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.)

Closer to the Heart, by Mercedes Lackey

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2015

Summary: Herald Mags, Valdemar’s first official Herald Spy, is well on his way to establishing a coterie of young informants, not only on the streets of Haven, but in the kitchens and Great Halls of the highborn and wealthy as well.

The newly appointed King’s Own Herald, Amily, although still unsure of her own capability in that office, is doing fine work to support the efforts of Mags, her betrothed. She has even found a way to build an army of informants herself, a group of highly trained but impoverished young noblewomen groomed to serve the highborn ladies who live at Court, to be called “The Queens’s Handmaidens.”

And King Kyril has come up with the grand plan of turning Mags and Amily’s wedding into a low-key diplomatic event that will simultaneously entertain everyone on the Hill and allow him to negotiate behind the scenes with all the attending ambassadors―something which had not been possible at his son Prince Sedric’s wedding.

What could possibly go wrong?

The answer, of course, is “everything.”

For all is not well in the neighboring Kingdom of Menmellith. The new king is a child, and a pretender to the throne has raised a rebel army. And this army is―purportedly―being supplied with arms by Valdemar. The Menmellith Regency Council threatens war. With the help of a ragtag band of their unlikely associates, Mags and Amily will have to determine the real culprit, amass the evidence to convince the Council, and prevent a war nobody wants―

―and, somewhere along the way, get married.

Review: Stories about Mags seem to be Mercedes Lackey’s current passion when it comes to Valdemar, as there are currently two series involving this character in a central role. I don’t think any other character of hers can claim an equal amount of time in the spotlight, and previously, starting a new series in the Valdemar timeline, even if familiar characters were involved, typically switched to a new primary character or characters. I think the only other character who could come close to claiming that would be  The Herald Spy series in general offers a bit of a break from that tradition.

Which is fine enough, since Mags finds himself tangled up in numerous kingdom-changing issues. But for my part, I find Mags one of the least interesting Heralds to read about. Much of what he does seems small in comparison to things done by other characters in other novels. Vanyel was the most powerful and last Herald-Mage for a long time in Valdemar. Elspeth was central in bringing magic back to Valdemar. Even Karal, who mostly got caught up in events bigger than himself, was instrumental in saving the world from the backlash of a historical magical apocalypse. Mags? I think so far his biggest claim to fame is all in the title of the series: he’s a spy. He works in secret to uncover events and does his job in stopping enemies to the Crown.

Maybe this is what Lackey meant all those years ago when she said she’d someday write stories about a more typical Herald, one less involved with giant world-changing things.

Closer to the Heart is told from both Mags’s and Amily’s viewpoints. Amily, being King’s Own, is heavily involved with court intrigue, whereas Mags does his part to don disguises and ferret out wrongdoing in other parts of Haven. When word reaches them that a rebel force in a neighbouring kingdom is acquiring and stockpiling Valdemaran weapons somehow, it’s up to them to uncover the truth behind the plot. And that involves confronting some painful memories for Mags, as the mystery takes him back to the heart of mining country, where he was once enslaved.

That’s the meat of the plot. There are definitely side plots, as are typical in Valdemar stories, and mostly they consist of the little ways that Amily and Mags seek to make initiatives that can improve lives for people. Mags has his group of messengers that report anything odd to him, and makes connections with a neuroatypical man who has the uncanny ability to make anything. Amily gets involved in a program to train overlooked and underappreciated women as handmaidens, so that they’re offered opportunity for advancement and are also well-placed to be eyes-and-ears for additional wrongdoings amongst the nobility. Little steps toward social improvement, which are great, though I can only assume that at least whatever Amily set up with her handmaiden project doesn’t pan out in the long-run, because this is something that’s never mentioned in any form during books that take place further along on the Valdemar timeline.

All of this sounds like an interesting story with plenty of social commentary and the notion of small ideas that, with proper support, can change lives for the better. And on its own, this would be a pretty good book. Nothing amazing, but still enjoyable, the kind of book that makes for good comfort reading.

But this is the second book in the series that feels like a one-shot rather than a piece of something larger. In the first book, Amily and Mags foil a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque plot that could have resulted in noble families warring or else being utterly destroyed. In this book, they foil a plot that might have seen Valdemar and Menmellith go to war over someone’s dislike of a political situation. And that’s it. Unlike the first series starring Mags, where each book generally told a contained story and yet contained hints of a larger overarching story to come, the Herald Spy series has so far just been a couple of self-contained stories with no connection to each other beyond characters and linear sequence. There’s nothing to tie them together. There’s no hint that Amily and Mags are part of anything larger than any other Herald, which begs the question of why are we reading about them? Yes, Heralds do wonderful things and, for many readers, have an element of wish fulfillment (I’m sure most Valdemar fans have contemplated being Heralds at some point), but there’s nothing here that’s made me go, “Ah, yes, this is why we’re reading about these two instead of, say, Jakyr or Lena or even Dia.” Who are all doing their own important things too.

