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.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2016

Summary: My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. But we’ve met before-a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of a girl no one remembers, yet her story will stay with you forever.

Review: Claire North writes some amazing genre-defying books. They seem to exist in that small range that can only really be called “speculative.” It’s not really sci-fi, it’s not really urban fantasy, it’s not really anything other than some amazingly-written “what if” stories that always engage me and get me thinking about things differently.

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, we see through the eyes of Hope Arden, a woman who, for some reason, can’t be remembered. Once she’s out of sight, your brain will just filter her out, leaving you with the impression that you ate dinner alone, didn’t meet a fascinating person, just generally went on with life without interacting with anyone. A few moments and gone are your memories of her.

Which is why she’s such an excellent thief.

But Hope gets in a little over her head when she encounters Perfection, an app that transforms lives by incentivizing socially-approved improvements. Link your bank account so the app knows you’re only purchasing vegan non-GMO food? Have 5000 points! Get a nose job so you look more attractive? Here’s a coupon for an hour at the spa! But Perfection is insidious, and Hope’s interest is sparked after it contributes to the death of someone she knew. She goes on a mission to steal the information and coding behind Perfection, to unravel its secrets, and in so doing, unleashes something terrifying and deadly against the app’s most successful users.

If you’re not a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing, then there’ll be a lot about this book that doesn’t appeal to you. We’re seeing it all from Hope’s perspective, not so much sitting on her shoulders and being inside her head, privy to her thoughts, and, as thoughts sometimes get, things aren’t always coherent. Stops and starts, run-on sentences, inappropriate humour and random song lyrics, the rules of punctuation flying right out the window at times. And it’s intentional. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of thought, especially when someone’s frantic or stressed. Personally, I’m a fan of it. It’s refreshing, especially after seeing so many first-person POV stories where characters notice too much random detail or think extremely coherently, which makes for a very clear mental picture for the reader, but never actually reads as if it’s all coming from insider someone’s head as it all happens. This stylistic choice may not appeal to everyone, but it definitely appeals to me.

North has superb ability to write a complex story with brilliant realistic characters who exist outside the mainstream for various reasons. When she wasn’t tackling different kinds of immortality in Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, here she’s writing about not only someone who’s not only an accomplished thief, but someone who by definition cannot exist within the mainstream when nobody ever remembers her. She goes into detail about the trouble this causes, from not getting service at a restaurant to not getting care at a hospital, to the constant loneliness caused by not being able to make friends or by having your own family forget you were ever part of them. Her story is heartbreaking, and her fire understandable. You may not always agree with her actions, but you can always see the motivation behind them.

This is an amazing book, and in the manner of amazing book, it’s incredibly difficult to unpack. You’ve got themes of social engineering, racism, sexism, loss, suicide, risk-vs-gain, what people will do to survive, economic class struggles and the opportunity for advancement, whether it’s right to encourage people toward a damaging ideal even if they want to be that damaged… There’s a lot here about taking life into your own hands, for good or for ill, and it presents no clear side as unambiguously right or wrong. Morality wars with survival, advancement wars with acceptance, with all sides of the arguments having their pros and cons. North presents some interesting debates here, and over and over again I see it comes back to limits. What’s the limit on what somebody should do to further their goals? Where do the lines get drawn?

Also interesting is that The Sudden Appearance of Hope doesn’t really get a resolution at the end. You see the end of Byron’s story more than you see the end of Hope’s. Hope ultimately doesn’t get what she wanted, and goes through hell in the process. It’s less the story of Hope and more the story of how Hope participated in the destruction of a problematic app and social movement. Less her story and more her part in something else’s story. Which is an uncommon approach to take, I think, but for my part, I think it worked well. Even if it left me feeling horrible for Hope in the end.

North tells the story well, captivates the reader and draws them in with vivid details and fascinating realistic characters. It’s the kind of story that gets under your skin and forces a perspective shift, forces you to confront uncomfortable issues and face down the things you take for granted, pushing you outside your comfort zone. It’s a story that stays with you long past the final page, keeping you asking questios and reconsidering what you once thought. It’s a book that, similar to North’s other novels, defies categorization, with the exception of being firmly in the You Should Read This, It’s Good category. It’s uncommon, special, and very much worth the time and effort you put into it. My hat’s off to Claire North once again for telling so poignant a story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 2, 2016

Summary: In this emotionally gripping, genre-defying novella from Sarah Pinborough, a woman sits at her father’s bedside, watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters–she is the middle child of five–have all turned up over the past week to pay their last respects. Each is traumatized in his or her own way, and the bonds that unite them to each other are fragile–as fragile perhaps as the old man’s health.

