Seraphina’s Lament, by Sarah Chorn

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Author’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2019

Summary: The world is dying.

The Sunset Lands are broken, torn apart by a war of ideology paid for with the lives of the peasants. Drought holds the east as famine ravages the farmlands. In the west, borders slam shut in the face of waves of refugees, dooming all of those trying to flee to slow starvation, or a future in forced labor camps. There is no salvation.

In the city of Lord’s Reach, Seraphina, a slave with unique talents, sets in motion a series of events that will change everything. In a fight for the soul of the nation, everyone is a player. But something ominous is calling people to Lord’s Reach and the very nature of magic itself is changing. Paths will converge, the battle for the Sunset Lands has shifted, and now humanity itself is at stake.

First, you must break before you can become.

Review: I’ll start off by saying that Seraphina’s Lament is a very hard novel for me to review. Mostly because while the story itself is fascinating, the characters interesting, most of what I want to do is gush over Chorn’s writing style.

But one step at a time.

Seraphina’s Lament takes place in the Sunset Lands, a place that was previously a monarchy but that had its ruling power overthrown in a revolution. Now in charge is Premier Eyad, head of the collectivist government, maker of the laws that have resulted in overfarming and the resulting famine. As with most people who attained power in such a way, he’s paranoid about counterrevolutionary elements, and oddly sees “failure to grow food where food won’t grow” as a punishable offense. People are fleeing, to escape a life of starvation and cruelty. But problems in the Sunset Lands run deeper than that. An army of skeletons approaches Lord’s Reach, dying people infected by hunger until their very humanity has been eaten away, led by what was once a man and who now calls himself the Bone Lord. Magic in the form of elemental talents seems to be dying, except in those for whom it grows wildly and out of control. Old powers stir. People are changing, becoming something new, something different.

And before you become, you must break.

While the book is named for one of its characters, the story goes far beyond Seraphina herself. She is a slave, owned by Eyad, scarred and in chronic pain and possessing a fire talent that seems to be growing in strength. There’s Neryan, Seraphina’s twin brother who escaped slavery, possessing a water talent that is Seraphina’s opposite and complement, bent on freeing his sister from bondage. There’s Vadden, who grabs the title of My Favourite Character from early on and keeps it through the story, determined to remove Eyad from power and atone for the wrongs he committed in playing a part to overthrow the previous government and pave the way for Eyad to take the abusive stance he has. Every single character is broken in some way, holding themselves together against overwhelming odds, and none of them are perfect, which is what makes them all so compelling to read about.

I mentioned Chorn’s writing style, and it’s that which makes this book really memorable, at least for my part. Her writing is incredibly evocative, poetic, concerned with metaphor and simile that sets the mood in a way that physical descriptions can’t always manage. Instead of mentioning the phase of the moon, for instance, you get lines akin to, “The moon was a scythe meant for killing,” a description that conveys the phase to the reader anyone (for those looking for clear imagery to picture), and also sets the tone of the scene without any further words. The book has been categorized by many as being grimdark, and that word alone tends to conjure images of blood and violence and death, and yes, those things are definitely present in Seraphina’s Lament, but in ways that are more horrifying (at least to me) than someone being hacked to death with swords and axes. Instead, you have chilling depictions of people eating their recently deceased neighbours, sometimes children, acts born of starvation and desperation in a dying land. Much of the poetic prose is beautiful, which serves as a counterpoint to the events that, inspired by history, horrify and disgust.

This is the sort of book that largely defies proper description, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that to really understand it, you have to read it. Reviews and summaries really only scratch the surface, and I know I’m failing to really do Seraphina’s Lament justice here. Chorn is a rising star in the grimdark world, a star worth tracking, and I, for one, am excited to see what she’ll do next.

(Received from the author in exchange for review.)

How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N K Jemisin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 27, 2018

Summary: N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I absolutely adore Jemisin’s work. She writes the most amazing stories that grab you and don’t let you go, pulling you along and making you hungry to see more layers of the world unfold before you. When people say she is a master of the craft, they’re not exaggerating.

But most of my experience with her work has been long fiction rather than short. It was with great curiosity and pleasure, then, that I eagerly tucked into How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Usually I rate anthologies and collections as less than 5 stars, because inevitably something won’t be quite to my taste, and that’s just part of the process. But seriously, there wasn’t a single story in here that I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t make me feel something, or in some cases, prompted discussion with people who hadn’t even read the story yet! (Seriously, in Red Dirt Witch, a story about a mother protecting her child from making bad deals with a fey, and also discovering that sometimes you have to make way for the people who can build a better future than you can, there was a line about how fey don’t go to Alabama much because of all the iron oxide in the soil. That prompted some research about the red soil on Prince Edward Island — also high in iron oxide — which led to a discussion with my partner about how the fey are linked to artistic creativity and how both of us feeling artistic drained and dead while living on PEI was hypothetically related to the way fey creatures couldn’t be there for long.)

That’s probably an average Saturday night conversation for us, honestly…

L’Alchimista was a fantastic story that left the reader in no doubt of the similarities between cooking and chemistry (and thus, alchemy), and I was left with a burning desire to know more about the future adventures of the characters, because the door was left wide open in that regard. Cloud Dragon Skies seemed like an exploration of science versus spirituality, and the relative “correctness” of either and both at the same time; it’s all about interpretation, and I kind of loved that. Non-Zero Probabilities looked at a world where superstition and belief, luck and ritual, all had tangible effects on the world, and I love reading that kind of story in general.

