Thursday, September 24, 2020

Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Dead Man in a Ditch, the second book in Arnold’s Fetch Phillips Archives, takes much longer to get going than the first. Fetch takes on regular detective cases one after another that he solves pretty fast, if not always accurately or the way the client assumes. It isn’t until well past half-point that a plot begins to emerge, which ties in the first half of the book little by little. The story picks up pace towards the end, and with a few twists the book becomes unputdownable.

To his bewilderment, Fetch has gained a reputation in Sunder City as someone who is looking for the lost magic. As the person responsible for its loss, he knows that it can’t be revived and to believe otherwise gives people only false and dangerous hope. Yet he comes across events and items that seem to argue otherwise. There might still be magic in the world. Then he stumbles on a plot involving Sunder City and the well-being of its citizens and he realises that there are things more important to fight for than the past and the lost magic, even if it means going against those he loves.

Fetch is slightly less hopeless and a bit more determined man in this book. He spends less time drunk and more time doing impossible things. But he still suffers from the guilt of what he’s done, and he still yearns to be accepted by those he loves and respects, which causes him to do things he later regrets.

The narrative is more focused in the present than in the first book. I missed the flashbacks into Fetch’s past, but the few there were deepened the plot. The language isn’t quite as descriptive and rich than in the first book, and there are fewer insights into human condition, but it’s still a pleasure to read. The book is a little too long, but that’s all forgotten once the endgame starts. All in all, a good follow-up for an excellent debut.

I received a review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

The Last Smile in Sunder City, The Fetch Phillips Archives 1, by Luke Arnold is marketed as Peter Grant meets Discworld, and whoever came up with that is doing the book a great disfavour. Yes, there’s a private detective in a world full of fantastical creatures, but that’s the only thing they have in common. I wouldn’t necessarily even call it urban fantasy, despite it mostly taking place in a large city. Post-apocalyptic fantasy or grimdark might fit the bill better. Perhaps for the fans of Daniel Polansky’s Low Town series, or Robert Jackson Bennet’s The Divine Cities trilogy.

The book is set in a unique fantasy world populated by every possible magical and fantastical creature the fantasy genre has ever come up with. Unfortunately for them, there has been a war with humans six years earlier that has wiped away all magic from the world, breaking it irrevocably and rendering the magical creatures and the very nature husks of what they used to be. The change is so recent that the people are only now starting to build their lives again, with some clinging to what they’ve lost and all blaming the humans. There is some technology, like phones and carsthough both have been adapted to operate without magicbut mostly it feels like a pre-technology world.

At the heart of the story is Fetch Phillips, a man for hire who is feeling permanently sorry for himself for his role in the loss of magic. At first I thought he was merely taking a general blame of a former soldier, but it turns out he actually is to blame. So he spends most of his time drunk. He’s hired to find a vampire who by all accounts is a model citizen and adapted to his new life without magic and with a certainty of an imminent death. The case takes Fetch all around the city and gets his arse kicked more often than he should’ve been able to recover from, and in the end turns out to be more than he imagined it would be. As he investigates, he takes a stock of his life so far and how he became the destroyer of magic.

I found the backstories infinitely more interesting than the investigation, which was done in a rather haphazard fashion. They were insightful and told a lot about Fetch and the human condition. They are also what make the book more a fantasy, or even epic fantasy, than urban fantasy. The rich world-building and the story of its fall are not what urban fantasy is usually about. The book also lacks the humour and the optimism of most urban fantasy that I’ve read. It’s cynical and dark, and to the very end rather hopeless. The book even argues for the danger of hope in making a beast of a man who would otherwise be content with his lot.

This was an excellent book, even if it was a somewhat heavy reading at times. The language is rich and interesting, and Fetch is a complex man who has a long way to redemption, if that is ever even possible for him. The side characters are all more or less bastards, with a couple of exceptions whom I hope will become series stables. I have the next book already lined up and I have high hopes for it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

First up: if you’re expecting unique sci-fi like Yoon Ha Lee’s brilliant The Machineries of Empire series, this is not it. It’s not sci-fi at all, but historical fantasy that is perfect for the fans of R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series. However, even if you’re a diehard sci-fi fan, I recommend you give this book a chance. If for nothing else, to see how an author can pull off such a different genre and writing style so brilliantly. I received a free review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Phoenix Extravagant is set in a country that resembles turn of the twentieth-century Korea; mostly sticking to its traditions, but with cars and electric light. It has been invaded a decade earlier by a country with different but similar traditions (i.e. Japan) and has since settled into an uneasy relationship with the conqueror that consist of conforming and rebelling.

