Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison
 
Sarah Monette is a fantasy author who blew my mind with Mélusine and the Doctrine of Labyrinths series that followed fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve kept expecting new books from her, but it was years later until she returned to my radar, now writing as Katherine Addison. The Goblin Emperor is waiting on my to-be-read pile, but the sample chapters were truly interesting. When I noticed The Angel of Crows on NetGalley, I instantly made a request for it, and to my absolute delight, I was given an early copy.

The book description promised an alternate Victorian London where angels rule and everyone lives in a constant fear of one of them falling, which would be like “a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds”. Seldom has a book description been so off. What I got was a Sherlock Holmes retelling. I don’t like retellings and Sherlock Holmes retellings are the most tired of them all. If I’d known it was one, I probably would’ve skipped this, no matter how much I like the author.

This is basically a collection of Holmes’ most famous cases bound together with a superficial plot about Jack the Rippera case Holmes famously never tackled. There were some minor changes, but none of them made the stories truly fresh. The newness, therefore, rests solely on the world-building.

It’s an alternate Victorian London with everything. There are both steampunk elements, like airships and automatons, and all manner of supernatural creatures from vampires and werewolves to ghosts and hellhounds. And angels. There are three kinds of angels: those bound to a building and thus worthy of a name, the Nameless who wander about without a mind and purpose of their own, and the Fallen who are vicious creatures who kill and inflict supernatural diseases. We actually never meet the latter.

Holmes is an angel called Crow. He is different from other angels because he is not bound to a building, but isn’t a Nameless or a Fallen eithera fact that the author didn’t fully explain until about midway to the book, which left me constantly baffled with people’s reactions to him. He likes to solve crimes, and he is very good at deductive reasoning. Unlike Holmes, he doesn’t have any viceshe doesn’t even eator irritating habits, and he is actually very endearing in his constant awe of humanity.

Dr Watson is Dr Doyle who has survived an attack by a Fallen in Afghanistan and is suffering from the consequences, which will lead to a metamorphosis. Since the actual flavour of the change is kept as a secret for a while, I’ll discuss it in the spoiler section at the end of the post. It plays some role in solving the cases; perhaps the only worthwhile alteration the author has made to the stories. The good doctor has another secret too, even more tightly guarded. Considering the importance given to it, I would’ve wished it actually had some sort of impactit definitely would’ve opened the story to a whole new levelbut it was glossed over and life went on like it didn’t even exist. More about that in the spoiler section.

Considering the interesting world the author has created, it seems criminal that she’s wasted it on Sherlock Holmes. The angels had a fascinating society that could’ve formed a basis to a completely unique plot, and Crow had such an interesting backstory that he could’ve carried a book on that alone. The alterations don’t even really influence the original stories. It wasn’t until midway to the book that they started to have any effect on the cases, and the suspects remained ordinary humans in pretty much all of them.

This being said, I found the book interesting enough to keep reading. I even gave it four stars. The author has recreated the atmosphere of Conan-Doyle’s originals well, the narrative style works and never wavers, and I liked both Crow and Dr Doyle. If there’s ever a follow-up, I hope the author goes to town with the world and gives the two a proper plot and a unique story.

And now to the spoilers.

***

You have been warned.

The first spoiler concerns what Dr Doyle is changing into. A hellhound. It’s a somewhat helpful change, as it gives Doyle an ability to smell both natural and supernatural traces. It also allows the author to play with the story of the Hound of Baskerville and add fresh scenes about them trying to find a cure for it with Crow. In the end, it allows the doctor to find Jack the Ripper too. However, it reveals the secret to the police who rush in to arrest Doyle, as unregistered creatures are illegalthough the author fails to explain why this is.

Being a hellhound is surprisingly easy for Doyle. There’s some pain and some shame, but at no point in the narrative does the doctor mourn or berate the change. The author is too tied with the original Holmes stories to give room to such ruminations. And just when the story got interesting, a deus ex machina allows the doctor to remain free.

The other secret is bigger and an even greater wasted opportunity for the author. At the mid-point of the book, out of the bluethere are literally no hints whatsoeverit turns out, that Dr Doyle is in fact a woman. I’d say my mind was blown, and it kind of was, but it would’ve made a greater impact if it had been at least hinted at.

And it would’ve mattered more, if this new reality had been incorporated into the story somehow. But life goes on like before. We don’t learn why Dr Doyle pretends to be a man. Is it for purely practical reasons, as it’s the only way she can practice medicine? Or does she in fact identify as a man? She seems to be attracted to women, but then nothing comes of that. And how does it work? She’s spent decades as a military doctor on campaigns and no one even guessed until she ended up in hospital after being attacked by the Fallen angel. Does she have a naturally manly body? A low voice? And what about the periods? How does she deal with them? So many questions and not a single answer given. So I don’t understand why the author felt necessary to make such a change. Being a hellhound was bad enough for the poor doctor. Why did he need to be inflicted with being a woman too?

