complexity of emotion and the London setting. Sigh. There is a sense of humor in the mix, but it is the dark humor of someone who sees too much of the callous, selfish side of humanity. I certainly smiled at points, but as I’m a practitioner of that school of humor, it appeals. I did think it avoided poor taste.

A few of them were, even now, giving each other high fives and laughing. But most of them looked grim. Quill looked at their emotion and again felt distant copper annoyance at bloody people. He used to joke that without people his job would be a lot easier. But now he supposed he couldn’t even say that.

There’s political undertones in the setting, with masked protestors appearing in flash mobs throughout the city. Quite a bit of the vernacular is British slang and British police speech, so it takes a little extra though process if you are an ignorant American. It wasn’t incomprehensible, however.

So, do I recommend it? I don’t know. Besides breaking that fourth wall, there’s a bit that was an emotional shocker. I guess that’s a compliment, right, an author that can evoke that kind of emotion? It really was a four star plus read until that guest came along and ruined the world-building. I can’t imagine what Cornell was thinking, except perhaps that he could treat a two-book UF mystery series like a Dr. Who special? I don’t know, but can attest that it didn’t work.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Urban fantasy | Tagged | 5 Comments

Knight Moves, The Black Knight Chronicles 3 by John G. Hartness

Knight Moves

Read June 2015
Recommended for UF readers who want lite-fun-silly
 ★    ★    ★ 

Well, got that fix out of the way. I’m about full-up on my need for humorous urban fantasy, so I can finally slip into something different. On deck and dragging is finishing The Severed Streets (and why on earth that fool author introduced Neil Gaiman is beyond me), (re)reading Katwalk, which should count as an initial read since I first read it about twenty years ago, re-reading Quantum Thief and hopefully, immersing myself in The Troupe. Oh, and The Spirit Stone. So I’ve got a lot to do, people; I need to make this quick.

Right, on to the main point. Knight Moves is book three in the vampire buddy duo of Jimmy Black and Greg Knightwood, aided and abetted by Father Mike and Detective Sabrina Law. It begins with a bowling date, and Jimmy and Sabrina seemed poised for their first clench when they are rudely interrupted by Greg bearing news of a dead–and drained–body on the local college campus. Oh-oh: Jimmy knows all too well what that means. They’re too late–or just on time, depending on your point of view–to do what needs to be done, and the newly risen twenty year-old woman is going to cause some thorny philosophical and emotional issues. The investigation into her death takes off, moves quickly among a combination of expected and unexpected plot points, and maintains a fast pace until the end.

There is a plot point or two that had me wondering about the world-building in this version of Charlotte, North Carolina, but I didn’t dwell too long, and honestly, close reading might have explained it. But I don’t read these kind of books to focus on the amazing world-building and language finesse. I want plotting to be generally coherent and enough action that I can’t accidentally-on-purpose skip five pages and still be able to understand what’s going on. So, success.

What I tend to appreciate most about this series is the combination of humor, emotional sensitivity and action. It’s clear the more we learn about Jimmy that he has some serious internal conflict about his life as a vampire, no matter how he tries to spin the ‘apex predator’ slogan. However, Jimmy (and Hartness) does not take himself as seriously as Dresden (and Butcher), and the quips are more appropriately placed with respect to scene tone and action.  The humor is a nice mix of commentary that hints at an emotional depth while turning it into a laugh:

But I couldn’t change that, so I had to be responsible for her. Greg was going to love this. He’d wanted a puppy for years, and I kept saying no. Now I was going to bring home a pet vampire.”

Or recognizing plot/vampire tropes, such as when Jimmy and Greg are discussing a stolen vehicle:

‘Yeah, whatever. You got any clients that run chop shops?’
‘No. You got any old informants that owe you a favor?’
‘No. So if we’re out of the stereotypical ideas, what’s next?’

As well as current cultural commentary:

“And she’s kinda the Kingpin of Charlotte, if you’ve read enough Daredevil comics to get the reference.’
‘I saw that really crappy movie with Ben Affleck, if that’s what you mean,’ Abby said. ‘But I get it.'”

(Personally, I like to think of it as that bad comic-book movie where Jennifer Gardner makes an appearance, but we all have our ways of describing Daredevil).

