Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Inscape by Louise Carey: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape is the debut (solo) novel of Louise Carey, and it’s a great one; interesting, immersive and mature. I received an early review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The book comes out on January 21st.

The name of the book and the description gave me the notion that Inscape would be some sort of virtual reality scape into which special agents entered their minds at their own risk while their bodies were suspended elsewhere, like in Matrix. That’s not the case at all. The book is set in future London in a world that has suffered a catastrophic event called Meltdown, though what it was and when it was isn’t explained. It’s not really important anyway. The current world is. London is divided into two zones on both sides of the Thames, which is only a dried-up riverbed turned minefield. Each side is ruled by a major technical corporation that have hostile relationship with the other, InTech in the north and Thoughtfront in the south. Everything and everyone is in the service of these corporations.

Inscape is an AR system installed directly in people’s brains and everyone on InTech side is augmented with it; the other side has their own system. Not only does it enhance people’s abilitiesor supress them in case of mindless slavesit also spies the residents. But it’s all perfectly normal as far as Tanta, the main character, is concerned.

Tanta is a CorpWard, an orphan who has been raised by InTech to be of service for the corporation. She is happy to serve, lives to please her superiors and fears their upset. She has been trained as an agent whose job is to prevent the other corporation from operating on her side of the river. She is absolutely loyal to her handler Jen, and will do anything she tells her. Her very first assignment doesn’t go as planned though, which causes her great deal of distress. But she doesn’t need to worry; she’s being given another chance: find out what has been leaked from InTech and by whom. She’s assigned a partner, Cole, a fifty-something neuroscientist with no field experience whatsoever and who suffers from a grave memory loss thanks to an accident with a device that wipes off peoples’ memories.

The first half of the book is a bit slow. We follow Tanta in her new role as an agent investigating the leak. The investigation seems somewhat random and produces results that don’t seem to lead anywhere. But the focus is, for the reader, elsewhere. We learn, unlike Tanta, that she has been carefully conditioned to be a perfect tool for the corporation. She is physically incapable of disobeying orders or being disloyal. She doesn’t understand other peoples’ reactions to her when they fear or pity her. And she doesn’t understand how anyone could betray the corporation by deliberately leaking its secrets.

The pace picks up on the second half. Something happens to break Tanta’s conditioning, after which she has to question who she is and why she is doing what she is. It’s not easy for her, but the process is described well. Nonetheless, she’s determined to finish the assignment given to her. Only, the truth turns out to be even more mind-shattering, not just for her but for her partner Cole as well.

Tanta is a great character and the reader follows her path from a mindless tool to independent thinker with interest. Cole, with his memory loss and timidness, is interesting too, and the two form an unlikely friendship. The characters without their own point of view, like Tanta’s girlfriend Reet, aren’t quite as well-rounded, but they serve a role in Tanta’s change too. The world with its technological wonders is kept simple and no explanations are given to why it has turned the way it is. The reader plunges right in and is taken for a ride. The writing is competent and the pacing is good. And if events fold out a bit too neatly for Tanta and Cole, every plan and operation executed as intended without surprises, it has enough twists and turns that the reader can overlook it. Besides, I like books where nothing bad (relatively speaking) happens to the characters. The book ends with a teaser for the next book and I’m definitely interested in reading that one too.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

My year in books

This has been a busy reading year for me. At the beginning of the year I made an ambitious list of eighty-one books that I intended to read, some of which had been on my to-read list for several years already. And thenlike every yearI promptly began to read books outside my list. It’s more of a guideline anyway…

For this year’s Goodreads reading challenge, I pledged to read sixty-five books, which was fairly ambitious but achievable, as I’d managed that many the previous year. To my amazement, as I write this, I’ve read ninety-three books, with a couple of more still to come. After I discard nine books that I’ve reviewed without finishing them, I’ve read eighty-four books, which well exceeds my expectations.

If I’d stuck to my list, I would’ve managed to read everything on it. But I didn’t. At all. Of the eighty-one books on it, I read fifteen, which is an all-time low. The only books that I read from it were new publications by my favourite authors like Nalini Singh and J.R. Ward that I’d eagerly waited for. I managed to read only one book that had been on my reading list since the previous year. No wonder my TBR pile keeps growing…

That makes sixty-nine completed books read from outside my list. A whopping nineteen of them are by one author, Lindsay Buroker, one of the most successful self-published authors out there. I picked up by chance The Emperor’s Edge that starts her fantasy series of the same name and read the series back to back, and then continued with her new urban fantasy series Death Before Dragons that begins with Sinister Magic. And I have an e-reader full of her other books as well; sci-fi and romance among them, enough to full my reading list for next year.

