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!

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”

“Add title”

Some have broken the bounds of the narrow land

Laid open the book of dreams

Drawn doorways in the sand 

walked through Shadow to the many worlds

With fellowship and dread companions

From the last castle to the Gaean Reach

strangers and pilgrims in a strange land, 

progressing, our destination universe.

The farthest star but a mote in God's eye.


When the world turned upside down,

through a splinter in the mind's eye, recall

who goes there, out of the dark?

A star rider on a steel horse, 

a rite of passage through abyss of wonder,

shelters of stone to the starpilot's grave. // clan of cave bear to the lioness rampant

I saw the doors of his mouth open

and the lamps of his eyes shine.

A final rose bloom for Ecclesiastes,

and no night, ever, without stars.


What's it like out there -- Skagganauk, or the space beyond,

the birthplace of creation, or the crossroads of time?

There is time enough for love. 

Soul music in a minor key, sung by no woman born

In a many-colored land: red, blue, and green.

East of Eden, children of the mind await their childhood's end.

The player of games is gonna roll the bones.

Computers don't argue, the right to arm bears is in the bone

Equal rites are observed,

And no man sayeth call him lord.


There are Skylarks three in an alien sky;

from homely house to lonely mountain 

the long patrol guards moss and flower;

a stainless steel rat runs for president (to hell and back).

Sheep are electric. The horse and his boy

dream of dancing mountains.

All cats are gray, walking between the walls

To say nothing of the dog

that bays with five mouths

the fool moon.


Creatures there are of light and darkness:

When true night falls on the borders of infinity

two suns setting cast slithering shadows

across the long tomorrow. 

Ancient, my enemy, the old gods waken. 

Alas, Babylon! The city and the stars!

Wolves across the border

A feral darkness, the darkness that comes before,

Beyond the black river. 


I will fear no evil, 

not the hills of the dead nor the black god's kiss,

the wings in the night, or the red nails' gleam;

Daemon, sidhe-devil, or devil in iron

or the nine billion names of God,

for the stars are also fire

and the stars

burn.


Soldier, ask not 

of unfinished tales or a dry, quiet war.

Take iron counsel of the cold equations.

Till we have faces, lest the long night fall,

Raise the sword of Rhiannon

Set a fire upon the deep.

More than honor, we few,

Wee free men, the high crusade,

Seek Armageddon inheritance

In the service of the sword. 


Sleeper, awaken! from this alien shore

To your scattered bodies go

A citizen of the galaxy

and not this pale blue dot

Bid farewell again to the cool, green hills of earth

I have space suit and I will travel

The stars are my destination 

These stars are already ours.

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.

The Magician’s Guild – Trudi Canavan – Review

9780060575281-the-magicians-guild-1So, a while ago, I read Spinning Silver and remembered how much fun a good, absorbing, exciting, funny, well-written fantasy novel was.

This book is none of those things.

Plot: There’s an oppressive city society, with magicians on top and slum dwellers on the bottom. Our heroine, Sonea, is one of the latter, but after nearly (accidentally) killing one of the former with a rock that goes through his protective magical barrier, all hell breaks loose. The magicians want her badly–partly because she’s a powerful natural talent and if untrained might end up destroying the city; but also because that one guy she hit with a rock wants revenge, as he is a petty bitch. Her friends, and later, the weirdly-well-organized Thieves Guild, strive to keep her safe. But it becomes increasingly clear that she’s going to be found and she is going to NEED training, only MAGICIANS can train her, TrAiNiNg iS EsSeNtIAl FoR a WiZzArD.

That’s about the point that I gave up. There was no point to continuing. This book didn’t have any exciting action scenes, cool characters, interesting plotlines, or vaguely neat ideas that I wanted to continue, even at a skimming pace, to follow.

My problems are:

– Bland to underutilized characters. Sonea is an entirely reactive, rather than active, character. OK, well, she’s suddenly got an entire city chasing after her and she has no idea of how to use her powers. Well, she actually starts making progress, before the author chokes off that avenue, and she has the benefit of books, and the Thieves’ Guild is very anxious to help tutor her in whatever way they can. Would it have added characterization and personality if Sonea was someone whose curiosity and stubbornness refused to admit defeat or the necessity of help, and she studied away determinedly? Would it have added evidence to the idea that Sonea is Special, Powerful, and Dangerous if she actually made progress on her own? Would it have added verisimilitude if Sonea, at the very least, realized that the Thieves’ very generous help is going to require a payoff sooner or later and that she had better learn really, really quickly if she wants to retain her ears?

What’s more, everybody else is fairly boring as well, and when you’ve got a young thief-urchin, a wizard serial killer, a gay wizard so deep in the closet he’s seeing fauns and lampposts, and the freaking king of the Thieves Guild who runs an underground empire with an iron fist…that takes some doing.

