Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry is the latest book in her series of fairy tale retellings. This one is based on Little Red Riding Hood. The book started with promise, but it ended up leading nowhere. It has no story arch and no conclusion. It has a series of events, and then it ends.

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

The Girl in Red is set in post-apocalyptic America. Most of the population has been wiped away by a fast-spreading mysterious virus that causes a cough that kills in a couple of days. Red, Cordelia, believes that the safest place is her grandmother’s remote house, and she sets out to walk hundreds of miles there through forests to avoid being taken to government quarantine camps. Militia and people ready to do anything to survive are some of the obstacles she faces.

In Little Red Riding Hood, the journey through the perilous forest is only a part of the story, and not even the major part. The important part is when she reaches the safety of her grandmother’s house and finds that the wolf has reached there first. That’s when the story happens.

The Girl in Red isn’t that book. We follow Red on her perilous journey about two thirds of the way when it abruptly ends, followed by an epilogue showing her reach her grandmother’s house safely. Scent of food indicates that everything is well there. Along the way, there are two encounters with the army ready to take Red to a camp. The third, the important one that should take place after Red believes she’s reached safety, never happens. The book just ends and the reader is left hanging, wondering if this could possibly be the entire book. It is.

It seems like the author hasn’t really understood her source material. The story doesn’t progress anywhere. There are obstacles on Red’s way, some that force her to kill even, but they don’t form an arch. And the dangers she faces are amazingly easily overcome too, especially considering the apocalyptic nature of the setting. The major revelation to Red seems to be that she’s the Huntsman, not the Little Red Riding Hood. That’s not enough to carry a book.

In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is a seductive force that lures the hapless girl away from her path so that it can reach the grandmother’s house first. But in this book, we never learn what the wolf is. There’s the virus, but then there’s a monster too. I don’t know why the book needed both, especially since they only serve as a catalyst for the story. It would have been a different matter, if it had turned out that Red’s grandmother has the monster incubating inside her too, but the story never reaches that part of its arch. Instead, it ends just when we learn what the monster looks like―though not why it exists in the first place.

Red is a disappointing character. She’s a twenty-year-old college student, but she comes across as a teenager. She has all the makings of a diverse, something for all character, but none of it has an impact on the story. She has a prosthetic leg, so she’s not physically perfect. But the prosthesis is just a prop. Worse, it’s the Chekhov’s gun alluded to throughout the story (‘I hope my leg don’t give up on me’, ‘I hope I won’t trip’), but which is never fired. She never falls because of it and it never lets her down at an important moment. She walks and runs with a heavy backpack on without trouble, she kicks and defeats grown men without any problems from her leg, and it never even chafes, forcing her to stop. So what’s the point of giving her such vulnerability? None that I could figure out.

Red is also black with mixed background, though with such a light skin and straight hair that she can pass as a Latina, which the author finds important to mention. Her skin colour has no impact on how she identifies, and apart from some rednecks who attack her parents at the beginning of the book, the fact that she’s black plays no role in the book. So what’s the point of mentioning her skin colour? None.

On top of everything, Red is bisexual. The book has no romance or sex, and although sexual violence is constantly hinted at, nothing like that takes place. Why then would it matter that she’s attracted to both men and women? It doesn’t. So Red only looks good on paper. Her diversity has no purpose or impact on the story, which is highly disappointing.

Apart from her character, I found myself annoyed with little details that don’t really matter. Her food comes in tin cans, which is highly impractical on a long trek because they’re heavy and take a lot of space in a backpack. She’s hiking for months, but no mention is made of such nuisances like periods or the availability of toilet paper. How much sanitary products can she fit in her backpack and still have room for food anyway? She also wins all the fights she gets into without getting so much as slapped herself, hacking her opponents to death with her axe. She’s not large or sporty, and has only attended one self-defence class, yet she’s a killing machine all of a sudden.

