Sunday, June 27, 2021

Misfit Mage

Michael Taggart
Completed 6/24/2021, Reviewed 6/28/2021
3 star

I got this book because I kept getting ads for it on Facebook.  I read the synopsis and eventually succumbed.  I’m glad I did because it was thoroughly enjoyable.  That’s not to say it’s written well, because it has its problems, but in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The most amazing part of this book is that it’s the most detailed description of a magic system I’ve ever read.  Taggart, a new author who previously published photography books, explains the development of the main character’s magical abilities with such precision that you’d think he spent his whole life developing it.  

Jason is a gay man living in Louisville, Kentucky.  He makes a living by playing poker.  He generally wins because he has some light, innate magical abilities.  After one game, in the middle of having a romp with a fellow player, two men break into his hotel room and begin chasing him.  When they finally catch up with him, they beat him to near death.  However, he escapes and is found by his landlady Sandy and her building’s handyman John.  They turn out to be magical as well.  They wrap him in spells to enhance his recovery.  The thing is, this near-death experience has helped Jason come into his full power as a mage.  He’s taken under Sandy and John’s wing, along with another housemate, Annabeth, to learn how to use his power.  While he’s learning, this ragtag group comes under attack by an evil mage and her minions whom they must fight to keep their place in the world of magic.

Jason is a pretty great character.  He thought he was the only one with magic abilities until Sandy and John reveal themselves to him.  He’s a bit of a Mary Sue, but he’s just so likeable that it didn’t bother me.  He has a lot of learning to do and a lot of healing to experience.  It’s also great that his being gay is very organic.  It doesn’t overwhelm the plot.  And this is not a heavy M/M romance; it’s very PG-13.  His love interest is Tyler, an incubus with a good heart, which is hard to find in this world.  Most incubi suck all the emotions out of a person through sex, like a male banshee, but Tyler only extracts the bad stuff.  Tyler is sweet, and hopefully we’ll see more of him in the sequel.

Sandy is head of the House, an honor she received by being a terrific warrior mage.  She’s very knowledgeable, but isn’t all-knowing.  She learns from Jason whose magic ability developed differently from her and most of the mages she knows.  John is awesome too, an amazingly handsome half-human half-troll.  He helps care for Jason in the beginning, which includes a particularly amusing scene where he helps him shower.  It’s a revelation for Jason because he never thought he was attracted to hairy men, and well, things get a little embarrassing for Jason since John is straight.  Annabeth is also neat.  She has a different magic ability, based on sounds and music.  She’s very motherly, being, well really, looking, 50ish and always having a warm, accepting smile for Jason.  Before he learns her name, he calls her Sunshine.

There are two other characters worth mentioning.  There’s Penny, an actual penny that Jason used as a focus for his magic in the beginning of the story and later becomes sort of sentient.  How this happens and what Jason does with Penny is part of the amazing world building Taggart does.  There’s also Bermuda Moses, a kitten who steals Jason’s heart and helps him in his battles against evil forces.  Bermuda steals the scenes whenever he appears, and I’m not even a cat lover!

Now for the problems.  As I said, the writing is not great.  There are times I felt like the word choices and sentences were simple.  It reminded me of how I write.  He uses “really” a lot, like I do.  I always feel like it’s a really lazy word 😉 that a good writer would only use sparingly.  I also thought that all the descriptions of how magic works was great, but at times it derailed the plot.  It kinda was like magic, plot, magic, plot, magic, plot.  It just didn’t flow together that well.  I’m sure a good critic could pick out more problems, but these were the ones that stood out for me.

Despite the problems, the book is very enjoyable.  It’s a solid three stars out of five.  If I rated it on emotional response alone, I would bump it up a star, but I feel like the author still needs some practice developing his writing skills.  Still, I found myself identifying with Jason through his good times and bad times.  I certainly intend to read the next volume in this series and am looking forward to it, regardless of whether Taggart grows as a writer as quickly as I’d like.  This book is simply enjoyable, a feel-good read that I’d recommend to anyone.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Harrow the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir
Completed 6/18/2021, Reviewed 6/18/2021
1 star

This book was a mess.  It maybe was trying to be clever in form, but it was simply a mess.  About halfway through, I was ready to give up and put it down, but I read a bunch of reviews that said that the first two-thirds of the book are confusing and it all comes together in the end.  I also read a few that hated the whole book.  I should have listened to those few.  This book has a lot of fans and has very high ratings on several book sites.  I’m not one of them.  By the time I got to the part that was supposed to be revelatory, I didn’t care.  As with Muir’s first book, Gideon the Ninth, I’m astounded this book has been nominated for awards, including the Hugo.  The Hugo being a fan-based award, tells you how loved it is.  Amazing.

