In Midnight’s Silence, by T Frohock

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 23, 2015

Summary: The fate of mankind has nothing to do with mankind…

Born of an angel and a daimon, Diago Alvarez is a singular being in a country torn by a looming civil war and the spiritual struggle between the forces of angels and daimons. With allegiance to no one but his partner Miquel, he is content to simply live in Barcelona, caring only for the man he loves and the music he makes. Yet, neither side is satisfied to let him lead this domesticated life and, knowing they can’t get to him directly, they do the one thing he’s always feared.

They go after Miquel.

Now, in order to save his lover’s life, he is forced by an angel to perform a gruesome task: feed a child to the daimon Moloch in exchange for a coin that will limit the extent of the world’s next war. The mission is fraught with danger, the time he has to accomplish it is limited…and the child he is to sacrifice is the son Diago never knew existed.

A lyrical tale in a world of music and magic, T. Frohock’s In Midnight’s Silence shows the lengths a man will go to save the people he loves, and the sides he’ll choose when the sidelines are no longer an option.

Thoughts: I have such a soft spot for anything to do with fallen angels. I’ve had a fascination with them for years, pretty much since I was in my teens, and so am just a touch predisposed to enjoy stories involving them. Add in male/male romance, and you pretty much have something that trip a couple of my biggest triggers in the best way. Knowing Frohock’s writing, and knowing those two things, I figured I was going to love this novella even before I started reading the first page.

Diago is a man torn between two worlds. With both daimonic and angelic heritage, he’s loyal to neither, remaining as neutral as he can while still supporting Miquel, his angelic lover who is bound to thwart daimons. It’s a fine line to walk, and it doesn’t come easy. But when Miquel disappears and Diago’s mysterious past comes back to haunt him, he finds himself unable to remain quite so neutral as everything hits hard and close to home.

Characters like Diago are great to read, occupying that great space between insider and outsider. In remaining neutral, at least officially, he allows the reader an opportunity to see both sides while choosing neither. Even so, though, it’s fairly clear early on that he favours the angels more than daimons. Perhaps because of Miquel, perhaps because he just generally disagrees with daimons but can’t bring himself to make that his official stance, I can’t really say. Even so, most of the story wasn’t about a man caught in the middle. It had more to do with personal salvation, with acceptance, with facing your past and acknowledging who and what it made you, with sacrifice and responsibility. How the past can catch up to you no matter how much you try to outrun or deny it, and sometimes that turns out to be a mixed blessing rather than an outright curse. There are so many of these little themes that add up to a strong message, and not a word wasted as the story gets told.

It’s worth pointing out that I love the subtleties in the way the author handled angels. They are immortal beings, yes, but they don’t hang around in the same body for hundreds of years. They can be killed. And when they die, they’re reborn into new bodies, to keep living. (Another good trigger tripped, there; I’m a sucker for reincarnation.) The new bodies bear scars and injuries from the previous body, and it’s established that some angels who can’t handle the idea of a new life with such disfigurements will choose to be enslaved by daimons instead. Which sounds shallow and selfish, until you think that some of them might have been in the reincarnation cycle for centuries, and have faced torture, and wanting an escape to that is nothing to be chosen lightly. This isn’t a major plot point within In Midnight’s Silence, but it speaks to the large amount of worldbuilding that Frohock put into a novella that would still have been fantastic even without the extra detail.

In Midnight’s Silence is dark without going over the top, poignant without being rigidly moral. And considering some of the themes involved, such as sexual consent or taking responsibility for someone else’s actions, that’s actually pretty impressive.

This is only the first part of an ongoing story, and I, for one, and eager to read part 2 already! Frohock has started something wonderful here, the perfect balance of dark and hopeful, draws a distinction between religion, faith, a spirituality right from the get-go; it’s unique and brilliant and, for all that it’s short, it has some reread value if you’ve got an interest in religious mythologies. It’s hard to escape the lure of the web that Frohock has woven, and I’m not inclined to try. As I said before, this novella trips all the right triggers, and  suspect it will continue to do so as the story expands.

(Received for review as part of a book tour.)

GUEST POST: My Favorite Fallen Angel, by T Frohock

T Frohock is a wonderful author and a great person all around, which is why I was thrilled to be part of the blog tour for her new novella, In Midnight’s Silence. As part of the blog tour, she was good enough to write a guest post for Bibliotropic, talking about her favourite fallen angel.


Gosh, and I have to pick just one …

This is a difficult exercise, because whenever I’m asked about fallen angels, I generally whip out one of my copies of Paradise Lost, then I get utterly lost in the beauty of Milton’s language. Then I revert to The Book of Enoch and become overwhelmed by the sheer number and functions of the angels. Now two hours have passed and I still haven’t written a blog post. So in the end, I switch over to the Internet and plug a random search, and today’s winner is …

… [drum roll please] …

We’re going to go with my favorite fallen angel on film and that is Michael Piccirilli’s Asmodeus in the Australian movie, Gabriel. The story is rather simple: the fallen angels and the heavenly angels fight over the souls trapped within purgatory, which is portrayed as an urban hell filled with abandoned buildings, decrepit trailer parks, and soup kitchens where some of the homeless are actually angels hiding from the fallen. In order to move through the city, the angels have to take mortal form. You can tell the fallen angels from the Heavenly angels by the colors of their eyes.