Saturday, May 09, 2020

This Eternity of Masks and Shadows by Karsten Knight: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Eternity of Masks and Shadows by Karsten Knight

I picked This Eternity of Masks and Shadows from NetGalley based on the description that promised an urban fantasy mystery with gods. In a way, that’s what I got. In other ways, it was nothing like that.

The book is set in an alternate world where all the gods of all the mythologies in the world live as humans among the general population, with some supernatural abilities based on their mythology, but with a limited lifespan. Once they die, they reincarnate with no memory of their past lives and sometimes with no idea they are gods. A group of gods living around Boston start dying, presumably by their own hand. One of them is an Inuit goddess of sea. Her daughter, Cairn, believes her mother was murdered and wants to find out the truth.

Even though the setting is basic UFsupernatural elements in modern world and a mystery that is solved by an outsider investigatorthe execution is nothing like your typical urban fantasy. For one, it lacked the energy and immediacy of urban fantasy. Instead, the narrative is lingering and dreamlike with not much world building, the point of view is very distant third person that offer only a superficial insight into the characters’ minds, and it relies heavily on telling, not showing. And worst of all, it has no humour whatsoever. In the afterword, the author mentions superheroes as one of the inspirations. Going with that notion, this book is the dark, no-laughs, no self-irony DC world of superheroes, not the more upbeat Marvel with humour and the ability to laugh at themselves.

It’s not a bad book though. The mystery is interesting and told in two timelines, the present and twenty years earlier. There are enough surprises that the main baddie isn’t obvious until the great revelation. The pacing is slightly off however; there are two climatic scenes at sixty and eighty percent mark that both could’ve led to the end, but the book continues on to the final showdown. And then it goes on some more. At the eighty percent mark I wasn’t invested in the outcome anymore, mostly because of the distancing narrative that failed to make me care about the characters and their fate, but I read on.

The main weakness of the book was its characters. I didn’t care for any of them. Cairn as a grieving daughter was initially interesting, but the reader learns nothing about her during the story. She is a person who has been formed by events before the book starts, and that’s all the reader gets. She doesn’t grow, she doesn’t change and she doesn’t get any sort of catharsis from avenging her mother. The supporting cast was a collection of cardboard cut-outs. I had great hopes for Nook, a grumpy polar bear detective. For the first third of the book when he and Cairn investigated together, there was some proper interaction between them, but then they were separated for most of the book. Yet at the end the reader was supposed to believe they had grown fond of each other. Then there were the victims. I didn’t care for any of them. Just because they met gruesome deaths wasn’t enough to feel for them, when I hadn’t learned anything about them that would’ve make me sympathise with them. For most part, they were very unlikeable characters.

The most annoying, perhaps, was Cairn’s relationship with Delphine. Urban fantasy often has some sort of romantic element in the background that doesn’t dominate solving the main mystery, but which adds spice to interactions between characters. Not so here. The book starts with their romance, but it had already had its great formative moments before the book begins. Then it’s just a series of on-again off-again events that doesn’t make the reader believe that either of them cares for the other, let alone loves. One of the climaxes depends on the reader caring for their relationship, but it was just the same for me what would happen. Basically, I began to root for both of them to die.

All in all, this was a mixed read for me. The mystery was satisfying, the rest of it not so much. There was some setting-up for a series at the end, but I doubt I’d read more of this.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

My second NetGalley pick is The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell, the first book in The Legacy of Mercenary King series. It’s high fantasy with magic and warring kingdoms, and it had great potential. Unfortunately that didn’t manifest.

The book starts with the main character being sentenced to death for treason and then recounts the events that led to that point. Michael Kingman is a son of a man convicted for killing a prince and his life leads him to be convicted for killing the king. Michael is the hero of the book, so the reader can’t help hoping that the events that seem inevitably to lead him to his doom might be something else after all. With ‘kingdom of liars’ in the title, I presumed an unreliable narrator and a slow unravelling of the truth. That wasn’t what I got.

This was a good book, but also an odd one with something constantly slightly off. Even though the frame of the story, Michael’s quest to prove his father’s innocence and inevitable doom, was given at the beginning, that’s not the sole direction the book took. For the first half there was another story happening too, a rebellion against the king, which competed for attention with the main story, with not enough room given to either story-line. The latter mainly consisted of events that distracted Michael from his quest and added nothing to the main story or had an impact on it. On the latter half of the book that story-line was discarded after an annoying cop-out, which improved the plot considerably.

