Fionn: Defence of Rath Badhma, by Brian O’Sullivan

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – February 18, 2014

Summary: Ireland: 192 A.D. A time of strife and treachery. Political ambition and inter-tribal conflict has set the country on edge, testing the strength of long-established alliances.

Following their victory over Clann Baoiscne at the battle of Cnucha, Clann Morna are hungry for power. Meanwhile, a mysterious war party roams the ‘Great Wild’ and a ruthless magician is intent on murder.

In the secluded valley of Glenn Ceo, disgraced druid Bodhmall and her lover Liath Luachra have successfully avoided the bloodshed for many years. Now, the arrival of a pregnant refugee threatens the peace they have created together.

Based on the ancient Fenian Cycle texts, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series recounts the fascinating and pulse-pounding tale of the birth and adventures of Ireland’s greatest hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Review: I’ve read a couple of different stories now about this legendary hero, whose name goes through a different spelling just about every time (Fionn mac Cumhaill, Finn MacCool, it’s all good…) Every story puts their own twist on the tale, whether going for accurate retelling or modern interpretation, and honestly, this is something that can make a story straddle that fine line between fresh and stale. You can only hear the same story told so many times, however many little differences there might be, before you grow tired of the story. However, it’s the little differences, or sometimes big ones, that can make a retelling worth listening to, to see how it differs from old narratives and to see what it brings to the table.

Fionn tells the beginning of the story, with the birth of the great Irish hero, and the events that surrounded that birth. Mostly the surrounding events, really; aside from being born, the son of Cumhail doesn’t really do anything here. We start off seeing his mother, still pregnant, fleeing from her enemies, making her way to Rath Bladhma, where her ex-husband’s sister lives. Bodhmhall, a druid capable of premonition and sensing the life energies of things, reluctantly takes her in, giving her shelter and limited peace to birth her baby, whose life blazes brightly; Bodhmhall foresees that this baby will be great, but aside from that we don’t really get any indication of destiny or what have you. Yes, a war party and a Tainted One are hunting down Muirne Munchaem and her baby, but there’s only speculation as to why, and the reasons could be political as much as they could be supernatural.

Fionn is one of those historical fantasies where the fantasy aspect rarely comes into play. Bodhmhall’s powers and the presence of the Tainted One are pretty much the limit of fantasy elements, and those are incorporated in such small ways that you could remove them entirely and the story wouldn’t really change. If the reader is unfamiliar with any of the stories of Ireland’s great hero, they might be left wondering what this is really all about. A woman flees her old home for her own reasons, seeks refuge elsewhere, and then a wandering war party attacks the settlement where she took refuge. Fionn could be summed up that way, and really, that does give you the gist of what happens. It feels a bit like the prequel to a much greater story than a part of that story in itself, the sort of thing you really only appreciate when you already know what comes next. Those unfamiliar with the legend might find Fionn a bit hard-going.

Despite that, the book does have a very obvious strength early on: the vivid detail. O’Sullivan heaps great amounts of detail on the reader, just this side of ponderous, but it leaves you feeling like you really know the land and its people when you finish the last page. You can practically smell the livestock of the settlement, feel the chill in the air, expect to hear certain voices from the distance. Even if you’re not captivated by the story itself, you’re taken in by the setting and the way it comes alive.

Plenty of Gaelic names and terms might confound readers, too, but honestly, I’m not holding this against the book or its author. We don’t read fantasy novels to be confronted by the distressingly familiar — we read them, in part, to have our minds stretched a little bit. The words may be a mouthful, but that doesn’t take away from the story. (And happily, when I checked the pronunciation guide on O’Sullivan’s website, I discovered my guesses were often pretty close to how things were intended to sound anyway.)

Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma is a relatively short book that takes place over a short span of time, but never the less feels like it carries some weight. The characters are interesting and have decent variation, the tension and action work well to really set the whole scene, and in terms of writing style, O’Sullivan clearly has skill. I definitely wouldn’t mind checking out more of his writing, at any rate. So while this book may not appeal to everyone, especially those who haven’t encountered much in the way of Irish mythology before, it still is a good book, and it’s worth giving a try.