I’m not sure I can convey the plot because I’m not sure what it was.  The summary says something about Harrow going on a spaceship that’s haunted by the ghost of a planet, as well as ghosts of dead peers.  Someone one wants her dead, and she doesn’t know if the universe is better off with her or without her.  I really didn’t get that.  I don’t really know what I got.  The book is non-linear, jumping all over the timeline.  I ended up reading the chapters as 50 some-odd short stories that may or may not have been related to past stories.  I kinda could follow a couple of the story lines, but there didn’t seem to be much plot there.  Harrow is obsessed with the dead thing in the Locked Tomb back on her home planet.  Yeah, someone is trying to kill her.  People around her are getting killed, and their ghosts or more accurately revenants are coming back and interacting with her.

The book is written mostly in second person, with occasional chapters in third person.  The second person narrative actually read fairly well, not as bad as others I’ve read.  I’m not a fan of second person, it seems more like an academic exercise rather than legitimate storytelling device.  But when you get past that two-thirds point in the book, it becomes clear who the narrator is.  

The characterization is a little better in this book than in “Gideon”.  Despite there being way too many characters again, a few stood out with major roles.  Augustine, Mercymorn, the Emperor aka God, and of course Harrow.  However, I though Harrow was so very different than she was in Gideon, it was hard to connect the original with this instance of her.  My biggest complaint that there are so many ways to refer to a character, it was almost like a Russian novel:  cavalier, saint, lyctor, their name, meat.  

The prose was interesting as well.  Normally, I would have said it was good, but I found it just complicated and diffused comprehension.  Sometimes the descriptions and similes went on so long, I lost track of conversations, which is a cardinal sin of prose, particularly when there are many people speaking.

Like it’s predecessor, I give this book one star out of five.  I’m not necessarily a fan of non-linear books, but this one was simply incomprehensible.  I don’t know why lately I’ve become obsessed with reading Hugo and Nebula nominees.  I don’t vote (but maybe I should register to vote this year for the Hugos, which are being delayed until December).  I guess I want to see what all the fuss is about the nominees.  And these popular books are almost always on sale, so I buy them.  However, whether the third book in this trilogy is nominated next year or not, I’m definitely not buying or reading it.  

Friday, June 11, 2021

A Cosmology of Monsters

Shaun Hamill
Completed 6/10/2021, Reviewed 6/11/2021
5 stars

I couldn’t believe this was a debut novel.  It’s so well-written and so scary and oh so very weird.  The trend these days seems to be weirdness based on HP Lovecraft weirdness, and this is one of them.  It’s a story about a dysfunctional family and their encounter with monsters and the strange dimension they come from.  This book grabbed me right at the beginning and never let me go.  When I got to the end, I didn’t want it to wrap up.  It did, and quite nicely as well.  It’s not that I love stories of dysfunction, but it was such a damned well-crafted universe that I wanted to treasure every second in it.  And it was hard to do that because the tension kept me reading very quickly and prevented me from putting it down when I was exhausted.  I discovered this book from one of the authors I follow on Twitter, but I can’t remember which one.  Whoever it was, I’m so glad I followed their recommendation.  

The story begins with a woman named Margaret who marries a man for love rather than the rich man who was courting her.  They have two children when they decide to made a haunted house experience called The Wandering Dark.  The husband Harry starts having seizures as the opening of the house nears and Margaret finds out she’s pregnant again.  Harry dies and young Noah grows up without knowing his father.  The horror part of the story is that various members of the family see a wolf-like humanoid creature in a robe, but each ignores it until one day when Noah goes to the window to get a closer look at the creature.  Rather than react with fear, he speaks to the creature which responds by writing in chalk on the sidewalk “Friend” “Help”.  The story gets weirder as Noah’s relationship with the monster grows and children around town start disappearing.

Hamill creates extremely vivid, realistic characters.  Noah is the narrator, telling the story of how his parents met, their life before him, and the family’s life after he is born and meets the monster.  The story covers about thirty years (in only 325 pages) but we really become well acquainted with each family member at the different stages of their lives.  Margaret and Harry don’t have a fairy tale marriage even though they married for love.  The eldest daughter Sydney loves her father more than her mother.  Eunice is a depressed, suicidal middle child who thinks the world of her little brother Noah.  Noah saves Eunice’s suicide notes.  And he is a shy kid whose need for interpersonal relationships is satisfied by the Monster.  We also explore the monster’s personality as it becomes closer to Noah, even though it only communicates by writing simple words in chalk on the sidewalk.  

The world building is great as well.  The story takes place in a small Texas town, though fortunately it’s not written in southern drawl or slang.  (I had enough of that with the accents in the last book I read.)  It could actually be Anytown, USA.  The alternate dimension of the Monster is also well-conceived and described.  Vines which pierce the body to turn a human into a monster are particularly gruesome.  