With her siblings all gone, back to their self-obsessed lives, she is now alone with the faltering wreck of her father’s cancer-ridden body. It is always at times like this when it–the dark and nameless, the impossible, presence that lingers along the fringes of the dark fields beyond the house–comes calling.

As the clock ticks away in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her, a reunion she both dreads and aches for…

Review: For being such a short book, The Language of Dying is impressively hard to review, especially from an SFF standpoint, since the fantastical elements are rather vague and may in fact not even be real. It reminded me very much of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, in the way that both involve characters coping with impending death, and both also ripped me to emotional shreds.

Her siblings are coming together to be with their father during his last days. The family is broken, breaking further, and all of them have problems of their own to deal with, but they come. And in times of grief, like this one, like times before, the protagonist of the novella finds herself staring out windows, drifting off, waiting for the return of the thing she saw as a child, the dark unicorn-like thing that calls to her.

I mentioned earlier that this novella is short, a hair over 100 pages, and it’s impressive that Pinborough can tell so poignant a story in so little space. Not a word is wasted; you feel the weight of everything as the protagonist struggles with caring for her father, reuniting with her siblings, reflecting on her own traumatic past. Dealing with the guilt of wishing the pain was over for everyone, wishing her father’s life would end so that the healing could begin, while also hating that he’s dying and will soon leave everyone behind. Anyone who has been there for the death of someone or something you’re close to understands this, though we don’t often talk about it, and seeing it addressed so openly was, honestly, a bit of a relief. But it was also part of the gut-punch that The Language of Dying delivers. It forces the reader to confront the unpleasant realities of watching and waiting for someone to die, the internal and external struggles. It’s not an easy read. It isn’t meant to be comforting.

There are elements of fantasy to this book, though they’re extremely downplayed. The story isn’t about a woman who sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. It’s about a woman whose father is dying. And incidentally, also sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. To say this book is primarily fantasy is like saying that this review blog is actually a cat blog because I mentioned a few times that I have cats. It’s an element, but it’s not the primary focus. And it’s not entirely clear if the creature is real or whether it’s the product of combining imagination with grief. It’s left vague, open to some interpretation, and it works well. It means the novella is hard to categorize into a particular genre, but some stories defy those boundaries, breaking out to tell a story that can appeal to different people for different reasons.

The Language of Dying needs to be read. It’s powerful and evocative, it’s brutal and honest, it’s painful and cathartic. It’s so much story in so few words, and it’s the sort of story that stays with you long past the final word. It seeps into you and alters you, and whether you read it for the speculative elements or because you’re looking for literature that deals with death, you should still read it. It’s one of those rare books that’s an experience more than anything else, difficult to properly describe, but I can imagine the knowing nods that pass between people who have read it. For some experiences, no words are really needed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

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.

 

Certain Dark Things, by Silvia Morena-Garcia

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 25, 2016

Summary: Welcome to Mexico City… An Oasis In A Sea Of Vampires…

Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is busy eeking out a living when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life.

Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, must feast on the young to survive and Domingo looks especially tasty. Smart, beautiful, and dangerous, Atl needs to escape to South America, far from the rival narco-vampire clan pursuing her. Domingo is smitten.

Her plan doesn’t include developing any real attachment to Domingo. Hell, the only living creature she loves is her trusty Doberman. Little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his effervescent charm.

And then there’s Ana, a cop who suddenly finds herself following a trail of corpses and winds up smack in the middle of vampire gang rivalries.

Vampires, humans, cops, and gangsters collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive?

Review: I like vampires. I’ve had a weird obsession with them since I was around 7 years old. But I don’t like a lot of vampire fiction that I’ve encountered recently, because so much of it follows the same paranormal-romance formula, or else portrays vampires in a way that just really doesn’t work with what I want to read. It’s a matter of personal taste, obviously, because what doesn’t work for me apparently works wonders for hundreds of others, but it does mean that I tend to get quickly burned out on vampire fiction when I dare to pick up a new novel.

