Tag Archives: fiction-fantasy

Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
Author: Kate ElliottColdMagic
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 528 pages
Genre: alternate history fantasy/sci fi… oh gods, see below
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

This book was… odd.

Cold Magic is, by the author’s description, “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons”. Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, besties with her cousin Beatrice. They live in what is geographically England, except that the Ice Age never fully ended, so it’s still connected by marshy land to the Continent. It’s also super-racially-blended, with bloodlines from Celts and Romans and Africans all mixing together in a complex and interweaving social hierarchy. Cat and Bee are enrolled in college amid a growing conflict between the mages who seem to run Europe and the revolutionary faction that seeks to supplant magic with steam technology. What kind of magic? Well, lots of kinds. There’s cold magic and fire magic and druids and bards and other things. There might be the Fae, by way of seelie and unseelie courts, but their existence is unproven. Cat has a mysterious sort of magic which gives her super-hearing, a certain level of invisibility, and other abilities that reveal themselves through the course of the book. So does Beatrice. Oh and there are “trolls”, who come from North America and have evolved to intelligence and culture. The plot initially looks like it’s going to explore Cat and Beatrice’s lives inside this construct, but then it takes a hard left turn when a cold mage turns up at the Barahal household claiming the eldest daughter as his bride, and Cat gets shoved at him with literally no explanation. The rest of the book is Cat having no more idea than the reader what the hell is going on. It has something to do with her family, who may or may not have been spies two thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or now. It has something to do with her magic, and something to do with her cousin’s. It has something to do with the escape of a Napolean-figure who’s actually from Spain who tried to conquer Europe a few years earlier. It has something to do with sabertooth tigers. It has something to do with airships. The one thing really driving the plot is that Cat has to get back to Bee before the winter solstice so that the cold mages don’t claim her instead.

That feeling you’re having right now, trying to make sense of that summary? Is what the entire book feels like.

I very much wanted to like this book. I read it on recommendation from a good friend whose taste I trust, and it has a lot of elements that were enticing to me. But the execution was… not what I had hoped. The result of Elliott throwing all of those aforementioned genres in a blender isn’t a well-processed smoothie — it’s a chunky, uneven mess. I spent the entire book trying to figure out if my reading comprehension had suddenly taken a leave of absence, or if the book was really just that confusingly written. Since I’m reasonably certain I’m still in possession of all the wits I started last week with, I have to assume it’s the latter.

What’s so frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas here. (The three stars I’m giving this book come a lot from just the sheer credit of that). The Afro-Celtic angle? Awesome. I love the route that alternate history has taken here, with Rome and Carthage fighting to a standstill rather than going the Carthago delenda est road. I love the idea that the Mali Empire had a diaspora that caused Africa to colonize Europe, rather than the other way around. The blending of cultures has so much potential, and the fantasy and sci-fi genres in general could do with a lot more of that. I also love the idea of magic and science engaging in a horrible struggle for dominance, and the political and social consequences for each side are such fruitful avenues for exploration. But somehow, all of these elements just totally failed to synthesize — and I rather suspect at least part of the problem is that Elliott tried to do too many things in the same novel. The dinosaur-descendants, for example — a fascinating concept, but thrown into this novel, it’s definitely just one tangent too many. The Regency era angle is underused to the point where it may as well not exist (to anyone wondering why it’s called Regency if the year is supposedly 1837, they’re counting in “Augustan Years”, and he became emperor in 27 BCE — so the equivalent year is really 1810, not 1837. Not that you would know that from reading the book, since Elliott never explains it). The blending of cultures, while super-intriguing, is also poorly explored — it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what melded where and with whom and so forth. The world clearly has a shape, but the reader never gets to grasp what it is. There’s also the problem I have with A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that cultural identities wouldn’t stay the same for 2000 years no matter where you are, particularly with the amount of blending that’s apparently gone on — and family identities certainly don’t, so the idea that the Barahals have a reputation that stretches back two millennia stretches credulity.

And I also think a lot of the problem is the first-person narration. Cold Magic does a great job of exemplifying what I find so frustrating about that style — it stymies the author’s ability to explain things. Throughout the book, you get the sense that there’s a lot Cat knows which the reader doesn’t and which she doesn’t bother to explain, a lot of “given circumstances” that you just can’t allow to lie there as assumptions in an alternate history. But at the same time, the first-person narration means that the reader also can’t know anything that Cat doesn’t — and as the plot progresses through the never-unpacked mysteries, that starts to encompass a lot of salient details. I don’t mind the tangents that Cat goes down — The rules of magic are never explained, which in a fantasy novel I just find extraordinarily maddening. It’s several hundred pages in before anything gets explained about the cold mages, and even then, we don’t get a lot. And for all that we get a lot of history about things that happened two thousand years ago, we get a lot less on the recent history that has shaped the culture in which Cat lives — or even the current circumstances.

But what’s so weird is that, while leaving all of that unexplained, Elliott devotes a lot of time to repeating things that the reader already does know, but without giving them any new depth or revelations. She also spends a lot of time talking about what the food is like at inns. I love tangents, I really do. I’m the child who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I will never fault an author for wandering down world-building avenues, even if it is a bit at the expense of the plot. I don’t mind it. But the digressions in this book are just strange. Quite often, they don’t add anything to the plot and they don’t clarify the world-building. They’re either just dull (I hate reading about food) or they only add more confusion (ghost plagues in Africa! a secret codebook! other things!).