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.

The Hidden People, by Alison Littlewood

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

Summary: In 1851, within the grand glass arches of London’s Crystal Palace, Albie Mirralls meets his cousin Lizzie for the first–and, as it turns out, last–time. His cousin is from a backward rural village, and Albie expects she will be a simple country girl, but instead he is struck by her inner beauty and by her lovely singing voice, which is beautiful beyond all reckoning. When next he hears of her, many years later, it is to hear news of her death at the hands of her husband, the village shoemaker.

Unable to countenance the rumors that surround his younger cousin’s murder–apparently, her husband thought she had been replaced by one of the “fair folk” and so burned her alive–Albie becomes obsessed with bringing his young cousin’s murderer to justice. With his father’s blessing, as well as that of his young wife, Albie heads to the village of Halfoak to investigate his cousin’s murder. When he arrives, he finds a community in the grip of superstition, nearly every member of which believes Lizzie’s husband acted with the best of intentions and in the service of the village.

There, Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death and to search for her murderous husband, who has disappeared. But in a village where the rationalism and rule of science of the Industrial Revolution seem to have found little purchase, the answers to the question of what happened to Lizzie and why prove elusive. And the more he learns, the less sure he is that there aren’t mysterious powers at work.

Review: A murder mystery set in mid-1800s England where signs point to faerie involvement? Sign me right up! The premise behind Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People caught my attention and played to multiple pet interests of mine, and so I was very eager to sit down and read my way through what I felt certain would be a fascinating trip into the past where the lines between the mundane and the supernatural were blurred.

Albie is a man who, upon learning of his cousin’s death at the hands of her husband, takes it upon himself to see justice done. He goes to Lizzie’s home of Halfoak to attend the funeral, only to find increasingly strange talk from the locals about how the Lizzie that was killed was not the real Lizzie at all, but was in fact a changeling. After the sudden and unexpected arrival of Albie’s own wife, who does not seem herself at all, Albie’s life turns on its head as he searches for the truth of what happened to his cousin, and what may well have happened to his wife.

The Hidden People is a “did it or did it not happen” kind of mystery, one that might frustrate readers who expect a clear progression of the story in which pieces of slowly revealed and the puzzle becomes more clear. The protagonist flips his opinion back and forth a dozen times through the narrative, first being sure that Lizzie was fully human, then doubting it, then doubting his doubt, then wondering if faeries may be involved after all, and so on. If you expect a story in which the pieces fit neatly together as Albie slowly figures out that mystical forces are present, then you’ll be disappointed. What this book offers is a look into a man who cannot fathom certain things happening for certain reasons, who doubts constantly and is unsure of anything, and who is dealing with an increasingly stressful situation in his life. In short, it’s magnificently realistic, for it’s a rare person who can find evidence of the supernatural and not at least consider that it may be a factor in things. Albie reacts as most people would to events and information, as sometimes it looks as though something supernatural may be at work, and at other times it looks as though everything can be traced back to superstition and willful ignorance. Until the end, it’s very hard to tell just what happened to Lizzie, and what is happening to Albie and Helena.

Though in mentioning it, even at the end of the book, some things are still ambiguous. Albie certain thinks he’s gotten to the bottom of things, and for the most part the mystery surrounding Lizzie’s murder has been solved, but some events could be interpreted either way. Was Albie’s behaviour rational given that he suffered a loss, or was it wild and irrational and influenced by powers beyond the mundane? Was Helena influenced by changeling motivations of by her husband’s inexplicable attachment to a cousin he only met once? If there were no faeries, what caused some of the more bizarre things that Albie experienced? It’s easy to interpret the ending one way, to say, “Oh yes, it was this all along,” but there are so many coincidences that matched local superstition that you’re left wondering how much was truly mundane and how much was supernatural.