Valedictorian was one of those stories that left me with some conflicted feelings at the end. There was a lot about it that hit close to home for me. Academia was basically what I lived for for a while, and I was often near the top of my class… until depression hit in late junior high and early high school and I just stopped giving a damn. Pushing to be the best was, for a while, all I had for myself. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t really have many friends, and good grades were the only way I could convince myself and others that I was worthwhile. It wasn’t until later on in life that I began to really understand how some people would rather have seen me put less effort into school and more effort into almost anything else, because that would have made me more normal, made me fit in more with my peers. Not because I would have found something else to be passionate about, but because I would have been just a bit less of a freak that didn’t belong. Zinhle’s realization that when push came to shove, nobody would fight for her to stay, nobody would recognize her potential and her uses and all the things she could become, and they would just let her be taken away because that was just how things were done… It felt very familiar. I didn’t grow up in a dystopian world where the bottom 10% of achievers (plus the top achiever) were taken away by outside forces, no, but there was still much about this story that hit hard for me, and I suspect probably hit hard for a lot of people who, at some point in their lives, defined themselves by the good grades they got.

And then there was The Narcomancer, which was actually the very first thing I had ever read that Jemisin had written. It was years ago, I think it was on tor.com at the time, and it was before I knew anything else about the author. I thought Jemisin was a man, because unless an author had an obviously female name, I just kind of assumed they were male at the time. (The ploy of writing under one’s initials only is apparently pretty effective after all!) But this was my introduction to her work, and once I’d finished reading it, I had to sit and let it all sink in for a time, let the story and the hints of a larger world wash over me, and when the storm cleared, I knew I wanted more. I heard about a novel she’d written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (reviewed here, but be warned, this is a very old review…), and I knew right then that I had to read it. The Narcomancer was the story that got me hooked to begin with, and it was wonderful to read it again after all these years and to remember the feelings that came along with the first reading.

If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work, you need to read this short story collection. If you’re not a fan of her work yet, you probably will be after reading this. She constructs her stories and worlds on levels that I can only hope to aspire to as a writer, and that I appreciate immensely as a reader. Some of her stories remind me of Jo Walton’s short stories, as a matter of fact: they both seem very capable of turning idle thought experiments into brilliant pieces of fiction that entice and engage the reader, and How Long ’til Black Future Month? is a shining example of Jemisin’s skill with the written word. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you choose to pass this one by.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 5, 2016

Summary: There are some tall stories about the caverns beneath the Citadel – about magic and mages and monsters and gods. Wydrin of Crosshaven has heard them all, but she’s spent long enough trawling caverns and taverns with her companion Sir Sebastian to learn that there’s no money to be made in chasing rumours.

But then a crippled nobleman with a dead man’s name offers them a job: exploring the Citadel’s darkest depths. It sounds like just another quest with gold and adventure …if they’re lucky, they might even have a tale of their own to tell once it’s over.

These reckless adventurers will soon learn that sometimes there is truth in rumour. Sometimes a story can save your life.

Review: What do an exiled religious warrior, a sassy woman of dubious moral character, and a deposed nobleman hungry for power all have in common? Oh, just saving the world from certain doom!

That’s the quickest basic pitch I can think of for The Copper Promise, and even then, it falls far short of what’s actually delivered. The novel starts off with Frith, a man of nobel birth whose entire family was slaughtered and who was tortured in an effort to find his family secret vault of riches, approaching a small band of adventurers with a proposition: explore the Citadel, the place where Mages went down imprisoning the last of the gods, in order to find treasure, fame, and oh, probably enough power to ensure that you can take back your family seat from the demon-worshiping tyrant who took it from you.

They accidentally free a dragon.

Who is the last of the gods.

They also free that dragon’s brood of insatiable offspring, who kill as easily as they breathe.

So, how was your Monday?

I’ll say this for nothing: Jen Williams knows how to write a tight combination of interesting characters and good action. I don’t think there was a moment of this book that felt dull, even when the characters were all separated for a while and doing their own thing. They all felt so distinct and so fully realised that even when main story was slowed a touch, I enjoyed reading what everyone was up to in the meantime. Especially Wydrin, but I mean, really, Wydrin is so very entertaining that it’s hard to not enjoy reading the sections from her perspective. She’s quick-witty and fiery and though I called her a “sassy woman of dubious morals” earlier, she does in fact have a pretty strong moral compass. It’s just that her morals are her own, not always constrained by what society (or even her own companions) would always deem appropriate. But you can’t accuse her of only being out for number one, since loyalty is one of her strongest traits, and I love that about her.

One of the themes I appreciated the most through this novel is how words have power. There’s the obvious way, since magic is summoned and controlled by words in this fantasy world, but even aside from that, the everyday words we use for communication have power to them too, and one of the characters states that outright at one point. The words we use to communicate concepts to each other might not be magic, per se, but what we say has effects on the world, altering people’s perceptions, changing how others do things, and if that’s not powerful, then nothing is.

Add to that the fact that Y’Ruen’s army started to understand the world they were interacting with through words, via their connection to Sebastian’s blood. Without going too deep into that story arc or delivering too many spoilers, certain members of the brood army started encountering words, and slowly uncovered their meanings, and in doing so, started to appreciate the concepts those words held and what they meant for others. Words became a source of individuality and independence, helping them forge their own identities in the midst of the hive-mind, and quite frankly, I can’t think of a better allegory for showing how our connection to language is deeply personal and can change the direction of our lives. Williams, in this book, used words to convey the power of words, and I loved it.

The Copper Promise is a tremendously easy book to fall into. If you just want to appreciate the brilliant adventure story that lies on the surface, then that’s fine, and there’s plenty there to entertain. If you want to dig below the surface and get wrapped up in speculation about words and debates about individuality at the cost of group solidarity (as was the case with both the brood army and Sebastian), then that’s more than okay, because there’s plenty there for you too. If you just want a book that will have you grinning over the antics of the characters, then sure, you’re going to find plenty here that will suit your tastes as well. It’s the sort of book that can be appreciated on multiple levels, and by a fairly wide range of people who look for different things in their fantasy novels. I am really excited to read the sequel to The Copper Promise in the future, and I highly recommend this book to those who are looking for a great fast-paced fantasy read!

(Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Starlings, by Jo Walton

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 23, 2018

Summary: In this intimate first collection from award-winning novelist Jo Walton ( Among Others , The King’s Peace , Necessity ) are captivating glimpses of her subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. An ancient Eritrean coin uncovers the secrets of lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do almost nothing. A search engine logically proceeds down the path of an existential crisis. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with ingenuity, bad poetry, and the aid of the Queen of Cats. Through eclectic stories, intriguing vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and more than a hint of magic.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I’m a huge fan of Jo Walton’s work, and I pretty much devour any of her writing that I can get my hands on. Starlings is her first collection of short fiction (and a few poems), and while she says she’s no good at that form of story-telling, I’d have to disagree. I wouldn’t say that the stories in Starlings is as good as some of her longer works, mind you, but that’s a far cry from not being good at all.

Like with any collection of short fiction, be it from multiple authors or just one, some pieces I like more than others. That’s to be expected, any as I say in just about any review of anthologies or collections, a lot of it comes down to personal taste rather than an indication of quality. I think the best example of this for me was the story, The Panda Coin, which is largely a collection of snippets from a multitude of different perspectives, detailing the happenings of people who have a particular coin in their possession at the time. Though not a hugely original idea, it was still well-written and interesting to see the diverse cast of characters that the coin passes to and from over time, but in the end it really didn’t stick with me as being one of the more memorable pieces. Just wasn’t to my taste, I suppose.

Others, though, absolutely were to my taste, and three in particular really made a lasting impression on me. A Burden Shared, for instance, features a mother who uses technology to take her daughter’s pain so that her daughter can better navigate through life without being beaten down by disability. It’s an exploration of the lengths that a parent will go to, and that they feel they ought to go to, in order to give their child the best chance at a successful life. But in doing so, the mother overlooks pain of her own that signals deadly illness in her own body, thinking it to be a sign of something wrong with her daughter rather than her own body’s way of communicating that there’s a problem. To me, it was a story not just of parental sacrifice, but a subtle warning about giving too much of ourselves and overlooking our own issues in the process of trying to make things better for someone else.

Turnover was the story of a generation ship, filled with people on their way to another planet. Being a generation ship, though, some people there had never experienced life outside the ship, and as such, a culture had developed that was rather specific to ship life, with art and expression and lifestyles that simply wouldn’t be possible once the ship arrived at their destination. It was a piece that really got me thinking about culture and intent, and how what we seek now isn’t necessarily going to be what the next generation seeks, even if our intent is to give them what we think they will want. Cultures and subcultures spring up around us all the time, with goals that are just as valid and worthwhile as the goals of the people who came before. Turnover questions the value of multi-generational intent and asks us whether it’s better to let some people go their own way even if that goes against the original plan, if those people don’t want to be part of a plan they had no say in.

But I think my favourite story in the whole collection was Relentlessly Mundane, which is about three people who once went to another world and saved it from certain doom. With their task complete, they returned to this world, and now have to live the rest of their lives as mundanely as the rest of us. Only it’s harder for them, because they know they were saviours in another world, special and lauded and with abilities that just don’t exist here, and so there’s a sense of trying and failing to recapture one’s glory days, making pale reflections of something to remind you that you were once great, once a hero, and now you’re just another face in the crowd. The story ends with them possibly being given the chance to become somebody here, too, or to help other people become somebodies elsewhere, which is an uplifting note to be sure, but what stuck with me the most was the sense of faded potential. Most of the time people express that at the end of life, but the characters in Relentlessly Mundane were adults in their prime, and already feeling like the best parts of their lives were over because they had a taste of glory and now that taste is just a memory. It really resonated with me, as did the pervasive feeling that where the characters are isn’t where they want to be, where they feel they should be.

Walton certainly does have skill at evoking and capturing emotions that I don’t always quite realize are within me until I see them laid bare on paper. I’ve only encountered a few authors who have done that, and she is most definitely one of them.

While there were some phenomenal stories within this collection, it’s not one that I feel I can really recommend to general SFF fans. This one’s more for people who are already fans of Walton’s work and want to see more of what she can do with a different medium. If you do like her writing, then absolutely pick up a copy of Starlings and dive into her collection of thought experiments with glee, the way I did. If you haven’t encountered her work before, though, this isn’t the best way to do it, and I’d recommend passing on it until you know if you like what she does, first.

(Received in exchange for review.)

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 14, 2016

Summary: One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction…

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it’s already been stolen.

London’s underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.

Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself…

Review: There’s something I love about books involving books. Maybe it’s the joy of connecting with other bibliophiles, however fictional, and knowing that no matter what else may or may not click between me and the character, we have a shared love of books and that seems to bring a lot of people together. Throw in an appeal to my love of multiverse theory, and hot damn, you have a book with a concept set to keep me amused for hours!

Irene is a Librarian, and the Library is special. Existing outside of time and the regular known multiverse, it houses a nigh-impossible number of books from all those different worlds, from fiction to hundreds of different histories. After returning from a mission to acquire a new book, she expects a bit of a break, only to be handed a new book-retrieval mission along with a new assistant. What at first seems like it should be a relatively easy mission quickly turns into something vastly more complicated, with chaos magic and Fae and Kai’s secret history and oh yes, the fact that an ancient ex-Library and current enemy to the Library seems to want that book for himself.

I find the world that Cogman sets up to be pretty fascinating. Or maybe it’s better to say “worlds.” We spend most of the book following Irene and Kai in an alternate world, old-timey London only with vampires and chaos magic and Fae making moves in high society. The book Irene has been sent to get is stolen, and so she teams up with Vale, a nobleman and detective, who also helps Irene and Kai adapt a bit more to society at the time, albeit in the form of infodumping now and again. There’s a lot of little detail that goes into all this, hints at a larger world beyond that one city, and it’s the subtleties that all come together to make something feel real and large and like you could really be there.