220px-Gabrielposter The entire film is shot at night. There is a lot of fighting, because both Michael and Gabriel were warriors, so the narrative fits. You will endure some moralizing over free will and the right to choose one’s destiny, but not so much as to interfere with the fighting and dark urban fantasy feel of the flick. It’s a gritty [grimdark, if you will] take on angels and death, much like The Prophecy, which I also loved, because, hey, Christopher Walken.

In Gabriel, Asmodeus runs a brothel where he enslaves other angels and mortals, who he forces into prostitution. Piccirilli gives a chilling performance as Asmodeus, turning the fallen angel into a psychopath with a cunning tongue. Asmodeus is incredibly vain, and he chooses to live as one of the fallen in order to satisfy his carnal desires.

One of the best scenes in the movie has Asmodeus unwrapping bandages from a woman’s face. Asmodeus has been performing plastic surgery on her to make her look like him. The narcissism of his experiment lies in his argument that everyone should have free will, yet he—like God—intends to recreate mortals in his image. It was a brilliant flip on the narrative, and one of the creepiest scenes I’ve seen on film.

The Asmodeus of legend, though, wasn’t really a fallen angel. He was a demon, who appeared in the Book of Tobit, which is part of the Catholic and Orthodox Biblical canon. In the Book of Tobit, Asmodeus was in love with Raguel’s daughter Sarah, who was a bit hard to marry off, because on her wedding night, Asmodeus would appear and murder her prospective husband before the marriage could be consummated. The angel Raphael helped Tobias drive Asmodeus away so that he could consummate his marriage with Sarah.

Although the line between demon and fallen angel gets blurred, I had no trouble setting that aside to watch Gabriel, and Piccirilli’s performance really makes it worthwhile. I also loved Andy Whitfield (Spartacus) as the angel Gabriel. If you’re into eighties and nineties urban fantasy flicks, you’ll probably enjoy Gabriel. Then you can come back here and tell me about your favorite fallen angel.

tfrohockT. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. Her other publications include everything from novelettes to short stories. She is also the author of the novel, Miserere: An Autumn Tale. Her newest series, Los Nefilim, is coming from Harper Voyager Impulse and debuts in June 2015 with the novella, In Midnight’s Silence. She can be found on her website and on Twitter.


Many thanks, T, for the guest post, and the really interesting look at a movie that I now want to watch!

For the record, my favourite fallen angels are Semjaza (whose name popped into my head as a teenager; I didn’t learn for years that it was the name of a fallen angel), and Penemue (He taught men to understand writing, and the use of ink and paper). Fallen angels have fascinated me for a long time, which is one of the reasons I was so eager to ask for a post about fallen angels for the blog tour.

Stay tuned for a review of In Midnight’s Silence, coming later today!

June in Retrospect

The year’s half over. I have no idea where it went. At the beginning of this year, I was living in another city, working yet another call centre job to make money, anticipating that soon my roommate would be moving away for months again to start a new job, and eventually I’d follow. Then plans changed, that job ended, we had a rushed move that involved a lot of going back and forth in some truly terrible weather.

Now 6 months have gone, we’re settled, my roommate’s working in health care, and I’m taking care of the house in exchange for room and board and a place to store all my books. There are worse lives to live. But so much has changed since the beginning of the year, it’s hard to believe that it all happened in such a short span of time.

And that’s not even looking at the book-related stuff that happened!

Speaking of, let’s get down to business and take a look at what happened here in June.

Reviews

Legacies, by Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill
Knight’s Shadow, by Sebastien de Castell
Walking the Labyrinth, by Lisa Goldstein
The Hanged Man, by P N Elrod
Texan & Tokyo comics 1-3, by Grace Buchele Mineta
The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton
A Murder of Mages, by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

SPFBO review: Scrapplings, by Amelia Smith

So I wrote 9 reviews, and read a whopping 12 books! 3 of which were collections of comics and essays, so it’s not like they were particularly challenging reads, but even so, that’s one of my better months for reading, and I’m pretty damn happy with that figure!

Other Stuff

I ran a few of giveaways, but there’s no need to link to those since the winners have already been announced; no sense in directing people back to things they can no longer participate in!

I wrote about how different reviewers and bloggers handle the number of review copies they get in Review-Copy Wrangling.

I reviewed the J-horror movie Gomen nasai, known in English as Ring of Curse.

I set up a Patreon account, if anyone’s interested in financially supporting Bibliotropic even a little bit. Sadly, there’s not much of a freelance writing market where I live. Or a “jobs of any kind” market, to tell the truth, and I’d love to be able to take care of a few financial obligations in my life from the work I do here. Not expecting it to happen any time soon, but hey, I can dream, and I do have some plans for future projects on Bibliotropic that could and would be funded by Patreon supporters.

And finally, I posted my Best Of list for halfway through 2015, because there are some books that deserve extra attention and I don’t want to wait until the end of the year to give it to them!

