Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Spare Man

Mary Robinette Kowal
Completed 12/3/2023, Reviewed 12/3/2023
3 stars

This was an okay book by a writer who has written some terrific stuff, including the Hugo and Nebula Award winning The Calculating Stars.  It’s a murder mystery aboard a spaceship traveling between the Moon and Mars during the ultra-rich main character’s honeymoon.  Reading this book felt like a throwaway, kind of fun, kind of suspenseful, a little science fiction-ish; certainly not up to par with the Lady Astronaut series.  The best part about the book was the characterization.  I didn’t get lost in the number of characters and there was a cute service dog that distracted me when the plot got boring.  I’m guessing this got a 2023 Hugo nomination on the strength of her previous books rather than on the quality of this one.  Of the four of the six nominees I read so far, this one was the weakest.

The main character is Tesla Crane, a brilliant engineer and one of the richest people in the world.  She’s on her honeymoon with the new husband.  Tesla was in a horrible space accident that left her permanently in pain from a severe spinal injury.  Fortunately, she has a device implanted in her that can prevent her from feeling the pain.  She sets it to varying levels depending on how much she needs her sense of touch.  She has an extremely cute service dog that everyone falls in love with.  On this trip, she’s using a digital masking device so she’s not recognized and swamped by fans.  Everything goes smoothly until someone is murdered and she and her husband are first on the scene.  The ship’s inept security suspect her retired private detective husband and take him into custody.  Tesla’s mission is to prove her husband’s innocence and find the killer before they strike again.

The characterization was quite good.  I had clear pictures and impressions of most of the characters.  The story is told from Tesla’s perspective in third person.  Through her we see the inept security team, the other ultra-rich passengers, her super-intense lawyer, and several of the service employees.  Almost everyone of these characters in her eyes is a suspect.  And she’s out to find out who the murderer is.  She’s really a good character:  determined, independent, successful despite being in paralyzing pain.  

I also really liked how the author portrayed Tesla’s PTSD.  It was very enlightening.  It included a terrible flashback and Tesla’s process for staying grounded.  The PTSD was the reason for Gimlet, her adorable service dog.  Gimlet could sense when the panic attacks were coming on and helped ground her as well.  Of the things that were right about this book, this was probably the most profound.

What I didn’t like about the book was that it felt like a standard murder mystery.  I don’t know how mystery fans would like this book, but I was often bored.  I didn’t feel like the story moved well until the last hundred pages or so.  I liked bits and pieces, like the introductions and interactions with some of the suspects.  I liked that the some of the suspects were guilty of other things, making them look suspicious.  But the time between these was not fast-paced.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  It was okay, but nothing special.  The prose was nice and world building decent.  The spacecraft’s concept was interesting, with different levels having different gravities:  Earth’s, Mars’, and the Moon’s.  Also, the descriptions of the Coriolis effect on movement in the ship were interesting.  But it just didn’t work as a whole for me. I found myself not really motivated to finish the book until the last quarter, and that because I just wanted to know who the murderer was.  

Sunday, November 26, 2023

When the Angels Left the Old Country

Sacha Lamb
Completed 11/25/2023, Reviewed 11/26/2023
5 stars

This was an incredibly delightful novel about a Jewish angel and demon at the turn of the 20th century who travel from the old country to America in search of a missing emigrant from their shtetl.  This book won the 2023 Mythopoeic Award as well as several young adult fiction awards, the latter I was surprised by because this book didn’t read YA.  It simply had a queer sixteen-year-old girl as one of the major characters.  This book is immersed in Jewish tradition and mythology and has the occasional Yiddish words thrown in.  Fortunately, at the end of the book, there’s a Glossary of Terms to help with the words.  This was one of those books where I fell in love with the main characters and was sad to see it end.  But I read it voraciously, in just over two days.  

Little Ash is a Jewish demon who studies the Talmud with a Jewish angel.  The reason for noting them as Jewish is because there are demons and angels from all the other faiths, a few of whom pop up later in the novel.  Little Ash and the angel live in a tiny shtetl (village) that doesn’t even have a name.  One day, they hear about a young girl who left for America but her family hasn’t head from her since she left Europe.  Since the family can’t afford to go to America, Little Ash decides to go and convinces the Angel to accompany him.  In a nearby larger town, a young girl named Rose emigrates to America, even though her best friend who was supposed to go as well, stays in the town because a boy proposes to her.  Little Ash, the angel, and Rose cross paths on the ship and end up hanging out together.  In addition, Little Ash names the angel Uriel for forged papers purposes, causing a transformation in the angel, for good or for worse.  Along the way, they find that the missing girl is just one of many emigrants from the Jewish area of Russia who have been tricked into indebtedness and forced to work for a pittance in factories in New York.  

I loved Little Ash and Uriel.  They are study partners, but having been studying so long, they are basically in a relationship, albeit, a non-sexual one.  But they certainly act like they are an old married couple.  Little Ash, despite being a demon, is not your Christian idea of a demon.  He’s more of mischief maker than anything else.  Uriel, before accepting the name for itself, is kind of an airhead, not remembering much and naming itself for whatever circumstance it’s in.  When Uriel accepts the name, at the prodding of the ghost of rabbi, it begins to take on more human characteristics, including remembering things, and having a more difficult time with circumstantial good vs. evil.  Both Little Ash and Uriel go through many changes on their journey, including that of their relationship as Uriel becomes more aware of itself and the world.  One of my favorite scenes is when the two go to a dance hall with Rose and Uriel develops an intense desire to dance with Little Ash.

Rose is also a great character.  She is in love with her best friend, even though she doesn’t understand the feeling, let alone have a name for it.  When her friend decides to stay in their hometown to get married, Rose is crushed.  Being a strong young woman, she picks herself up and emigrates to America on her own.  When she teams up with Little Ash and Uriel, the trip begins to feel more like an adventure, helping her get over her misplaced feelings.  

The world building is terrific.  It was a little reminiscent of the setting for The Golem and the Jinni in that much of it takes place in immigrant-heavy areas of New York City.  The scenes at Ellis Island are devastating, dispelling any fanciful myths about the process of immigration during the European exodus.  The scenes on the ship are intense as well, with the overcrowding and the contagious coughs and fevers.

Reflecting on the book a day after finishing it, I realize that it’s not a light book.  There are many dark scenes as the experience of immigrants was very difficult.  At the same time, there’s a lightness to the book in its supernatural foundation.  The banter between Little Ash and Uriel, and subsequently, with Rose, relieves some of the heaviness.  The book is not simply depressing, nor is it hysterical.  But it is funny and sad and dark and heartwarming.  It evoked many emotions in me which I did not expect.  It was simply a joy to read.  I give this book five stars out of five.

Thursday, November 23, 2023


Michael Moorcock
Completed 11/23/2023, Reviewed 11/23/2023
3 stars

This was an extremely well-written novel with terrible content.  It’s a parody of The Fairie Queen as well as an homage to another author.  It’s an alternative universe Great Britain and Elizabeth I, here named Albion and Gloriana, respectively.  It’s full of court intrigue and sex.  Somehow, the sex is done matter of fact and not pornographically.  The original ending was a terrible message and Moorcock was reprimanded about it, so he rewrote the ending.  It’s still not great, but at least a little more palatable.  This book won the 1979 World Fantasy and Campbell Awards, thus concluding my personal challenge of reading all the Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Award winners through last year.  I have yet to read this year’s winners, but they were outside the scope of my challenge.  

Gloriana has ruled over a Golden Age of Albion for thirteen years since the death of her despot of her father, the King.  Her only problem is that she can’t achieve orgasm.  Thus, she is unmarried, determined not to marry until she can be sexually fulfilled.  In the meantime, her Chancellor, Montfallcon, uses spies, kidnappings, and assassinations to preserve Gloriana’s throne.  This leads to some complex and underhanded court politics, namely, the employ of Quire, an extremely successful rogue, by Montfallcon.  After an argument, Quire leaves Montfallcon to work for another kingdom to help bring down Albion and Gloriana.  Suddenly, there are unsolved murders in the Court, destroying the peace within and without, leaving Albion on the brink of war with the Tatars and revolution from within its own borders.

