Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman: a review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
The last book I read this year was The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. It’s the second book in The Book of Dust trilogy, a follow-up to his brilliant His Dark Materials series. It’s a massive book with almost 700 pages, the longest book I read this year, but it didn’t feel long.

The events in the book take place twenty years after the first, La Belle Sauvage. Malcom, the eleven year old boy from the first book, is now in his early thirties and an Oxford scholar. In secret, he’s also a member of the Oakley Street spy organisation that works against the authoritarian Church. Lyra, the heroine of the first trilogy, is an adult too, and an Oxford student. She has changed from the curious and headstrong girl to a believer of a new philosophy that states that daemons aren’t real. Naturally, this upsets Pantalaimon, her pine marten daemon, so much so that he takes off to find Lyra’s imagination.

A murder in Oxford sets the events in motion and sends Malcom, Lyra and Pan on quests through Europe towards the Near East where they may find answers to questions about daemons. They each travel separately, Lyra and Pan too, which causes problems for her, as people without daemons are feared and deplored. A larger background plot about dust unfolds slowly, with members of the Church as the bad guys that chase Malcom and Lyra. The book ends just as it reaches the point where we might learn the answers to all the questions.

I liked this book very much. There are several point of view characters and a reader always knows more than the characters. It’s a heavy book with a lot to say; some of it slightly in-your-face commentary about the state of our world, which jars occasionally. Lyra as an adult seems to have caused the author some difficulties, which he solves by mentioning her sex life, periods, and making her live under a constant threat of violence from men.

The most controversial scene takes place towards the end of the book. It’s a fairly gratuitous rape scene. Lyra is forced to share a train compartment with soldiers who decide to rape her. She’s not completely defenceless and she manages to inflict some real damage on her attackers, and she’s saved before any unforgivable damage happens, but the scene feels unnecessary.

Yes, rape is a possibility when a woman travels alone to a country preparing for a war, but there are other forms of violence that would have driven home her vulnerability. Robbery, for example―she carries the expensive aleomether that the Church wants. Religious zealots disgusted by her lack of daemon attacking her would have worked too, and would have been more in line with the overall plot. And they could have been women attacking her. Throughout the book, only men are a threat and women are nurturing and good, which is quite a change, considering that in the first trilogy the greatest enemy was Lyra’s own mother.

The book ends soon thereafter, but Lyra doesn’t behave like a rape survivor for the remainder. She allows men into her hotel room and sets off for a journey through a desert with a man she has only met. That, more than anything, makes the rape scene feel unnecessary. It doesn’t affect the plot in any way. The best I can say about it is that it isn’t written to titillate; it’s about brutality and violence.

Despite the rape scene, I gave the book five stars. There simply is something in the way Pullman unfolds the story that is masterful and satisfying. Seemingly unconnected events all advance the plot and carry the reader inevitably with it. And the build-up in this book promises that the conclusion of the trilogy will be truly epic.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Catching up: a review bonanza

I’ve neglected my reading blog again, which means I have six books to review since the previous post―not including the books that I have skipped earlier. It’s been a good month and a half with old favourites and new interesting finds. Here’s the summary.

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler was a brilliant find. It wasn’t at all what I expected based on the description and the sample chapters. I thought I was getting a swashbuckling pirate story with magic. What I got was a humongous steel ship filled with monsters and teenage mages, who have no idea where the ship is going and why, and who's steering it. Isoka, the main character, has to find her place in the strange society on the ship she's been brought to against her will, and figure out how to gain control of the ship so that she can return home and save her sister. But nothing is how she hopes it would be, not even her.

The book is marketed as YA, but despite the age of the characters, their life experience and the problems they face are not those of teenagers. It's all about survival. Isoka is a fairly unlikeable main character, and she doesn't really improve with softer characteristics she gains, as she lacks the insight to go with them. I actually preferred her as a cold-blooded killer. There was a bit too many fight scenes―the story goes from fight to fight that become repetitive―and the ending seemed slightly rushed. The epilogue didn't really make it stronger, but since the original problem of saving Isoka's sister is yet to happen, I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the Wells of Sorcery series.