At any rate, though humor often seems to be a staple of the UF genre, it’s hard to maintain the tone of seriousness if  your heroes are going to make as many quips as judo moves. Hartness found a balance that works for me, particularly in the development of the emotional aspects of Jimmy and Greg’s lives. If you’ve been following this long, you know that although they are best friends, Jimmy turned Greg, and both of them live with some heavy emotional consequences. There’s also a developing angle with Father Mike, and the growing connection between Jimmy and Sabrina. If humor pops up, it’s because it helps put a brave face on the heartbreak, or indirectly comment on Jimmy’s affection. Plus, Sabrina is freaking funny:

‘So,’ Sabrina said. ‘If you two are done measuring things no one else is interested in seeing, what’s the plan for the evening?”

And honestly, although there are enough references to crack me up, Hartness doesn’t come near Ready Player One or Geekomancy in the cultural references, which is nice. Yet despite my claim to the contrary, I’ll leave you with one last little giggle:

“I pulled a chair in from the kitchen for Sabrina and looked around for a place to sit. If we kept adding supernatural associates to our little Junior Justice League, we were totally going to need a satellite. Or at least a real office.”

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Back in Black, The Black Knight Chronicles 2 by John G. Hartness

Back in Black

Read June 2015
Recommended for UF readers who want lite-fun-silly
 ★    ★    ★   

There are times when making a healthy, fresh meal seems like too much work, times when munching on white cheddar popcorn and enjoying a drink seems like an acceptable substitute for a meal. It isn’t in the long run, of course, but as an occasional treat it works. The Black Knight Chronicles are the popcorn in the UF world. To me, Hartness managed the tricky feat of creating the tension a mystery requires without negating the seriousness of the situation for the victims.

Best friends James Black and Greg Knightwood IV are vampires making their living (so to speak) as private investigators. There’s been a series of seeming hate crimes in North Carolina where six gay men have been found badly beaten. Details surrounding the scenes lead Detective Sabrina to suspect a supernatural angle, so she enlists the duo to help. We meet them on the way to Lilith’s (yes, that one) supernatural strip club, but this is about as far away from True Blood’s Fangtasia as one can get. I read the first two chapters with raised eyebrow, but I was committed when the chapter ended with this giggle-worthy toss-off:

I slid into the backseat and lay down as best I could. Greg had a towel behind his seat, because he’s a hoopy frood that way, so I tried to put the bloodiest parts of me on the towel to save the upholstery.

Characterization is decent, especially given humorous overtones. Greg and James have been buddies for most of their lives, along with Mike the priest, and their banter has the fond familiarity of classic bro-mance. I also appreciated that James is aware he’s the muscle of the group and doesn’t resent the others for their direction or help. James admires Greg even as he mocks him, and the respect–for the most part– for Greg’s ethical code helps elevate the story’s tone at the same time it goes for laughs:

“Sometimes my partner is really perceptive, something that’s easy to overlook when he wraps himself in black spandex, which happens more often that it should.

The storyline takes an unusual turn with the crime. Per the genre norm, Detective Sabrina becomes personally involved when one of the victims is her cousin. A backstory is revealed that makes the connection even more personal. However, a major plot twist develops that takes the story in initially pun-ishing directions when another supernatural group becomes involved. At first, I rolled my eyes. I had scanned a review or two before reading, but had forgotten that detail, noting only that I may not appreciate the direction it took. It turned out, once the pun-ish idiocy (pardon me) was left behind, it became a reasonably interesting story. There’s a bit of fantasy world-building that seems a little bit oddly juxtaposed but works, as well as a modern action sequence to ramp up the tension. It’s possible that there’s a little too much of kitchen sink in the story, but what do you expect from popcorn?

I frequently have anticipatory nervousness when I run into a book that tries to combine humor with sensitive issues. Gay-bashing and shaming is a very real issue, and I was on the alert for signs the author was going to be dismissive. I ended up enjoying this one. There’s a few preachy points but not overly intrusive, and it seemed Harkness was generally able to be respectful while maintaining a fun tone. I’d certainly welcome other insights and experiences if anyone want to share thoughts.

