Friday, December 31, 2021
And yet another year is coming to a close, so it's time for yet another reading year in review. My real life has been in a holding pattern (with a distinct downward glide, for various reasons - another year when "at least I'm not completely on fire yet" is about as close as I am to things being "good"), so reading provided a welcome escape.
January kicked off with V. E. Schwab's much-lauded The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which did not entirely live up to its own hype but was nevertheless a decent read. I also finally got around to the classic Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, whose style and very retro-feeling future aged far worse than its general ideas. This is also the month when overtime at work and general burnout/lack of other viable employment options prompted me to either gnaw a limb off to escape or turn to audiobooks via the local library and Overdrive (appropriate, as I work at the local library shipping center) for distraction, with Becky Chambers's thought-provoking novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate as my successful test drive. High points of January included A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher, and Jordan Ifueko's impressive young adult fantasy Raybearer. The month's low point, unfortunately, was Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton, an initially fun and intriguing post-zombie-apocalypse animal odyssey that overstayed its welcome and overplayed its Message by the end.
February, though the shortest month of the year, ironically was my most prolific one insofar as reading, though the titles were a mixed bag. Standouts were Seanan McGuire's Across the Green Grass Fields, Wonderstorm's The Art of The Dragon Prince, and P. Djeli Clark's novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015. I also enjoyed the exploration of racial tensions during a city riot in I'm Not Dying With You Tonight, by Kimberley Jones and Gilly Segal, and the third volume of Jeff Lemire's Ascender graphic novels. February's biggest disappointment was Jenifer Ruff's tale of Arctic survival When They Find Us, which squandered its potential. Also, Amparo Oritz's Blazewrath Games lacked the fire that a dragon-themed story should have... not unlike Patrick Ness's overlong alternate history tale Burn.
March opened with a bang in Tochi Onyebuchi's brutally gripping sci-fi tale War Girls, about a future Nigerian civil war fought by mech pilots and cybernetically enhanced soldiers on an increasingly uninhabitable Earth. I also enjoyed Kelley Armstrong's middle-grade fantasy adventure A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying, and Daniel Abraham's slow-burn The Long Price Quartet showed the value in sticking out an iffy first volume for greater rewards down the line. Low points could be found in Diane Les Becquets's tale of a woman lost in the Colorado wilderness, Breaking Wild, Marie Brennan's listless Driftwood, and Timothy Zahn's Night Train to Rigel, which embraced the throwback vibe too heartily by including some of the cringier aspects of old sci-fi pulp adventures. I also finally tried the prolific Adrian Tchaikovsky with the self-narrated audiobook novella Walking to Aldebaran, which was enjoyable enough for me to keep an eye peeled for other works by him when scrolling through Overdrive.
April opened with an unfortunate dud, one of the worst of the year, in The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James, and ended with the decently adventurous (if inevitably dated) classic swashbuckler Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. In between were several ups and downs, of which the top reads were P. Djeli Clark's horror fantasy Ring Shout, Margaret Owen's The Merciful Crow, and the final two books in Catherynne M. Valente's lyrical Fairyland series. Rob Hart's dystopian near future in The Warehouse was depressingly plausible (not just because I was listening to the audiobook while working in a warehouse, if not a big box store warehouse), and I was sadly disappointed in the first installment of the much-lauded Rivers of London series, Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch.
May was mostly a good reading month; even the lowest point (Heidi Heilig's The Girl From Everywhere) wasn't terrible, just meandering and with characters I never connected with. Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give tempted me out of my usual genre comfort zone, as did Jason Reynolds's free verse poem Long Way Down. An impulse buy of Suzanne Palmer's sci-fi adventure Finder proved an excellent choice. I also returned to Megan E. O'Keefe's exciting Protectorate space opera trilogy with Chaos Vector, and I finished off Margaret Owen's fantasy duology with The Faithless Hawk. Sarah Gailey's dark exploration of cloning and identity and generational abuse in The Echo Wife and Sarah Beth Durst's tale of monsters and reincarnation Race the Sands rounded things out.
June opened with the mildly disappointing Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, read after watching the Netflix series based on the Grishaverse. I ventured back to the classics with Joe Haldeman's landmark indictment of the perpetual human habit of combat in The Forever War, finally got to the second in Mira "Seanan McGuire" Grant's Newsflesh trilogy with Deadline, and enjoyed the middle-grade fantasy adventure of Have Sword, Will Travel, by Garth Nix and Sean Williams. Liane Moriarty's Nine Perfect Strangers, unfortunately, never lived up to the promise of its premise, and Valerie Valdes's Chilling Effect was an overlong sci-fi joke whose punchline failed to make me so much as chuckle.
July included one of my favorite audiobook surprises of the year, Libba Bray's searing satire Beauty Queens. I finally got around to the much-lauded Joe Hill with the appropriately terrifying Heart-Shaped Box, and I returned to the Finder Chronicles with Suzanne Palmer's fine follow-up Driving the Deep. Adrian Tchaikovsky's Made Things also impressed, though Greg van Eeekhout's promising premise of osteomancy in California Bones never quite came together for me, and S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders suffered somewhat with age.
With only three reviews, August was my least productive reading month, and while none were outright terrible, none were particularly great. Of the lot, the best would be Kit Rocha's sci-fi adventure/romance Deal with the Devil, which actually remembered to put the "danger" in its dangerous post-apocalyptic future.
September kicked off with Django Wexler's Hard Reboot, a tale of battling mechs that didn't quite land its punches for me, and ended with the unexpectedly intriguing tale of haves, have-nots, prejudice, and plague in Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe. In between, I enjoyed the harrowing young adult survival tale Adrift by Paul Griffin and the quirky, surprisingly dark middle-grade fantasy Cold Cereal by Adam Rex (after which you'll never look at a cartoon cereal mascot the same way again). I returned to Seanan McGuire's Ghost Roads with The Girl in the Green Silk Gown and enjoyed the trip... something I could not say, unfortunately, for my time with Zach Jordan's The Last Human.
October began and ended with horror, first with T. Kingfisher's chilling story of another world behind the walls of a small-town curiosity museum in The Hollow Places, and last with the conclusion to the original Newsflesh trilogy in Mira Grant's Blackout. I also wrapped up the excellent, fast-paced Protectorate sci-fi trilogy with Megan E. O'Keefe's Catalyst Gate, and was delightfully surprised by Beth Bernobich's imaginative fantasy Fox and Phoenix (which sadly has yet to see a sequel). Adrian Tchaikovsky again proved the range of his imagination with The Doors of Eden, examining alternate evolutionary paths.
November brought me back to P. Djeli Clark's marvelous alternate-1912 Cairo (which I first visited in the novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015) with one of my favorite reads of the year, A Master of Djinn, and the novella A Dead Djinn in Cairo, which was good, but which I probably would've enjoyed a little more had I read it before the novel. (Clark's prose seemed more polished in the novel, and there was more time to explore the great ideas.) The dystopian future New York City of Lincoln Michel's The Body Scout was unexpectedly gripping and depressingly plausible, and I returned to Adrian Tchaikovsky yet again with the first volume of his Bronze Age shapeshifter fantasy Echoes of the Fall series with The Tiger and the Wolf. I finally got to the fourth of Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons series with In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and mostly enjoyed TJ Klune's ghostly love story Under the Whispering Door. I was less impressed, unfortunately, with Teagan Hunter's modern romance Let's Get Textual and Scarlett Thomas's middle-grade fantasy Dragon's Green.
December saw me returning to Tchaikovsky (what can I say? He has several audiobook titles through my library on Overdrive, so one is almost always bound to be available) to finish off Echoes of the Fall with The Bear and the Serpent and The Hyena and the Hawk. Mira Grant's Rolling in the Deep crossed mermaid lore with deep sea predators and sensationalist "documentary" network ethos for a terrifying tragedy. James S. A. Corey wrapped up the landmark Expanse space opera series in a suitably epic fashion with Leviathan Falls (even as the criminally overlooked televised adaptation kicked off its final six-episode season on Amazon Prime), and Neil Gaiman sent an unnamed narrator on a surreal trip down memory lane in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Overall, there were some great reads and discoveries this year, along with the disappointments. I hope 2022 offers some pleasant surprises in my reading, too (because, to be honest and with apologies for the grammar, it ain't lookin' great on the reality front, and not just because of the lingering pandemic).
Thursday, December 23, 2021
The Echoes of the Fall series, Book 3
DESCRIPTION: With the Plague People - soulless foreigners with strange weapons and translucent wings whose very presence drives away the gods and spreads soul-stripping terror - colonizing the shores and spreading rapidly inland, the end of the True People is nigh. As former enemies unite in the face of this new threat, they quickly realize that all the spears and arrows in the world, every god and stepped animal or Champion form the people can take, will be as smoke in the wind before the Plague People's destruction... and the invaders don't even realize they're destroying anything but animals, unable to comprehend the True People, their souls or shapes or gods or ways. The northern Champion Maniye Many Tracks, the Serpent priest Hesprec, the southern Champion Asman of the Sun River Nation, the Bear man Loud Thunder, and others - including unlikely allies in the Pale Shadow People, who came to this land many generations ago in flight from their cousins, the Plague People, and long now for souls of their own - race to discover a weakness, a way to fight back... but it may already be too late, and soon the only god of this world or any other may be the monstrous bone-gnawing Rat of death.
