Chicago Blues, edited by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Chicago Blues

Read January 2016
Recommended for fans of Chicago, short stories
 ★    ★    ★   

A collection of stories set in Chicago. Many stories center on ‘blues’ in the musical sense. In some cases, ‘blues’ means the police, for better or for worse. Very few of these stories involve PIs or police solving crimes. I haven’t read many crime short stories, beyond the Matt Scudder collection and Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, but this wasn’t what I was expecting. Less straightforward crime, many of these stories aim for for a horror feel, focusing on the emotional trauma over logistical crime-solving details.

Stories:
Blue Note by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Card talent and son of a talented blues singer with a problem gets forced into a high-stakes card game. Great atmosphere surrounding the clubs and the game, believable set-up, solid emotional tone. One of my favorites.

O Death Where Is Thy Sting? by Kevin Guilfoile. A teacher has with a passion for collecting records is on the lookout for a pre-war, American blues record sees the Holy Grail in an elderly lady’s collection. The only problem is that others are after it as well. Fabulous atmosphere, but really feels more like the tone is about the emotional horror. Great line: “See twenty years ago almost every house had dozens and sometimes hundreds of obsolete vinyl records stacked up in basement rec rooms like fossils in layers of shale.”

Your Sweet Man Calvin is bringing his dad to his home, after he’s granted a medical release from his prison sentence–he’s dying of cancer. Calvin’s got a lot of family baggage stemming from when his mama the blues singer ran off with a tw0-bit promoter. Nice emotional development.

Good Evenin’, Blues by Jack Fredrickson. Jim’s been cut loose from his job at the screw factory and goes into business with his brother-in-law running a bar called The Crossroads. Trouble is, its a small space right under the El with no regular business. A guy name Pearly comes in offering to start an open-mike night for the blues, for a small cut. There’s something about some of those performers… It’s a good story, but really, I feel like the guys from Supernatural should be stopping by.

Publicity Stunts by Sara Paretsky. An anti-feminist author is seeking to hire V.I. Warshawski for protection while she’s in town promoting her latest book. V.I. isn’t interested: “And now someone’s threatening your life?” I tried to sound more interested than hopeful.” It goes sour when she targets V.I. as part of a publicity campaign. Most traditional of the stories, the ending was completely predictable.

Guarding Lacey by Kris Nelscott. This was one of my favorites. A kid is navigating the challenges of school with his ‘cousins,’ including Lacey, who just hit junior high and is ready to go big. He decides to shadow Lacey and her new guy and his cousin Keith wants to help. Also one of my favorite stories–interestingly told, intriguing story. I’m going to try more from Nelscott, who has a series centered around the child’s adopted father, Smokey.

Overproof by JA Konrath. Lt. Jack Daniels, Homicide, is on the way home from shopping for a present for the boyfriend when he runs into a man sitting in the middle of traffic on Michigan Avenue. The situation quickly escalates, evolving into the traditional exchange of confessions. Not a particularly interesting story, I spent most of my time trying to figure out the gender identity of the narrator who appears to be female with a male name.

The Non Compos Mentis Blues by Sean Chercover. It begins with a surveillance report and then goes on to the confrontation between PI and the rich woman seeking extra services. When the FBI gets involved, the PI finds himself in hot water. He seemed tense and it was the kind of tension that can be contagious.” Solid noir feel. A little humor from the detective yanking the FBI chain.

Scrap by Max Allan Collins. 1930s period piece about a complicated situation with a childhood friend who is now heavily involved in the unions. “I went into one of the rackets myself, after all–known in Chicago as the police department–and I figured Jake wouldn’t hold that against me, either.” Confusing, emotionally distant piece, heavily reliant on historical knowledge.

Chasing the Blues by Michael A. Black. A rookie on the Chicago Police force vice squad gets a historical lesson from his preceptor. Solid feel. Gender dynamic and prostitution angle.

Blind Man Blues by Steve Mandel. Billy Call is still hung up on the death of an old friend and trying to gather evidence against her husband. His partner Abby thinks he’s making a mistake and that nothing about his ‘friend’ was good for him. The writing is clunky and the crime fairly obvious. Still, basically satisfying.

A Weekend in the Country by David J. Walker. A Chicago cop is developing a ‘catering’ business on the side that involves a house on a deserted piece of land in Wisconsin. When something goes wrong, it takes some effort to clean it up. Unfortunately, I.A. isn’t long in arriving. Twist ending. Emotionally dark with a lead worth hating.