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The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump

Read June 2015
Recommended for UF readers
 ★    ★    ★    1/2

I’ve always thought of much of the urban fantasy field as taking off with Ann Rice and Laurel Hamilton books, so when I saw this book was published in 1993, I had to give it a shot. It is of the alternate history kind of urban fantasy, with magic as the basis for technological development. David Fisher works for the Environmental Perfection Agency as an inspector. His manager in the District of St. Columbia wants him to unofficially follow up on a tip that a waste dump north of Angels City might be experiencing problems. As David investigates, he discovers that three area children have been born soulless, and there’s more than the usual numbers of elf-shot, werewolves and vampires in the area. The dump manager seems like an honest sort, but it’ll take a warrant and legal challenges to get more information. When a monastery is burned down, it becomes clear that David is onto a deadly conspiracy.

Apparently arising out of a discussion at a convention, Turtledove created a world-view that mostly works by Principle of Substitution. Instead of ‘Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley,’ we have ‘Angels City and St. Ferdinand’s Valley.’ Telephones use imps to pass information, and alarm clocks are powered by small spirits. People use flying carpets instead of cars, and doesn’t that just create a new level of merging challenge! Parchment is used instead of paper, but David will still need to convince a judge to issue a warrant to further investigate the dump. Elevators are powered by spell-inscribed parchments and an air spirit. It’s an interesting technique; while it allows one to jump right into a story without extensive world-building, I did get the pun-ish vibe of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series.

The concepts I found the most intriguing was the general idea of separate-but-equal religions that seems to underlie the worldview. However, I’m not sure it entirely worked, particularly with how the story developed. And no, I don’t remember what they said about atheism, except that everyone agreed that the three children born without souls was a profound tragedy. I’m not sure that was ever explained, as it didn’t sound like it would impact their earthly experience. There’s also some aspects of the story that deal with immigration, an ongoing discussion in the L.A. Basin. I appreciated it was integrated and acknowledged in the story, as so many ‘urban’ fantasies seem to ignore the nature of the urban setting. However, as the story progressed, I’m not entirely sure that it worked out in a non-judgmental kind of way.

Characters were well developed. Unfortunately, David’s a mid-level bureaucrat, and much of his routine is rather mundane. His inner narrative gives insight to the world he lives in, but even discussion of imps and telephones couldn’t keep me interested in his phone calls. I particularly liked his relationship with Judith, an editor and proofreader at a grimoire publishing firm. David uses her as a sounding board, and she contributes valuable ideas when they brainstorm. But what I liked even more is that their relationship seemed mature and balanced, without the interpersonal drama (usually due to misunderstandings) that so characterizes the genre.

Plotting was acceptable, although it dragged a bit in the beginning. I almost felt as if Turtledove really had followed a mid-level bureaucrat through a week of his life and then magicalized it. And, as you might imagine, most people’s professional details are not interesting enough that detailing them gives any benefit to the sense of routine. I won’t spoil it, but as the investigation of the dump starts to escalate, the plotting picks up and becomes more complicated, almost to the point where it seems like another story.

While I was glad to have finally read Turtledove, a classic fantasy author, the story didn’t deeply engage me. I read it with intellectual interest as to the world-building, but that isn’t always sustainable for a story. Aspects also reminded me of Terry Pratchett, although I’d be hard pressed to say why. Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek tone that simultaneously wants the reader to care about character predicaments while jokes are being made. I’d recommend it for people that are interested in a wide variety of urban fantasy, those who want perspective on the genre, and fans of the time period.

Thank you to NetGalley and to Open Road Media for providing a review’s copy of this book

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Vision in Silver by Anne Bishop. Or, I shamelessly promote my reviews.

Vision in Silver

Read June 2015
Recommended for UF readers
 ★    ★    ★    1/2  

Three hundred posts has given, at the very least, perspective on why a particular book may or may not appeal to me. As I wrote in my review of the surprisingly ghastly The Diviners (review), “I tend to read for three things: plot, character and language. Usually at least one can sustain me through a book” (You see, I’m citing myself so I don’t turn into Jonah Lehrer).  Anne Bishop’s The Others series is light on all three, and yet it is the Pringles in my reading world: I can’t put them down. 

