Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Every now and then I come across a book with such an intriguing premise that I have to purchase it almost without reading. The Paper Magician, the first book in Charlie N. Holmberg’s trilogy of the same name is such book. I even read the sample, and though it made me raise my eyebrows a couple of times, I purchased it anyway.

I have no excuses.

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

I love fantasies set in a world identical to ours with changes stemming from the fantasy system of the book, be it modern urban fantasy or historical. There is special charm to historical fantasy of this kind. My absolute favourite is Gail Carriger whose detailed knowledge of the customs and manners of Victorian England make the past come alive in her historical series. And she’s so good at weaving the fantasy elements in, that I don’t always question their reality.

The Paper Magician has nothing of that. The author hasn’t made the slightest attempt to learn about the era she’s set her book in—1901, to be exact. From the first chapter on, the lack of historical details and the abundance of modern manners made me assume the book was set in maybe 1960s with some historical quirks that I took to stem from the fantasy elements. Once the real era was revealed, the historical inaccuracies became a constant irritation that repeatedly pushed me out of the narrative.

If the chosen fantasy system is sound, and the differences to the actual historical era can be explained as a result of that fantasy system, everything is fine, even if the differences are considerable. Spotting the differences becomes fun, even. But that requires that the author has a working knowledge of the time before she starts making the changes.

The turn of the century was the end of Victorian era of strict moral code and exact manners. Class distinctions were clear, and a person of means was expected to live in a manner of their class, with servants. Upper class women didn’t work, nor did they socialise with the opposite sex unsupervised. Social mobility was almost unheard of. But it was also an era of great technical innovations and the nascent suffragette movement.

The Paper Magician disregarded all that. We have a society where women—at least women magicians—are equal to men. They wear their hair down and use makeup and trousers if they want. They can marry and divorce with a sign of a paper. The hero, apparently a wealthy man, lives alone in a large house without any servants, so he cooks, cleans and does his washing himself. He can share the house with a female apprentice without anyone so much as raising a brow. The heroine is a poor working class girl who nonetheless has gone to the same school as the hero as if mixed schools existed, or were available for poor—a school that resembles remarkably an American high school even though they’re supposedly in London. Their manners with each other are free, with no respect given or expected. She cooks him pasta and rice, as if those were available at the time, and washes his clothes in her spare time, as if it weren’t a whole day operation to do the washing at that time. There is electricity in some houses, but no gas light, as the alternative to electric light is always candles. Every house has its personal telegraph machine. Is it a wonder I thought the book was set in 1960s with some historical quirks?

On top of that came the Americanisms. The heroine describes her hair to be the colour of yams, uses inches and centimetres interchangeably, puts mayonnaise to her cucumber sandwiches, and uses the expression ‘rocks like a rodeo horse’, to mention just a few. Added to that was the author’s weird attitude to religion, which she probably thought was ‘European’. First Ceony wonders why Emery doesn’t say grace before dinner, and later reflects that she doesn’t really belive in God, and calls the Church of England a sect—which it could be in her world, only it isn’t explained why.

Despite the constant irritation the weird world caused, I read the whole book. It wasn’t very long, and it was sadly uneven, with no proper plot development. During the first half of the book, Ceony, the heroine, learns the ropes of being a paper magician. Much of this is narrated as if from the outside—told, not shown. There was some attempt at plot development when Emery, the master magician, goes to a mysterious errand, but before anything can be built on it, there is a plot twist in form of a surprise attack by a person mentioned once, with a forbidden magic that hadn’t really been introduced yet. The attack incapacitates Emery and leaves Ceony the sole agent for the rest of the book.

The second half is one long scene where Ceony saves the day. However, it’s also a sort of dream sequence, as it’s a journey to Emery’s past, and to his hopes and fears. As is quite typical in these sorts of books, Ceony concquers the foe by being more powerful and capable in magic than her training or skills allows. And then the book ends.

I didn’t like Ceony much in the beginning. She was rude and assumed it was her right to snoop. She improved towards the end though. Emery was a distant figure throughout the first half of the book, and then became a proper character during the second half, which was ironic, considering that he wasn’t even present in person.