Gyen Jebi is the sole point of view character. They are an artist and they only want to paint, even if it means working for the invaders. They are ready to conform in other ways too; they have learned the invaders’ language and officially changed their name to fit in bettera decision that causes a break-up with their sister. But when it turns out that what they paint directly helps the enemy to not only oppress their people but to destroy the country’s cultural heritage too, they start having second thoughts. Their journey from an observer to an active agent is fairly fast, but the outcome isn’t entirely what they expected.

Jebi is an interesting character. They don’t identify as a man or a woman but as not gendered. No attention is drawn to this, apart from the pronoun ‘they’ with which Jebi is referred to. There are other people like Jebi and people recognise them for what they are without them having to ever mention it. It doesn’t cause them any grief, nor is it something they have to think about. The author doesn’t tease readers with hints of what they may have started as and there is no explanation given to why such choice was madeor if it was a choice at all. I would’ve liked to know if this stems from actual Korean tradition or if it’s something the author created for this book, but all in all, it worked well, even if it was an unnecessary detail in the character’s development and how the story played out.

The world-building is great. The traditional Korean culture comes alive in small details that are treated as natural facets of Jebi’s life without unnecessary explanationsthough they are explained better than the alien cultures in the Machines of the Empire series, making it easier to understand. The fantasy elements are fairly light and woven into the narrative so seamlessly that the reader doesn’t necessarily even notice them. There are automatons, mechanical humanoids that are given life with magic. There is a huge dragon automaton too, the key to the story, as Jebi is tasked with creating the correct magical sentence structure that would operate it. In the end, Jebi learns this magic so well that they become instrumental in a rebellion against the invader. And the poetic ending brings home for good that we’re not dealing with reality after all.

The pace of the narrative is fairly fast. Since this a stand-alone novel and not the first in trilogy, it takes no time at all before Jebi finds themself trying to rebel against the invaders. The story is easy to followagain, much unlike the Machines of the Empireand interesting. There’s drama and tragedy, but good and sweet moments too. All in all, it’s excellent historical fantasy.

 

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky

Daniel Polansky’s books have been a hit and miss for me over the years, and after Those Below I decided I’d approach his works with great caution. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself requesting his upcoming book, The Seventh Perfection, from NetGalley. And since I was granted an early copy, I actually had to read it too.

I’m glad I did.

The Seventh Perfection is fantasy written in a style that I’ve only ever encountered in short stories before. Then again, the book almost falls into that category at only 160 pages, and I was able to read it in one sitting. The narrative consists solely of conversations the main character has with an array of people, but with a twist: her side of them has been removed completely. The reader is perfectly able to infer that she’s there from how the people talking to her refer to her presence. They comment on her questions, refer to something she does or says, or describe her looks or mood. And the whole time she remains silent.

I feared it would be difficult to get the hang of the story, but already by second page I was perfectly able to follow what was going on. It takes a while before there is enough information about the main character to form a picture of herif I hadn’t read the back copy I wouldn’t even have known she’s a womanbut all in all, the story was easy to follow.

Manet is seeking to unravel a mystery of a woman whose picture she has been sent in a locket by an anonymous person. Why her identity compels her isn’t made clear, and for the first half of the book I assumed she was on an official government business, as she is constantly referred to by her title amanuensis. Little by little, it becomes clear that she’s on a personal mission, that the woman’s identity matters to her, and that the God-King she serves isn’t happy about it. Mostly, because along the way, she learns the truth about how the God-King came to ascend in the first place.

The book is set in a world that is a mixture of fantasy and technology, but it’s only ever hinted at. There are no descriptions of surroundingsor people, for that matter. For some reason I kept imagining the town of Polansky’s Empty Throne duology, which worked fine, even though the towns aren’t all that similar. There are beings other than human that Manet encounters during her quest, and towards the end the interviews aren’t even with humans anymore. So, despite the lack of descriptions, the world emerges as rich and complex.

