Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green

The Best Thing You Can Steal is the first book in Gideon Sable UF series by Simon R. Green, a British fantasy author of several series and dozens of books. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book takes place in modern London that is full of supernatural and paranormal in ways that isn’t really explained. They simply are. The sole point of view character is Gideon Sable, a thief and con-artist wearing someone else’s face, who’s about to pull the heist of his life to take down an evil collector of rare magical items. He’s accompanied by his ex-girlfriend Annie Anybody, a woman who can charm technology; the Damned, a man who’s killed angels; Johnny Wild Card who knows what reality truly is, and the Ghost who’s been haunting the streets of London for decades. They’ve all been wronged by the collector and have their reason to want revenge.

For a heist book, this was incredibly dull. There was no excitement, no unexpected twists. Deus ex machinas don’t count, even literal ones. For any kind of book, it was really oddly composed, and not what I’d expect from a seasoned author. Nothing happens. There’s no plot, only a series of events that go from A to Z in preordained order, with odd sideways jumps that don’t affect the story or the behaviour of the characters in any way.

Over half of the book is taken by character introductions. Gideon goes to them one by one, asks them to participate in the heist, they say yes, and then tell him their life stories. Then we learn what the heist is about, meet one more character who has no role to play in the story, do a detour to an event that doesn’t affect the plot in any way, go through the heist plans one more time, and then follow the plans step by step with no surprises.

There were no antagonist forces putting obstacles in the characters’ path (armed guards don’t count), and the characters didn’t get in their own way either. A brief surprise was had when the goal of the heist wasn’t quite what they’d thought, there was some moralising about it, and then we learned what the best thing you can steal really is. Which was just. So. Lame. It’s really not worth reading the book for that.

The characters were a combination of quirky and tragic, though not quite as quirky or tragic as the author probably intended. They also changed pretty fast when interacting with the others. Unlike the rest, Annie Anybody wasn’t given a backstory. She could be anyone she wanted, but I expected at least some sort of insight into her. Was she born that way? Where did her skill with the machines come from?

But the oddest character was Gideon Sable himself. We don’t learn anything about him, even though he’s the first person narrator. We know he’s not who he used to be, but just because he has assumed another person’s face and identity shouldn’t mean the reader isn’t given any insight into who he was before or why the change, or how it was possible. We don’t know his age, or if it changed when he assumed Gideon Sable’s life, and we don’t learn why he’s after the collector. Some mystery is expected to keep the reader’s interest, but since we view the events through his eyes, not having a clue of what he thinks or feels, or what motivates him is really bizarre.

The best thing you can say about the book is that it’s short. The language is descriptive and there’s a lot of it; by the time you finish a sentence you’ve forgotten what it’s about. A lot of effort has been put into creating the weirdest possible items, people, and events, and most of the book is taken by describing these. Therefore, it’s slightly odd that I constantly had a feeling that everything took place in a bubble. Nothing connected to anything, smelled or felt like anything. For all that every chapter began with a description of London, I never felt like I was there.

The book has a conclusive ending. If this is a part of a series, it doesn’t really set the stage for follow-ups. Maybe it doesn’t have to go farther than this. There’s certainly nothing compelling this reader to continue.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris

In this third instalment of Gunnie Rose series, The Russian Cage, action moves from the lawless western setting to sophisticated and wealthy San Diego, the capital of the Holy Russian Empire. Lizbeth is completely out of her comfort zone among the aristocratic Russians and wizards, and to make matters worse, she can’t carry her guns.

Eli has been imprisoned without charges and no one seems to care or do anything about it, least of all Emperor Alexei, whom Eli has helped a lot. So Lizbeth’s sister Felicia summons Lizbeth to free him. The plot that’s led to Eli’s imprisonment involves both the imperial household and Eli’s own family, but Lizbeth doesn’t hesitate to set things right. And this time she’s not only shooting for self-defence; she’s contemplating an outright assassination.

The alt-history setting of the series truly came to life in this book. The Russian Empire has settled on the west coast of California, ruling over Americans who’d been left in power vacuum. There’s surprisingly little conflict from the Americans. All the plotters are Russians, and solely so that they could rule.