REVIEW: The conclusion to the (probable) trilogy of shapeshifting Bronze Age tribes fighting soulless faelike invaders maintains the epic sweep and active pacing of the first two installments. The battles grow bigger and more desperate, even as Maniye and the others learn that there is more to their enemy than meets the eye. Victories are few and far between, increasingly meaningless as the overall war (which the Plague People hardly see as a war, as the majority of them simply do not understand that the True People are in fact people - a clear parallel with real world colonizing forces sweeping away native tribes and practices without truly acknowledging the humanity of those they exterminate, or rationalizing the loss to insignificance) tilts against the tribes, spawning a despair from which a new threat arises: the cult of the Rat, who might kill the tribes as surely as any Plague weapon or magic. Worse, their tame arachnid and insectoid beasts of burden are escaping, an ecological disaster in the making as they spread across a land where they have no native predators or checks on their numbers. But the characters are not the same as they were when we met them, all tested by combat and the gods Themselves many times over. It all comes down to an epic confrontation on two fronts: the mortal plane and the realm of the gods, now a devastated wasteland. Significant sacrifices mark a satisfactory conclusion that leaves hints of future installments in the series, or at least the potential for them; the characters and the world are plenty big enough to support more adventures. It made an enjoyable, imaginative diversion.
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Range of Ghosts (Elizabeth Bear) - My Review
The Jaguar Princess (Clare Bell) - My Review
The Cloud Roads (Martha Wells) - My Review
Thursday, December 16, 2021
DESCRIPTION: After a funeral brings an aging man back to his childhood hometown, he finds his steps wandering to the old Hempstock farm at the end of an unpaved lane. It's the sort of place immune to the passage of time... the sort of place where a man might remember things long forgotten. He was seven years old the first time he met Lettie Hempstock and her family - a meeting with profound consequences, yet which he struggles to recall. How could he have forgotten the peculiar Hempstocks, who are something both less and more than they appear? How could he have forgotten the thing in the woods, or the cruel Ursula? And how could he have forgotten that the small duck pond behind the old farmhouse was no pond at all, but an ocean... or was it?
REVIEW: Another audiobook to make work somewhat tolerable, I was initially on the fence about trying it. Much as I appreciate Gaiman's writing, I find his works a bit hit-and-miss for my tastes. But this one looked relatively short, and I'd heard interesting things about it (and, to be honest, the pickings are a bit slim on Overdrive these days, probably because everyone's stocking up library loans for holidays), so I gave it a shot, and was pleasantly impressed.
This is, ultimately, a story about the lost magic of childhood, the cruelty of adults, and the ephemeral nature of memory. The narrator, who is unnamed but admittedly based on Gaiman's youth, is an ordinary enough boy, if not necessarily a happy one; his memories of the Hempstocks start after a seventh birthday party where none of his classmate "friends" bothered to show up, though he's just as happy losing himself in a book or wandering the neighborhood wilds rather than playing with peers. Even the small joys he manages, though, are inevitably trodden on by unthinking grown-ups; he loses his bedroom when his parents need money and must take in boarders, forced to move in with his younger sister, and then the taxi of one of those boarders accidentally kills his pet cat. (But he's supposed to be okay with an entirely unfriendly and unsuitable substitute, because it was just a cat to everyone but him; it's this sort of casual disregard for his feelings, the way adults can be mean and hurtful without even quite realizing it or even having to realize it, because the power flows one way, that lies at the heart of much of this story.)
It's the suicide of that boarder, down the lane near the Hempstock farm, that kicks off the days of magic and terror which shape the rest of his life, yet which slide out of his memory so easily. Like the Hempstocks, those memories simply do not fit into the mundane human world, and can only be glimpsed briefly from the corner of the eye; to linger among them too long is to be forced to ask questions about the very nature of reality itself, questions the human brain is ill-equipped to handle and rejects given half a chance to forget. There's a surreal air to the boy's adventure, how he is mesmerized by the magic of Lettie Hempstock and the wonders he sees around her and her family, and subsequently terrorized by a thing not from this world (yet which is no more inherently evil than the average adult; Ursula does evil things, but seems to lack a basic understanding of morality that would be required to be truly and consciously evil, not particularly caring whether her actions have bad consequences - save for a dislike of the boy who wants to send her back where she belongs and out of his life). For all that he does not consciously remember what happened during those days, they nevertheless leave a lasting mark on the man's life. It's a beautiful story with more than a touch of poetry about it, strong dashes of old-school magic and ancient myths and faerie lore, and a certain sadness for things lost to time and memory.
This audiobook version includes an excerpt from an online interview with Neil Gaiman, talking about the inspirations of the book and themes and such. While somewhat interesting, I have to wonder why it was included, except to pad out the length.
You Might Also Enjoy:
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
It (Stephen King) - My Review
Saturday, December 11, 2021
The Expanse series, Book 9
James S. A. Corey
DESCRIPTION: The many star systems of humanity linger in disarray after the rebellion, spearheaded by Naomi Nagata, effectively crippled the Laconian forces... but the empire is far from fallen. Even as forces trade blows, the extradimensional entities that once wiped out the original architects of the ring gates continue their incursions, testing the limits and weaknesses of the upstart primates. Now, Laconia's ruler Duarte, transformed by the protomolecule into something other than fully human, wakes from his long stupor, determined to end the threats to his eternal rule - within this universe and without - once and for all. To do it, he will need to pick up the weapons left behind by the fallen builders... and reforge humanity into a new shape to wield it. Once more, James Holden and the crew of the old gunship Rocinante will be all that stands between humanity's freedom and annihilation - assuming there will be anything left to save.
REVIEW: This has been a truly epic ride, on so many levels: not just through the books, but through the television series and (tangentially, admittedly) fandom. Even as I type this, the first episode of the (presumably) final sixth season of the TV adaptation has premiered on Amazon Prime. So I'm carrying many emotions into this book, and carrying many out, and it's impossible to fully untangle the various threads from each other at this point.
The book starts about a year after the last one left off, with Holden's jailbreak from Laconia (with Duarte's daughter Teresa and her dog Muskrat), and things are going about as well as one might expect for them. The decades the characters have lived (excepting the newcomers, of course) and the eight previous volumes of adventures written (plus numerous implied but unwritten) have all taken their toll, but inside they are still the same fighters they have always been, stronger for their experience, transformed in various ways (literally, in the case of Amos Burton). There is, however, an overall sense of ending hanging over everything: the enemy incursions - both Laconinan and extradimensional - are increasing, the resistance is being chipped away (or wholesale slaughtered), and it's all coming down to a breaking point that will literally determine the future of the species, and possibly the universe as a whole. As the scientist Okoye and the transformed children Xan and Cara explore the encoded racial memories in a planet-sized diamond for the origins of the builders (and any clues as to what killed them and is currently trying to kill everyone), Holden and crew find themselves pursued by Tanaka, a Laconian soldier tasked with recovering the missing Duarte by any means necessary... and she has determined the recovery of Duarte's daughter Teresa, the only one known to have reached him in his catatonic state, as the necessary means. Meanwhile, Duarte pursues his own agenda, so secure in his belief that he alone is in the right, is to be trusted with the salvation of humanity, that he is willing to destroy the species to do it. Sacrifices are made, assumptions turned on their heads, and tension is raised to a fever pitch by the truly epic climax, which pits our heroes against the extradimensional invaders, Duarte's Laconia, and basic human nature itself.
I had to think a while about how I felt when I closed the book. Some threads and plot points still felt loose or forgotten, though the overall storytelling runs smoother than it may have at the start (where it could clunk notably now and again). A couple resolutions, I had mixed feelings about, for all that they worked okay in the telling. There is bleakness and despair, and much is lost (or so permanently transformed as to amount to the same thing as loss), but underneath it runs a thread of hope, that humanity - despite its perpetual tendency to grasp at things it cannot understand and toys best left untouched, despite its short-sighted nature and retreats to rationalization and violence as problem-solvers - can possibly carve itself a future with brighter and wider horizons, if in spite of itself. For that hope, and for the overall way the whole series - novels and novellas and even televised adaptations - successfully cohered to become so much more than the sum of its already-solid parts, it earns a near-top rating.