All in all, this is a deeply flawed book at its root. But the story starts well, and as it’s told in two timelines, before and after, I kept reading to find out what has led to Red’s current situation. It seems like it’s going to something bigger, so I didn’t really notice the flaws until it abruptly ends without delivering what it builds up to. So I gave it three stars. I was going along with the story right to the sudden end, rooting for Red. I just wish the rest of the story would have been there too.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Archangel’s War by Nalini Singh: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Archangel’s War is the latest book in Nalini Singh’s great Guild Hunter urban fantasy/paranormal romance series of a world that has been ruled by archangels and angels for hundreds of thousands of years. They’re not Christian angels, or in any way religious figures; they’re superior beings with wings. There are vampires, powerful creatures that the angels make to serve them, and at the bottom of the feeding chain are humans. It’s been a slightly uneven series, with some of the books dedicated to a longer story and the main romantic couple, and other books to romances of the side characters.

Archangel's War by Nalini Singh

Elena, a guild hunter whose job is to hunt vampires but who becomes an angel, and her archangel, Raphael, have come a long way during the course of the ten books. A war against an evil archangel has been brewing since the beginning, and in this book it finally happens. The book starts with Elena and Raphael waking up from a long sleep with new powers, and they take most of the book to learn to use them to their advantage. And they’re still not entirely ready to face their foe, who has grown in strength too.

It’s a long book, but the pace was good, and it didn’t feel like there was anything unnecessary there. The battle itself took perhaps a bit too large a chunk, but it’s difficult to describe an epic war without giving it proper space. It was emotional at times, as it should be, and the ending was satisfying.

It seems like this is the final book in the series, even though the author hasn’t said so. The war is over and Elena and Raphael are in a good place. But there are a couple of side characters who haven’t had their happily ever after yet, so I’m hoping there will be at least one more book. But if this was it, it was a good way to end the series.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estep: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

One of the best reading surprises for me this year was Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep, the first book in her Crown of Shards fantasy trilogy. It introduced Everleigh, a heroine who is both tough and soft-hearted, and a world that strives to be unique. The economy is based on mining of precious and magical stones, there are creature comforts like indoor plumbing and trains, and gladiator games are not only a form of entertainment, they’re a legal way to settle the matters of throne. Add to that shapeshifting ogres and dragons, and you have an intriguing world.

Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estep

Protect the Prince is a good follow-up to the first book. Everleigh is now the queen, much to her surprise and the dismay of the nobility. Everyone expects her to fail, herself included. But the same enemy that assassinated the entire royal house is still after her head, so she can’t settle down to learn how to be a queen. She needs allies, and for that she heads to the neighbouring kingdom. Only problem is, the king there blames her for the death of his son in the massacre.

This book doesn’t have a similar satisfying arch like the first, where the massacre of the royal house forced Evie into hiding in a gladiator troupe until she was strong enough to kill the evil queen. Still, quite a lot happens in this book, mostly assassination attempts against Evie. The book is helpfully divided into sections that count the attempts, giving the reader something to anticipate. And, since this is the middle book, the ending is open enough for a grand finale in the last one.

Where the book is at its weakest is its characters. It’s a first person narrative, which makes Evie the character we learn the most about. She has all the friends she made in the previous book with her, but for most of the book, she stands alone. Other characters are just a backdrop to her, there when she needs them, but with no real interaction or impact on the story. This includes Sullivan, the bastard son of the king and sort of love-interest to Evie.

Sully was a distant figure in the first book too, which made the romance budding between him and Evie feel forced. This book didn’t bring any change to that, even though the reader is given background into the heartbreak that made him leave the kingdom and join a gladiator troupe; it’s something Evie accidentally overhears, not something Sully shares with her. So when he and Evie declare their feelings, it mostly feels like empty words—even to the very end.

I also hoped that better use would’ve been made of the unique features of the world, like the shapeshifting ogres, or gargoyles that were introduced in this book. With Evie handling a battle after a battle alone, there was no room for any of that. All this made it a more traditional fantasy book.