Upcoming

As usual, I’m aiming for another 8 books read and reviewed, at least. I’ve made arrangements for at least 2 guest posts, too, and I’m looking forward to reader reactions to them. I’d like to do a couple more movie reviews if I can, too, because I’m surprised at just how much I enjoy writing them; they’re an interesting break from book reviews. Might get lucky and be able to host a couple of new giveaways, too, but at this moment I don’t have any specific ones planned.

So how was your June? For that matter, how was the year so far? Is it weird to think that it’s half over? Or does that just make you excited for what’s to come?

The Best of the First Half of 2015

Sometimes it’s just so hard to wait until the end of the year to write a Best Of list. Sometimes there are enough amazing books that you read before the year’s half done that you feel the need to shine the spotlight on them just a little bit longer, to bring attention back to their greatness even when you read them months ago.

In some cases, I was fortunate enough to read both a book and its sequel in the same year, and both are wonderful. In such cases, I’ve listed the sequel rather than the first book of the series; I figure it’s something of a given that if I’m classing the second or third book as amazing, then the books that came before it were more than good enough to keep me hanging on for sequels. Consider it as me saying that the whole series is fantastic, and highly recommended.

So with all that in mind, I present to you, my top 5 SFF novels read in the first half of 2015!

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton
Review here.

From acclaimed, award-winning author Jo Walton: Philosopher Kings, a tale of gods and humans, and the surprising things they have to learn from one another. Twenty years have elapsed since the events of The Just City. The City, founded by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, organized on the principles espoused in Plato’s Republic and populated by people from all eras of human history, has now split into five cities, and low-level armed conflict between them is not unheard-of.

The god Apollo, living (by his own choice) a human life as “Pythias” in the City, his true identity known only to a few, is now married and the father of several children. But a tragic loss causes him to become consumed with the desire for revenge. Being Apollo, he goes handling it in a seemingly rational and systematic way, but it’s evident, particularly to his precocious daughter Arete, that he is unhinged with grief.

Along with Arete and several of his sons, plus a boatload of other volunteers–including the now fantastically aged Marsilio Ficino, the great humanist of Renaissance Florence–Pythias/Apollo goes sailing into the mysterious Eastern Mediterranean of pre-antiquity to see what they can find–possibly the man who may have caused his great grief, possibly communities of the earliest people to call themselves “Greek.” What Apollo, his daughter, and the rest of the expedition will discover…will change everything.

Binary, by Stephanie Saulter
Review here.

When confiscated genestock is stolen out of secure government quarantine, DI Sharon Varsi finds herself on the biggest case of her career… chasing down a clever thief, a mysterious hacker, and the threat of new, black market gemtech.

Zavcka Klist, ruthless industrial enforcer, has reinvented herself. Now the head of Bel’Natur, she wants gem celebrity Aryel Morningstar’s blessing for the company’s revival of infotech – the science that spawned the Syndrome, nearly destroyed mankind, and led to the creation of the gems. With illness in her own family that only a gemtech can cure, Aryel’s in no position to refuse.

As the infotech programme inches towards a breakthrough, Sharon’s investigations lead ever closer to the dark heart of Bel’Natur, the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s past… and what Zavcka Klist is really after.

The Dickens Mirror, by Ilsa J Bick
Review here.

Critically acclaimed author of The Ashes Trilogy, Ilsa J. Bick takes her new Dark Passages series to an alternative Victorian London where Emma Lindsay continues to wade through blurred realities now that she has lost everything: her way, her reality, her friends. In this London, Emma will find alternative versions of her friends from the White Space and even Arthur Conan Doyle.

Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead. Eric, the perfect boy she wrote into being, and his brother, Casey, are lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends—find Eric—again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up—or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad.

In this London, Tony and Rima are “rats,” teens who gather the dead to be used for fuel. Their friend, Bode, is an attendant at Bedlam, where Elizabeth has been committed after being rescued by Arthur Conan Doyle, a drug-addicted constable.

Tormented by the voices of all the many characters based on her, all Elizabeth wants is to get rid of the pieces under her skin once and for all. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma—who’s blinked to this London before—to emerge as the dominant personality…because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror.

But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can’t find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows—what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages—will die with her.

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory
Review here.

Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time not sleeping.

Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by the messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. And for some reason, Martin never takes off his sunglasses.

Unsurprisingly, no one believes their horrific tales until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these likely-insane outcasts join a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within and which are lurking in plain sight.

 

Apex, by Ramez Naam
Review here.

Global unrest spreads as mass protests advance throughout the US and China, Nexus-upgraded riot police battle against upgraded protestors, and a once-dead scientist plans to take over the planet’s electronic systems. The world has never experienced turmoil of this type, on this scale.They call them the Apex – humanity’s replacement. They’re smarter, faster, better. And infinitely more dangerous.

Humanity is dying. Long live the Apex.

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: Convicted criminal James Griffin-Mars is no one’s hero. In his time, Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humans have fled into the outer solar system to survive, eking out a fragile, doomed existence among the other planets and their moons. Those responsible for delaying humanity’s demise believe time travel holds the key, and they have identified James, troubled though he is, as one of a select and expendable few ideally suited for the most dangerous job in history.

James is a chronman, undertaking missions into Earth’s past to recover resources and treasure without altering the timeline. The laws governing use of time travel are absolute; break any one of them and, one way or another, your life is over. Most chronmen never reach old age; the stress of each jump through time, compounded by the risk to themselves and to the future, means that many chronmen rapidly reach their breaking point, and James Griffin-Mars is nearing his.