A Shade of Blue by Michael Allen Dynmoch. A man who tied one on last night want to report the murder of a blues singer to the police. When the cop investigates, it turns out it is a Cold Case with a lot of twists. bare walls and windows with shades at half mast, unmatched furniture, wastebasket overflowing with evidence that McDonald’s and Taco Bell catered most of his meals.” More ghost/gotcha story.

The Test by Sam Reaves. Gino and Terry are made men in Casalegno’s crew, but now his second is approaching them for support for a change of leadership. Gino and Terry have been friends forever. It gets complicated when Gino tries to give Terry information on the down-low. Vivid, complicated, a little hair-raising.

My Heroes Have Always Been Shortstops D.C. Brod. Abby, Cubs fan extraordinaire, works for a sports agent and finds she has to reconsiders shortstops when she meets Keith. Soon after he is signed to the Cubs, they start a relationship and things get complicated. I’d just brought Ernie back from the cat painter, and I was beginning to think that I’d gone too far this time. The cat had not asked to be a Cubs fan. Still, I sensed that he was.

Code Blue by Mary V. Welk. Two paramedics bring a man to the E.R. with chest pain. Turns out he’s the brother of a Congressman and the perpetrator of a heinous crime. An ER nurse has her own idea of justice.

The Sin Eater by Sam Hill. Horror feel. Confusing and not particularly memorial. Not sure why it’s included, except it is a multi-generational history.

No One by Marcus Sakey. A man remembers his relationship with Sara, a woman he met at DePaul University. When Sara starts spending time with classmate Mark, his jealousy grows. Again, horror-crime angle.

The Blue Line Ronald Levitsky. A man is offered a job by a famous Mexican artist. There’s been death threats against his wife. The artist wants him to protect her at a dinner they are attending, but the P.I. has his suspicions. A solid story with a nice twist.

Lower Wacker Blues by Brian Pinkerton. Two childhood friends, stuck in the grown-up grind of 9 to 5, recreate their childhood game of ‘Escape’ in the abandoned urban landscape of Lower Wacker. Decent writing, unsurprising ending.

The Lower Wacker Hilton Four cops about to go on duty are standing around telling stories. Sent out to make a dent in shoplifting, they discover a dead transient in the Lower Wacker tunnels. Awkwardly written, ‘surprise’ ending with no actual clues.

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A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott

A Dangerous Road

Read February 2016
Recommended for fans of time period mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

 

It isn’t often a mystery surprises me. I mean, sure–I’m often surprised by the solution. But the storytelling of a mystery tends to be fairly structured, so I’m not often surprised by the journey along the way. I recently found Nelscott by way of a solid, deceptively simple short story in Chicago Blues, and decided to check out her longer works. Maybe it is because I went in without expectations, but Nelscott managed to surprise me in a very positive way.

Dangerous Road begins with Smokey Dalton driving down a road in a green Oldsmobile, musing on the events that led to his and Jimmy’s current state of homelessness. “We hardly speak to each other any more. There isn’t much to say. Martin Luther King, Jr., is dead, assassinated in our hometown, in our neighborhood, and both Jimmy and I played small roles in his death.” To Smokey, the seeds of the event were sown in December 1939, when Atlanta went wild celebrating the premiere of Gone With the Wind.

Smokey doesn’t stay very long in the past; he quickly returns to that fateful Monday in 1968 when Laura Hathaway first showed up in his office. “She said the name as if I should know it. I didn’t… I could wait for the information. Patience usually threw off white reporters. It often irritated white members of the Civil Rights Commission. I’d see which one she was.” It turns out that Miss Hathaway is bound by terms of her mother’s will to give Smokey ten thousand dollars, and both she and Smokey are concerned as to reasons why. It is curiously similar to a payment Smokey received a few years back from an anonymous source. Meanwhile, Memphis is in the midst of a serious struggle. The city sanitation workers are on strike, in a dispute dismissed as a “black issue.” When Smokey is asked by one of the leading ministers to play a peacekeeping role, Smokey refuses in an attempt to remain apolitical.

Atmosphere is done well. While Nelscott must have done a ton of research to be able to evoke 1968 Memphis, it is integrated well, feeling organic to the story. I admit, I wasn’t looking for a political story–but then, neither is Smokey. He is drawn in inadvertently, first as he attempts to help two teenage boys with an indifferent mother, and secondly through his ties to the black community. Of course, the case will hit Smokey personally–we all saw it coming from the beginning, even Smokey–but it wasn’t clear just how deep and intimate it would be. Narrative challenges of diving back into the past is done well, feeling seamless. The main characters are done amazingly well, with a lovely complexity to Smokey and Laura’s actions.

