Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Golden Enclaves

Naomi Novik
Completed 4/11/2024, Reviewed 4/11/2024
4 stars

Well, I finally enjoyed a book in the Scholomance series.  It all came together for me in this concluding volume.  Once again, we spend a ton of time in El’s head, but this time, I felt like all her rage and frustration was justified and coherent.  And the book takes place after graduation, so it’s not all take class/kill monsters.  We get to the root of the problem with the monsters and the destruction of the enclaves.  We get relationships with wizard parents.  And of most interest to me, we find out what happened to Orion at the end of the last book.  This book was nominated for a few 2022/2023 awards, but I thought this one should have gotten a Hugo nod as well.  

Galadriel, or El, has escaped the graduation ceremony of the Scholomance and helped all the remaining students escape.  However, Orion, who was last with El, pushed her out as the portal closed, leaving him locked in the school with all the mals (monsters) as it goes off into the void.  She goes home to Wales where she grieves for Orion while her mother tries to help her through it.  Eventually, some of her closest classmates come to drag her out of her depression and go back to try to rescue Orion.  They do, but he is not the same person, appearing to be about as bad as the mals he destroyed.  Then they get word that another enclave has been destroyed.  They are called upon to help rebuild the enclave and figure out what’s causing such cataclysms.  Of course, El’s most important task is to figure out what’s wrong with Orion.

As in the first two books, the writing is amazing.  It’s hard to believe that Novik was able to write three books of what goes on in El’s head.  For me, this time, it was completely engrossing.  I was finally empathizing with El and could understand the constant, near-stream-of-consciousness rant that was going on inside her head.  She had clearly grown since the first novel.  She is still kind of a brat, but a much more mature brat, reconciling the fact that she’s one of the most powerful wizards of the last generation or so, as well as the fact that she might not be able to save Orion from the state he is in despite her amazing powers.  I was fully invested in the rollercoaster of emotions she experienced through the whole story.

I also liked that we got the history of the origin of the school and the wizards’ enclaves around the world.  It completed the world building that was begun in the first two books.  It also fleshed out the magic system and the source of the mals.  It was quite gruesome, but brilliant.  Hats off to Novik’s imagination.  I would think it was not easy to come up with a magic system that seems fresh after all the fantasy that has been written over the decades.  

In the end, I have to say that it was well worth reading this trilogy.  I’m glad my book club picked all three books.  In retrospect, it was a good experience.  I bet it would make a good reread knowing the end and looking for all the foreshadowing in the first two books.  I also bet El’s hyperactive, angry mind would also make a lot more sense as we finally meet her mother and her father’s family.  But I probably won’t reread it anytime soon, as my TBR pile grows continuously.  I still have the first three books of Novik’s first series waiting for me on my e-reader.  Sigh.  So many books so little time.  I give this book four stars out of five, and would venture to say that as a whole, the series is a four star series.  If you want to check out the reviews of A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate, click on those purple titles.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Starter Villain

John Scalzi
Completed 4/7/2024, Reviewed 4/7/2024
4 stars

This is a short, entertaining novel by one of my favorite authors, John Scalzi.  He has written some good space opera, but has also written some wonderfully witty pieces.  Redshirts and Kaiju Preservation Society are two of his funnier pieces.  This one ranks up there with them.  It’s about man who has inherited his estranged uncle’s villain empire and the trouble he ends up in because of it.  It’s a comical fish out of water story with numerous twists and turns that you’d expect from a story about villains double- and triple-crossing each other.  And it has typing cats and talking dolphins.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and was surprised by the big twist in the end, even though I knew one was coming.  This book has been nominated for a Hugo this year.

Charlie is a loser.  He’s divorced and lives in the house owned by his late father.  His half-siblings are nipping at his heels to sell the place.  Charlie, who’s a substitute teacher doesn’t really have any other place to go.  One day a strange woman appears on his doorstep announcing she worked for his recently deceased uncle Jake.  She makes him an offer to get him the house along with some inheritance money if he stand in at his uncle’s wake.  It turns out that the only people who show up at the funeral home are clonish business men who just want to make sure that the uncle is dead.  When he returns home, he sees the house blow up and quickly burn to the ground.  Someone wants him dead.  The mysterious woman whisks him off to the uncle’s secret lair on a volcanic island in the Caribbean and the intrigue begins.