I’ll be honest; while I enjoyed this book as I was reading it, and felt the usual comfort I get from diving back into Valdemar, a mere two weeks after finishing it, I couldn’t remember what happened. I had no touchpoint. I couldn’t think of what happened in Closer to Home and remind myself that the story established there continued on. And that’s its biggest downfall. Closer to the Heart is adrift, with no plot connections to tie it to anything else that’s happened previously. It doesn’t feel like part of an actual series. On its own, taken as a one-shot that happens after the Collegium Chronicles, it would be a pretty good and enjoyable story, because you don’t expect it to tie into anything else. But in context, knowing that it’s part of a series, it comes across poorly, with no central plot arc to bring it all together, and I’m left mostly with the impression that Mags’s story would probably have been best ended after the final book in the Collegium Chronicles.

I hate to have such a mixed opinion of a Valdemar novel. They’ve brought me so much comfort and enjoyment through my life, and even now I’ll still reread trilogies I’ve already read a dozen times over, because I enjoy them that much. I like many of the themes the books address, like social justice, optimism, the ideal that those who have authority over us are held to higher standards. Those things will always appeal to me, even in my darkest times, because they give me hope that great things can arise from the darkness and then thrive. But I’m starting to feel burned out on Valdemar, because the past few books have offered me very little in that regard. The elements are still there, but it feels more superficial, like there isn’t really a story that needs to be told anymore. I’m not going to say it’s just a cash-grab, because maybe the sequel to this book will surprise me by being a masterful showpiece of how disparate story elements can come together if you’re patient, but even so, a multi-book slow burn is a lot to ask of readers, and the books about Mags have held none of the excitement I came to expect from the Valdemar novels over the years. Not since Foundation, anyway.

You can argue that this series is all about personal growth, but really, other characters in other series manage personal growth just fine, and they do so while being part of a larger story. Also, you don’t see much personal growth from them. You see social development and the implementation of ideas more than you see any development in either Mags or Amily’s characters.

In the end, I’m of the opinion that Closer to the Heart is okay, but don’t expect much from it. It’s got a message of hope to it, and it’s interesting to see Mags confront the idea that a mining community can be anything but what he experienced of it, but it’s a story best appreciated for its surface elements and not for what you may hope lies underneath. And also best taken out of context and respected for being the one-shot it really is, rather than part of a series.

SPFBO Review: The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2015

Summary: LIVE IN THE SADDLE. DIE ON THE HOG. Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs. Jackal rides with the Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of the Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called the Claymaster. Supporting Jackal’s dangerous bid for leadership are Oats, a hulking mongrel with more orc than human blood, and Fetching, the only female rider in all the hoofs. When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances. With the anarchic blood rite of the Betrayer Moon close at hand, Jackal must decide where his loyalties truly lie, and carve out his place in a world that rewards only the vicious.

Review: Every once in a while, you come across something that makes you sit up and take notice. You read a book and make a mental note that the book’s author is one to keep an eye on. Jonathan French is one such author, after having read The Grey Bastards.

Take a band of half-orcs, people typically born of interspecies rape, and give them a hard land that nobody else really seems to want. Tell them that they’re the only things stopping a second war between orcs and humans. Have then breed and ride very large boars as their mounts. Then throw in an idealistic young half-orc named Jackal who sees that his leader is making strange and unwise decisions, especially after a mysterious wizard arrives, and you get a story of action and intrigue that had me turning pages long past the time I should realistically have gone to sleep some nights.

It’s not a comfortable world that French sets up in The Grey Bastards. It’s full of violence, racial conflict, and if men treating women with anything but respect is something that rankles you, then you’re going to find a lot to dislike here. Women are often treated like walking genitalia, good for nothing but keeping a man’s sexual urges satisfied. Most of the female characters here are whores, with two exceptions: Fetching, a female half-orc who earned her place in an all-male band of fighters by not taking crap from anyone and giving as good as she got; and an elf named Starling, who says nothing in an intelligible language and doesn’t actually do much related to the plot. It’s probably not a book that will rate highly on the lists of those looking for books that feature equality between the sexes.

And I’m often pretty sensitive to that when it crops up in books. But for all that, I found myself really enjoying The Grey Bastards, even when some of the story (or rather, what some of the characters did and said) made me uncomfortable.