All in all, the book had great flaws, and had an undeveloped, uneven plot. But as I managed to read it to the end and be moderately entertained, I gave it three stars. However, I have no intention to continue with the series. That I’d decided already before reading the sample chapter of the next book, where Ceony’s sister goes on a date. My blood pressure couldn’t handle that.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Penryn & the End of Days trilogy by Susan Ee

4/5 stars on Goodreads

I mentioned in the previous post that I’ve read Angelfall by Susan Ee, the first book in the Penryn and The End of Days trilogy of post-apocalyptic San Francisco destroyed by the arrival of angels bent on annihilating the humanity. I’ve since read the other two, World After and End of Days, and I thought to review all three in one post.

The structure of the trilogy, which is very compact, makes this a natural approach. The next book begins with the same scene than the previous ended, with the same energy too. Since I read them back to back, it suited me perfectly, but if I’d had to wait for the next book to be published—I think they came out a couple of years apart—I wouldn’t have remembered where the previous book ended, and would’ve needed more to catch up. All in all, no more than two weeks passes in the books in total, if that.

Angelfall by Susan Ee

We follow Penryn, a seventeen-year-old girl determined to save her family, mother and sister, from the angels and humans equally bent on survival. Paige, Penryn’s seven-year-old paralysed sister, is first taken away by angels, and then, in the second, driven away by humans afraid of her. This forces Penryn to go after her to save her. In a way Paige is the catalyst of two of the books. In the third, Penryn takes a more active role in forming the outcome of the story and forcing the final battle between humans and angels.

The tight timeframe means that Penryn’s development from a scared teenager looking after her little sister and schizophrenic mother to sword-wielding angler killer is rapid. Perhaps unnaturally so. The last book mentions that all humans have diluted angel blood in them, some more than others, but the author doesn’t make it clear if Penryn had more than her share of it. Whatever the reason for her strength and skills, there isn’t a man or angel big and strong enough she couldn’t beat in a fight. She never even hurts herself, which in a book that revels in gory details of people’s injuries, is remarkable.

World After by Susan Ee

The series point of view is strictly Penryn’s. There are major things going on constantly in the background that she only learns about after the fact. It suits the atmosphere of post-apocalyptic isolation well. There is no way to communicate with people, so she can’t possibly know what the others are doing. And it’s a change to similar books, where meaningful events take place only when the hero is present. Sometimes Penryn is in the thick of the action, sometimes she’s in the side-lines.

However, this means that the development of other characters is non-existent, and most of them remain sketches. That goes for the characters that are closest to Penryn too, like her sister and mother, and Raffe, the wounded angel she rescues in the first book. They each have interesting roles to play in the story, and it would’ve been nice to have some flesh around their bones. Now her mother mainly remains a crazy lady everyone’s afraid of, who does crazy things and somehow not only survives but helps to defeat the angels. We don’t even learn her name. Paige, the little sister, is horribly altered by angels; has to endure constant pain and violence, and deal with the violent urges of her own, yet she’s looked at only from the outside. That’s mostly because neither of them gets their own voice. They seldom speak and if they do, they don’t tell anything about themselves.

End of Days by Susan Ee

Raffe, the inevitable love-interest, suffers from this too. We do get some glimpses to his inner life, but only second-hand through a sentient sword. He never talks about himself or his life. Yet, we’re meant to believe that a relationship between him and Penryn is possible. That was perhaps the weakest link in the trilogy. I was happy with the first book where the possibility was only toyed with. Even in the second book there wasn’t much else than a teenage girl’s crush on a handsome guy. The last book went all out though, and it wasn’t always in service of the greater story. The action would stall while Penryn fantasises about Raffe. Still, nothing much happens between them except a few hot kisses, and I would’ve been perfectly fine with an ending where the two go their separate ways. But, this being young adult fantasy, that ending couldn’t happen.