I was warned that the book might feel slow, but that definitely isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. I would go with “jerky”. The book jumps between tones so often that the reader’s likely to get whiplash. The first eighty pages aren’t slow, it’s just that you think you’re reading one kind of story, and then it suddenly becomes something completely different — which would not in of itself be a bad thing if that didn’t keep happening. You never spend enough time in any one mode to feel comfortable there before you get yanked out of it and plunged into something else, with very little sinew to connect the different ideas together. This, more than anything else, is why I was questioning my ability to process written information while reading this book, and I must say I’m gratified to see from reviews that other readers had a similar experience.

Another unfortunate thing is that I quite liked several of the characters (and they account for the remainder of the 3 stars this book gets), but, either as a consequence of the chaotic writing or of the unreliable first person narration or both, we never get a clear view of them, either. Cat herself would be interesting if her head was a more coherent place in which to spend 500 pages. She’s clearly smart, thinks on her feet, and has a backbone, but is also impulsive and a little hot-tempered, all qualities I like in a heroine, and then she gets dragged headfirst into a swirling identity crisis, which makes for good internal drama. But once again, that jerky, jarring quality of the narrative makes it difficult to feel comfortable living in her point of view. Cat’s forced-husband, Andrevai, would be such an intriguing person to know better, caught between two worlds as he is, overcompensating for insecurities, experiencing an identity crisis every bit as tormenting as Cat’s — but since Cat doesn’t, the reader doesn’t get to, and the weird semi-romance that’s going on there just ends up feeling awkward and artificial. Bee is charming and a lovely subversion of expectations. And then there’s Roderic, and I won’t explain who he is because it’s a definite spoiler, but he’s just plain delightful, and I want to know him and his entire family better. Many of the side characters are interesting, too — and so many of them are female! And female characters in positions of power! That’s exciting and commendable. I just… wish we actually got to know any of them.

I think I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, mostly in a hope that there are explanations occurring somewhere, and if there are, it will drive me up the wall not to have them. I can tell that, at least in the author’s head, this is a fully-realized and complete world with a lot of nuance and underlying complexities, and I trust that it all makes sense somehow. But if and when I do pick up the next book, it will be with the fervent hope that the writing is a lot more coherent than it was in Cold Fire.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady TrentNaturalHistoryDragons
Author: Marie Brennan
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 336 pages
Genre: historical fantasy
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

I received this book from a friend who has an unerring knack in telling me what it is I want to read. I have him to thank for Catherynne Valente and A Song of Ice and Fire (which we both started before that series began its downhill trudge in A Feast for Crows, but that is neither here nor there). His taste has not erred with A Natural History of Dragons, which I absolutely ate up.

I’m calling this a historical fantasy because, though it quite clearly does not take place in our world — the maps are nothing like — it is still entirely flavoured by our world. The tone is utterly Victorian (never minding that in this universe, a king is regnant over the nation in question) and expertly aped, at that. The cultures are not just approximations but total analogs for the British, the Russians, etc. But the geography is entirely different, and the year is apparently 5658. (Which would be 1897 in the Jewish calendar, so perhaps there’s an analog there?) At any rate, Brennan never explicates clearly the nature of her world, and it’s a bit of an odd thing to wrap one’s head around, but it works well enough. Our heroine, Lady Trent, former Miss Isabella Hendemoore, is by “the present”, an old woman, recognized as a pioneer in her field of dragon studies, anointed with honors, and well-respected. She’s decided this means she can now say whatever she pleases, and has written a memoir to do just that.

It begins with her childhood and the first stirring of her obsession with dragons — thought, in that time, to be a highly improper fixation for a young woman. Science alone is bad enough, but to focus on such terrifying beasts compounds the fault. She has a supportive if wary father to balance out her propriety-determined mama, however, and he tries to temper her less lady-like urges by nudging her onto an “appropriate” path that can still indulge her interests, eventually finding her a husband who will tolerate her passion. Early in their marriage, they join an expedition to the distinctly Slavic-flavored Vystrana, in search of rock-wyrms. Once there, however, they discover that the rock-wyrms have taken to attacking travelers and hunters with far more regularity than they have ever before known. Isabella determines to figure out what’s causing this strange and dangerous behavior — but the recalcitrance of the village folk, the interference of smugglers, and the hotbed of local politics may chase the expedition out of town before they can complete their mission.

This book is really interesting from a few different perspectives. One, as I mentioned, is the odd historical-fantastical world-blending. Another is the heroine. Isabella is refreshing from a feminist perspective: certainly strong-willed, but not a kick-ass Lara Croft type. She’s a scientist above everything else, and I think that’s wonderful. Her brain is analytical and curious, and though she is not possessed of great sentimentality, she also has plenty of distinctly feminine traits. She’s also a well-rounded character, with some flaws that balance out her admirable traits — she’s impulsive, and she very often doesn’t seem to think through how her actions will affect others. On the whole, she reminds me a lot of Evie Carnahan from The Mummy. The book also avoids the temptation to backhandedly put other women down, though. We don’t see a lot of them, but Isabella’s best friend from childhood is a romantic sort, fond of reading novels, a little flirtatious, highly imaginative, and described as “improper in what Amanda thought to be fashionable ways” — and though Isabella acknowledges she’s not like that at all, Manda also never gets painted in a truly unflattering light. Her passions aren’t condemned by the narrative — indeed, more than once Isabella admits that a little more of Manda’s empathy and social grace would do her good. But whatever the in-world society thinks of each of them, the book itself doesn’t suggest that either is inherently better than the other, and I appreciate that.