The story we get to see is from Jackal’s perspective, a half-orc who has ambitions of leadership but who doesn’t dare challenge the current leader, known as the Claymaster. That is, until the Claymaster starts making some very questionable decisions, and Jackal wonders if the old man is past his prime as is actually more of a danger to his people than a good leader. A newly-arrived wizard seems charming enough at first, but then begins having far too much influence over the Claymaster. Plans fall apart, they go nowhere, and Jackal decides it’s high time he challenged the Claymaster for leadership after all.

And here’s the fun thing about The Grey Bastards. Every time I thought an event would have a particular conclusion, it didn’t. I expected that challenge to go a certain way, and it didn’t. I expected a big reveal about a certain character, and it was about someone else. And those things made perfect sense in context; they didn’t seem designed to make a reader think one thing would happen while the author secretly mocks them for being unimaginative. French’s storytelling made everything flow well, with surprised working as well for the characters as they worked for the reader. It all kept me on my toes, and was a big reason I kept reading. I wanted to see what I’d be surprised by next, what expectations would be broken, and where the story would ultimately lead. The brutal world that French created had a certain charm to it, partly because while the Lot Lands of Jackal’s home are admittedly a wasteland between a rock and a hard place, Jackal loves them and is loyal to their defense and it’s hard to not let some of that rub off on you. You may not like the world or what kind of people it has helped to shape, but you can’t ignore that Jackal’s sentiments about it all have an effect as the story progresses.

The Grey Bastards put me in mind of something that Jeff Salyards might have written. The banter between characters is similar, full of crude camaraderie and foul-mouthed exclamations. The balance of idealism and experience is there, alongside the whole “things are far more complicated than they seem and you don’t know everything about everything” that I’ve seen in Salyards’s writing too. And my reaction to the works were so similar, making me think that while both Salyards and French are writing about things that you’d think wouldn’t appeal to me, given my other taste in novels, in the end I was surprised and impressed by just how much I’d enjoyed the stories contained within the pages.

So on that note, I can say that if you’ve read Salyards (or other authors like him) and enjoyed those books, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy French’s The Grey Bastards too. It’s a wild ride on the hog, filled with brutality, battle, and bravery. It’s coarse and crass and also loveable, and after this, I have high hopes for what French might do in the future. This was an excellent introduction to his work, and I’m pleased to have gotten it as part of my SPFBO book package. It’s a fine example of why you shouldn’t underestimate self-published authors or write them off as “not good enough;” The Grey Bastards is the kind of novel you dream of finding when you’re looking for underappreciated and worthy works.

SPFBO Review: Thread Slivers, by Leeland Artra

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – May 25, 2015

Summary: She craves fame. He wants freedom. When their worlds crumble, even survival may not be an option.

The world is driven by wizards, gods, and an imperial space marine 20,000 years into our future. Fame-hungry female mercenary Ticca is willing to skirt the edges of her warrior’s code if it brings her the fame she desires. Her hopes of making a name for herself by spying on assassins are dashed when she’s forced to kill the assassin she was hired to watch.

Lebuin is a rich journeyman mage who’s just discovered his new rank involves actual journeying. He hires Ticca to help him advance to master and return to a life of comfort as quickly as possible. He’s willing to spend all he has to make it happen, but the mage and his mercenary get much more than they bargained for.

Trapped in the crossfire of a vast power game, Ticca and Lebuin must survive a battle between rulers, guilds, and gods. In a land of magic and technology, they’ll need to give everything to keep the world and themselves in one piece.

Thread Slivers is the first book in an epic fantasy/speculative sci-fi trilogy set in a distant future. If you like heroic, humorous, and exotic characters in a world that mixes elements of paranormal and hard sci-fi, then you’ll love this beautiful, original, and thought-provoking adventure.

Review: Ticca is a mercenary who wants to make a name for herself. Lebuin is a sheltered mage who finds himself targeted by people who want him gone. The two are thrown together, trying to uncover why a powerful mage was murdered and what secrets they both carry, all while trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous people who follow them. Meanwhile, Duke, a powerful… werewolf-type person, has his own plans for the world, plans that involve taking down the reigning Princes and bringing back the history he once lived.

Thread Slivers is a complex story, or rather a complex mix of stories that all tie together in various ways. A good story should have more to it than just a straightforward and uncomplicated A-to-B plotline. And when it does all come together, it’s rather satisfying to see the way all the stories intertwine and become more cohesive. But I have to admit, at first, it didn’t seem like there was much cohesion at all. We start off from Ticca’s perspective, then later switch to Lebuin’s, and they’re the focus of the story for a while. Until other characters start coming in, and sections are chapters are told from their points of view, and I spent a good chunk of the book wondering who most of them were and why I ought to be interested in them, because their aspects of the story seemed almost incidental compared to what Ticca and Lebuin were focusing on.