Pringles

I should dislike this. The plot nominally revolves around a twenty-four year-old woman who is astonishingly naive. Normally, this would cause at least a small eye roll, but the context is that until six months ago, she’s been confined against her will, her life structured and optimized to divine the future when her her skin is cut and blood drawn. Actually, her innocence to behavior subtleties becomes a clever narrative device, allowing her to seek explanations along with the reader.

Many reviews rave on the world building, but I’ve found it glaringly incomplete–good heavens, it’s odd. If Sanderson gave the impression of having created the world before writing a plot in The Way of Kings (review), Bishop seems to be discovering it in context of moving her plot. Inconsistencies appear, but because Bishop spends so little time on the details, I’ve managed not to dwell on them either.

Consider: The Others are a lifeform native to America (or whatever Bishop calls it, but since it has the Atlantik Ocean and five Great Lakes, let’s go with America). Currently, many Others live in Courtyards in large human cities, similar to embassies. There are small human communities as well, particularly ones around farming settlements. However, The Others control all the land, leasing it to the humans, with wild spaces between communities for their more wild brethren. But humans mine, farm, log, ship, and presumably, work in the steel mills they mention. Trains run between communities. Ships sail the oceans. Snowmobiles and golf carts exist. There are also cars, electric lights, email, computers, videos, cellphones and telephones. Not mentioned is the corollary that there are rubber plantations, power plants, cobalt mines, movie studios, satellites and telephone lines. Questions: why does news take so long to travel? Why do The Others have to take trains with humans to get from community to community instead of emailing, calling or using their other form? Why does Bishop continually call attention to The Others rescinding leases for pollution without recognizing those industries are all ‘dirty’? There’s enough cars to cause accidents. At the same time there’s all these normal/current resources, why are The Others concerned with understanding the human community? Haven’t they already understood it enough if they can drive, use computers, lease land, have Other-focused movies and Other-focused books?

It’s a mess, I tell you. I mostly accept it, and in this book, even grew to appreciate it as Simon, the leader of The Others in Lakeside, wonders if The Others taking human form are going to evolve into the replacement for the humans. I’ve also assumed that Bishop was hinting at technological developments that would win the war against The Others, such as airplanes and mass-produced weapons. But guns are already in play in this society–hunters are talked about in the first book, and this book points out that one of the fearsome Others needs to be in a certain range in order to harvest life, and being wounded by a gun is possible. So sure, it’s clear humans can’t win against earthquakes, tornadoes and snowstorms, but are The Others ready to lose the more corporeal-based lifeforms, and why are they so innocent about the risks humans present? And holy distractions–are The Others really any different from humans if they enjoy hanging out in front of a movie with some popcorn??

World-building aside, characterization is not particularly layered. It’s an ensemble cast and Bishop commits the crime of repetitive description, adding little information time they appear. Crows like “shiny,” Tess’ hair turns color with her mood, wolves growl when they are irritated, spirits have the characteristics of their namesake (‘Winter,’ ‘Spring’). Monty, one of the policemen, gets the most chance to develop when we meet his family. Meg, the blood prophet, shows a little character growth, although there’s some not-so-slick reverse engineering allowing it (after 6 months outside her compound, she suddenly discovers too much sensory detail is ‘overwhelming’ and she’ll ‘shut down’). Other than that, the narrative character-switching mostly gives the reader the sense that something is happening, when really, it is isn’t. At least not in a large way. Personally, I have the feeling that Bishop was trying to get the reader to the point where such shifts in world-view would seem seismic. They didn’t, of course, but they did seem significant.

More significantly, there’s a lot of chauvinism in the series. Males are leaders, enforcers, and spiritual gurus, whether Others (Simon, Eliot, Blair, Nathan, Henry) or humans (governor, mayor, cult leader, policeman). Women are the balancing act, the emotion, the social glue that keeps things running, soothes chaos and can be diverted by movies, yoga and jewelry. Most readers won’t complain about the chauvinism because it is of the Noble Knight School of Sexism, where strong men protect the young/women, broker the deals, do the investigating, the fighting and the traveling. Men are predators. Yes, yes–this book has a scene that has an exception to this. One. I was thinking about this again because a normal real wolf pack always has females, particularly a very dominant one as co-leader, and there are no female wolves present in this situation. It’s clear that there is a very gentle, growing relationship between Meg and Simon, so a lack of female balance keeps the social relationships focused on where Bishop wants it. But it is notable for me as another area that usually results in a serious amount of annoyance–particularly when done by Jim Butcher (review).