As for the Library itself, well, the idea of a vast repository of books from countless different worlds definitely strikes a chord with me. So too does the idea of the limited immortality that being a Librarian offers; time doesn’t move within the Library, so while one is perusing the stacks, they don’t age. This sounds great, but it has its drawbacks; early on it’s mentioned that Irene’s parents couldn’t raise her within the Library, since she wouldn’t grow from childhood to adulthood there. Irene suffers an injury at one point in the story, and she’s reminded that she has to leave the Library to heal. Without the passage of time, she’d remain injured, her body literally incapable of repairing itself because that repair necessitated change.

There are a lot of mysteries to unravel in The Invisible Library, and I’m actually pretty happy to say that they don’t all get tidied away at the end. We discover some of what’s going on with Kai. We discover more about Alberich and his goals. We discover what’s so special about the book Irene was sent to recover. But it seems like each answered question opens the door to a new room filled with related questions, but not in a way that frustrated me. Sometimes in books, questions get answered in a way that makes me ask, “But how does that make sense in regard to this?” or, “How does that all work when you take that into account?” Questions that make me think that plot threads are being awkwardly and obviously dangled in front of me, trying obviously to make me bite. But here the threads are dangled subtly. I have questions, yes, and I’m curious to see how the rest of the story will play out because there are definitely unresolved issues at play, but at the same time, enough was resolved that if I wanted to, I could just not read the rest of the series and still feel like I’d experienced a complete story within the first book. It’s a rare novel within a series that can pull that off, sinking the hooks in so delicately, and I think it’s worthy of some praise.

The Invisible Library is a great novel for those who love adventure and who love books, and who love seeing things they love meet and create new wonderful things. The pacing is pretty smooth, though it does get a little bogged down in infodumps and recaps now and again. The action is tight, the characters interesting even if they’re note incredibly varied, and the story overall is pretty compelling. It’s a series I will definitely continue with, if for no other reason than to feel a little bit more at home with characters who love books enough to devote a fraction of eternity to them.

SPFBO Review: Larcout, by K A Krantz

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – June 1, 2015

Summary: Blood-beings can be chattel or char.

Fire seethes through the veins of every Morsam, demanding domination and destruction. Combat is a hobby. Slaughtering the inferior blood-beings is entertainment. Life is a repetitious cycle in the prison fashioned by the gods. But mix-race abomination Vadrigyn os Harlo suspects the key to freedom lies with safeguarding the blood-beings; until her blood-born mother uses foreign magic to turn the Morsam against Vadrigyn. Betrayed, bound, and broken, Vadrigyn struggles against the dying of her essential fire. Yet the ebbing flames unleash the dormant magic of her mixed heritage…

The magic to destroy free will.

Seized by the gods and dumped in the desert nation of Larcout to stop history from repeating, Vadrigyn discovers her mother’s legacy of treason and slaughter still festers. To survive the intrigues of the royal court, the roiling undercurrents of civil war, and the gods themselves, Vadrigyn must unravel the conspiracy behind her mother’s banishment. But manipulating free will unleashes a torrent of consequences.

If she fails the gods, she will return to the Morsam prison, stripped of all magic and all hope.

If she succeeds, she can rule a nation.

Kasthu. Roborgu. Inarchma.
Live. Learn. Burn.

Review: I’m going to say it right up front: I wasn’t initially sure I was going to enjoy Larcout. The opening chapters dump you right in the middle of things, gives you a plethora of new terms and alliances and relationships to learn and precious little context for them all, and then things change suddenly and the protagonist Vadrigyn is thrown into a new society with even more stuff to learn, and yes, it’s very chaotic and unclear and at times I seriously felt like Larcout was actually book 2 of a series and the reason I was so lost in the beginning was because I missed some essential backstory from a previous novel.

Bear with things. The book definitely improves.

Vadrigyn is half-breed being of fire, proudest of her Morsam heritage but undeniably related to the Larcoutian woman who raped Vadrigyn’s father in order to produce her. The violent life in Agenwold is what she knows, owning blood-beings as chattel, ruling over weaker things. Until she’s suddenly thrust into life in the Jewelled Nation, among blood-beings like her mother, forced to confront the other side of her heritage and to uncover the truth behind the mystery that is and was her mother. Larcout is something of a fantasy murder mystery in that regard, and it’s certainly a well put together one, full of intrigue and detail and some fascinating and frustrating cultural elements that Vadrigyn must wade through to solve the puzzle.

Krantz certainly put a lot of detail into the world in Larcout. The gods of the world have their particular nations, so that Larcout is both a place and a divine being. There are also elemental associations, with Jos, for instance, being of water, and Larcout seemingly being of earth (it’s never stated explicitly, but when you’ve got people who can telekinetically move rocks and who have precious stones sprouting from their foreheads and who turn to sand when they die, I think it’s safe to assume). The culture that Vadrigyn encounters when she finds herself in the land her mother came from is stratified and rigid, with gender inequality and class issues and full of tricky politics and alliances that need to be maneuvered around. Some things definitely felt more developed than others, but it’s clear that Krantz put the effort in and didn’t just make a fantasy analogue for a real-world culture and then call it a day. I find myself appreciating that more and more in the books I read.

If there’s any flaw I found with Larcout, it’s in the descriptions, or rather the lack thereof. I never felt like I had a really clear mental picture of things. I could tell you a little bit about what Dhaval looks like, or Vadrigyn, or a Grethmondor, or where Vadrigyn sleeps, but for the most part, I’ve honestly got no clue. Some details were mentioned, but for me it seems they didn’t really coalesce into a clear thing for me. However, personality-wise, I feel pretty familiar with a number of characters, because Krantz writes plenty of dialogue and all the characters have fairly distinct personalities, even if you don’t get to see them that often. I can tell you a few personality traits of just about everyone who got a name in the book.