However, Certain Dark Things was an incredible and refreshing surprise, showing me uncommon aspects of vampire lore across different cultures and presenting blood-drinkers as more than just dark tortured broody souls waiting for a vivacious woman to show them how wonderful unlife can be when they’re not spending it alone. The different vampires in Moreno-Garcia’s novel are reminiscent of ones from White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade, at least in the sense of  having different clans and offshoots, each with different abilities, weaknesses, strengths, and heritage. And that, to me, made them seem real, well-established, like I could be looking into a hidden part of the real world because culture matters and myths matter and honestly, taking into account that so many cultures have vampiric legends in them just makes sense. It gives you a solid foundation to build upon, and weirdly works to give mostly-Western audiences something they may not have even encountered before, making them old look new and fresh.

Though the book has multiple different viewpoints, the story is primarily about Atl, a vampire with Aztec heritage, who is on the run after her family was murdered. She encounters Domingo, who becomes enamoured of her, and wants to help her despite the danger this puts him in. Chasing Atl is Nick, member of the clan that killed Atl’s family, out to finish the job and torture Atl just for kicks. On the other side is Ana, a cop trying to stand against the corruption in the system, trying to keep her city clear of the vampires who have raised their heads, and falling in with gangs in order to do it. But for all the different characters, everything swirls around and centres on Atl; it’s all about her. Domingo’s fixation on her, Rodrigo’s attempt to track her down, Nick’s violent obsession, Ana’s attempts to find both her and Nick before more damage can be done. It wasn’t merely a case of converging storylines; without Atl, there would be no story.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. For all that the story spins itself out around Atl, the other characters who take the spotlight feel fully realized, capable of carrying on their own stories even if Atl’s wasn’t the focus. Ana’s story of trying to keep her cool on a police force full of people who don’t take her seriously, trying to raise her daughter to have options and opportunities in life even when Ana herself has to go without, would be a compelling enough story even if you didn’t bring vampires into it. Ditto for Domingo; he felt like a real person, with passions and interests and problems beyond just what you see for the brief time during which the book takes place. You read Certain Dark Things and you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into the lives of real people who go beyond the book’s pages, and they suck you in and keep a tight hold on you as their stories unfold.

I could read books like this forever. In fact, reading Certain Dark Things has made me want to track down more of Moreno-Garcia’s writing so that I can wrap myself in that evocative prose again. She weaves a wonderful story, full of rich detail and incredible characters that you want to read about even if you hate. I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not reading her work sooner.

This book made me love vampires again. And that’s no small feat given that I’ve become so jaded in recent years, more than half convinced that I’d never find vampire stories that appealed to me ever again. But here it is in all its dark violent glory, exactly what I’d been craving for so long. It took me to new locales and let me look into a culture I’ve only ever really seen in travel guides, dropped me right into the streets and let me look at the good and the bad in equal measure. Certain Dark Things pressed all the right buttons for me, and I know it’ll be one that I read again, whenever I need to refresh my lifelong love of bloodsucking fiends. If you’re a fan of vampires, or just enjoy different perspectives on common themes, or hell, if you just love some dark gritty fiction that happens to involve the undead, then you need to read this book. You won’t regret it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: Paternus, by Dyrk Ashton

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Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 24, 2016

Summary: Gods, monsters, angels, devils. Call them what you like. They exist. The epic battles between titans, giants, and gods, heaven and hell, the forces of light and darkness. They happened. And the war isn’t over.

17 year old Fi Patterson lives with her stuffy English uncle and has an internship at a local hospital for the aged. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, misses her dead mother, wonders about the father she never knew. One bright spot is caring for Peter, a dementia-ridden old man whose faraway smile can make her whole day. And there’s her conflicted attraction to Zeke — awkward, brilliant, talented — who plays guitar for the old folks. Then a group of very strange and frightening men show up for a “visit”…

Fi and Zeke’s worlds are shattered as their typical everyday concerns are suddenly replaced by the immediate need to stay alive — and they try to come to grips with the unimaginable reality of the Firstborn.

“Keep an open mind. And forget everything you know…”

Review: Paternus has so many elements that I enjoy, particularly my love of stories that involve deities all over the place. No idea why that’s a thing I enjoy, but it is. And if you’re like me in that regard, well, you’ll probably have a grand old time with Paternus, because it has a mess of deities and mythology-mixing all over the place. It plays fast and loose with myths from many regions and religions, and what first looked like a complicated mess slowly ordered itself into a impressive array of twists that actually made sense.