And the writing. I’d give it tenth grade level, give or take. Simple structure, straight-forward punctuation and very few superlatives. The simplicity fits with Simon and Meg’s voices, but the rest of the time? I suspect that because so much of it is dialogue-focused, it isn’t as noticeable. Still, as I enjoy a vivid descriptor (note the ‘beautiful language’ tag), so I find it interesting that this doesn’t bore me:

Meg didn’t remember much about the storm that struck Lakeside after she’d fallen through the ice on the creek. But she remembered being stuck in the hospital… because the whole city had been trapped by a record snowfall… Crows followed them as they continued down the road. Hawks soared overhead or found a convenient observation perch. A couple of Owls, who should have been home by now, flew over their heads.”

So it’s clear, right? I should be vehemently opposed to reading this, but I can’t stop–it’s so delicious! After I finished this one, I started re-reading it the next day. And finished it again. Sure, there’s problems, but nothing really has pushed me into full eye-roll. I also remain intrigued because it’s the only UF I’ve read so far that treats humans like inferior citizens and hints at an upcoming disaster. I can only conclude that Bishop has hit the taste trifecta of ideal composition of Sugar, Salt and Fat (review).

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Urban fantasy | Tagged | 7 Comments

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas

Read June 2015
Recommended for ??
 ★    ★    ★   

Tuesday, 16th June–

I come to my journal as a Catholick to a confessor.” The ache in my head was too grievous to ignore & proves that this experience though conjured by Literature enacted themselves upon me as real events. “I shall describe what befell me this day, steering as close to the facts as possible.” I attempted such and began to Read, hoping that the cleverness contained in these Words might bestow comprehension & enlightenment upon me, but Alas! As I endeavored to comprehend, my eyelids were like a heavy burden & scraped against the eggshell skin of my eyeballs & instead I emerged into the heavy sleep of the savage neath the heavenly eye of the sky.

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

CHATEAU CAROL
17th–VI–2015

Reader,
It was with pleasure I began the section set in Zedelghem. The writer erudite, v. passionate about music. Composing for a symphony evoked phrases that sang. Penniless, on the run from creditors, R.F. inserts himself into a syphilic-ridden composer’s household.

Now, pay attention while I talk books.” I suspect R.F. to be co-written by a critic; how else could one explain lines like, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity–seems to structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true–but who would bother forging such a journal and why?”

It is as if the writer is reading my mind. I tell you, this part was v.good. Am captivated by writer’s passion for his music, reminds me of a fair-haired muse from my years at the college–recommend you find a muse of your own.

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

3
Luisa Rey and Sixsmith are in a discussion about Hitchcock films. Again I think that Mitchell is staring as his own navel when Sixsmith says, “A contrived puzzle, yes, but all thrillers would wither without contrivance.

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

As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory. I make no apology, however, for (re)starting my own narrative with my version of that shocking affair. You see, it paved my first good intention on the road to Hull, or rather Hull’s hinterland, where my ghastly ordeal is fated to unfold.

This is truly the current version of doctor Ewing, full of himself in every sense of the word and convinced of both his importance and with a general air of intolerance for the less enlightened around him, yet crippled by a streak of cowardice. Again with the naval-gazing, and let me not begin on the contrived disaster. I had no idea I was really reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

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

A more metaphysical question… were you happy, back in those days?
As I was reading, you mean? “If, by happiness, you mean the absence of adversity,” well, yes, I was the happiest reader in the society as was insisted by all the reviews giving this book five stars. “However, if happiness means the conquest of adversity, or a sense of purpose, or the xercise of one’s will to power,” then I admit that I was enduring this read for the mild curiosity of the puzzle presented. But I did not realize I would be reading Brave New World. I gleaned, however, that my xperience would not be welcomed among the Souled.

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

This ain’t a smilesome yarnie, but you asked ’bout my life on Big Island, an’ these is the mem’ries what are minnowin’ out.