Other highlights of my year include, among others, A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones, which starts her new modern mystery series of a small town sheriff Sunshine Vicram; Honor Among Thieves, the first book in The Honors YA sci-fi series by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre; and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, the first book in her The Sixth World post-apocalyptic UF series.

But by far the biggest reason why I read so much outside my reading list is because I joined NetGalley in July. It’s a portal where publishers offer early review copies for regular readers; you can register for free and then start requesting books that you’d like to review. The big publishers favour established reviewers though, so I began by reading and reviewing anything that was available for downloading straight away. I ended up reading quite a lot of books by new self-published authors, and debut authors by smaller publishing houses. To date, I’ve reviewed forty-one books there.

Not everything I read from NetGalley was to my liking, but since a review was expected of me, I ended up reviewing nine books without actually finishing them. Some were poorly written, some were hot messes, and some were just boring. But there were a few that were among the best books I’ve read this year.

The highlights include Phoenix Extravagant, a stand-alone historical fantasy by Yoon Ha Lee (author of The Machineries of Empire sci-fi series) set in imaginary Korea, with magic and automations. I warmly recommend it for fans of the genre. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novic (author of Temeraire alt-history fantasy series) starts The Scholomance YA fantasy series set in a school for mages that tries to kill the students on regular bases. If you live, you graduate. And The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, magical realism/fantasy by one of my favourite authors, V.E. Schwab, that tells the story of Addie who is cursed to live forever and be forgotten by all.

A few times I received a review copy for a second book in a series that I hadn’t read yet and had to read the first one too. Highlights among these include The Blacksmith Queen and its follow-up The Princess Knight by G.A. Aiken that belong to Scarred Earth Saga of fantasy romances with centaurs and dragons. Inspired by them, I also started reading her earlier Dragon Kin series that I’ve also enjoyed. The Last Smile in Sunder City and Dead Man in a Ditch are first two books in The Fetch Phillips Archives, a series by Luke Arnold, Australian actor of Black Sails fame. They’re a combination of UF tropes, mainly a down-in-luck detective, and an imaginative fantasy world where magic has died and all magical creatures are struggling to come to terms with the new reality. I liked the first book slightly better, but both are good.

Other highlights from my NetGalley career so far include The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky, an experimental novel where the main character’s dialogue has been omitted completely; The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal, third book in her excellent Lady Astronaut series; and Hall of Smoke by a debut author H.M. Long, a brilliant stand-alone epic fantasy.

To end this long post, I have to mention the book that began my reading year, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and The Dragon Republic, the first two books in The Poppy War epic fantasy trilogy set in alternative 18th century China. It’s both exciting and gut-wrenching while experimenting with the genre’s tropes, such as the idea of ‘the chosen one’. Both books left me reeling with the direction they took. Third one, The Burning God, is already out, but I made the mistake of asking it for a Christmas present and now I have to wait. Judging by the comments I’ve read so far, it’ll end me.

These were some of the highlights of my reading year. It was interesting and educating, as each review I wrote for NetGalley required quite a lot of thought, especially the books that I didn’t like. I have over twenty books waiting for me on NetGalley already for next year, so I’ll continue to discover new to me authors. I’ll write more about those in my first post next year where I make, yet again, a list of books that I’ll intend to read. Stay tuned for that. In the meanwhile, I hope you’ll have relaxing holidays and that Santa will bring you a lot of books.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Monster MASH by Angie Fox: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

The Monster MASH by Angie Fox

I’ve long meant to read Angie Fox’s comedic fantasies, and so I was eager to get my hands in The Monster MASH when I spotted it on NetGalley, and was thrilled to have an early review copy. The premise promised the same than the movie MASH and the subsequent TV series had, but with gods and supernatural entities: an endless war told from the point of view of the hospital staff that have no personal interest in the outcome, but who have no way of escaping, so they express their frustration with disobedience, disrespect and endless pranks. What was delivered was only a vague resemblance of that, and I’m afraid the book didn’t work for me at all.

