California Bones The Daniel Blackland series, Book 1 Greg van Eekhout
Fiction, Fantasy *** (Okay)
DESCRIPTION: Daniel wasn't yet six years old when his father Sebastian, one of the strongest mages in the kingdom of Southern California, first made him eat a kraken spine, setting him on the path to become an an osteomancer - a wizard who can tap into the power of bones, teeth, and fossils - like Sebastian himself. But already the Hierarch ruler's grip was growing tighter, with no room for potential traitors or threats to his reign. Years later, Daniel himself would witness his father pay the ultimate price for ambition, when the Hierarch's soldiers capture Sebastian and the Hierarch literally devours him to absorb his magic. Ever since, Daniel has been living like a ghost in the city of Los Angeles, making a meager living off petty thefts and cons with a small yet loyal crew. He never wanted to go up against the Hierarch again - until his thief mentor, Otis, tells him they have a shot at cracking the Ossuary, the greatest storehouse of bone magic in the entire kingdom. It's a score no thief can resist, especially when Otis reveals that Sebastian's sword, an osteomantic artifact of untold power, is reportedly kept there... the sword young Daniel failed to save when the Hierarch raided his father's home all those years ago. Despite the dangers, Daniel accepts the job - and finds himself in far more trouble than he could possibly have imagined.
REVIEW: The concept is interesting, with an alternate world where osteomancers and other mages are real and the power dynamics of the world are altered accordingly. The wealth of the La Brea tar pits enabled the Heirarch and his elite council of mages to have the power to break away from both America and Northern California... but, as in our own world, non-renewable resources have been overused and depleted, with osteomancers resorting to literal cannibalism to absorb scraps of power from other mages. Unfortunately, van Eekhout seems a little too in love with his alternate-Los Angeles concept, particularly resurrecting key figures from the city's colorful past and casting them in supporting roles, such as Walt Disney, the aging glorymage, who uses magic to essentially brainwash the populace into artificial happiness and docility so they tolerate the increasingly dystopian conditions of their kingdom, and William Mulholland, the man responsible for the city's original water infrastructure, here recast as a water mage granted unnatural lifespan and powers. I started feeling like the author was standing next to me, nudging me with his shoulder and pointing, to make sure I appreciated just how clever his very, very detailed vision of a canal-riddled, magic-permeated Los Angeles was. It didn't particularly help that I didn't like several of the characters, particularly Daniel Blackland, who seems to think he's clever but has several instances of glaring stupidity and whose wisecracks must've been more humorous or appropriate in his head. The Hierarch himself is more phantom than threat for most of the tale, dancing at the edge of awareness until finally stepping onto stage for the final act, but in a way that makes him less of an omnipresent threat and more of a bogeyman or cardboard prop. The story moves okay, but bogs down now and again (particularly when Daniel blunders, then tries and fails to wisecrack his way out of trouble), and the final bits drag out too long. Women characters, what few there were, also felt strangely marginalized; this is very much a story of fathers and sons and boys and men, where women and mothers tend to be disposable side-pieces, to the point I was distinctly irked. So, while it wasn't what I would call terrible, and while I did enjoy the concept of osteomancy and certain parts of the central heist structure and alternate world, by the end I realized I wasn't really enjoying it like I'd hoped to, and doubt I'll pursue this series further.
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Driving the Deep The Finder Chronicles, Book 2 Suzanne Palmer
Fiction, Sci-Fi ****+ (Good/Great)
DESCRIPTION: Fergus Ferguson has a knack for finding stolen things - and finding trouble - wherever he goes across the galaxy, but there's one item he's been avoiding for far too long: the motorcycle he stole at age 15 when he ran away from his home in Scotland and fled to the stars. He keeps meaning to return it to his cousin and make amends, but can't seem to get up the courage to face the place that left him so heartbroken. Now, having more or less recovered from the almost-deadly excitement on the distant deep-space habitation of Cernee, he realizes he can't put it off anymore. He says goodbye to his friends, the eccentric Shipbuilders of Pluto, and makes the trek sunward to Earth and a dusty storage unit... only to find that the motorcycle is long gone, replaced by crates containing stolen art. The next thing he finds is a retired New York City police detective accusing him of the theft and associated murders - just when Fergus gets word that the Pluto shipyard has been attacked. With the detective as a determined yet distrustful stowaway, Fergus heads back to space, and plunges into a plot that takes him deep beneath the ice of Saturn's ocean moon Enceladus, where he might find his missing friends from the shipyard... if he doesn't find a grisly, watery grave first.
