Saturday, 23 March 2019

Review: Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two

Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two by Greg Keyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first in the series, and enjoyed it enough that when I saw this one on Netgalley I asked for a copy for review. I did have some hesitations; I felt the first one had pumped the archetypes pedal a bit too hard, at the expense of more subtle character development.

This one doesn't feel as overdone in the archetypes department, but it does feel disjointed to me. This is partly because, rather than being together as they were in most of the first book, the three viewpoint characters spend most of this second book widely separated, having their own adventures, which don't always seem to be particularly directed at a shared goal. Most of the time, they're trying to survive, and/or find each other, but they're also trying to rescue various people, with mixed success. This gives plenty of opportunities to leave one character at a cliffhanger and switch to another, but I sometimes found that by the time the viewpoint switched back I'd forgotten the earlier character's situation - a sign that the plot wasn't coherent and cohesive enough, I think. Several of the key characters who recurred from the earlier book were ones I didn't remember at all, too. The book does open with a rather on-the-nose as-you-know-Bob recap, addressed by one character to her diary, which at least reminded me who these people were and why they were fighting; it could have been done a lot more subtly, but it achieved the purpose.

Aster, the young sorceress, spends a lot of the book confused, lacking in confidence and direction, and, for a while, very vulnerable. Veronica, the semi-undead girl trying not to be a monster, has probably the strongest arc, one that leaves her boyfriend, Errol, the third viewpoint character, rather high and dry by the end. He's... susceptible to damsels in distress, and by the end, Veronica isn't in distress. She has her own thing going on, though it wasn't completely clear to me (maybe even to her) exactly what that is.

Errol... I wasn't quite sure what was going on with him either. He had to find his courage; he certainly found reasons to live (having ended up involved in the adventure indirectly because of a suicide attempt back before the start of Book 1). But the whole thing was so muddied by a lot of wandering about in wonder-filled but inconclusive directions that I spent a lot of the book just waiting for clarity that never really emerged.

This isn't at all a rules-based fantasy universe, by the way. It's more at the mythic end. Parts of the world (multiverse?) are always stuck at particular times of day or night; all the adults are statues, or monsters, or disappeared (though there seems to be a fairly wide latitude in the definition of "adult"); nobody seems to have to eat or engage in agriculture, which is just as well, given that there's no day in some places, no night in others, and weather seems to be just as arbitrary and unvarying. Ships fly for no readily apparent reason and without an obvious mechanism. It's a dreamlike world, reminiscent of Peter Pan's Neverland in many ways, and while that is wonderful in a sensawunda kind of way, it doesn't help with making sense of what is going on.

I will give it four stars, with some slight reluctance, because it is filled with unexpected wonders, but it would be more compelling if the plot was tighter and the characters were more goal-directed.

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Sunday, 17 March 2019

Review: The Smoke-Scented Girl

The Smoke-Scented Girl The Smoke-Scented Girl by Melissa McShane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've become a Melissa McShane fan over the past little while. Her books consistently make it into my Best of the Year roundups, because they're well crafted, extremely well edited, and usually feature determined, principled, capable young women as protagonists (my favourite kind of protagonist).

This one is a little different in a few ways. The less important way is that the determined, principled, capable young woman is not the viewpoint character or the protagonist; that's a determined, principled, capable young man who eventually figures out he's in love with her. One of the more important ways in which it's different from other McShane books is that it achieves and sustains a higher level of tension. The slower beginning/action-packed ending pattern is still there, but I didn't notice it as strongly, because from early on we have a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, plenty at stake, and lots happening.

The other important difference in this book is that the world feels richer and deeper than in other McShane books I've read. Not that it's bad in those other books, just that this one has some extra touches that make me believe in it. The names, for instance; I pay a lot of attention to character names, and these feel like the author has paid attention to them as well. They don't fall into the trap of familiar biblical names in a world where Christianity doesn't exist; they're made up, but they're made up in a way that makes them both easy to remember and credible. There are repeating patterns to the surnames, for example, suffixes which several surnames have in common - the kind of thing that happens in real life.

The world feels three-dimensional and lived-in, not thrown together out of scenery flats like so many fantasy worlds, but this is achieved by a few subtle touches rather than a series of infodumps. It's broadly similar to, but not simply a version of, Napoleonic-era Britain (a period the author has researched as background for another series), and there's a good balance between elements of similarity and elements of difference. The whole thing feels both authentic and thought through, and given how often I ding books set in the 19th century or its equivalent for missing both of those marks, I appreciate that very much.

The characters are delightful: the brilliant young mage who doubts himself and has trouble getting people to take him seriously because he's so young; the cursed young woman dealing with her fate as best she can, and making a decent job of it; the seemingly foppish friend who is clearly much more competent than he lets on, loyal to the death, and closer than a brother; the petty bureaucrat pigheadedly determined to do the wrong thing; the jealous former teacher who contradicts the wunderkind at every turn; the no-nonsense, experienced older woman who trusts the young people to get it right; even the incidental, nameless characters met along the way have a sense of solidity to them.

These are new heights for an always-entertaining author, and I look forward to reading many more of her books.

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Review: Stone of Inheritance

Stone of Inheritance Stone of Inheritance by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first of this series enough, and have found the author consistent enough, that I preordered this one - something I rarely do. I wasn't disappointed, either.