A few other reviewers commented on the book’s lack of balance, and I feel I have to agree. The narrative vs dialogue issue is an example of it, and the one that stood out the most to me while reading it, but in retrospect, I think that might be in part because of the writing being a bit uneven. When it’s on, it’s on. It’s crisp and witty and you have a good understanding of what’s happening, even if you can’t always picture the finer details. And then other parts feel rushed or glossed over or inconsistent, and that might be a considerable part of what left me feeling unable to establish a good mental picture.

Despite that, though, Larcout was undeniably creative, and enjoyable to read even when I felt a bit lost, and once I let myself sink into the story I found myself compelled to keep pushing on, wanting to know more of the mystery that Vadrigyn was working to uncover. The threads of intrigue were strong, there were twists and turns to keep it all interesting, and it was endlessly entertaining to see Vadrigyn’s personality be at odds with the culture of the people around her. This is a book I think could be utterly brilliant if it was smoothed out and polished a bit more, but as it stands, it’s still a book worth checking out if you’re in the mood for something a little bit different and have the patience to push past the first few chaotic chapters.

 

The Nature of a Pirate, by A M Dellamonica

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 6, 2016

Summary: The third novel in the Stormwrack series, following a young woman’s odyssey into a fantastical age-of-sail world
Marine videographer and biologist Sophie Hansa has spent the past few months putting her knowledge of science to use on the strange world of Stormwrack, solving seemingly impossible cases where no solution had been found before.

When a series of ships within the Fleet of Nations, the main governing body that rules a loose alliance of island nation states, are sunk by magical sabotage, Sophie is called on to find out why. While surveying the damage of the most recent wreck, she discovers a strange-looking creature—a fright, a wooden oddity born from a banished spell—causing chaos within the ship. The question is who would put this creature aboard and why?

The quest for answers finds Sophie magically bound to an abolitionist from Sylvanner, her father’s homeland. Now Sophie and the crew of the Nightjar must discover what makes this man so unique while outrunning magical assassins and villainous pirates, and stopping the people responsible for the attacks on the Fleet before they strike again.

Review: I’ve said before that I have yet to read anything by Dellamonica that I dislike. Her latest novel, The Nature of a Pirate, fits firmly into my expectations, and I think is the best of the series so far. It doesn’t quite have the magic that the first book held for me, the wondrous discovery of a new world, but the story really comes to a head, and this was a real page-turner and such an amazing read for me.

Sophie Hansa is firmly set on dragging Stormwrack into the age of curiosity, introducing greater scientific procedures into the world, at least in regard to forensics and crime-solving. She studies samples of animals and plants, trying to figure out this world that is slowly unfolding before her. Culture and politics, however, are still a lost art to her, and she makes plenty of missteps along her journey, but it’s the science of things she’s primarily interested in, the biology and forensics. So when she’s thrown into the middle of a mystery involving ships that bleed, forbidden magical constructs, and the possibility of it all leading to war, she goes to the task like any mildly obsessive and headstrong person would.

And I love reading Sophie for those traits. She’s in that excellent position to allow the reader a bit of ignorance and explanation, because Sophie herself isn’t familiar with Stormwrack in the way that those who have grown up there are. Cultural missteps are bound to happen. Lack of historical or legal context. That sort of thing. Sophie being from this world, called Erstwhile, has a distinctly modern approach to things, and that works well to ground the reader, making it easier to ride on Sophie’s shoulder as she encounters new things and sees them similarly to how we ourselves would, in all their baffling glory. And her penchant for brutal honesty, calling things how she sees them, is great to read.

I have great respect for the level of detail that Dellamonica put into this novel — the whole series, really, but here it just seemed so overwhelming to keep track of, from a writer’s perspective. Writing a secondary world is always a complicated affair when you’re trying to make it stand out from the crowd, and Dellamonica definitely succeeds in that regard. But it’s more than just an Age-of-Sail world. There are multiple nations, all with their cultural idiosyncrasies that are expressed and considered in the text. Not only that, but Sophie’s efforts to bring modern science into Stormwrack when Stormwrack doesn’t have facilities and technology that we consider modern means improvising, researching early breakthroughs in certain fields and recreating old methods and refining them along the way. Some of my favourite parts of the novel involve Sophie and Bram trying to figure Stormwrack out, and devise experiments and modifications to see how things work and what can be done. It’s creative, it’s impressive, and it speaks to a whole load of behind-the-scenes work that all comes together to create a breathtakingly detailed and realistic story.

Every time I write a review for these books, I find the story very difficult to describe. Not because it’s loose and all over the place. The writing’s tight, the direction clear, and it’s a thrill ride to be on with the characters. No, it’s hard to describe because there’s so much of it. Sophie’s project to introduce fingerprint records to Stormwrack. The frights that are destroying ships. Sophie’s ongoing issues with her birth father. The mystery behind a slave she suddenly owns. So many plot threads intertwine and play off each other, some important, some less so, some seeming unimportant until they zoom to the forefront halfway through the novel. Another point in Dellamonica’s favour; for all that the story has a lot of elements to juggle, not once does it get overwhelming of confusing, beyond the confusion you’re supposed to feel because characters themselves haven’t figured out exactly what’s going on either.

Stormwrack is a world I could constantly — if you’ll excuse the pun — dive into and never be bored reading about. I love the characters, from Sophie’s headstrong intelligence to Garland’s reserved politeness to Verena’s desire to prove herself. They’re whole people, able to stand on their own and tell their own stories. I love the cultures built in the flooded world. I love the little linguistic quirks that get thrown in, pieces of a puzzle to solve. Dellamonica is a fantastically skilled writer, at the top of her game, and I can’t imagine her coming down from those heights any time soon. Do yourself a favour and pick up this series soon if you haven’t already. It’s absolutely worth the time you’ll spend reading it.

 

(Received for review from the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: Assassin’s Charge, by Claire Frank

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Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 10, 2016

Summary: A cold-hearted assassin. A boy with a price on his head.