REVIEW: Like the first installment of Fergus Ferguson's adventures, Driving the Deep hearkens back to old-school space adventures, if with reasonably hard science behind it. It follows through on some themes from that book, too, as Fergus has come to realize that the galaxy just isn't big enough to keep running away from his painful past, not to mention dealing with the fallout of his peculiar alien encounter and its aftereffects. It brings back the AI (or rather SI - "simulated intelligence") ship Venetia's Sword, whose theft kicked off the previous adventure. The pursuit of the Pluto attackers to Enceladus holds a personal horror for Fergus; his father committed suicide by drowning right in front of the boy, a big part of why he ran away from home, so finding himself immersed beneath countless kilometers of crushing water is hardly a pleasant experience. Palmer creates an interesting and horror-tinged world beneath the moon's icy crust, one where the pressure of the deep alone is enough to drive many to madness even without dark conspiracies and killers and secret plots piling on the stress. As before, he finds allies and enemies in unexpected places, with an abundance of luck both good and ill, and after a fair bit of chaos and close calls, most everything wraps up by the last pages (save a few stray threads for the third installment to pick up on). Things slow down a bit while the technical challenges and culture of Enceladus are explained, but overall it's as fast-paced and adventurous as the previous volume, and just as well recommended.
Made Things Adrian Tchaikovsky
Fiction, YA? Fantasy ****+ (Good/Great)
DESCRIPTION: All mages (and half-mages, and even ordinary folk with big dreams) come to Loretz hoping to rise high in the magic city's society, but few ever get further than the slums of the Barrio, ending up in orphanages and workhouses, from which they tend to disappear without a trace. That was the fate of Coppelia's half-mage parents, and would have been her own fate had she not escaped into the streets to ply her trade and minor talents as a con artist and puppetmaker and thief. When she encountered the homunculi, secretive tiny beings made of inanimate material imbued with magical life, they formed a fast, if not entirely trusting, bond: the homunculi help her steal magical trinkets and stay alive, and in exchange she guards the secret of their existence, gives them half the take, and carves them new bodies to animate and enlarge their fledgling colony, but they all have their own agendas, and the Barrio is not a place that lends itself to honesty and openness. When Coppelia and her shady sponsor Auntie Countless get wind of a miraculous discovery in the catacombs beneath the palace - a human-sized artificial figure, like the legendary golems of old, only worked in precious metals and gemstones - both Coppelia and her homunculus companions are intrigued... but the discovery may lead them all to their dooms, unearthing a secret deeper and older than the mages and the city of Loretz itself.
REVIEW: This was an odd little novella with a great setting and concept, reasonably solid characters, and a story that, while not relentless, never drops off. Loretz, like many cities, is a cold and cruel place to many who come to its streets and squares, and survival breeds a certain hardness even in the young. Coppelia is no pure and innocent victim of circumstance; even if she was initially pushed to thievery, she embraces it and learns to thrive in the dark corners and narrow alleys. With the homunculi, she feels a certain kinship as a puppetmaker with some minor magic of her own, a fascination in how they move and operate and the origins of their secretive society, but also knows that they're not being entirely open with her. They have their own goals, their own wants and needs, and through the wooden woman Tef and metal man Arc, they become every bit as big on the page as the full-sized human characters, magic-dependent beings struggling to survive in a city where magic is hoarded by the greedy and the gluttonous and just plain arrogant mages of the palace. At the heart of the tale is a heist with a collection of colorful characters, theft and trickery being the only way to survive when one's lives are run by the ultimate thieves and tricksters. The whole makes for a very good story, with characters and a setting that could easily support more tales.
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The Outsiders S. E. Hinton
Fiction, YA? General Fiction ***+ (Okay/Good)
DESCRIPTION: In 1960's Tulsa, the city's wayward youth fall in to various rival factions, such as the low-income "greasers" and moneyed "socials", a street war entirely unseen by the rest of society. The Curtis family - hard-working eldest Derry, easygoing dropout Soda, and introspective youngest son Ponyboy - count the greaser crowd as friends and practically family, especially since the deaths of the Curtis parents left them alone in a cold world that would split them apart given the opportunity. When a chance encounter at a drive-in with a social's girlfriend triggers a retaliatory attack, things get out of hand, and soon Ponyboy and fellow greaser Johnny are looking at a dead boy... and the upending of everything Ponyboy thought he knew about his enemies, his friends, his family, and his world.