Littlewood weaves a great story here, with plenty of questions and atmosphere to keep readers turning the pages, hungry to see what happens next. There’s so much wonderful local flavour, too, with people in Halfoak speaking in that particular Yorkshire dialect (which I myself only heard for the first time about a month ago, so it thrilled me to see it in text and to know, “I know exactly what that sounds like!”) and bringing in colloquialisms and the clash of cultures that inevitably exists between big city folk and those from further into the countryside. Seeing the story from Albie’s viewpoint, which ranged from calm and rational to frantic and chaotic depending on what he had just discovered, was wonderful, since many of the dual-nature aspects of the story take place within Albie himself, an inner reflection of the outer world. The tone of the narrative was such that you can fall into it easily, reading it not as yet another first-person viewpoint with dozens of observations that people don’t actually tend to make for themselves, but as the memoirs of a troubled man, something that truly feels as though it could have been written by him years after the fact. It’s hard to say specifically what separates the two; something in the tone of the writing or the way Albie speaks or the way it all sounds very much like diary entries from the time period. But this is a problem I’ve pointed out in the past with first-person narratives, how it’s meant to draw the reader further into the story by placing them immediately within the head of the protagonist, but for me it often fails because said protagonist always thinks in ways that people just don’t on a day-to-day basis. Littlewood’s presentation of Albie was such that it felt like I was reading his confessions, something he deliberately endeavoured to tell, rather than that I was just along for the ride.

My only regret with this book is that the ending did turn out to be so mundane. Yes, I did mention previously that it was somewhat ambiguous and not all questions really were answered, and I felt like it was left that way deliberately rather than as some authorial oversight, but it’s so easy to look only at the surface of the story and conclude that there was nothing supernatural going on whatsoever. And I was hoping, from the back-of-the-book premise, that it was going to be more of a supernatural murder mystery than just a murder mystery that probably only has the supernatural connected to it because of local superstition. You can blame that disappointment on me as a reader, since the book offered me no promises of anything, but the presentation leads you to think that way, and then it doesn’t happen.

On the flip side, though, I think that gives The Hidden People a wider appeal, since those who enjoy historical fiction and mysteries but who don’t read much SFF can appreciate this book with or without its ambiguities. It’s not just SFF fans that this book will appeal to, and really, I like encountering novels that transcend genre.

But regardless of that one piece of criticism, overall, I really enjoyed the journey into the past that came with The Hidden People. The story was compelling, the characters interesting and complex, and it was an evocative novel that’s going to have a solid place of my bookshelves from now on. Definitely recommended for those who are looking for something beyond typical urban fantasy fare, for those who enjoy historical fiction, and also, for those like me who have a soft spot for genre-breaking fiction that leaves you hungry for more.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Second Death, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 29, 2016

Summary: For Diago Alvarez, that’s the choice before him. For unless he wants to see his son Rafael die, he must do the unthinkable: Help the Nazis receive the plans to the ultimate weapon.

And while Diago grows more comfortable not only with his heritage, but also with his place among Guillermo’s Los Nefilim, he is still unsure if he truly belongs amongst them.

In a frantic race to save the future of humanity, Diago is forced to rely on his daimonic nature to deceive an angel. In doing so, he discovers the birth of a modern god—one that will bring about a new world order from which no one can escape.

Review: Frohock has entertained us previously with her other two novellas in the Los Nefilim series, stories of immortal beings standing between angels and daimons, of Diago and Miquel and their relationship in 1930s Spain, and the events that surround and complicate their already complicated lives. Now the third installment of the series, The Second Death, picks up really only hours after the previous novella finished, throwing readers immediately back into the action and not giving the characters even a chance to catch their breath.

You’ve really got to feel sorry for Diago here, with his life seeming to get worse rather than better after having pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim. Now both he and his son are kidnapped, Rafael held hostage to ensure that Diago complies with Engel’s commands to acquire a weapon that reputedly could put an end to all wars. Seeing members of Los Nefilim go rogue convinces Diago that this time he’s really on his own, that he alone must foil Engel’s plans and escape with Rafael, before the balance of divine power shifts entirely.