– Zero payoff to a large chunk of the plot. Fully half the book is Sonea running away from the wizards. This isn’t used to set up how powerful the underworld is and therefore explain how much of a threat it actually is to the established government. We barely even get to see the government/guards in action at all–it’s all wizards, weirdly enough. We don’t become acquainted with the Thieves as characters. We don’t use the time to build relationships between the existing characters. We don’t even, and this is important, get any cool fight, chase, hiding, or suspense scenes. And, at the end, Sonea goes to the wizards anyway and it was all for nothing. Plus, at the point when it becomes clear that the wizards are tracking Sonea down when she works her magic, I started wondering why she was still in the city. Surely the Thieves have contacts outside who could take her in and hide her. That’s on par with, “Why doesn’t Buffy just get a GED and not have to attend high school anymore?” or, “Why not destroy the McGuffin instead of hiding it?” Or, “why is this movie about trade negotiations and not Sith lightsaber battles?”

– High stakes get artificially lowered. Sonea starts out the book convinced that she’s in danger of her life and the lives of everyone who helps or is even vaguely associated with her. She’s on the run for her life and everyone she knows or even comes in contact with her, anyone who helps her, anyone who cares about her, is in danger. She ends the book being pressured by a bully to be his student. She’s on the hook for perjury. That is not a good progression.

– Deus ex machina ending that solves almost all of our heroes’ problems. So after giving up on the first half, I flipped to read the end in hopes that it had something cool, exciting, or clever happening that would redeem the rest of the book.

Suffice it to say that it doesn’t.

– I’m favor of homeschooling. “Your Hero is in a school where they, wait for it, LEARN MAGIC!!” plots are just incredibly boring to me at this point, especially when your wizarding school is as incredibly boring as Trudi Canavan’s Magician’s Guild is. What’s more, having a hugely powerful but not well-trained character is a good way of making them, well, be both powerful and at the same time, handicapped. It means, while they are capable of doing awesome and plot-relevant feats, it’s also going to be hard for them to do so or come at a high price (also plot relevant.) Notice how many wizard protagonists are students or otherwise only partially trained? Notice how many fully-trained wizard characters are mentors or even just antagonists?

Of course, that would require that there be a plot for your character to be active in.

Are there good things in this book? Possibly. But I’m in no mood to celebrate the correct use of commas.

Rated: 168/370

Review: The Dark Archive – Genevieve Cogman

9781529000603
Irene is not a great heroine, Grauniad.

This book was physically painful to read.  

I’ve read all the Invisible Library books so far. I’ve been patiently waiting for them to Get Good. I’ve been waiting for Cogman’s editor to get better at it. I really, really, want to like these books! They’re about people who love books and would walk to the ends of a different Earth to acquire them….right?

They haven’t, she hasn’t, and the dirty secret is that they aren’t

I’ve already written at length how Cogman a) can’t write action, b) struggles with characterization, c) has far too much dialogue. (GOD, you don’t know how much I am not exaggerating with the dialogue. There are maybe two pages in this book which are not comprised of people talking to each other); Cogman demonstrates a positive genius for taking large-scale action setpieces and then disposing of them in a couple of paragraphs; and nobody has a discernable personality. She’s even shuffled the one character who does have a distinct personality offstage for the duration of the book! What the hell, Gen? 

c) is even more of a problem than usual here, because there are two new major characters: Librarian-trainee-hopeful Catherine, and dragon prince Shan Yuan. And the thing is, for BOTH of them, the building blocks were right there. Shan Yuan is a collection of vaguely arrogant and moderately unhelpful actions. He does things and it’s for his own reasons which are annoying and sometimes harmful to the protagonists. That’s actually good, and he’s actually fairly consistent. Problem is, once he’s been set up, a little bit of time was needed to set up why he does the things he does (not, dear God, by talking about it): that is, OTHER than “to be annoying to the protagonists;” and maybe show that he has a reason and the reason is, his personality is that of an arrogant, prejudiced dragon prince who is used to doing this his own way and has no respect for his younger brother’s/the human way of doing things. 


But the really fatal problems with this series, which I finally put my finger on in this book is:

It’s not clever. It’s not imaginative. And it’s not literary. 

This series is supposedly about people who go to different worlds–from the fantastic to the technological–for books. This series started out as straight-up fanfiction, which allowed the author to slip known worlds, characters, and settings in and do fun, off-the-cuff, funny, clever things with them. This by all rights, should have continued when the books actually got published. The process is simple: file the serial numbers off the world, change the names and a few details of the characters you’re stealing borrowing reimagining, give setting and people a few twists–you know, the sort you’d have liked to see in the originals–and write a fun charming story in a world that is almost recognizable but different in a clever and fitting way.

It can be done, it can be done legally, and it can get published, believe me. There’s the Rachel Griffin books by L. Jagi Lamplighter, which riff off of everyone from Narnia to Battlestar Galactica. There’s the Mageworlds series by Debra Doyle, which is Star Wars sequels with the serial numbers filed off and very satisfying they were to read indeed. There are countless opportunities for cameos not only of literary but also historical figures to pop up!