On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets Elise Kim, an intriguing scientist from a previous century, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, and in violation of the chronmen’s highest law, James brings Elise back to the future with him, saving her life, but turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, somehow finding allies, and perhaps discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.

Thoughts: Imagine a future where the ability to manipulate time has not only been discovered, but where doing so is something of an elite profession filled with not-entirely-stable professionals. Imagine a future with dwindling resources, where the only logical course of action is to jump back in time and gather the resources that nobody will miss. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman, someone who does those time-jumps, elite among the elite. He’s seen World War 2. He’s met the woman who made the Time Laws that he lives by. But it’s not until a prime mission, one hat could buy out his contract and allow him to retire, that he starts to break those laws and unravel pieces of a mystery that could very well have created the society in which he lives.

It seems to be an inherent problem of time travel stories, that at some point, the paradox will hit. What if you go back in time and accidentally kill your great-great-grandmother. Your family line is broken, so you will never be born, which means you’ll never go back in time and kill anyone. Cycle ad nauseam. Chu manages to sidestep most of this with a series of strict Time Laws that are designed to avoid making ripples in the timeline. Only take resources that would be destroyed in events soon after your salvage, so anything missing would be assumed destroyed. Never bring anyone from the past back with you. Sometimes ripples can’t be avoided, and what’s done has further-reaching consequences than anticipated, especially when rogue chronmen break a rule or two. Most of the time, the timeline can self-heal, setting things to rights by itself. You accidentally save someone who was supposed to die in World War 2, and they go on to have a family? No matter, a car crash will kill them all, so their descendants don’t exist and so can’t contribute to change. The timeline is something of a fluid thing, subject to change but still capable of setting itself to rights so long as the diversion isn’t major.

All this careful manipulation, though, essentially means that an event near the end comes out of left field. You spend the whole book thinking that the time travel paradox will be avoided,, and then something gets revealed that essentially says: the current timeline was created through the manipulation of the past by someone on the current timeline. BAM, the paradox is back in play. I do hope that the sequel to Time Salvager will involve some multiverse theory, because otherwise cause followed effect. Well, cause still followed effect, but at least some multiverse stuff would help balance that out a bit.

In terms of characters, Chu comes through once again with a cast of diverse and well-developed people to lead the story. It’s always a treat to read his works, because he writes such realistic characters, ones that feel like proper people and not stereotypes or caricatures. James is a misanthropic seen-it-all man who’s riding the edge of death by drink, and the death by lack of medical attention when he goes rogue. He’s not always a great guy, not always right in his action, and is frequently selfish and gruff. Which makes him the kind of person who you don’t really want to associate with in real life, but who is great to read about, because he’s so unlike most SFF protagonists. Elise has an air of innocence and hope to her, which fits well for someone who believes that what she’s doing can change and improve the world, but without the usual naiveté that tends to get portrayed a lot in similar characters. She’s optimistic, but she’s no fool. And don’t even get me started on how interested the Mother of Time is, once you get to see her more!

As sci-fi thrillers go, this is definitely one to pay attention to. It’s more than just a frenetic romp through time and space. There are running themes about corporate transparency and limits on power, and ecological crises in the making and their consequences. While these are definitely hot-button issues today, their inclusion in Time Salvager is appropriate and done well, coming across as part of the plot rather than an attempt to preach to the reader. Which, honestly, I actually find to be the best way to convince others of a cause; you don’t beat them over the head with a message, but you include that message in other works, so that people get exposed to the idea in ways they find enjoyable in the first place. Even if you don’t have much interest in those themes in today’s world, it’s hard to argue with the presentation that Chu gives in Time Salvager.

What it all boils down to is that this is a book well worth checking out. I admit I’m not usually big on either hard sci-fi or thrillers, but when Chu writes something, I will read it. And enjoy it. He works magic with words and makes a tight fast story that I find very hard to put down. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see where the story’s future lies.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

A Murder of Mages, by Marshall Ryan Maresca

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: A Murder of Mages marks the debut of Marshall Ryan Maresca’s novels of The Maradaine Constabulary, his second series set amid the bustling streets and crime-ridden districts of the exotic city called Maradaine. A Murder of Mages introduces us to this spellbinding port city as seen through the eyes of the people who strive to maintain law and order, the hardworking men and women of the Maradaine Constabulary.

Satrine Rainey—former street rat, ex-spy, mother of two, and wife to a Constabulary Inspector who lies on the edge of death, injured in the line of duty—has been forced to fake her way into the post of Constabulary Inspector to support her family.

Minox Welling is a brilliant, unorthodox Inspector and an Uncircled mage—almost a crime in itself. Nicknamed “the jinx” because of the misfortunes that seem to befall anyone around him, Minox has been partnered with Satrine because no one else will work with either of them.

Their first case together—the ritual murder of a Circled mage— sends Satrine back to the streets she grew up on and brings Minox face-to-face with mage politics he’s desperate to avoid. As the body count rises, Satrine and Minox must race to catch the killer before their own secrets are exposed and they, too, become targets.