A Dangerous Road ended up taking me on an unplanned drive where I encountered a thoughtful time-period character exploration on a road marked ‘mystery.’ Not the breezy noir read I expected, it proved a surprisingly emotional journey. I strongly recommend it.

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The Living End by Craig Schaefer. Hope it keeps going.

The Living End

Read January 2016
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy. All of them.
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

 

If you like urban fantasy, I highly recommend giving Craig Schaefer’s Daniel Faust a try. Apparently my first two reviews were complicated by a now-repaired broken finger (and quite possibly a little pain-killing medication), so I owe Faust a decent review.

Let me give you an idea how much I enjoy this series:

Enough that I’ve bought the first four books of the Daniel Faust series for my kindle at full price, and I never pay more than three dollars for a e-book.

Enough that I save them for riding the bike at the gym as a way of motivating myself to get there and exercise.

Enough that they are my go-to rec for action UF, as they are fun, clever, reasonably well plotted, and generally free of annoyances that plague certain other series.

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

About this book in particular:

“Speaking of which, this ‘Meadow Brand’ person? As your attorney, I recommend killing her. Make it look like a drug overdose, maybe a gang shooting, something nice and unrelated, you know?”

Daniel Faust and his friends are doing their very best to thwart the end-of-the-world plans of Lauren and her henchperson Meadow, but they have their hands full after FBI Agent Black (!) has put Faust in her crosshairs. Faust is a small-time criminal and sorcerer who moves in some ethically dubious circles. An interaction with a demon sums it up: “He let out a long, slow chuckle and took another sip of whiskey. ‘I do so enjoy a man named Faust asking me about a deal. Makes me feel at one with history. Shame we can’t talk business son, but you’re already damned.” But at least Faust isn’t alone. The magical–and criminal–underground in Vegas is closely knit, and Faust has a number of friends he can count on, including Bentley and Corman, the couple who run Scrivener’s Nook; Pixie, computer whiz, non-magical and dedicated to helping the homeless; and Jennifer, ex-girlfriend who has her eye on a hostile takeover of Vegas’ criminal activity; and even Nicky, half-demon and current head of said criminal activity. Oh, and Caitlin, Hound of Hell and the love of Faust’s life.

Yes, I get it–the set up sounds a little silly. And while it is a little silly in the classic premise of action stories–crazy person wants to take over the world/become a deity–I like to think it achieves something solid, an ideal meld of action, compassion and humor, cooked together with solid writing. Writing feels solid to me, achieving a balance between humor, atmosphere and action. Listen to a demon play the blues: “This was the real blues, down-home raw and ragged, drenched with sweat and sex and the bloodied edge of a switchblade. Out on the dark and silent street, his music still echoed in the back of my mind, floating and fading like a dream that slips away on waking.”

I won’t sum the plot, except to say this book is the culmination of The Lauren Problem began in books one and two. Stopping Lauren takes Faust and the team through a number of hurdles in such a way as to keep my attention without feeling like it’s wasting time. The plotting also nicely evades the escalating bigger-badder villain plot-trap, which in turn sidesteps the need for Faust to become more and more magically endowed. Magic tends to be used creatively, but not necessarily powerfully in this world–Faust’s go-to weapon is a deck of cards.

There’s also a decent amount of humor, occasionally situational–a scene heavy on the sexual foreplay could have annoyed but instead had me laughing out loud at its cleverness. For a urban fantasy, I thought it had some surprisingly solid emotional moments, whether it was Pixie expressing doubt at the new knowledge of the magical world, Faust considering how far he will go to bring Lauren down, or managing the delicate emotional state of a friend’s daughter. I enjoyed it.

“I wasn’t sure which way she’d lean in the end, which of her parents she’d take after, and I really didn’t care. What mattered to me was that she knew she had choices, and she knew she was loved.”

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Rapture by Kameron Hurley

Rapture

Read January 2016
Recommended for
 ★    ★    ★    ★

“People keep saying I’m a bel dame, but I’m not. Haven’t been in over twenty years. I’m just a woman… And you lied to me.”

Rapture defies easy explanation. It reminds me of watching a woman give birth,  or or revenge sex, or even–dare I say it–of my current musical obsession, Disturbed’s acoustical version of The Sound of Silence.  There is something that is simultaneously brutal, messy and life-affirming that cuts to the core.