Cogman doesn’t do this. She doesn’t use varied worlds, fresh new settings. Everything is set in a smoggy but weirdly feminist-friendly but still tea-guzzling but racially tolerant but fucking steampunk pseudo-Victorian England. With goggles. Oh God, there are actual goggles in this book and they do nothing except irritate me. And here’s the thing. Cogman doesn’t even use the really easy and helpful cheat of adapting genuine literary characters to her own ends–which would solve her problem of not being able to write people with actual personalities. You don’t need to invent what you can steal! 

At their core, these books were written by someone entirely lacking in imagination. I’d be nasty and say “in familiarity with the fantasy genre,” but that’s an unwonted personal attack. 

But. The real problem. 

The REAL problem is. 

For a series focused on Librarians. Who go to great lengths to acquire new books. Who fetishize books. Who have plot-relevant reasons for wanting to keep books, read books, and acquire knowledge.

No one ever seems to have read a book in their life.

New character Catherine is a teenager who has grown up isolated and lived primarily through reading stories. She wants to be a librarian: you know, one of those ladies who tells you about new authors and helps you find them and discusses them with you and wears glasses on a string. We know this: because she says as much to Irene. Not because she talks about books incessantly. Not because she’s ever got her nose in a book. Not because she’s entirely bored with the “someone’s trying to assassinate us” plot and keeps trying to wander off and buy books. And definitely not because she changes her mind at the end and decides that being a spy-book-thief type Librarian is much better.

At one point Kai mentions Irene always has a book in her nightstand. Irene never mentions anything she’s read in a book; never refers to book-learned knowledge; never thinks about book plots that are similar to this one; never wonders how a favorite hero or heroine would  handle the situation….throughout this entire series…once. The closest she’s ever come to it is complaining that action heroines are generally taller than her own 5’9 (….you moronic bitch) and follows up by whining that it’s hard to kick people (in the shins, presumably) while wearing full skirts. 

I’m legitimately angry at this point. I could write better stories about Librarian Spies, the Library of Babel, dragons, Fae, debauched ambassadors, bookworm trainees, the Language of Truth, super-powered, vengeful bodiless spirits. Maybe I freaking will.


And after all that, is there anything to say about the plot? What plot? Well….I could talk about what there is of plot, but I’d just lose my temper at how stupidly drawn-out this series is. It’s book 7. Irene has just finally found out that the villain whom she has faced in every single book and easily defeated each time is her

(dUn DuN duN)

(DuN dUn DuN)

(dUn DuN duN dUn DuN dUn)

….father.

As if it wasn’t bloody fucking obvious in book 1 and serially reinforced in each book after that. 

And then there’s an epilogue with a fucking mysterious hooded council of mysteriousness that runs the Library except the final line of the book implies that the Library actually runs itself and WHY DID WE SPEND SEVEN BOOKS RUNNING AROUND VICTORIAN STEAMPUNK GOGGLED LONDON, NOT RIFFING OFF OF OTHER BETTER STORIES, IF YOU HAD MAYBE TWO BOOKS’ AND I’M BEING GENEROUS THERE WORTH OF ORIGINAL PLOT YOU COULD HAVE JUST WRITTEN ABOUT INSTEAD?

What the fuck, Genevieve?

Hour of the Dragon – Robert E. Howard

Rush in and die, dogs–I was a man before I was king!

Hour of the Dragon / Conan the Conqueror is the only novel-length Conan story, and it’s none too long at that, clocking in at 150 ebook pages and 79,000 words. So I’ll start my review with a disclaimer: this is a short, pulp fiction novel, written nearly a hundred years ago. Presumably I should lower my standards and expectations, because it was never intended to be high art or great literature. The thing is, Howard was genuinely a good enough writer to create both, if he’d wanted to or been able. The things I’m going to criticize are things I’d ding any author for, no matter what the genre or intended audience; they’re things I think would have made the story, exciting, well-crafted, superbly-worded as it is, exponentially better. Basically: Howard should have slowed down the pace a hair, expanded the characters a just bit, and stopped using the main character falling unconscious as a scene-changing device, because that always ticks me off.

So anyhow. The plot is….Conan has a series of adventures and then saves the day. You see, a cabal of highly-born and ambitious wastrels has enacted a plan to take control of Nemedia and neighborning Aquilonia: resurrect the three-milennia-dead sorcerer, priest, king, and monster Xaltotun of long-gone Acheron. By his magic, supplemented by the Heart of Ahriman, they intend to create a plague that will the King of Nemedia and replace him with one of their own. Then they will attack Aquilonia and replace Conan with a relative of the previous King.

For anyone not supported by a forgotten sorcerer from long-fallen Acheron, step 3 is where this is most likely to fail. And it almost does. Only because of Xaltotun’s sorcery is Conan struck by an uncanny wight in his tent, unable to lead his troops into battle–or hold them back from leading a charge that his less experienced body double falls for; and only because of sorcery does that end in disaster, as a landlide collapses a mountain on his army. Conan is taken alive by Xaltotun himself and cast into the Nemedian dungeons.