But that isn’t to say those viewpoints served no purpose. They do. Without them, so many events and revelations would come from nowhere, and the story would come across like a big mess with poor planning. And that was, thankfully, avoided. But even so, it sometimes took long enough for it to become clear that the viewpoints were serving a greater purpose than just adding detail and flavour to the story, so I found myself often wishing that I could just get back to the main arc.

Especially because so many characters often engaged in monologues, both internal and external. Makes for tough reading sometimes, when you see it from every character you encounter.

But once you settle in for a slow build-up, Thread Slivers does end up pretty satisfying. It’s the kind of book that demands you put your expectations aside before you get going, I think, in part because while this appears at first to be secondary-world fantasy, it’s actually far-future fantasy, that kind of uncommon fantasy novel that takes place many centuries from now, a possibility of what may. But without knowing that in advance, some aspects of the novel seem a little sloppy, such as people saying Latin phrases. I admit I raised an eyebrow when a character said, “Semper fi,” because, similar to my reaction to Shakespeare being mentioned in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, I had to wonder what a thing specifically from this world and its history was doing so incongruously in a fantasy novel. It can take a reader by surprise, and the surprise isn’t always a pleasant one.

That’s something that strikes me more than it strikes most others, though, I think. For other readers, this mention may just be glossed over and won’t be thought of again. They jump out at me, however, and I had to take a step back to look over the book’s summary to see that it is indeed meant to be that way, the world is meant to be a far-future one, and it wasn’t just an unthinking oversight on the author’s part.

Thread Slivers is an interesting fantasy novel, once you get into it. It takes a long time to really get going (the first half of the book felt like little more than set-up for when the story actually began), but the characters are interesting and rather varied, and Artra’s writing style flows well. There was clearly plenty of planning and detail that went into the creation of this world, and it pays off in the end. Not one to go into if you’re looking for something light and quick, but if you’re into books that slowly sink their hooks into you, then this is one you ought to check out.

The SFF Divide: On the Assumed Validity of Science Fiction Over Fantasy

Listening to other people talk can teach you a lot.

Not only lately, I’ve been hearing more people talk about women in SFF, examining their role and place, the biases against them, the opinions of them, and so on. My reaction to this varies between, “Nothing new here,” and, “It’s about time more people talked about this,” depending on my mood, but something was recently brought up that tangentially made me think about the views of sci-fi and fantasy as genres themselves, and the perceptions thereof.

In Bronwyn Lovell’s article, Science Fiction’s Women Problem, she says the following:

There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction.

Which is absolutely worth paying attention to for the issues it brings up about gender, and I in no way want to sideline that conversation. I mention it as context for my thought process, the jumping-off point from which my brain went, “Hang on a second, there’s something else here that I want to think about too.”

It relates back to something an old friend of mine once said. She strongly disliked fantasy as a genre, because, in her mind, there were no rules. In fantasy, magic could just do anything. No rules, no consequences. No realism. It didn’t make sense. So she didn’t like it, because fantasy, by its very nature, was not grounded in reality.

And sure, some fantasy is like that. But in fairness, it tends to be poorly-written fantasy that falls into the category of, “Screw the rules, I have magic.” Not all fantasy even has magic: I’ve read more than a few novels that may as well been classed as historical fiction for all they involved magic and monsters (that is to say, not at all), and all that really placed them in the fantasy genre was that they take place in a secondary-world.

But Lovell does have a point that science fiction tends to viewed as superior because it’s supposedly grounded in fact, whereas fantasy can just spring from the fevered imagination of some nobody who doesn’t have to know anything about how things work because magic can take care of all that. Fantasy is seen as softer. Science fiction? Well, that involves science, which involves intelligence and understanding and curiosity, not just making things up at random.

Only that’s a huge problem of assumption. And not just because some fantasy novels don’t employ Magical McGuffins.

The way I see it, it boils down to the preconception that science fiction is more intelligent and thus superior because it involves science. Even if it involves science that doesn’t make sense. The assumption that most readers make, even unconsciously, is that if there’s technology involved that works even when our current understanding says it shouldn’t, that in the future we just figure out new ways of making it work. We bridge the mental gap because we assume that technology = science = always correct according to the laws of the universe.

We don’t give magic the same benefit. Even if it accomplishes the same thing. A teleportation spell will always be less realistic than a Star Trek-esque teleporter, because the world we know doesn’t have that kind of magic in it and probably never will. It may eventually have that kind of technology, and so that possibility makes it, to the minds of many, more grounded in reality.