After the events of Infidel, Nyx has retired to the coast, hidden in a house with Anneke and her brood of children. It’s a life of sorts, although she still isn’t able to avoid an occasional death. One evening, a government official and familiar face comes calling with an offer to return to the bel dames, if she’ll only take this one last job. It is a premise familiar to anyone familiar with retired heroes, but this is Nasheenian, and every offer comes with an implied threat: Nyx knows the only route to safety–and not even a sure one at that–is a scorched-earth policy.

“Nyx went upstairs. Opened the bedroom door. There sat her lover, Radeyah, sketching the view of the sea from the balcony on a foolishly expensive slide that devoured each stroke. She was joyously lit up in that moment like a woman at peace with God.”

With her usual complex ambiguity Nyx continues to deny sentiment and tenderness while committing unrelenting brutality to protect it. Hurley always does something amazing with character, and I found myself sympathizing with almost everyone at times. Three people from God’s War return and are followed in three seemingly separate story lines, There’s an additional appearance by a nameless, deadly woman who brings in a scene of awkward foreshadowing. For most of the book, the three attempt to manage their own issues; Rhys, managing a hardscrabble existance; Inaya leading shifter revolution; and Nyx’s mission to retrieve a certain man. It takes most of the book before they are fully woven together.

“‘You don’t have to kill everyone.’ She enjoyed bickering for bickering’s sake, like a child. He was nearly twenty-one now, and her shrill, seventeen-year-old fury felt like something half-remembered from a lifetime ago.”

Interestingly, though the final (?) book in the trilogy, the world of Umayma continues to be developed, held up and angled so that we meet the Drucians, and see The Wall at the end of the desert (which reminded me too much of LeGuin) and lingering First Family/intergalactic politics. The politics didn’t feel as organically brought in, largely feeling unfinished. I don’t doubt that there is a coherent background conception as much as I mistrust that they are conveyed to the reader in a cohesive fashion. The politics this time are something else, and while they incite the mission, they play a massive role in the ending. It feels a bit uneven and rough.

It it an amazing story, but suffers at times from uneven pacing. That didn’t stop me from reading, however, and it won’t stop me from re-reading. Or from becoming a Patreon for Hurley’s work, because, wow: it wallows in all the messy, organic body fluids of humanity while struggling to keep an eye on God.

They were the ones who’d done what she hadn’t, and what most living folks never would–they lost their limbs, their skins, their sanity to take a burst or a bullet for a friend, for a squad, to save a mission. Those were the ones she worried about most. The heroes. Heroes were unpredictable.

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Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Or, Watch for Jellies.

Binti

Read December 2015
Recommended for fans space tribes, jellyfish
 ★    ★   ★

Binti is a curious little novella by Okorafor, an author who has been my radar for bringing winds of Africa into science fiction and fantasy, and it does not disappoint. A sixteen-year old woman of the Himba tribe has been accepted into the prestigious Oomza University on a mathematics scholarship. The trouble is, “we Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it… Here, in the launch port… I was an outsider; I was outside.

An auspicious, classic beginning, one that captures the uncertainty of an unusually talented woman stretching beyond her tightly knit culture to experience something larger. “No matter what choice I made, I was never going to have a normal life, really.” Okorafor deftly creates Binti’s character, bringing to mind the old days when I was seventeen and heading off across the country to college. Binti also faces all the prejudices that come from those unfamiliar with her culture. However, once she gets to the transport ship, she meets other young people also heading to the University and begins to find a kind of equilibrium and friendship. Until the Meduse come, five days before they are supposed to arrive at Uni.

Once the alien Meduse attack, it evolves into first a survival story and then an alien outreach, with the plotting and writing less deft as the themes shift. Another incomprehensible alien artifact that becomes a deux ex machina until rapport can be developed. Actually, I suppose that is very normal for the fantastical young adult-discovery tales; some magical object that gives them an unusual edge or specialness. In this case, I rather felt like it diminished the focus on Binti, who earlier was in the process of trying to recognize and honor her personal uniqueness.

The ending didn’t quite work for me; I felt like it dismissed early losses for the ‘greater good,’ the satisfactory resolution of the idealistic ethical issue, and I’m not sure that was the message meant. More significantly, like Lagoon, I wondered if there was a bit too much attempted in such a limited format. There’s a galaxy of other beings, unknown alien artifacts, a future-Earth that has technologies unusual to our own, living ships, and then the very fascinating concept of mathematical harmonics. I would have thought either expanding more, so more organic integration of information could occur (ie, no info-dumping), or limiting the scope would service the complexity of the story better.

