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!

One simple trick (tell me if you knew it already)

question-mark-faceSo a little while ago I reviewed The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman, a book that finally allowed me to put my finger on why, as a whole, the series failed (because the worldbuilding’s poor, the characterization is nonexistent, the dialogue is stultifying, and because there is, foremost and overall, a critical lack of creative imagination.) But this book bothered me and it kept niggling at my brain looking for a solution.

[We pause here to say FU WordPress for deleting half of my post.]

It’s really quite easy to make a cliched plot with a predictable storyline and half-assed worldbuilding nonetheless be gripping and readable, and the trick lies in three things: by making the 1) characters 2) interact with this plot in 3) understandable, predictable, realistic, or characteristic fashion. See any number of romance novels, but more particularly, see Beauty by Robin McKinley, or see the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. Neither of these have anything particularly unexpected going on in the plot department. Beauty is literally a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (with horses). But because Beauty/Honor is someone we care about and the Beast promptly becomes one as well, their story becomes important. The Kate Daniels books never have anything spectacular going on in the plot department, but because Kate herself

To break that down a bit more: 1) you have to have characters such that the audience cares what happens to them and is invested in seeing what they are going to do. 2) Your characters have to have enough self-determination and agency that they not mere paper dolls moved around by the authorial whims of the plot dictates. They have to be able to decide to do things, and these things should have an effect on what happens next. 3) Their decisions should be made for relatable, sympathetic, or merely just understandable reasons.

This doesn’t mean that everybody has to be likable, or that everyone has to have their backstory spelled out in detail. It does mean that the author needs to know what their reasons are for doing what they do. But how? People are hard! I don’t know why they do things?!

That’s where the one simple trick comes in. Ready?


Figure out what your character wants. I’ve seen this described as “what does your character want to do with their glass of water.”–everybody wants something. Frodo wants to dump his glass of water into a volcano. Aragorn wants to marry his glass of water and has to be crowned King in order to do so. (Golly, this metaphor is a bit unwieldy, isn’t it?) Beauty wants to save her family. Kate Daniels wants to make money and bone Curran. Wanda wants to be happy with her lover, Vision. Luke wants to rescue his father.

But that’s only step one. Step two is (are you ready?): figure out what personality trait (not plot point –those are external factors. We’re going for internal factors here) is going to help or hinder them from accomplishing it. One of my characters, Morgan, wants freedom from her strictured upbringing. A trait that might help her achieve this is: that she’s stubborn and finishes what she starts. A personality trait that is going to hinder this is that: she’s selfish. Her self-centeredness causes her to make a series of decisions which ultimately leads to negative, long-term consequences. Here’s another: Cade wants to protect his clan/family. He’s a cunning warrior. But he dislikes people and therefore it is hard for him to gain allies or trust them. His clan loses ground. Here’s another. Corinnius wants to overthrow the corrupt hierarchy that governs his world. He’s idealistic and hopeful. But he’s internalized rules of the society that he would destroy and fears to take the necessary steps. He doesn’t move forward with what he wants to do; he half-asses everything else that he does do, because his heart is not in it and he doubts and sometimes hates himself.

Back to The Dark Archive. Fixing Irene and Kai is a hopeless proposition. They’ve had seven books and they’re both still paper puppets. But some of the new characters might still be salvaged. In text, Shan Yuan is Kai’s older brother and bullies him; he ignores and bullies Catherine, the Fae trainee, as well. He’s critical, unhelpful, and envious. Now, there is a reason provided–that he wants Kai’s position as Dragon-Library-Fae liaison–but it really isn’t enough because it exists in a vacuum of personality that makes it seem that Shan Yuan’s only purpose in story or out of it is to be a bully who makes life harder for all other characters. (A trope I particularly detest.)

Here’s how to fix it. Shan Yuan is critical of his younger brother because: he feels a sense of superiority and proprietorship over Kai, whom he (thinks of himself as) has raised. Shan Yuan wants the job because: he feels deserves it more than his little brother. Shan Yuan wants the results that the power and prestige will get him. Now, everyone wants power and prestige for its own sake, but why not do something unexpected instead? What if Shan Yuan wants kids and has no chance of being assigned a wife until he has gained more importance and a higher position, such as being the liaison between dragons and chaos. What if Shan Yuan isn’t a warrior or a courtier?–just someone who likes teaching people and explaining things. 