Then there are the dragons. In the world of this book, they are not fantastic, magical creatures of awe and wonderment — just another predator species, more difficult to study than lions or tigers, but without any mysticism attached to them. Isabella’s fascination is rooted in scientific wonder: why do their carcasses disintegrate so soon after death? What functions of their bones and skin allows them to fly? What creates their horrible breathe (which might be fire, or ice, or poison)? The approach is refreshing, particularly since we see that what are creatures of inspiration and intrigue in Isabella’s native Scirling are seen as nuisances in the places directly affected by them (rather the way a lot of modern apex predators are viewed today, really). I suspect an underlying theme will be one of Isabella’s desire to preserve dragons conflicting with the needs of the modern world. The artwork (by Todd Lockwood) augments the story beautifully, with beautiful sketches of dragons and their component parts, many deconstructed as though part of a medical text, showing bone and sinew (as on the front cover).

Overall, this book is a lot of fun, with a strong voice and a refreshing turn on a mythical creature I think long due for a new approach. I knock a point off because, well, I could’ve done with more dragons, especially in the last third of the book. They sort of become secondary to the mystery plot going on (and the mystery isn’t particularly well-crafted). Somewhere in the last arc, the balance between natural history and adventure story gets thrown off. Honestly, I’d really like to read the books that she refers to throughout — the actual texts on dragons which have, by the time she’s writing the memoir, made her so famous. Or at least pieces of them — I can envision a successful track where the writing moved back and forth between those and the memoir narrative.

According to Brennan’s website, there will be four more entries into this series, and I’m looking forward to picking up the next one, due out in March. I also enjoyed Brennan’s style well enough to consider looking into her prior series.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

The Serpent and the Rose, by Kathleen Bryan

Title: The Serpent and the Rose (War of the Rose #1)TheSerpentandtheRose
Author: Kathleen Bryan
Year of Publication: 2007
Length:  320 pages
Genre: high fantasy
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.5 stars

I liked the idea of this book, and yet there are also a lot of fundamental ways in which I feel cheated by it. Bryan starts to create a pretty fascinating world (it’s yet another spin on Ye Olde Medieval Europe, but I’m perfectly willing to forgive that in a book if it’s handled with enough creativity) — but she never allows the reader to do more than dip a toe into the universe. The same goes for the characters. We learn about them, but we never get to experience deep emotions along with them. As a result, the whole endeavour just feels critically lacking in some fundamental ways.

Okay. So. Lys (fantasy-France) is governed by a king, but since the realm is so de-centralized into numerous duchies, the real power seems to rest with various magical orders. The most powerful and prestigious of these is the Order of the Rose, which uses glasswork to form and shape magic. There’s a potentially cool mythology behind all of this — it’s pseudo-Christian, but slanted. The Young God defeated and bound the Serpent, with the help of the Magdalen and his Paladins, but somehow also died in the process (it’s a little unclear how exactly all of that went). The Paladins go on to found the aristocracy and also the Order of the Rose; the Magdalen is the first of the Ladies of the Isle (who seem to also be Order of the Rose, but not within its hierarchical structure). The book opens with Averil, who has been studying on the Isle, recalled to her duchy by her dying father. This happens amid rumors that King Clodovic has basically gone off the deep end and is making power-grabs, possibly using dark magic. Along the way, her path crosses with that of Gereint, a boy with unpredictable magical powers, raised in obscurity because his mother didn’t want to surrender him to any order. Their magic blends together really well, in ways that are apparently new and unheard of to the Order.

Averil and Gereint both ought to be interesting characters. They fall into the typical fantasy trope of the princess and the farmboy, but that does not, in of itself, have to be a bad thing. Averil takes pride in her discipline and her learning, but there is wild magic surging up inside her, and so she gets a lot of conflict out of that. Or should. It’s more glanced at than really explored. Meanwhile, Gereint is so ridiculously powerful that he keeps accidentally blowing things up, so clearly something needs to be done to take him in hand. Unfortunately… no one ever really does anything. Members of the Order of the Rose just keep shuffling him off to each other, swearing up and down it’s because they know he has potential. We also learn a lot through observation rather than experience — Gereint will tell us what he’s learned about Averil by watching her, or guess at her moods, or just know something for no readily explainable reason. There’s a lot of telling rather than showing going on, which always disengages me from a book.

The book also kept looking like it was going to do subversive things, so far as being part of the high fantasy genre is concerned, but then it shied away from them. The villain, for example — there’s actually opportunity for him to be really interesting. We get this chapter early on from his point of view, and it’s clear that he has some justification for his thought patterns. Because, yeah, it does seem like the status quo was stifling and stagnated, and in his own mind, he could really easily be a freedom fighter. “Serpent” doesn’t have to automatically equal “evil”, after all — and so when Bryan started down that road, I was thinking we were going to get a more nuanced allegory, where the Serpent side of things isn’t Evil, just Chaotic, and so naturally opposed to Lawful/Order, and the story would be about finding balance between the two. But, no, all of that drops away, we never get to see things from his perspective again, and he ends up just being a generic Big Bad who’s throwing his power around because he can.

And then there’s Averil and Gereint. I so wanted their story to be subversive, too, because they’re clearly thrust into this “our powers complement each other therefore we must be soulmates, but oh no, we are star-crossed because how can a duchess wed a lowly farmboy, woe is us!” thing. I kept waiting for them to, I dunno, not be in love with each other — to realise that, yeah, our powers work together really well, but that doesn’t mean we have to go all One True Love on each other, maybe we’re just destined to be really excellent coworkers. But no. Nothing unexpected there, which was a pity. It’s also a shame that, despite opening on an isle run entirely by female ages, it’s not very far into the book before Bryan removes from sight or just plain kills off all the other women, leaving Averil as The Chick. I’m growing really weary of the idea that there can only be one woman of consequence in a fantasy story.