All in all, the trilogy is sufficient as is, and not well-developed enough. There would’ve been room for so much more. The angelic system is never properly explained. While they’re clearly from Christian mythology, they sort of spring from nowhere or from a different dimension. Where were all the woman angels? Only one is mentioned in the whole trilogy. And what about Penryn’s mother: did she really see demons and was guided by them? It was alluded to, but in the end her notions were brushed away as her mental illness. But the ending was satisfying enough, and in a way that didn’t solve all the humanity’s problems at once. The kind of ending that leaves room for the reader’s imagination too.

Monday, August 12, 2019

What I’ve read this summer

I’ve somehow managed to avoid updating my book blog this summer. But I haven’t stopped reading. I’ve read ten books since my last post, but since I don’t have the energy to write a post for each, you’re getting one big post. The books fall neatly in three categories, contemporary romances, historical romances, and urban fantasy, so I’ll lump them together that way.

Beard science by Penny Reid

First up, the contemporary romances. They’re from one author, and belong to one series: Winston Brothers by Penny Reid. I introduced the series in the previous blog post where I reviewed Truth or Beard, which I loved. I skipped the second book—and didn’t miss anything—to the third book, Beard Science. It was every bit as wonderful as the first, as was the third in the series, Beard in Mind, though I had some issues with that one, namely that there weren’t enough chapters in the heroine’s point of view. We only had her point of view when she visited her therapist. It defined her through her mental illness, which was the opposite of what the book tried to achieve.

Beard in Mind by Penny Reid

What made these three books so charming where characters who, after finding someone to love, strived to become better persons because of that. Each book had secondary plots too, to add some spice into the love-stories, but nothing to distract from the main story.

Dr. Strange Beard by Penny Reid

However, the fourth book in the series, Dr. Strange Beard, was a great disappointment. I would’ve given it two stars, but refrained from giving any. It had nothing of the charm of the previous books. The characters were selfish and didn’t strive to become better, and their love-story suffered greatly for it. I didn’t root for either of them individually or as a pair. But the worst part was that there was a totally unnecessary five year jump to the future. During that time, interesting things had happened to the characters of the previous books, and I felt left out—a feeling which didn’t disappear the whole time. And the secondary plot that had been building in the previous books was abandoned completely. The book was so bad that I gave up on the series altogether.

It's Getting Scot in Here by Suzanne Enoch

Next up, the historical romances. It’s Getting Scot in Here by Suzanne Enoch was a solid but unexciting Regency romance that I gave three stars to. She’s digressed far from the books of her early career where plot twists made my stomach ache in anticipation. But it wasn’t a bad book. Three brothers are pawns in their parents’ bad marriage, and try to organise their lives despite. I’ll keep my eye on the next books, but I’m not sure I’ll read them.

The Governess Game by Tessa Dare

The Governess Game by Tessa Dare is a second book in her Girl Meets Duke series. The first book was great, but this one was barely ok. I gave it three stars anyway, as it had some humour, and the characters weren’t your everyday aristocrats. But there were too many plot-fillers and out-of-the-hat events that weren’t foreshadowed and which ended up meaning nothing. But the sample chapter to the next book in the series seemed promising, so I guess I’ll read that one when it comes out this month.

Lucifer's Daughter by Eve Langlais

And finally, the urban fantasy, which is a more eclectic bunch. I started with a steamy paranormal romance, Lucifer’s Daughter by Eve Langlais, the most prolific indie author that I know. There’s a new book every month. In her customary style, the book was funny, steamy and over the top. And while it was a first in a series, the ending was satisfying enough, and I don’t feel the need to continue with it.

Brave the Tempest by Karen Chance

Brave the Tempest by Karen Chance is book nine and the latest in her Cassandra Palmer series. I think the books keep getting better in the sense that the author has gotten better at writing them. They used to be mad dashes from one plot to another, which often left the poor reader behind. But in the past couple of books, there has been slower sections too that allow for reflecting the plot and, in case of this one, all the previous books too, which was much needed. In this book, Cassie finally turns into an active operator in her life, instead of being pushed this way and that, and that made the story more enjoyable too.