Rhisia Sen is one of the Empire’s highest paid assassins. Living a life of luxury, she chooses her contracts carefully, working to amass enough wealth so she can leave her bloody trade. She is offered a new contract on the outskirts of civilization, and almost refuses—until she sees the purse. It could be the last job she ever has to take.

But when she reaches the destination, she discovers her mark is a child.

The contract, and her reputation, demand she kill the boy—if she can banish his innocent face from her mind. But another assassin has been sent to kill her, and a notorious bounty hunter is on her trail. She doesn’t know why the boy is a target, or why her former employer wants her dead. Saving the child could be her only chance at survival.

Review: Rhisia Sen, better known as Rhis, is an assassin. She’s not picky about who she kills, so long as she gets paid. When she’s offered a job with an extremely high payment, one that could let her retire comfortably, she takes the chance. Until she realises that her mark is only a young boy, and that she’s reached her limit: she can’t bring herself to kill a child. So she takes the boy with her to protect him from the people who want to kill her (probably the Emperor himself, but definitely someone within the Emperor’s palace), and in so doing she has to dodge others chasing the boy, chasing her in order to kill her, and generally making her moment of compassion prove very costly indeed.

Assassin’s Charge is definitely a quick-moving book, jumping from event to event pretty smoothly and pulling the reader along with a very strong, “What happens next?” feel to it. From the early scenes where we get introduced to Rhis’s profession, to her flight with Asher, to her multiple attempts to escape pursuit and gain her freedom, the whole thing is fairly fast-paced and it makes for a quick and engaging read.

But the book does have its weaknesses, and they’re both complaints I had through the whole novel. The first is that absolutely no conclusive reason is ever given for Asher’s contract. The Emperor wants him dead. The best reasons anyone can come up with is because he might possibly be descended from a race of people that the Emperor couldn’t conquer. Maybe. There’s a lot about Asher that has no explanation, and there are a lot of hints at some larger scheme, but nothing ever actually comes of it. It was extremely frustrating, and it felt a lot like there was no reason for it. Like the only purpose to someone wanting Asher dead was to lead Rhis on this grand adventure from city to city, trying to protect him. And that felt very flimsy.

My second complaint is that it was very hard to pin Rhis down as a character. From the first dozen chapters, she feels very solid in my mind, and I know who she is and how she feels when reading her. She does her job with cool efficiency, likes her comforts, doesn’t take crap from people. Then she has her crisis on conscience and refuses to kill Asher, coming up with this plan that I still don’t fully understand the logic behind that involves taking Asher with her as leverage to get the contract against her cancelled. As she spends more time with Asher, and with Rickson later on, she changes from someone who’s done years of assassinating with a relatively clear conscience and who doesn’t mind blackmailing people into someone who feels bad that her servants might not make enough money (which is something she previously and explicitly stated she doesn’t care about), and gets teary-eyed over reunions with people she hasn’t seen for a few weeks.

And I’m not saying that people can’t ever change in response to circumstance. They absolutely can, and do. But Rhis’s transformation seemed reminiscent of numerous other stories I’ve read and seen where children awaken some sort of “caring” ability in people. Often this is done as some attempt to state that being around kids makes people want to be parents, and thankfully this didn’t seem to be the case here, but it seems like the catalyst for Rhis getting in touch with her sensitive and emotional side does seem to be protecting the kid she has little reason to protect. It does from, “I draw the line at killing kids,” to, “I have to protect this boy no matter what, and along the way I’m going to develop relationships I previously didn’t want, and go out of my way to solve a mystery that really has nothing to do with me.” The driving force behind the plot stemmed from Rhis’s desire to do these things, but there’s nothing that really shows how she developed the desire. I think it’s just meant to be taken as a given that being in someone’s presence for long enough will make you care about them, but that isn’t true for everyone, and it doesn’t seem to mesh with the Rhis we see at the beginning of the novel.

The world in which this all took place seemed fairly fleshed out and developed, though, and that was nice to see. It wasn’t all a hue voyage of discovery, either, since Rhis has been quite a few places in her time and so wasn’t about to gape at the marvels of some new city. As such, new places weren’t given grand and overblown descriptions, though the detail given is certainly enough to get a basic mental image. I felt like this was a story that took place within a world, rather than a story that partly existed only to show off the worldbuilding skills of the author, if that distinction makes any sense. The worldbuilding was there, absolutely, but it was a backdrop to the story at hand, making it seem all the more real.

Assassin’s Charge is a novel I definitely have mixed feelings about. It’s not a bad novel. The author’s writing skill is evident, and Frank knows how to write something that will keep readers turning the pages. But for all that, I’d say its biggest weakness is that despite it being a fast-paced adventure, it lacks real motivation for any of that fast-paced adventure to play out, and the motivations it does give don’t really stand up well to being poked at. It works well so long as you don’t question anything, and just take what you’re told at face value. It’s a quick fun read on the surface, and really, it doesn’t have to be any more than that, though I do prefer my novels to have a bit more depth to them, and I think that’s why this didn’t resonate so well with me.

Closer to the Chest, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 4, 2016

Summary: Herald Mags, the King of Valdemar’s Herald-Spy, has been developing a clandestine network of young informants who operate not only on the streets of the capital city of Haven, but also in the Great Halls and kitchens of the wealthy and highborn. In his own established alternate personas, Mags observes the Court and the alleys alike, quietly gathering information to keep Haven and the Kingdom safe.

His wife Amily, is growing into her position as the King’s Own Herald, though she is irritated to encounter many who still consider her father, Herald Nikolas, to be the real King’s Own. Nonetheless, she finds it increasingly useful to be underestimated, for there are dark things stirring in the shadows of Haven and up on the Hill. Someone has discovered many secrets of the women of the Court and the Collegia—and is using those secrets to terrorize and bully them. Someone is targeting the religious houses of women, too, leaving behind destruction and obscene ravings.