The overall verdict is that one should read it, if you are interested in diving into fresh voices in science fiction, and in stories where cultural and ethnic issues are woven into genre traditions. Okorafor is worth trying.

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Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard

Johannes Cabal The Fear Institute

Read January 2016
Recommended for fans of the series, Dante’s Inferno
 ★    ★   1/2

Upon reflection, The Fear Institute reminded me almost exactly of that time in high school when my friends and I were watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Clever concept, witty one-liners, apt characterization… and then I fell asleep. Every time I tried to watch it. Something to do with the inability of a joke to sustain a plot, I suspect.

Johannes Cabal is minding his own business when three men approach his house with an offer: accompany them into the Dreamlands, and they’ll give him the Key that lets one travel there in body, no mind-altering substance or poetry needed. Cabal agrees, mostly because the knowledge he could gain will likely prove useful in his studies. It isn’t long before fighting their way through a mythical woods, searching for information in a border town, traveling overseas to haunted dead cities and other such feats.

Cabal smiled, technically.

Much like that scene in Python where people are crucified, this is a story that relies on the darkest of humor, or as Dr. Cox once said, that people are “bastard coated bastards” (and thanks to Kemper for that little reminder. Cabal has never been particularly nice, but now he’s downright self-serving with more than a tendency to regard people as disposable commodities. So while the beginning is certainly funny, it gets old, particularly since in this case, not only is he dead serious, but there’s little redemption for it.

“Have you ever looked at your fellow man? It is not edifying. I have hopes that time and evolutionary forces may improve matters or, failing that, eliminate us and give something else a chance. I think that insects deserve a turn.”

Characterization is well done. Cabal seems a bit more ruthless, a bit less human in this book than in #1. The Dreamworld is reasonably well done, and if it feels a bit like our team is traveling through Epic 101, I suspect it’s a point Howard might be trying to make. There is a bit that’s more out of the Carroll/Dick school of writing, so as always, reader mileage may vary.

There were no longer any unexplained sounds to haunt them… But this did not settle their nerves: if there is one thing more disquieting then an unexplained sound, it is a silence after an unexplained sound.

Somewhere past the pirate sequence, things started to stall for me. Like a movie without a competent director, it stalled on its one concept, and I found myself having to choose between quitting, skimming and sleeping. Skimming it was, so I’m afraid I lost some of the philosophical bon mots of the journey. When we get to Cabal’s elaborate solution, I could have cared less. Not by much, you understand–I had just enough caring left to want to finish. It was just like the end of that evening in front of the television and VCR; aware by sheer stubborness, I had remained awake, but had virtually nothing but self-satisfaction to show for it.

Oh, and the teaser end merits an eyeroll, for being entirely inconsistent with the rest of the story, characters, motif, everything. I’d give this a two and half stars for how little I enjoyed the second half, except for the writing in the first was entertaining, and the (view spoiler) quite clever.

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Dragon Coast by Greg Van Eekhout

Dragon Coast

Read January 2016
Recommended for fans of the series
 ★    ★   ★ 

There’s so much here I could have loved… water magic, firedrakes, a L.A. that resembles Venice, San Francisco, a kick-ass woman. So perhaps you can understand my sadness when I say it failed to gestalt into something remarkable for me.

Dragon Coast is the continuation of the story began in California Bones (review) and continued in Pacific Fire (review). It most directly connects to events in Fire, so much so that I’d consider the two a duology. One can see how the success of the first book likely gestated contracts for more storytelling in that world. At any rate, consider my summary to have spoilers for Fire.

Daniel is a powerful osteomancer, or bone-mage, seeking a way to free his adopted son, Sam who disappeared during a conflict with a magically-constructed firedrake, and Daniel’s hoping he’s alive inside the creature. He’s right–Sam is alive, although it’s a schizophrenic sort of reality where he feels as if he has a discrete physical body inside the firedrake, although logic tells him he doesn’t. Unfortunately, he’s unable to operate the controls guiding the creature. Daniel has a plan to magically transfer Sam out of the drake and brings a couple of valuable friends to help–the unkillable Moth, and one of the Emmas who has developed a special relationship with Sam. In the midst of capturing the drake, the mission goes sideways: now the beast is missing and the critical and extremely rare ingredient to transfer Sam to a new body was destroyed. The only solution will take them north to the hostile country of Northern California.

The world was well-developed over the previous two books, so the author wisely avoids detailed explanations and history. Previously, I was fascinated by the canal riddled L.A., but unfortunately it appears that in this world, Northern California looks about the same as the real one. Details on the setting are largely sacrificed in favor of plotting and character.