The best thing about this book is the writing.  It is an homage to older literary works, with long paragraphs of prose and soliloquies.  The characters are very verbose, particularly Montfallcon and Quire.  I have to admit that while I can say it was beautifully written, sometimes I got a little bored with the length of some of the passages.  However, I mostly found it engrossing to read complex word choices and sentence structures.  I don’t know if I can say if the world building was imaginative since I haven’t read The Fairie Queen or any of Mervyn Peake’s works (to whom Moorcock dedicated the book).  But in and of itself, it is well crafted.

I also have to say that the characterization was phenomenal.  I had a good sense of who many of the characters were and what drove them.  There were some lesser nobles who blended into one another, but the main characters were extremely well drawn.  Montfallcon’s fall from grace is terrific as is Quire’s dastardly betrayal.  Gloriana herself was rather simple, but Una, her personal secretary, was a terrific, strong female character.  

The whole orgasm plot was pretty weird.  There wasn’t much sex, just a lot of allusions to it, very matter of fact.  As I said above, there was nothing pornographic about it.  However, Moorcock leads you down that path and your mind fills in the details.  


Along this plotline, the ending was pretty weird.  Gloriana finally achieves orgasm by overpowering her would be rapist by asserting herself as authentic self, not as Albion incarnate, as well as with the help of a knife to his crotch.  This is the revised ending.  Originally, she achieved orgasm during the rape, as in being completely out of control.  Fortunately, this ending was quashed by heavy criticism, particularly from Andrea Dworkin, the anti-pornography feminist and friend of Moorcock’s.  If this was written today, maybe Dworkin would have been a sensitivity editor and would have caught this before it was published.  But in 1978, I can see how the original ending would have gotten through the male-dominated publishing industry.  

Besides this major problem with ending, I also didn’t like how everything came together so neatly.  After writing such a complex novel, one would think Moorcock would have had a much more complex ending as well.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  Great writing, lousy sexual plotline, much too-tidy ending.  I’ve only read two other books by Moorcock, Behold the Man, a terrific parody of religion, and The Final Programme, a decent parody of spy novels.  In the next year, I plan to read the Elric Saga, one of his most famous works.  I hope that is equally well written with hopefully a less problematic plotline.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Songs of Distant Earth

Arthur C. Clarke
Completed 11/19/2023, Reviewed 11/20/2023
3 stars

As loved and prolific as Clarke was, I never found his books to be that amazing.  I often found them a bit tedious with so much time spent on the science and so little effort spent on the characters.  The Fountains of Paradise, one of his Hugo winners, was a yawner.  His other Hugo winner, Rendezvous with Rama, was like Space Odyssey, full of wonder, but lacking character development.  This book is not really full of wonder, but full of interesting science.  It questions why there are so few neutrinos from the Sun striking the Earth and devises a 20% of the speed of light form of propulsion.  There are a lot more characters than usual, and a lot more time with them.  There’s not much development, but at least we get some human interaction.  

Thalassa is a near-utopian colony inhabited by one of the early missions to escape the destruction of Earth from the Sun’s pending nova.  When they landed, they had communication with Earth for a while until a volcanic event destroyed their comm link.  About 700 years later, the spaceship Magellan approaches hoping to find the colony still alive.  The ship carries almost a million people in suspended animation and is one of the last colony ships to leave Earth.  A small delegation comes down to meet with the Lassans and offer to trade technology and art from the last centuries in exchange for millions of tons of ice from the ocean to use as a shield for their ship.  Of course, intermingling occurs between the Lassans and the just over a hundred awakened crew.  A few fall in love with the locals.  A few want to stay rather than continue on to the ship’s original destination, Sagan 2.  Several want to end the mission at Thalassa all together.  This all causes some strife and human drama.

What I enjoyed most about the novel was that human drama.  The characters are rather two-dimensional, but I actually liked them and empathized with them a little.  They had some normal interaction and dialogue, though the emotion was sparse.  One could say it was a little soapy and melodramatic, but I thought it wasn’t too bad.  One thing I didn’t care for with the characters were some of their names.  Some were borrowed from science fiction writers.  Some were a little too close to other fiction, like Mutiny on the Bounty.  Clarke even gives one of the characters who wants to abandon the mission to Sagan 2 the name Fletcher and has him reflect on whether his ancestors came from Pitcairn Island.  The familiarity of the names was just a little too, well, cute.

I also enjoyed the discovery of a possibly sentient sea creature during the Magellan’s stay.  It was a nice little scientific subplot that kept the book interesting.  I found that part more interesting than the vacuum drive Clarke describes.  

Like his other books, I give this three stars out of five.  It’s simply too devoid of feeling.  Even when one of the characters dies, there is little emotional response.  One of the main characters from Thalassan asks her lover from the ship to explain the need for grief.  Just too academic and stoic.  I did like the brief allusion to a bisexual encounter, but again, not much in the way of emotional description.  I’d say I liked this book about as much as Rama.  It was entertaining, but ultimately, I felt hungry for something more substantial.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023


Elizabeth Hand
Completed 11/13/2023, Reviewed 11/15/2023
4 stars

Finishing this book completes my challenge of reading a dozen books by the prolific Elizabeths of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  This is the third book by Hand I read for the challenge.  While her other books were fantasy and horror, this was science fiction.  It concerns an apocalyptic event which sets the atmosphere on fire, creating a glimmering of colors.  The society begins to decay and rival groups vie for power.  It is a rather depressing book, but Hand takes it interesting places with a mix of gay and straight characters trying to survive in a nightmarish world.  This book was nominated for a 1998 Arthur C Clarke award.

The book takes place at the turn of the 21st century as the glimmering begins.  Jack is an HIV positive gay man living at his family’s large ancestral home with his grandmother and housekeeper.  He owns a literary magazine which once rivaled the New Yorker, but as resources become scarce, he barely gets any issues published and distributed.  The magazine comes under the gaze of major world corporation from Asia, offering Jack several million dollars as long as he stays as the main power behind its publishing.  But he doesn’t know if he should take the offer as the world slowly decays and his supply of life saving medication dwindles like other resources.  But then an old friend and lover offers him a miracle drug from Asia that actually seems to work.

At the same time, Trip is a young Christian rocker on the verge of massive stardom.  However, his fame is threatened by temptation that comes from a sixteen-year-old Polish refugee and the popular new drug IZE, more addictive than heroine and on the verge of getting FDA approval for general distribution.  Trip and Jack’s paths cross as the world approaches New Years Eve and the doomsday cults are poised to rip the power out of the megacorporation that may have an answer to ending the glimmering.

This book is not long, but it packs a lot of punch into its 350 pages, as you can tell from the complex plot.  But Hand handles it deftly.  I was never confused by all the events taking place and was impressed by how she brought the characters across each other’s paths.  The science of the glimmering is a little vague, but its effects on the main characters and the general population are terrifyingly specific.  As usual, Hand’s prose is wonderful without being overbearing, creating a gritty wasteland of New York City and its suburbs and even the mess left of rural Maine.  

The characterization is terrific.  I felt like I was living inside both Jack and Trip, as different as they were from each other.  I didn’t care for either of them at first, but clearly empathized with them.  Jack’s ex, Leonard, is deliciously creepy.  He’s probably the most interesting character, being a Warhol-like photographer who specializes in species going extinct.  He also has his hand in various other ventures including AI and the music business, which introduces him to Trip.  He pops up throughout the book, and while not necessarily a bad guy, he has quite a few antagonistic traits.  

The book is clearly dated, with it forecasting the events of the change of the millennium, and its punk and grunge influence, but it still rings true in many ways for society today.  Near future apocalyptic books often do, the good ones, anyway.  And this is one of the good ones.  It’s a tough read, with minimal humor and lots of despair, but I found it engrossing and chilling.  I give this book four stars out of five.  