True to her character, Lizbeth isn’t wooed by the wealth or power. She’s as straightforward as ever, stubbornly concentrating on freeing Eli. There’s more Felix in this book, helping her in Eli’s absence, and his character gets some depth, though superficially, with only hints and allusions. He never gets to voice his own emotions. Eli was absent for most of the book, and even though I’m not a fan of his as a romantic lead, I kind of missed him. The ending for him and Lizbeth was good and put them in a new place in their life, setting the stage for more adventures. I’d be interested in reading them.

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


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris has a rich and varying catalogue of urban fantasy and mystery series, mostly set in present-day small American towns with peculiar people. Gunnie Rose, her latest series, is a refreshing exception to this.

The series starts with An Easy Death. It’s set in post-apocalyptic alt-history America of the Great Depression era in the 1930s. The United States has collapsed after a series of events and been divided into several countries or annexed by its neighbours, Canada from the north and Mexico from the south. The east coast is part of England and the west coast forms a new Holy Russian Empire, after the Tsar fled there to escape the revolution of the 1918. The rest have formed Dixie in the south, New America in Midwest and Texoma in southwest.

Texoma is poor and lawless, a new wild west where gunslingers rule and bandits prey on travellers on poorly maintained roads. Lizbeth (Gunnie) Rose is nineteen, but an experienced gunslinger. She’s part of a group who offers protection to people who need to travel the lawless roads. But everything goes wrong and she finds herself without a crew.

In need of employment, she accepts a job to protect two wizards from the Holy Russian Empire where magic is everyday thanks to Rasputin. They are looking for a man Gunnie knows for a fact is dead, because she’s killed him—not that she’s about to reveal it to them. Curious to find out what they want with him, she sets out on a long and perilous journey across the border to Mexico.

This was a good start to a series. The world was interesting and the plot fast-paced and full of action. Gunnie was a cynical and resourceful protagonist, oddly likeable despite never doing anything nice. The first person narrative left the side characters slightly distant, but they made a good counterpart to her, although I didn’t see Eli in the romantic light she did—the opposite. There was a lot of graphic violence and talk of rape, which sort of worked in its context, but after a while I became desensitized and it stopped being effective. Nevertheless, I liked the book a lot and will continue with the series.  

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen is the second book in Nick Martell’s The Mercenary Kings series, which started with The Kingdom of Liars. It’s epic fantasy set in a world where using magic results in a memory loss and a broken moon drops pieces down to the earth. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I had a lot of issues with the first book—the plot was all over the place and there were too many unnecessary characters, among other things—but I decided to give the sequel a try. Unfortunately, the issues continued.

There were, if possible, even more going on than in the first book. The rebels, the king’s death and Michael trying to prove his innocence, the princess and the succession to throne, Michael trying to restore the Kingman legacy, avenging his father and taking revenge on his step-father were joined with refugees from a far-away country, Michael training to be a mercenary, a serial killer, and an assassin, to name only a few. And all of it was Michael’s responsibility.

Needless to say, with everything going on, the focus wasn’t properly at anything. Like in the first book, Michael was running all over town, doing this and that, and mostly failing. None of the plotlines flowed organically, let alone so that the reader could follow or anticipate what would happen. There were no logical plot points or climaxes. Continuity and logic issues that I hope only occur in the advance copy I read—characters showing up in scenes they’re not supposed to be or knowing things they’re not supposed to know—didn’t help matters either. There were no moments of peace to give Michael—and the reader—time to reflect what was going on and why. Mostly, I suspect, because the author had no idea either.

The entire first half felt like a collection of filler scenes to make the book long enough for some imaginary epic fantasy word count. For example, Michael made a lot of noise about the necessity of helping the refugees as part of his Kingman legacy, but a chapter later they were completely forgotten and never brought up again except as props.

There were too many characters too like in the first book—mostly the same characters, with nothing to do. Problem for this reader was that they weren’t really re-introduced or connected to the events of the previous book. The author assumed that the reader would remember them all, but personally I had no clue. I spent the first half of the book wondering who all these people were and why they mattered.

It didn’t make things easier that some of them were seen in new light. Michael got his memory back at the end of the previous book and the nameless people of the first book were now his old friends. Unfortunately they weren’t connected with the memories the reader had of them. Who was Joey and why he needed heart surgery? Who was Dawn in the previous book?

It didn’t help that the author can’t really create distinct secondary characters. I could’ve sworn that Michael’s sister Gwen was a soldier or in law enforcement in some capacity, yet she turned out to be a blacksmith who liked to dress as a boy. I had no recollection of that.