Speaking of plotting, for a caper/heist set-up, it felt disjointed. There’s an arc regarding Sam and his experiences inside the drake, as well as Gabriel’s attempts to oppose the drake due to the destruction it has wrought on L.A.. There’s Daniel’s attempt to capture the drake. Those both come to an end with Sam’s capture, but then new conflicts arise. Gabriel and Daniel combine forces, with Gabriel and the team attempting to find Sam, and Daniel attempting to steal the ingredient needed to save Sam through an extremely complicated scam that involves impersonating his half-brother. I was reminded of The Likeness when I had to consciously accept implausibility, but it was a bit much when Daniel remained undiscovered around two childhood friends and a former lover. Coherency is further challenged with narratives shifting between Daniel, Sam, Gabriel and Cassandra.

Sam’s personal struggle is about controlling and then exploring the drake–and yes, in that order–while Daniel’s is about rescuing Sam, the deaths of families (sometimes literally) and innocence. For me, it was hard to connect with either of them. By the end, both Sam and Daniel appeared to have failed to learn any lesson until it was tied up and handed to them on a silver platter by the women in their lives. More enjoyable were the indefatigable best friend, Moth, and skilled thief Cassandra. Their abilities to decide and execute were in stark contrast to Daniel’s static ‘research’ and self-immolation.

Also interesting was Gabriel, one of the chief powers in L.A. because of his water magic. and learning more about his view of the world and watching him put his magic into action was one of the enjoyable aspects of world-building. The relationship between him and his right-hand-man, Max was one of the more complex interactions. Layered with overtones from the second book, they’ve transformed the prior owner-servant relationship into something approaching friendship, and possibly love. Now that would have been a fascinating primary story.

“It occurred to him that he could simply bring down the dam and create a cataclysmic flood that would rip sequoias from the ground, push over buildings and send them smashing into bridges… and Gabriel could arrive behind the flood, like a general walking through the gates of a conquered city.

But he didn’t want to be that kind of water mage, so he continued to slip and struggle down the cliff side.”

Language is serviceable, but again, coming off of City of Blades, I can’t help but think that with more polish, it would elevated Daniel’s modus operandi into the truly tragic instead of annoying and pointlessly self-defeating. There was a lovely bit or two where it was able to get at the emotion of a moment:

“But right now, at this moment, I don’t have time to care. You are not the most important thing to me. My pain is not the most important thing to me. I have a job to do, and all I care about is how your presence complicates it.'”

Writing shone in the humorous bits of dialogue between the team:

“‘That’s a Rothko. It’s worth millions.’
‘How do you know?’
‘What’s that thing when the little inky bugs go into your eyes and make brain knowledge? Reading.’
‘Art books are mostly pictures, aren’t they?’
‘Don’t insult me when I’m busy insulting you.'”

I suspect I am so harsh on this third book because the first book was so absolutely fun, full of creative world-building around a fast-moving plot. While there are a few great moments–crawling through pipes and eavesdropping at lunch come to mind–it lacks both the planning and the madcap rush of a true heist. Yet, it can’t quite manage the complexity of a redemption arc either.  I’ll be giving this one another read through, unless the library comes knocking for their copy, but won’t be adding it to my own library.

 

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Hawk & Fisher #2 by Simon R. Green.

Hawk & Fisher #2

Read January 2016
Recommended for fans of fast reads
 ★    ★   1/2 

I have no excuse.

But I do have lots of explanations:
1. Almost bedtime and I didn’t want to start something meaningful/suspenseful.
2. Lingering doubt if my review for H&F #1 was excessively curmudgeonly?
3. The edition I borrowed was actually Books 1-3.
4. I really wanted a palate cleanser before diving into my next reads.

End result? H&F, book 2, is better than its predecessor. However, it still fails to work for me.

This time it is a straight-up guarding situation, where Hawk and Fisher and detailed to guard another Reform candidate–really, it is amazing anyone in the city of Haven bothers to fight the corrupt system. Once again, the first chapter is an action-packed conflict that appears to be largely resolved at the end.

Writing improved significantly except for–and I kid you not–almost identical paragraphs from book one describing Hawk and Fisher with maybe two word changes. Check for yourself, pages 4 and 176. Apparently, one is allowed to plagiarize themselves. But I did notice a definite improvement in creating mood and tension. However, Green thoughtfully tries to ratchet down any suspense by creating large info-dumps about politics in Haven, the conflict between the Conservatives and the Reform, and the ways this plays out on the streets. It is often of the awkward aside category, with Hawk pontificating and responses like “Hawk, I had no idea you were so interested in local politics” said, you know, his wife Fisher. But the local customs were amusing, with the tendency to erupt into knife fights, so there’s that.