Minimum Wage Magic by Rachel Aaron

Minimum Wage Magic by Rachel Aaron is the first book in DFZ, a new series set in Aaron’s post-apocalyptic, dragon and magic filled Detroit. Opal has a job cleaning unclaimed apartments after their owners die. On one such mission, she finds more than she expects and gets gangsters after her.

Opal is a great character with serious dad issues, and Nik, her side-kick, is an interesting companion. There’s a lot of action, magical and mundane, as the pair tries to find the site of a magical ritual that just might bring them a lot of money. Needless to say, it wasn't as easy as that. I'll definitely read the next book too.

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman is book six in The Invisible Library series. This time round Irene and Kai have to team up with a group of criminals to steal a painting for a villain straight from the Bond movies. After the previous book where political machinations pushed the pair to the edge of their skills, this was a rather boring addition to the series. Kai especially was a let-down after becoming a more assertive, interesting character in the previous book. A new political plot is brewing, however, so I’ll keep with the series.

Where Winter Finds You by J.R. Ward

Where Winter Finds You by J.R. Ward is the latest addition to her long Black Dagger Brotherhood series. It’s marked as only half a book, but at 480 pages it’s long enough. It’s a second chance love story, a follow-up for The Shadows where Trez lost his beloved Selena. A woman has moved in Caldwell who resembles Selena perfectly and who dreams of a lover she knows is Trez. He’s convinced his love has been returned to him, but how is that possible, when Theresa has lived a full life already. I must admit I couldn’t see how this could be brought to a satisfying conclusion either, but in the end, the story worked out perfectly. It wasn’t the best BDB book there is, but like always, it was full of emotions that the reader is pulled into, only to emerge tearful and happy in the end.

The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer starts a spin-off series for his excellent Artemis Fowl series. Artemis’s little brothers, twins Myles and Becket, are now eleven and ready for adventures of their own. Myles is like Artemis, a genius bent on surpassing his big brother, but not inclined to criminal activities. Becket is more physical of the pair, with an interesting ability to talk with animals―not that anyone believes he actually can do it.

The adventure they are pulled into is typical fast-paced mayhem. Unlike with Artemis books, which are set in the fairy realm, this takes place in the human world, and the bad guys are humans too, a duke and a nun of all people odd. But it wouldn’t be an Artemis spin-off, if fairies weren’t involved. Humans are after fairies and it’s up to the twins to save them with the help of LEP specialist Lazul Heitz. Artemis makes a cameo appearance―he’s on a mission to Mars―as does Holly Short, the LEP officer from Artemis books. It’s a fun book that suits adults perfectly too, even though it’s aimed at ten-year-olds. And I hope the subsequent books take place in the fairy realm because that’s where the magic truly happens.

A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh

A Madness of Sunshine is the first thriller by my favourite paranormal romance author Nalini Singh. It’s set in rural New Zealand where the author lives, and is inspired by Nordic noir books. The story is fairly straightforward: a young woman goes missing and practically everyone is a suspect. Only, they really aren’t; most of them are dismissed easily and if the author attempted to build an atmosphere of mistrust, it doesn’t really work. There are only a couple of plausible suspects and among them the guilty are found. The action is slow and the body count low.

It’s an interesting book nonetheless. Singh can write great characters and as this is very much a character-led book, it’s a pleasure to read. There are two point of view characters, a woman who returns home to recover from a past tragedy and a cop who has taken a job in a small town to recover from a past tragedy. They connect early on, and even though this isn’t a romance, the two getting to know each other carries most of the book. There aren’t great twists in the plot, but the ending is satisfying, even if some motivations of the suspects remain baffling even after the end.

Six books read in six weeks don’t sound much, but there are a few books that I have started and not finished. At this point I’m still three books short of my Goodreads reading challenge of sixty-five books, but I’m confident I’ll be able to make it. I’ll keep you posted―I hope.

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.

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.