Despite the weaknesses, it’s a good book. It’s action-packed and interesting to the end. And Evie does grow, finding her magic when it matters the most. The last book in the trilogy promises to be more unique again, so I’m looking forward to reading that too.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Written in Red by Anne Bishop / Siren’s Song by Karen Chance: reviews

5/5 stars on Goodreads

It’s been a while since a book captured my attention so completely that I just kept reading through the night without the need to check social media or other distractions even once. Written in Red by Anne Bishop managed that rare feat. It’s the first book in The Others series, published in 2013. I’ve long meant to read the series, but I only now had a chance to. All I can say is, I should’ve read it sooner.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

One of the reasons I’ve postponed reading it is because I believed it to be fantasy, as the other books by Bishop that I’ve read have been. The cover of the book strengthened the notion too. But it’s actually urban fantasy set in modern world with a unique origin story. The world is ruled by the Others, beings who can assume the look of humans, but who are all either apex predators or elementals with huge powers. Humans are meat to them, in minority, and fairly thoroughly subservient to Others. Humans are tolerated because of their innovative nature, but—should the need arise—they are easily disposed of too.

However, the story isn’t really about the conflict between humans and the Others. It’s about a woman who isn’t completely either. Meg is a blood prophet who seeks shelter among the Others and begins to carve a life for herself there. Having grown up in an institution with no outside contacts, both the human world and the world of the Others is alien to her.

The book has a great cast of characters, many of whom get their own point of view chapters. Meg is a bit of a Mary Sue, in a sense that everyone instantly likes her. That is explained with her special nature, but it’s still a bit too convenient how predators who don’t really understand humans at all fall for her kindness so easily. But it’s also amusing and charming to watch those interactions.

The Others are violent and convincingly alien. Unlike in urban fantasy in general, there are no mitigating characteristics that would make them more acceptable to readers. Simon, the leading male character, is a wolf, and although he has to spend a lot of time looking like human and interacting with them, his reaction to most things is that of an animal. There is rapport being built between him and Meg, but to describe it as a romance would be making it too human.

Despite the non-human nature of the Others, they are the good guys of the story. The bad guys are all human. The divide is fairly black and white too, which makes the inevitable conflict fairly straight-forward. Bad people want Meg back, even if they have to risk an attack against the Others. In the end, the conflict isn’t as interesting as everything else that is happening in the book.

Meg’s story continues in subsequent books, so this is only the beginning. And since I’m a latecomer to the series, I don’t have to wait to read them all.


Siren's Song by Karen Chance

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Siren’s Song by Karen Chance is an in-between book in her Cassandra Palmer series. It’s a companion book to Dragon’s Claw, an earlier in-between book. Both take place in magical Hong Kong during an attack against it, but in the first the star is Dorina Basarab, and in this one it’s John Pritkin, the war mage. Both books have a couple of scenes where they interact, and it’s fun to witness the characters of different series meeting.

For an additional book—a novella like the cover says—this is a long-one; a hundred thousand words, according to the author, so a full-length book. Half of it would’ve sufficed. The book starts well, but it evolves into an endless, endlessly repetitive battle that is so confusing that it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on. And in the end, it doesn’t even matter. All the fighting has no impact on the outcome of the story.

I like Pritkin. He is by far my favourite character in Cassandra Palmer series, and more of him is always better than less. But despite the length of the book, I felt like I didn’t know him any better in the end than I did before. Instead of the endless mayhem, there should’ve been more internalising, something that would’ve strengthened the character. The author has struggled with this, but has become better in the past couple of books. It’s therefore upsetting that she’s reverted to her earlier bad habits.

There aren’t all that many books left in the series in general. The author has told that her publisher has dropped her, but that she’ll self-publish the rest. If Siren’s Song is an example of how those books will turn out, they might be disappointing.

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.