Overall, what I would say is that this book lacks depth. And in high fantasy, that’s a pretty big sin. Swords and sorcery alone doesn’t cut it any more. You need detailed world-building and complex characters. The Serpent and the Rose falls short on all accounts. It’s not bad — it’s just not particularly good, either. I might finish out the trilogy at some point, because I am afflicted with pretty acute curiosity when it comes to needing to know how a story ends, but I’m won’t be in a real rush.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Jinx High, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Jinx High (Diana Tregarde #3)JinxHigh
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy (more suburban fantasy, really)
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

The third and final Diana Tregarde novel, Jinx High sees Tregarde visiting suburban sprawl in the Midwest at the behest of an old friend who senses something going terribly wrong in his town, but can’t place his finger on what it is. Strange accidents keep happening, claiming the lives of teenagers — and they all seem to center around blond, beautiful, perfect Fay Harper, queen bee of her high school. She’s hellbent on eliminating rivals, like newcomer Monica Carlin, and she’s sinking her claws into a series of boys, including Deke Kestral — whose parents happen to be ex-members of the Spook Squad Diana Tregarde ran in college. She comes in under the pretense of assistant-teaching a creative writing class at Deke’s high school, where she also becomes a mentor to Monica, an aspiring writer.

What’s interesting here is that we get a lot more of Diana from an outside viewpoint than in the other novels, with both Deke and Monica providing an external perspective. Even in the other two books, when we do see Diana from someone else’s eyes, it’s somebody who already knew her, like Mark in Burning Water. Here, we see how she’s interpreted by two teenagers who don’t know her and who have no reason to trust her, which makes for some interesting tension. Monica, under magical attack from an unknown source (which the reader knows to be Fay), eventually decides she has no choice but to trust Diana — but she’s still wary, worried that Diana could be the source of her troubles, luring her into a false sense of security. Deke, on the other hand, has no idea his parents have magical talents, and so when his dad asks Diana to come stay to sort things out in town while Deke’s mom happens to be out of town, Deke assumes the worst. He’s psychic, too, but has been powerfully shielded by his parents to protect him, but that also means he’s been kept ignorant and thus has never learned to manage his potential power himself.

Thanks to its setting, Jinx High is way more of a teen novel than the other two books in the series — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Lackey writes incredibly convincing teeangers. Monica and Deke are among the “good guys”, but they’re not perfect, and they have some very teenage flaws — they’re pushing boundaries, willing to be a little petty, a little snippy, a little ungrateful. And Fay uses the social tensions swirling about to build her own power in an interesting way. When she realizes that someone’s pushing back against her, she initially thinks it’s Monica and redoubles her efforts. Diana’s ready for her, though, even though it takes her a long time to figure out where the magic is coming from, thanks to some sophisticated misdirection on Faye’s part. There’s also an under-developed side plot involving an ancient Native American spirit sleeping beneath the city who must not be awoken at any cost. It serves to raise the stakes a bit, but isn’t used for much else. This novel almost escapes Lackey’s perpetual issue with abrupt climaxes. There’s a really great magical battle between Diana and Fay, with great energy, high stakes, and prolonged tension. Unfortunately… that’s the penultimate confrontation. The final bit goes by as fast as ever, and with half of the pertinent characters in another location. And the wrap-up, as is typical, happens in about a page and a half. I will confess, however, that Lackey got me with Fay. I totally guessed wrong what she was all about and where her power came from, so I was pleased to encounter a thoroughly unexpected plot twist.

I would say I liked this book better than Children of the Night but not as well as Burning Water. Definitely worth a read for fans of urban fantasy. It’s sad that Lackey stopped writing these due to poor sales back in the early ’90s, because I think the market would eat them up now. Despite her flaws, Tregarde’s a far better heroine than Kim Harrison’s Rachel. It could also be great to re-invent the idea of her Spook Squad, hinted at throughout this trilogy but, since it apparently existed in the late-60s and early-70s, never actually seen, for the modern age.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Children of the Night, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Children of the Night (Diana Tregarde #2)ChildrenoftheNight
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 320 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

My first problem with this book is figuring out when it’s set relative to Burning Water. Though the second book in the series, published later, it seems to take place earlier. Much earlier, perhaps. 10-15 years earlier, possibly, given that Burning Water is explicitly set in the late ’80s, but Children of the Night has all these weird references to Watergate. But that’s never made exactly clear, and that sort of thing will bother me for an entire book.

Sometime in the 1970s-ish, Diana Tregarde is living in New York, helping out a friend by keeping an eye on her occult store while the friend is out of town. A lot of her days there involve protecting wanna-bes from themselves, protecting dabblers from . As a Guardian, she has to help anyone who asks for it, so when a young Romany boy shows up looking for sanctuary, she helps to cover his tracks — but she can’t move fast enough to save him from the predatory “Master” Jeffries, an elusive creeper who sets off Diana’s alarms the first time she sees him. Unfortunately, Diana’s also dealing with psychic blowback from a mysterious earlier encounter with a damaging paranormal creature, which Lackey dangles over the reader’s head for most of the book and then only sort of explains to any satisfaction.

By twist of fate, Jeffries is also the new de facto manager of Wanderlust, a rock band for which Dave, one of Diana’s ex-boyfriends, currently plays. Jeffries exerts some strange control over Dave and his bandmates, transforming them into the super-successful Children of the Night — but at a high price. Dave finds himself constantly tired except when he’s playing music, hardly able to function during daylight hours, and ravenously hungry all the time. And then his bandmates start turning seriously sadistic. Dave has to decide whether to get with their game or to find some way to retain his sanity and morality despite Jeffries’s influence. Eventually, Diana traces some weird deaths to Jeffries, and the plots collide.

