Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September Site Update

The previous seven reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Thousand Names (Django Wexler)

The Thousand Names
(The Shadow Campaigns series, Book 1)
Django Wexler
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Khandar, a land of scrub and desert and rustic gray-skinned natives beyond the Demon Sea, was a sleepy, out-of-the-way colony under the banner of the Vordanai, a place soldiers only went when they messed up their careers - or when they wanted to hide. Captain Marcus d'Ivoire had nothing left in his homeland save painful memories when he joined up with the Colonials. It was a quiet place, aside from the odd raider strike... until the flames of the Redeemer swept the Khandarai people into a nationalist fervor, rising up to drive out the pale-skinned invaders. Gone soft from years of lax discipline, it was all the soldiers could do to flee the capital and protect the worthless prince when the Vermillion Throne was overrun. Fortunately, reinforcements have finally arrived - but Colonel Janus and his boatload of green recruits might bring more trouble than relief.
Winter was just a nameless soldier in the ranks - and she was just as happy to stay in the background, hiding not only her gender but a past that haunts her nightmares. Tormented by a cruel sergeant and his cronies, she learned long ago to keep her mouth shut and her head down... so it didn't help when she found herself unexpectedly promoted to fill a void when the Colonial outpost was flooded with new soldiers from the homeland. Despite her reluctance, she has no choice but to step up to her new responsibilities if she means to keep herself and her new charges in one piece against the Redeemers.
With the eccentric, inscrutable Janus at their head, the once-undisciplined Old Colonials and the untested new recruits find themselves on the march to reclaim the Vermilion Throne... but the colonel has a hidden agenda in his relentless, borderline reckless plan to reach the Khandarai capital - a plan that draws Marcus and Winter and the whole Vordanai army into heretical powers straight out of legend, powers that could tip the balance in not only the war for Khandar, but the entire world.

REVIEW: This was an impulse purchase during a recent bookstore run, based mostly on a favorable impression of the author at a con I attended some months ago. Though billed as a flintlock fantasy, there's little magic in the story (save the prologue) for quite some time. It's more about the characters and the military campaign as seen by different viewpoints, from rank soldier to captain to rebel. Battle tactics become more personal when seen from the ground, so to speak, where unpredictable enemies and flaws within one's comrades (or oneself) can affect the outcome. Wexler's research into historical warfare shows in the details lavished on these scenes, from the effectiveness of battle formations to the sounds of artillery striking stone walls - or flesh. While this was well written enough to hold my interest, I grew a little itchy for the promised fantasy portion of the tale to kick in. It finally makes an appearance round about the halfway point; from there, it builds as a background glow until it finally dominates the climax of the tale. This world's magic is no simple or lightweight thing; it's a deep, mysterious force, dangerous enough to the public (and the caster) that one can easily see why some churches of the world branded it demon-worship. The characters were decently drawn, though I admit the secondary ones sometimes faded into a swirling sea of names. As for the world, I found it reasonably intriguing, though the idea of rustic religious fanatics of a desert region rising up under an extremist banner against the pale-skinned outsiders nudged a little close to a Line, given world events. Overall, though, I enjoyed it enough to consider reading Book 2 - enough of a success that, despite some prolonged battle sequences and a touch more testosterone than I usually care to wade through, it earns a solid Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin) - My Review
The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley) - My Review
Sword-Dancer (Jennifer Roberson) - My Review

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hounded (Kevin Hearne)

(The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book 1)
Kevin Hearne
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: To his neighbors in the college town of Tempe, Arizona, Atticus looks like a typical student, a mild-mannered young man with an Irish Wolfhound and a New Age bookshop. In truth, he's the last living Druid, using his earthbound powers and extensive knowledge (not to mention a large smattering of the luck of the Irish) to endure through the ages. In a life that long, one's bound to pick up a few enemies... and one of those enemies, the Irish god Aenghus Og, has picked up his trail. Centuries ago, Atticus "happened upon" a powerful sword that Aenghus covets - a sword he now wants back. Witches, goddesses, giant Fir Bolg assassins in the streets of Tempe... has this Druid's luck finally run out?

REVIEW: This promised to be a light, fast read with a little wit and a lot of magic. Unfortunately, it felt a little too lightweight. I never really got into Atticus as a hero, nor did I buy the voice of his Irish Wolfhound sidekick Oberon; the dog thought and talked too much like a shaggy-coated human. For that matter, I didn't care for most of the characters, even the bit players, but I guess I wasn't really supposed to. Hearne's magic users, Fae, and gods and goddesses are not the modern, sanitized versions many are familiar with. They are powerful beings with strange moralities, when they display a recognizable moral compass at all. Even Atticus, having become something of a power himself, feels superior to the short-lived mortals and their laws. The story has plenty of magic and fighting and intrigue, but my dislike of the characters kept me largely detached from the action. As for the humor, it felt a little threadbare, material many people have milked in urban fantasies many times. In the end, while it wasn't a bad book, it just wasn't my kind of story.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Death Warmed Over (Kevin J. Anderson) - My Review
The Very Best of Charles de Lint (Charles de Lint) - My Review
Bedlam's Bard (Mercedes Lackey with Ellen Guon) - My Review