The character trait that would or ought to prevent him is: that he’s not patient or tolerant or mature enough to be trusted with children. –as per his interactions with Catherine, a teenaged Fae. His initial inability to recognize her as “kid” rather than “Fae scum” could, over the course of the book, be corrected. That’s what we call “character development” and it’s highly regarded.

So, anyhow, to sum up: have characters want things and maybe not be able to get them.


Review: The Dark Archive – Genevieve Cogman

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)


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?

Rambling Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – Jim Butcher

img_3485It’s steampunk, and the goggles do do something.

So steampunk is…in my humble opinion…largely a fairly stupid genre based entirely on the aesthetic tastes of people who like wearing their corsets on the outside of their clothes. However, I’ll admit that this opinion is based on a sample size of 2: Girl Genius and The Invisible Library, both series I want to like a lot more than I actually do. TAW makes the third, and it’s…written much better than the other ones, for one.

Here, we get a genuine sense of why people use swords rather than guns–and if we only get hints as to why these swords are copper-clad, well, there’s plenty of space for JB to expand this universe and explain it. Here, when the pirate captain girl wears leather and crossed bandoleros with cutlasses, they are given enough prior context, in-setting, that they fit her character as well as her posterior. And when everybody is altogether concerned with tea, it’s…fine. It’s cultural. It’s also made hugely significant in-story, not to mention sinister and mysterious, by the villain’s tea-and-biscuits obsession.

[Incidentally; effing wordpress has made its media caption editor 300% less useful and I don’t even have the energy to swear at them in all caps for it. Whatever. I think that’s XO Creedy on the cover, not Captain Grimm.]

And there’s the rub of it. The Invisible Library does not make setting intrinsically a part of its story and use elements of that setting organically in the telling of it; it just uses them as a backdrop–set dressing. Girl Genius does much the same, although it does it rather better, using the setting/props for humorous effect. The Cinder Spires, contrarily, feels like an actual universe; a setting with established culture, locations, and weight of history.

Oh, and unlike Girl Genius, the female characters are strong, lively, and badass without being annoying Mary Sues, and unlike The Invisible Library, the males act like people who have, at some time in their life, found themselves capable of punching someone else in the face and indeed can do so at any time necessary.

Yeah, so.

Plot: There’s this group of characters who assemble, and then they go do something. And that’s more or less it.

OK, fine. So, there’s Captain Grimm of the Predator, who is the guy from the first Horatio Hornblower novels who is Not Horatio Hornblower, the one who ended up taking the fall for mysterious circumstances involving a dead captain (but a successful voyage) while the other young officers concerned somehow ended up covered in glory. Grimm is completely mute and slightly bitter about this but remains a loyal son of Spire Albion–so much so that even after his ship is crippled, potentially fatally, he’s willing to take direct service for the leader of the Spire. What work can an airship that only goes up and down do?

It can transport a crack team of….junior trainees and semi-insane wizards to a different level (I somehow thought that Habble Landing was at the surface level. It…probably isn’t? Anyhow.)–and provide them personnel, medical and tactical support; it can make a ranged pursuit in the event of an enemy escape, and also Captain Grimm is one of the main characters so it makes sense to involve him.

Why is a small team of heroes necessary? Because Spire Albion has come under attack by Spire Aurora, the dirty commies, (literally), and while the Guard does outnumber the concealed raiders, they are stretched far too thinly to cover every level of the ten-mile high tower….and there is every indication that highly placed members of the Guard have turned traitor. Which also explains why two out of the three Guardspeople are young women on their first month of training, and why having a cunning and experienced–not to mention very patriotic and demonstrably loyal, but definitely outside the regular chain of command–soldier like Grimm as a backup is such a good idea.

Mind you, one of these girls is capable of calmly and instantly blasting an unsuspecting enemy soldier in the face at point-blank range, while the other one until recently spent her days hauling 150-lb slabs of vat-meat and can carry a grown adult male over her shoulder out of a burning building. And while the third Guardsperson is slightly more senior (he’s got about three years’ experience), not to mention a genetically enhanced fighting machine, the fourth member of the team is a cat. And they’re the sane ones, here.