Thoughts: While it does make reference to some events from The Thorn of Dentonhill, A Murder of Mages is not exactly a sequel. More accurately, it’s a novel set in the same world, during the events of the first book, but a full standalone story that you don’t need to have read the other book to appreciate. So if you haven’t had a chance to read The Thorn of Dentonhill, not to worry. That being said, if you have read it and enjoyed it, then chances are you’ll find the same level of entertainment in A Murder of Mages.

Satrine Rainey is in a horrible position. Her husband, a Constabulary inspector, has been badly injured and is incapable now of even communicating, let alone working and earning money to support his wife and 2 daughters. Desperate, Satrine fakes qualifications to gain herself a position as an inspector. Her partner, Minox Welling, is a man with magic, Uncircled, and so despised by mages and non-mages alike. On their first day working together, they’re thrown into the middle of what becomes a serial murder case, with the killer targeting mages and killing them in a ritualistic fashion.

The gritty streets of Maradaine aren’t the most comfortable to read about at times. It’s far from a pristine rich fantasy city, with everyone going happily about their lives in comfort. Law enforcement is looked down upon, hated by many in most areas of the city, to the point where even those with no connection to a crime will act antagonistic and refuse to help. Further hampering the investigation is the general hatred of mages; most people are quick to blame mages for any small thing, and are pretty happy to see a few less around. Satrine and Minox are met with opposition on just about every front, which could make for frustrating reading, but Maresca manages to avoid that by keeping the side-stories going during the few lulls in the case. You get to see glimpses into both of their family lives, which are distinct and interesting and add to the development of not only Satrine and Minox themselves, but other characters along the way.

Twice now, Maresca has demonstrated that he’s capable of creating a not-so-generic fantasy world, using only a few elements that most people would consider fantasy tropes and using them as a frame for a larger story, rather than trying to make the story all about how unique the world is. Personally, I think it works better this way. Characters are products of their world, absolutely, but they manage to be memorable and unique by their actions, not because the world they live in is spectacularly different from every single other fantasy world you may read about. It’s a good balance of the familiar and the new, which more and more I enjoy seeing in SFF novels.

The pace of this novel is tight and fast, making it an easy story to sink into with plenty to keep readers engaged and curious. It’s not utterly relentless, but it does keep the plot moving along quickly and smoothly, and with the interchanging perspectives of Minox and Satrine, there’s plenty of interest on the pages.

Speaking of interest, it’s worth noting that there’s no romantic subplot between Satrine and Minox, which I was very happy about. Minox is single but doesn’t appear to be looking for a romantic partner. Satrine’s husband may be largely unresponsive to any stimuli, but she’s devoted to him and isn’t on the lookout for a new partner either. I have a special place in my heart and on my bookshelves for novels in which a man and a woman can work together without getting romantic or sexual, and A Murder of Mages definitely occupies a spot.

Maresca’s novels are certainly getting attention from fantasy readers, and I’d say it’s well-deserved. Quick reads, good action, and just generally very fun books to have around. I’m already a fan of both branches of Maradaine novels, and I’m looking forward to what new fun stories he’ll tell in that world in the future.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 30, 2015

Summary: Philosopher Kings, a tale of gods and humans, and the surprising things they have to learn from one another. Twenty years have elapsed since the events of The Just City. The City, founded by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, organized on the principles espoused in Plato’s Republic and populated by people from all eras of human history, has now split into five cities, and low-level armed conflict between them is not unheard-of.

The god Apollo, living (by his own choice) a human life as “Pythias” in the City, his true identity known only to a few, is now married and the father of several children. But a tragic loss causes him to become consumed with the desire for revenge. Being Apollo, he goes handling it in a seemingly rational and systematic way, but it’s evident, particularly to his precocious daughter Arete, that he is unhinged with grief.

Along with Arete and several of his sons, plus a boatload of other volunteers–including the now fantastically aged Marsilio Ficino, the great humanist of Renaissance Florence–Pythias/Apollo goes sailing into the mysterious Eastern Mediterranean of pre-antiquity to see what they can find—possibly the man who may have caused his great grief, possibly communities of the earliest people to call themselves “Greek.” What Apollo, his daughter, and the rest of the expedition will discover…will change everything.

Thoughts: Sequel to The Just City, a book which blew me away when I first read it, The Philosopher Kings does exactly the same thing, and just as cheerfully. The first book of the series could stand on its own, and very steadily, without the need for a sequel. The story was complete, or at least complete enough that it didn’t feel unfinished in the slightest. However, it seems there was more of the story to be told after all, and The Philosopher Kings picks up some years after the end of the first book. The debate between Sokrates and Athene has become known as the Last Debate. The city has split, and 4 other cities have been formed, each attempting to build their ideal home according to Plato’s laws but with their own interpretation. Raids for art have become common, each city wanting their share of the time-rescued art and no other city prepared to give up what they have.

Thanks to the art raids, Simmea, one of the characters we see grow up in the Just City in the first book, someone who devoted her life to excellence as best she knew it, has been killed. Apollo, in his mortal guise as Pythias, vows revenge against the person he thinks orchestrated the attack: Kebes, a malcontent who left the Just City some years back, and who has long expressed his hate for the City and what it stands for. Together with his children, he sets out on a journey to get his revenge, and along the way discovers that the Republic experiment has reached further than anyone intended.