The cabal, you see, is not a stable alliance; Xaltotun knows it, and knows that he’ll need some threat to check Tarascus in Nemedia and hang over Valerius in Aquilonia. At this point, the narrative switches over from the fast-moving but slightly more measured pace of a novel, to the almost-frenetic short story velocity which is more familiar to Howard’s stories but….he should have slowed it down just a hair. If for no other reason than that he’s actually got plenty of plot and characters to describe. In short order: Conan is rescued by the fair maiden Zenobia, despite the efforts of Tarascus to remove Xaltotun’s leverage via a cannibal gray ape. Conan proceeds back to Aquilonia, pausing only to attempt to witness Tarascus consign the Heart of Ahriman to a Zamoran thief with orders to cast it into the sea, attempt an assassination, kiss the girl, and then, rather randomly, bump into a Nemedian warrior who had the good sense but bad luck to wonder why there was a random horse tied in a thicket outside the palace. Now, this is good writing in the sense that no exit should go easily when you’re in your enemy’s capital city, but it’s bad in that it pauses for a paragraph to introduce the Nemedian Adventurers, a class of fighting-men unique to that country who, etc etc etc. Well, the Nemedian Adventurers are unique to that paragraph, too, because the only one we meet gets run through by Conan, making this a Chekovian blunder. A simple soldier on patrol would have done just as well for the amount of effort Conan puts into escaping him.

The bulk of the plot is expanded on promptly, as Conan encounters Zelata, an Aquilonian witch, who tells him he must find the heart of his country before he can lead them in the fight again; and Servius Galannus, one of his barons, who clarifies the political situation to him. Conan’s general, Prospero, lacks the manpower to carry war to the enemy without more support; Conan’s appointed heir, Count Trocero, has been rejected by the trucculent barons, who would submit to a king but distrust one of their own gaining supremacy over them. Valerius has been proclaimed king almost unimpeded–which the Aquilonian citizens are only just begining to realize was a really stupid mistake. Loyalty to Conan or simple self-respect is being brutally punished–a burned villa and a countess about to be executed form the chief examples–and the common people, as we have seen in Zelata–are already being persecuted by foreign soldiers.

This part of the novel, where Conan demonstrates his grasp of statesmanship and strategy, discusses options with a counselor, listens to the advice given him–and then decides what to do–is masterful. We get a clear picture of what is going on, the conventional view of what should be done, and then we see both how our hero thinks (differently) and how he differs from ordinary people (he intends to get things done.) It does this briskly, without frills, digressions, or narrative excesses. And, since almost all the rest of the actual, non-serialized adventures plot of the book rests on this one chapter, it accomplishes some serious heavy lifting in its few pages, too.

But Conan decides to rescue the Countess Albiona before he heads off to join his remaining loyal generals, which, besides allowing a little bit of scantily-clad fair-maidenly-rescuing, gives the last impetus for the main action of the novel. Rescue complete, Conan and Albiona meet the priests of Asura, a religion which is usually persecuted but which Conan has allowed freedom to practice in Aquilonia. The priests of Asura have a widespread network and some uncanny abilities. They assure Conan that the Heart of Ahriman is the secret to defeating Xaltotun–and, better yet, that it has not been cast into the sea and is traceable.

Conan goes after it, utilizing his old contacts in the underworld, from his time as a petty thief, a masterless fighting-man, and a corsair captain. His pursuit of the jewel and its sequential passage from hand to hand by theft, murder, flight, and more murder, covers about one-third of the book, and….it’s the least satisfying part of the story, simply because we’ve seen Conan do these serial-adventure things so many times before, with the same exact narrative beats and same exact pacing. I guess that’s what my main problem is: this is a big chunk of the novel, and it’s the same old same old. Incidentally, Conan is being followed by a team of creepy guys in hoods, but they’re almost more of a stage dressing than a threat so never mind. Nevertheless, he finally does secure the Heart, after following it across a continent and an ocean and returns in hasty triumph to his corsair ship and to Aquilonia.

From there, things proceed, very satisfactorily, from the utterly characteristic message with which Conan opens hostilities:

To Xaltotun, grand fakir of Nemedia: Dog of Acheron, I am returning to my kingdom, and I mean to hang your hide on a bramble.
Conan

–to the final stroke, wherein Conan sets the ransom for Tarascus of Nemedia: one girl from his palace–Zenobia, who will become Queen of Aquilonia.

This book has bits that are absolutely brilliant:

Beside the altar-stone lay no fresh-slain corpse, but a shriveled mummy, a brown, dry, unrecognizable carcass sprawling among moldering swathings.
Somberly old Zelata looked down.
‘He was not a living man,’ she said. ‘The Heart lent him a false aspect of life, that deceived even himself. I never saw him as other than a mummy.’