Villain wasn’t concealed, and there are numerous points of view from him early on. I think they were supposed to show how awful and selfish he was, because they really didn’t increase suspense. There’s a mole who our highly trained Guards are unable to ferret out until they confess. A dead sorcerer is one of the most interesting things about the story, but sadly, the most neglected. And in true Green style, the ultimate confrontation comes when (view spoiler)

So far, the series reminds me of Lackey’s series The Oathbound, which I’d recommend over Hawk & Fisher any day. It’s the same general idea of mystery/conflict resolving in fantasy setting with much better pacing. While equally morally simplistic, writing is above average and characterization is better. Plus, sorceress and swordswoman who become besties.

Hawk & Fisher #1 review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…

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Hawk & Fisher by Simon Green, or Dick and Jane In Fantasy

Hawk & Fisher

Read January 2016
Recommended for fans of blunt writing, fast-n-furious
 ★    ★   

I was coming off of the evocative, wrenching City of Blades, and by all accounts Hawk & Fisher was a fast, fun adventure, perfect for clearing the palate. Well, not really by my account. But by others, maybe.

It opens with City Guardsmen Hawk and Isobel Fisher headed through a slum on a mission. The couple has been pulled off a child prostitution case to find a young woman kidnapped by a vampire. A quick confrontation and voila! The first chapter ends with a quip. Chapter two begins the main story: later that night, Hawk and Fischer are tasked to guard a prominent Councilman bent on passing a reform law. Councilor Blackstone is at a very exclusive houseparty given by Sorcerer Gaunt, celebrating his first year in office. Various notables are in attendance, including his actress wife, his hired witch Visage, a policy adviser, another councilor and former general Hightower and his wife, as well as another couple who are close personal friends of Blackstone. Just when Hawk and Fisher get comfortable, the unthinkable happens. Gaunt releases a spell to isolate the house and voila! Fantasy manor mystery where one of the houseguests must be the murderer.

The writing, ye gods, the writing. Technically apt for action scenes, it brings me back to Dick and Jane days. You think I’m joking, right?

He opened the door a crack, stepped back a pace and then kicked the door in. It flew back to slam against the inner wall, and the sound was very loud on the quiet. The echoes took a long time to die away. Hawk slipped cautiously into the room, his axe in one hand and the lamp in the other. The room was empty, save for a heavy metal bed pushed up against the far wall. Fisher moved slowly round the room, tapping the walls and looking for hidden panels. Hawk stood in the middle of the room, and glared about him.”

Yeah, not kidding. While that may work for one or two action-focused paragraphs, in this case, virtually everything that isn’t exposition is written in this step-by-step prose. It is pedestrian writing, describing what should be a suspenseful scene in mundane words. It does improve as the story gets underway and dialogue plays a more prominent role, but it never impresses. In fact, for a mystery, it gets a bit muddier as more perspectives are thrown into the water. While it is primarily third person limited from Hawk, as the events progress, it jumps around into other guests. It was a strange decision, as it ended up spoiling the murderer before Hawk and Fisher solved the case.

Oh, and speaking of solving–I’m not sure where the acclaim for H&F come from, as they are the worst guards and investigators ever. Despite agreeing to stick close to Blackstone, they don’t. During the investigation, they mostly seem to ask each other questions, the other responding with a frustrated, “but how can we know?” particularly with sorcerous. Though they get the easy out of a truth spell, they are unable to come up with phrasing that will give them needed answer from the suspects.

As a very small aside, I find Green’s depictions of women generally problematic. One of the reasons I was interested in this is that it was billed as a ‘husband-wife team of fighters,’ something very unusual in the fantasy world. It still is. Given the reader occasionally dips into Hawk’s thoughts, we never get the equivalent with Fisher, except in the moment she’s fending off a rude advance. While they are supposed to be equals, she’s bored, drinks a lot of wine, encourages Hawk to relax, and during investigations doesn’t ask any questions. Oh, and she still gets her ass kicked in all the fights and is saved by Hawk’s intervention. I won’t go into the accessory women characters, except to note that they all are defined pretty much in terms of attractiveness and their importance is how they relate to the men.