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo

JRR Tolkien
Completed 11/5/2023, Reviewed 11/5/2023
4 stars

I’ve never had much of a fondness for poetry.  I was usually too caught up in the mechanics to understand or appreciate the story, emotion, or sentiment.  That changed when I began to read Tolkien’s poetry.  For some reason, I got it.  This book is a collection of 14th – 15th century poetry that Tolkien studied and translated into modern English, keeping the form of the originals as close as possible.  The result in the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a phenomenal alliterative tale of morality and courtesy in Arthur’s Court.  Pearl is a dream-like fantasy of ABAB poetry, and Sir Orfeo is a variation of Orpheus and Eurydice again in ABAB style.  I enjoyed them in varying degrees.  

For the most part I enjoyed Sir Gawain’s tale.  I find alliterative poetry a little tough to get into, but generally can get used to it after about ten or so pages of it.  Alliterative means that there is a recurring sound in the line.  For example, “Attend the tale of Sweeny Todd” has three T’s.  When each line is like that, I find myself looking for the recurring sound rather than paying attention to the story.  But I did get into the story, which is basically a morality play.  

Sir Gawain, the nephew of Kind Arthur, takes a challenge to fight the mysterious Green Knight in a one-stoke only game.  Gawain gets the first stroke, with the Green Knight’s return stroke coming a year later.  Thinking he’ll kill the Green Knight, he cuts off his head, but the Green Knight gets up, takes his head and rides off.  Now Gawain is bound to find the Knight to let him have the return stroke. During the interim year, the young knight ends up in a castle where the lord engages him in another game of gift giving and chastity.  

I found it strange the Gawain naively takes up these games without thinking of the catches, but was able to suspend disbelief to enjoy the story.  The only real hindrance to my enjoyment was the somewhat archaic structure of the poetry, with subject, verb, object being bounced all over a line.  Like Shakespeare, you get it after a while, but it occasionally made it difficult to follow.  

Sir Orfeo was a cakewalk by comparison.  He is a king with a queen who is stolen by fairies.  He goes into a self-imposed exile to mourn her disappearance only to find a secret way into the faerie realm to bring her back.  It was very easy to follow the story, which is short and to the point.  Gawain on the other hand is nearly one hundred pages long.  

I didn’t enjoy Pearl at all.  It a story about a man mourning a deceased child.  He dreams she returns to him in a dream, appearing from heaven.  The narrator then sees images derived from John’s Apocalypse and David’s Psalms.  Mixing religious symbols in a dream state with poetic form made for tough reading.  If Christopher Tolkien didn’t have a forward to this piece, I would have been totally lost.  I felt this story was a blemish to an otherwise very good example of the erudite poetry that Tolkien excelled at.  

I give the book four stars out of five on the strength of Sir Gawain and Sir Orfeo.  The translations from middle English to contemporary poetry keeping the flavor and form of the original and still be able to tell a comprehensible story amazes me.  From other reviews, I heard that listening to the audio book is not as enjoyable, which makes sense.  I would think it would be much easier to read and listen to the poems at the same time.  Anyway, I’m glad I finally read this book, which had been sitting on my Kindle for a few years.  Hopefully next year, I’ll read another one of his translation books.  There are still one or two out there which I haven’t read yet.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

The Book of Lamps and Banners

Elizabeth Hand
Completed 10/28/2023, Reviewed 10/29/2023
4 stars

Elizabeth Hand is always a good read.  This one surprised me in that there is very little fantasy or sci fi in it.  But the premise is that there’s a book with fantastical powers that has been found and subsequently stolen.  A common premise, but Hand couches it within a mystery thriller with a drug-addled female anti-hero.  The result is a taut mystery that takes you from the crowded streets of London amidst neo-Nazi nationalists to the desolation of a Swedish island on the Baltic Sea.  This book is the 4th in a series featuring the protagonist, which I didn’t know when I got the book, but it reads very well as a standalone.  I slipped into the story and was immediately hooked on this mess of a middle aged woman searching for something that will provide her with a windfall to make her life easier.

The book begins with Cass trying to figure out what happened to her old boyfriend.  In the meantime, she runs into Gryffin, an old flame from her bookstore days.  He’s a dealer in antiquarian books now and has come across an amazing find.  The Book of Lamps and Banners was only ever rumored to exist.  It was written by multiple people over the centuries, perhaps even by Aristotle.  Filled with drawings as often seen in ancient books, it may also be the ultimate code.  Gryffin has sold the book to a woman who is writing software that would help people with PTSD and other traumatic events heal from it.  She purports that the book is the final piece of code she needs for her software.  Suddenly everyone around them begins being murdered in a mysterious way and the book is stolen.  Cass thinks if she could recover the book, she could sell it and make a fortune that would let her retire in Greece.  But actually doing that is a dangerous path.

Hand does a tremendous job with character development.  I felt like I was completely in the Cass’ head, right there with her as she snorts crank and drinks anything alcoholic she can get her hands on.  When she finally does meet up with her old boyfriend, she drags him into her chaotic life and quest.  If anything, I questioned myself on why I was so drawn to her.  It’s like watching a train wreck.  She somehow balances on the verge of OD, and her obsession with the book is ridiculous.  However, I was in it hook, line, and sinker.

The setting is also pretty amazing, between London and the remote Swedish island.  The world is on the verge of the COVID pandemic.  Nazi nationalists are on the move, and the Book of Lamps and Banners ties into their occult obsession.  When we move to the desolation of the island, that’s even more exciting than the bustle of London.  The writing is awesome, with the perfect balance between prosy descriptions and smart dialogue.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a terse thriller, and a great read in a genre I usually don’t get into much.  I think Hand is underrated as a fantasist although she’s won multiple awards for her shorter works.  I’ll be reading one more book by her before the year is out, a sci fi piece, which I’m really looking forward to.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Time Enough for Love

Robert A Heinlein
Completed 10/21/2023, Reviewed 10/21/2023
3 stars

This book is extremely well written.  Despite my taking nearly two weeks to finish this longest of Heinlein’s works, I felt like I sped through it.  Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy what I read.  I found the constant proselytizing about the benefits of polyamory, free love, and community childrearing to be tedious after a while.  The science fiction in the story was an aside.  In fact, there was very little science fiction in the book at all.  Sure it had computers, time travel, space ships, and DNA manipulation, but it was all just a platform for Heinlein to preach his sexual utopian ideas.  

Lazarus Long is a man who is at least 2000 years old.  He is the patriarch of a huge family which keeps records of him and his descendants.  When he is pulled by one of his descendants from a brothel where he’s contemplating finally dying, he’s rejuvenated and given the will to continue living.  During that time, he tells stories of his past to help fill in his historical gaps.  Then he goes back in time to see his family when he was a child, but instead of going back after the end of WWI, he goes back at the beginning, and gets involved with the war as well as his family, and most disturbingly, his mother.

I have to say that the characterization is quite excellent.  I had pictures in my head of almost all the characters, between their looks and their dispositions.  I was quite amazed that I kind of liked Lazarus and the members of his commune.  I used to think Heinlein was misogynistic.  After reading this, I believe he wasn’t.  He believes women are made to be fully realized humans.  He just happens to be obsessed with having as much sex with them as he can, as Lazarus did.  And Lazarus finds all the women who want to have sex with him, so it’s a win-win situation.

There were some things that made me cringe a bit.  The most glaring one is that there are a fair number of jokes about rape that wouldn’t made it past an editor or publisher of a book written today.  On the other hand, there were some surprises as well.  Galahad meets Ishtar for the first time after deciding they were going to have sex.  When she takes off her helmet he says, “Oh, you’re a woman.”  Ishtar replies, “Does that matter?”  Galahad says, “I guess not.”  I thought that was a decent nod to sexual fluidity, more than I would have expected from Heinlein and the early 1970s.

The part of the book I liked the best was where he goes homesteading on a planet with his new wife Dora.  They have lots of children together and create a sexual utopia.  However, this really reminded me of the quote I once heard which irked me at the time but felt relevant here.  If you take the science fiction out of a story and you still have a story, it’s not science fiction.  While I still don’t buy it completely, I did feel like this book wasn’t really science fiction.  It was merely the background in which Heinlein gets to espouse his utopian fantasies.