After Conan has had an encounter with a beautiful woman in the cellars of a forgotten temple (who tries to drink his blood and whom he flees into the monster-haunted catacombs rather than face down):

…through his fear ran the sickening revulson of his discovery. The legend of Akivasha was so old, and among the evil tales told of her ran a thread of beauty and idealism, of everlasting youth. To so many dreamers and poets and lovers she was not alone the evil princess of Stygian legend, but the symbol of eternal youth and beauty, shining for ever in some far realm of the gods. And this was the hideous reality. This foul perversion was the truth of that everlasting life. Through his physical revulsion ran the sense of a shattered dream of man’s idolatry, its glittering gold proved slime and cosmic filth. A wave of futility swept over him, a dim fear of the falseness of all men’s dreams and idolatries.

There’s even Servius Galannus’ reaction to Conan’s appearance at his plantation:

At the low call the master of the plantation wheeled with a startled exclamation. His hand flew to the short hunting-sword at his hip, and he recoiled from the tall gray steel figure standing in the dusk before him.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘What is your – Mitra!’
His breath hissed inward and his ruddy face paled. ‘Avaunt!’ he ejaculated. ‘Why have you come back from the gray lands of death to terrify me? I was always your true liegeman in your lifetime-‘

When was the last time you read or heard someone say “Avaunt”? And as an intro, this is a good way of showing that, while Servius Galannus is a small-time farmer, he does not fear man; and he does not hesitate to protest to Conan’s supposed-shade that he was loyal.

But these are moments only: it doesn’t sustain them…and I wish it had.

So my main criticism is that the book needed to slow down just a tad and expand on its characters a hair. One of Howard’s main strengths is a weakness in this book. His ability to portray quick, vital snapshots of bold and passionate characters engaged to their utmost in at the most dramatic moments of their lives is great for creating memorable short stories. But in a longer work, more than a single snapshot is needed. Is it a problem? Only if you pause for breath between battles, assassinations, rescues, hidden temples, wars, dungeon escapes, battles, lost temples, catacombs, slave revolts, shadow-cloaked priests, vampire queens, forgotten temples, giant serpents, more battles, and plain old street fights. But I submit that it could have made the difference between a crackin’ good Conan yarn and a genuinely great novel.

The breakneck pace keeps your attention! And it is headlong as hell. But it’s without time for reflection, or, well, characterization. Everyone is portrayed in the quick strokes and primary colors; further developments are informed of by the omniscient narrator. This…could have been better. While quick and vivid sketches are the name of the game in short stories, this is a novel and it has to be a) longer, b) more interesting. There’s time and there’s a need to slow down, if just a hair, and expand on things, like people’s feelings.

Especially Conan’s. Conan is different as a king than he was as an adventurer–but not by much. He’s always had an eye for strategy, and he’s always had a soft spot for helpless civilians; he’s always been frank and fair. He was a man before he was king; and that he remains. We get to see what he says and does, and with Conan what he does is what he thinks….mostly. But, given that we’re dealing with an older and wiser Conan, it would be nice to see him realizing this and, even if it makes him uncomfortable, to think about it some.

There are also a menagerie of secondary characters who don’t get to be nearly as cool as they could be. Although Trocero is Conan’s appointed successor and heir, he gets only a single scene and no real characterization: his scene and comments are really only a repeat of Servius Galannus’ from ealier. And then there are the cool people who pop up in one scene and are never, uh, seen again. Who is Countess Albiona, other than a pretty girl whom Conan must rescue because he hasn’t met his quota for the novel? Does Servius Galannus rally to his king at the end, bringing only his loyalty and a handful of men-at-arms? What is the deal with the Nemedian Adventurers–could they form an elite squadron which dies to the man, struck down trying to defend the undeserving Tarascus? Zelata and the Asuran whisper network are cool enough to genuinely deserve more than the single line they get describing how much a problem they have become to Valerius.

You see, Howard comitted a tactical error: he made his characters too cool and then didn’t use them enough to showcase how or why.

Writing this review, I’ve also realized that most of my problem with the “chasing the McGuffin” section of the novel is primarily because it hews too closely to the short-story formula–probably because Howard was just tweaking his existing stories to fit the new frame narrative. Would it have been better written in a different fashion, after all? Honestly, maybe not. I don’t know. I only can plead a vague dissatisfaction with this part of the book and not really any cogent solutions.

Yeah, so basically, if you were to ask me how I rated this book:

I have not heard lutes beckon me, nor the brazen bugles call,
But once in the dim of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall.
I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flags unfurled,
But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.

The Lord of Castle Black – Steven Brust – Review

TLDR: Even if this one is pretty good, I have lost all patience with the Dragaera Cycle.

It’s difficult to read Steven Brust’s books at all now–even ones I previously loved liked found okay, like Issola and the very first Jhereg–because now I know the dirty secret. He’s not interested in his own story, his own universe, or making it all fit together. Dragaera isn’t a tightly-woven narrative tapestry, it’s a collection of very bright and colorful threads in a loose knot. Now and then Brust may tug a couple of threads taut, just to show off how shiny and pretty those strands are. But there’s no overall, well-thought out picture that can be salvaged from the tangle at this point (well, not without extreme and conscientious effort which I highly doubt will be made).