Children of the Night is a weaker book in many ways than Burning Water, and that combined with the earlier setting makes me wonder if this wasn’t written first but published later. Diana Tregarde is a less compelling character, more waffly, less capable. The secondary “protagonist” (a term I’m using pretty loosely here) isn’t terribly sympathetic. And the writing itself just isn’t as strong. There’s a heavy over-reliance on italics, both for emphasis and for internal monologues. Lackey has her usual problem with the rapidity of the climax and denouement (and I really look forward to the day when I can review one of her books without noting that), but through the rest of the book, the tension builds at a good pace.

I do enjoy this book’s approach to vampires (never a favorite theme of mine in general). The antagonists are two different types of non-traditional vampires: psychic vampires, who feed off of energy rather than blood, and the gaki, a hungry spirit which can take the form of smoke or mist. Tregarde draws from Japanese tradition for the gaki, though the creature actually seems to originate in Indian folklore. And then there’s the actual vampire, the traditional blood-sucking kind, who undermines the stereotypes in satisfying ways. If more modern paranormal followed the same lines as Lackey’s early entries into the urban-fantasy genre, I might be more interested in them on the whole. From back in 1990, she puts Meyer and Harrison utterly to shame.

So, overall, I think this is the weakest Diana Tregarde novel, but it’s still a fine investment of a few hours. The plot is captivating enough, the psychic vampires are a nice modern twist on an ancient concept, and Lackey’s exploration of magical concepts is always entertaining.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Burning Water, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Burning Water (Diana Tregarde #1)BurningWater
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Something strange is going on in Dallas: a series of animal mutilations, grouped in threes and spaced about three weeks apart, growing in intensity and in general gruesomeness with each new cycle. When the crimes turn from animal slaughter to murder of Dallas residents, detective Mark Valdez calls in the cavalry in the form of his old friend Diana Tregarde, a Guardian with considerable magical powers. Mark’s psychically sensitive, himself, and has gotten the whiff of something supernatural around these murders. He brings Di on as a “cult specialist”, so far as the DFW PD is concerned, to cover for the occult matters they begin investigating.

The culprits, Mark and Diana learn (and the reader knows from the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away here) are reincarnations of the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca and his handmaidens, in the bodies of a fashion photographer and his four native-blooded muses. Driven by the deities inhabiting them, they set out on a crusade to rid their America of the invaders who stole it from the Aztec people a few centuries ago. (Exactly why they move up out of Mexico and into Dallas to do this is never 100% explained, but never mind). Their ritual sacrifices are ratcheting up to something big, and it’s up to Mark and Diana to figure out what and to stop them.

This is not just urban fantasy, but also a great thriller. Mark and Diana have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and while the reader does get to see behind the villains’ scenes as well, that doesn’t answer all of the questions from the start, so there’s still a lot to discover along with the protagonists. Lackey doesn’t shy away from the gore: the descriptions of what happens to Tezcatlipoca’s victims are unsparing, and it really helps to drive the sense of urgency to the novel. As with most of her books, Lackey demonstrates a firm grasp of how the magic in her world works, which I always appreciate. Magic has to have rules, and fantasy novels that ignore that tend to piss me off. Lackey knows what she’s doing in that regard: Diana operates in certain ways based on her own internal power, whereas the Aztecans are stealing power from those that they sacrifice, and then the power manifests in ways that make sense. I don’t know enough about Aztec mythology or culture to know how accurately she portrays any of it, but it doesn’t seem wildly out of line, and it’s definitely a refreshing change from the usual Old World representations of magic.

What I find really cool is that — this book feels more modern than it is. Ignoring a few fashion references, the limitations of computers, and the lack of cell phones, it has the energy and edginess I associate with more recent entries in the urban fantasy genre. It was also one of the first books to treat with modern paganism as something, well, normal. I mean, overlooking the resurrected Aztec gods and things. But for a book written in 1989 and set in 1986, it does a lot to normalize paganism as a religion, and I enjoyed seeing the view of it from that far back.

This book does have the somewhat typical Lackey problem of rushed climax, but it does at least allow a little room for denouement. I actually find the penultimate incident, just before Mark and Diana go to the final confrontation, super-interesting and inventive. Lackey also does get somewhat heavy-handed with the metaphysical explanations at a few points. I don’t really mind it, since I enjoy reading about those things and contemplating them, but to someone with less investment in them, I can see where it could start to grate. I also wonder how much of that has to be attributed to its publication date, when less of the reading public was likely to be familiar with the concepts she’s describing.

However, despite those drawbacks, I can cheerfully recommend Burning Water to urban fantasy fans of all stripes, especially if you’re interested in getting a somewhat earlier look at the genre. I think particularly anyone who enjoys Kim Harrison’s work or the Sookie Stackhouse novels would find a lot to appreciate in Diana Tregarde. I personally like it much, much better than I liked the few Hollows novels I managed to get through, not least because it has a more sensible heroine and a world with better internal consistency. I’d also recommend it to someone who enjoys the Pendergast novels but also enjoys fantasy, because these have a similar tone to Preston & Child’s work, particularly to some of the earlier books in the series — just that where P&C use speculative science as their prime motivator, Lackey uses magic. Similar feel, but different forces at work.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Night Watch (Discworld)NightWatch
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 408 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4.25 stars

This is the first City Watch book that I’ve really, genuinely liked. I’ve read others — Guards! Guards!Jingo, and The Fifth Elephant (though none terribly recently) — and while they’re all good, because Pratchett is good, none of them quite ever grabbed me the way the Witches series did.