All of the things I loved about the first book make a return here. The thought-provoking debates, the unique and interesting characters, the expression of diversity amongst people who are still united for a common goal. Walton juggles many balls here, and does it all so well. The story of Pythias and his children seeking revenge on Kebes and finding other settlements that have been influenced by Athene’s plans would make an interesting enough story all on its own. Then you throw in the coming-of-age subplot with Arete, not only as she goes from child to ephebe, but also as she and her brothers discover that they have heroic souls, complete with a variety of divine powers, and they must decide whether to develop those powers and embrace that aspect of their heritage or to keep it hidden. Roll that all up into a ball with fantastic philosophical debates, and you get something that’s highly intelligent and will appeal to those with a keen mind.

I suppose this book falls under the category of “literary SFF,” as does The Just City. There are definitely some fantastical elements to it all. Deities bringing together people from multiple different times and places. Sentience and art arising in robotic workers. Everything that was already established beforehand stays true here. The only new element, really, is Pythias’s children and the nature of their souls, but even that is mostly a frame upon which to drape philosophy and questions. It does serve to advance the story, though in small ways rather than huge ones. Arete can detect when someone is lying, which comes in handy during important debates, for instance.

Walton works wonders with providing so much commentary on big issues here, issues that I can’t say I often think about but that are interesting to ponder once brought up. If you take a bunch of Christians and transport them back before the time of Jesus, does what Jesus did for humanity still apply? Is it better to have a high social standing and not follow your passion than to have a low social standing but be fulfilled by what you do there? What is true justice?

Actually, I spent a few hours contemplating that one, and I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer. Best I can figure out, true justice is where the punishment inflicts proportional damage upon the perpetrator that they inflicted upon the victim. It’s not enough to follow “an eye for an eye” if the perpetrator is ambivalent about losing an eye and their victim valued their sight immensely, because things aren’t proportional. But that means that sometimes justice must be downright cruel, and sometimes it can never be served completely… See, this is the kind of stuff that reading this book makes you think about, which is why I love it! Rarely do I encounter books that put me in that exact frame of mind to ponder big questions in such an analytical way. It makes me want to search for answers. Not necessarily find them, but at least search for them, and in so doing improve my understanding of them.

In short, it makes me want to better myself, to bring myself that much closer to excellence. Which is the whole purpose behind Athene’s experiment with Plato’s Republic.

I’d say this book’s only real shortcoming is the ending. Zeus comes down in all his glory and swoops select people (and deities) away to have a chat about what’s going to happen to all the cities spawned from this experiment. They’re having a larger effect on the world than intended, and it can’t go on that way. Which makes sense. Even the proposed solution makes sense, even though it brings in some odd science-fictional elements that do fit, given the time-traveling powers of gods, but it seemed a little bit too neat of an ending for my taste.

But that still fit more than a single exchange between Apollo and Zeus. Apollo comments that through his time as a mortal, he learned about equal significance and how people have their own needs and wants that are just as valid as his own, even when those desires are in opposition. And Zeus replies by saying that he wondered how long it would take Apollo to figure that out.

And I just wondered if Zeus had been replaced by some other god. Some random deity in a Zeus-suit. Because when last I checked, Zeus is pretty well known for doing whatever he wants, to whomever he wants. So that came across as one epic, “Do as I say, not as I do,” moment.

Either that, or it was one wonderfully subtle reference to the changes in the Christian god’s personality once Jesus came into place. And especially given the frequent comments about how Apollo’s time as a mortal is extremely similar to the stories of Jesus being God in mortal form… I’m inclined to believe the latter, honestly, because Walton can do some amazingly subtle and impacting things with her writing, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that this was her intention. But without reading between a lot of lines, that dialogue seems to be a giant bit of mythological hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy or not, The Philosopher Kings was a brilliant book, and I adored it, as I expected to. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll feel the same way about this one. And if you’re looking for a fascinating take on philosophy, history, and religion, then look no further than this duology. it’s worth every second you spend reading it, and every second you spend thinking about it afterward. In a word, phenomenal!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Texan & Tokyo comics 1-3, by Grace Buchele Mineta

I’m taking a bit of a break from my usual SFF stuff today to shine a bit of spotlight on 3 collections of comics, written and drawn by Grace Buchele Mineta. I’ve followed her Texan in Tokyo vlog on YouTube for a while now, which I really enjoy (obviously, or I wouldn’t keep following it), and with news that not only is the 3rd collection of comics out now, but also that the Kindle editions of all 3 collections are currently free, I figured it was a good time to take a look at what she’s done.

With that in mind, it’s time for a few mini-reviews!

Buy from Amazon.com
Author’s YouTube channel
Publication date – November 14, 2014

Thoughts: Most of the comics here are cute slice-of-life stories about living in Japan. Which may not sound that interesting, unless you’re really interested in cultural stuff and what it’s like to break cultural boundaries and experience for the first time a lot of stuff that some people take for granted.

Which I’m very interested in!