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Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) - My Review
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Dennis E. Taylor) - My Review
A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) - My Review
Friday, December 10, 2021
The City of Ghosts series, Book 1
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Thriller
DESCRIPTION: One year ago, Cass's ordinary childhood ended with a plunge off a bridge into an icy river. She was found on the bank, soaked but otherwise unharmed... but what her parents never knew, and would never believe, is that she actually died, only to be saved by the ghost boy Jacob. Ever since, she's been able to sense the presence of ghosts, parting the Veil between our world and theirs, where they live eternal loops of their final moments. And ever since then, Jacob has been her companion and best friend, so real she sometimes forgets he's a ghost and she's the only one who can see and hear him. She doesn't wonder why, doesn't wonder if perhaps there's a deeper reason for her new sensitivities, until she finds herself in Edinburgh, Scotland. If she thought New York had ghosts, the centuries-old city has her home beat hands down on the haunting front. She also finds out that she's not the only girl with her unusual spirit detection skills - just when she comes face to face with the most terrifying ghost she's ever encountered, a cunning predator of Edinburgh's children who has set her sights on Cass.
REVIEW: Another quick audiobook to pass time at work, City of Ghosts delivers what it promises: a spooky middle-grade tale of a girl doing some amateur ghost-busting in Edinburgh with her spirit companion and a new friend. Cass isn't a bad heroine, though she seems a little too prone to messing up and needing rescue. When she discovers an English girl touched by her own gift, she's thrilled at first... until she discovers what that girl does with her gift, and possibly what she's expected to do, too. Cass's parents, co-authors of a popular series on the supernatural that is being turned into a documentary series (her mother thrives on ghost stories, while her professor father loves the history, though neither truly seems to believe in the spirit world despite their daughter claiming to have a ghostly pal), are vaguely supportive but not really involved in the girl's increasingly fractious relationship with the spirits and the Veil. Things ratchet up at a decent pace, with several encounters, until things go disastrously wrong with the red-cloaked ghost and Cass must figure out how to avoid a second, more permanent death before her time and luck run out. The whole has a certain pilot-episode feel to it, establishing Cass and Jacob and the "rules" while leaving several threads dangling for the next installment of their adventures, and indeed it does kick off a series. Not a bad story, all in all, spooky and fast-paced.
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The Ghost in the Third Row (Bruce Coville) - My Review
The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review
The Shadows (Jacqueline West) - My Review
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
DESCRIPTION: The captain, crew, and scientists aboard the chartered cruise ship Atargatis thought they knew what they were getting into when they signed on for the Imagine Network's latest faux documentary, seeking "evidence" of mermaids in the most remote reaches of the Pacific Ocean. For the scientists, it's a way to get funds and some actual research on the side. For the ship's crew, it's a paycheck. And for the camera crew and host, it's just how they make a living. Imagine even sends along a team of real "mermaids", professionals who swim in custom tails at water parks and other aquatic events, so the cameras can be sure to catch "glimpses" of something in the water. A few blurry shots here, some vague scientific jargon there, add some interpersonal shipboard drama (mostly scripted), and that'll be the next Imagine ratings blockbuster in the can. Everyone sails home happy and well paid, regardless of what they actually "discover".
Nobody expected the probes to find something in the waters over the Mariana Trench. And nobody expected that something to follow the probes to the Atargatis... something with claws and teeth...
REVIEW: This short, chilling horror tale foretells doom from the very opening, when the Atargatis is revealed to be the star of another Imagine Network documentary on modern ghost ships, after having been found adrift and devoid of surviving crew. Even with that premonition of disaster, one can't help getting to know and even like the various characters thrust together on the ship, all of whom have their own reasons for taking part in a "mockumentary" all too reminiscent of many "reality" shows and events on popular cable channels these days. Grant's mermaids are rooted in biological plausibility, terrifyingly effective predators of the deep waters who bear only tangential (at best) connection with the common popular perception of happy, beautiful singing ladies in shell-top bikinis with technicolor fins. The collision of whitewashed fiction with cold-blooded reality - a collision in which reality inevitably wins - is at the heart of the story, and everyone who went into the Imagine contract believing they could somehow gain tangible benefit from an admitted deception pays dearly. It's also a culture clash, even if one of the cultures is so utterly alien that one is never quite sure how "human" or animalistic it is... not unlike many animal attacks, in truth, where mixed messages and inability to comprehend the other mind leads to tragedy. The action and danger ratchet up nicely, building to a horrific finale.
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Stormsinger (Stephanie A. Cain) - My Review
Tangled Tides (Karen Amanda Hooper) - My Review
Lagoon (Nnedi Okorafor) - My Review
Saturday, December 4, 2021
The Echoes of the Fall series, Book 2
DESCRIPTION: Once, the girl Maniye was torn between the tribe of her mother - the Tiger people - and the tribe of her father - the Wolf's disciples. She was chased across the crown of the world, forming unlikely alliances with a traveling snake priest and visitors from the distant southern lands, even spending time among the taciturn Bear folk, before finding her destiny as a Champion: one who, in addition to taking the animal forms of her parents' tribes, also holds the soul of a creature from ages past, a hulking carnivore of black fur and sharp teeth. But the northern tribes merely turned her from unwanted outcast to potential pawn in their eternal squabbles, even as the priests and wise folk talk of a coming doom that will destroy those who cannot unite to face it. Maniye decided to head south with the warrior Champion Asmander while she learns her new strength (and gives the crown of the world time to come to grips with the first Champion in their midst in untold generations - a Champion who cannot be used as a simple tool to address petty grievances or advance personal ambitions). With her travels a small war band, outcasts from their clans seeking to make a name for themselves in a distant land, as well as the Hyena woman Shayari, the reborn Serpent priest (now priestess) Hesprec - and, unexpectedly, the Wolf priest Kalameshi Takes Iron. What Maniye finds among the River Lords is a world as different from her own as night from day, the realm of Old Crocodile and chaotic Dragon and tribes and gods she has no names for, all embroiled in politics she does not understand. She soon finds herself plunged into a struggle that may best even her great Champion soul.
Meanwhile, in the far north, Loud Thunder of the Bear tribe struggles to fulfill the burden placed on him by his wise mother: a war leader charged with uniting the feuding tribes and clans of the crown of the world. But when word comes that the foretold threat has arrived - their ancient enemies from across the sea, the soulless Plague People, who destroy all they touch - the north is more divided than ever. He never wanted the mantle of war leader, but now he has no choice, not if he wants to save his land and his gods from these invaders.
REVIEW: Picking up not long after the first book (The Tiger and the Wolf) ended, The Bear and the Serpent departs from the first tale by splitting the action into two theaters, the south and the north. Maniye Many Tracks must grow into her Champion role, leading an unlikely band into foreign territory and foreign politics that nonetheless carry a certain similarity to the politics and squabblings she left the north to escape. The Sun River Nation stands poised on the brink of civil war as the son and daughter of the old Kasra both claim the title of their dead father - and River Lords like Asmander's scheming father show more loyalty to their own fortunes than either potential ruler. Securing the services of the legendary Iron Wolves of the north was supposed to be a political coup for Tecuman, the son (and for Asman, Asmander's father), but Tecumah, the daughter, has made many gains while Asmander was away in the crown of the world... and the southern Champion himself, raised as friend and near-kin to both rulers, despairs as his own heart and loyalties are torn between them. Meanwhile, Hesprec returns to a priesthood he no longer recognizes, one that has inserted itself into the political wheels of the kingdom in ways that seem counter to the teachings of the Serpent... and they have made strange, potentially treasonous alliances. Up in the north, reluctant leader Loud Thunder finds himself in over his head as he tries - and initially fails - to pull the fragmented people together despite an endless list of internal feuds and rivalries, even as the true depth and horror of the threat becomes terribly clear by the arrival of a traumatized survivor of the ravaged Seal people. There's a nice twist to the nature and identity of the invaders, and Tchaikovsky continues to grow the shapeshifter world and its complex political and mythological landscape in interesting ways, and the characters do a fair bit of growing, if not without stumbles. As before, sometimes the dialog and tangle of alliances and rivalries can get a trifle dense and stilted, and some side characters seem a bit underdeveloped, but overall it remains just as intriguing and action-filled as the first volume. This one, however, ends on something closer to a cliffhanger, whereas the first one wrapped itself up reasonably well. I suppose I'll have to see if the third and (presumed) final installment is available on Overdrive now, to see how it all ends.
You Might Also Enjoy:
Pride's Run (Cat Kalen) - My Review
Wolf Brother (Michelle Paver) - My Review
The Tiger and the Wolf (Adrian Tchaikovsky) - My Review
Tuesday, November 30, 2021
November's reviews have been archived and crosslinked on the main Brightdreamer Books site.
(And I'm still stripping Amazon links from the blog, as they still refuse to clarify their new Associate rules. It's taking a while...)