I want to say so much more, but it gives too much away.  So I’ll leave with what I’ve said.  There are just so many terrific scenes that evoke sadness, empathy, uncomfortableness, tension, and fear.  There’s a little humor here and there to break up the tension.  I give the book five stars out of five because I became totally enrapt in the story, felt everyone’s pain, and put my kindle down in fear, then quickly picked it up again to get right back into it.  This is simply a terrific horror story that could be called literature because it’s so well written.  I find it interesting that in his Acknowledgments, Hamill thanks Ethan Canin as one of his MFA professors, a little-known but highly praised general fiction author who I absolutely love.  I’ve read most of his books and love how he creates ordinary, realistic people and situations.  It’s like I’ve entered a second generation of greatness.  I look forward to reading more of Hamill’s works even though I don’t generally get around to reading as much horror as I used to.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Mote in God’s Eye

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Completed 6/7/2021, Reviewed 6/7/2021
2 stars

I wasted a week of my life on this tedious book and I want it back!  Reading this book was one miserable experience.  I found it to be uninteresting, overly complicated, overly sprawling, and without focus.  The ending didn’t even feel like an ending.  It’s like the authors ran out of paper and said, “Oops, it’s over”.  It’s also very early ‘70s, a sausage-fest of an expedition with one woman and all the rest men.  There was some commentary on slavery which can be construed as satire or racist.  I couldn’t figure that out.  The only parts I liked were the initial introduction to the aliens and a committee debating the fate of the aliens near the end.  Everything else was cardboard military space opera and mildly original aliens.  I wonder if I read this book when I was in high school if I would have liked it.  Somebody liked it because it was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula in 1975.

The galaxy is in the Second Empire after the collapse of the First Empire due to scads of revolting planets taking it down.  The Second Empire is held together by a vast naval fleet which uses the Alderson drive for faster than light travel.  One day an alien ship is spotted entering the area around New Caledonia.  Captain Rod Blaine captures the ship and finds a dead alien in it.  They find that it comes from a red supernova area known as Murcheson’s Eye and specifically from the yellow sun in front of it called the Mote.  The Emperor commissions two ships to go to the Mote and meet the aliens and figure if they are a threat to the Empire.

The aliens, called Moties, are almost interesting.  They are kind of mammalian with two nimble right arms and a thick powerful left arm.  They are more or less lopsided, as if they evolved without gravity.  Their society is divided into castes: the whites are the masters, the browns are the workers, and the hybrids are the mediators.  The mediators speak for the masters and keep the browns from revolting.  There are also subspecies, including miniatures called Watchmakers who repair and enhance mechanical things.  The subspecies are considered animals.  So yeah, commentary on slavery, satire, or racist.  Hard to say.  But it felt icky.

The humans have a 19th century-like empire structure, with the Emperor, marquises, and barons.  It’s patriarchal and the navy is completely populated with men.  And they are all pretty much cardboard characters.  There were a few who stood out:  Blaine because he was the main character, Sally because she was the only woman, the admiral because he was Russian, the engineer because he was Scottish and spoke with a brogue, the merchant because he was Muslim, and Jonathon Whitbread because I kept on saying “white bread” whenever I saw his name.  The cast of characters is two pages long and inevitably, the men were hard to tell apart.  I couldn’t identify with anybody.  Blaine was particularly annoying towards the end of the book when he gets engaged to Sally and he starts calling her “kitten”.  Ewwww.

Besides the usage of “kitten”, there was another word used that gave me the willies.  They liked to use the word “rape” as a pejorative exclamation.  I had one friend say it may have come from the phrase “rape and pillage”.  Regardless, it made my skin crawl.

The characters of the Moties were pretty interchangeable as well.  When the mission to the Mote sends a landing party down to the surface, the Moties pair mediators with each of the humans.  They learn Anglic very quickly, although their language of screeches and whistles eludes the humans.  Not only do the Moties learn the human language, they begin imitating their assignees and their accents and mannerisms.  So, since the humans are pretty hard to tell apart, so are the Moties.

It’s no surprise to my regular blog readers that I’m not a military or space opera fan, but I am regularly astonished when I like a book of these sub-genres.  I thought I would like this one from the summaries I read.  But within fifty pages, I knew this would be a slog.  I did find one part of the book interesting.  It’s toward the end, and surprisingly it’s a sequence where a committee tries to decide whether to trade with the Moties or not.  It was one of the few sections that I though was clearly written and the characters were actually differentiated.  

I give this book two stars out of five.  I wanted to give it one star initially, but thinking about it as a whole, it’s slightly better than the sum of its parts.  I’ve only read one other book by Niven and Pournelle, “Lucifer’s Hammer” (no review).  I read it in high school and listened to it on audio a few years ago.  I thought it was fairly well put together despite being a disaster novel.  Mote seems slapped together.  Niven and Pournelle published a sequel nearly twenty years later.  I have absolutely no interest in reading it after this book.