Most of the humour in the comic revolves around that idea. So for those who aren’t interested in the nuances of daily life in Japan, as seen from someone who grew up in America, these comics may not amuse you that much. Sometimes the punchline is going to rely on the reader finding it amusing that a man won’t take his wife’s sister’s underwear down from the clothes line, and gets her to do it instead. The silly little things that make us chuckle in everyday life, with the added spice of cross-cultural relations.

Aside from drawn material, the artist also throws in a lot of commentary about Japanese culture, which is pretty useful for the many people interested in visiting there for any decent length of time. From festival food to garbage pickup, a lot of common questions about life in Japan get answered in quick and convenient ways. It’s not an all-encompassing how-to guide, but neither is it meant to be. It’s just a good overview of what to do in certain situations, with some artistic personal experiences thrown in for good measure. Which, I should add, doesn’t just rely on Japan’s culture to be funny. Sometimes she pokes fun at Texas stereotypes (or rather, the drawn version of her husband does), and it’s amusing to watch the culture divide from both sides.

It’s not all humour, though. She talks quite openly about the racism that she’s encountered over being in an interracial marriage, and how, like many female bloggers, has experienced hate mail and death threats over what she does. Those sections of the book, originally posts from her blog, are sobering to read. The book is autobiographical, so you really can’t talk honestly about certain things without bringing up certain aspects, and while I’m disgusted that some things happen, I’m glad she didn’t shy away from talking about it.

The comic collection is a quick read, filled with approachable humour and good commentary on many aspects of life in Japan. Definitely recommended if slice-of-life stories are your thing.

Buy from Amazon.com
Publication date – February 16, 2015

Thoughts: The 2nd collection of comics is a good continuation of the first, providing more of the same style of humour and daily life stuff that you expect after the 1st book.

Much of what’s in here stands on its own, so you don’t need to have read the first book to understand what’s going on. There’s no plot, just a series of instances. The only thing that really involves continuity is the presence of Marvin, a random talking rabbit that pops up now and again. But even he gets a little intro before the comics really begin, so you won’t be horribly confused if you pick up this book before the first one.

The joys of one-shots!

You can definitely see the evolution of the art style, even now. Less in terms of drawing the characters themselves (though there are some changes in appearance here and there), but more in the way the comics are no longer presented as 100% 3-panel events. Sometimes there’s more, sometimes less, in accordance with what the scene needs. It’s nice to see some experimentation here, which makes it all feel less formulaic and more organic.

(I say as though I’m some expert judge of comic styles…)

Buy from Amazon.com
Publication date – June 21, 2015

Thoughts: Confessions of a Texan in Tokyo is the 3rd and most recent comic collection in the series, released only yesterday. Like the previous 2 books, it continues Grace and Ryosuke’s adventures in Japan as an interracial couple, dealing with the amusements of life as they happen.

More and more, as I read through these comics, I’m struck by the thought that so many of the little things that Ryosuke points out are weird and how they’re done in Japan… They’re often the way I’ve been doing things for years, just out of personal taste and comfort. So I get extra amusement seeing him explain certain things to Grace.

Personal chuckles aside, once again I saw a good development of the art style here, with more generally-approachable humour rather than a solid reliance on cultural weirdnesses to carry the comic. There’s still plenty of that in here, to be sure, and for those who love culture clash stuff, this comic series is a gold mine. But there’s more that can be appreciated even by those who don’t have that as a particular interest, which is nice to see.

Aside – I love how the artist talks about being a big book-lover, and how there’s a term in Japanese for someone who buys so many books they can’t read them all. I think just about everyone reading my blog can identify that way, at least a little!

Having read all 3 Texan & Tokyo comic books now, I can say that they’re definitely worth the read, a fun diversion for the afternoon if you want a bit of odd humour, cute drawings, cultural ponderings, and the fun of being married to a goofball. Which is right up my alley, and I love that I got the chance to read them! If these sound like they’d be your kind of experience, then take advantage of the fact that they’re all free on Amazon until midnight on June 23rd.

(Book 3 provided for review from the author. Books 1 & 2 acquired on Amazon.)

The Hanged Man, by P N Elrod

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 19, 2015

Summary: On a freezing Christmas Eve in 1879, a forensic psychic reader is summoned from her Baker Street lodgings to the scene of a questionable death. Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury (named after her godmother, the current Queen of England) is adamant that the death in question is a magically compromised murder and not a suicide, as the police had assumed, after the shocking revelation contained by the body in question, Alex must put her personal loss aside to uncover the deeper issues at stake, before more bodies turn up.

Turning to some choice allies–the handsome, prescient Lieutenant Brooks, the brilliant, enigmatic Lord Desmond, and her rapscallion cousin James–Alex will have to marshal all of her magical and mental acumen to save Queen and Country from a shadowy threat. Our singular heroine is caught up in this rousing gaslamp adventure of cloaked assassins, meddlesome family, and dark magic.

Thoughts: Given that the steampunk craze is still going strong, it’s sometimes surprising to come across a speculative novel set in Victorian England and to not have it be a steampunk novel. Instead, The Hanged Man is a historical urban fantasy with a touch of alternate history thrown in for good measure. There’s mystery afoot, and Alex Pendlebury is right at the centre. Alex is a Reader, someone with a psychic gift who works for a branch of law enforcement to aid in solving murders (0r any crime where death is involved, really). When she’s summoned to investigate the scene of what initially appears to be a suicide but actually turns out to be a murder, she finds herself in the thick of a much larger set of suspicious circumstances. Mysterious assailants attacking Her Majesty’s Psychic Service members with unusual guns, a secret society, and on top of it all, having to deal with her family being at odds with her and her choices in life.

