If you can figure out what this one’s about…

Out of the East came a plague wind;
Out of the West came fire.
Out of the North came a holy man;
And out of the Heavens, a Liar.

And from the east wind we grew weary,
and laid down our heads to rest.
And on the western fires we smothered
Our faces blackened in smoke.
And the man from the north found us dreaming,
and sang us soft words in our dream,
And we desired above all to be like him,
To struggle no more with life;
But out of the world came a fire
that turned our ash to desire.

Out of the North came Wisdom,
and out of the Sky came Hate.
Out of the Snow came Virtue,
and out of the Sun came Strength.
The wise man bows to fortune,
But the warrior spat on fate.
The Northman was born to early,
and the Heaven-born came too late.

The Dreamer taught us of wisdom,
bright truths and subtle lies;
The Seeker sought us in battle
and bade us open our eyes.
The Sinner brought us to peace–
one moment of peace in our lives–
The Slayer warned us of winter,
dark winter approaching us nigh.

The Warrior spat on destiny, as the prideful always do;
The Warrior struggled against the gale, and cursed the pitiless wind;
But the Wise Man sang to the tempest the song that it well knew.
The wild winds crushed the warrior; but they flayed the wise one bare.

The Secret Chapter – Genevieve Cogman

Maybe it’s two weeks of night watches, cold, lessened mental processing power, cold, drastically lowered expectations–I’ve been intentionally reading fluffy dreck all month–and it’s cold–but maybe Cogman is just finally getting a handle on how to write these books. With longish-running series where the first book showed raw talent but not much finesse, there’s usually visible and steady improvement. This is the case here, too. Book six does seem to be the turning point–so far (I’m about half-way through as of the bulk of this review) it’s “quite good”, and I would like to confidently predict that book eight will be excellent.

What do these improvements stem from? Cogman isn’t trying to write elaborate, complex plots of intrigue and subterfuge–so this one doesn’t revolve around a poorly-written mystery. She’s eased up on trying to portray clumsy or even non-existent subtext (Irene is a way more tolerable character when we’re not being told that she’s akshully much more intelligent and perceptive than she is). And, last but way far from least: the pacing is miles better than previously. All that stuff about having gunmen crash through the door (in this case, it’s ninjas from the ceiling) when you’re not sure what to do with your plot? In reality, that’s set-dressing–and here, it’s used appropriately. (There’s also a trap door and a shark tank). Even the characterization seems like it’s a little better, too. If you’re consciously and meta-textually using Archetypes in lieu of characterization, then not drawing attention to it every single time helps.

Also–as I’ve mentioned before–Cogman is very good at humor, and there’s often a deft seasoning where it is most helpful.  Adding an example here would be nice to prove my point, but I’m too tired to.

Plot: Irene has to save the world by getting a book, go figure. The world in particular is the one she went to school at; the book is a variant of the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, an Ancient-Egyptian manuscript once considered the world’s first fiction work (it’s not fiction and neither is the extra chapter in this particular version). The guy who has it is a powerful Fae who wants as his payment, assistance in a small matter…stealing a painting. The Raft of the Medusa, to be precise–and yes, this is more or less thematically important. So a team is assembled (and they actually are distinguishable from each other and have fairly distinct personalities. Awesome): and with the assortment of muscle, thievery, and other such knavery, there’s also a captive dragon working for the bad guy.
Said captive dragon who happens to be Kai’s disinherited and exiled half-sister. Oh, and the painting? Is guarded by dragons.

The job, naturally, goes sideways so hard it might have well have had wings. And it’s still up to Irene to save the day…

I’m not even going to ask why the job goes bad with such utterly cliched and telegraphed expectation. I mean, it’s every bit as inevitable, in context, as “the assassin who wants to retire is being hunted by his organization” or, “the spy with amnesia is being chased by his organization.” But eh, whatever. Jobs do in fact go bad (grouses the intern who has gotten five hours of sleep per night for the past two weeks).

So: problems. Before, most of my problems lay in the fact that the books were too talky, poorly-characterized, too talky, poorly-paced, too talky, showed a poor grasp of subtext, too talky, had little in the way of subtlety, and not to mention PEOPLE TALKED TOO EFFING MUCH IN THEM.