In addition to two plots, there were two sets of secondary characters that were identical to one another. There were two poor, mistreated boys with little brothers that Michael felt responsible for, but who didn’t seem to be friends with one another, as if Michael led two separate lives. Their actions had no impact on the plot, but they served to distract Michael, i.e. added to the word count. Then there were two women who knew Michael of old, but of whom he had no recollection. Their identities were withheld to the last moment, giving the reader a notion that they would be important for Michael’s life and the main plot, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. And then there were two women from law enforcement/military who were interchangeable too and had no meaningful impact on the plot.

I don’t know why the editor of the book allowed two parallel plots with two sets of characters to happen. Even if the rebel plot were a setting for the next book, it could’ve been handled as background noise with the focus more sharply on the main plot. There was enough going on with that one to fill a book.

Michael wasn’t a likeable character. He was selfish and childish, and he didn’t much care who he hurt with his quest for truthuntil after the fact. Then he rushed in to make things better, putting the main plot on hold and/or in jeopardy. His memory was faulty due to magic, but when he did regain his memories, they didn’t offer any sort of revelation that their absence had hinted at. He wasn’t the agent of his story. He was pushed around by events outside his control; he spends the entire book trying to gain access to the king, only to be denied his goal; required a deus ex machina salvation, and didn’t manage to achieve what he set out to do in the beginning, thus robbing the book of a proper conclusion. It was left for the next book, but with the rebellion and the sudden turn in his life orchestrated outside the plot, there would’ve been enough material even without postponing it too.

There’s a lot happening to the secondary characters behind the scenes that mainly come off as ‘what the hell’. Trey, a poor slum dweller, is auctioning himself off to become a soldier at one point and the next he is in the inner circle of the prince, only to become a rebel. How did that happen? No one even questions it. The mercenary Dark has an issue with his father, but when they finally face, they don’t even recognise one another. Was it all in Michael’s head? Michael’s older brother is being allowed to marry into the most important family in the country and no one bats an eye, even though Michael has to support himself as a thief and is constantly being harassed for his past. The princess is missing and then she’s not, but isn’t anyone important for the plot despite all the build-up, and then she’s absent again. A lot more thought should’ve gone into all these characters. Now they seem like spur-of-the-moment inventions.

The world is fairly interesting, but its special features are mainly props. The use of magic causes memory loss that accumulates, but none of the main characters suffer from it. It’s used as a plot device, as Michael sets out to find the king’s memories, i.e. his journal that might tell the truth about his father, but in the end that doesn’t happen. Every magic wielder remembers Michael even if he doesn’t remember them. And then there’s the broken moon that has pieces falling from it, but that doesn’t drive the plot either, so I wasn’t entirely sure what its point was, other than distraction.

This was a good book, but not a great one. The author clearly didn’t know what kind of book he was writing until at the end. With a sharper focus it would’ve been a much better book and a more enjoyable read. I hope the next one will fix that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Paradise Factory by Jim Keen: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Paradise Factory by Jim Keen

I recently joined NetGalley, a website that makes it easier for publishers to get books in the hands of reviewers. Like everyone else, I hope to get the next book of my favourite author before it’s published, but that seldom happens. However, there are plenty of books available for immediate download by authors I’ve never heard of before and books I wouldn’t come to read otherwise. I’ve decided to give some of those a chance.

The first book I picked is The Paradise Factory, Cortex book 1 by Jim Keen. It’s being marketed as cyberpunk, which I found very misleading, as there are no cyberpunk elements. It’s more a post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia. The apocalypse in this case is brought about by the invention of Mechanical Intelligence, a machine that has made human workforce obsolete. Hundreds of millions are without work and those lucky enough to be employed can lose their job on a whim, with no social security to fall back on. That the humanity is still alive and kicking is more because of stubbornness than for any discernible survival skills.

The story follows Alice Yu, a Brooklyn cop in her twentiesI thinkwhose partner is abducted right in front of her. Even though loyalty to one’s partner and initiative are discouraged by her bosses, Alice goes after him. Traces lead to Brooklyn Bridge, a lawless no-go-zone ruled by criminal empire. She knows she’ll lose her job if she goes there, but she goes anyway.

Another story-line follows Red, a young boy who needs to deliver a message over the Brooklyn Bridge, an errand that would pay well if the other kids weren’t trying to kill him for it. The paths of Alice and Red meet on the bridge and they team up.