Brust’s interest in Dragaera lies in…I can’t say the characters, because he seems painfully uninterested in them, but he does like gourmet food, philosophical digressions (AKA, why socialism is good and mafia aren’t), and….I guess, Devera. And this is a problem, because klava and gourmand fried chocolate-dipped garlic and roast asafoedita-stuffed dormouse have left enough of a bad taste in my mouth that even after reading half of this book and enjoying it, I was extremely reluctant to pick it up again–and I still can’t bring myself to actually read The Baron of Magister Valley (AKA, The Count of Monte Cristo IN DRAGAERA.) Why should I read a book in a series that the author doesn’t even want to finish and doesn’t like any more? Why should I expect to be pleasantly entertained when that’s not the purpose of the story, anymore? Why read a well-written and enjoyable prequel to a series that the author doesn’t want to finish?

Brust does not want to tell stories about swashbuckling but hard-edged heroes, noble but ruthless warriors, sorcerers who are as powerful as gods, and gods who are as petty as men. He doesn’t want to tell a story of criminals or of empires, rebels or righteous war. He doesn’t really care about excitement any more, and adventures are downright distasteful. Much better to drink egg coffee in a corner cafe. His stories are the stories of an old man who shares little in common with his younger self (who at least tried), or with younger audiences (who came on board for the swashbuckling, capeswishing, rapier-flashing, epic fantasy stories written on a narrative backdrop that is a richly-woven tapestry, etc…AKA, people like me who stuck it out for fifteen books but have at this point noticed which way the wind blows.)

That said, and with it in mind, Brust is at his best when he’s riffing off a better author and doesn’t have to come up with those tedious narrative beats himself. As in Paths of the Dead, which I own but haven’t read in several years, this is one of those instances.

This subseries is a prequel to the main Vlad Taltos books, covering the fall and rise again of the Dragaeran Empire. It’s also a riff off of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers–D’Artagnan, Portos, Aramis, and, uh, whats-his-face, Oliver Reed played him in the movie…whatever–becoming Khaavren (the main hero), Tazendra (the dumb but loveable ruffian), Aramis (the sneaky Yendi), and…I dunno, the other guy. (WHAT IS HIS NAAAAME?!) So, I had it wrong, this is actually book 2 of a sub-trilogy within the Khaavren Romances subseries of the Dragaera Cycle. Eh, whatever.

The plot is: Khaavren, formerly the swashbuckling hero of a previous generation, has decided that he needs to get back in shape and take to the road again. His timing is good, because meanwhile, Zerika has re-emerged with the Orb from the Paths of the Dead–making her indisputably the new Empress. Problem is, there really is a dispute going on, because there are at least two pretenders to the throne, and they have quite a few more men than she does. (She’s got about twenty-five, including Khaavren’s son Piro). Meanwhile, young Dragonlord Morrolan has set up shop in a ruined castle and begun doing what he is assured Dragonlords do, which tax the local civilians and use the money to assemble an army. He’s got about three thousand soldiers. Meanwhile, immortal sorceress Sethra Lavode is…well, she’s in her mountain doing whatever she does that is of deep mystic import and is never actually explained to the audience. And, since this is book 2 of 3-ish, that’s about it. There’s a couple of battles but they don’t resolve the Pretendership conflict, and on the personal level, the book ends with a near-tragedy as Khaavren’s old-school values and personal prejudices end up pushing his son away into a life of banditry (whee!)

So the main attraction the Khaavren Romances have is that the writing style, as well as the plot, homages Dumas–that is, it’s wordy, literate, and full of narrative filligree and little stylistic flourishes which ironically help flesh out the world and the characters far, far better than plainer prose. It’s a bit stilted, but it’s charming, often amusing, (“Oh bother,” said Tazendra, “I’ve lost the reins.”) and sometimes actually quite witty. (Citation needed.) Actual action is treated in classic style: with many flourishes and little detail and as much posturing as is necessary to show our heroes in a heroic light.

The characters are less of an attraction, mostly because they’ve already been established and the narrative convention is to keep them on a bit flatter of an arc than we’d normally see. Mostly the only development is between Piro and his love interest Ibronka, culminating in a highly amusing scene wherein their friends basically lock them in a closet to resolve the UST. Morrolan, the second lead, amusingly gets slighted by the biased narrator, who regards him as an unsophisticated country (human-raised) bumpkin who wavers between dangerously airheaded and just plain dangerous. Needless to say, Morrolan’s actual actions put a lie to everything but the dangerous bit.

So, overall: this is a good book, and it’s part of a series that once showed great promise. Unfortunately, given that the rest of the series fails signally to live up to that….I honestly can’t enjoy it anymore.

Rated: One half-exploded sorceress out of…well…one.