Monday, November 29, 2021
The Worldquake series, Book 1
Simon and Schuster
Fiction, MG Fantasy
DESCRIPTION: Euphemia "Effie" Sixten Bookend Truelove used to have a happy life, until the worldquake happened. Around the world, electricity dimmed, the internet died, and hints of long-hidden magic began to creep back, though most people continue to deny its very existence. Worse, though, Effie's beloved mother Aurelia vanished in the cataclysm - taking her father's love with him and leaving a stern, cold man in his place, one who remarried to a woman with little love for Effie or anyone else in her tiny heart. The girl was even sent to the dismal Tusitala School for the Gifted, Troubled and Strange. The only light in her life is Griffin Truelove, Aurelia's eccentric father, though even he has become changed and closed off since the worldquake. Effie's sure the old man is really some sort of wizard, with his odd travels and house full of mysterious things she's not allowed to touch - and if he's a wizard, surely there's some spell he could work to fix things - but Griffin refuses to teach her so much as a smidgen of the stuff.
When Griffin is attacked in an alley, Effie has nobody left to turn to. And when her father tries to deny her her inheritance - Griffin's mysterious library - he tries to sell it off to the charity man before Effie can lay a hand on a single volume.
Piecing together bits of conversations and other clues, Effie realizes there's something much more sinister and dangerous going on than random thugs attacking an old man... something that smells of magic, and could lead her to her long-lost mother in another world, in a place known as Dragon's Green.
REVIEW: Yes, I'm still a sucker for dragons. And, yes, sometimes that love leads me astray. It certainly did here. The title promised dragons, and the cover blurb and general plot promised magical books and other worlds and fun, somewhat perilous adventures: solid ingredients for a fantasy title, especially a middle-grade fantasy title, all around... or so I thought. Instead, I got a confused jumble of characters, plot points, and ideas that don't so much flow together as crash randomly into one another like insane literary bumper cars, hurtling the reader this way and that. Magic is rare and elusive and considered a lie, we're told - only literally every character except Effie knows pretty much all about it, or learns it's real and the basic rules in a fraction of a time in which Effie manages to repeatedly be confused (and I mean repeatedly, in that she's prone to repeating things she doesn't understand) and bungle the simplest of instructions despite ostensibly being a heroine. The author goes out of her way to raise questions and refuse to answer them... then goes out of her way to make Effie and her associates incapable of even asking the questions, let alone listening to the answers (though, in their defense, the entire rest of the world seems incapable of answering a simple question). What was the worldquake? Who are the oft-mentioned, only-very-belatedly-clarified Diberi antagonists? Why did Effie's father turn into an emotionally abusive monster, allowing his new wife to torment both Effie and her own baby Luna? Why was the theoretically wise Griffin too blasted stupid to teach Effie things vital to her survival until it was far too late? Who is the Guild who keeps messing things up for everyone but never once is explained or revealed or given any motivation for their actions other than "screw things up for everyone to enable a plot"? What's the exchange rate for M-currency to dragon gold to krubles, why is it so complicated, and what the heck does any of this have to do with the ostensible plot of books as gateways to the Otherworld and an implied but never clarified conspiracy to crush creativity out of Earth? What are the rules, here, and why should I even care? The story can't even find a consistent tone, veering wildly from whimsy to darkness to light to deep... then it introduces mortal danger only to yank back so hard on the leash I almost felt the whiplash as it prevents so much as a smidgen of actual peril from drifting near our fragile protagonists - only they weren't nearly that fragile a moment ago when they got into peril to begin with. As for the dragon, there is a dragon of sorts, but I still felt somewhat cheated on this account. The whole book turned into a slog of wasted potential and pointless plot turns and cul-de-sacs, with characters too conveniently plot-shaped to come to life in their own right and too many questions that never got anything like a satisfactory answer despite the author repeatedly reminding me that the question was there and needed an answer that was being deliberately, irritatingly withheld.
You Might Also Enjoy:
The School for Good and Evil (Somani Chainani) - My Review
The Book Jumper (Mechthild Glaser) - My Review
The Forbidden Library (Django Wexler) - My Review
Thursday, November 25, 2021
A Dead Djinn Universe novella
P. Djeli Clark
DESCRIPTION: In a 1912 Egypt where old magic has returned and beings like djinns and self-proclaimed angels mingle with the mortal populace, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is a vital resource, helping keep the peace when crimes cross the line from mundane to supernatural... but even Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, no neophyte to her badge, is daunted by what she uncovers while investigating a djinn's apparent suicide. Strange glyphs at the crime scene hint at ritual sacrifice, and the presence of an artificial feather ominously points to one of the entities who call themselves angels. Soon, it's apparent the case is far bigger - and more dangerous - than any she's encountered before.
REVIEW: I actually think I would've enjoyed this novella better had I read it before A Master of Djinn, Clark's novel-length debut. This is where the author first introduces both the universe and the distinctive character of Fatma, with a few descriptors being copied almost verbatim in the novel. The latter, however, goes into much greater depth, and has (for lack of a better word) a polish to it that makes this entry, fine and interesting as it is, look a bit tarnished by comparison. It's a solid, decent tale in its own right, but A Master of Djinn covers much of the same material and more, making reading this after the novel feel redundant, save filling in a bit of backstory on how Fatma encountered a few characters. As an introduction, though, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and its companion novella (The Haunting of Tram Car 015, which is less rehashed in the novel) are still good stories in a world that has enormous potential.
You Might Also Enjoy:
Finder (Emma Bull) - My Review
The Black God's Drums (P. Djeli Clark) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
The Echoes of the Fall series, Book 1
DESCRIPTION: In a wild world of ancient gods and shapeshifting tribes, Maniye is a girl torn in two. Her father, Akrit Stone River, is the ambitious chieftain of the Winter Runner clan of the Wolf people; when he made war against the Tiger people, he took their queen captive and forced a daughter on her, then had the woman killed to leave her matriarchal kin leaderless and lost in their eastern refuges. Maniye's childhood has been one of deprivation and resentment, harried by her father and the clan's priest Kalameshi Takes Iron (holder of the secret Wolf-gifted knowledge of forging weapons stronger than stone or bronze), but she holds a secret: she can step - change shape - into both wolf and tiger, having two animal souls within her own instead of the one of most people of the world. But tiger and wolf are natural enemies, and the rival spirits will tear her apart unless she chooses one and cuts out the other. Even as she faces this fate, she discovers Stone River's terrible plan for her. Fleeing the clan with an imprisoned priest of the Snake people, intended for sacrifice in the jaws of the Wolf god, Maniye sets out across the wide, cold crown of the world... crossing paths with a southern prince Asmander, a Champion of the southern Sun River Kingdom with a stepped form from another age, and his companions. A great change is coming to the whole world, a time that could see the many tribes and gods united against a common enemy - or see them fall, torn apart by men like Stone River, until all people die.
REVIEW: This was another audiobook that I downloaded to kill time at work, but I enjoyed it enough to listen even on my days off. Tchaikovsky creates a prehistoric world with traces of our own ancient traditions, but mixed and melded into its own thing, a world of endless wilderness and cruel nature and ever-watchful gods and tribal rivalries that spill over onto neighbors. Nor is the shapeshifting confined to ordinary animals; Asmander's Champion is a velociraptor, and other Champions include ancient eagles and saber-toothed cats, part of the animal spirit-based cosmology of the fantastic world. Shifting even absorbs clothing and weapons to strengthen the animal form; a shifted Wolf hunter wearing iron mail has a near-impenetrable hide, while a Tiger warrior's bronze knife can become gleaming claws or teeth. It's a little thing, but adds a nice dimension to the shapeshifter concept, opening up interesting possibilities while also dealing with the eternal question of what happens to a werewolf's clothes.
Maniye starts out a somewhat weak character, undersized and beaten down, full of resentment and anger yet still determined to prove herself to the very people who hurt her, and to the Wolf god who knows her to be of mixed heritage. Try as she might, though, her dual nature cannot be denied, as the tiger and the wolf start quarreling within her for dominance. Her encounter with the Snake priest Hesprec sets her on a new path, if one that initially extends no further than escaping the Winter Runners and the stalking lone wolf Broken Axe, who may sometimes share her father's fire but is his own man with his own motivations. Meanwhile, Asmander has his own journey, a quest to secure the legendary "iron wolves" from the north as mercenaries in a looming war of succession in his native Sun River Kingdom, and the Snake priest Hesprec follows a hidden agenda. There are frequent battles, some bursts of levity, several reversals of fortune, and a few stretches of dialog that border on being too grandiose and weighty, but overall it's a decent story in a unique and interesting world, one I wouldn't mind revisiting in the sequels.
You Might Also Enjoy:
The Leopard's Daughter (Lee Killough) - My Review
Saturday, the Twelfth of October (Norma Fox Mazer) - My Review
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (Nghi Vo) - My Review
The Dead Djinn Universe series, Book 1
P. Djeli Clark
Fiction, Fantasy/Historical Fiction
DESCRIPTION: 1912 Cairo is a thriving metropolis, where ancient traditions meet new technology - and returned magic. Ever since the mysterious sage al-Jahiz tapped the otherworldly domain of lost powers, djinns and other magical beings have flowed into the world, bringing strange new powers and devices... and, of course, dangers. Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, one of a handful of women field agents in Egypt's Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, has had more than her share of danger already, but Cairo never sleeps, and neither do its criminals, human or otherwise.