I gave this book three stars out of five because I thought it was really well written.  The characters were great, even though Lazarus Long is clearly Heinlein.  However, I didn’t really enjoy it.  There wasn’t much of a plot and I felt like I was getting hit over the head with the sex, even more so than some sci fi and fantasy erotica I’ve read.  I think I’d rather read about sex than the philosophy of sex. 

Sunday, October 8, 2023

An Apprentice to Elves

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Completed 10/8/2023, Reviewed 10/8/2023
3 stars

Finally got to the conclusion of the Iskryne trilogy.  It was okay.  I thought it better than the middle book, A Tempering of Men.  But what I realized with this volume is that I felt that the prose was generally uninteresting.  And by prose, I mean the descriptive parts of the book.  Usually, the descriptions of the characters and the world fill out the missing parts and make world and the characters come alive as much as the dialogue.  In general, though, I simply wasn’t interested in how the authors were describing anything.  I just wanted the plotlines to keep moving.  I think all three books suffered from this, but it was most evident in this volume because I actually liked the plot and wanted to see what happened next.

The main plot concerns Alfgyfa, the daughter of Isolfr from the first book.  Being a woman, she can’t bond with the wolves.  So Isolfr sends her to the Elves to apprentice as a blacksmith rather than having her become a housewife-ish person.  The book picks up where she goes to the Elves and of course, being human, gets into a lot of trouble.  She excels at smithing, but her ideas and actions don’t mesh with the behavior of the underground society of Elves.  So Tin, her mastersmith, takes her back to her father, where the Northmen are trying to figure out how to deal with the Rhean invaders.  Alfgyfa becomes somewhat of an ambassador to the Elves.  There are two factions of Elves, the ones who metalsmiths and the stonesmiths.  The two had a schism millennia ago, but now both are needed to help fend off the Rheans.  Alfgyfa has a relationship with both and tries to help reconcile the division before the Northmen go to war.

Alfgyfa was generally a likeable character.  I enjoyed her feistiness.  Tin was also interesting, and in general, the smiths were interesting in that they were female Elves.  So if you find the wolf-bonding of the human men a bit misogynistic, you get a reprieve in the women doing traditional masculine work.  It made for interesting relationships, particularly between Alfgyfa and other apprentices.  I also liked  Otter, the woman slave of the Rheans who is rescued by a Northman and taken in as his daughter.  Her perspective is interesting as an outsider looking into this wolf-centric society.  

I thought this book was better than Tempering in that the characters who were featured were much more definable.  There were still too many men and their names, their wolves’ names, and other pseudo-Nordic names still ran together.  But the introduction of Elven names as well as the Rhean pseudo-Roman names helped keep from drowning in the similar sounds.  And the major points of view were from the women:  Alfgyfa, Tin, and Otter.  

All in all, I thought this wasn’t a bad book, and it ended the trilogy pretty well.  In general though, I don’t think this is that good of a series.  Despite giving A Companion to Wolves four stars, I’d give the trilogy as a whole only three stars.  Once past the novelty of the human/wolf relationships wears off, it’s just another fantasy, with not much that’s really special. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Oath of Gold

Elizabeth Moon
Completed 10/3/2023, Reviewed 10/3/2023
5 stars

This book is the best out of the three in The Deed of Paksenarrion series.  I loved the first two, but this one is full of character development and magic all wrapped up in an exciting conclusion.  The book starts with Paks at her lowest point and builds her way back to being a king maker.  It’s like Moon saved up all her best ideas for this book.  The series reminded me of Lord of the Rings in its imagination and execution.  It’s like Moon took LOTR, deconstructed it, and from the remains constructed something original told from a female perspective.  This series is that tremendous.

This book begins with Paks wandering the countryside begging for work and food.  She makes her way back to Master Oakhollow, guardian of the trees, who is able to heal her from the torture by the evil forces of the spider demon.  She then joins a group of ranger elves where she builds back her skill and confidence as a warrior.  She also finally accepts that she is meant to be a paladin, acknowledging all her magical gifts, including the ability to heal.  Finally, as a paladin of Gird the saint, she begins to get messages from the gods which eventually put her on a quest to find and restore the lost heir to a nearby kingdom to his rightful throne.

Reading this book was like a homecoming, even though I had just read the first two in the last two months.  When I opened this book, I realized just how much I loved the character of Paks.  Reading how she traveled the land trying to survive to making her way back to Master Oakhollow’s grove and finding healing there was so moving for me.  This followed by the journey of accepting her paladin gift simply stole my heart.  There were a few things in this book that I could see coming from a mile away, like who the missing king was.  But the journey to that moment was exhilarating.  

This is going to be a rather short blog entry, as I already feel like I’ve given away too much.  Suffice it to say, I loved this book.  Five starts out of five.  It is one of the best high fantasy trilogies I’ve read in a long time.  The prose is wonderful as is the world building.  Paks growth from being a Sheepfarmer’s Daughter to warrior to spiritual pilgrim in Divided Allegiance to paladin in this book is marvelous.  I also felt that many of her other characters were pretty well developed as well, with only a few one-dimensional baddies.  

(You should be aware of the trigger warning:  this book has some graphic torture and allusions to rape.  It is hard to read.)

This series deserves to be named among the best fantasy series ever.  I think Moon is quite the master story teller.  I think she really needs to be made a Grand Master.  These books plus Speed of Dark and Remnant Population are among the best I’ve ever read.  I think Moon is up there in my top five favorite authors now.  

Sunday, September 24, 2023

100,000 Hits

I reached 100,000 hits on this blog.  I started it back in 2014, making this my tenth year of writing book reviews.  It's been almost exclusively Science Fiction and Fantasy. 

I don't know if all the hits are actual readers, or if many are bots from around the world, paging through the blog.  Whatever, it's 100,000 baby!

You Sexy Thing

Cat Rambo
Completed 9/24/2023, Reviewed 9/24/2023
2 stars

This was the September selection for my online book club.  I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the runner up, The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse.  I thought this book was a good premise that was not executed well.  My biggest gripe is that the point of view kept bouncing around, mainly between two characters, but also from the other characters on the ship as well as the sentient ship itself.  The book starts out from Niko’s POV, then spends a lot of time from the Princess’ POV.   I prefer when it’s one character’s POV, or when the change happens at chapter breaks.  There are some other issues that I’ll discuss later on, but this was the big one for me.  

The plot is decent.  A former military captain and her retired squad open a restaurant in a space station.  They’re trying to get a good review by a food critic when the space station begins exploding.  They escape on a sentient biomechanical space ship called You Sexy Thing, as in the hit song from the 70s.  The ship is commandeered by a pirate and they are taken to a pirate haven.  There the captain, Niko, short for Nicholette Larsen, as in the 70s ballad singer, confronts the head of the pirates, her long time nemesis, as well as an old flame whom she left there in the pirate haven decades ago.

The best part of the book for me was the ship.  It began not unlike many other spaceship computers in many other stories, but this one becomes more human, and a better cook, from knowing Niko and her crew.  I also liked Niko, despite her flaws.  I think the book would have been much better if it remained in her point of view throughout.  I wish I’d gotten to know her better than we do.  She has many interesting relationships, with her crew, with the ship, and with her long lost lover.

Of all the characters, I liked Princess Atlanta the least.  She was delivered to Niko in a stasis box at her restaurant.  Turns out she is heir to the Empress.  I found her to be very boring.  We spend too much time in her head through the middle part of the book.  Her observations and reminiscing held no interest for me, even when she witnesses the death of one of the crew by the pirate king.   

This book is part of a series called Disco Space Opera.  Except for the name of the ship, I found nothing very disco or disco-era related about the story.  And you’d think that with the ship’s name and the captain’s name, there’s be a lot more 70s references.  I kept looking for them, but there weren’t any that I could find.  I was very disappointed.  I felt misled by the series name.  I thought it would be more fun than it was.  In fact, I thought there was a lot more tragedy than there were things fun or comical. 