Action and intrigue and the names of the game here, and the pulse-pounding pace barely lets up for a second. Happily, Frohock starts off the whole thing by giving a bit of a recap on what happened previously in the series, so as short as they are (only a little over 100 pages per novella), readers don’t have to go back and do a reread to ensure they know where everyone stands. Very beneficial in a story that’s as complex and full of twists as this one, and far better than having characters awkwardly do recaps along the way.

Though to be honest, I’m not opposed to rereading such a wonderful series at any point, and the story is one that has stuck firmly in my mind since I read the first one so many months ago.

One thing that stands out to me every time is the way the power and magic works through song. The descriptions are beautiful, breathtaking, and so easy to picture and feel. Maybe this is in part because I’m somewhat musically inclined myself and I find it very easy to envision the colours of notes and the way sounds can play powerfully off each other, but mostly I think it’s a testament to Frohock’s clarity of writing. Reading her work, I rarely find an unclear scene or fuzzy descriptions. It’s so easy to get lost in such vivid writing.

I can’t be sure, but I certainly hope that the series will continue in the future. A few plot threads have been left dangling, in particular the whole situation with Moloch and Alvaro and the whole “new god” issue. I’m definitely interested in seeing how that develops and plays out. In addition, there’s also the power play going on between Principalities, divine guardians (of a sort) of different countries, which is part of what led Engel to make his move and for Garcia to be so willing to between Guillermo and follow Engel in the first place. Knowing the time and place of the story makes it easy to see parallels to the lead-up of the second World War, but adding the angels and demons and the like makes it all the more interesting, provides a different perspective and additional layers to the whole tumultuous situation, and I, for one, want to see it all play out.

Long story short, if historical dark fantasy is your thing, if you enjoy plays and twists on Judeo-Christian mythology, if you want a wonderfully complex story that demands little but delivers much, then the Los Nefilim series is one you should definitely seek out. It’s hard for me to pick my favourite, because they all have appealed to me on various levels, and I’ve enjoyed them all equally and highly. The Second Death deals more with the forgiveness than the previous two, and justice versus vengeance, neither of which come across as heavy-handed or peachy, but even if you find yourself disagreeing with the conclusions that characters arrive at, there’s no end to the dark entertainment in the pages. Most definitely recommended to fans of dark fantasy!

(Received for review.)

Without Light or Guide, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Always holding themselves aloft from the affairs of mortals, Los Nefilim have thrived for eons. But with the Spanish Civil War looming, their fragile independence is shaken by the machinations of angels and daimons…and a half-breed caught in-between.

For although Diago Alvarez has pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim, there are many who don’t trust his daimonic blood. And with the re-emergence of his father—a Nefil who sold his soul to a daimon—the fear is Diago will soon follow the same path.

Yet even as Diago tries to prove his allegiance, events conspire that only fuel the other Nefilim’s suspicions—including the fact that every mortal Diago has known in Barcelona is being brutally murdered.

The second novella in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, Without Light or Guide continues Diago’s journey through a world he was born into, yet doesn’t quite understand.

Thoughts: By this point, I’m no stranger to Frohock’s writing, and I know fairly well in advance that I’m extremely likely to enjoy what she does. And given that the previous novella in this series, In Midnight’s Silence, tripped all the right triggers with me, I was very eager to get my hands on the sequel and continue with Diago’s story.

