Book Review: The Untold Story by Genevieve Cogman

Well, as a dog returns to its vomit, so do I to this series. Thank God this seems to be the last one. I can’t think of another series written so poorly, by an author with such demonstrated and wasted potential, which I have wanted to like so badly. I mean, she was SO GOOD at writing Bleach fanfiction, surely that talent translates directly into the real world of real books with real covers9781984804815_p0_v1_s1200x630 and real sales, right?

Genevieve Cogman is not a good author of fantastic adventure. These books are ponderously slow, verbosely talky, amateurishly plotted, clunkily executed, and her characters have all the depth and warmth of ukiyo-e paintings, except without the craftsmanship or crisp elegance of design. And it’s really freaking depressing, because she had a bright, sciffian idea which would have made a really cool story if someone with actual abilities had written it, thought about it, and carried through with its possibilities.

That idea was this: incorporate fanfic versions of characters from other novels into this novel, using the justification that they are real people from other universes, recognizable because of their existence pan-dimensional Library. Think about it! Sherlock Holmes! Jareth from Labyrinth!….uh….some other characters from public domain literature! Like, like…uh….umm….the Disney Princesses!….I mean, not the Disney princess archetype, just a generic princess archetype that happens to not be under copyright. Um. How about a black guy being the police commissoner in pseudo-Victorian London?

At it’s core and base, this is supposed to be about book-stealing Librarian spy catburglars. Also secret identities, magical systems, and zeppelins. Also a horrifying and terrible villain driven mad by secrets from the depths of time and space and space-time and L-space. Also dragons. Where does it go wrong? And how can you possibly go wrong with dragons?

In so, so many different ways, but I’ll let my past reviews speak for themselves. This is the last book and the series plot, such as it is and believe me it is pretty damn weak, gets resolved.

So, anyhow, we eventually found out in The Dark Archive, that dread villain Alberich was Irene’s biological father. Or at least, his original body was. He’s an orb of chaos-infused energy bound to a moving corpse, now. Needless to say, this reveal was fucking obvious from BOOK ONE, but it still gets a full dramatic treatment in that book and into the next–this one.

Irene wants to do something about her father, preferably something that ends with his death. Also, worlds are disappearing. She has a series of conversations with people, and after about one third of the book has gone by, gets permission from the Library elders to covertly strike against Alberich. Also, worlds are disappearing. Another third of the book goes by, in which we learn that worlds have been disappearing, that Alberich is actually willing to talk terms with his daughter, and that The Library doesn’t want them to.

This is, we are led to suspect, because the Library doesn’t want people looking into the secrets of its founding. Also worlds are disappearing. How unfortunate, therefore, that during the past couple of books Irene has stumbled onto several stories concerning exactly that–stories of the founding of a mysterious library from both the Fae and Dragon point of view–and now, she finally finds out that there is also one from the human POV.

And it kind of matches what Alberich has been saying: that the Library is corrupted.

So a meeting is set up on a world that by no means has yet disappeared and absolutely has no reason to disappear and could not possibly be a trap by which inconvenient people who know too much are set up to disappear. Guess what happens then? No, go on, guess.

Anyhow, Alberich sacrifices what’s left of himself to break them free, and off they go again. Honestly, even with Alberich being as poorly-served as he has been throughout the series–and he was defeated by the heroine in every single book so far–he’s still kind of my favorite character from this series. I’ve always liked the villains who have, somewhere wayyyy far off in the distance, a noble cause or an ideal to aim at, but in the meanwhile don’t hesitate from saying, “let me be evil,” rolling up their sleeves, and getting to it. I also like family-as-villains (who doesn’t)–especially when they are willing to apply that selfsame philosophy to their family members, and willing to accept that turnabout is fair play. And, making your first appearance disguised in the skin of an enemy you have defeated and killed is kind of badass. Despite the fact that he was completely ineffective in each incarnation, Alberich himself is treated with enough dread and caution by the other characters that he still retains some inkling of menace–even when he’s just a walking burnt-out, dessicated corpse in a monk’s hood, which honestly takes some doing. Even the two-paragraph long summary of his fall to darkness and Irene’s mother’s escape, is more interesting and compelling than anything else in this entire damn book.

But anyway, with the series 95% done with and the person who has been the main villain of the series abruptly out of the way, we get introduced to the real evil behind the scenes. It’s as exactly as stupidly anticlimactic and frustrating as you might imagine. It’s defeated as easily as ever by Irene, and let me tell you how disappointed I was at that. I was even annoyed that Irene got a happy ending and her powers back.

How do you go wrong with such a provocative idea? Why bother to file the serial numbers off your Sherlock if you’re going to use him as a glorified doormat? Why pull Jareth off of dance-number duty without a long-standing sexual tension plot with the heroine (on the other hand, their relationship, such as it is, has the benefit of consistency.) Why make your dragons the epitome of stick-up-the-cloacaness and…actually, just why?

There are good aspects to this work. Beginning authors can read them and make careful notes about what not to do. (Hint: HAVING YOUR ADVENTURE FANTASY NOVEL BE ALMOST ENTIRELY DIALOGUE IS A BAD IDEA.) Struggling authors can find new strength in rage knowing that this garbage is getting edited and published instead of them. Readers can…read something else instead.

Rated: I really wanted to like these books! Goddamnit!

Jawbreakers: G0d-King

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This pin-up scared the hell out of my three year old niece, I may add.

TLDR: I liked it, but comic books really aren’t my thing. 

So: as we may or may not all know, Jawbreakers is a comic book franchise created by Ya Boi Zack / Richard C. Meyer, and there was quite a bit of drama surrounding its initial publication. Short version: Ya Boi had an actual publisher lined up to print and publish the intro novel, Jawbreakers: Lost Souls, but due to enormous social media pressure by the SJW comics mafia, and potentially illegal interference by comic book writer Mark Waid, the publisher bowed out of the deal. Meyer turned to crowdfunding, and has been enormously successful ever since. I reviewed Jawbreakers: Lost Souls here. I thought it was almost excellent. 

The Jawbreakers (They’re superheroes who fight crime. By punching it in the face. Since they have super strength….geddit?) are an ex-superhero team now working as mercenaries in Africa. And it’s an interesting team of varied and colorful characters, from the mute ninja who lives for revenge against his own father, to the code-switching bulletproof black guy (“Kuffs! Get in front of the tank and shield it with your body!”) There’s also a blind priest, an ex-marine, and the tormented and grieving team lead/main hero, Silkworm. They are contacted by Autumn, a young superheroine whose team, The Millenials, has been treacherously murdered. She’s come to hire them, knowingly, to enact a suicide mission.

She wants them to save the city. She wants them to kill a being who has stolen himself the power of a god.

She’s also their leader’s estranged daughter.

Also, that godlike power? She wasn’t kidding. As soon as they set foot in New York, their weaponry turns to rose petals and drifts away.

Dun dun dun.

Book 2 develops the story a bit more….and kills off part of the team…revealing Mute Ninja Guy’s true (or are they?) colors, and setting the stage for the fight with G0d-King. Frankly, it’s been a while since I read this one (it was bundled in with my copy of Lost Souls, which currently resides at my parents’ house) and the only thing I remember is I didn’t like the artwork quite as much.

Book 3, which I finally had enough disposable income to buy, concludes the saga, with heroism, excitement, giant mechas, god-guns, ninjas!, pretty pictures, humor (Silkworm undercutting the villain’s villainous boast to his Lovecraftian masters is the most hilarious counter to a monologue ever played dead straight), and even a heartwarming conclusion. It….

It’s….great.

Except it’s really, really abrupt.

…see, the problem is, Meyer treats these characters as though they’re multi-year established characters that the audience is intimately familiar with, has followed through adventures, knows them, knows their adversaries–such as the ones that pop up for one panel, get punched in the face, and then limp off clutching their jaw and muttering–and understands all these nuances of the setting and plot without prior setup in-story. In this story. And this is a problem, because while these characters may have this rich history, it’s in Meyer’s head, not within the (admittedly, expanding, but I’ve only read Lost Souls and G0d-King) extant canon of stories.

The story hangs together fine, it’s logical and the characters are consistent. And the art was prettier in this one than in the second, so that was nice, because I actually slowed down and looked at it now and then.

So, yeah: my only problems with this book is that a) it’s not an actual book, it’s a comic book. If you wanted to be a real writer, why not write real books….but actually my real problem is: It’s very abrupt and there’s very little setup. This may be a comic book thing–but I get the feeling that mostly that it’s a “lack of gigantic backstory canon that is actually written down for audiences, Zack” thing.

Anyhow. Will I buy more Jawbreakers books? There’s a simple enthusiasm in this franchise that is very endearing. Like Correia at his best, you can sometimes hear Meyer giggling to himself as he writes out sound effects for action-comedy scenes.–or feel the lump in your throat at the serious ones. On the other hand, these things are expensive, they take about twenty minutes to read through (because I’m not some moron with no reading comprehension who has to look at pictures), and they’re not exactly infinitely re-readable. 

Rated: it was great, but comic books just aren’t my thing. 

State of the author: blessings

shadow52fcPrimus: This is supposed to be a sci-fi/fantasy review blog. I swear, I have at least three posts upcoming on that theme:

  • Moms in SF,
  • a review of Jawbreakers: G0d-King,
  • and…since I’m now at The Shadow #59, The Crime Master, which is superb…there’s going to be a review of probably that one,
  • and definitely a review of The Circle of Death, which was also superb.

Secondus: Count your blessings. A gratitude habit / journaling or recording things you are grateful for each day, with specifics, is a powerful tool for improving mental health and resilience. And the amazing thing about being specific in numbering out your blessings is that they will multiply before your eyes.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Shadow of the Conqueror – Shad Brooks – QuikReview

shadow-of-the-conquerorEnthusiastic, imaginative, and inept. 

It’s a first novel, and it has the clawmarks of one: big ideas; enthusiastic, imaginative but vague worldbuilding; exposition delivered mostly through dialogue; characterization delivered mostly through dialogue; action described mostly through dialogue; and unnecessary dialogue pointing out themes and moral implications that have already been made obvious by basic narration or other dialogue strings

There are also several structural failures: the main hero-buddy duo just doesn’t work (although the secondary one does, mostly). What’s worse for the book as a whole, none of the humor is quite as funny as it wants to be; the book itself could have excused a multitude of faults with a strong infusion of black, self-aware humor.

Continue reading “Shadow of the Conqueror – Shad Brooks – QuikReview”

Readlist – The Durdane Duology and more

– The Durdane Trilogy (The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men, The Asutra) – Jack Vance. This is a trilogy that really, really should have ended with the second book. Or at least, had a hard-handed editor crack down on Vance, who allowed his cynicism and (apparent) dislike of the main character invalidate that hero’s entire arc, work, and struggles.

Books 1 and 2 set up a subtle parallel between the main hero, Gastel Etzwane, and the two most prominent supporting leads: the mysterious and neutral Ifness, and the fraught Jerd Finnerack. When Etzwane is a young boy, fleeing from mortal danger, he encounters Ifness–who (bound by a strict policy of neutrality!) refuses to help. Later, when Etzwane encounters Ifness again as an adult, Ifness–ostensibly for reasons of sheer pragmatism but, potentially, also as a subconscious or semi-conscious atonement–makes Etzwane his accomplice and sets the reins of power in his hands, before exiting stage left in the fashion of mysterious mentors.

Meanwhile, when Etzwane was also a boy, he did a great harm to Jerd Finnerack, who was attempting to help him; and when he is able to, recruits Finnerack as his assistant…and sets the reins of power in his hands.

Etzwane is not particularly bitter against the man who harmed him, or at least can control the desire to act on his dislike; Finnerack is, and might–or might not. The conflict between the two grows throughout book 2 as they both increase their abilities–Finnerack more so than Etzwane, and Finnerack with decreasing stability. It is one of the driving sources of tension in Book 2, as our heroes  clash even while they are attempting to unify the planet and destroy the barbarian hordes of invaders. –with heroic, protagonistic success, but not without incident–

And then, Ifness comes back and takes over (the neutrality policy has changed! Now his actions are, it is revealed, motivated by a desire to embarass and displace his superiors), and Gastel Etzwane’s time, efforts, sacrifice, struggles, worries, plans, and battles are completely forgotten or negated; Jerd Finnerack is destroyed as a character with an almost cruel abruptness. Several fairly important plot threads are completely abandoned in order to make this work. Worse still, this is all done together with a bait-and-switch moment that was aggravating just on the surface of it.

Still, Book 2 provides an overall satisfactory conclusion to the problems of the world Durdane and its leadership, and the journey of the boy Mur, aka Gastel Etzwane, the musician who became its leader.

The way Book 3 ends makes me assume Vance was forced to write another chapter just for the sake of it, disliked the obligation, and decided to deliberately make the readers suffer. Here’s how: he takes a bunch of standard SF tropes and our hero…and then (with malicious intent!) applies “Except Now Reality Happens” to what should be very simple tropes. Planetary barbarians capture spaceship to rescue their womenfolk!….ship is recaptured after a brief siege because the barbarians can’t make it go anywhere, up down or around, and all survivors (did we mention they started killing each other after a week or so, including the named characters that were specifically pointed out as knowing the odds and the risks of a rescue mission and went for it anyway because they loved their daughters) are enslaved along with the girls. Again, it’s not in the content–it’s in the execution; and it’s in the denouement, which is infuriating all on its own without adding the additional insult that it does have.

Will you look at that, turns out I did have something to say about this book. I think it sucked.

As far as the good stuff goes: Books 1 and 2 for the most part are standard and I did like them: they have characters, character arcs, development, motives, and a plot that allows the characters to be proactive and effective. Book 1 Etzwane is largely motivated by trying to redeem his mother’s slave-indenture, making his mother one of the more prominent female characters in the pulp scifi galaxy. And she’s a rather good character as well. Might have to make a “mothers in SF” post one of these days. And I will say that that’s an OK cover to book 3. If only it had a good book to cover. Damnit.

– The Blue World – Jack Vance – See, Vance did know how to write pulp-action scifi. He just had to layer it in elaborate worldbuilding and add sly layers of humorous backstory. I read this one as a palate cleanser. (Literally: I stayed awake another two hours to read it, just to get The Asutra out of my head.)

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik – This one has definitely entered the rotation as one of my go-to relax reads, and I’m glad to say it’s held up on each repeat.

– The Fifth Elephant – Terry Pratchett – “Vimes in Uberwald will be more amusing than an amorous armadillo in a bowling alley.”

Can I play? Shipping Tags

So, Bookstooge gave up on this one, but I’m bored have time to kill procrastinating dedicated to providing quality content on my blog for my wonderful readers (stop laughing), and figured I’d give it a try.

THE RULES

  1. Answer the eleven questions provided by the blogger who tagged you
    • Does it still count if I just spontaneously decide to answer questions because I have no other ideas for fresh content?
  2. Come up with eleven new questions of your own!
    • Oh….I actually kind of can do this. Stay tuned.
  3. Tag 5 new bloggers!
    • Do I even know five bloggers?
    • Who are dumb enough to do something like this?
  4. Mention the blogger who tagged you and have fun!!
    • Hey, Bookstooge!

QUESTIONS

  • Who was your first book crush?
    • Sheeesh, I have no clue. I used to really be fond of Lord Rawnblade Widestripe, Protector of the Shores, but mostly that was because I was eight and the thought of going berserk on my cousins was very appealing after they made fun of my Breyer horse collection. Well, actually, speaking of books I read when I was eight, maybe John Clayton, Lord Greystoke.
    • Or some of the dog-loving heroes in Jim Kjelgaard’s books. I read a lot of those when I was just getting into reading “actual books,” but the “boys survival adventures with dogs” genre doesn’t tend to have a lot of ship potential.
  • Who was your most recent book crush?
    • ….I honestly dunno.
  • What popular ship do you sink?
    • The last time I paid close attention to shipping fandoms was back in the heyday of Bleach. The only fandom I’m really involved with these days is The Dresden Files. So:
      • Ichigo/Rukia (I dislike Rukia because she has an abrasive personality that doesn’t appeal to me in a main character. As a side character, she’s fine, but as a lead or love interest? No.)
      • Harry/Molly, Harry/Mab, Harry/Marcone
      • Come to think of it, Harry/Lara, because Lara is a scary, inhuman monster who is going to try her damndest to push Harry’s already-dangerous mental state all the way over from “dark hero teetering on the edge” to “monster.”
  • Which unpopular ship do you actually love?
  • Do you have a favorite friends to lovers ship?
    • Harry/Murphy.
    • (sobs)
    • I guess Renji/Rukia would count. Does childhood-friends-to-lovers count? This one I actually like because when you have two abrasive, loud-mouthed jerks they play off each other a lot better in the background.
  • What ship reminds you of your relationship? Or the relationship you would like to have?
    • Oh, you know I didn’t even notice this question the first time skimming through the list. Lol.
  • What ship was just unnecessary?
    • Every YA love triangle ever.
    • OO OO OOH I ACTUALLY HAVE AN ANSWER HERE, hah! I found the Adam Reith/Zap 210 romance in Jack Vance’s The Pnume to be rather perfunctory and unnecessary given their dynamic throughout the novel as a whole.
  • Imagine your favorite ship 10 years in the future (from when their book ends)… where are they now?
    • (DAMN YOU JIM BUTCHERRRRRRR)
    • (uncontrollable sobbing)
  • Which book do you want to see adapted to TV/Movie? Who would you cast to bring your ship to life?
    • I have had thoughts about this before.
    • Red Rising would also make a pretty kickass show/movie. I dunno who to cast, though, honestly. But I have a feeling that the guy who played Lucius Malfoy would make a good Augustus au Nero…
    • Oh, actually come to think of it: the works of Genevieve Cogman (that aren’t Bleach fanfic.) Solid, charismatic actors can overcome a multitude of faults in sub-par writing (albeit not all), and then can introduce or imply personality when there really isn’t any.
      • Kai can be played by Lee Min Ho, because Lee Min Ho is an enormously talented actor and if there’s anything that could induce me to at least check out a sub-par show, it’d be him.
      • Irene can be played by Emma Watson, because she’s the only actress of that age range I can name off the top of my head.
  • What is a relationship that you wish happened?
    • ….Honestly, I really can’t name a whole lot. I tend to favor canon ships to begin with.
  • 9780689715624_p0_v1_s1200x630What character(s) have broken your heart?
    • Well, the last time I cried over a book, it was Black Gold by Marguerite Henry, when in his paddock with an injured leg and he thinks the crowd in the distance is cheering for him but his trainer is actually coming to put him down…never have I or will I ever read another sad horse book after that, again.
    • That includes sad dog books and movies, too.

Her Brother’s Keeper – Mike Kupari (repost review)

51f83jc4-flHer Brother’s Keeper by Mike Kupari of Correia-and-Kupari mil-thrillers is a 2016 Baen SF novel, and that’s about the aptest way to describe it that I know.

Where it’s good, it’s…well, it’s Baen. There’s a tough, Honor Harrington / Heris Serrano-esque ship captain, a weaselly but ultimately honorable aristocrat, an extremely intelligent and extremely socially inept xenoarchaeologist who might be about to stumble over the discovery of the millennia–if it doesn’t get sold on the black market first–there’s a spooky ghost ship interlude that hits every AARGH GUYS GET OUT OF THERE button there is, there’s ground and space action, some perfunctory romance, a couple of heartwarming reunions, and a happy part-1 ending.

On the other hand, where it’s bad, it’s eyerollingly bad. Look, we get it, you love the great state of Texas, good for you. Now shut up. And take that hat off, you look STOOPID with it over your space helmet.

What really knocks any chance this book might have of moving past its flaws is the fact that a) its tone isn’t SF, and b) its overall writing style isn’t SF. What do I mean by this? That this book could have had the word “-space” excised from all scenes and been set on present-day Earth with no change in tone or format. There’s no sense of vaster scope. There’s no iota of widened imagination.

There’s no sense of wonder.

So, starting at the beginning:

Captain Catherine Blackwood returns to her ancestral home at her estranged father’s request. Her feckless younger brother, the heir and the child actually valued by their family, is being held for ransom on the furthest human world, Zanzibar. Her father will spare no expense–even though it would be more cost-effective just to have another son (lol)–to get him back. Captain Blackwood’s light patrol ship is highly trained and professional, but understaffed for what might turn out to be a military operation instead of just a straight prisoner exchange, so a stopover at the Lone Star System AKA Planet Texas (sheesh) collects some hired muscle: hero named Marcus, who also is blandly muscular enough to be played by Mark Wahlberg; sidekick with a sexbot, sniper girl, some other people, and Marcus Wahlberg’s teenage daughter, who needs to get off planet after punching a drugged-up rodeo queen who poisoned her barrel-racing horse Sparkles. I’m not making that up.

OK, well, whatever.

So they set off. Meanwhile, in captivity, feckless brother Cecil and his two sidekicks are being forced to excavate space-archaeological sites for the ruthless but not very interesting warlord Aristotle Lang. Aristotle Lang plans to Take Over The World with the money he will earn selling them on the black market. We are told that this is a bad thing, but he’s such a nonentity in this book it’s open to interpretation. I mean, really, who cares if a place like Zanzibar gets taken over by a warlord? Can he at least make the space shuttles run on time?

Despite the lack of a solid antagonist, this book is actually at its strongest when dealing with the Zanzibar-archaeology plot. There’s some kind of mysterioust secret about the planet Zanzibar which our heroes are on the cusp of discovering. Who were the humanoids who inhabited it millions of years before? How were they able to produce sophisticated technology despite their Bronze Age cultural level? Why did the obligatory-bug alien war go to such lengths to keep the planet intact when they happily used mass drivers on all other human settlements?

Why was was Zanzibar once sterilized down to the molecules of the planetary crust–and how?

Replace “aliens” with “unknown civilization, possibly Atlantis,” and “sterilized” with “volcano,” etc, etc–and you get a perfectly decent current thriller that would entertain on an airplane flight and probably be useful afterwards, if you’re traveling somewhere with no free toilet paper.

Unfortunately, Mike Kupari chose to make this book Science Fiction with a capital SF, but he doesn’t have the imagination or the writing ability to answer the questions he raises, make his heroes interesting, make his antagonists threatening, make his worlds alien, or his spaceships memorable.

Even more unfortunately, this particular plot made me compare this book to another with a very similar plot: Edmund Hamilton’s The Closed Worlds (Starwolf #2). Feckless younger sibling + treasure hunt on an unwelcoming and deadly alien planet + mercenaries…except that Hamilton added: Way Cool Stuff, Big Ideas, Big Scenes, Big Reveals, Scary Villains, Memorable Characters. Morgan Chane would kick the snot out of Marky Mark, laugh while doing so, and have pointed words about Planet Texas vis-a-vis Varna.

In Hamilton’s book, the unwelcoming nature of the alien planet is shown by clear, forceful action on the part of characters with a motivation to act in the way they do: Helmer, who dies as he lives–trying to protect his people from something that destroys the strong and makes the weak vile. Its dangers are even more vividly drawn out with the flitting, white-bodied, laughing, mouthless nanes (brrrrr).

In Kupari’s…Zanzibar is just kinda there. There’s no way of distinguishing the planet from any other by any kind of scene or scenery. Aristotle Lang is just kind of there, devoid of any personality save a vague, theatrical, villainous menace. He doesn’t actually twirl a moustache while threatening the helpless academics. That would be absurd. But it would probably have helped.

In Hamilton’s book, there’s a reveal of the great mystery of the Closed Worlds–and it’s a reveal that’s worth the wait.

In Kupari’s….it’s Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, but, eh, it’s okay, they’re gone now.

I could go on in this vein for a while, but I think that that’s sufficient.

Rated: I think I’m going to go read Starwolf over again.

Book Review: Elf Defense – Esther Friesner (repost)

Elf Defense is a 1988 novel by Esther Friesner that…technically…counts as Urban Fantasy. Or more precisely, Suburban Fantasy.

Amanda Taylor, the mortal lover of the King of Elfhame Ultramar (aka America), has fled from him along with his son, Prince Cassiodoron (and Cass’s talking assassin cat) and concealed herself in a sleepy Connecticut small town. Godwin’s Corners, home of quite a few Mayflower-descended snobs, a really fearsome PTA association, and more lawyers than you can shake a stick at, is surely the last place on Earth anyone would dream of looking…
Yeah, he finds them in about three chapters.
But that’s where it gets interesting for Kelerison, King of Elfhame Ultramar, because Amanda Taylor has availed herself of this new mortal thing called a divorce lawyer…

Pros:
– This book is really funny.
– This book is really well-written.
– This book is not YA. This book contains, instead of hormonal teenagers written by a hormonal twenty-something, actually sentient beings acting in a rational manner. And, my God, was it refreshing to read.
– Slight spoiler: the characters are interesting and the novel is cleverly structured to a) slowly diminish the presumed threat, and b) subtly build up the ultimate villain with clever foreshadowing. (well…I thought it was clever, since I didn’t see it coming, anyway.) 
– Shut Up Elves! This being a novel of the 80s-90s Fantasy Boom, the elves hit all the basic elf checkboxes: handsome, inhuman, glamorous, enchanting, powerful, manipulative…but, refreshingly, they aren’t worshipped by anyone, least of all the author. Cass is unflinchingly called on his bullshit by everyone involved, including the talking cat and the girl wholeheartedly in love with him; Syndovar is recognized as a cold-hearted fanatic (even if people are rather too scared of him to, y’know, tell him off about it); and the entire freaking plot, to repeat, is suing the King of the Elves for a CC Dissolution W/Out Children.
And yet, at the same time, elves are credible as fantastic beings of knowledge and ancient power….and, yeah, are kinda sexy. Even if Cass hasn’t gotten any since 1843. (SNERK)
– And then there are just some bits that are downright funny. I mean, appart from the premise of suing the elf king for a divorce. Dracophobia gravis and all its diagnosed permutations. “Elfhame Ultramar is not paradise, but it does have a balanced ecology. Fools are always at the bottom of the food chain.” The sentient hedge-maze deciding that an unplanned trimming is not worth keeping the party separated….
– Cesare the artistic assassin cat is worth a star all unto himself.
– The fact that the freaking king of the elves was a hair metal rock star…with a single that was number thirty-seven for two whole weeks…called “Demon Lover”…had me in stitches.

Cons:
– Elves in America is always kind of a tricky one. These aren’t bound by the old compacts; they are by (SPOILER!) the Latin Law….meh. EF should have gone whole hog, and, as they are as much American immigrants as the Mayflower families, have based their society on, wait for it, the Constitution. Give me some freaking Second Amendment elves with a tacticool obsession. Give me Federalist-obsessed elves who quote Cato. Say their whole society has based itself on human society, circa 1790. Say they contrast themselves haughtily with the old-guard stratified courts back home. What about Confederate elves?? COME ON YOU KNOW stuck-up aristocrats would have totally identified with the Confederates. How’s that for problematic?

Anyhow, this is all a bit heavy for a suburban fantasy starring a married, Jewish lawyer with a five year old daughter and a history professor husband, but the fact remains that the elf society isn’t very fleshed out, and the shocking reveals that are, uh, revealed, are kind of…empty and underwhelming.

– I really liked the villain, even though he was in the wrong, and was upset that he went down like a chump. He was kinda badass and deserved a better end.

-…um….that seems to be just about all of the cons to it.

Rated: simply because few things are perfect, nine poisoned mice out of ten.

Son of the Black Sword – Larry Correia – Book Review

sons-of-the-dark-sword-send-to-larry-c.-2Son of the Black Sword is Book 1 of the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior trilo…oh wait no people actually like this so let’s make it a five…wait are they still buying it? What, after book 3 didn’t wrap everything up? Multi-part series instead.

I complain, but it’s in good humor. This series showcases Correia’s strongest writing, because it plays to his strengths: exciting combat scenes; honorable men; fight scenes; violent men; battle scenes; emotionless but charismatic men; chase scenes; beautiful women, and you may have gotten the gist at this point: he writes fight scenes really, really well. There’s a one-vs-many fight at the end of this book that is just a work of art. What’s more, this book avoids his weaknesses: self-insert characters, silly humor, and bashing of political opponents in juvenilely amusing ways.

It’s a damn good book. Fight scenes with a purpose are exciting, charismatic protagonists with inner depths and meaningful journeys are memorable and enjoyable, and beautiful women who have personalities, motivations, and effect on the plot, are good characters regardless of what they’re wearing. Son of the Black Sword has all of those. (Note: with the exception of a ditzy librarian who tries using a romance novel as a how-to spy manual, all female characters are dressed quite appropriately for their circumstances.)

As mentioned, SoTBS was originally #1 of 3 books, before Trilogy Creep Syndrome set in. I hope the story doesn’t get stretched out too far, because I want to find out how it ends, damn it! There is the distinct impression that the story Correia is telling is going to be epic enough to withstand the expansion, but…I really like this story. What is the story?

So.

20-year veteran, Senior Protector Ashok Vadal is one of if not the most dangerous men on Lok. Not only is he a scion of the powerful and respected Vadal House, a Protector gifted with superhuman abilities, not only trained to the peak of physical ability and combat skill, not only above the law and tasked with enforcing it as the most famous member of an order of right hard bastards–Ashok is also the wielder of the mighty ancestor blade Angruvadal. Ancestor blades, made of the mysterious black steel, can cut through steel and demon hide, cleave all four legs off a galloping horse, and, moreover contain the memories and instincts of every warrior who has borne them previously and can guide the muscles and mind of its present wielder to victory….or can savagely punish the unworthy who dare set hand on it.

Ashok was judged worthy as a small child and has lived his life in the Protector Order ever since. How could a man who never lies, who never feels fear, who is wholly devoted to the Law, be unworthy? And why could his mentor, the man whom he trusted and loved as more than his own father, tell him that his life is a shameful falsehood, a disgraceful lie.

Ashok is given a choice: become Lord Protector, head of the Order and continue to live a life of fame, valor, and value…or open a letter that will reveal his past to him and reveal the truth.

Ashok chooses honesty. (Ashok, it transpires, didn’t have a choice).

The disgraceful secret the Protectors have kept for twenty years? Ashok isn’t a man. Ashok isn’t even a human being. Far from being son of the First Caste, the rulers, movers, and shakers…he is actually a casteless. Legally, less than the tools used to till the fields; practically, of less value than the animals used to pull the plow. Although Angruvadal chose him, the utter shame of the choice meant that House Vadal had his mind magically wiped to remove all memory of his casteless origins, deep compulsions implanted in him–rendering him literally fearless and utterly devoted to the law–and he was sent to the Protectors as a mere child in hopes that he would soon die. Oh, and his mother was murdered as part of the cover-up.

Ashok, after delivering a fairly gory reckoning to the people who have committed this injustice and this sin, checks himself into the nearest prison to await trial and sentencing. (Remember what we said about devoted to the Law? Ashok walks the walk…not only because he’s been brainwashed for his entire life.)

Unfortunately, what Ashok gets instead of justice is Omand, the Chief Inquisitor. Omand is seriously bad news. For one, he’s planning a genocide against the casteless…as a stepping stone to whatever his evil plan actually is. Step 1 involves creating a reason for his genocide to continue. Step 2 is ordering Ashok to join with the casteless rebellion and make it into enough of a threat to justify continent-wide genocide.

The implication is that Omand is going to get a horrible surprise about just how clever he isn’t a book or two down the road.

Ashok obediently escapes from prison to find and join the rebellion. He finds–or is found–by Keta, Keeper of Names, and his hostile bodyguard Thera. They have been sent to judge his worthiness before he can be allowed into their ranks, or to meet the mysterious Prophet whom the rebels have rallied about–the Prophet who speaks with the voice of a Forgotten god and testifies that blood, seas and messes of it, are incoming…

But that’s not really a prophecy so much as an accurate observation, really.

And anyhow, yeah. I’m out of time and I need to put some content up that isn’t cat pictures.

Rated: It’s really good. Get it and read it and then tell all your friends.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars – Christopher Paolini – Review

tosleepcover-reducedFirst things first: I liked this book, I didn’t like Eragon that much, Paolini the teenage, homeschooled, best-selling author was nevertheless a childhood hero of mine, and I have a slight fever that might be influencing my judgment.

I liked this book–but every point in its favor also has a counterpoint in its disfavor. Well, except this one: it’s science fiction. And the cover is blue. I like blue.

It’s got spaceship battles. But hardly any radio chatter. I mean, come on, that’s sixty percent of the fun of reading about space battles! Admittedly, this one is pure personal preference. I’m not great at visualizing most authors’ descriptions of space battles, especially fleet-level ones, so having narrator/s talk through what’s going on, with appropriate reactions, helps me. On the whole, the fight scenes were solid, although my personal favorite was the ground fight on planet Bughunt.

It’s a long book: my hardback copy checks in at 825 pages, not counting about sixty-odd more of appendices and made-up vocabulary. And, you know, it’s been a long, long time anybody has had the stones to write and publish a long-ass, stand-alone story in a single volume. Some even go so far as to think that fans wouldn’t stand for such a thing. If for no other reason, it’s immensely satisfying to get to an exciting action scene or a dramatic reveal and then realize that you still have two-thirds of the book, a good several hours’ more reading, to go. And, mercifully and intelligently, this book escaped the editors who would have doubtless preferred to break it into multiple pieces. This book doesn’t have enough story for a series or even, God forbid, a trilogy.

So in almost direct contradiction to my previous statements, I’m going to say: either that this book has enough story for two books, and should have been split roughly in half, right after the twisty reveal on Bughunt; or that about a hundred pages should have been trimmed off of what we got instead. Not even with huge changes to the pacing or with the destruction of individual scenes–I just think that a general tightening up would be an improvement.

It’s got a diverse cast of characters, which term I use in a literal and non-derogatory sense of the word: a large chunk of the cast is female, our POV is female, planetary cultures, skin tones, and religions are present), and a certain amount of time is devoted to fleshing them out and our heroine making personal connections with them. (In the case of at least one religion, it’s via a headbutt, but…) It also has a solidly-written, single-viewpoint protagonist. It also allows its characters to die or be killed.

Problem is, it takes several cycles and reiterations on the theme for the cast to actually settle out, and then once it has established that people can die for the sake of the plot, carefully neuters the threat by not letting it happen again, at least to any of the main characters. While there are at least two main characters who do get badly wounded, their survival is at no point actually uncertain–even when this requires the sudden existence of otherwise-unknown abilities. Deaths or otherwise-debilitating injuries are restricted to military minor characters or civilians. And, large as this cast is, upping the ante on action scenes and increasing tension/pressure on the characters in-universe by letting someone actually die (not to mention the opportunity of trimming some of the dialogue), would not have hurt.

It’s got alien species who are passably alien. Actually, I don’t have much of a counterpoint to add to this one, except that this is where some of the time trimmed by killing off, say, Sparrow or Nielson, could have been added back in. It’s also one of the points in which having a single narrator POV hinders the effort to show-not-tell. Yes, we do see that the Wraunaui / Jellies / graspers have a distinct viewpoint that diverges from Kira’s. No, we do not get to see anybody other than Kira’s take–that there has to be an overarching unifying force in place or else humans and Wranaui Will Not Get Along–on this subject, and Kira isn’t exactly the most politically astute person in the solar system.

It’s got a competently written, sympathetic and understandable, proactive and heroic POV lead. Kira, our heroine, loses, struggles, strives, suffers, and, ultimately, wins. It’s hard to ask for more. Kira is an active, uh, actor in the plot, decides what she will and will not do, and then goes out and does it. More than even this, Kira’s a good person. She has been taken and torture-interrogated by the military; presently, the ship blows up, leaving her in a working shuttle. Kira immediately begins to search for survivors. She accidentally stabs somone….and feels immediate remorse, guilt, a sense of personal responsibility and failure, and later takes the opportunity to ask as to his wellbeing.

On the other hand, there is also a certain amount of Protagonist Syndrome: the heroine is the only person with the plan, only the heroine’s plan will work, only the heroine’s presence guarantees relevance, and nobody else has got a clue. This type of hero works best in a shorter novel with less plot, but to their immense credit, Paolini (and Kira) almost manage to pull it off. I’d hesitate to say that an improvement could be made by splitting the narrative POV between several characters, because that’s a tool that in fast-moving action, or stories with major twists, that very quickly becomes tiresome, and also because I may be alone in thinking that the trope of “the protagonist, only, ever, does the important things” is overused and annoying.

Closely related to this: human antagonists who aren’t completely incompetent dumbasses. They’re only mostly incompetent dumbasses. Mind you, allowing people other than the protagonist to be proactive would have helped….

Oh: and (SPOILER) I will give it this as well. Unlike some authors who write their protagonists ascending to a higher plane of being / physically and mentally tranformed into a new state while losing their old bodies (such as John C Wright or Jack Chalker), Paolini allows the protagonist–you know, the person whom we have followed, sympathized and identified with for the length of the novel–to retain their own personality, identity, and human traits (all things that we liked) afterwards. The ascended Kira, although enormously powerful and distinctly different, still is recognizably herself; there is no sense of horror or loss of humanity, or (in my case), annoyance that the protagonist I’ve followed through the length of this book is now effectively dead. Indeed, the overall impression is that now she’s going to be ready for even more awesome feats in even more dangerous, further-flung adventures. And that takes discipline as well as skill. Chalker would have dove head-first into the loss-of-personality angle and you know that weird sex stuff would have been involved, somehow; while Wright would cheerfully destroy the audience’s rapport with a character if it meant being able to create another disembodied parahuman intelligence of pure logic and rationality (that is also Catholic). My hat’s off to Paolini: he upgraded his character but retained what made her likable and left the door open for a sequel.

So what’s the plot about, anyhow? Start with Alien/Aliens, throw the Venom suit in there from Spider-man, swing over to Prometheus, add Firefly, and I guess Star Trek. Very small trace elements of Starship Troopers kind of exist, but they’re folded into the Aliens melange to begin with. There are a couple of switch-ups which keep things interesting, a few battles, some character reveals and some plot threads that aren’t immediately followed up but which provide background texture. Some tropes even get played with in unexpected ways, such as: the Hive (or the Swarm, in this case) will be completely defeated if only the Queen (or the supreme leader) is killed. Bog-standard bug-hunt procedures, except that the people who suggest it are the swarm-members themselves, who would quite like a revolution but are genetically programmed to be unable to defy their overlord directly.

So, yeah. I liked it, there is room for improvement, and if, in the course of the next few years Paolini publishes another novel, I will check that one out, too.

(The prevailing sentiment in the Amazon 1-star reviews is that this book isn’t suitable for homeschoolers. Speak for yourselves, snowflakes.)

Rated: man still dreams of the stars!