The main character, Dr Petra Robichaud, has worked seven years on the front lines of a war between gods, taking care of injured gods, demigods and heroes. She’s been drafted against her will and she can only get out when she dies. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for her, nor does it affect her actions. She can see ghosts, which is apparently a big no-no among the gods, and might indicate she has a role to play in a prophecy that ends the war. The other main character is Galen, a demigod warrior who ends up on her operating table. He’s absolutely determined to see the prophecy to come to pass, though I never quite understood why now, when he’s been fighting for centuries already. He was overbearing and annoying, and as a love interest, a great disappointment.

This was a first person narrative and Petra the only point of view character. Problem for me was that I didn’t like her at all. She’s over forty, experienced trauma doctor and, according to her friends, a cynicnot a surprise when one has spent years at waryet she behaved like a schoolgirl, positively dying of embarrassment every time someone teased her of her alleged relationship with Galen. She didn’t take any charge of her life or have proper insight in herself. Her interactions with Galen were those of a teenager with her first crush, and consisted mostly of denial. There was no discernible reason that I could find why she nonetheless fell in love with him. I found her annoying, inconsistent and cowardly, and could only marvel when other characters described her as the opposite.

Other characters were odd and annoying too. Galen was the worst, a cardboard figure that showed up to order Petra around or save her. Other characters seemed to like him, but readers weren’t invited in their interactions and so can’t judge for themselves. The rest of the cast are oddities that were probably meant to be the comedic relief, but since they never did anything funny and their communications with Petra were mostly snarky, they didn’t come across as such. The only character I liked was the commander, but he had a fairly minor role.

But it’s not just my personal preferences that made Petra an unsatisfying main character. She had no agency. She didn’t influence the plot in any way at any point. She made no attempt to investigate or influence the prophecy concerning herthough apparently she had tried before the book beganand her only act of defiance was denying it had anything to do with her. There were some action scenes where she was usually saved by Galen, and although they had impact on the outcome of the story, they were accidental on her part. In the end, she watched the story unfold on TV. I kid you not.

However, what really made the book fail was that it had no plot. All the interesting bits had happened before it began: Petra’s fiancĂ© had died in the war between gods; she had been drafted to the opposite side, learned about the prophecy and acted on it with bad consequences for her. All this was revealed to the reader in due, and not so due, course, but it didn’t have any impact on the plot or Petra’s actions, apart from her trying to deny her role in the prophecy.

The book has an inciting incident that throws Petra and Galen together. After that, half the book is spent with Petra dragging her heels about the prophecy. Absolutely nothing happens to advance the non-existent plot. She hangs around with her friends, does some hospital stuff, and goes back and forth with Galen whilst apparently falling in love with him at some point too. After the half point, the prophecy suddenly kicks in and we’re following it on TV where Petra learns how it’s supposed to unfold. There are some action scenes that confirm it, and then the prophecy is fulfilled. We watch it on the side-lines. Petra has no part in it. Undying love is declared. The end.

All in all, the book was unfunny, boring and unromantic. It failed in every level that I expect from a comedic fantasy. There’s an afterword from the author where she says this is a revised version from an earlier one where she couldn’t follow her vision for the book. Without reading the original version, I’m inclined to think that she should’ve let it be. This is a start for a series, but needless to say, I’m not going to continue with it.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long

Hall of Smoke is the debut novel of H.M. Long, and what a great debut it is. It’s stand-alone fantasy that starts deceptively small and grows into epic proportions. I received a free review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book is set in a pre-industrial, almost tribal world that doesn’t instantly or obviously refer to ours, though the largest warrior culture reminded me of Rome and the smaller ones of both North American native cultures and Asian cultures. It’s a good mixture where nothing is so directly borrowed that it would jar and everything blends together to form something unique and new. The mythologies and habits are rich and they are brought up organically as the story flows. Countries and cultures have formed around different gods and though languages and habits remain fairly similar, the gods’ dislike of one another has transferred to humans too. Wars and raids are regular.

The main character is Hessa, a warrior priestess of Eang, the goddess of war. The country and people are called Eang too and the priests Eangi, which was confusing at times. She’s the only point of view character and the narrative is in deep first person, which works very well. She’s young (nineteen, maybe), but thanks to the constant wars, an experienced warrior. The priests and priestesses of Eang aren’t chosen; they are born with a special gift from the goddess, a fire that both makes them superior soldiers and heals them too. Other gods haven’t gifted their followers with anything similar.