Without Light or Guide doesn’t disappoint. Picking up very shortly after where the previous novella left off, Diago’s loyalty to some of the Nefilim is still uncertain, to the point that even though those closest to him believe that he won’t betray them, Diago himself is unsure. His heritage is against him, his history is against him, the fact that he feels unwelcome makes him pull away further, and really, I feel for the guy, because that’s a lousy situation to be in. And when people who used to associate with him start turning up dead, he appears even more suspicious in the eyes of those who already weren’t inclined to think the best of him. And Diago’s father, Alvaro, beckons to Diago for purposes unknown…

As terrible as it is for Diago to be stuck in the middle in a completely different way than he was last time, it was also interesting to see how he copes with it all. The people most important to him believe him him, as I mentioned, which provides a point of stability when doubt plagues him, but we get to see some of the internal struggle as he battles with the push and pull of various expectations. And it’s not so much that he feels temptation to side with daimons as much as it is that he feels the urge to fall back on old habits and run from the things that are causing him problems in the first place, even if that means leaving good things behind. Maybe it’s a little bit of me forcing my own issues on a character, but I see in him a man who wants very much to reconcile so many parts of his life and keeps getting shot down.

It was the major scene with his father that really got to me, in that regard. Diago wants, in a way, to put some things behind him and help Alvaro despite their awkward history, and then when Alvaro betrays him once again… It was the kind of thing that hit very close to home with me, because I’ve experienced that pain of reaching out to someone again and again and being disappointed every time, to the point where you have to eventually turn your back on family and see them for the flawed individuals they are. You owe them no loyalty when they repeatedly betray you.

I mention this for a reason beyond just the personal: one of the marks of a good author is their ability to make you feel. Even if you haven’t been in a similar position to Diago’s, you can’t help but have your heart ache just a little bit during that scene, and with the following emotional rise as Frohock dips a toe just a little bit into the cheesy side of things and has the power of love save the day. Evocative prose bring it all to fantastic life on the page, and you feel every up and down as the story flows along and Diago’s journey continues.

I love this series. Frohock’s storytelling shines as she tells a story of redemption and love and faith, all wrapped together with angels and demons and music and vivid history. It’s a series with a low level of investment and such a high payoff that if you enjoy any of those things, or just enjoy dark fantasy in general, then you’d be foolish to overlook it. Without Light or Guide is a brilliant follow-up to In Midnight’s Silence, hands down, and I’m already eagerly anticipating visiting all the characters again in the next installment.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2015

Summary: A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.

Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, a alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

Thoughts: It’s not secret that I have a thing for fallen angels. So when I heard the synopsis of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, I knew it was going to be a novel I’d have to look closely at. And this book is simply unlike anything I’ve ever read before, making it a stand-out addition to my personal library.

Paris has been devastated, thanks to destruction caused by warring fallen angels. The city is in ruin, gangs roam the streets, angel body parts and blood get sold on the black market, and the Great Houses still stand. House Silverspires was once the House of Morningstar, the architect of the falling of the angels, guiding followers in their survival. That is, until he vanished, leaving Silverspires with failing magics and slowly weakening defenses, with other Houses circling it like sharks closing in for the kill. But Philippe, a non-angelic (Fallen or otherwise) immortal with a mysterious past, might be the key to changing the fortunes of House Silverspires and everyone within it. For good or for ill.

This is an odd book. It’s slow, bordering on ponderous, and it’s largely free of the typical action scenes most readers of SFF come to expect in novels. That being said, there’s still a lot to take in, and the story itself is complex and full of spectacular levels of world-building. It combines myths from various religions and regions, some interesting takes on those myths, an alternate history, and all that’s before you even get into the diverse cast of characters who drive the story along. Selene, the leader of Silverspires, hard because she has to take up the mantle of a legend and keep her House and its dependents safe. Madeleine, hiding her addiction to angel essence, which is understandably taboo in Houses when you consider that it involves consuming pieces of an angel’s body.

And then there’s Morningstar. Morningstar, known more to us as Lucifer, appears mostly in flashbacks and memories, the founder of House Silverspires and Selene’s vanished mentor. Morningstar, so charismatic that people, be they angel or human, flocked to him. Morningstar, whose House is now crumbling and who is still somehow related to the events occurring, only just how he’s connected doesn’t really make sense until you have all the pieces of the puzzle. For a character who’s pretty much only there in spirit, he’s definitely a favourite of mine, and I found myself looking forward to Philippe’s looks into the past so that I could see more of the mysterious fallen angel himself.