REVIEW: It's strange for a book this short (under six hours in its audiobook form) to feel long, yet somehow The Outsiders does, slowly establishing its characters and the unfriendly, hopeless world that the greasers have closed ranks against in a fight that they all know can never be won, no matter how many socials they jump or rumbles they prevail in. Narrator Ponyboy is perhaps the last, best hope of his family (both biological and gang) to break out of the cycle that has drug them all down, but the accidental death plunges him in way over his head, forcing him to both trust the most violent and volatile of his gang friends and to see just how pointless the whole scene is... pointless, yet impossible to get away from. The general thrust of the story isn't that tough to predict, with some characters' fates pretty much a given from the start, and at some point I started feeling like Hinton was stretching things unnecessarily, dragging out scenes long past the point. I suspect that the book is also a victim of age; at the time it came out, its description of gang life, abusive families, and both overt and covert class warfare (Hinton doesn't address race at all, save a few casual slurs and a couple characters idealizing the "gallant" Southern gentlemen of Gone With the Wind) was likely more shocking than it is today, though The Outsiders is still a frequently-challenged book in American schools and libraries. Still, it's not bad for what it is, especially considering that Hinton was evidently a teenager when this was written.
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Heart-Shaped Box Joe Hill
Fiction, Horror ****+ (Good/Great)
DESCRIPTION: In his fifties, death metal legend Judas Coyne is on the downside of his career; even though his music enjoys a healthy following, he hasn't toured or even cut a single in years, and frankly lost the heart for it after two of his bandmates died. He spends his time on his isolated New York farm with his shepherd dogs, his restored Mustang, his macabre personal collection of darkness and death-related items, and his latest young live-in lady whom he calls Georgia, a habit from his heyday when it was too much work to remember specific names of bedmates rather than the state he picked them up in. When he gets word of an online auction where an actual ghost is supposed to be up for sale, Judas feels a thrill unlike anything he's experienced for years, an eagerness that makes him buy it before he can think twice. What he gets is an old silver-buttoned black suit in a heart-shaped box... and a ghost who is not only all too real, but who is determined to destroy his life, and the lives of everyone around him, to fulfill a very personal vendetta.
REVIEW:Heart-Shaped Box doesn't dawdle too long on the setup, nor does it pull its punches once the terror begins and Judas realizes what a mistake he's made... and how much damage the vengeful ghost, a former hypnotist who learned his trade torturing enemies during the Vietnam War and whose voice has a way of worming into one's head and pulling a person's strings before they realize what's happening, can do. Judas has lived a hard life after a hard childhood on a Louisiana pig farm, becoming jaded to others - particularly friends and his companions - in ways that have come back to haunt him in a literal sense. The young woman "Georgia" turns out to have more to her than even Judas realized, another victim of childhood abuse who turns out to be a fairly solid companion as they endure the ghost's campaign of horror and death; though the ghost targets Judas specifically, the effects of the haunting expand to include everyone around him, even strangers, who risk becoming casualties by association. The long shadow of abuse through the generations and the scars it leaves, the lives it warps, are running themes through the story. In fighting the ghost, Judas finally faces demons in his own life and past that have haunted him since childhood, paying a hefty price in the process. With decently-realized characters and a truly terrifying haunting, it all makes for a fairly solid horror title.
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Beauty Queens Libba Bray
Fiction, YA Humor/Thriller ***** (Great)
DESCRIPTION: The Miss Teen Dream pageant, sponsored by The Corporation, embraces the young women of America as the bright and shining lights of the future... to sell innumerable beauty products, pitch TV shows, and monetize invented insecurities while raising the bar of the feminine ideal to ever-more-unattainable heights and placing more and more barriers to their success. This year's fifty contestants are on their way to Hawaii for the big show when their plane goes down, killing the flight crew, several passengers, and the camera crew. The shellshocked survivors face numerous challenges on the strange tropical island where they find themselves: thirst, starvation, tidal waves, giant snakes, hallucinogenic berries, quicksand, and the loss of most of their pageant gowns and accessories... not to mention a top-secret Corporation base under the obligatory volcano, key to a secret plot by Corporation boardmember (and the most famous former Miss Teen Dream in the world) Ladybird Hope for national and world domination via an insane dictator and weaponized beauty products.
REVIEW: This audiobook, narrated by the author, was one of the funniest, sharpest, most unpredictable surprises I've experienced in some time. From the very start, it turns its scathing satiric eye on predatory capitalism, society's impossible expectations for girls, politics, television and reality TV, pop culture, racism and stereotypes, and more in a story that is both an homage to and razor-sharp subversion of numerous tropes and cliches. It's set in a world that's both a funhouse mirror version of our own and eerily, depressingly, and even presciently familiar, especially when reality TV tactics really have been used to co-opt the highest offices in the land by the time I read (or listened, rather); the book was originally published in 2011.