The plot is straightforward: find the partner and save him. Obstacles come in form of bridge security trying to kill Alice for their boss, a crime lord who has a nefarious enterprise to conceal. The constant fights became boring pretty soon, but Alice is fighting PTSD from her time as a Marine in Mars, which gives some depth to her character. Because of what she considers a personal failure in Mars, she decides that saving Red is more important than finding her partner, a decision that Red disputes, forcing her to face her past.

After all the fighting, the main conflict is solved amazingly easily. If it hadn’t been for the chapter that followed, which showed the truth of what was on the other side of the bridge and gave both the world and the main characters some new depth, this would’ve been a solid three star book. The ending changed that.

I had some issues with the book. One of them was with the way the scenes were set. Namely that they weren’t. Every scene, especially in the beginning, started right with the action or even a beat after it. For example, the book starts a moment after Alice’s partner has been taken, when she is fighting her injuries. No context was offered to where she was, why she was there, and why her partner mattered so much to her. As it was, I had trouble understanding Alice’s need to go after him other than the general ‘of course she does’. Were they friends or was there a debt to pay? Was he a lover, a mentor? In a world where such decision means a pretty certain death, it needs to be a good reason. Causes were given later in the book, but it came too late as I’d already formed my opinion.

Incidentally, I’m not a fan of a narrative where character motivations, like the cause of Alice’s PTSD, are rationed and revealed after they have already influenced character’s actions. It made the narrative style very claustrophobic with too little to work on. I had to put the book down fairly often just to clear my head. That fortunately changed towards the end of the book when all the players were familiar and the plot began to move forward.

I had issue with the world-building as well. If the world is that rigged against humanity, with no chances of survival, how come there are so many humans left? Especially since there’s a constant winter (and where did that come from). Why are there no riots? The only one seems to be planned by the bad guys for their benefit. The idea of MI didn’t work well either. How could a machine replace the entire workforce? All it seemed to be able to do is print human body parts. They are so expensive that countries bankrupted themselves to get one, so they can’t be in every factory for example. And if they are supremely intellect, how come one of them could be fooled by a human? All the other technology seemed to be in the service of humanity, like the intelligent jacket Alice was wearing, so why was the humanity in such a bad state. Also, most of the technology appeared to be micro-chip based, whereas MI seems to be based on a Babbagean difference enginea cool idea that would’ve changed the entire world-building if everything was based on that; a twenty-first century steampunk world powered by nuclear reactors.

All the issues aside, I liked the book enough to keep reading through the claustrophobic chapters. I liked Alice from the start and Red grew on me. Bad guys could have been more evil, but considering the ending, there’s maybe some use for them in subsequent books. I’m not entirely sure I’ll continue with the series, but I’m glad I read this one.


Monday, April 27, 2020

A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones

It’s always a source of unease when a favourite author starts a new series. Darynda Jones is the author of the great and brilliantly funny Charley Davidson urban fantasy series of a grim reaper turned private investigator. It ended last year, and now Jones has returned with Sunshine Vicram, a series that has no fantasy elements, but has mystery and comedy aplenty.

A Bad Day for Sunshine is different enough from Charley Davidson books to feel fresh and similar enough to feel like coming home. Biggest change on the outset is the use of third person narrative, with alternating points of view between Sunshine and her teenage daughter Aurora. It worked fairly well, but at times it was impossible to tell who the ‘she’ referred to was. There were also a few annoying dream sequences that started in the middle of ‘normal’ scenes, only to pull the rug under the reader later on.

The book follows Sunshine Vicaram, the new serif of a small town in New Mexico. It's her home town, but she’s been away for years and has only been tricked to returning by her parents who somehow managed to get her elected as the new serif. While she knows the people and places, she needs to reacquaint herself with everything. Her first day at work starts with a bang, or a crash, and goes downhill from there when a young girl goes missing. It brings back memories of her own abduction when she was seventeen, the reason she has left the town in the first place.

The other story-line follows Auri at school. She has her own troubles in the form of bullies and a new crush, and she is eager to help her mother to find the missing girl, which puts her in peril. Sun is a good cop and a quirky mom, Auri is a brilliant but troubled daughter. Together they are a great team and I loved them both.

The main case of the missing girl seems odd on the surface, but turns out to be straightforward enough that I guessed the bad guy surprisingly early on. But that’s not all the book is about. There are all sorts of shenanigans going on around Sun, with weird and quirky characters brightening the day, and amazingly sexy men pouring in from every direction. And none of them is as sexy as Sun’s biggest crush since she was a girl, Levi, who may be the hero or the baddie of Sun’s life. With clues from Sun’s past surfacing towards the end and the mystery of how she was elected a serif when she didn't run still unsolved, the following books should prove to be as interesting as the first.