The writing is downright lyrical at times, evoking some powerful imagery and emotion as the story progresses. It’s a very character-driven story in many ways, since although some plot points were put in motion long before the characters in question ever came onto the scene, it’s Philippe and Selene and Madeleine and Isabelle that move it along. Their mistakes, their curiosities, their fear and desperation and drive, all influence Silverspires. In a way, the House is the novel’s real focus, almost a character in itself, since the story is all about its slow decline and everyone’s attempts to keep it safe and overcome the darkness threatening it.

It’s hard to discuss this book without mentioning spoilers all over the place, honestly. Some books I can manage just fine with in reviews, and others are so rich and sense that it’s hard to say, “This whole section is great because…” or “It really hit home when this character did…” I’ve said before that some of the best novels are the hardest to review, for this very reason, and The House of Shattered Wings is definitely one of those books. There’s so much to it, layers of story and myth and characterization, plots that intertwine, breaking off sometimes but always coming back in the end, and while it takes a few mental twists to follow along at times, it’s worth the effort.

It’s a slow-burn kind of novel, and definitely not for everyone. I imagine that the slow pace would turn away some readers, as well as the fact that it’s set in an alternate past that was affected by various aspects of different myths. It’s a bit trick to wrap your head around exactly where and when this takes place, beyond, “Paris, ruined, with people dressing in fashions from decades ago.” Which, looked at more objectively, goes to show the fine attention to detail that de Bodard put into creating this fascinating setting. It’s a dark and beautiful book, filled with fear and hope in equal measure, and it certainly was unique. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one that suits me very well. If this is what I can expect from other things the author has written, then consider me a fan right from the outset!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Hanged Man, by P N Elrod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Received for review from the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: Altdorf: The Forest Knights, by J K Swift

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – November 21, 2013

Summary: At the end of the thirteenth century, five hundred orphans and second sons are rounded up from villages in the Alpine countryside and sold to the Hospitaller Knights of St John. Trained to serve as Soldiers of Christ, they fight in eastern lands they know nothing about, for a cause they do not understand.

Thomas Schwyzer, released from his vows by the Grandmaster of the Hospitallers, returns to the land of his birth a stranger. Once a leader of men, and captain of the Order’s most famous war galley, he now settles into the simple life of a ferryman. He believes this new role to be God’s reward for years of faithful service fighting the Infidel in Outremer.

Seraina, considered a witch by most, a healer by some, is a young woman with a purpose. A Priestess of the Old Religion, and the last Druid disciple of the Helvetii Celts, she has been gifted by the Great Weave to see what others cannot. Her people need her guidance and protection now more than ever. For Duke Leopold of Habsburg, in his efforts to control the St. Gotthard Pass, builds a great Austrian fortress in Altdorf. Once finished, the Habsburg occupation will be complete, but the atrocities visited upon her people will have just begun.

Thoughts: I’m going to start off by saying this book really wasn’t what I expected. Specifically, because I expected fantasy, since it was part of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, and, well, it rather lacked in fantastical elements. It was, for is part, pretty decent historical fiction, with vivid descriptions and interesting characters set in medieval Switzerland. And it may well have been alternate history, but I’m not so familiar with that time and place that I can say for sure. But the only elements of fantasy that were really a part of this book were a few small incidents that could have just as easily been hallucination and the vagaries of weather as they could have been magic.

It did, however, get me thinking that sometimes the only difference between fantasy and historical fiction is the setting. Were this to be set in some secondary world, the plot could have remained the same and yet I would have classed it as fantasy. Which is weird, when you think about it.

Altdorf is a relatively quick read, being less than 80,000 words, and with the exception of a large number of missing commas, Swift’s writing style is quite good. The beginning is a little awkward, but after a couple of chapters it’s very easy to fall into the story and get lost in the political games being played. Swift paints a vivid picture of the various settings, drawing the reader into beautiful scenery and medieval buildings.