I also didn’t like the long periods where nothing happened.  And there were many.  The longest was perhaps the waiting while the crew is on the ship being taken to the pirate haven.  I think that part was intended to relay deeper understandings of the characters by their interactions with each other and the ship.  Instead, I found it to be terribly boring.  They also do a lot of waiting when they’re imprisoned by the pirate king waiting to be tortured or killed or whatnot.  

Lastly, I felt the ending was too nicely wrapped up.  Even though it has a cliffhanger for the next in the series, all the loose ends were resolved as you would expect.  

I give this book two stars out of five.  I thought the writing was uneven.  With the bouncing POVs and the long dry sections, I felt the author could have used a good editor.  And while some of the non-human characters were described decently, overall, I felt the world building was pretty weak.  I don’t have any intention of reading more of this series unless I hear overwhelmingly that the author has gotten better.  

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Divided Allegiance

Elizabeth Moon
Completed 9/17/2023, Reviewed 9/17/2023
4 stars

Another outstanding tale of Paksenarrion , picking up where it left off in Sheepfarmer’s Daughter.  Moon continues with excellent prose and world building, but this time, introduces elves, dwarves, and orcs.  This book didn’t suffer from second book in a trilogy syndrome.  It’s plot felt apropos of Paks’ growth as a warrior and exploration of her magical and spiritual side.  It ends on more of a cliffhanger than the first book did.  It’s certainly not a standalone book and leaves you wanting more.  I was impressed by how much I liked the story and how emotionally involved I was with the aloof main character.  My only complaint was technical:  It was reported on my ebook as 322 pages, but almost every page was two swipes.  I was only reading about 10-12 pages an hour and I couldn’t figure out why for the longest time.  Then I found on other websites that this book in other forms is over 500 pages long.  Sneaky.  So if you want to read this book, settle in for a longer than expected ride. LOL.

Paks takes her leave of the mercenary army at the urging of the Duke with the invitation to return at any time.  He wants her to find her true calling based on the magical powers she seems to have but has no control over or understanding of.  Hey journey meets her up with a half-elf to help her across the mountains.  He convinces her to follow him to a secret elven place where treasure may lie.  It’s on the way so she agrees.  It turns out to be a much more dangerous task than the elf revealed.  However, she escapes with much treasure.  Eventually she makes her way to a place for military and spiritual growth where she’s invited to train as a paladin.  The marshals there recognize that she’s quite advanced already and allow her to accompany a quest to find the hidden fortress of Luap, friend of Saint Gird.  Gird is the patron of warriors fighting for good against evil.  However, the quest is her toughest yet and full of terrible dangers.  

The coolest part of this story is the introduction of the different races:  elves, dwarves, and orcs.  After a fairly standard military first book, this one plays more on the fantasy aspect.  Like the first book, there’s a lot of traveling which at times gets a little boring.  The landscape is profusely detailed and slows the pace down.  But unlike the first book, more happens on the way, which makes up for the long dry sections.  And to be fair, it’s not that dry as the prose is still delicious.  

Paks is an interesting character.  She’s definitely not a Mary Sue.  Lots of things happen to her, good and bad, and her reactions are uneven and sometimes downright depressing.  Despite several years as a mercenary, she’s still a simple, good-hearted young woman with a fair amount of naivete.  At times, I sat there thinking, “No, no!  Don’t think like that!”  However she does, and the choices are not always good ones.  In fact the ending of this book is a big downer, but it does leave you wanting to see what becomes of her.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It held my attention well, even though I often felt I wasn’t making much progress because of the misrepresentation of the page numbers.  I think I would have felt like I was making better progress if it listed the pages as 528 normal length as opposed to 322 long pages.  But aside from that technicality, I loved reading it and will hit the last book in the trilogy after my next book club read.  

Saturday, September 9, 2023

The Tempering of Men

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Completed 9/9/2023, Reviewed 9/9/2023
3 stars

This book felt very much like a middle book of a trilogy.  It had a sort of lull in the urgency of the story.  But it was still a pretty good book, once I got into it.  The hardest part for me though was all the characters.  There are a ton in this book and they all have very complex names.  The setting is a pseudo-Norse culture, so the names are Nordic in style, as are the place-names and titles.  It took me about a third of the book to figure out who was who of the major characters, and the minor characters, well, I lost track of some of them.  I wished I had read this much sooner after the first book of Iskryne trilogy, A Companion to Wolves.  I think I would have enjoyed it even more.

Because of the names’ complexities, I can’t give much of a plot summary which would include them, except for a few, the ones I remember.  Isolfr, from the first book, establishes his own den/community of wolves and the men who are bound to them, as well as some women.  His wolf takes two mates, which means that the community has two war leaders.  So there is some conflict between them.  However, they go to wipe out the last of the trolls.  Now with no enemy, they have to figure out what to do with themselves.  Fortunately(?) another enemy appears, Rheans, i.e., pseudo-Romans.  They have invaded the island and are slowly trying to conquer it.  So the community, in fact, all of the wolf-linked and wolfless communities must come together to figure out how to fend off other men from their Scandinavian-like existence.

There are several subplots in the middle of the book which are interesting.  They include sending an emissary to the Rheans, which includes one of the war leaders, Skjaldwulf.  He gets taken prisoner as a witch because of his psychic connection to his wolf companion.  The other war leader, Vethulf, takes a group to kill a wyvern that is plaguing a community.  A third subplot includes two others, Brokklfr and Kari, who go exploring a cave and running into elves (alfs).

One thing I liked about the book is that there is a little more romance to the relationships between the men.  In the first book, sex seemed to be devoid of emotion.  In this book, Vethulf and Skjaldwulf are genuine lovers, as are Brokklfr and Kari.  While there are hardly any sex scenes in the book, you get the sense that the men actually love each other.  

The world-building is quite phenomenal, with the Nordic culture, the wolf-relationships, the names, the place-names, and the pantheon of Othinn, Thor, and Freya.  The prose is touch and go.  There were times where I really enjoyed it and other times when I found it confusing.  I think the confusion again came from all the complex names.  

I give this book three out of five stars.  It seemed like a lot of set up for the third book.  I was kind of surprised that the war with with the Rheans didn’t happen in this book.  I guess the the next book begins with it.  I am more intrigued by the third book, as the description says it follows Isolfr’s daughter.  Women don’t have a large role in this series.  So it will be interesting to see how the authors roll that plot line in.  

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter

Elizabeth Moon
Completed 9/2/2023, Reviewed 9/3/2023
4 stars

I don’t usually like military novels.  This one is about a young woman who joins a mercenary army, complete with basic training and detailed massive battles.  However, I was pretty engrossed in this book.  I was taken in by Moon’s skill at describing combat so well with enough details to explain what the character was engaged in while keeping me focused.  Only occasionally did my mind wander during these scenes.  This was partly due to Moon’s amazing prose.  I almost never got tired of reading it.  This is the first book in a series as well as Moon’s first novel.  This book was nominated for a 1989 Locus First Novel award.

Paksenarrion, who goes by Paks, is an eighteen-year-old girl who runs away from home and a betrothal to a pig farmer to join a mercenary army.  She’s very tall and quite strong.  She loved hearing stories of battles from her older brother and always dreamed of being a soldier.  Now she’s committed to two years of service after basic training.  Despite an attempted rape by a despicable colleague, she successfully completes training and begins life as a soldier.  For a medieval-like army, it’s rather modern with its military style and acceptance of women in the ranks.  And Paks excels in her new field.  The story continues campaign by campaign with Paks becoming a star soldier and discovering her possible magical nature.  

What really jumps out at you in this book is Moon’s detailed yet engrossing battle scenes.  Moon herself was in the US Marine Corps and her goal with this novel was to write accurate battle scenes and military life.  She succeeds stupendously.  At the same time, Paks grows as a soldier and as a person.  She develops a sense of morality which is reflected in the type of army its financier, a Duke, wants to maintain. 