The only positive change was Michael himself. Now that he could remember who he was, he was less obnoxious and obsessed with revenge. Like he said himself, the curse had prevented him from growing up. Not that there was much character growth here, but at least he tried to be a better person.

The second half of the book was better and more coherent, with a few truly emotional scenes at the end. All the unnecessary distractions were eliminated and the plot concentrated on finding the serial killer. Their identity was a twist that would’ve been more impactful with better foreshadowing from book one. Now it was merely one of the WTF moments the book was full of.

In my review of the first book I noted that it could’ve used a stern editor that would’ve cut the unnecessary plotlines. The second book would’ve benefited from multiple point of view characters. They could’ve been given some of the plots that poor Michael tried to handle by himself to add some depth and coherence to them. The author clearly has a lot he wants to tell, but the chosen method doesn’t do it justice. The one additional POV there was didn’t move the plot forward at all and so was fairly useless.

I think the books’ problems stem from worldbuilding. Martell has clearly spent years creating a complex and intriguing world containing everything possible, and wants to cram it all in, whether it serves the overall plot or not (like what’s with the moon). Many scenes existed solely to introduce the world, making the plot incoherent. The plotline about the immortals will—likely—be the guiding line from here on. In hindsight, it probably was that in the previous book too. It merely got swamped under all the unnecessary distractions.

The book ended at a new place for Michael. The issues with his step-father aren’t solved and new issues have emerged. There’s so much to come that this likely won’t be a classical trilogy but a longer series. I’m not entirely sure, however, that I’ll continue farther than this with Michael.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Bounty by Janet Evanovich and Steve Hamilton: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Bounty by Janet Evanovich and Steve Hamilton

Janet Evanovich’s Fox and O’Hare series about unwilling cooperation between FBI agent Kate O’Hare and international thief Nick Fox has advanced to a seventh book, The Bounty. There’s a new co-author, Steve Hamilton, after a short-lived collaboration with Evanovich’s son Peter. The change is for the better.

This is perhaps the most coherent and exciting book in the series so far. The plot is intriguing. Nick’s estranged father is after a treasure map that should lead to a hidden hoard of Nazi gold, and Nick and Kate are swept along on the quest. They storm through Europe, trying to find the pieces of the map, which have been hidden in very imaginative and difficult-to-access places. And naturally they are pursued by a group of Nazis who want the gold for themselves. There are plenty of twists and turns before everything is solved.

The book is constant action with plenty of over-the-top violence, but there isn’t much of Evanovich’s trademark humour. Also the romance-that-almost-is between Kate and Nick is all but forgotten, with a token scene at the end. But it still manages to be light-hearted and not to take itself too seriously.

My only complaint is the lack of a coherent point of view. It switched between Nick and Kate from paragraph to paragraph with no clear indication to who was guiding the narrative. There were short stretches with a single narrator, usually in a minor character’s POV, but the general impression was vagueness and lack of depth. Character development has never been Evanovich’s strong suit, but here the characters were completely at the mercy of the plot. Nick especially felt like a shadow of his usual conman self. His outrageous heists used to be the heart of the books, but there were none here.

Nevertheless, the book was entertaining and engaging. It’s the best in the series so far, unless you miss the silly humour. I hope Evanovich continues the series with Hamilton. I’d definitely read their books.

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

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

Alpha & Omega, the parallel series to Briggs’ Mercy Thompson has advanced to a sixth book already and it’s still going strong. In Wild Sign, Charles Cornick, Mercy’s werewolf step-brother, and his wife Anna, the omega, are sent to investigate the disappearance of an entire village in the mountains between California and Oregon, in a land owned by Charles’s step-mother Leah.

Leah has been a staple character in both series, a constantly disagreeable figure with whom Charles and Mercy have a very conflicted relationship. Her mating with Bran has been a puzzle to the entire pack. Here we finally have her story and learn why Bran mated her, and why she’s been angry for two centuries. It involves a mysterious god-like power and Sherwood Post, the werewolf in Mercy’s pack who has lost his memory.

Playing with one’s memories is the godlike entity’s main weapon, and it accesses them through music, to which Anna as a musician is particularly susceptible. And it’s not magic that Charles can easily counter with his skills. The entity needs to lure women to it in order to impregnate them, so that it can gain power and become a god in reality. And Anna is there, no matter that as a werewolf she can’t get pregnant.