When an eccentric English tycoon, head of a crackpot cult dedicated to al-Jahiz, is found burned alive with the rest of his cult companions, the only remaining witnesses point the finger at a stranger garbed in black with a shifting golden mask: a figure who claims to be the lost mystic al-Jahiz, returned. Neither Fatma nor her rookie partner Hadia believe it - but the man has uncanny abilities, a supernatural guardian, and even appears to have tamed an untameable fiery Ifrit. As rumors and riots spread, Cairo stands on the brink of disaster... and if Fatma fails to unmask the imposter and his scheme, the whole world might fall to the self-proclaimed Master of Djinn.
REVIEW: I have read one of Clark's two novellas set in this alternate history, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and enjoyed it so much I grabbed this title before I'd even gotten around to reading the other one, A Dead Djinn in Cairo. In retropspect, I should have reversed that order; while the novella I read introduced me to the world and one of the Ministry's dedicated agents, A Dead Djinn in Cairo introduces the singular Fatma, one of those characters who just leaps to life from the page in her fine Western-style suits and bowler hats, as she deals with a crime that forms a key part of this book's backstory. However, it is not at all necessary to have read either novella to enjoy this book; Clark does an excellent job backfilling information from the novellas as needed (if with potential spoilers).
The alternate Cairo leaps to life as a vibrant, dynamic, and diverse city, one where the promise of progress and equality constantly jostles with holdover prejudices and superstitions, exacerbated rather than soothed by the return of powers and beings once relegated to old poems and stories. The djinn are fantastical and wildly magical, but ultimately just people, prone to the same personality faults and vices and prejudices as any mere human. There are also wonderful mind's-eye-candy details, like "boilerplate eunuch" brass robot servants and automated vehicles and even new twists on old architectural styles - and even mundane touches, such as a thriving proto-jazz scene made of expatriate American musicians fleeing Jim Crow's killing grasp, that add richness and texture. Through this amazing setting wends a collection of distinctive characters pursuing a tantalizingly twisted mystery and a dangerous, devious villain who exploits the city's underlying inequalities and unrest for their own gains. Glimpses of a wider world where magic has returned and either been rejected or embraced are offered via an attempt at a peace conference to head off what would be this world's Great War. The whole creates a great story, as Fatma chases leads, survives risky scrapes, runs into numerous dead ends and setbacks, and ultimately arrives at a final confrontation with the fate of the city at stake. I couldn't help thinking that, in the right hands, it would make an absolutely wonderful streaming series; the world and the characters could easily carry more adventures, and the visuals would be amazing.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I really need to get back to my kindle to read the novella I skipped, while I wait for future installments of Fatma and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities.
You Might Also Enjoy:
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (P. Djeli Clark) - My Review
The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud) - My Review
Alif the Unseen (G. Willow Wilson) - My Review
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
The Texting series, Book 1
DESCRIPTION: College senior Delia just broke up with her long-time boyfriend Caleb, and though it was an amicable and mutual split, it never feels great to go back to sleeping alone. Maybe that's why, when a stranger mistakenly texts her, she chose to reply instead of simply deleting it... which is how she "met" Zach. Their text exchanges soon become the highlight of her days. He's clever. He's nerdy. He shares her sense of humor. But will their sizzling chemistry translate to the real world, or is this strictly a textual relationship?
REVIEW: This was a quick audiobook, a bit of a palate-cleanser between my usual genre reads. Romances can have some great dialog and character interactions, and Let's Get Textual delivers some truly fun exchanges between Delia and Zach... and if the power imbalance between the two (he's a young, wealthy, successful entrepreneur already, while she's a struggling college senior with zero clue what she's going to do with the degree she's a semester away from earning) becomes a bit glaring, they both seem mature enough to actually be capable of an adult relationship, instead of giggling teens forever playing games or leaping to ridiculous conclusions... at least, at first. There also, oddly enough, doesn't seem to be much in the way of a story, the usual complications and greater goals outside the relationship that drive the average (or average in my limited reading experience, at least) romance plot; for the most part, it's just Zach and Delia getting to know each other and developing their connection - and, yes, there's heat and innuendo almost from the start, but they're both adults about it and capable of waiting until they're more sure of their relationship before making that leap.
Not long after that progression, though, Delia takes a serious nose-dive in intelligence and maturity, when a cardboard villain character and a manufactured crisis (which is barely hinted at until it reaches said crisis point) creates a manufactured response that completely flies in the face of how she behaved toward Zach earlier and made me seriously doubt whether she was, in fact, mature enough to handle a relationship after all. How she deals with that setback becomes increasingly ridiculous - as her own friends point out - and also turns a pet into a pawn in a relationship, which is an automatic ratings knock. (I was already somewhat iffy about the pet baby goat subplot; just because an animal's "cute" doesn't mean it's an ideal pet, let alone an ideal impulse purchase... especially since she's the one fawning over baby goat pics and Zach's the one who goes and buys one because her apartment doesn't allow pets. There's just something about treating a living animal, especially an animal that's not really meant to be a cuddly housepet and will undoubtedly outgrow its "cute" phase very quickly, as a toy or prop - then turning that prop into an object in a stupid emotional tug of war between grown adults - that really rubs me the wrong way.) So, while I enjoyed the fun interplay between Delia and Zach and almost laughed out loud at some of their text exchanges, I found myself very put off by the final stretch of the story, enough to drive the rating down significantly.
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This Is Our Song (Samantha Chase) - My Review
The Fix Up (Tawna Fenske) - My Review
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Sunday, November 14, 2021
DESCRIPTION: By the measures of his profession, lawyer William Price is an unqualified success. Sure, he sacrificed his marriage, his friends, and any frivolities like joy or leisure, but he built his own law firm from the ground up, and nobody in his office fails to fear his gaze. It takes dying for him to realize that, while he may have succeeded at law, he failed at truly living. Collected from his funeral by the eccentric Reaper woman Mei, William is brought to a small mountain village and a tea shop called Charon's Crossing to meet his ferryman, the mortal charged with helping him make the transition to the other side: the handsome Hugo Freeman. Here, away from his job and the city and the cold existence he built for himself, the former lawyer finally learns what it means to live... and to love. But he cannot linger forever; there is a door on the fourth floor of the tea shop that whispers to him of what is to come - a passage he cannot avoid forever, even when he finally discovers a reason to stay on Earth.
REVIEW: First off, the official description for this book is way off. It mentions plot points that don't come up until the final fourth or so of the tale, and set up false expectations for the story as a whole. Secondly, this is the second book by Klune I've read... and I can't help but think I would've enjoyed it more had it been first. Like The House in the Cerulean Sea, it starts with a man firmly entrenched in an inherently heartless bureaucracy, one who doesn't think to question the emptiness of his life or the machinery he perpetuates, until he travels to a remote location where a kindly, handsome eccentric and other colorful locals teach him the true meaning of life and love. William, however, is initially a far less likable main character, a man who hasn't been so much numbed to his heart as one who willfully sliced it out as a potential impediment to his career and doesn't think to question his choice until it's literally too late. He overreacts to his situation terribly, far past the point of caricature, and stays in surly denial far too long, making his transition a little hard to swallow. Side characters could be irritating on occasion, too, as could the repetitious Lessons about the meaning of life and the afterlife and what makes living worthwhile, which make the story itself feel overlong and slow as it wends slowly between plot points on its way to the stuff teased by the official description and cover blurb. It does ultimately come together, with some sweet and sobering moments along the way, and barely pulled out of its drifting freefall enough to avoid losing another half-star, but I must say I expected a little more after the high bar set by The House in the Cerulean Sea.
You Might Also Enjoy:
The Halloween Tree (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) - My Review
The House in the Cerulean Sea (TJ Klune) - My Review
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
Fiction, MG Action/Sci-Fi
DESCRIPTION: Someday, Michael Prasad can visit his father at the north pole of Mars, working on the quantum magnetic system responsible for the colony world's protective magnetosphere. Someday, his mother will stop hovering over him. Someday, when he no longer has his "condition", the panic attacks that seize him whenever he dons a suit to step outside the colony domes onto the Martian surface. Someday, he'll be normal.
Someday is never going to happen, and even at twelve, Michael knows it.
Sick of waiting for "someday", and being the only kid in the sixth grade without his basic rating for venturing beyond the airlocks, Michael sneaks out to try the test once more... and, again, is seized by crippling anxiety. It doesn't matter that he can do math in his head that most adults need computers (or at least pens and paper) to work out. It doesn't matter that he's read the field manuals backwards and forwards. If he can't conquer his panic attacks, he'll forever be stuck in the safety of the colony, cut off from countless career paths through the solar system - not to mention forever being the butt of his classmates' jokes. With the help of a rebellious friend, Earthborn girl Lilith, he sets off on an impetuous and ill-advised night trip to his father's polar station... just as a deadly solar flare strikes the red planet and something goes catastrophically wrong with the artificial magnetosphere, frying communications satellites and turning the daylight deadly with lethal doses of radiation. Stranded in the hostile wilds with dwindling supplies and limited air, Michael and Lilith must find a way to signal for help - or find a way to get back home.