Monday, September 21, 2015

Trials of Artemis (Sue London)

Trials of Artemis
(The Haberdashers series, Book 1)
Sue London
Graythorn Publishing
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: At the end of the eighteenth century, three English girls form their own secret society: the Haberdashers, a "boys club" where they can pursue such unfeminine interests as fencing, racing, and archery. Grown to women in the Regency era, they must now navigate a world of balls and prospective husbands... but a Haberdasher girl will never be an ordinary fainting flower of a society girl, and woe to the suitor who expects them to become one.
Jacqueline, or Jack to her friends, has no interest in marriage. A bride is property, with no say in her own welfare, no money or recourse on her own. She would much rather slip off to the library to read Greek plays than dance and flirt - which is how she inadvertently met Gideon, the Earl of Harrington. And how she found herself suddenly affianced to a man she doesn't even know.
Gideon Wolfe meant to meet a mistress for a rendezvous in the library... but the girl he snuck up on, and was caught in a compromising position with, was a total stranger, daughter of a lesser family. As they were seen, the best way to save face was to claim engagement. Gideon never meant to marry at all, least of all to a headstrong bluestocking, but there seems to be no graceful way out. Maybe it won't be so bad - he can ship her off to one of his distant estates, perhaps, and carry on as he has been.
From sham courtship to face-saving marriage, the two can hardly look at each other without starting a fight. But there's more than friction to the sparks that fly between them...

REVIEW: A fast-reading period romance, Trials of Artemis introduces an unconventional Regency heroine, but doesn't always quite seem to know what to do with her. Sparks fly fast and frequently between Jack and her fiance-of-convenience Gideon, who displays a rather unattractive jealous streak from quite early on, but their fate would seem clear even if this weren't a romance title. The plot often has to go out of its way to push them apart with doubts and revelations, some of which seem to be dropped in out of the blue simply to create tension. A back-burner mention of smugglers eventually comes to the forefront at a critical time, but otherwise there's not much of a story outside the slow surrender of two stubborn hearts to the power of love, and the struggle of Jack and Gideon to adapt to their new, unlooked-for partnership. Of course, being a romance, I suppose a strong plot isn't necessary so long as there's sufficient sexual tension and steam, which this tale has in fair supply. It's not a bad story, and it killed an evening, but it felt a little long as London strings their relationship out, and some of the twists seemed a little contrived. I don't know that I'll read further in the series (though the little I saw of the heroine of Book 2 definitely has me considering it.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) - My Review
Scoundrel for Hire (Adrienne deWolfe) - My Review
When Lightning Strikes (Brenda Novak) - My Review

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (Terry Jones and Alan Ereira)

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives
Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
BBC Books
Nonfiction, History
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Medieval England: a bastion of superstition and ignorance, peopled by filthy peasants living in run-down hovels and virtually enslaved by tyrannical noblemen, when helpless young damsels relied on the chivalry of knights to protect them from fates worse than death. At least, that's what the Rennaisance recorded of that dark time between the fall of Rome and the Age of Enlightnemnent - a vision perpetuated in Victorian times and even popular media today. But the truth is far less static and more complicated than that. The authors explore the so-called Middle Ages, separating fact from fiction.

REVIEW: Considering how people can easily twist events occurring within their own lifetimes, it's no surprise that our modern perception of medieval life is profoundly distorted, filtered through hundreds of years of agendas and "spin" designed to glamorize one era's achievements by belittling, ignoring, or outright falsifying earlier ages. Even the term "medieval" was invented to judge and denigrate. The subject is broken down for us armchair researchers by focusing on different viewpoints: the peasant, the monk, and so forth. Even the "damsel" gets her say - showing how little she resembles the often-allegorical image presented in fairy tale and legend, even if she still lived in a male-dominated world. What comes through is a vision of people who weren't nearly so foolish and dismissible as modern ages tend to think, a world of complicated political, religious, social, and personal issues with few clear-cut heroes or villains... in other world, a people not entirely unlike us. Some of the names and dates ran together for me, but overall I found it a decent and educational read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Knights (Andrea Hopkins) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places (Robert Ingpen and Philip Wilkinson) - My Review
An Introduction to Heraldry (Stephan Oliver) - My Review

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Uprooted (Naomi Novik)

Naomi Novik
Del Rey
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since time before memory, the dark corruption of the Wood has lurked in the valley of Agnieszka's home, birthing foul monsters and corrupting those who wander too far beneath its evil boughs. The wizard known as the Dragon protects the people from the Wood, asking only his share of taxes and a special tribute: every ten years, a girl aged seventeen is chosen to go to his tower for ten years. Tales beyond the valley insists that the Dragon devours these girls, or forces himself upon them, but Agnieszka knows better. She knows the girls survive, though they never return long to their villages, changed in some way by their service - yet she still can't help but hate him. For both she and her best friend were born in a Dragon year, due to come of age at his next choosing... and everyone knows that Kasia will be taken. Beautiful, graceful Kasia, trained since she was old enough to walk to cook for a lord, to be brave, to be skilled, to be everything the Dragon could possibly want in a servant. Soon she'll be gone, leaving Agnieszka far behind.
But when the Dragon comes, he doesn't take Kasia. He takes Agnieszka.
Soon, the clumsy, ill-prepared young woman is caught up in a world of magic and princes, curses and miracles, where nothing is as it seems - and where the terrible, twisted force behind the Wood threatens to destroy everything and everyone in the valley, and beyond.