It’s not easy to battle a god, let alone defeat it. Great sacrifices are needed, and that’s where Leah has a role to play. She has to face her past in order to finally be free. For all that I’ve always disliked her, she became a real, relatable person with her suffering. Bran too has to face his past with her.

This felt like a shorter book than it probably was. It seemed like Anna and Charles were still investigating when the final battle was already on them. But the battle was complicated enough that the ending didn’t feel rushed. The emotional payoff was perfect too, especially in the epilogue. All in all, a good addition to the series that opens great new avenues for the series.

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


Thursday, March 11, 2021

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace is the second book in Teixcalaan duology, which began with A Memory Called Empire. It picks up two months after the first book ended. Mahit Dzmare, the ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire has returned home after stopping the empire from annexing her space station. But instead of being hailed as a saviour, she’s being treated with suspicion by the rulers of the Station who know something must be wrong with her implant that hosts the memories of her predecessor. Just as the situation is becoming untenable, Three Seagrass, her former cultural liaison at the empire and a current intelligence officer, comes to take her away.

The empire is at war with an utterly alien enemy that they can’t communicate with and don’t understand. Mahit and Three Seagrass are tasked with learning their language so that the war can be stopped before it spreads to the heart of the empire. But how do you learn a language that makes you sick? How do you stop genocide when there are factions within the empire who have their own agendas? And is it genocide if you don’t define the enemy as people?

This is a more mature book than the first—and that wasn’t bad either. It’s also more science fictiony with spaceships, first contacts, and incomprehensible aliens. The political intrigue and philosophising about cultural differences is replaced with questions about language and definitions of people.

There were more point of view characters, and it worked well; the pacing was better and chapters had good cliff-hanger endings, forcing me to read on to find out what happened to that character. Mahit had a smaller role to play in the overall story, but her personal progress remained interesting. Three Seagrass was given her own POV chapters, often side by side with Mahit’s. Their romance advanced too, but as it was a bit toxic, I wasn’t very invested in it. Then there was Nine Hibiscus, the commander of the fleet, whose POV served as a window to the war. But the most interesting new point of view character was Eight Antidote, the clone of the previous emperor. He’s only eleven, but mature beyond his years. Prodded by the new emperor, he takes interest in the war, and ends up playing a pivotal role in it.

The book has a satisfying ending suitable for a duology. But it’s open enough that there’s room for more books too, should the author wish to continue with the world. She’s created a complex universe with great characters, and it would be a pity if it ended here.

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

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Conductors by Nicole Glover: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors is a debut novel by Nicole Glover and it starts Murder and Magic series set in 1860s Philadelphia, after the American Civil War. The main character is Hetty Rhodes, a former slave who’s helped other slaves escape to safety as a so called conductor of the Underground Railroad. Now that the war is over, she’s settled in Philadelphia with her husband Benjy, a fellow conductor. She works as a seamstress and he as a blacksmith, but in their spare time they find missing persons and solve other mysteries. They are aided by their extraordinary magic that allows them to perform all sorts of near impossible feats.

A friend is found dead and it appears he was killed with magic. They set out to solve his murder, but new bodies turn up. Hetty is also trying to find a missing woman, and then there’s background noise of grave robberies that she and Benjy don’t pay attention to at first. Alongside the present day there are chapters about Hetty’s and Benjy’s past as conductors.

This book has a great premise, but unfortunately it suffers from a clumsy execution and poorly conducted plot. At the beginning of the book I had to check several times that I wasn’t reading a sequel, as there were references to people and events as if I should already know them. The narrative has some temporal jumps here and there, with no clear indication that the paragraph describes earlier action. And worst of all, it relies heavily on telling, not showing, so that I had hard time connecting emotionally with the characters.

This is especially the case with Hetty who is the sole point of view character. She appeared to be a strong-willed and formidable woman, but I never really figured out why she solved the mysteries. Mostly she seemed to regard it as her duty that didn’t really give her any pleasure. The side characters were even more difficult to get a hang of.

(As an aside, I found it really odd that Hetty and Benjy had chosen Rhodes as their last name. Maybe it has a different connotation among the freed slaves, but as a white European, I immediately thought of Cecil Rhodes, the notorious figure in African colonialism and great believer in white supremacy.)