Dark Avenger’s Sidekick – John C Wright – Repost Review

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Dark Avenger’s Sidekick is the second trilogy in the Moth & Cobweb series by John C Wright, comprising Daughter of Danger, City of Corpses, and Tithe to Tartarus. It is YA novel that straddles the line between science fiction, urban fantasy, and high fantasy and does it effortlessly. It’s written by the one SF/F writer alive who can use prose on the level of Jack Vance and write worlds with the scope of Roger Zelazny. I liked it a lot less than the previous trilogy. I wanted to like this book a lot more than I liked it; caveat: I think part of my problem is that I don’t like Urban Fantasy that comes down too heavily on the Fantasy side.

In short? I was disappointed in the resolution of the plot, and did not feel that the heroine’s characterization worked properly for the genre and her narrative role in it.

Also, not enough respect for my boy Batman/Winged Vengeance.

Plot: an amnesiac woman wakes up in a hospital bedroom, convinced that it is a trap. She’s right. A trio of monsters invade and try to kill her; she fights her way clear and escapes. (The whole five-feet tall, 90 pounds soaking wet = ineffective combatant rule doesn’t apply to mooks, I guess). She’s wearing a hospital gown and a mysterious ring that changes its appearance and has various powers.She doesn’t know her own name.

Long story short, she is Yumiko Moth the Fox Maiden, apprentice of a night-stalking vigilante called Winged Vengeance (he’s basically Batman except hardcore, lol); she lost her memory during a raid and was either left behind by Winged Vengeance (boo), or escaped via the sacrifice of her fiancee, Tom. I forget which. In any case, Tom is being held prisoner by the bad guys and is going to be sent to Hell as teind for the court of the evil faery. Does this sound vaguely familiar yet?

Yumiko, despite her deep reservations about the kind of silly, post-modern, unrealistic story where *girls* rescue *boys* (hmph!), well, has to go rescue him. Part of this involves going undercover. In time-honored tradition for beautiful young female detectives, this involves being scantily clad. (Book 2) I did snicker at the wardrobe mistress assuring Yumiko, with sadistic cheerfulness, that their weight-watching regimen was no more arduous than that of a professional wrestling team.

Book 2 and a chunk of book 3 comprise Yumiko failing at her mission in various humiliating-to-hilarious ways, until she teams up with the hero of the previous trilogy, Gil Moth, is baptized as a Catholic, and stops trying to fight for her love and just to hold on to him. Literally. While being injured in various gross and horrifying ways that are described with sadistic relish.

I found this ending unsatisfactory.

I have three problems with this story overall.

Problem 1: Improper handling of female character archetype. See, authors have limited repertoire of characters. Their expertise is in how they change and modify their own stock of characters by giving them different skillsets, placing them in new settings, or using different, new plots to show them off in different ways.

This is why Roger Zelazny writes of tall, laconic, green-eyed men with many names; but they are differentiated into the tall, ballad-writing, many-named Corwin of Amber, the tall, laconic, many-named hero of My Name is Legion, and the tall, sarcastic Carlton Davits. All have different roles to play. His female characters are either sultry but straightforward or sultry and coy; they are memorable either way. Larry Correia writes big, burly men who are smarter than they look and like guns, handsome antagonistic men who are dumber than they look and like guns, and beautiful women who are not particularly sophisticated, who like guns *a lot*. Gordon R Dickson writes square-jawed space-age heroes who Know How Systems Work, who confidently set forward to make them Work For Me. The confident hero can either not be quite as smart as he thinks he is (Soldier Ask Not), not nearly as smart as he thinks he is (Pro), or dead right (Wolfling). His female characters tend to be: annoying. Well, you can’t do everything all at once. Especially if you’re a nerd. Writing for nerds.

Again: an expert author can have a limited repertoire, it’s fine–but he must know how to use what he’s got.

John C. Wright’s female character repertoire is singular: highly feminine, happy to be so, happy with life in general, cheerful, helpful. (Any similarities to Mrs. Wright, who, as per her blog seems like a lovely person, are purely speculative. But, yeah.) This type of heroine works quite well–as he himself noted in character, in the Golden Oecumeneif the genre is first-person romance (heh). Now, as his skills improve, he is able to vary this somewhat: highly feminine, cheerful, and secretly a femme fatale Trying To Lure Hero Into MORTAL SIN (Iron Chamber of Memory); or, highly feminine, not cheerful because her mission is not going well, and doesn’t particularly like her putative love interest (yet) (Somewhither). Both of these heroines do work and I rate both of those books highly.

Yumiko is an attempt to write a Short Female Badass (an archetype in its own right)…who is also highly feminine, giggly, and revels in male attention. She starts out as the Fox Maiden, the Dark Avenger’s sidekick, someone whose deeds of vengeance strike fear and nausea into the hearts of her victims. Or so we’re told. Yumiko herself has amnesia and, over the course of the story, mostly proves herself to be the kind of girl who, as a presumable adult, still has relations with a large stuffed teddy bear. (not kidding). The dichotomy doesn’t work. Now, while I think there is a way it *could* have worked, (see the Tam Lin section below), as it is, it doesn’t.