But who? Someone at the Court? A disgruntled Palace servant? One of the members of the Collegia? Someone in the patriarchal sect of the god Sethor? Could the villain be a woman? And what is this person hoping to achieve? It isn’t blackmail, for the letters demand nothing; the aim seems to be the victims’ panic and despair. But why?

Mags and Amily take steps to minimize the damage while using both magic and wits to find the evildoer. But just as they appear to be on the verge of success, the letter-writer, tires of terror and is now out for blood.

Mags and Amily will have to track down someone who leaves few clues behind and thwart whatever plans have been set in motion, and quickly—before terror turns to murder.

Review: This is, I think, the eighth book to focus on Herald Mags. Which is a lot of books. Especially when you consider that a good amount of the first 5 consisted of him participating in entire chapters worth of sportsball Kirball. But compared to previous entries in the Herald-Spy series, at least, I think this one’s the best. It’s still not fantastic, it has quite a few issues, but the whole thing has a general feeling somewhat akin to that I got from Take a Thief. I feel like I’m actually reading about people dealing with complex issues and moral dilemmas and an uncertain situation, rather than feeling like I’m reading about an entirely foregone conclusion but am just waiting for the “twist” ending to occur.

In Closer to the Chest, we start the story with a new religious sect coming to Haven, one that focuses on a primary male deity and has definite ideas about the place of women in society. (Read: women are subservient to men.) Then women start getting letters from someone eventually nicknamed Poison Pen, letters which tell these women in no uncertain terms that they ought to stop stealing jobs and honour from the men who should rightfully have them, that they should die or have unspeakable things done to them to make them behave as proper women should, that they should under no circumstances ever make a man think he might get somewhere and then not put out. Religious orders run by women start to be attacked and vandalized.

I wonder if there’s a connection…

It’s not hard to see where Lackey took her inspiration for this story. You basically have to exist on the Internet these days to know that there’s that exact problem here, with men feeling like their place has been usurped by upstart women, that women need to be more compliant with male sexual desire, all that. Transplanting modern world issues into fantasy novels isn’t unheard of, or even rare, and sometimes that helps get the point across to people who are on the fence about something. Seeing the same thing play out without any real-world entanglements can clarify and condense an issue and help people understand what’s really going on. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But I think success or failure depends largely on presentation, and the presentation of this is far from subtle. This is something I’ve noticed about some of Lackey’s more recent novels: the moral message is blatant and strong, with no shades of grey, and occasionally to the point where it makes no sense in the context of the book itself. Fortunately the events in Closer to the Chest do make sense, and I can’t fault Lackey for taking a standpoint on this issues at hand, but it’s very heavy-handed. It’s easy to connect the new patriarchal religion with the misogyny in the letters. That part of the story’s mystery was no mystery at all; the only interesting part about that was the clear and definite statement that plenty of people in Valdemar who aren’t Heralds, Healers, or Bards can have Gifts, and watching Mags try to wrap his head around this idea was amusing. But the revelation that the Sethorite temple is at the heart of things?

Let’s just say I don’t consider that a spoiler, since it’s obvious from the get-go.

To Lackey’s credit, there’s more than just a basic transplantation of real-world issues here. She takes care to show that incidents can and do escalate if someone is fanatical enough: someone getting angry letters now might find themselves in real physical danger later on. She shows the lengths that people will go to in order to convince others of their cause, talking circles and defying logic (for instance, women are destroying their own shops because said shops were secretly failing and the women want an easy way out and sympathy from their neighbours, never mind that those last two things are far from guaranteed, and multiple women doing the same thing in close succession, all to the same purpose, where none did so before, is suspicious and doesn’t track with that explanation). She talks at length about the potential danger of denying harassers their chance to harass, debating whether or not the person in question will get bored if they don’t see reactions from people, or whether they will escalate to bring the reactions back. Closer to the Chest may have its faults, but I’m very grateful that it presented the situation as being actually dangerous, and that the solution wasn’t, “Just ignore them and they’ll go away.”

So unlike the previous two Herald-Spy novels, where the situations dealt with were dangerous in the sense of, “Things are happening that may result in war but then don’t,” Closer to the Chest deals with something is very small in scope but ends up being very hard-hitting. I never felt any actual threat from the situations in the previous two books, nor any real tension. They were problems to be solved that had potentially large consequences, but I never actually felt anything in regard to them. The books felt like the author tried to do something with far-reaching consequences and just didn’t succeed. But here, possibly because of my own experience with harassment, I felt the potential consequences. Valdemar as a Kingdom wouldn’t be changed, but the story was more about the people than the Kingdom, as opposed to Closer to Home and Closer to the Heart, which were also about people but people whose doings could apparently have Kingdom-wide disasters follow in their wake. It’s been said in previous novels that Valdemar is the people, not the land, and here I really felt that in a way that’s been absent in more recent readings, and it was great to feel it once again.

It’s also here that the running theme of this series becomes apparent. I complained in my review of Closer to the Heart that it and the book before it just felt like standalones masquerading as a series, since they had nothing in common with each other besides the main characters. But here, the pattern emerges. All three books involve fanaticism and the dangerous lengths people will go to achieve their goals. Closer to Home had a young man ready and willing to kill two noble houses to avoid getting married. Closer to the Heart had a man attempting to start a war because he didn’t agree with another country’s politics. Closer to the Chest has someone trying to avenge the death of his pedophile brother by ruining the lives of any and all women. That doesn’t make me like the previous two books more, but it does make me actually curious to see what’s done in any future books in this series, rather than anticipate them with a feeling of vague dread and preemptive disappointment.

I don’t enjoy Lackey’s books as much as I used to. It’s difficult to tell whether the change is in me, her storytelling, or a bit of both. But I enjoyed Closer to the Chest more than I expected to, despite its moments of unsubtle moralizing, and it made me feel a renewed interest in the series as a whole. That alone is something to be grateful for, so far as I’m concerned. As I said in the beginning of this review, it’s not a fantastic book, and it does have its problems. But it was a decent book, enjoyable and relatable, and after some initial awkwardness, I was happy to keep reading it.