I decided to pick this one up after someone tipped me off to the fact that it was Pratchett doing Les Miserables — and, at a wide stroke, this is true. I was expecting a far stricter parody than I ended up getting, though, and I think I’m okay with that. Really what Pratchett does is invert the structure, giving us the story of a good copper with quite a lot to lose. Night Watch is not as broadly comic as many of Pratchett’s novels, particularly those involving the Watch, and there are few moments in it which are truly just gut-wrenchingly awful. Pratchett throws some punches here that he often pulls elsewhere, particularly with regards to mortality. His political satire is as good as ever, with some particularly incisive observations regarding the nature of mob mentality, of anything done for the good of “The People,” and, as Ankh-Morpork so often allows him to demonstrate, of the lifesblood of cities in general.

So: What happens in Night Watch? Well, we begin with Sam Vimes at the top of his career and not entirely sure how he feels about that. He’s restored the Watch to repute and efficiency, he’s been made a Duke, he has a wife and a child on the way… and there’s something discontent, like his life doesn’t fit him quite right. He ruminates on this as his wife is in delivery on the Twenty-Fifth of May — a local day of observation having something, we gather, to do with lilacs. Later that day, while pursuing the maniacal murderer Carcer, Vimes accidentally gets sent back in time thirty years, where he has to fill in the gap left in history when Carcer (also sent back) kills Sergeant John Keel pre-emptively. Keel was, it turns out, young Sam’s mentor when he first joined the force, so Vimes now has to mentor himself to make sure he turns out okay. Make sense? No? Well, here’s Monk of Time Lu-Tze on it:

“Nothing’s certain, ’cause of quantum.”
“But, look, I know my future happened, because I was there!”
“No. What we’ve got here, friend, is quantum interference. Mean anything? No. Well… let me put it this way. There’s one past and one future. But there are two presents. One where you and your evil friend turned up, and one where you didn’t. We can keep these two presents going side by side for a few days. It takes a lot of run time, but we can do it. And then they’ll snap back together. The future that happens depends on you. We want the future where Vimes is a good copper. Not the other one.”
“But it must’ve happened!” snapped Vimes. “I told you, I can remember it! I was there yesterday!”
“Nice try, but that doesn’t mean anything anymore,” said the monk. “Trust me. Yes, it’s happened to you, but even though it has, it might not. ‘Cos of quantum. Right now, there isn’t a Commander Vimes-shaped hole in the future to drop you into. It’s officially Uncertain. But it might not be, if you do it right. You owe it to yourself, Commander.”

It’s more of the exploration of alternate realities that Pratchett does so well, and a theme which I always adore (Trousers of Time, and all). Vimes realises that he basically has no choice, if he ever wants to get back to the appropriate future, and so he takes up with the then-dissolute Night-Watch-as-was, takes himself under his own wing, and pretty soon is running the whole operation, never mind what the higher-ups have to say about it. Of course, this is an extremely effective way to make enemies very fast — especially since Carcer has taken up with the Cable Street Particulars, a special force with an expertise in torture.

Vimes also realises that he’s had the highly-questionable fortune to land smack in the middle of the famous street uprising which led to the bright-but-brief People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road. He tries to assume the place in history left by John Keel, but his own thoughts and urges assert themselves, too, and as he tries to protect as many people as possible, he discovers that, thanks to his interference and Carcer’s, things aren’t turning out quite as he remembers them having done. Vimes has to out-think and out-react his opponents in order to keep both of himselves alive. We meet a whole contingent of Ankh-Morporkean regulars, including Rosie Palms, Nobby Nobbs, Fred Colon, Reg Shoe, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, and even a young Havelock Vetinari, the Assassins’ Guild’s most talented if under-appreciated student.

The poignancy of the novel really comes into full swing when Vimes ends up in charge of the rebellion, knowing full well how it ends, knowing full well who dies — and trying like hell to change history and to save them anyway. He knows what’s going to happen, and he wants to change it enough to matter, but not so much that he can’t get back. It puts him in a terrible position, really, particularly as he tries to convey the importance of it all to his younger self. There are a few little moments that Pratchett sneaks in there that really do just seem to punch you in the stomach. Right in the feels, as it were.

Overall, I think what I can say the most about Night Watch is that it surprised me. It was not the book I was expecting to read, but I’m exceedingly glad that I read it.

Someday I really must read all of the Discworld novels in order.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Title: Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1)EtiquetteEspionage
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I was super-excited to get my hands on Ms. Carriger’s latest novel, her first foray into YA fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed her Parasol Protectorate series, and I’m so glad that she’s decided to continue on in this world even though she wrapped that series up. Etiquette & Espionage did not disappoint me.

Sophronia, a fourteen-year-old youngest daughter in the 1850s, is unusual. She climbs dumbwaiters and gets herself into terrible fixes and is generally an embarrassment to her family, a socially-aspirant gentry . Little does her mother know that when she packs Sophronia off to finishing school, she’s actually giving the girl just what she needs. Her unusual new circumstances first become apparent when she chats with Dimity, also headed to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and her brother Pillover, destined for Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. As Dimity chatters cheerfully about evil geniuses, covert recruits, Picklemen, and Custard Pots of Iniquity, Sophronia begins to suspect something is odd. When her carriage is attacked by flywaymen, their escort goes into unconvincing hysterics, and Sophronia has to take command of the horses and rescue them all, her suspicions are rather confirmed.