As in many good stories, there is no clear right or wrong side of the fight; only layers and shades, and that’s what makes this exploration of history so interesting and so realistic. Abuses of power abound on all sides, people have their reasons for doing what they do, and I enjoyed seeing the justifications that everyone used for themselves and their actions. The characters are the high point of the novel, I’d say. There were a couple that didn’t get as much development as I’d hoped, but on the whole, they were quite fleshed-out and unique.

Over all, this reimagining of the William Tell legend is pretty decent, though, unfortunately, one that won’t be passed on to the second round of the SPFBO due to the lack of identifiable fantasy. But for those who enjoy decent historical fiction, then I urge you to give Altdorf a try. It’s currently free for Kindle and Nook, so it’s a no-risk venture if you do want to read it, and the writing is impressive enough to stand out in the self-published crowd. It may not have been entirely to my taste nor what I was hoping for, but I’m still glad to have read it.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 8, 2014

Summary: SOME STORIES CANNOT BE TOLD IN JUST ONE LIFETIME.
Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.”

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

Thoughts: It was an interesting coincidence that I read this book when I did, picking it at random from my To Read pile, since at that time I had been considering revisiting an old story idea that was very similar to the concept in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The idea of living your life, then going back and doing it all over again, memories intact and being fully aware of the fact that you’re living it all over again… What would you change? What would you keep the same? What responsibility would you feel to society and to the world, preventing damage and creating gains, and is it really your right to decide?

This is what Harry August experiences. Every time he dies, he is born again into the same life, still himself, still in the same circumstances forced on him by childhood, but always with the memories of his previous lives intact, always with the awareness that all of this has happened before. And because of these memories, his life is different each time. He’s able to use past knowledge to advance himself further, to skip past the tedium of a typical life that he has already lived in order to improve himself. Then he discovers the Cronus Club, a world-wide organization of people just like him, who are reborn time and time again with their memories intact, who live their lives over and over again and who have vowed, among other things, to not alter the course of history so drastically that the future becomes unrecognizable.

The end of the world is coming. But now it’s coming faster than ever before.

Someone has broken that rule.

Claire North is an absolutely amazing writer, able to take small things and extrapolate the consequences and make a fantastic story out of them. Not only that, but the story forces you, by its very nature, to stop thinking in a linear fashion, A then B then C, and to contemplate cause and effect in a way that I don’t see done very often. Reading it twists your mind in interesting new directions, trying to keep track of timelines and relative perception and really, I need more books in my life that give my brain such a good workout, because it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. For all that the premise for this book is relatively simple, it’s not a light read, and it’s worth taking the time to puzzle over and properly digest.

But it’s also for that very reason that I see a lot of people talk about The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August just wasn’t to their taste. If you’re expecting a light read, you won’t get it. If you want something that’s just fluffy and straightforward, you won’t get it. If you want something that’s fast-paced and full of tension and good action, this isn’t the book you should be picking up. It’s one of those books that I highly recommend people look into reviews of first, because this isn’t the book for everyone, no matter how good it is. Whether you enjoy it is probably going to be based very much on what you expect when going into it.

For my part, though, I loved it. The characters were beautifully real, flawed and selfish and diverse as anything! People like Harry, whether you call them ourobourans or kalachakra or non-linears, can occur anywhere, at any time, and thanks to memories of the future and the assets of the Cronus Club, they’re able to live comfortably wherever and whenever they are. So you’ll see the years of Harry’s life, from the early 1900s onward, in different countries, different regimes and governments, different ways of living and thinking, and it gives you a great perspective on world history, looking at the large from the viewpoint of the very small. It’s such an intelligent novel, well-researched and amazingly written, even if it’s a little bit dry at times.

So, long story short, if you’re in the mood for thought-provoking smart novel that takes an interesting approach to history and perception, then get your hands on a copy of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It may not be the kind of novel that everyone will enjoy reading, but if you’re the right type, it will trip so many of the right triggers and be a very satisfying literary adventure.

(Received for review from the publisher.)