REVIEW: Another quick audiobook "read", In the Red is a middle-grade survival thriller set on the surface of a futuristic Mars, where colonies may thrive but where the planet itself is still every bit as hostile to life as it is today, with dust storms and a toxic atmosphere and deadly solar radiation only barely held at bay by human ingenuity - ingenuity which can, as demonstrated in devastating detail, fail at any time. Even as a middle-grade title, the stakes are grim and not danced around; at more than one point, the characters openly acknowledge the dangerous nature of Martian existence and the many ways one can die, and when threatened by the possibility of a drawn-out death by solar radiation they readily accept the need for a "cleaner" and quicker way out by way of a lethal pill. Within this setting, Michael's book skills and prodigal grasp of science and mathematics, which should take him to the stars (literally and figuratively), never seem enough unless he can also spend five minutes in a suit without vomiting and passing out from panic; he considers himself a fraud and a failure, convinced his own father is ashamed of him, and thus behaves rather recklessly to prove to himself and others that he can be more than his "condition". This starts to get a bit over the top, when even in fraught survival conditions Michael keeps haring off on his own to do risky things (and fail as often as not) just to punch back against the inherently unpunchable reality of his panic attacks, endangering himself and his companions in the process. This is where the book first started losing its full fourth star, for all that the story moves fast and the characters are generally not stupid. The rest of that full fourth star was lost by the ending, which draws itself out a touch too long, particularly the bits after the climax. For the most part, though, In the Red is a fairly smart and science-based thrill ride of survival against overwhelming odds, on the surface of a world inherently inhospitable to human life.
You Might Also Enjoy:
The Canyon's Edge (Dusti Bowling) - My Review
Vacation Guide to the Solar System (Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich) - My Review
The Martian (Andy Weir) - My Review
Monday, November 8, 2021
A Natural History of Dragons series, Book 4
DESCRIPTION: As a girl in her native Scirland, Isabella could never have imagined that her "unladylike" interest in the natural sciences and dragons would take her so far, figuratively or literally, but it has not been a journey without costs or setbacks, even disregarding the scientific community's ongoing reluctance to accept her as a member, let alone an equal. Already, she has lost a husband, been abducted, and suffered innumerable hostilities and slanderous rumors, but nothing that has shaken her resolve or her faith that what she is doing matters, not just to science but to the survival of her world's dragon species. That work becomes even more vital now that the secret of preserving dragon bone as an ultralight building material - ideal for military airships - has been stolen by her nation's enemies. Long skeptical of her work and her person, now the military enlists her aid in a grand project, in partner with desert-dwelling allies: learning to breed dragons in captivity, an endeavor that has eluded every civilization save possibly the long-lost Draconeans. Little as she likes the idea of raising magnificent beasts for slaughter like pigs or cattle, Isabella cannot resist the challenge, nor the opportunity to explore the habits of the desert-dwelling drakes. But, as always, with new dragons come new complications, and new dangers.
REVIEW: The fourth installment of Lady Trent's memoirs maintains the same adventurous air of exploration and wonder and excitement as the previous volumes, even as the world grows bigger and more politically complex. Isabella remains a clever, if occasionally impetuous, character, one who still sometimes struggles with social niceties and resents the encroachment of politics and archaic ideas of propriety and "a woman's place" upon her work, but she is maturing and learning through the series. An unexpected reunion with Suhail, the stranger who helped and tantalized her in the previous volume before vanishing under mysterious circumstances, adds fresh complications both personal and political, when he turns out to be the brother of the sheik whose somewhat reluctant help is vital to the success of the dragon breeding pilot program. Needless to say, innumerable adventures await the lady scientist in the deserts, and more discoveries about both dragons and the long-lost Draconeans, whose ruins have long mystified experts; understanding the ancient worldwide civilization may be the ultimate key to understanding dragons, and she comes several steps closer in this volume. The title, though, feels like a bit of a misnomer, as the Labyrinth is only mentioned until very close to the end of the book, and then the final scenes feel a trifle rushed. Some of the world's place names, the political alliances and rivalries, can still feel a bit like name soup, too. Still, I'm enjoying the series and its world, and intend to finish at least the original five-volume memoirs.
You Might Also Enjoy:
A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan) - My Review
His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik) - My Review
The Waking Fire (Anthony Ryan) - My Review
Saturday, November 6, 2021
DESCRIPTION: In a future where body upgrades, cybernetics, and other enhancements are commonplace (if expensive), scouting for major league baseball takes on whole new dimensions. The corporations treat their players as experiments, and it's all about who can collect the best scientists with the weakest morals, a job that requires some flexible morality itself. Kobo may not necessarily like who he's become, but it keeps the creditors off his back (more or less), and after decades of cyber enhancements and upgrades, he's in debt deeper than the lowest subterranean apartments of New York City. Besides, he still loves the game. When a pair of cloned Neanderthals working for the Monsanto Mets poach a scientist Kobo has been courting for his clients, the Yankees, he thinks it's just business as usual in his cutthroat line of work... but when his old friend and current Mets star J. J. Zunz calls him late at night out of the blue, sounding confused, he starts to realize something bigger's afoot - especially when Zunz collapses at his next game, blood streaming from every orifice. He and J. J. grew up together, two poor New York boys dreaming of baseball superstardom under smog-choked skies; they became brothers after Kobo's family died in an apartment collapse. Now, as Kobo sets out to investigate his death, he learns just how far apart the two grew over the years... and how twisted and amoral the great American pastime and modern life have become.
REVIEW: There's a reason dystopian sci-fi is so common these days; their futures, unfortunately, seem far more plausible than not. Here, Michel explores a gritty, violent, depressingly recognizable near future where corruption at all levels consistently wins out over morality and integrity, at least at the macro level. At the micro level, there's still a little (very little) wiggle room for even a jaded man like Kobo to attempt to pursue the truth and some form of justice... but what truth or justice could possibly exist in a dying world where every (patented and expensive) hope or breakthrough or cure comes saddled with at least a dozen negating drawbacks and costs for some future generation to reckon with? It's a well-realized world of complex and ever-shifting morality and points of contention, much like our own, and Kobo finds himself forced to ask uncomfortable questions about his life, his city, his friends and enemies, and even the sport that carried him out of one poverty only to land him neck-deep in another. For all the bleakness, though, the characters and setting are compelling and relatable, and while the ending (skirting spoilers) isn't the resounding, edifice-toppling revolution one might hope for given the rotten power structures driving everyone's lives and choices, it fits the tale and offers a slim possibility of a slightly better, if no less complicated, future. (I probably would've gotten more out of it if I were a baseball fan.)
You Might Also Enjoy:
The Warehouse (Rob Hart) - My Review
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Thursday, November 4, 2021
DESCRIPTION: Victoria McQueen, better known as Vic (or "the brat"), had one escape from her rough childhood and unhappy parents, on the wheels of her bicycle through the woods and down to the old covered bridge... a bridge that has a way of taking her where she needs to be to find things that have been lost. As she grows up, she tries to dismiss the bridge as a childhood fantasy - until she runs out of her home as a teen and straight across the bridge to the lair of serial child killer Charlie Manx.
Manx is no ordinary killer. With his classic Rolls Royce Wraith, one of only a handful in America, he prowls the country in search of children to "rescue" from unhappy homes. Like Vic, he can navigate roads that don't exist in normal space and time, through the "inscapes" of imagination - but his lead somewhere far less wholesome than a covered bridge. His lead to Christmasland, a throwback amusement park inside his own imagination, where his victims live on as monstrous wraiths stripped of their humanity. When he meets Vic, he recognizes another "creative", one who can change reality with the force of their imaginaton and will... but Vic is a mentally fragile girl, growing into a damaged woman, while Manx is an old pro. When she escapes and Manx is finally arrested, his reign of terror should be over. Instead, it's just beginning - and only Vic can stop him.