I memberin’ readin’ dialeck makin’ me annoyed, unless yr name b’un Alice Walker

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

I end, convinced that Mitchell is trying to be both the lecturer and Fool(critic) both writin’ and readin’ the work:

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextext for overlapping soloists’… each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late.

I know which camp I fall into.

much, much obliged to Mimi for sharing a copy of the book with me.

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Hawk by Steven Brust

Hawk

Read May 2015
Recommended for fans of Brust, Vlad, assassins
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

 

Assassins?
–check

Flying lizard that communicates psychically?
–check

Ridiculously complicated revenge/redemption plot?
–check and mate

It’s hard to review book fourteen in a series, partially because, well, I don’t. Read series that long, that is. Usually it is only mysteries that manage to extend that long, by virtue of the lead solving a new case each time. But it is an interesting question–how do you extend a character life over a multitude of books? Does your character change or are they timeless? I find myself less of a fan of the ‘timeless’ sort of narrator, the sort that is relatively unscathed by life but might have surrounding events change from book to book (Evanovich’s Plum, Robb’s Eve, Harrison’s Rachel all come to mind).  Vlad Taltos has changed a great deal over the course of fourteen books, perhaps because the series has been written at a very organic pace (Jhereg, the first book, was published in 1983).  Obviously, so has Brust and so have I, so the changes sometimes bring a sort of nostalgia. Early Vlad was far more careless of long-term consequences (so was early me, for that matter). At any rate, Hawk feels like a return to form for Vlad, a decision to put his strengths to work for himself and take responsibility for his life instead of continuing to run (nope, no message resonating there).

Vlad is finally returning to his home city of Adrilankha, and he’d really prefer to stay. His son is growing up, relations are civil with his ex-wife, and his friends live there. The trouble is, way back when, Vlad royally, dramatically and irrevocably screwed the reining criminal organization and ever since, there’s been a price on his head. A rather large one, in fact, meaning he’s dodging professionals as well as amateurs.

Hawk has a relatively straightforward narrative–particularly early in the series, Brust did some interesting things with structure–with a ‘heist’-type plot. Told in first person, Vlad lets the reader know details as he builds his plan, but he avoids sharing the scheme until it unfolds real-time. The story definitely captures the feel of the oh-so-clever thief/con/criminal who hatches an elaborate scheme known only to himself (hello, George Clooney and Locke Lamora). It’s a clever story, and a decent return to action-Vlad. The cleverness does get a bit annoying at times, but that could be because I’m sensitive to arrogance (and if I thought Vlad was arrogant, did I ever have a character waiting for me with Jean in Quantum Thief!). It is nice to see the return of a familiar face or two, particularly an old associate of Vlad’s. I also appreciate that Brust avoided the “getting the gang back together” gimmick and allowed characters to make an appearance without being the ultimate solution to the plan. That decision also feels appropriate in terms of character growth.

I’d definitely recommend it to fans of the series. As it is book fourteen, I’m not sure it would be a good place to begin the series, however; it does reference prior events and world-building is not extensive. But so what? I envy you your chance to read from the beginning. In fact, I should put that on my to-do list.

Posted in Epic fantasy, fantasy | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Low Town by Daniel Polansky

Low Town

Read June 2015
Recommended for fans of noir fantasy, Glen Cook
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

Low Town is one part Abercrombie’s Last Argument of Kings, one part Block’s 8 Million Ways to Die (review), seasoned with enough drug use to power  A Scanner Darkly. It was unexpectedly engaging.

The Warden runs the dreamsnake and pixie’s breath drug trade in Low Town, the ghetto area of Rigus. Low Town was decimated by plague years ago; survivors have grown up, moved on, but still carry the horror of those days with them. The Warden is a street-smart survivor of those years. He went on to survive a brutal war conquering a neighboring city and a stint with the city’s law enforcement. He’s since lost his position as an agent, but his habit of sampling the product he sells helps him forget. When he discovers the mangled body of a dead Low Town child, he’s drawn into the investigation.