And when you consider the scale of some of the things Paternus deals with, that’s something worth mentioning.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. The story primarily centres around Fi, a young woman working at a hospital, who seems to have a particular bond with a patient named Peter, who doesn’t really react to anyone except her. Life seems relatively normal, until the hospital is attacked by a group of extremely violent people — who are not exactly human — who are after Peter. Fi and Zeke (the guy Fi has a crush on) flee the hospital with Peter, who slowly seems to be coming to his senses and reacting to things around him, and the three of them have to stay alive long enough to figure out just what it is their pursuers want. Mixed in are chapters told from the perspective of gods or mythological figures, such as Tanuki, who see signs that the excrement if about to hit the rotating blades very soon, in what could be an epic battle of gods.

If that description thrills you, I can’t blame you. It was actually a bit difficult to come up with a brief teaser like that without spoiling a fair bit of what gets revealed in the book’s pages. Ashton juggles a lot of very complicated elements and brings them together into a seamless whole by the end, and what starts off as a chaotic beginning that throws you right into the deep end makes a whole lot more sense by the time you reach the final chapters. In that regard, it’s a book with decent re-read value. It would be good to go back and read it again with the knowledge I have now, to see which aspects make more sense now that I fully understand what’s happening. I have to give Ashton credit where credit is due; that’s not an easy thing to accomplish, and I think it was done quite well.

Many of the problems I have with this book occur early on, and they’re small things, but they’re things that wouldn’t stop nagging at me. There are two that spring instantly to mind. 1) Fi’s gay coworker, who embodies gay stereotypes in an uncomfortable way, talking constantly about sex and being gossipy and hitting on every attractive guy and actually saying, “Ew,” multiple times during a conversation — which he himself started — in which breasts were mentioned. Given that he was the only explicitly gay character, this portrayal was awkward and uncomfortable to read. 2) The mention that Edgar, Fi’s prim-and-proper British uncle, pronounces potato as po-tah-to. In the “proper English manner.” I seriously kept waiting for the reveal that Edgar was just trolling Fi over that word, because seriously, no British person I have ever encountered pronounces it that way. And I am British. The whole “toMAYto/toMAHto poTAYto/poTAHto” thing is not meant to be taken as a serious representation of the differences between North American and British English.

See? Small things, none of which are particular relevant to the story, but they bugged me. I can’t say for certain, but to me they felt like Ashton was trying to write elements he wasn’t entirely familiar with, and they didn’t work well. Which is surprising because that goes against the sheer level of detail that goes into the rest of the work. Maybe that’s why those small things felt so jarring to me. They seemed out of place, and had greater impact due to context.

I also felt confused by the early presence of chapters talking about what was happening with other gods. Some made sense, and get revisited as the story goes on. The stuff with Tanuki and Arges, though? Gets a few chapters early on (usually during those chapters I was far more interested in getting back to what Fi was up to), and then dropped like a hot potahto for the vast majority of the book, only to be picked up again at the very end. And considering those chapters initial got equal page time with Fi’s chapters, they at first seemed a lot like unimportant filler, and ultimately pretty forgettable.

Other than that, the book’s biggest flaw is that it infodumps a lot. Which I didn’t mind so much, because it was infodumping about things I was legitimately interested in and hadn’t necessarily figured out for myself. And it made sense in context, too, as Fi and Zeke are encountering all of this world-shattering stuff for the first time and they needed it all explained to them. So I think in that regard it’s a flaw-that-isn’t, because while it’s a good rule of thumb to not infodump on your readers, there is a time and place for it every once in a while, especially in such a complicated situation where the characters are just as confused as the readers. Everybody needs to catch up.

Paternus has action by the barrel, and in that regard it’s a surprisingly quick read once you get into the meat of the story. I love the way mythology was toyed with. I love the idea of a primal being that may or may not be what we call God, that is capable of loving all things and creating some of the best and worst that the world could offer. I love the sheer level of detail that went into crafting the mythos, and I respect the work it must have taken to have it come together and make sense in the end. It’s not a perfect book, but it has a lot going for it, and I enjoyed the time I spent with it. Ashton has a lot of skill as a writer and storyteller, and I look forward to seeing what else he might do in the future.

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.)

SPFBO Review: The Music Box Girl, by K A Stewart

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 19, 2016

Summary: FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC

Steam and steel are king, nowhere more so than Detroit, the gleaming gem of the world’s industrial crown. A beacon of innovation and culture, it is the birthplace of the mechanical automatons, and the home of the famed Detroit Opera House. It is where people come with their dreams, their plans, and their secrets.

A young man with the voice of an angel and dreams of stardom.