We learn a surprisingly lot about Manet, despite the fact that only the second to last chapter gives her voice. She emerges as a rather unlikeable personshe manages to anger almost everyone she encounters, her friends includedbut extremely determined. There is nothing she wouldn’t do to learn the truth. She is one of the few people who have learned the art of seven perfections, a discipline of body and mind, the seventh of which is a perfect memory. While this was interesting, the narrative style that erases her from the picture made her special skills go unused and unnoticed. It’s therefore slightly unnecessary that she is such a unique person. She could’ve been anyone, really.

The Seventh Perfection is an excellent book. It gets four stars for the story and the world, and an extra star for pulling off the chosen style with such skill. If you’re looking for a quick and surprisingly immersive read, I warmly recommend this one.

 

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

Architects of Memory is a sci-fi novel by Karen Osborne and it starts the Memory War series. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I was really eager to read this book. Unfortunately it didn’t match my expectations and turned out to be an incredibly frustrating read. The plot takes forever to unfold and the reader isn’t helped along the way to figure out where it might take them. It takes them to a really unexpected place; in itself a good thing, but the lack of directions made me feel blindsided. Also the title of the book made me expect a completely different story. It took me over a half the book to realise that there will be no architects of memory and that memory manipulation doesn’t play any role in the story. Memories become erased, yes, but nothing new comes out of them. The series title, Memory War, is a more accurate guide for readers’ expectations.

The plot, once it unfolds, is fairly simple. The story is set in a future spacefaring world that is ruled by profitmaking corporations. It’s close enough to present timeline and earth that many cultural aspects from earth survive. People are either born as citizens of these corporations or they indenture themselves to them to earn a citizenship. Needless to say, this is fairly impossible and they are basically slaves. The corporations are at constant war with each other over resources, but it has come to a brief halt before the book begins because of a war with an alien race. The war is over, but when a powerful alien weapon is discovered, all the corporations want it, ostensibly to defeat the aliens. The plot is basically about the corporations fighting over the weapon.

The main point of view character is Ashlan. The book begins with an emotion dump about everything that is wrong with her life. In a couple of pages we learn that she’s dying, but she wants to make into a citizen before that, which makes her take risks. Her fiancĂ© has died of the same illness a year earlier. She’s since fallen in love again with her captain, but she’s dumped her for fairly vague reasons. Then Ash finds the weapon and it turns out she’s uniquely connected to it.

Ash is a character with practically no agency over her story. She goes where she’s told to, reacts to events around her, and whines about her fate. It isn’t until the very end that she tries to take matters to her own hand, only to be frustrated time and again. Her solution [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER] is to kill herself. I kid you not. The book ends with thisthough with a twist that she doesn’t actually die. That’s where the inner logic of the book’s science finally failed me, not that I’d been terribly convinced by it along the way.

I didn’t like Ash at all, though part of it could be that I didn’t want to become emotionally attached to someone who might not be around for long. The rest of the characters weren’t any better. Maybe the attempt was to create nuanced characters, but the execution was so clumsy that they came across as sociopaths with zero control over their emotions. At one moment they were friendly, at next they were genocidal killers because of a past trauma, and back to likeable again. It was impossible to tell how any of them might react to any given situation or why they reacted the way they did. It was easier to not become attached to any of them. That included Captain Keller, the other point of view character. Both Ash and Keller claimed to be motivated by their love to each other, but since that had happened before the book began and the only interaction between the two was a fight before they became separated for most of the book, I found it a very unbelievable motivation.

A smoother narrative and better descriptions along the way, both the world-building and the characters’ emotions, might have made this a better read. In addition to these, the language was clunky at times, which I hope is only an issue with the early copy I read. But there are numerous ways with which to describe great thirst other than saying the ‘mouth was a desert’ over and over again, or describing nausea as ‘gulping the acid’. These may seem like small things, but they repeated so often that I started to pay attention. The ending reveals that the book has aspirations. I wish it could have achieved them too.