The other two members of the team are the Etherealist and his apprentice, Master Ferus and Folly. Being able to use and manipulate ethereal energy–the stuff that allows airships to fly and crystals to levitate them, emit light, and gauntlets to blast eletricity–comes with a price. The knowledge of the ether strips away your ability to function in the human, normal world, and etherealists must rely on weird, compulsory behavior patterns to compensate. Master Ferus has a collection of oddball items including mismatched socks and size-thirteen hats. He can also track multiple different futures and rip the energy from existing crystals (and possibly the life from men), but can’t operate doorknobs. Folly can turn dead crystals meant for emitting light into very live crystals that can electrocute attacking megaspiders–but can’t speak directly to anyone who is not a crystal…or linked to one.

But anyway, Master Ferus’ mission is: to find the enemy etherealist who has guideded the Auroran attack force into Albion space and which is presumably concealing them now. The rest of the team, including Rowl, are there to support this.

And so it goes.

Now, this is the bulk of the main plot. But there’s an artistry to it. The novel actually slides into the adventure rather more slowly, beginning with heroines Gwen and Bridget’s departures for the Guard training academy, Grimm’s encounter with the Auroran battleship that lames the Predator, Bridget’s inadvertent duel with a churlish young man, Gwen’s almost-duel with the actual monarch of the spire, Benedict’s laidback snark, and so on. Still, there is a constant source of mystery and tension–following Grimm, Rook, and the silkweavers–which blends back into the main plot further towards the end, adding context to Rook’s cowardice and the weavers’ origins. This gives the audience some time to absorb the setting and the characters’ personalities a chance to shine in exciting–but not terribly out of the ordinary–circumstances. And they do shine: we know exactly how well the refined yet hot-headed Gwen is going to perform her role of smoothing the way for Master Ferus (i.e.: with extreme violence or at least the threat of it); we know that quiet, serious Bridget is calm in a crisis and far more dangerous than she thinks she is–and we know that Rowl is going to save the day (because of course he is).

At this point I’m going to say that since I’ve been working on this review for about three days and it’s already pretty long and not very good, enough is enough.

‘s a good book and there’s a lot more to it than I was babbling about. Jim Butcher is a really top-notch author when he puts his mind to it, and in this case he did. It’s a solid, absorbing book with great worldbuilding, great characters, exciting action, compelling themes, deep examinations of the intrinsic system of the compulsory blah blah blah.

Rated: Look, just take my word for it and go read the book, it’s really good.

The Lost Plot – Genevieve Cogman (repost review)

So, I have read all five of these books, and none of them were worth paying money for. This review consists of things I feel justified in pointing out, because they are things I would also have problems with, as a writer or aspiring writer. I really would like to like these books. The idea is great! Spies and agents for the Library of All Worlds, dragons, eldritch abominations of chaos, cat burglars, magic, magitech, great detectives, and zeppelins. I can take or leave zeppelins, but the rest of it sounds good, right?

The problem is, it isn’t written very well, and no one has told Ms. Cogman how to play to her strengths or even what those strengths are.

Plot: The Library is trying to play mediator in a peace conference between the dragons (forces of Order) and the Fae (chaos). There’s been a murder. There’s going to be war between factions and between worlds unless someone can figure out Who Dun It. Simple, really.

Cogman is really good at writing fanfiction. I mean, really good. I discovered her because of, uh, well, worse things have been admitted, *cough* her Bleach fanfic. And her Chronicles of Amber stuff is also really superb.

But fanfic is fanfic. Original writing is different. Creating your own world requires imagination–to make it up in the first place–thought, to make it workable–and talent, to portray it in a coherent manner. Cogman elides this step by using her many worlds as simply possible, making each or at least most of them just be a slightly more feminist-friendly (not kidding) real-world historical setting. That’s lazy writing, but it’s also fine!–as long as you either make them distinct and/or, have whatever’s happening to your characters be so interesting the background, comparatively speaking, fades.

Here’s the next problem: Cogman isn’t good at characterization. Writing your own characters requires the ability to a) make them distinct and b) make the audience care about them.  b) is less difficult to accomplish, because the audience is usually naturally on the protagonists’ side. a) is way, way harder, because it means giving them a personality and portraying that personality consistently throughout and against the vagaries of the plot.

I’m not criticizing her for lazy writing: making the Fae be “archetypes” is a legitimate cheat, because then you can insert a couple paragraphs about how the Fae in front of you doesn’t actually have a personality, just a set of characteristics which, conveniently, they are forced by Universal Narrativium to adapt to that particular scene. Annoying, but if you pull it off with enough panache (aka, make that Fae be distinct enough and consistent enough), then I, the reader, can go along with it.–especially if you don’t belabor the point too much.