REVIEW: Having enjoyed Heart-Shaped Box, I thought I'd give another Joe Hill book a try. He presents some interesting and inherently chilling concepts in the "inscapes" and Christmasland, though they ultimately would be cheap cardboard props without the characters who bring them to life. Everyone in the story is damaged in some way, physically or mentally or emotionally (or multiple choice), and most are trying - if often failing - to do best with the imperfect tools and worldview they have. Even Manx has rationalized his monstrous predation on children, and his henchman and protege, a child-minded serial rapist named Bing, was broken long before he got in touch with the man behind the wheel of the Wraith. Vic is particularly shattered, first by being the product of a dysfunctional marriage and later by her own choices and struggles over the existence of the bridge. She often seemed undercut as a heroine, though, repeatedly dismissing her own experiences as delusions only to repeatedly be devastated to discover that the covered bridge is real - as is the danger of Charlie Manx. When Vic has a child of her own, she learns some of what her own parents went through, and even as she tries to keep her son from feeling as lost and often rejected as she herself felt, she seems doomed to fail. The horror elements build nicely throughout the tale, with several scary and gruesome moments (and more than one Easter egg nod to his own works and his father Stephen King's creations), though once in a while it feels a slight bit drawn out, like it could've lost a few chapters in revision. For the most part, though, I enjoyed it, and expect I'll be reading (or listening, rather, as this was another audiobook) to more of Hill's works in the future.
You Might Also Enjoy:
Heart-Shaped Box (Joe Hill) - My Review
It (Stephen King) - My Review
Sparrow Hill Road (Seanan McGuire) - My Review
Sunday, October 31, 2021
The observant may notice that Amazon Affiliate links have pretty much all disappeared from the site, and are disappearing from the blog posts. I have been having Issues with the Amazon Affiliates program, and am no longer an active member. It will take me a while to get to all the blog posts (I used a CSS trick to hide the links on site, as no way could I have deleted 1,700-odd links that fast), but since Amazon has been less than clear on their changing rules for affiliate link postings, I don't anticipate reactivating. (Which kind of sucks, because I thought the covers looked nice with the reviews; I certainly wasn't doing it because this site gets a ton of click-through traffic...)
Anyway, if you're curious, that's what's going on. Enjoy!
Thursday, October 28, 2021
The Newsflesh series, Book 3
DESCRIPTION: The blogger journalists of After the End Times have sacrificed everything, including lives, in their relentless pursuit of truths across a zombie-riddled post-Rising America. What they have found is a conspiracy reaching to the highest echelons of the Center for Disease Control, who embody the concept of absolute power having corrupted absolutely in their zealous efforts to control the plague. Shaun Mason barely clings to his sanity, not sure if his ongoing hallucinations of his deceased adopted sister Georgia are helping him or hurting him, dedicating himself to bringing the people responsible for her death to justice before ending his own misery... but there are still more dark secrets and surprises in store, as he and his core crew of journalists are about to discover. This story will be the biggest in their career, the one that might quite literally change the world - if any of them survive long enough to tell it.
Meanwhile, in a top secret lab, a young woman awakens in a white room: a girl with the face and the memories of Georgia Mason, grown with illicit techniques in a CDC facility. She may be the key to Shaun's survival and his mission's success, or the final blow to his already-fractured sanity who destroys everything he and the real Georgia worked for.
REVIEW: The third book of the original Newsflesh trilogy (which has since expanded by at least one companion volume and collected short stories) continues the fast pacing and high stakes and grim emotional and physical toll (not to mention the body count) of the previous installments, set in a world with eerie prescient echoes of our current pandemic situation (only COVID has thus far failed to raise the dead, and the CDC is more trustworthy than not). Shaun's mind continues to fracture, producing full-body tactile hallucinations of the late Georgia, the only person he ever trusted or truly loved; even as he recognizes his own deterioration, he digs in all the harder to honor her memory, even if - especially if - it costs his own life. The friends and colleagues around him do what they can to help, but can only watch as he entrenches himself further in his death mission and self-recognized delusions. Meanwhile, the cloned Georgia has retained more of her original memories and personality than her makers might have anticipated, too loyal to the truth and to Shaun to be the showpiece or tool they intend her to be. Still, she knows that she is not the person she remembers herself to be, for all that she can't seem to be anyone or anything else. The conspiracy of power they've pitted themselves against continues wantonly tossing lives away by the thousands, even hundreds of thousands; after the disastrous spread of the virus-transmitting engineered mosquitos turns the whole of Florida into a zombie wasteland, they aren't about to stop now, not when they're so close to obtaining the future they've deemed fit for the world. It's a harrowing race, with twists and turns and betrayals aplenty, leading to an appropriately powerful climax. As I'm not generally a fan of zombies, I was all the more amazed to find myself enjoying it so much.
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Thursday, October 21, 2021
DESCRIPTION: When English college students Lee and Mal set off into the moors in search of a mysterious monster, it was supposed to be the usual cryptid hunt: poking about in obscure places and backwater villages, gathering odd stories from eccentric locals, maybe snapping a grainy photo or two that might resemble something unnatural or may just be swamp gas or an odd shadow. Neither ever expected to actually find anything. But this trip, something goes terribly, impossibly wrong. Lee comes back alone, shaken to her core by what she witnessed, and Mal... Mal simply disappears, as if into thin air.
Years later, Lee gets a strange phone call from her missing friend, just as a pair of MI-5 agents are called upon to investigate unusual occurrences surrounded one of the world's top theoretical mathematicians, peculiarly inhuman agents start turning up all across England, and a shady tycoon makes an unprecedented bid for power just as the world stands on the brink of literal oblivion... and not just our world. The strange events are linked to a series of other worlds, other Earths, with other ascendant life forms - and all of them are in grave danger.
REVIEW: The Doors of Eden explores the possibilities of alternate worlds and evolutionary tracks, with unexpected successes and failures up and down the timeline, in a fairly active plot with hints of a spy thriller around the edges. The other Earths produce sapient life forms as bizarre and unknowable as any extraterrestrial, but all drawn from our planet's fossil record and the possibilities it entails, from essentially immortal giant trilobites meandering through space to overpopulated rodents in continent-spanning cities to nominally extinct amphibious beings who built a planet-sized supercomputer based on ice to accommodate an artificial afterlife on their perpetually frozen world, though the main players in this tale are generally of the human persuasion. Sometimes the characters could be irritating and a little slow on the uptake - Lee in particular often feels like a useless tagalong, and MI-5 agent Julian leans a little too hard into the stiff-upper-lip British agent persona who willfully refuses to broaden his thinking beyond his sworn duty to England when the entire multiverse hangs in the balance - and toward the end it feels like it's trying a little too hard and dragging things out a hair too long (not to mention hammering home its point about the diversity of life and minds being a boon rather than a threat a bit too repetitively, for all that it's very relevant in a world that seems to be turning backwards and inwards to its detriment), but there are also some great moments of sheer wonder and a real connection to the other sapients, who even in their alienness evoke a certain empathy.
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Sunday, October 17, 2021
The Protectorate series, Book 3
Megan E. O'Keefe
DESCRIPTION: Since waking alone on the empty ship of her enemies, Commander Sanda Greeve has had her world turned upside-down and inside-out. The interstellar government to which she swore her life turns out to have been founded on a lie, its technology stolen from an ancient alien race and weaponized to prevent that race from returning to snatch its toys back. The artificial intelligence of the enemy ship, Bero, achieved sentience and turned on its makers. And the man who helped her escape and whom she fell in love with turned out to be part of a secretive ring of spies with unusual tech of their own, to the point where it's arguable whether Tomas is even human. Meanwhile, her brother Biran has undergone his own journey and rude awakenings, rising to the role of Speaker of the elite Protectorate only to discover the rot and lies within. Now Rainier, the legacy artificial intelligence originally tasked with guarding the alien tech, has gone insane, ready to culminate a generations-long plan to exterminate the upstart primates for the travesty they made of her creator's gifts. Sanda and Biran scramble to save their species from threats within and without, but their enemy has studied humanity for centuries and infiltrated every nook and cranny of civilization. Even as they race toward the final confrontation, they may already have lost.
REVIEW: The final installment of the (probable) trilogy maintains the high-octane pace of the series, shot through with firefights, betrayals, twists, and turns, with some spots of humor and character interplay along the way. Sanda and Biran and their companions must confront the sins of their species and Prime's founders, who built their entire spacefaring society on lies and bloodshed and greed and fear; even as they work to stop Rainier, they see just why the artificial intelligence has grown so enraged with the crimes of the species. Former Grotta thief Jules Valentine, meanwhile, continues on the dark path that led her to infect a large population with the corrupted "ascension" agent that helped her transcend her human limits (but which has devastating results on over ninety percent of its victims), finding it increasingly hard to justify her extreme means even in the name of saving the only person in the universe she has ever cared about. Things start at a high level of tension and only ratchet up from there, at times reaching near overwhelming levels, before a climactic conclusion that alters the trajectory of Prime and humanity's future, with the door cracked open just enough for sequel potential. It narrowly lost itself a half-star due to that sense of being a little overwhelmed and overloaded at times, plus some of the side characters and storylines felt a bit lost in the shuffle by the end, but the whole still makes for excellent, action-filled space opera that never forgets the flawed individuality of the characters involved.