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch is a shorter book in his Rivers of London series, which I love. This one I almost skipped though, because it’s set in Germany and doesn’t have Peter Grant or any other familiar characters. But it was a good, solid detective story in the style of the other books. Tobi was much like Peter, and the plot was familiar in its oddity. There were even some rivers involved. I’m not sure if the author will continue with these characters, but perhaps there will be a cross-over book later.

Reticence by Gail Carriger

Reticence by Gail Carriger ends The Custard Protocol, her third Parasolverse series. It’s been very uneven four books, with the first being good, and third a horrid disappointment in all respects. But this fourth book was a charming ending to it all. Percy, the hero, has been my favourite throughout the series, and Arsenic, the new addition, was a good match to him. The plot was fairly simple—as opposed to some of the earlier books—and the love-story was satisfying, although it developed so slowly that I was sure there wouldn’t even be a kiss before the book ends. As it was a series ender, most favourite characters from throughout the books made an appearance, which was nice.

Angelfall by Susan Ee

Angelfall by Susan Ee was a new book to me, but it was published already in 2012. It’s marketed as a young adult book, and the age of the protagonist, Penryn, matches. But the hardships she faced and survived made me often think that she must be twice the age she was.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world. Angels have come to earth and destroyed it completely. The few survivors have soon learned that nothing is off-limits when it comes to survival. Penryn has to look after her paralysed little sister Paige, and her mother who is schizophrenic and violent. Having learned to survive with her mother, Penryn has an advantage when it comes to coping with this new world. And then the angels steal Paige, and in order to get her back, Penryn teams up with a wounded angel Raffe.

Though the plot is fairly straightforward, the things Penryn has to go through to achieve her goal aren’t your everyday YA. The book is fairly violent, and the imagery, especially towards the end of the book, is somewhat disgusting even. The romance, which has become a hallmark of YA, is almost absent. But the gritty style works, and carries to the end. I instantly picked the second book too.

So this was what I’ve read this summer. I try to return to regular service from here on. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh

The third book in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Trinity series (eighteenth overall in the Psy-Changeling series) leaves the first two behind. Not that they were bad books in any way, but as they were set in new places with completely new characters, they had a slightly alien feel to them. Wolf Rain returns to the original characters and settings, and it feels like home.

Alexei is a SnowDancer wolf plagued by a family curse of going rogue, i.e. becoming too feral to be allowed to live. Memory is an E Psy, an empath with unique abilities. She’s been held captive by a psychopath since she was eight, and Alexei is her rescuer.

The book doesn’t follow the usual traumatised victim trope. Instead, Memory is fairly level-headed and capable since the moment she is released, which is explained with her being an empath. The tension and drama in their story therefore stems more from Alexei’s past than hers. Their love-story develops fairly fast, but not unnaturally so, and is delightful to follow. Forces outside them, the psycho who held Memory captive and a nameless nemesis who threatens to incapacitate and destroy the entire PsyNet, try to throw rocks on their path. Both side stories are handled in a satisfying way. And as always in this series, there are plenty of tears for the reader, both those of joy and sorrow.

I liked Memory and Alexei both separately and together. And I liked even more how their story allowed many of the series regulars to make an appearance. One of the reasons I return to the series is to learn what is going on in the lives of the characters I’ve met and loved before, and this gave plenty of opportunities for that.

But the book isn’t riding on nostalgia and repeating the same story over and again. Ms Singh has a wonderful ability to renew her world with every book. In this case by introducing Memory’s singular ability that allows the world to develop further. And as dark clouds are gathering that threaten the existence of the Psy, there are many stories for her to tell yet. I’m going to read them all.

Truth or Beard by Penny Reid

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Truth or Beard by Penny Reid

Truth or Beard is the first book in the Winston Brothers series and the first by Ms Reid that I’ve read, and I loved it. It’s a contemporary romance set in a small town in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, with characters that seem to represent the heart of America. Jessica is a maths teacher who is dreaming of seeing the world. Duane is a car mechanic with roots tightly in their hometown.