It turns out that Sophronia has landed at a school designed not only to turn her into a lady but to turn her lethal as well. Or, rather, the Academy has landed at her — for it’s a floating school, suspended from enormous balloons. A werewolf named Captain Niall (!) serves as ship-to-ground transport and teaches combat, a vampire covers history and deportment, mechanical staff patrol the hallways as prefects, the students learn poisons and manipulation alongside powders and manners, and the headmistress has no idea that any of it is going on. Sophronia begins to settle in at the Academy and into an easy friendship with Dimity, though she has more trouble with the others in her dormitory. Sidhaeg (!) is prickly and recalcitrant, Agatha a shy wallflower, Preshea a snob, and Monique is none other than their escort, demoted back to debut rank for refusing to give up the whereabouts of the mysterious “prototype” which the flywaymen were after. Sophronia and Monique do not get on at all, and their rivalry drives much of the action in the book. Sophronia also uses her climbing abilities to sneak into the restricted areas, where she makes friends with the sooties who keep the ship running, including Soap, a London-born boy of African descent (and props to Carriger for including a non-white character in an English historical novel!). Sophronia, never having seen a black person before, is startled by him at first but gets over it quickly. The two become friends, and Soap introduced her to Vieve (!), niece to Professor Beatrice Lefoux (!) and a budding inventor. As the plot progresses, Sophronia finds them tremendously useful in her various schemes and maneuvers.

I felt as though the story bobbled a bit at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. There’s a stretch where the sense of character isn’t particularly strong. It is interesting to have a leading character who is so introverted and private, but it also damages the narrative a bit, at least for me. When the POV character is not particularly reflective or emotive, I (a consummate extrovert) find it harder to engage with her. It was hard to feel emotionally connected to Sophronia, and sometimes her actions seemed very abrupt because there had been little build-up to them. I admire that Sophronia is such a practical and plain-dealing heroine, but I could’ve used a larger window into her soul.

The other problem that I had was that when Sophronia first arrives at the floating school, she has absolutely no idea what’s going on, and no one will tell her. Maddeningly, nothing gets explained for a very long time. After a while, this starts to frustrate me as a reader — and I recognise that not everyone may feel this way. It’s a valid literary trope and one frequently used in YA, but I personally struggle with it. I hate being left totally in the dark. It tends to make me rush, hoping I’ll get to the explanation, but then I end up having to go back and re-read chapters in case I missed something. I understand delaying gratification and teasing the reader, but some information in this book gets played a little too close to the chest.

There are still a lot of questions left unanswered at the end of the book, and I’m hoping we’ll get more information on them in future installments — I want to know why this extraordinary pair of schools exists. Right now, the answer seems to be “just because.” I find that unsatisfying. What need does England have for an elite cadre of female assassins and a coterie of admittedly evil geniuses? What role in society are they fulfilling? For what purpose? If the Headmistress has no idea what’s going on, who does? Who drives this whole thing? Who founded it? For what reasons? I love Carriger’s world-building, but I wish we’d gotten just a little bit more on this front at the outset.

I did think, though, that I saw a glimmer of potential for change in the school’s directives, one that I hope we’ll see expanded in future books in the series. Right now, the school seems quite competitive, designed to set these ladies against each other. Sophronia, though, sees more benefit in bringing her cohorts together, drawing on their disparate skills to achieve a communal goal. I would like to see that theme develop further. So much popular opinion, especially when it comes to teenage girls, likes to promote their potential for cattiness, sniping, and backstabbing; I would love to see more YA fiction promoting healthier ideas on what they’re capable of.

The second half of the book improves greatly, though, as a few things do finally get explained and as more action enters the narrative in the final act. Sophronia deduces that Monique must have hidden the prototype at Sophronia’s family home while collecting her, and so she determines to retrieve it with the help of her friends (and new pet, mechanimal dog Bumbersnoot). Sophronia’s skills really get to shine here, and the sense of action and excitement is wonderful fun.

For anyone who wondered why I (!)ed a few times in this review, it’s because there are several connections in Etiquette & Espionage to the Parasol Protectorate series. This book is set some twenty-odd years before that series begins, so there’s a lot of potential for crossover cameos. Even the MacGuffin of the book, the prototype, is a component of technology that becomes crucial by the time of the Protectorate series. Carriger also takes a few moments to poke fun at the steampunk world in general, through a clique of boys at Pillover’s school, the Pistons, who sew gears to their clothing for no reason but fashion, smudge their eyes with kohl, and like to crash parties and spike the punch. It’s a good-natured and, let’s face it, well-deserved ribbing.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with Etiquette & Espionage. There were a few bumps that kept it from perfection, in my opinion, but — that’s true of the first couple Harry Potter books as well. For a first foray into YA fiction, Carriger’s done a lovely job. I absolutely devoured this first installment, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Fables #2: Animal Farm, by Bill Willingham

Title: Fables #2: Animal FarmFables2
Author: Bill Willingham
Illustrators: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha
Year of Publication: 2002-2003
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel: magical realism, fairy-tale/folklore
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

I know most people prefer this volume to the first, but I diverge from popular opinion here. The concept here is quite good, but I find the execution rushed and a little lacking.

As punishment for faking her own death — and ostensibly so the sisters can spend some quality time reconnecting — Rose Red has to go with Snow White for her annual visit up to the Farm, a protected area in upstate New York where all those Fables live who cannot pass for human. This includes the menagerie of talking animals as well as sentient bits of clothing and crockery, Lilliputians, mythical creatures, and other assorted beings. Some few “passing” humans live there, as well — the Old Woman has chosen that location rather than give up living in her Shoe, for example — but by and large, the population is bestial. And their forced segregation is causing problems. Snow White arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a highly suspect meeting, where the animals are purportedly discussing the prospect of returning to their Homelands — and she discovers that Weyland Smith, who had been in charge of the Farm, has mysteriously decided to “retire” without telling anyone.