Well, the action is still scant on the ground, perfuntory and quickly elided-over when it does appear. And while there is a rather nicely done duel sequence to close off the second act, the opportunity to match and surpass it with another at the climax is totally and utterly ignored. And that’s a shame, it was a cool scene and it’s all alone and lonely out there.

But: the characterization has improved. Slightly. That is to say, some of the new guys are fairly amusing and even sometimes even distinguishable from one another. The older characters (Sterrington, Vale) are still wooden as particularly dense planks, but if you skip those scenes, you aren’t missing anything.

Better still, the pacing has improved. Things actually happen, in tolerable order and close to each other.

Rated: In a contest between very good Bleach fanfic or moderately poor originals, I sometimes wish Cogman would go back to writing fanfic…

Review: The Mageworlds series – Debra Doyle & James McDonald.

The Price of the Stars – Starpilot’s Grave – By Honor Betray’d – The Gathering Flame.

I hate this series.

I hate that it has a happy ending. I hate that it has a complex and seamless plot that isn’t over-labored or redundant. I hate that it sets up motivated and well-drawn characters and uses them brilliantly to carry out that plot. I hate that it treats them with respect and affection. I HATE THAT IT EVEN ALLOWS THE GUY WHO FAILS TO HAVE A DIRECT IMPACT ON THE PLOT TO BE IN A POSITION WHERE HE’S GOING TO WIN THE WAR AT ONE STROKE BY HIMSELF IF HIS KIDS HADN’T GOTTEN THERE TWENTY SECONDS BEFORE HIM. I HATE IT SO MUCH. Why does this series have so many competent, intelligent, plot-relevant, heroic, badass, and personable characters? WHY DON’T THEY ALL HAVE NO PERSONALITIES AND SPEND ALL THEIR TIME TALKING AND BE PUPPETEERED FROM SCENE TO SCENE AT THE WHIMS OF AUTHORIAL NECESSITY?

Oh, and I especially hate the fact that each of the characters grows naturally into the roles they end up playing, whether it’s simply being the person who stands by to witness the duel for the fates of the universe or the person who has grown capable of winning it. WHY AREN’T THEY ALL JUST PERFECT FROM THE BEGINNING? WHY DON’T THEY JUST WIN EVERY BATTLE WHEN THEY FIRST START OUT?

I hate that this is the closest thing to Star Wars I’m ever likely to get again. May all the gods of all the worlds consign Disney to all the painful hells their most drug-addled prophets can invent.

The Mouse Must Die–but you shoult try reading these books, they’re really quite good.

Disclosure: this review brought to you by sleep-deprivation induced saltiness.

The Price of the Stars – Debra Doyle

The Price of the Stars – Debra Doyle & James MacDonald

The Stars Asunder is an excellent title for an SF book. Unfortunately, it’s also book five or six of this series (the Mageworlds), and more unfortunately it was the only book my local library had at the time, which was about ten years ago. At the time, I was in a read-everything phase, and gamely attempted to chow down–with no success. Book six was just not an accessible enough jumping-in point. However, book 1 exists and I finally stumbled across it. I’m both happy and unhappy that I did. So my alphabetical traverse through my ebook library has reached the Ds and fortunately this one packet seems to have the entire series, in nicely numbered order.

It reminds me of Star Wars and James H. Schmitz. In fact: I’m pretty sure it’s meant as a Star Wars post-OT with the serial numbers filed off story. It’s got the powerful and popular once war-hero Domina married to a now-General, once-pilot and privateer who flew the Web in six hours flat (well actually closer to seven. Or six and a half. Note: hours, not parsecs, good grief). It’s got his ship from the days of his youth, the Warhammer, an archaic craft with outsized engines and more firepower than a cruiser twice its size, which he’s worked on and knows every screw and bolt and scratch. It’s got the ersatz-Jedi: the serene, staff-wielding Adepts, and their hated mortal enemies, the Mages. It’s got, not furry but still fiercely honorable and dignified saurian hunter-killers who speak in growls that humans can understand but find hard to make themselves.

It’s got a heroine who is tough and talented, but not so much that she doesn’t heed her mysterious and hypercompetent mentor or her navicomp, who is fiery and feisty and authoritative and smart, good in a fight, yet still vulnerable to injury–physical or emotional. It’s got her brothers: the Adept Owen (OK, IF THAT’S NOT A DIRECT SHOUT OUT I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO SAY) and the towering Ari. It’s got a young and inexperienced Adept with the unenviable position of bodyguarding said Ari. It’s got hoverbikes and gamblers and crime lords and raids and radio chatter (I really love radio chatter in fiction. In real life, it’s mostly “who was that for?” and random bursts of static when somebody presses the button accidentally.) It’s got a mysterious mentor and a complex backstory (or at least the pleasant illusion of one–the Magewars sound interesting and well thought-through). It’s got a swift-moving plot with intelligent heroes and also intelligent–though yet unseen (I’m on page 151/289) villains. It’s got gunfights, plane chases, space chases, knife fights, gambling dens, eye patches, and gunbelts tied down low. It’s got pacing and humor and and gun duels, sword-staff duels, mage duels, and heroes in long coats firing guns akimbo (that scene bears mentioning twice!)
It’s got emotional resonance.

It’s made me laugh and thrill and rush home to read as much as possible on break and then get really sad, because it’s made me want Star Wars–real Star Wars–again, and I won’t ever get it.

But this is one of the closest–and hands-down the best-written–analogues thereof I’ve seen yet.

Rated: The stars are ours!

NOW HEAR THIS (AWOOGA AWOOOGA)

Several important and slightly belated fandom announcements incoming:

1) The release date for the next Dresden Files novel, Peace Talks, has been announced. It’s stinking July of 2020. Damnit, Jim!

2) The Mandalorian is actually pretty decent. Not great–there’s a lot of what I call “tv-ness” about it, but I guess most of it was unavoidable.–but decent. And there’s at least a very solid, hard-core attempt to make it feel and especially to look like Star Wars.

So there’s that.

3) Also, yes, indeed, they were not lying. Baby Yoda is cute.

I have spoken.

QuikReviews – Inkheart & The Decoy Princess

Inkheart – Cornelia Funke
DNF, but it’s not this book’s fault. Translation or no translation, Cornelia Funke is no Diana Wynne Jones. This book has its charms–but it is not charming. Also, I was hoping for some great twist, like: Capricorn is actually the hero of his story, warped by his forced entry into a different world. Anyhow. My fault for not reading it properly.
Rated: Is the movie better than the book?

The Decoy Princess – Dawn Cook
Now this one, I actually quite liked. No, it isn’t brilliant, and yes, it has its share of cliches–but it draws its lines competently, has a deft share of humor, likeable and self-aware characters (if your hero is in danger of Mary Suedom: first person perspective helps tremendously) whom the author is not afraid to take down a peg or two, and a briskly-paced plot. Also, the hot guy: shirtless scene ratio is nicely unbalanced.

Plot: Tess has been raised her entire life as the Princess. She’s not: she’s actually a decoy (that’s not a spoiler, it’s the title of the book). What might constitute a slight spoiler is the fact that her mentor, bodyguard, and surrogate father, the Chancellor Kavenlow a) is actually a magician, b) is actually the power behind the throne, c) has been clandestinely training her as his apprentice, currently just a piece on the board but potentially his replacement in the game.

Given the amount of plot that happens in the first few chapters, Tess is going to need all the skills she has, and more besides to avenge the King and Queen (oops, spoiler), save the true Princess, defeat the evil Prince, and checkmate the hot enemy wizard.

Guess whether or not she succeeds. Go on, guess. I dare you.

It might be the sleep deprivation talking, but I really quite liked this book. Also, I really liked the description of Tess’s bullwhip as “eight lovely feet of keep-away-from-me.” Oh, and there’s a dog! He’s a plot-relevant and useful dog, and he gets a bone, because he is a good boy! That’s what I call quality writing.

Rated: four poison darts out of four.

Update: the sequel isn’t nearly as good. Too much blubbering.