A globe-trotting heiress with a passion for adventure and memories of a lost childhood love.

A mysterious woman with a soul made of pure music and a secret worth killing for.

Beneath the glitter and sparkle, something sinister lurks at the opera, and three lives will collide with tragic consequences.

Review: It only took reading a few chapters for it to start dawning on me just what this book was. It’s a genderflipped steampunk Phantom of the Opera. With robots.

Really, that could be the 2-sentence tagline of The Music Box Girl. If you’re familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, at least (I can’t say much about the original novel, as I haven’t read it), then just about nothing in this story will come as a surprise. There are a few pieces of curiosity here or there, such as wondering just what little differences there are between the book and Phantom, but beyond that, it’s all fairly set in stone from the moment you realise the story’s inspiration.

The Music Box Girl gives you three character perspectives from which to watch the story unfold. Anton, who starts off as an opera stagehand, quickly attracts the attention of a mysterious women — known to many as the opera ghost but who gets names Melody by Anton himself — who offers to train his singing voice, to get the skill that will allow him to replace the opera company’s ageing tenor. Bess, Anton’s childhood friend turned adventurous globetrotter who is at the centre of no few scandals, reunites with her friend and they kindle a romance that has lain banked since they separated so many years ago. But Melody takes exception to Bess’s arrival and Anton’s attraction to her, and jealously seeks to keep the two apart so that she and her plan for Anton can stay central in his focus.

Melody is, of course, not human, but in fact an automaton, gears and switches in a human shape, with all the strength that comes with being made of metal. In the steampunk Detroit that Stewart sets up, automatons are physically stronger than humans, which is why they were created in the first place, but require human assistance to stay active. They also possess what’s known as an aether core, which houses their memory, the sum of their experiences, but after a while, imperfect machinery being what it is, when an automaton has experienced enough to develop a personality of their own, those memories also begin to clog the core and become disconnected, erratic, and the automaton becomes dangerous. As such, aether cores are often wiped clean, preventing a personality from forming so that the automaton can stay an obedient servant to human needs without any pesky moral issues of slavery coming into play. Melody is unique, an automaton that has no need of humans to keep her running, but has thus developed that dangerous personality. She hears voices from those in her past who are no longer there, the memories accumulating in her aether core coming and going at random, and she strives to overcome that as she teaches Anton to hone his singing voice.

It was interesting to note the subtle ways in which Stewart referenced the original Phantom story, even when dealing with new elements. For instance, Melody’s face isn’t disfigured by scars or anything of the sort, as she’s made of metal, but instead one side of her face is warped and tarnished, a callback to the reason that, well, the mask is so iconic. Stewart provides a fresh SFF look at a story that has been ingrained in public consciousness for years, melding familiar content with new twists.

The Music Box Girl‘s main drawback, though, is that it doesn’t so much pay homage to its source material so much as it just rewrites it. It’s basically a retelling, albeit with a steampunk flair and some very good crisp writing. And as much as there’s nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old story, it does unfortunately come off as being derivative. It’s not a nod to a franchise that can be appreciated by fans in the know, but, as I said in the beginning, a genderflipped Phantom of the Opera, with robots. If that’s what you hear when going into this book, very little will surprise you. You’ll know how the story will play out, because you know the story of Phantom.

Do I think that means The Music Box Girl isn’t worth reading? Not by a long shot. Given the source material, I think this will appeal massively to fans of Phantom, and believe me, there are plenty. But even aside from that, there’s plenty to like here. Stewart’s writing style, as I said before, is crisp, with plenty of clarity and detail, and it flows smoothly. The characters all feel different when you’re reading about them, and more than that, they don’t feel like they’re just rehashes of someone else’s characters. It’s a fun journey, even if you know the destination. Seeing things from Melody’s perspective — the perspective of an automaton, gives opportunity for great lines like this:

One voice, though, one voice stood out to her, and some apparent malfunction in her glass eyes tinted the world red.

The classic descent into obsessive madness, as told by a robot. It’s interesting, and I think I enjoyed reading Melody’s sections most of all, to see the perspective of someone who is both victim and villain.

So overall? Yes, definitely read The Music Box Girl. It may not be the most original, but it brings original twists to a familiar story, and it’s a smooth-flowing tale of ambition and sacrifice, which is exactly what I expected. It’s quick and engaging, the characters are interesting and very much themselves, and it’s quite enjoyable, at least from where I’m standing. I can see steampunk fans enjoying this dive into musical pop culture.