I’m not often a fan of the anti-hero narrator. Most authors are good at developing the ‘anti-‘ but seem unable to develop the subtlety that brings the ‘hero’ part to the formula. Polansky did an excellent job of balancing the line, showing us a functioning addict who is occasionally despicable, but occasionally capable of goodness. Like many noir mysteries, the Warden is a man who has fallen from grace, except he takes an angry kind of pride in his ability to survive the streets. Some might find the rest of the cast to be tend towards the stereotypical side of detective fiction. I’m not sure I’d entirely disagree, but I think what matters in a genre heavily influenced by tropes is the ability to elevate characterization above simple definitions.  The Warden is flawed enough that I didn’t admire him and found some actions despicable, but yet I wanted to read more. His backstory was woven in well, giving insight to his character as well as the fantasy world. It’s interesting that the reason he gives for leaving the government’s service isn’t explored further, but perhaps that’s being saved for the sequels.

I did feel the world was a little medieval European generic, but honestly, many authors who set noir in fantasy worlds don’t focus on the setting as much as the mood and character. To me, this was one of the weaker points of Low Town. Polansky did a reasonable job of making the rough-and-tumble of Low Town clear, as well as particular locations needful to the story, but I didn’t have as much sense of the fantastical ingredients or even the political structure of the city, just the relationship of the law enforcement agencies to the criminals. But, in a way, it really is the untutored viewpoint of a person who has lived his life in a very narrow environment, only leaving it for war. He has a lot of class bitterness without great insight into the structure overall that might help the reader differentiate the world.

Overall, an interesting read. In some ways, I’m not sure I would have continued reading if it would have been set in the here and now–say in Detroit, with weed and crack replacing the dreamgrass and pixie’s breath, with payoffs to local cops and fearing investigation by the DEA. It’s very gritty noir, and yet I found it more palatable than most. It rather surprises me that Low Town hasn’t come across my radar more often, as the genre of grim fantasy is enjoying unprecedented popularity and this seems like a book that would appeal to many of my book-world friends. I’ll be looking to read the next book in the series.

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A Stained White Radiance by James Lee Burke

A Stained White Radiance

Read May 2015
Recommended for fans of Southern gothic fiction, mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

James Lee Burke is an excellent storyteller.  He creates a tale full of atmosphere and mystery, and if plot details occasionally seem questionable, well, they remain engaging.

Book five in the Dave Robicheaux series hits all Burke’s high points:

An immersive, sense-filled setting:

“I… walked into the French Quarter. The narrow streets were still cool with morning shadow, and I could smell coffee and fresh-backed bread in the cafes, strawberries and plums from the crates set out on the sidewalks in front of small grocery stores, the dank, cool odor of old brick in the courtyards. It had rained just before dawn, and water leaked out of the green window shutters on the pastel sides of the buildings and dripped from the rows of potted plants on the balconies or hanging from the ironwork.

Character description that goes beyond the physical:

“Her accent was soft, pleasant to listen to, more Mississippi than Louisiana, but in it you heard a tremolo, as though a nerve ending were pulled loose and fluttering inside her.

Plot hints:

“There was something too cavalier about her attitude, and I had the feeling that she had anticipated my visit and had already made a private decision about the outcome of our conversation.”

Observations of human character:

“He told me he had been a navy corpsman before he had gone to work for the parish as a paramedic. His face was young and clean-shaved, and he reminded me of most medics, firemen, or U.S. Forest Service smoke jumpers whom I had known. They were enamored of the adrenaline rush, living on the edge, but they tended to be quiet and self-effacing men, and unlike many cops they didn’t have self-destructive obsessions.”

A narrator who struggles with human truths:

“At that moment I realized the error of my thinking about Bootsie. The problem wasn’t in her disease, it was in mine. I wanted a lock on the future, I wanted our new marriage to be above the governance of mortality and chance; and, most important, in my nightly sleeplessness over her health, and the black fatigue that I would drag behind me into the day like a rattling junkyard, I hadn’t bothered to be grateful for the things I had.

 

At the story level, A Stained White Radiance lives up to the high standards set in earlier books. Dave, a detective with the small Iberia Parish’s sheriff’s office, gets an call about a shooting at Weldon Sonnier’s house. Weldon tries to dismiss it as a kid hunting, but Dave’s not so sure. When a fatal break in at Weldon’s house commits Dave to investigation, Weldon’s siblings Drew and Lyle become reluctantly involved.