What really helps in this are the prose and the world-building. I couldn’t believe how well-described everything was, from the fighting to the people to the landscape.  Yet it was never boring or overly flowery.  Moon kept it concise without sparing interesting details.  And the world building was phenomenal.  The detail in the cities and villages and even in the specifics of the road they marched through was amazing.  It read like Moon had maps of all the land as well as detailed maps of each town they encountered.  But it was rarely boring.  

Paks and the cast of major characters are very well developed.  Except for occasionally getting confused with the plethora of side characters, I felt I grew with Paks and her fellow recruits.  Paks maintains a sense of innocence through her experiences but grows nonetheless.  There’s a particular sequence where Paks and two others not near the fort where they are held mildly captive when the army of an evil lord captures their armies, torturing and decimating them.  The sequence features the deepening of their friendship as they try to return to the Duke to warn him of what happened.  I was astounded at how much I empathized with the three and was devastated by the tragedy at the end.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  My only complaint was that it was a little slow during the long marches during the campaigns.  While things are revealed and clarified during these scenes, it did occasionally get dry.  Aside from that, this book was terrific.  And it astounds me that this was her first novel.  I’m planning on continuing this trilogy, and possibly reading the extended series.  For now, I’m sticking with the trilogy, as I already have a huge TBR pile.  Elizabeth Moon needs to be considered for a Grand Master honor.  I have thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read of hers.  She’s prolific and puts out great things.  She’s become one of my favorite authors.  I highly recommend checking her out if you haven’t already.  

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse

Robert Rankin
Completed 8/25/2023, Reviewed 8/26/2023
3 stars

This book lost in a runoff vote for my book club.  It was cheap so I got it.  It was fun, but not uproariously funny.  The ideas are great, like the title.  It had a lot of good running gags.  But in the end, I felt kind of empty, sort of like eating a big puff of cotton candy.  It’s sweet and fun, but in the end, it didn’t fill you up at all.  I was glad I read it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to read another book by this author. 

Jack is a farm boy who leaves for the big city.  In this case, it’s Toy City, formerly known as Toy Town.  It’s grown immeasurably since its early days.  When Jack gets there, he finds it inhabited by sentient toys.  He comes across a teddy bear named Eddie who was an assistant to the great private investigator Bill Winkie.  Winkie is missing so Eddie has taken up his latest case, finding the serial killer behind the murders of famous nursery rhyme characters.  The two team up to solve a mystery that could mean the destruction of Toy City itself.

Despite being pretty fluffy, the characterization was pretty good.  Jack and Eddie are well developed characters.  Eddie is constantly trying to be taken more seriously than a teddy bear normally would be.  And he has a word-relationship problem so he can never complete a simile.  He can only say “as good as” or “as crazy as”, never completing the thought.  Jack is also well thought out as a thirteen year old doing adult things.  Some of it’s a little questionable, like getting drunk with Eddie.  I found that disturbing.  But overall, I liked Jack.  He’s read all the Bill Wilkie pulp detective novels so he knows how to play this PI game better than Eddie.  

What I liked most about this book was that it was rather fun.  It didn’t take itself seriously.  It was a lot like Robert Asprin, although I thought Asprin was better.  It’s a bit Monty Python-esque, just not quite as good.  The author is British after all.  Some of the jokes and puns fall flat, but others work.   I give this book three stars out of five.  

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Nettle & Bone

T Kingfisher
Completed 8/19/2023, Reviewed 8/19/2023
3 stars

I really liked the byline of this book.  “This isn’t the kind of fairy tale where the princess marries the prince.  It’s the one where she kills him.”  This is a subversive novel in that sense.  It is pretty dark, but very satisfying.  The prose is excellent, as I’ve come to expect from Kingfisher.  I’ve really enjoyed her work so far.  The last book of hers I read was A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, which was really inventive.  This one is inventive too, but I found it a slower read.  It’s only about 250 pages, but I found I couldn’t really zip through it until the last fifty pages or so.  That’s when it really grabbed me and I fought immense drowsiness to get through the end.  This book was nominated for a 2023 Hugo, which will be announced later this year, and a 2022 Nebula.  While I think this book is pretty good, I don’t think it’s exactly award worthy.

Marra is the youngest of three princesses.  Her eldest sister is married off to the prince of the large, neighboring kingdom to the north.  She dies by “accident” less than a year later.  Then her next sister is married to the prince.  When she becomes pregnant, Marra goes to visit her.  There she finds that the prince abuses her sister.  Vowing vengeance on the prince, she completes some impossible tasks to get the favor of a gravewitch to help her in her quest.  Together with the witch, a demon-possessed chicken, a reluctant fairy godmother, a handsome former knight, and a dog made of bones, she attempts her quest to kill the abusive prince.

What I’m finding of Kingfisher is that her prose always seems to be excellent.  Even when, as in this case, the story falls a little flat, her books are always incredibly readable.  Her world building is also quite amazing.  Her system of magic in this book, which not extensive, is unique and well defined.  I was impressed by the different levels of fairy godmothers.  I also liked that Marra was able to perform the “impossible” tasks as requested by the gravewitch.  

I really liked Marra as a character.  While she vows vengeance, she’s a rather reluctant hero.  When her sisters were married off, she was sent to a convent for safe keeping in case both died and she would have to wed the prince.  She actually liked the convent.  There she joined in the chores willingly and had time for sewing and embroidery, which she loved doing.  And the sisters were kind to her, and to each other.  When she leaves the convent for her quest, she’s nervous, unsure of what she’s doing, only knowing that she must do something to help her abused sister.  

Overall, I did like the book.  I just don’t feel it should win an award.  I would however, like to read more of Kingfisher.  She reminds me for some reason of Patricia McKillip in her style, content, and length of books.  She doesn’t have to write a huge tome to get a point across.  Sometimes a sweeping saga isn’t necessary for every idea.  A short book can do just fine to give you an entertaining fantasy experience.  I give this book three out of five stars.  It’s very good and very enjoyable.    

Sunday, August 13, 2023


RF Kuang
Completed 8/13/2023, Reviewed 8/13/2023
5 stars

This is a beautifully written alternate history of the British Empire in the 1800s, where the Empire has achieved its dominion through the use of magical silver and language translation.  With themes of slavery, oppression, racism, sexism, and colonialism, it creates a personalized view of these -isms and reveals the haughty, narcissistic culture that Britian had in dealing with other nations it thought were barbaric.  It’s also a metaphor for how we as modern nations still treat other countries and peoples, particularly in this time of the rise of Karens and other insidious white supremist thinking.  This book won the 2022 Nebula, the 2023 Locus Fantasy Award, and was nominated for the 2023 World Fantasy Award.

Robin Swift is a Chinese boy plucked from Canton during a cholera plague by the mysterious Professor Lovell.  He takes Robin as a ward and trains him in Latin, Greek, Chinese, and English.  Lovell then gets him enrolled at University College at Oxford where he trains to become a translator and a manipulator of magical silver.  While at Oxford, Robin discovers that there’s a secret society called Hermes whose mission is to undermine the magical silver industry that Britain uses to dominate half the globe.  Robin is torn between his love of learning and languages and the battle against injustice.  This comes to a head when Robin and his classmates go to China with the Professor to help translate between the local Cantonese government and the British corporations that are trying to sell opium under the guise of free market capitalism.  

This book just astounded me.  First it drew on my amateur fondness for languages and linguistics, then turned into a gripping tale of revolution and world peace and justice.  I was also just amazed at how much I loved the prose.  For a book not told in first person, it beautifully captured Robin’s character development from abused child to comfortable student to revolutionary.  The prose also created three supporting characters of great depth and individuality:  Ramy, a Muslim Indian; Victoire, a Haitian refugee; and Letty, a spoiled British Admiral’s daughter.  Together with Robin, they all are language lovers and are honored to be at Oxford’s School of Translation, aka Babel.  But this slowly deteriorates as they mature and have more exposure to the tenets of Hermes.