Simon Green and I were clearly not meant to be. While I’ve tried many of his books, particularly a number in The Nightside, I find it very hard to remember details in most of what I’ve read–they all blend into one typical Green book. While I had hopes that this would be the series that brought me into his fan club–or at least helped me appreciate his writing–it appears that’s Hawk and Fisher are as forgettable as the rest.

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City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades

Read January 2016
Recommended for fans of tough-as-nails, supernatural mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2 

This was not what I expected.

Enchanted by City of Stairs (my review), I worked my way backward through some of Bennett’s earlier books, including American Elsewhere (review) and The Troupe. Solid writing chops, vivid imagery, stellar characterization, and clear improvement with each published book. To say I was looking forward to City of Blades was an understatement.

“Though he’s never been involved in an operation–besides Bulikov, which he feels doesn’t count–he can’t help but be a little concerned about how all this is starting. And he’s not sure why a letter containing only the words ‘Make it matter‘ could have any impact on whether it starts at all.”

City of Blades begins on a small island where General Turyin Mulaghesh has retired from the Saypuri Military Council. A note from current Council President Shara along with threat to her pension brings her out of retirement for a short term posting to the Continent, to the would-be seaport “Voortyashtan, ass-end of the universe, armpit of the world.” With the cover story of  a temporary posting until meeting retirement qualifications, Turyin is to investigate the disappearance of Special Investigator Choudhry, herself posted there under subterfuge. Unfortunately, the outpost is on the edge of unsecure territory. There is the protection of a military fort, ostensibly working for peace between themselves and the hill tribes, while a team from the Dreyling States is building a seaport that’s destined to make the port a crucial player in international economics. The port requires excavation of a former god’s city that is now underwater, and people are nervous about the potential of the Divine–even if all the gods are dead. Except as Turyin now knows, there’s been a discovery of a miraculously conducting metal that might mean the gods aren’t completely dead.

While it is a complicated story, the reader is eased into it, first through meeting Turyin and then as she gets more information on her assignment. Flashbacks come naturally to Turyin as she travels, meeting people she used to know early in her career. The story takes place five years after City of Stairs, so while it may help to have read it in order to understand the complex history between the Saypur people and the Continentals and the Continental relationship to the Divine, it isn’t strictly necessary. However, there’s a lot of subtleties to these relationships that add tension and emotion, so I’d recommend it.

Unsurprisingly with Bennett, characterization is well done. General Turyin is rough, unskilled in diplomacy or in undercover techniques, in chronic pain, and feels vastly inadequate to the task. Verbally, she’s a little bit shocking, although her internal dialogue gives her greater subtlety. Strangely, it’s hard to get a sense of the missing agent Choudhry, although perhaps it is because as everyone says, she was going mad. But the character of Turyin dominates:

“Mulaghesh walks to the railing. ‘You want to know why I’m here? Here of all places on this damned world?’ ‘Tell us!’ shouts one of the men below. ‘Tell us!’ ‘Fine!’ snarls Mulaghesh. ‘I’m on vacation, you dumb sons of bitches.

Plotting was a tad dizzying, but it comes together at the end. If I had any complaint, it would be that certain peripheral characters occasionally seemed forced to act in order to move a plot point forward rather than story-built motivation.

“Biswal told them over and over again it was to be a civilized, strategic procession… But it quickly became such a hard thing, executing a civilized war. The people in these villages did not evacuate quietly, no matter how much Yellow Company ordered them to.”

The hardest part for me was the emotional tone of the book. If Stairs was about the relationship of people to their divine, Blades is about soldiering and promises. It is hard hitting, a commentary on politics, violence, and bloodshed and it goes on to make the point again. And again. And again. While brutal and relentless, the General remains determined. Near the end, it hit a little too closely to my own personal life, as well as our cultural lives as Americans, the idea of incremental, partial gains instead of winning the whole battlefield. The best Turyin can hope for is to minimize the number of deaths. Along these lines, there’s an authorial choice for a character that I vehemently disagree with in terms of hope and the future. Unlike Bennett’s other books which tend to have strong hopeful notes, this feels grim-noble, resolute to stay the ethical course but ultimately doomed to unsuccessful struggle.

Above all, the writing is stunning.

“And this realization, this bright, brittle memory, formed a tiny crack insider her, and suddenly she understood what she’d done, what they’d all done, and she burst into tears and sank to the ground.”

Ultimately, highly recommended. But read City of Stairs first, and prepare to have your gut wrenched.

 

Many thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for an arc of this book. Note that while the quotes are taken from an advance copy and are subject to change, they give the flavor of Bennett’s powerful writing.

 

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