As Robicheaux delves into the affairs of the Sonnier siblings, Burke takes the opportunity to wind through Cajun country, this time focusing a little more on race aspects of Louisiana politics (the “Stained White” title is delicious). War history again plays a role in character relationships. I found plot-character mix a bit confusing at a few points, but truly, that must be how it seems to investigate a case–multiple leads that may or may not result in a solution. There’s false trails here, more so than in the average mystery. But as I finished, I realized Dave’s false starts make sense, although plotting falls slightly outside normal mystery conventions.

For those who haven’t tried the Robicheaux series, I’d recommend starting at the first, Neon Rain (review). Burke started out extremely strong, so there’s no worry about waiting for the series to gain footing. The main mystery in each book stands alone, but Dave’s wrestling with his personal demons is an ongoing character issue and there’s something to be gained from understanding that struggle. I strongly recommend the series to people who enjoy mysteries, complicated characters and developed settings.

 

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American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

American Elsewhere

Finished May 2015
Recommended for fans of mysterious, time-forgotten towns and searches for identity
 ★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

Lovely language and enjoyable storytelling, but suffers from a mild case of W.o.K.S. (Way of Kings Syndrome).  I happen to have a fondness for New Mexico and enjoyed the general premise, so I found the book quite enjoyable, no matter the winding process of arriving there.

It begins with Mona, an ex-cop, in probate court as the officer goes through disposition of her father’s possessions. Surprisingly, there is a deed to a house in Wink, New Mexico that belonged to her mother. She’s shocked, as her mother killed herself some years ago, and her history in Wink has never been mentioned. Currently jobless, she decides to check it out before selling. She makes her way through the mountains and discovers a small road leading to a secluded valley.

ruins valley view

When she arrives at the small community of Wink in the mountains of New Mexico, she discovers the Stepford-like citizens are hiding deep secrets. After her arrival awkwardly interrupts a funeral, she manages to find an odd, run-down motel near the edge of town.

“There is something strangely perfect about this part of town. It is like she’s walking through old photographs or home movies, images layered with longing and nostalgia. Even if they are hollow or overgrown with ivy on the inside.

The house is both familiar and foreign, leaving her with a sense of déjà vu:

She can see light spots on the wooden floor where furniture stood for years on end. The same faint patches appear in spots on the wall where pictures once hung. It’s like she’s in a room of reverse shadows.

Did I mention I’m a sucker for New Mexico? Bennett weaves in otherworldly beings in the quiet wild spaces that initially reminded me of Native American myths.

Petroglyph, New Mexico, 2008

However, Bennett goes beyond mythology by bringing in the Coburn Laboratory and otherworldly beings. The words “Lovecraftian,” and “horror” are tossed about in reviews, but I found myself pleased that it felt like neither of those genres to me. While I thought Bennett did a nice job creating his own atmosphere and mythology, and weaving it with a semi-modern setting, I’d say that stylistically it most reminds me of deLint. And I mean that in the best possible way: Lovecraft comes with a great deal of social baggage and, for me, overly-elaborate language, while horror often comes with an emphasis on the macabre. All that said, while I felt satisfied at the finish, I realized there were some parts that could have benefited from trimming (further thoughts below spoiler).

Bennett’s writing is enjoyable, descriptively perfect for a story dependent on atmosphere, but firmly avoiding purple prose. Characters are interesting, developed, although not quite as full as I would expect, given the 600 plus pages of the edition I read. Many reviewers will mention how well Bennett writes Mona, particularly for a man. Her history as a police officer felt mostly tacked on. Personally, I felt she was a little one-dimensional; I eventually welcomed the other perspectives, however digressive, because it gave me a break from her obsessing about her mother and her childhood.

At any rate, despite the time I took me, I enjoyed reading it a great deal. I waited to pick it up until I could devote larger chunks of time, losing myself in the atmosphere and enjoying the ride. Recommended, particularly if you like the slow build of the weird.

It’s easy, Mona thinks, to understand why so many prophets found gods while wandering out in the desert. Because there cannot be any place on earth as strange and empty as a desert. Merely passing through it warps your thoughts: your perceptions of how the world works are broken down with each empty mile until civilization feels like a dream.

Abiquiu, New Mexico

spoiler below:

Continue reading

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