Problem 2. Subversion of narrative structure.
Bear with me.
The central tenet of fiction is that heroes win after they lose. Especially after losing in a particular way, with additional humiliation, by showing more prowess, intelligence, technique. Those who completely abandon their initial techniques and try to win without fighting are those who are certain of possession of the moral high ground (Return of the Jedi) (or physical high ground, Revenge of the Sith), and the conflict ceases to be about the fight so much as about the moral and psychological dimensions of it.

The hero’s learning curve has to continue logically forward from whatever has already been shown before. Otherwise, why show it? So if hero lost before by: applying brute force instead of strategy–win by applying superior strategy. If loss was by expecting fair play–win with overwhelming force.

Yumiko doesn’t change her initial technique by Being More Clever. The heroes are outwitted at every single step of the way by What’s-his-name Moth anyhow. She doesn’t change her initial technique by Working On A Team and Trusting Her Allies, either. No: what she *does* change is her violent pagan heart for a new, sinless, Christian (Catholic) one, and then also doesn’t fight. (Not Kidding) Protestants (and atheists) read these damn books too, you know.

This is, I believe, a narrative-level mistake. Changing from a physical battle to a physical struggle that isn’t a battle, without allowing hero to negate their previous failures is highly unsatisfying. Not allowing the hero to make up for previous humiliations caused by being dumb is unsatisfying. If Yumiko had won without fighting by outsmarting the Moths and the forces of Hell, that would have been satisfying. If Yumiko had managed to learn a new fighting technique and suddenly was able to overpower the enemy physically, that would have been satisfying. Instead, Yumiko wins by being passive. (Is it because girls should be passively courageous and not try to fight and (hmph!) rescue boys? I have my suspicions.)

Problem 3:
The climax of the story is a nearly point for point retelling of Tam Lin. For your amusement and/or edification, please follow the link, which is a brief and highly editorialized retelling. In short, though: heroine’s lover is on his way to hell; heroine must identify lover accurately; heroine must physically grab hold of lover; heroine must hold on to lover through various shapeshifts, boom, lover has been saved from hell.

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(Image via wylielise.deviantart.com. Have I mentioned recently that WORDPRESS SUCKS AND THEIR EDITORS ARE NOW FAR LESS USEFUL THAN BEFORE? BECAUSE WORDPRESS SUCKS.)

Ahem. So, anyway: despite being someone so absolutely gifted at reimagining old tales, putting new twists into them, making utterly absurd and illogical things happen in charming and funny ways…Wright nonetheless plays this absolutely, completely, straight. And misses by a mile.

Part of the reason Tam Lin works is that there’s an extra archetypal quality to it, something my liftime as a Pratchett reader insists on calling “myffic.” Janet is pregnant; she needs Tam Lin to live not only for her own sake, but for her child’s. Tam Lin wants to escape Hell, and also to escape the Faerie, to be a father to his child in the world of men. The subtextual meaning of this story is that people who take responsibility for themselves at each step of the way, can, will, and should make great efforts to better their lives and the lives of their children.

This paratext is absent from Wright’s story. And I think that actually putting it back in–making Yumiko knowingly or unknowingly pregnant during her story–would have actually worked at some level. At the very least, it gives Yumiko an out for not being All That, physically. Thus it’d be OK that she can’t defeat the enemy in a hand-to-hand battle; thus, it would add a ticking clock element to her days as a corseted undercover dancing girl.

A second myffic point in Tam Lin is that Tam doesn’t injure Janet even though the enemy turns him into different, scary animals to try and make her let go: things may be weird, appearances may be scary, but he is the same person underneath, worthy to be her husband and the father of her child. He may not be able to control his outside circumstances (shape), but he can control himself and not harm the mother of his child. Here, Yumiko is *horribly* injured as Tom is turned into a variety of porcupines, sword fish, ray fish, sawfish, venomous porcupines, and other nasty things with spikes on them. What’s more, this section goes on for a long time.

Misery porn + the climax of your novel? DO NOT MIX.

(Then she gets healed by drinking the blood of her vampire priest cousin. Not kidding. What??)

Could Yumiko have used her Tom-provided technology nonlethally as it was “intended” to be used, to grapple and hold him? Sure. Does she? No. Could Yumiko have provided the bigwigs of Faerie proof of What’s-his-Name’s treachery and misdeeds, and persuaded them to switch out Tom for him? Sure. Does she? No. Could Yumiko have engaged in one-on-one battle for Tom? Sure (she has a magic ring that is kryptonite to the faery, a magic bow that is kryptonite to the faery, a magic sword that is…yes. If that’s not enough to make it a fair fight, then Tom should have made her some ray guns, too.) Does she? No.

Does this book have any pros? Yes, like all JCW books, it is superbly worded, the worldbuilding is excellent, the descriptions, gadgets, and settings are vivid. There are many good points about this story; I’m just out of time to write about them and it was more fun to complain.

Rated: 2/5 magic swords that are never drawn, magic bows that are never strung, and magic arrows that are never fired.