I did not really have much sense of what this book was about.  Even the book’s subtitle, “The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution,” was rather confusing.  This is the current read for my book club, and there was concern that this book would be pretentious, especially with a long title like that.  But I found it personal and accessible and deeply empathized with the main characters.  I don’t always like Regency British fantasy, finding it too haughty to tolerate.  But it worked in well with the conflicts of Robin and his cohort.  Professor Lovell is simply ghastly, typically bigoted, self-centered, and narcissistic, just like most of the faculty at Babel and the other students throughout Oxford.  

I thought the world building was quite impressive, bringing in some anachronisms for which the author apologizes and explains in the forward.    But it’s all so subtle, like the railway system being built a few decades earlier than in reality, and of course the tower of Babel in the middle of Oxford, which never existed.  Kuang did a terrific job making it all seem natural and fluid.  Add in the magical silver and you have a fantastical and oppressive empire in which it is easy to become complacent unless the country that’s being oppressed is your homeland.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was bowled over by how much I loved this book.  Everything from the prose to the characterization simply worked for me.  It’s a long book, over five hundred pages, and it took me a week to finish, mostly because work had me so exhausted during the week, I got almost no reading done until the weekend.  I think some people might find it dry, especially the first half which features Robin and his cohort in their first three and half years at Babel.  It’s a lot of detail about languages, their relationships, and the problems with translations.  But I found it fascinating.  

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Jade Legacy

Fonda Lee
Completed 8/6/2023, Reviewed 8/6/2023
5 stars

I know I’ve said this a lot lately, but wow!  Wow!  This book was terrific.  I’m glad I read the whole trilogy close together.  I was completely invested in the lives of the Kaul family.  Reading this book was like coming back to a warm place, even though it’s about Mafia-like families where the primary conflict is over the magical Jade and who dominates the Jade trade and thus the economy of the island of Kekon.  There’s lots of violence and politicking, but it’s so well-conceived and executed with amazing character development that I couldn’t put it down.  I got through this 700+ page book in just over a week, flying through it in basically over two weekends.  I would have gotten through it sooner if work didn’t get in the way. LOL.  This book won the Canadian Aurora Award and the Locus Fantasy Award for 2022.

This final volume is a sprawling conclusion to the Green Bone Saga trilogy.  Lots of things happen, but the crux of this book is the ultimate confrontation between the No Peak and the Mountain clans.  The Kaul family runs the No Peak clan.  They navigate negative press and pressure from the Mountain clan, trying to survive in the Jade business.  Hilo, the Pillar; Shae, his sister the Weather Man; and Anden, their adoptive cousin work together to expand the No Peak clan’s influence abroad.  But whenever they take one step forward, the Mountain clan pushes them two steps back.  

Needless to say, the world building is amazing.  I was completely immersed in this pseudo-Asian culture and completely bought into the magic and power of Jade.  The prose is also just spectacular, lyrically descriptive without being overbearing.  The character development, well, it goes without saying that I felt a part of the lives of the Kaul family.  All three main characters mature, growing into their roles in the clan as well as in their personal lives.  I felt particularly attached to Anden who is gay and trying to balance his clan responsibilities with finding love in his life.  Similarly, Shae must come to grips with her own passions, allowing herself to love the man she has pined for for a long time.  And Hilo, while still hot-headed, grows into a formidable Pillar.  As for the Mountain clan, their Pillar, Ayt Mada, well, I can’t help picturing the amazing Michelle Yeoh playing her deliciously malevolently if this ever becomes a film or series.  

I know I’ve been pretty vague in this review, throwing nothing but superlatives, I don’t have much else to say about it.  A plot summary would go on forever and give away the drama.  Anything else I could say has already been said in the reviews of the first two books, Jade City and Jade War.  But this book gets five stars out of five because it all came gloriously together.  I’m so glad I read the first book in my World Fantasy Award challenge, otherwise, I may never have experienced this incredible ride.  

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Jasmine Throne

Tasha Suri
Completed 7/29/2023, Reviewed 7/29/2023
4 stars

Wow, another fantasy with a lot of politics and scheming which I actually loved.  This time, the story is set in an Indian-like culture.  The general plot is not that original, but the world-building, the characterization, and the prose are simply marvelous.  The politics, while fairly complex, were easy to follow.  There are a lot of characters, and the point of view jumps from chapter to chapter, but I had no trouble keeping track of who’s who and who was speaking.  And the magic system is breathtaking.  This book won the 2022 World Fantasy Award and was nominated for a few others.  Definitely worthy of the WFA despite a strong list of nominees.

Malini is a princess who was one of three women condemned to burn for traitorous activity against the emperor, her brother.  However, she refused to willingly climb the pyre.  The emperor exiles her to a ruined temple.  The temple was once the home of the deathless waters of one of the empire’s subjugated kingdoms.  Priya, a former child priestess of the temple and once born of the deathless waters who hides there as a maidservant, is assigned as the sole servant for Malini.  When Malini discovers Priya’s true nature, their destinies intertwine as Malini tries to escape and overthrow her despotic brother while Priya ties to push the empire out of her homeland.  Amidst the drama, a slow burning romance develops between the two women, but ultimately, their duties comes before pleasure.  

There are a lot of themes explored in this book, primarily the subjugation of women.  The despotic emperor fills his court with priests who believe in the burning of women as the original mothers voluntarily immolated themselves as sacrifices.  But for this emperor, it is pure sadism.  As a response, Malini tries to bring her eldest brother back to reclaim the throne, a claim he renounced when he became a monk of an alternative religion.  Malini’s captivity stands in her way.  She is governed by the vindictive mother of one of the other young women burned on the pyre, feeding Malini a drug that keeps her despondent, depressed, and eventually will kill her.  Priya is her only hope of escape.

Priya is a fantastic character, a strong but self-doubting woman with some gifts from having gone through the deathless water once.  Not a Mary Sue character at all, she must find the determination to help free Malini if there is any hope for freeing her own people.  I really liked Priya for her strength and determination, despite not always feeling up to the challenges she faces.

The third main character, Bhumika, is the wife of the emperor’s regent.  She is also a priestess of the temple and twice born of the deathless waters.  Her character comes into play when the action really begins. Through her, we, and Priya, learn just how powerful the gifts of the deathless waters are.  

I thought the world building was just phenomenal.  Based on Indian folklore, Suri creates a vivid world of power and decay.  The magic system is based on nature.  When the characters really start to use it, it’s pretty fantastic.  The prose is dreamy, but not over the top.  There’s a lot of well described action to keep the pace moving.  At over five hundred pages, this prose could have made this book a snore.  Instead everything was vivid and immediate, a real pleasure to read.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s an excellent book that makes you anticipate the sequels.  The only thing that kept this book from being five stars is that, while really enjoying the main characters, I found I was never completely engrossed in them.  Perhaps it was because Priya and Malini kept their feelings for each other at bay for so long, I too felt an arm’s length from really connecting with them. But just about every other aspect of this book is top notch.  I’ve started so many trilogies lately, I don’t know when I’ll get to the second book of this one, but I probably will eventually.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

A Deadly Education

Naomi Novik
Completed 7/22/2023, Reviewed 7/22/2023
3 stars

I think I usually like books about angsty teenagers, but it’s been a while since I’ve read one.  In this book, the teenager covers her angstiness with meanness.  That I don’t like.  Through most of this book, the main character is just plain mean.  And the story is told in first person.  It made me feel like the anger was directed at me, not just the other characters.  Towards the end, she makes a conscious effort to be less mean, which helped a bit.  The saving grace of this book was that the world building was terrific.  It’s not just your ordinary wizard school, not another Harry Potter rip-off.  It has a much more pragmatic, contemporary feel, as if it could really exist.

Galadriel, who prefers to be called “El,” is a junior at the Scholomance, a school for wizarding.  Her mother was lone wizard, not belonging to one of the many enclaves around the world.  El, as a result, has a disdain for the teens from the enclaves and as well as those who are trying to find a way into one.  The book opens with her being saved again from a monster (a mal) by one such teen, Orion.  The school is overrun by mals trying to eat the students and Orion seems to have a mission to protect as many students as he can.  El hates that fact that she has to be saved.  Thus starts a rocky relationship between the two of them as well as a few other loners, and of course the scads of mals overrunning the school.