The book starts with a bang (fairly literally) when Jessica mistakes Duane for his identical twin Beau whom she’s had a crush on since she was twelve. But as she is forced to confront her feelings for Duane, she begins to realise that he’s the one who has held her interest all her life. But as Duane launches an old-fashioned courtship of her, she has to tell him that she’s about to leave the town, maybe forever. It takes a few twists and turns, and a side-plot about a motorcycle gang, before they can get their happily ever after.

This was a great book with fully developed characters that nonetheless had room for change so that they could be together. And there were wonderful side characters, like Duane’s brothers who all get their own book in the series. I jumped straight to book number three, as I absolutely had to read more about Duane’s brother Cletus, who I loved. But I’m sure I’ll read the rest too.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Atlas Alone is the fourth book in Emma Newman’s brilliant Planetfall sci-fi series. So far, each book has been a stand-alone, set in different places with different protagonists. But Atlas Alone leans heavily on the second book, After Atlas, with its world-building and characters.

After Atlas introduced a near-future earth where democracy doesn’t exist anymore and everything is owned by corporations, land, air, and people included. Some people are indentured to corporations, sold for their skills or to human experiments. Everyone is chipped with a personal AI that is both a blessing and a curse. The book ended with the protagonist, Carlos Moreno, an indentured detective conditioned to never leave a puzzle unsolved, securing a place for him and his friend Dee on Atlas 2, a space-ship leaving the earth to a distant planet introduced in the first book, Planetfall. As they leave, they witness something that has a direct impact to this fourth book.

Planetfall by Emma Newman

In Atlas Alone, the point of view protagonist is Dee. She came across as a sulky teenager in After Atlas, but she turned out to be in her early forties. That doesn’t mean much, as people can genetically modify themselves and live for at least a couple of hundred years. Which is good, considering that the journey Atlas 2 is on will take twenty years. Dee is a data analyst who has spent her adult life as a debt slave conditioned in what is called hot-houses to toe the corporate line of whichever business owns her. Her life hasn’t been easy, and she has serious trust and emotional issues.

The book starts six months after the end of After Atlas. Dee and Carl have trouble adjusting to the life on Atlas 2, mostly because of what they witnessed as they left the earth. A chance job offer allows Dee to begin a serious investigation to what happened, who is in charge of Atlas 2 and what is its mission. This she does by becoming a member of an elite gaming community, with the help of a mysterious benefactor that has the ability to override her AI chip. The games turn out to be oddly personal for Dee, as they all have to do with her past and the tragedies that have shaped her. But she is strong and unemotional, and has had decades of practice in locking her past away. The games don’t change who she is, even when her mysterious benefactor tries to probe into her issues with her past—or especially because of it.

After Atlas by Emma Newman

What Dee learns in the games is that the ship is run by fundamentalist Christians who are prepared to kill millions of people and enslave the rest. She becomes convinced that the only way to bring them to justice is to kill them. First she does this within the immersive games, but somehow the deaths happen in real life too. And then it’s time for her to ditch the games and kill the rest of the bad guys in real life.

Planetfall books are brilliantly composed to look like sci-fi mysteries, but each book is actually a journey to the mind and psychopathology of the protagonist. Each time, it’s done so subtly that the reader is convinced to the end that the story will turn out to be fairly conventional. In Atlas Alone, even as the last chapter began, I thought I knew how everything would turn out. I was wrong.

It’s impossible to talk about the stunt the author pulls at the very end without spoiling everything. It might seem like a wrong way to finish the book, but it actually makes the reader re-evaluate the entire story and realise what it’s been about all along. I found it a perfect and just ending for Dee.

It takes great skill to dupe the reader to such extent and still make them appreciate the ending. Here it’s done brilliantly. Nonetheless, I only gave the book four stars. Some of it is for my disappointment that a book set on a space-ship mostly ignores the ship in favour of immersive games that take Dee back to earth. Also, the gaming sections were slightly boring and even knowing their worth in hindsight didn’t change that. But I don’t think the author is done with the series, and I’m absolutely looking forward to reading anything she sets in her Planetfall world.