Things take a swift and sudden turn for the worse when Colin, one of the Three Little Pigs, turns up murdered. Unlike in the first volume, Willingham doesn’t play coy with the mystery here — the reader learns quickly that Goldilocks and the Three Bears are behind it. Goldi has turned into quite the reactionary, guiding the revolt of the Farm community not out of any real idealism but simply because she seems to have gotten a taste for violence. (There’s also a pretty disturbing revelation regarding the nature of her relationship with Baby Bear). She musters the troops with a bloodthirsty enthusiasm that would do any third-world dissident proud, and Snow finds herself on the run, pursued by half the predators in legend.

My favourite character in this volume is definitely Reynard the fox, suave trickster but loyal friend to Snow, who plays a vital role in tamping down the insurgency. I also enjoy that this volume introduces a concept that becomes quite important later on — that the more popular a Fable’s story is, the more resilient the character is to destruction. Some, as you can imagine, are nigh-indestructible — while others, whose stories have faded from mundie culture, have more to worry about.

Not much happens back in the city while all of this is going on, but Willingham drops a lot of tantalising hints, both about other characters and about the way the Fables community functions — again, all things that will be important later. I appreciate this for the sense of wholeness that it gives. I love world-building, and I love when all the details and side stories are well-thought-out, even if we don’t get to see them in their entirety yet.

The art is nice in this volume — full of details, especially in the crowd scenes. The violence and gore are appropriately disturbing. These are not Bowdlerized fairy tales — but a lot closer to the spirit of the original tales, to be sure. Everything has a price, and sometimes that price is blood. Fables doesn’t pull its punches in that regard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Beauty and the Werewolf, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Beauty and the Werewolf (Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms #6)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 408 pages
Genre: fantasy romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active, because there’s no way to discuss what I liked and disliked about this book without “giving away” the ending.

This book suffers from its predictability. And that’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential here, and I did enjoy this book — but very much in a fluffy, easy-to-digest sort of way. This book is the latest in Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which I generally enjoy but which are far from the best fairy tale adaptations out there. She’s starting turning them into mash-ups more than just retellings, and this one smushes Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood (as though the cover didn’t give those things away). So we meet Bella (and as a sidebar: is anyone else really sick of that name for heroines? Which is a shame, because it’s a lovely name, really, but Twilight has just caused it to be so overplayed. Especially as short for Isabella. Couldn’t we get more creative? Arabella? Annabella? Orabella? Something?), the eldest daughter of a merchant, who has for years run her household, keeping her stepmother and stepsisters in line. She also periodically makes trips out into the woods to chat with “Granny”, a wisewoman who lives out there — and while coming back from one of these jaunts, she gets nipped by a werewolf. When the King’s forces find out what happened to her, they essentially kidnap her and take her to the home of Duke Sebastian — the werewolf — for a quarantine to see if she’s infected. Sebastian’s werewolf curse is a great secret, kept from the world at large, and though not only a Duke but a magician in his own right, he is looked after by his illegitimate half-brother, Eric, a woodsman and gamekeeper who patrols the forests to try and keep everyone safe from him. Ostensibly. We first meet Eric when he’s sexually assaulting women at a party in town, and then when he encounters Bella in the woods and mistakes her for a peasant girl rather than the daughter of someone of consequence, he tries to coerce her into having sex with him — and as good as says that he takes that “in trade” when he catches female poachers, in exchange for letting them off. So he’s pretty clearly a sleaze and set up from the very beginning to be the villain.

I was so hoping he wouldn’t be. If Lackey hadn’t given him those casual rapist qualities, he would’ve been a really interesting character — because he knows his trade well, and . So I kept vaguely hoping that he would turn out to be other than he seemed and that someone else would be the real villain, because it would’ve allowed him to be a much stronger character. The trouble is that… we never meet anyone else. If Eric was a red herring, there was never any indication of who he might be a red herring for, so it’s pretty clear that there are not, in fact, any other villains in the story. And the other problem is that — again, casual rapist qualities aside — he’s a much more interesting character than our theoretical male hero, Sebastian, who is pretty much just a complete milksop. As is often the case in the Five Hundred Kingdoms stories — and this has been a criticism I’ve had of the whole series — the love story seems completely slapped on. There’s really no reason for Bella to fall for him except proximity, and we don’t get any emotional depth out of either of them. They just sort of… decide to get married because of … reasons. It’s odd. These books would, on the whole, be better without the romance angle at all.

All of that said — there are things to like about this book. I didn’t find Bella as annoying as it seems some Goodreads reviewers did. I thought she actually avoided a lot of pitfalls, and if there were points that were a little too “look how unconventional a female she is!”, well, that’s often true of many of the historical romances I read as well. The very best parts of the book, in my estimation, were the ones where Bella was interacting with the invisible servants, learning to communicate with them, and learning from them. That was very clever on Lackey’s part. They’re sort of wraiths (in a ghostly way, not a Dementor way), largely stripped of memory and personality, but a few of them hold a sense of themselves as individuals, and the way they interact with Bella is a lot of fun to watch develop. I always enjoy when she thinks about magic and explains its workings in new ways. Some of Sebastian’s practices are definitely reminiscent of her Elemental Masters series as well, and it gives a little more shape to magic in the Five Hundred Kingdoms. We also see Godmother Elena back again for a cameo, which is a nice sense of continuity.

Overall, this is perfectly serviceable fluff. Not exquisite, and I’m pretty sure that The Fire Rose is a far superior version of this story from Lackey, but it was a quick and enjoyable enough read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews