Mini reviews

Sometimes I read books that I have thoughts on, but not enough to flesh out into a full-length review. When that happens, I store them up for a little while and then release the into the wild as a batch of mini-reviews, like this.

The Devil You Know, by K J Parker
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: The greatest philosopher of all time is offering to sell his soul to the Devil. All he wants is twenty more years to complete his life’s work. After that, he really doesn’t care.

But the assistant demon assigned to the case has his suspicions, because the philosopher is Saloninus–the greatest philosopher, yes, but also the greatest liar, trickster and cheat the world has yet known; the sort of man even the Father of Lies can’t trust.

He’s almost certainly up to something; but what?

Review: A series of events occurring between a man who has sold his soul and the demon who purchased it. Which seems a bit trite, but Parker makes it quite interesting in that you’re never quite certain what the man’s end-game really is. He demands things out of pure selfishness at times, makes demands that will change nations and cause upheaval, and then does the demon a kindness by demanding the demon do something he wants to do. As baffling as that may sound (and as baffling as it is to the demon, who can’t always figure out why the man would do such things), I think that worked pretty well to show how people have layers, and are not often wholly driven by one purpose. We can work to our own goals and yet still do a nice thing for someone.

The man in question, Saloninus, is a famous writer, someone who can write dozens of things he doesn’t believe for a moment. Which may have been a dig at readers who associate an author’s viewpoint with that of their works, or it might just have been an amusing character trait and a fun way to write about someone who can work with the cognitive dissonance to be utterly unreligious and yet still make deals with demons. Either way, it did make for some amusing reading, even if it felt at times like the author was basically having a back-and-forth discussion with himself.

While I’m on the fence about first-person viewpoints, here’s a place where I have to say that it was effective at concealing motives and yet very irritating to read. The story is told in the first person from two alternating viewpoints, but I found their voices too similar to know who I was reading half the time unless something very specific was mentioned to give me a clue. (Using names, referring to people they know or prior events, etc.) I can’t imagine the story would have worked better by being told in third person, even third person limited, but it was still frustrating, and that annoyance and constant need to seek out perspective clues prevented me from enjoying the story more.

The Untimely Deaths of Alex Wayfare, by M G Buehrlen
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Summary: Alex Wayfare is back in Base Life. Her 57th life. She’s in Chicago searching for Blue, who travels with her whenever she goes back in time. She’s never met him in Base Life, but she’s hoping he’ll remember her in the present, and that he’ll want to be with her like he does in the past.

Their romance is put on hold when she’s attacked by henchmen working for Durham Gesh, who wants to harness her abilities for his own ugly purposes. But that threat seems insignificant when she returns home to face her younger sister’s deteriorating health. Researching every possible remedy, from ancient herbs to forgotten medical advancements, Alex seeks a cure for her sister’s cancer in the past.

The journeys are never simple. From the countryside of eighteenth-century China to a top-secret research lab in 1970s Michigan, Alex is plagued by enemy Descenders who seem to anticipate her every move, and realizes she may have a traitor in her small band of allies.

A traitor who might bring Gesh straight to Alex’s front door.

The only person Alex feels she can trust is Blue. But there are secrets Alex doesn’t know―secrets about Blue, about her team, and about herself. And the biggest secret of all will change her life, or her lives, forever.

Review: Sequel to The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare, The Untimely Deaths of Alex Wayfare continues Alex’s story as she learns more about her ability to jump back into the bodies of her previous incarnations. Where the bulk of the first book involved Alex learning all this, discovering her part in experiments with people who can do the same thing, and trying to make contact with a boy she met in previous lives whom she calls Blue, The Untimely Deaths of Alex Wayfare focuses more on Alex’s desire to save her sister from the cancer that is killing her.

The experiments and Blue do come into the story, largely by Alex insisting that Blue isn’t the one betraying her location to Gesh, the man running the experiments and trying to get Alex back on his side. But they’re more of a sidebar, really, obstacles that get in Alex’s way rather than the villains of the tale. The true villain is time, for Alex is running out of it, and she needs to find the cure for her sister’s cancer before it’s too late.

Which is my biggest problem with the book. It has some amazing moments, like Alex coming to grips with her own mortality, and the awkwardness of dealing with people you only really know from previous lives. Those things make the story good. But what brings it down a huge notch is the whole “curing cancer” thing. She has two chances: one relating to an lost Chinese recipe that could supposedly cure it, which she tries to acquire in a past life and then bury so that people in the present can dig it up and synthesize it for a treatment; and the second was a promising cure from decades ago that was tragically lost in a lab fire. Alex manages to rescue the formula, it gets made, rushed as an experimental treatment, and wouldn’t you know it, it seems to work and her sister is saved!

It’s a wonderful fantasy, an amazing dream, but it was just done too neatly. How many times has history held the supposed cure for something and it’s turned out to be garbage? Sure, there’s evidence that some historical treatments for certain conditions may have worked, even if people then didn’t know why. But Alex gets ahold of a cure for a certain kind of cancer on her second attempt, it gets synthesized quickly, and then all early clinical trials and other procedures just get ignored because of plot convenience. And it works so quickly that improvement is almost immediate. It was trite, and it felt a lot like the author was trying to rush Alex’s happy ending because of the general expiration date that was on Alex herself. I’m not sure if there’ll be a third book in the series, but regardless, this one definitely had Second Book Syndrome, in where little happens that relevent to the overarching plot. I rather hope there is a third book, really, because as bittersweet a note as this was to end on, it just feels to saccharine to be a real ending, and it was lackluster compared to the book that came before it.

Throne of Glass, by Sarah J Maas
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: In a land without magic, where the king rules with an iron hand, an assassin is summoned to the castle. She comes not to kill the king, but to win her freedom. If she defeats twenty-three killers, thieves, and warriors in a competition, she is released from prison to serve as the king’s champion. Her name is Celaena Sardothien.

The Crown Prince will provoke her. The Captain of the Guard will protect her. But something evil dwells in the castle of glass–and it’s there to kill. When her competitors start dying one by one, Celaena’s fight for freedom becomes a fight for survival, and a desperate quest to root out the evil before it destroys her world.

Review: I’m going to start this off by saying that so far as I’m concerned, there’s really only one good thing about this book: that it’s a YA fantasy, which is far less common than YA sci-fi or YA urban fantasy. Other than that, I really cannot see, for the life of me, what all the hype is about.

Your main character is Celaena, an 18-year-old assassin who has been freed from her imprisonment at the salt mines and given the option to compete to become the King’s Champion. If she wins a competition against over a dozen others, she’ll have to serve a king she hates for 4 years, then will be given her freedom. Since that’s better than dying by inches in the mines, she takes the chance. Only all isn’t as it seems, because potential Champions keep dying horribly, and Celaena might be next on the list.

True to YA stereotypes, we have a love triangle in the mix. Celaena finds both the crown prince Dorian and Captain of the Guard Chaol to be attractive. They both like her. Dorian’s a bit of a womanizer, and Chaol has almost no personality to speak of, but hey, they’re both attractive, and they both feel protective of her, and that’s apparently enough. (Chaol is also a Captain of the Guard at age 20, has apparently never killed anyone before despite being a guard for a king who likes taking over entire nations by force, and no, the position is not ceremonial. Which makes me wonder how on earth he rose through the ranks to get it in the first place.)

I’m not sure how Celaena managed to become an assassin, either. More to the point, she’s apparently the best assassin around, a feared legend. Only we don’t see anything about how she managed that except by a bit of skill a certain weapons, and she certainly doesn’t have the mind for it. Not long after getting tested in identifying poisons (and discovering at the end of the test that the most deadly one there leaves no colour, taste, or smell), she discovers a bag of candy on her pillow, left as a gift by some unknown-at-the-time person, and her first reaction is to literally shove a handful in her mouth.

Though in fairness, that might have actually be the author forgetting about the poison test to begin with. It wouldn’t be the first time something was established and then utterly ignored. Celaena adjusts the hinges on her door so that they squeak whenever it’s opened, and yet at least half a dozen times somebody enters her room completely silently and scares her with their presence. It felt a lot like the author wanted to establish Celaena’s level of care and concern for her own safety, habits drilled into her over the years, and then forgot that such a subtle and appropriate line was ever even written.

To her credit, Maas does do some things right. Mention is made of how prolonged starvation and weight loss can cause a woman to stop menstruating. How you can’t be starved and then eat a lot without horrible stomach/gut problems. Good stuff to put in. Celaena’s sympathy and guilt when she sees slaves, since she spent a year being a slave herself and now is living in a palace. But the longer the book went on, the less that level of detail existed. Fine detail was abandoned for broad strokes. It was an okay book, but it had plenty of problems, and it for me, it really wasn’t the wonderful epic YA fantasy that I’ve seen people declaring it to be. It has potential, to be sure, but really, if I weren’t reading the series as a discussion piece with a friend, I probably wouldn’t be interested enough to keep going.

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