The story begins at a low point in Hessa’s life. She has failed to perform a task from her goddess to kill a visitor to her town, and as a consequence has been stripped from her position as a priestess. While she’s in a remote shrine to pray for forgiveness from Eang who refuses to answer to her, her entire town is butchered by followers of a different godan unprecedented occurrence. She’s the only priestess of Eang left in the whole country and she’s in disfavour. But her goddess finally appears and promises her that all will be forgiven if she finishes the task given to her. From that point on, throughout the book, she’s carried by one goal: finding the man she was meant to kill so that she can have a place in the hall of death with her loved-ones.

But things aren’t easy or straightforward when one is alone and facing several enemies. While she tries to locate her prey, Hessa learns that the entire world is in upheaval, and not just among humans, among the gods too. As her goddess increasingly fails to come to her aid, she starts to question her devotion and the task given to her. Little by little, as her faith unravels, the stakes become higher, until Hessa finds herself as a pivotal player in gods’ war against each other.

This was a very satisfying story. The plot flows organically from one event to another, with Hessa learning and growing along it. The pacing isn’t fast, but the chapters are fairly short and there is constantly something going on that makes you want to keep reading. Because of the first person POV, the side characters remain slightly vague, and none of them become more important to Hessa than her task, but I liked most of them. And I especially liked Hessa. She’s resilient and determined, and capable of adjusting her worldview when the old one becomes untenable. And in a true manner of epic fantasy, the person who has lost all becomes the most important person in the world. Since this is a stand-alone, the ending is satisfying and doesn’t leave you with a need to read more.

The book is well-written and the language is beautiful. However, there was a glaring, recurring grammar mistake that became so irritating that I have to mention it, just in case there’s time to fix it before the final version is published: the first person singular objective case pronoun is me, not I. It was so seldom in correct form that the mistake had to be deliberate. Other than that, the book was a joy to read.


Friday, December 04, 2020

The Thief of Blackfriars Lane by Michelle Griep: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Thief of Blackfriars Lane by Michelle Griep

The Thief of Blackfriars Lane by Michelle Griep is a mystery set in Victorian London. Jackson Forge is a brand new constable who needs to prove himself by finding a missing cab driver. Problem is, he’s new to London and doesn’t know his way around the seedier parts of town, so he enlists a thief he’s (almost) captured to help him. Kit Turner is a foundling turned the leader of thieves who insist she’s not a criminal and who helps the poor in her spare time. Together they stumble on a larger mystery of missing men.

This is a book that should work, but quite doesn’t. The writing is good, the mystery is interesting if convoluted, and the characters of Jackson and Kit are likeable. But it’s as if it takes place in a vacuum. It’s supposed to be a historical novel, but it’s tasteless, soundless and odourless, and for the most part, sightless too. There are barely any descriptions of anythingplaces, interiors, clothing, people or foodand what is described is so random and vague it could be anywhere, anytimeor plain incorrect (the hansom cabs in use in London, for example). At no point did I get the feeling I was in Victorian London. And nothing ruins a historical novel faster than incorrect use of money. There are several sites where one can check not only how much a coin is worth in current times, but more importantly, how much were people paid at any given time and what they could buy with it. A constable giving a sovereign to a poor person, when neither of them would see such a coin in their lives, let alone could use it where they live, is only one such example.

The events were set in the special place within London, the City, which is a self-governing entity separate from the rest of London with its own leadership, taxationand police. But at no point in the book were things like jurisdiction or rivalry between the City police and the Scotland Yard brought up. The investigation took Jackson and Kit to the docks well outside the City, for example, and they were given orders by the Home Office. The City would be such an interesting place with its medieval streets and rookeries that it is a pity it wasn’t utilised better here.

This is also marketed as Christian fiction. God was mentioned several times and Kit especially tended to question God for allowing people to suffer. However, in historical fiction this kind of thinking is sort of default and one of the few things that made it feel historically accurate. The characters weren’t especially religious and there was no greater power in play anywhere in the book or affecting the plot. So if you’re looking for a book with particular devotion and a plot where God’s grace plays a special role, this isn’t it.

All in all, this was a bit of a miss for me. The ending was sort of satisfying, though I wasn’t happy with who turned out to be Kit’s father, and it lays the setting for a series. But I don’t think I’ll be following Jackson and Kit further than this.

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