What really prevented me from immersing myself in the story was a total lack of descriptions. A couple of characters were briefly described, mostly by the colour of their skin, but I had no idea about their ages, heights and looks otherwise. I had no idea what sort of clothing people wore, which is something I’ve come to rely on in historical fiction. Hetty was a seamstress, but fabrics and colours were never described, as if she didn’t care at all. There were no smells, even though there were magic potions, horses, poor slums and bogs. And the town could’ve been anywhere in any era. I imagined earth-covered streets and low wooden buildings, and then the town turned out to be so large it had streetcars, which I would assume means paved streets, gas street lamps, and brick townhouses.

The magic system was divided to sorcery of the white and celestial (?) magic of the Black. I liked how flexible the magic was and how the practitioners could do pretty much anything with it, though it was never properly described either. What annoyed me a little was how the celestial magic was based on zodiac signs of western astrology and Greek gods. Surely there would’ve been other mythologies to base it on, which would’ve explained better why this particular type of magic was natural to the Black and Native Americans.

But what really irked me was that the alt history angle of magic wasn’t properly utilised. Now that the former slaves were free to use their extremely powerful magic, they did nothing to overturn the system that regarded them as lower beings and instead submitted to be treated badly. The author could’ve—should’ve—imagined bigger than solving mysteries, and not limit herself to history.

Solving the mysteries was never a priority to Hetty and Benjy anyway, even though they made a show of it. In the end, they all got solved without their input. The killer got bored with the pair’s inefficiency and made their move against them, and the missing person just showed up. The grave robbery angle sort of went away. The only storyline that progressed at all was Hetty’s and Benjy’s relationship, but even that was fairly low key. So, a great premise, but a really frustrating end result.

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

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft

Down Comes the Night is a debut fantasy novel by Allison Saft. It’s advertised as Gothic YA romance, and it’s set in a unique world with both magic and early technology like electricity and steam engines. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wren is a healer in the military, skilled both in magical healing and more scientific approach. She’s also the queen’s niece, and the two have an antagonistic relationship. In an act of defiance after the queen sends her on a fool’s errand, she accepts an invitation from a friendly neighbouring country to come and heal a random servant in a nobleman’s castle. But when she arrives there she learns that the servant is actually her country’s greatest enemy Hal Cavendish. She has to choose whether to heal him or take him to the queen so that she can finally earn her approval.

There’s something sinister going on in the castle. Hal is there to find out what it is, and since the mystery concerns Wren’s country too, they begin to solve it together. But the corruption runs deeper than she could’ve imagined. If they can’t solve it, she and Hal both will be lost, and both their countries plunged into a war.

The book starts well, with an interesting and concise backstory about two countries in a permanent war, Wren antagonism with the queen, and Wren’s relationship with her commanding officer Una, whom she ends up betraying in order to leave the country. Then comes the middle part, which is some sort of Gothic romance with all its clich├ęs (a castle with odd restrictions of movement, peculiar host, snowbound couple with only one bed etc.). And then the last quarter is again like from a different book as it returns to the earlier setting. From a triangle between three strong women, need for love and the lack of it, to a very boring romance that never really takes flight, and back to the three women again.

If I were to guess, I’d say the middle part existed first as a standalone romance into which the author then added the backstory. The middle is much too long for its contents and not terribly interesting or romantic (Wren and Hal are seasoned soldiers yet they suddenly behave like innocent teenagers). The backstory barely plays a role. It’s as if Wren is a different person with completely different motivations; she doesn’t spare a thought for Una whom she’s loved for years. The book changes for the better once the Gothic castle is left behind; the pace picks up and stakes get higher. But while there’s some emotional payoff, it’s not really enough to compensate for the clumsy middle section.

The world is a mishmash of everything. Two countries have magic and one doesn’t for some reason, as if interbreeding never happened, but they have electricity, which the other two don’t have. Yet Wren has a working knowledge of genetics. But the concoction sort of works, if one doesn’t pay too close attention. What did annoy me were the many consistency issues, especially in the middle part. The time of day changed from paragraph to paragraph (like, the sun shines, yet it’s pitch black and  then snowing in the next instance) so that I never knew if it was morning or evening. This wasn’t a bad book, but it could’ve used a more careful editing. But the ending was satisfying for all parties and it doesn’t set the scene for a sequel. If you like stand-alone fantasy, give it a try.