Alex is a pretty interesting character, who is definitely suited to the subtle societal effects of the alternative history that Elrod introduces here. You look at a lot of fiction that takes place in Victorian England, especially with female protagonists, and everyone’s in a gorgeous fancy dress and the women are demure and submissive, except where the plot requires them to be a social aberration and to buck those trends. Which often comes across as social commentary rather than social backdrop. Here, Elrod twisted history just enough that Queen Victoria (who here goes more often by her first name of Alexandrina rather than Victoria) changed laws so that she could marry whomever she chose instead of someone of noble lineage. That changed law led to a bit of a cascade, where women gained voting rights earlier than our history presents, and women wearing trousers as fashion statements or just because they’re comfortable or easier to move in is becoming increasingly common. The Hanged Man takes many of the small hallmarks we associate with gender equality movements and moves them up a notch, so that the book can have a period feel without having as many period constraints.

But that doesn’t mean Alex’s England is a modern bastion of social justice as we know it. There are drops of racism dotted here and there, fitting with an England that still believes itself to be the centre of the world and seat of an empire. Ditto sexism; although women have more rights and freedoms than is typical, it doesn’t stop people from thinking that women are the fairer or weaker sex and that they shouldn’t be part of certain things. As Alex points out in one instance, the fact that women have the right to vote doesn’t make them equal to men in social standing. Readers looking for a presentation of major leaps in equality won’t find it here. What they will find is a well-done compromise and a well-presented society that acts as you’d expect given the timeline. So I have to give great praise to Elrod for being able to walk that fine line, to tweak things here and there to make allowances without going so far overboard that it feels unrealistic. Subtle, and very well done.

The plot has a relentless pace that doesn’t let up for a moment, and normally when I say that I mean it as a positive thing. But here, I just felt worn out by the end. It was relentless, but it wasn’t steady, and I think that was my biggest issue with it. A major event would happen, and then characters wouldn’t even really have time to process what happened before something else jumped out of the shadows at them. And so on, and so on. Oh crap my father’s dead, oh crap someone’s shooting at us, oh crap they’re shooting again, oh crap my boss is giving me incomprehensible orders, oh crap I’m drowning. And through the majority of the book, all you can really tell about the events is that they’re somehow connected to a secret society. Probably. There’s no real indication of how until you’re very far through the book, which means that it’s very hard to play that mental game where you try to take the clues offered and come up with possible explanations of your own. You’re given a lot of events and little context. It left me feeling quite lost through much of the story, like I was witnessing disparate events and only knowing they tie together because the book tells me so. Alex is sure, but she doesn’t give much reason for why she’s sure except for certainty that her family is only involved in small and largely inconsequential ways.

Then you consider that the entire book takes place over about a 48 hour period, and yeah, by the end I felt worn out, and I was missing dropped hints because I’d just become so used to not bothering to put pieces together. I’m told that many mystery novels read like this, however, so if you are a fan of such books, then this may not be a problem for you the way it was for me. If, however, you like to play that game of putting together theories and seeing which one pans out, then you may find yourself struggling to do that with The Hanged Man.

I do want to take a moment to discuss the attempt at romance in here, too. I’m fond of saying that I prefer my romance to be a side dish rather than the main course, and that’s certainly what this novel presents. But that side dish was extraordinarily bland. Admittedly, you really only see the beginnings of it all — more spark than flame, really — and given the book’s short timeframe, I’m glad that Elrod didn’t decide to heavyhand it and try to throw in some instant powerful attraction that results in the characters hooking up almost immediately. It’s more of a crush than love, and that’s definitely fitting for the circumstances. But Alex’s romantic interest, a man we only know by his surname of Brook, is… Well, he is. That’s most of what I can say about him. He gets almost no development as the story goes on, we find out very little about him other than that he used to be in the military and that a solid clonk to the head awakened latent psychic gifts. But that’s about all. He’s present for much of the book, helping Alex with her investigations, but there are characters who show up far less who have more established and unique personalities. It got to the point where I had to remind myself that other people have interacted with Brook and that he’s actually done things, because I was starting to suspect that he was a ghost and was being deliberately vague about everything to do with him in order to hide that fact. (See, I do love playing the theory game!) And because I found the character to be so utterly devoid of personality, I really couldn’t get into any of the romantic aspects, small as they were.

And I found that very odd for a character who’s there almost as often as the protagonist herself.

Despite the problems I had with the book, it still was pretty enjoyable, and I enjoy the way Elrod can manage the fine and subtle aspects of tweaking history. There are definitely some interesting characters in the book that I want to know more about (two of whom don’t really become interesting until near the end of the book, so I won’t leave spoilers here), and I’m hoping more is revealed about them in future installments of the series. It’s a shaky beginning, but not so shaky that I don’t want to find out more, and I can see potential for it to grow into a good “comfort read” series. Worth checking out if you enjoy books set in Victorian times and non-stop mysteries.

(Received for review from the publisher.)