The story kicks off quickly, opening with characters who initially (and deliberately) seem to come straight from the stock bin, but even from the start there are little twists and digs; as bold and brassy hyper-competitor Miss Texas is leading the survivors in a prayer thanking Jesus for saving all of them, the sudden death of Miss Delaware causes her to revise her prayer to saving "some" of them without missing a beat, before insisting that their priority is not to find shelter or food or even devising a way to signal for help, but to keep practicing their pageant routines. As alliances and rivalries form and break, the girls come into their own, all of them suffering under the burdens piled upon them by family, society, and the advertising agencies embodied in the ubiquitous Corporation. Their time on the island is as liberating as it is harrowing, showing them all what they're capable of when they're not under the pageant microscope and turned against each other. When the greater threat becomes apparent, nobody expects them to be able to rise to the challenge... nobody but the girls themselves, who are not who they were before the crash. (Or, rather, they're who they should always have been, but for a world intent on grinding them down to dust.) Periodic footnotes elaborate on celebrities, reality TV shows, products, music, and more, while commercial breaks hilariously skewer ads targeting women and girls with everything from gummy antidepressants for children to animal-shaped maxi pads to keep girls from being cranky during their menstrual cycle and inane movies highlighting ridiculous romantic expectations that undercut women at every turn. I snickered innumerable times while listening even as the action and stakes kept ratcheting up to an explosive finale. The audiobook ended with an interesting (and amusing) author interview.
For getting me to crack a smile more than once at my mind-numbing job (probably to the confusion of co-workers) and for exceeding any expectations I had going in, I'm giving this one top marks... and if you can listen to the audiobook version, I can highly recommend it. Bray's delivery just is the cherry on top of the tale.
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Three Mages and a Margarita The Guild Codex: Spellbound series, Book 1 Annette Marie
Dark Owl Fantasy Inc.
Fiction, Fantasy/Humor/Romance ***+ (Okay/Good)
DESCRIPTION: Tori knew what was coming when she smacked the unruly, conning customers upside the head with a drink tray - the drink tray they'd just spilled all over her, after making bogus claims about their meals. Another job lost, the latest in a string of firings, and she's rapidly running out of new places to apply; worse, word is getting around the industry, that she has temper control issues despite being a hard worker. Her cop brother Justin says she can stay rent-free on his sofa for as long as it takes her to find her feet, but Tori has learned the hard way that she can't trust anyone, not even her family, to take care of her. Mere chance leads her to a flyer advertising an opening for a bartender at the Crow and Hammer, an out-of-the-way bar in a seedy part of town. She has some experience tending bar (sort of), and she's desperate - and, fortunately, so is the flustered woman who agrees to give her a trial-by-fire that very night. Tori wasn't doing too bad, all things considered, until the three hot guys decided to make teasing her their personal project... and, inevitably, her infamous redhead temper gets the better of her.
What's strange is that she isn't fired on the spot; they actually seem amused.
What's even stranger is that the three men - all of the clientele of the Crow and Hammer, actually - are mystics: people with magical gifts, ranging from divination to sorcery to telekinesis and more. And ordinary humans are strictly forbidden from their guild headquarters at the bar.
But the bar really needs a bartender. And Tori really needs a job. And she's not about to give up just because of a few unruly mages, some pesky guild rules... or the attacks that show just how deadly hanging out with mystics can be for a lady.
REVIEW: This was another audiobook "read", one that's pretty much what it says on the label: some magic, some humor, and some teased romantic potential. It's also the first of a series, and thus a fair bit of its relatively short length is devoted to explaining and establishing the mystic world as a whole and the key characters in general... time that it could've used developing a fuller arc or exploring the romantic potentials (which are, quite unusually for a title billed as a romance, left a bit up in the air even by the end, without the clear happily-ever-after match-up and relationship development one would expect). So, this isn't quite a romance, but isn't quite not. It's also, due (again) to the time lost in the worldbuilding, not quite a fully fleshed-out and developed urban fantasy, yet it's not quite not, either. And there is humor and some snappy dialog exchanges, but it's not truly a humor title, either. What, then, is it? Basically, it's another "pilot episode" book that's more about setting up the world, characters, and future installments than anything else; though there is indeed an in-book story arc that's reasonably complete, there are some missing details and gaps (not to mention at least one incidence of outright stupidity on the part of the characters) that left me feeling a bit unsatisfied at the end, as though I was expected to read onward for full resolution. It's a tough sensation to put my finger on, let alone describe, but at some point I found myself wishing Marie had trimmed a bit of the setup explanations and filled in more actual story. I enjoyed the characters for what they were, and things moved well enough. All in all, it's not a bad start to an urban fantasy series, though I don't know if I'll continue.
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