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Thursday, October 14, 2021
Walden Pond Press
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Historical Fiction
DESCRIPTION: The summer of 1963 ends for twins Jezebel and Jay Turner when their beloved Gran passes away, shortly before their eleventh birthday. Gran was the undisputed matriarch of the family and one of the most respected women on their South Carolina island, a powerful practitioner of the old root magic. Now, Jez's uncle Doc wants the twins to learn root ways, to carry the tradition into the future, though their mother is reluctant. Life is tough enough for Negros in the south without practicing strange beliefs, and not only the Whites and the local deputy but other Negros have taken to targeting the "witch doctors" who follow the old ways, for all that many people still buy the potions and incenses and tinctures Doc brews up in his cabin. But Doc argues that this only means they need to cling all the harder to their culture, before it's washed away by the tides of time. Besides, the more dangers the Turners face, the more protection they need. As Jez and Jay learn more about root magic, Jez discovers that it's much deeper - and more dangerous - than she ever understood, and even a little girl can quickly find herself in way over her head...
REVIEW: Root Magic is a tribute to the Gullah culture of the South Carolina islands, set in a time of national upheaval. As South Carolina is forced to comply with national school desegregation laws, tensions run higher than ever; while the twins, on a small island, don't have to deal with White folks (or angry White parents), they do have to deal with the children of wealthier Negro families who long ago learned to look down on their own roots as something to be ashamed of... or something to fear. Jez feels perpetually torn between growing pride in her ancestry and how she's treated by others, and even well-meaning outsiders don't seem to understand. It doesn't help when her first-ever spell, a charm meant to attract a friend, seems to go awry from the first day of school. Her relationship with her twin brother is also in a state of transition and tension; she got moved ahead a grade last year, so they're no longer in the same class, and he keeps picking up friends and goofing off while she struggles to socialize and throws herself into her studies, both academic and magical. They seem to be growing apart, even as Doc insists that they need to stick together. Along the way, the setting and culture are described in great detail, coming to life around the characters, a landscape of salt marshes and dirt roads and small farms and sprawling oaks where magic and haint spirits lurk in the shadows and the reeds.
A few things held the story back in the ratings. First of all, Jez isn't the brightest of main characters. (Then again, neither is her brother, but Jay is supposed to be an energetic and emotionally immature boy, while she's supposed to be smarter and more grounded.) After being told to keep close to Jay so they can guard each other while learning root magic, she keeps wandering off to do things on her own. After being told that pushing their new powers without supervision isn't a great idea, Doc having filled them in on haints and ghosts and other dangers to an untrained root magician, Jez starts experimenting with astral projection without bothering to tell anyone. She keeps forgetting the protections Doc provides her and her brother with, and thus keeps stumbling into danger, some of it so obvious she shouldn't have needed to be told about it. After a while, it got tiresome, especially as the dangers and the lessons become repetitious - almost word-for-word repetitious in a few instances. Side characters can feel flat and underdeveloped, and some subplots and themes peter out by the end as if forgotten. The audiobook narrator also drops her voice to somewhere below a whisper, barely more than a breath, several times; I literally could not hear what she was saying. (Admittedly, many people aren't listening in a warehouse at work, but anyone listening in their car on a road or anywhere else with mild to moderate background noise will also have trouble.) Other narrators have proven that it's possible to evoke a breathy whisper while remaining audible to the audience. And some of those setting descriptions, which admittedly add color, start overwhelming the plot. The whole thing begins to feel slow and stagnant, taking several meandering paragraphs where a few sentences might suffice.
Overall, Root Magic's not a bad story, offering a glimpse into an often-misrepresented culture that's well worth exploring. I just grew a bit irritated with the molasses pacing and somewhat thickheaded main character.
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Saturday, October 9, 2021
The Long City series, Book 1
Viking Books for Young Readers
Fiction, YA Fantasy
DESCRIPTION: A year ago, the former street boy Kai Zou lived an adventure worthy of a fairy tale, helping the princess of Long City achieve her heart's desire and becoming her lifelong friend. After a series of adventures and the solving of three impossible riddles, she was able to leave home to study at the prestigious university in the Phoenix Empire, while he and his street rat friends were handsomely rewarded... but that was a year ago, and life after a fairy tale isn't at all what Kai had expected or hoped. His friends have grown into their own lives, their gang nothing but a memory, while he struggles with his studies in his mother's magic shop alongside Yun, the girl he once thought might become more than a friend but who seems to be drifting away from him. Yes, he has his reward money still and the honorary title of Prince of the Streets of Long City, but what does it even mean when he feels left behind by everyone and everything?
When word spreads of the king falling deathly ill, a wary sense of foreboding falls over the city and Kai. Why has the princess not returned from the university? What sickness could evade the best healers in the kingdom? Does it have anything to do with the web of courtly plots and intrigues that grow thick as smoke around the palace? Then Kai's mother disappears, and the king of the city's ghost dragons charges the boy with traveling to the Phoenix Empire himself to fetch back the princess. If he fails, not only will he have failed Long City, but the whole of the Seventy Kingdoms may succumb to a dark and terrible fate...
REVIEW: Another audiobook to kill time at work, this one intrigued me with its mix of magic and high technology; not only does everyone have spirit animal companions, but magic flux is used to power all sorts of gizmos and gadgets, everything from silk viewing screens broadcasting news and entertainment to computers and mobile phones and even enhanced mechanical eyes in the city's royal guards, creating a world reminiscent of our own but with many fantastic twists. Within this world, Kai finds himself adrift, caught between the adventures of his youth and the expectations and confusion of adulthood. He keeps longing for the comfort of yesterday, when he knew who his friends were and where he belonged and didn't have a care in the world, even as he knows that he can't go back, for all that he can't seem to figure out how to move forward. Being shoved into another adventure forces him to do some growing up, especially when he picks up unexpected companions in the form of an undead griffin from his mother's magic shop and Yun, whom he attempted to leave behind but who tracks him down on the road... just in time for more trouble to catch up with them, letting them know that there's a lot more at stake here than just finding a wayward princess. The plot moves fairly well with a nice character mix, Kai experiencing breakthroughs and setbacks both in the main quest and his own growth as he learns to see the world and his companions for what and who they actually are rather than the ideas of them he'd formed in childhood. There's fun and danger and some fledgling romance, building to a nice (if mildly abrupt) climax that leaves the door open for future installments. The whole makes an enjoyable tale.
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Thursday, October 7, 2021
The Firebrand series, Book 1
DESCRIPTION: In just two weeks, Emma will finally achieve her dream and become a London detective... but first, she must endure one final trainee rotation into a random department before her final exams. She's hoping for cyber crimes, as that's where she intends to build her career, but instead finds herself assigned to the least desirable, most useless department in the city: the Supernatural Squad. One would think that working among the city's werewolves, vampires, and assorted other "supes" would be exciting, but in truth the few officers on the Supe Squad are little more than window dressing, to reassure the normal public; the wolves and vamps deal with their own, and if any crime actually involves humans in their district, the chief of detectives takes over anyway. Emma despairs, and her boyfriend Jeremy - who never approved of her putting herself in harm's way as a cop in the first place - nearly has heart failure, but she's come this far, and isn't about to let one crummy assignment sink her dreams. Besides, it's just two weeks, then she can walk away from the Supe Squad and never look back. What could possibly go wrong?
When Emma wakes up in the morgue, wrapped in a body bag and wreathed in flames, on her second day with the Supernatural Squad, she finds out just how wrong things can go. Someone lured her to a graveyard and slit her throat... and they didn't just try to kill her, they succeeded. Even she doesn't know how she survived, waking without a scratch, but now she has to find her own killer before they strike again - a task complicated by supernatural politics, turf scuffles, and one meddlesome, disturbingly handsome vampire who insists on helping her out.
REVIEW: Brimstone Bound has all the standard urban fantasy/detective trappings I've come to expect from the genre (at least, the parts of it I've sampled), down to the frequently-used London setting, but the parts, while familiar, work together fairly well. Emma makes for a credible lead, a little out of her depth but (usually) not too stupid to believe as a greenhorn cop; her unfamiliarity with the supernaturals gives other characters a reason to walk her (and thus the reader) through the "rules" of this particular urban fantasy scenario, where werewolves and vampires are dangerous but generally little more monstrous than human beings. The crime takes several twists and turns through potential culprits and motives, but Emma's a determined investigator and manages to work her way to the end (hardly a spoiler; it is a mystery, after all). As for Emma's little quirk of not staying dead... this is part of what cost it the full fourth star in the rating. How long must characters be clueless about something when it's given away on the danged cover? (I don't consider it a spoiler to say that, no, the mystery of Emma's true nature is never solved in this volume... but, come on, Emma, look at your own cover design! How long are you intending to drag readers along, here?) Setting that, and a couple other instances of her and others being slightly slow on the uptake, aside, this is a fairly decent little outing in a supernatural-tinged modern London, with action and danger and a little humor and just a whiff of potential romance (without it dominating the characters or the plot). I don't know that I'll follow the rest of the series, though, unless I need something to listen to at work again and nothing else is available on Overdrive. Urban fantasy just isn't my preferred subgenre, though I can appreciate it for what it is.
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