This is essentially D&D fiction, but with enough original touches to the magic system and the world that it doesn't feel too derivative. One difference I appreciated from a lot of D&D-style fiction (and most actual games as they are played): there are competent authorities in this world, and people generally assume that they're safe, that their enemies won't start anything in a public place because the authorities would deal with them capably and justly.

There are a couple of minor weaknesses. As with the earlier book, the tension is pretty low for a while; it's a slowish start, though the excitement at the end is well worth waiting around for, and it's interesting even when it isn't action-packed. It also seems to recycle a couple of features from another of the author's books, which I read around the same time; The Smoke-Scented Girl also feature spells that cause the caster to taste things, and the image of a ride along a road cut into the landscape with high banks on either side. But those are good features, and no harm in reusing them.

There was a moment - and you'll know it when you get to it - when I was powerfully reminded of my favourite line from Yahoo Serious's Young Einstein: "Oh, come on, Marie! If you can't trust the governments of the world, who can you trust?"

Overall, though, it's a good ride. Dastardly villains, fearsome foes, desperate fights, a sweet, clean romance, determined and principled characters, and a fresh approach to both wizards and clerics combine into an entertaining story. I will happily read the next in the series; I may well preorder it, even.

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Review: Lord of Secrets

Lord of Secrets Lord of Secrets by Breanna Teintze
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every so often I encounter a book that I enjoyed while reading it, but somehow had trouble remembering soon afterwards, and this is one. I can't put my finger on why.

It had some good elements, definitely. Motivated protagonist (his grandfather has been captured by the bad guys and is probably being tortured). Dynamic situation (there's a race on for an artefact that could unleash horrible undead warriors and plunge the world into war, or might save the grandfather, and the protagonist has clues to where it is and how to retrieve it). The protagonist is principled; unlike other wizards, he insists on bearing the physical cost of magic himself rather than pushing it off onto other people. He hates slavery, and will risk himself to free slaves, even one who has betrayed him.

The world is dark and troubled, the antagonists are a scary sociopath and a complete psychopath, and the protagonist has complexity and depth, imperfections and insecurities, courage and determination. His sidekick/secondary antagonist/love interest, the escaped slave, is her own person with her own thing going on; she also has a motivation, a captive sister. That's a bit too much reliance on fridged relatives for me to be absolutely happy with it, but at least the third in their party is coming along out of gratitude to the protagonist's grandfather. Both of them are courageous, intelligent, and resourceful.

Overall, I'd definitely read a sequel, but I'd have to hope that there was a good recap near the beginning.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Friday, 1 March 2019

Review: Magic for Liars

Magic for Liars Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book presents as (urban fantasy) noir: a private investigator, who drinks too much to cope with her loneliness and alienation, is given the opportunity to move up from adulterous spouses and work on an actual murder mystery, at the magical school where her estranged twin sister teaches.

She insists she's fine with the fact that her sister has magic and she doesn't. I spent some of the time nearly believing her, and I think she spent some of the time nearly believing herself. She's a deeply flawed and broken person who I absolutely wanted to succeed, even though that seemed highly unlikely.

There's some more tragic backstory of the kind that could happen in almost any family, which only makes it more effective; and there's a doomed romance with one of the other teachers. Doomed, because the PI tells herself that, for the sake of the investigation, she has to not reveal the fact that she has no magic... hence, I assume, the title, Magic for Liars.

It pulls off the feat of being adjacent to a classic YA story - there's a prophecy about a Chosen One, and all kinds of teen magic-school drama and angst - without that story taking over, or even being taken all that seriously most of the time.

There are some beautifully crafted phrases, like "It was like stealing candy from a big bowl of free candy surrounded by helpful multilingual signposts," or "the bags under my eyes were definitely well past the carry-on limit".

There are herrings of a deep red hue (which had me completely fooled); terrible and wonderful moments of powerful magic; deliberately incomprehensible jargon that the PI pretends to understand, and that imply a complex and deep magical world; poignant interpersonal and intrapersonal moments; and an ending that, somewhat contrary to the noir tradition, holds out some hope (without revealing the outcome of the hope one way or the other). It's powerful, and expertly done, which is why I bumped it up to five stars. It isn't the kind of book that naturally leads to a sequel, but I would certainly read another book by this author, especially if it took place in the same world.

The one significant criticism I have is that the pattern of "reluctant witness is about to finally give the PI a clue, someone interrupts" happens a bit too often.

I received a pre-publication copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: Spindle's End

Spindle's End Spindle's End by Jessica Marting
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Vague spoilers in some of the following.)

The space opera is excessively dependent on Star Trek, and has asteroid fields, extremely short trips over interplanetary distances, and all the usual nonsense, though at least the ship does need fueling (often not the case in space opera).

The romance... well, there's a period of "We can't be together because reasons," and then basically a Doc Brown moment: "But then I figured, what the hell?" And that's the romance subplot. Though at least the hero understands consent, and that a kiss from a woman who's very drunk is not it.

The main plot is totally dependent on a massive coincidence; the villain is about to retrieve something that's been sitting there undiscovered for 104 years, and the protagonists get there first by pure chance.

Two characters have basically the exact same parental issues.

Apart from that, it's pretty mediocre. Not great, but could be a lot worse. A solid three stars.

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