REVIEW: Uprooted was evidently based loosely on a Polish fairy tale, and carries many fairy-tale elements in its rustic, pseudo-European setting and magic system. Even the characters have a hint of exaggeration about them, living in a world crafted of myth and story rather than flesh and blood, yet they retain a sense of grounding humanity. The Dragon (and most of the other wizards she encounters) tend to be cold and aloof, their softer sides worn out by centuries of living and - in the Dragon's case - centuries of fighting the implacable evil of the Wood. Agnieszka starts out clumsy and naive and full of peasant-girl notions of the world and the Dragon, but she does slowly figure things out. As for the Wood, it's a truly fearsome enemy, capable of turning even close friends into empty puppets in the service of its malevolence. The story starts fairly quickly and takes many unexpected turns, with successes and setbacks seemingly perfectly timed to pull the reader onward for just one more page, one more chapter. I read it in under two days, having great difficulty putting it down long enough to do much else while the story hung unresolved. Deeper themes of love and loss, of truth and delusions, of home and roots glimmer through the story like gilded threads in a tapestry. The actual wrap-up felt a little off, however, a stumble in the otherwise compelling rhythm. Likewise, the romance angle never quite rang true to me, feeling distinctly one-sided. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable, somewhat dark fairy tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Casting Shadows (J. Kelley Anderson) - My Review
The Fire Rose (Mercedes Lackey) - My Review
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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Let's Write a Short Story (Joe Bunting)

Let's Write a Short Story
Joe Bunting
The Write Practice
Nonfiction, Writing
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A quick guide to writing short stories, from what short stories are through the submission process.

REVIEW: As the title states, this is a guide to writing short stories, with a little information on flash fiction (1000 words or fewer.) Bunting intends his advice for all genres, but has a particular focus on "literary" fiction... which, apparently, requires no actual understanding of what literary fiction is, so long as one can mimic specific style points such as alliteration and sentence length. He also has no qualms with simultaneous submissions (submitting the same stories to more than one magazine or outlet at a time) even when guidelines for a market specifically disallow them, considering it an undue burden on the writer to have a story in limbo until an editor says yea or nay. Just don't tell them, he suggests. This completely ignores the troubles this would cause editors if more than one bought the story (I have read of this actually happening), and the obvious alternative of just writing more stories to submit, so even if one is in limbo others are making the rounds. These weren't the only suggestions in Bunting's book to strike a sour chord with me, running counter to most other writing guides and basic common sense. Some of what he says may have merit, and the appendix of suggested markets at the end may be useful if one doesn't have access to this information elsewhere, but the rest was off-putting enough to prevent even an Okay rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Schaum's Quick Guide to Writing Short Stories (Margaret Lucke) - My Review
Write Good or Die (Scott Nicholson, editor) - My Review

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Martian (Andy Weir)

The Martian
Andy Weir
Broadway Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Six astronauts came to the red planet with the Ares 3 mission. Only five left. A catastrophic dust storm threatened their return vessel, prompting an emergency mission abort - only the storm caught Mark Watney and swept him away from his companions. They had no choice but to leave without his body.
But Mark survived. And now he's alone, without a working radio, stranded with a habitat and supplies that were only meant to last for a 31-day mission. In order to survive until the next Mars mission arrives - four years out - he'll have to do some heavy adaptation.
Fortunately, astronauts have a reputation for on-the-fly thinking.
Unfortunately, on Mars, any mistake could be his last.

REVIEW: It's been a while since a book pulled me into a reading binge like The Martian did. Starting fast, with a man in a crisis of otherworldly proportions, it pulls the reader into an absorbing tale of disaster, triumphs, and catastrophes. Real-world science plays heavily into Mark's story, and the efforts of NASA and the world (including his Ares 3 crewmates) to concoct a one-of-a-kind rescue mission across interplanetary space, but it never overwhelms the reader; Weir delivers it in bite-sized chunks for us educationally-challenged folks, with layperson summaries that don't belittle or diminish the core ideas. Remarkably, Weir also manages to build very human characters, as the whole story would fall flat if nobody cared about the people involved. Even as Mark copes with the raw data and the odd disaster, he deals with the sheer isolation and boredom of his unintended exile using humor (and a fair bit of well-justified cursing)... not to mention raiding leftovers from his crewmates in search of entertainment. This kind of balance between hard science and human interest is a tricky feat indeed, but Weir pulls it off brilliantly here. That, plus the fast pace and many nail-biting moments, not to mention its aforementioned power to drag me into binge reads, earn it a solid five-star rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
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Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson) - My Review