But that isn’t going to work with your actual heroes. Vale has no personality. Kai has Standard Romance Hero personality, which is to say, no personality. Dragon investigator Mu Ren has no personality. Irene does have a personality, and I would hate to be petty and say that her personality is G. Cogman-in-Victorian-Britain-as-an-idealized-Librarian-Spy, but….it just kinda feels that way.

Ironically, the one person who emerges from this book (and series in general) with some distinction is Silver, the Fae semi-antagonist Sexy Bad Boy. He gets identifiable and consistent characterization, because being a) sexy, b) bad boy sexy, requires that he actually say or do things which other people/the protagonist can respond to at a physical and emotional level. There is no other parallel to this in the book. Irene and Kai are lovers. You can’t tell it from any word or action or reaction they have throughout the book. Irene dislikes and distrusts Prezkov. You couldn’t tell it from any thought or word or narrative description, either. But you do know where Irene stands with regard to Silver. (It’s fascinated revulsion–but you have to admit that he who responds to an attack of cybernetic alligators with “Johnson! My elephant gun!” has got style.) Silver is also fairly funny, which is a benefit, and Cogman is very good at humor.

Next problem: Cogman isn’t good at subtext, and this makes the entirety of this book really, really clunky. Your mileage may vary on the next section of this analysis, but I think it’s sound.

So when you have a murder, the three basic facts are: means, motives, and opportunity. The detective/hero/investigator generally finds out the means pretty quickly. Stabbed in the heart. Shot in the head. Beaten to death in a room locked from the inside. The means and opportunity part gets rounded up when you cross-check all suspects’ alibis. Who has a knife? Who has a gun in that caliber? Who has keys to the door? Who can teleport?

Those two parts are always pretty straightforward, and generally the sidekick gets to pop in and out, doing the legwork while the hero does the dramatic heavy lifting: determining the motives.

See, for a mystery novel, the classic structure is: hero asks questions, hero is given answers, hero decides how truthful those answers are and thence determines motives. This requires the hero have the ability to know (and the author to show) such complex social niceties as intent, lying by omission, hinting, eagerness to talk, reluctance to talk, genuine emotions, feigned emotions, and other things that I, a nerd, have enough trouble with in real life, let alone fiction. It requires the hero to be able to keep track of what’s actually going on versus what people are saying–and that requires there to actually be something happening.

That doesn’t happen in this book. It’s okay to be bad at something; but then, if you are bad at something, you shouldn’t write a book which especially requires that.

Cogman isn’t good at dialogue, either. Which is to say, she is good at writing long exchanges which are sometimes witty and often amusing. But she is not good at: using dialogue to further characterization, to establish motives, to raise tension, or to delineate stakes.

This damn book is a good 95% dialogue, and 90% of that is exposition….boring exposition. One or two, or three or four people, distinguishable only by the use of their names in the tags (see above: no personality), keep exchanging information with each other: the kind of dialogue that, in a different book, could be safely skipped because we’ll find out what’s going on through whatever happens next. The context of everyone’s actions, later, will keep everything clear.

Only, there is very little of anything happening. This is directly related to the next problem:

Cogman isn’t good at action. This isn’t exactly her fault–it’s her beta readers’ and editors’ fault. A good support team would really make a huge difference in the quality of these books, telling Cogman what is good, what works, why it works, and what doesn’t. There is at least one scene where everything clicks into place and there is a genuine sense of urgency, tension, and horror. But it’s all by itself and so very, very lonely out there, it finishes quickly so Irene can get back to the important business of talking to people about what just happened. (It’s the scene with the rats.)

Cogman has clearly heard the maxim about having someone with a gun walk in when you don’t know what else to do with your plot. What this book lacks is for any of these interludes to carry narrative or emotional punch. If the hero isn’t scared or threatened–or excited–why should the audience feel any of these emotions? If the threat has no further meaning or bearing on events, why did we even waste our time reading it, I’m skipping ahead until something else happens.

I don’t like this book even as much as the previous ones, which I also rated pretty harshly. There were no standout scenes except the aforementioned and quickly glossed-over rats; no characters made an impression, nothing. I don’t even think the peace talks were a good idea, myself.

Rated: I dunno, I feel bad about being so harsh and negative about this book and this author. But I’d also like to read a really good book with dragons and spies, many worlds and intrigue, honor, and romance, and action.

Four snowflakes out of ten.

The Secret Chapter – Genevieve Cogman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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