(received for review from the publisher.)

An Import of Intrigue, by Marshall Ryan Maresca

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 1, 2016

Summary: The neighborhood of the Little East is a collision of cultures, languages, and traditions, hidden away in the city of Maradaine. A set of streets to be avoided or ignored. When a foreign dignitary is murdered, solving the crime falls to the most unpopular inspectors in the Maradaine Constabulary: exposed fraud Satrine Rainey, and Uncircled mage Minox Welling.

With a murder scene deliberately constructed to point blame toward the rival groups resident in this exotic section of Maradaine, Rainey is forced to confront her former life, while Welling’s ignorance of his own power threatens to consume him. And the conflicts erupting in the Little East will spark a citywide war unless the Constabulary solves the case quickly.

Review: It’s multicultural mayhem in the second of Maresca’s Maradaine Constabulary novels! Inspectors Rainey and Welling are called to the scene of a murder, which is par for the course as these things go. But that murder took place in a part of the city where many foreign cultures intermingle, where they don’t always get along, and where the law tends to overlook and ignore in favour of dealing with their own people. With culture clash at the forefront, Rainey having to confront her past, and Welling’s magic getting wildly out of control, it’s a race against time to see whether the murder will be solved and the perpetrator brought to justice, or a massively dangerous situation will get too out of hand to contain.

I kind of love reading about the adventures and misadventures of Rainey and Welling. They’re such a wonderful duo, loyal to their cause and to each other as partners-in-solving-crime, but that loyalty doesn’t go so far as to blind them to each others’ faults. Nor does it spill over into romance, the way so many novels do. Satrine Rainey is married, and though that’s a more complicated situation than the previous novel revealed (and what it revealed was complicated enough), she stays loyal to him. Minox Welling doesn’t seem to have an interest in Rainey, either. They have a great friendship and work-partnership, and I think part of my appreciation for that comes from comparison, seeing how most authors would have hooked up the leading male and leading female characters because that’s just what you do. Only here it isn’t, and I love seeing that.

It was particularly interesting to see the various cultures in the Little East, each with their own ways of doing things, customs, idiosyncrasies. And more than that, they weren’t just thinly-veiled versions of cultures that exist in our world today. There were a few echoes of inspiration, or at least I thought I saw some in naming conventions and the way some words sounded, but for the most part Maresca steered clear of the stereotypes that often make their way into fantasy novels that present multiple different cultures.

Again, this is something that’s best appreciated in comparison to other novels on the market. I’ve lost count of just how many secondary worlds take place surrounding characters based on Western and European ideals, running into cultures that sound like transplanted Middle Eastern or East Asian groups. It’s almost standard fare. And it’s this comparison that makes Maresca’s novels so appealing to me. On the surface, they’re fun fantasy adventures that feel a lot like comfort fiction. But dig a bit into it and you see how Maresca works to make his novels stand apart, to do things a little bit differently even when on the whole they feel very comfortably familiar. You’ve got complex familial hierarchies and mourning rituals and legal matters and all of it requires more thought behind the scenes than tends to be on the page, and from both a reader’s and writer’s standpoint, I can appreciate the work that Maresca put into making sure that individuality was there.

But even aside from dipping below the surface and liking the novel for what it isn’t, I also like it for what it is. It’s a fun romp through a fantasy city, a murder mystery with depth, and enough intrigue (as the title suggests) to keep me turning pages to see what comes next. Is Welling’s magic going to get out of hand and hurt someone? Is he going to dip further into the madness that might let him see the connections in the case? Is Rainey going to manage to avoid an assassin from her past? Are any of the Fuergans or Imachans or Lyranans ever going to cooperate without being forced to? Who even is the murderer, let alone why did they murder? There’s a lot going on, intertwining stories, and everything coming to a head at the same moment, so there’s a load of fantastic tension and momentum to keep everything moving forward at a smooth and tantalizing pace.

Though I’m going to admit, there was plenty of uncomfortable language in An Import of Intrigue. Racist epithets being hurled around, sexism, you name it. Which isn’t surprising, given the setting, and it makes perfect sense as to why it would be there. It fits. It’s part of the story being told, the way people talk. Nor do I think that it’s a reflection of the author’s attitudes to women or… Well, I can’t say people of colour, really, because the slurs used are in reference to cultures that only exist within the Maradaine novels. Nobody in this world is grey-skinned and gets called a tyzo, for instance; that’s just something that isn’t applicable. I suppose what bothers me about it isn’t so much that it exists in books so much as it existing in books is a reflection of the worlds created, which are influenced by the world we live in. We still live in a world where sexist and racist terms get used so thoughtlessly, so casually, and my discomfort isn’t with the issue being in An Import of Intrigue or any other Maradaine novel so much as it’s with what it signifies.

That being said, the colloquialisms do add flavour, and it’s very easy to get a solid feel for what Maradaine is like by the way people speak. You feel like you’re reading about a real place, complex and ugly and full of all the sights, sounds, and smells you’d find in such a place.

I normally would say that I dislike cliffhanger endings (and I do), but somehow the ending of this book didn’t bother me in the slightest. I suppose it was less of a cliffhanger and more of a strong hint at what’s to come, peeling back the layers to show what’s been in the shadows, and what could develop in future novels. It was a well-done teaser, almost like the season finale of a show you know will continue into another season, and it left me hungry for more.

When all is said and done, I really enjoyed An Import of Intrigue, not just for the interesting presentation of other cultures and the examination of Welling’s magical troubles and Rainey’s extremely fascinating past, but for the adventure I got to go on with the characters. I closed the book wanting to immediately grab another one, only there isn’t another one yet. You know a book has really grabbed you when that’s your reaction. They’re fun novels, interesting stories, great characters, and I think any fan of fantasy adventures will enjoy reading them as much as I do.

(Received for review from the publisher.)