Don’t be fooled though.  This is barely a teen romance.  It is a coming into one’s self and figuring out one’s place in the world.  El has been the petulant child for a long time.  At the Scholomance, she’s only ever looked out for herself, who seems to attract more mals than other students.  When she was young her grandmother divined a prophesy that El would bring about a reign of destruction.  So she has been shunned most her life.  Entrenched in self-sufficiency, she must now learn to survive by accepting help from other people.  

I spent most of this book not liking El.  At best, I pitied her.  That must have been Novik’s intent because I don’t see how anyone can like her.  Occasionally, her reflections and insights had some humorous bits, but it made my reading of this book a veritable slog.  At barely over 300 pages, it took me a long week to read this book.  I just didn’t want to be in El’s head that much.  

Fortunately, the school is another character in the book.  It’s crazy structure and format made for interesting reading.  What I found strange though was the purge of seniors at graduation.  It’s revealed to us early on that on graduation day, the seniors are gathered in a big hall which rotates down into the depths of the school where the mals wait to eat them.  The lucky ones escape; the unlucky ones, well, they don’t.  But apparently, this is better than going through your teen years out in the real world.  So the students basically study magic to build their repertoire enough to help them escape graduation, and develop enough of an arsenal of spells to make it through life after Scholomance.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  I was very disappointed in this book after thoroughly enjoying Novik’s previous two novels, Uprooted and Spinning Silver.  I did start to warm up to it at the end when El finally lightens up a bit and has to work with others to try to fix the apparatus that was supposed to keep the mal population at bay.  The world building and the ending helped keep this book from getting two stars.  

I got the whole Scholomance trilogy when the individual books were on big sales, so I’ll probably read the rest of them.  After all of El’s meanness, I saw some hope for her at the end and want to see what happens during her senior year and as she makes her way out into the real world.  I also want to see what more Novik can build into this world.  

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Jade War

Fonda Lee
Completed 7/15/2023, Reviewed 7/15/2023
4 stars

Really impressed that the sophomore effort in this trilogy is nearly as excellent as the first, Jade City.  At about the same length, it took me a little longer to read this book because work had me so exhausted that I fell asleep a few nights after reading just a couple of pages.  I will admit that there were times where the action slowed while Lee brought the reader up to speed with what happened to all the characters since the end of the last book.  Those sections weren’t boring, just slow.  And some of the international politics slowed things down a bit, but again, it wasn’t a trudge.  This book was nominated for several lower profile awards, but I would say it should have gotten more than it did.  

This plot summary has spoilers for the first novel, so beware…

It’s been eighteen months since the end of the first book.  Hilo is now Pillar of the No Peak clan.  He has married his lover Wen.  Without his knowledge, she does some spy work for the clan.  Hilo’s sister Shae is Weather Man.  She has her hand in all the business and politicking.  And she has taken on a lover.  Anden, the gay adoptive brother is all but punished for his rejection of Jade and indoctrination as a Green Bone.  He has disrespected the family, but his conscience won’t allow him to become a Green Bone after killing a man in the clan wars.  So, Anden is sent to Espenia to study abroad, but also to feel out the situation for bringing clan business to the mainland.  The Mountain Clan is gaining power and influence on the island since the death of Hilo’s brother Lan.  However, there is a tentative peace between the clans after all the violence of the previous few years.  In the meantime, war is raging on the mainland, causing uncertainty in the Jade trade, both legal and illegal, and the international relationships of countries and businesses with the clans.

What really stuck out for me was how much Hilo had matured.  He was the Horn of the clan, basically the head of the clan’s “army”.  He was hot headed and vengeful.  In this book, he’s much more subdued.  He still has the same faults.  They are just tempered.  Some of that is attributable to having a wife and a growing family, making him a more responsible leader.  This can be shown by his decision to send Anden to the mainland rather than a complete exile.  

Another standout is Bero, the street urchin who killed Lan.  The book begins with Bero again, this time, he and his accomplice steal Lan’s Jade from the grave.  This causes an all-out manhunt by the No Peaks, but Bero is still slippery.  He has an incredible power of survival.  And while he doesn’t get equal page time the clan family, his seemingly impulsive actions steer the course of the war between the clans.

I was excited that Anden got more page time in this book.  After sulking for a while in Espenia, he ends up an active part of the Kekon community there and even gets a boyfriend.  However, Cory is the only son the Pillar of this part of Espenia.  So you can see what’s probably coming there.  Still, his character developed very well.  

Lastly, Wen, Hilo’s wife, also gets more character development and page time.  I liked her as well.  As the stone eye, that is, a person unaffected by proximity to Jade, she finds ways to help the clan, despite Hilo’s insistence that she does not put herself in danger.

I was never one for crime family dramas, like The Godfather or The Sopranos.  However, I am fully immersed in the Kaul family saga.  I can’t wait to read the last book in the series.  So much happens in this book, so many twists and turns, that it kept my interest once the setting was reestablished in the beginning.  The crazy politics was even interesting.  This series would not be my usual cup of tea, but I found it just amazing.  I could hardly put it down for the last hundred pages.  I give this book four stars out of five, knocking off one star only because it took a while to ramp up.  

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Siren Queen

Nghi Vo
Completed 7/4/2023, Reviewed 7/5/2023
3 stars

I was disappointed in this novel after reading the first three books of Vo’s Singing Hills series.  Beginning with The Empress of Salt and Fortune, it was gorgeously written and beautifully imagined.  While I thought Siren Queen was well written, the imagination was a little flat.  The book is a take on ‘30s era Hollywood, with its young stars and starlets, but infused with real monsters, not just the basic Harvey Weinstein kind.  It’s narrated by a young, queer, Asian-American woman who will do anything to become a star, even become a monster herself.  I think my issue with it was that the narrator had a stoic, disaffected persona.  She hardly let anyone get close, even when she fell in love.  You might say that that’s how she kept going in the harsh world of the Hollywood studio system, but it also prevented me from having much empathy for her.  Still, it’s a good, brisk read.  I finished this book in two days.  

Luli Wei grew up during the depression outside Hollywood to a family that owned a laundry.  When a movie theater is built, she saves her nickels to go.  When she doesn’t have any money, she lets the ticket taker cut an inch of hair and take a few years of her life for admission.  One day, she happens upon a movie set and the director takes her for a one-line role in his film.  Soon, she is getting regular, but tiny screen appearances.  When she turns eighteen, she gets into a studio with a three-year contract.  It’s on her terms: no Asian stereotype roles.  But she finds that it is not an easy place to be an out queer Asian-American woman in a racist, homophobic industry.  Even worse, she also finds that the success of the studios has to do with blood and sacrifices, human sacrifices.  

My favorite part of the book was the beginning.  I really enjoyed watching Luli grow up wanting to become a movie star, and then actually landing small, walk on roles.  When she finally gets a contract with one of the big three studios, it becomes less interesting for a while.  It didn’t pick up for me again until Luli finds her first love.  Then things get interesting.  We find out more about the human sacrifices and Luli lands a major role as a siren of the sea.  However, once she got to the studio, I lost the empathy I had for her as a child.  She keeps her distance from most people, including the reader.  

I think another thing that had me lost was the world building.  The magic system and monsters are all very vague.  There’s a lot of it, but it’s not clear how it all works.  I think I like my magic a little more well-defined.  I got a little lost in what was real and what was not.  Were the ghosts of the dead ancestors real?  Was the taking of years off your life real?  After reading enough of the book, I realized, yes, it was all real, but it did not seem well integrated into the world.  Whenever it popped up, I was surprised and a little hesitant rather than immediately accepting.  I guess I couldn’t suspend my disbelief very well.

I give the book three out of five stars.  It never quite came together for me.  It lacked the warmth I look for in a book.  Instead, this was cold and dark.  I won’t give up on Vo though.  I’m looking forward to the next novellas in the Singing Hills series and will probably read the next few novels she comes out with.  I really like her prose.  And I think she comes up with interesting ideas.  But in this book, they weren’t quite put together as well as I would have liked.