But none of that erases the way fantasy is devalued. All that does is point out our flaws of assumption when it comes to science fiction. What about the science of fantasy?

First, we’re going to have to look at the definition of science:

a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general law; systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation; skill, especially reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency; knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

That’s according to dictionary.com, which works as well as any dead-tree dictionary I could pull from my bookshelf.

So what prevents that definition from being applied to fantasy?

Absolutely nothing.

As many fantasy writers have demonstrated.

Again, it comes back to assumptions. Science is organized, and magic (and therefore all of fantasy) is chaotic. Uncontrolled, random, imprecise, because it’s nothing we can measure and confirm. But we can’t confirm and measure that future-tech teleporter, either, so that bias must get thrown out the window or else we must admit hypocrisy.

Let’s say you have a secondary world where people can do magic and accomplish great feats such as healing the sick or making rocks float or conjure invisible protective shields to save them from an assassin’s thrown dagger. Throw in a unicorn or two, for good measure, and a dragon, because everybody loves dragons. Typical fantasy fare.

Now let’s say that magic has been used on this world for the whole of recorded history, and people past and present have devoted time and effort to figuring out how it all works. They know magic’s limitations, they know its side-effects, they know what it can and can’t do.

Is that unscientific just because they don’t know that magic can light a candle by agitating the molecules in a certain area to create heat, thus igniting the candle’s wick?

Looking at our own scientific history, it’s easy to think, without really thinking, that anyone who hasn’t reached the conclusions we reached is ignorant, or undeveloped. But by the definition of science, it’s still scientific in nature for monkeys to know what plants make them sick after seeing other monkeys get sick from eating them. Observation and experimentation.

We too often conflate science with technology. Advanced technology, at that; looms used to weave cloth are technology, machines based upon scientific principles. Hell, Jacquard looms are basically some of the first computers, using punchcards to create patterns on a power loom (yes, the same kind of punchcard that used to be used in computer programming even in the 1980s). Jacquard looms were invented in 1801, back when science still considered disease to be caused by “bad air.” But often when we think of computer science, we don’t start that far back, and especially with textiles now being considered a typically “womanly” think to be concerned with, it seems almost uncomfortable to think that early computer technology was just being used to quickly weave the cloth for pretty clothes.

But science is so much more than calculators and rocket ships. Look at Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which deals with the biology of dragons. And I’ve read hard scifi that involves vampires who react badly to crosses. Having vampires in it didn’t make it less science fiction, nor any of the science it used less credible, but if we’re judging based solely on common content

Sometimes it’s the exceptions that prove the bias.

I’ve noticed increasingly that “speculative fiction” is coming into its own as a category that seems in many ways to blend the two aspects of science and magic (or the supernatural, as we define it). If a book takes place in the future of this world, for instance, and involves magic or something similar to it, then it’s often classed as speculative fiction, that umbrella term for “what if” stories that don’t seem to fit into either science fiction or fantasy. It’s not science fiction, even if there’s technology more advanced than what we have now, because it doesn’t fit some classic sci-fi tropes, but neither is it fantasy, because it takes place in this world and doesn’t deal with either the present or the past.

(Which is another indicator I’ve noticed, actually. Sci-fi almost exclusively deals with the future, whereas something under the fantasy umbrella, if it occurs in this world, takes place either very recently or else in the past. There’s almost no historical sci-fi. There’s very little post-apocalyptic fantasy unless the technological advances in history were made by some very-long-ago civilization and nobody understand anything about it anymore. When something crosses those lines, it tends to be notable.)

But speculative fiction as a genre name sounds far more credible than fantasy. It sounds like somebody’s asking hard questions about what is, or what could be, in a way that we assume fantasy never even contemplates. It sounds more intellectual, and is more likely to be taken seriously. Not quite as seriously as science fiction, because it’s softer and more human and less sterile, but definitely more serious than fantasy.

But we might not even need such a category if we didn’t tend to dismiss the importance of fantasy as a genre quite so much. Fantasy might not have robots in it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tackle difficult topics. Is deconstructing racism more hard-hitting if it involves lizard-like people from another planet instead of lizard-like people from an island 200 miles off the south coast of Fantasia?

If life lessons are only worth learning now when robots are involved, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Magic can have clear rules and definitions. It is not by default some unscientific thing, so long as it’s approached scientifically. The technology in science fiction can come as much from a writer’s desire for convenience as any enchanted amulet. Science fiction and fantasy both have a number of interesting things to say, wonderful stories to tell; the same faults can be found spanning both. And it’s entirely unfair to dismiss one genre as superior to the other because of our strange assumptions about what science actually is.