Charlie is a wonderful schlemiel.  He’s instantly lovable in his misery.  When he’s whisked off to the secret lair, you immediately think he’s going to inherit the whole villain business.  But it’s not quite that simple as there are other villains who want a piece of the uncle’s fortune.  Of course, Charlie is just a “starter” villain and has no experience dealing with such devious people.  However, he does have some tricks up his sleeve that make you love him even more.

Some of the best moments in the book are the genetically modified cats who communicate by typing on keyboards.  Two of them, Hera and Persephone were spies for the uncle, making sure Charlie was not the target of the other villains.  They were both snarky and endearing.  And then there were the foul-mouthed dolphins who want to unionize after feeling like they’ve been under-appreciated and under-compensated for the work they did for the uncle.  

The thing about Scalzi’s more humorous books is that the writing is not very prosy, but it is very readable.  It moves the action very well, and is rarely dull.  It is interesting that in the acknowledgments, Scalzi noted that he caught covid during the writing of the book.  While the physical symptoms were not severe, it did scramble his thinking quite a bit.  Not only was the book late to the publisher, but it required some major editing where it was evident he was writing while sick.  He must have had some good editors, because the book is easy to follow.  It only bogged down a bit about halfway through when Charlie is at a convention of villains learning about their evil organization and the reasons for their wanting a big chunk of his uncle’s business.  (Some meta timing here, I’m writing this review with a serious head cold hoping this is readable, LOL).  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s more fluff than anything else, but it’s good fluff, entertaining and enjoyable.  I’m at the point where I’ll read just about anything Scalzi publishes.  This one lived up to all my expectations.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Trading in Danger

Elizabeth Moon
Completed 3/31/2024, Reviewed 3/31/2024
3 stars

This is the first book I’ve read by Elizabeth Moon that I didn’t think was great.  It was good, but not great.  I thought it was uneven in pacing and I had a tough time staying interested in what the character was doing.  Moon’s prose is terrific, as usual.  When I began the book, I was pulled in right away.  But as I reflect on the book to write this review, I have concluded that the sum of the parts was better than the whole.  In the end, I just didn’t quite care about the main character.  

The book begins with Kylara Vatta being kicked out of a military academy in her last year.  She helped someone whose blabbing to the press brought shame onto the academy.  Expelled, she is returned to her family which owns a huge interstellar transport company.  Her father gives her command of an old junker of a ship to deliver some cargo and then sell for scrap.  Once again, she makes a judgement call that blows up in her face.  She contracts to deliver agricultural equipment to a planet that’s been waiting over a year for another company to deliver.  On the way, the FTL (faster than light) console starts to go out.  She goes to another planetary system to acquire the ag equipment and get the necessary repairs.  However, the system is on the brink of war, leading her and her crew from one crisis to another.

Ky is a strong, well-developed character.  She’s the only daughter of the Vatta family and the only child who wanted to go into the military rather than the family business.  Her problem is she sometimes makes bad choices that lead to terrible consequences.  Her road to hell is always paved with good intentions.  However, she always seems to come out stronger at the other end.  But this time, she’s in the middle of a war, something no captain of her family’s cargo business has ever had to face.

She’s got a good crew, too.  I liked the “babysitters” that her father sent with her on the ship.  They were strong supporters of Ky and not annoying “told-you-so” characters.  The bad guys show up when her ship is contracted by mercenaries to carry some passengers from other ships.  That’s when the real action begins, testing Ky’s mettle.

While this wasn’t exactly military sci fi, it wasn’t space opera either.  It was sort of an old-fashioned space adventure with a modern female lead.  It was crafted well, with the character going from one bout of trouble to another, like a good plot should.  I think the problem for me was that the build up from the time Ky is expelled to the beginning of the war felt meandering.  Granted, the character was meandering as well, dealing with the expulsion, the loss of her boyfriend at the academy, the question of whether she’s worthy of commanding a ship, and debating about entering a contract on her own.  By the time the real action starts, I had lost my interest in her.  

The ending is good, however.  I was pretty satisfied with it.  But once I finished the book, I felt kind of meh.  Hence, I give it three stars out of five.  The characters are good, the prose is good, the world-building is good, all the parts are good.  I just don’t have any inclination to ready any other books in the series.  There are four more in “Vatta’s War” and two in “Vatta’s Peace.”