I began Sister Sable (Book one of the the Mad Queen series) with high hopes. The book’s Amazon reviews frequently use the kinds of words that get me interested in a story: complex, dark, surprising, intelligent. With 75% five-star ratings, people are obviously finding something to appreciate in the story, but I’m afraid this is one instance where I’m going to need to diverge from the crowd: I put the book down about a third of the way through.
To a certain extent, my lack of appreciation for the book is probably a reflection of my preference for a neater (e.g. tighter, cleaner) story. As a reader, I’m open to some provocative confusion, but in general, I like to have a pretty solid sense of what’s going on, who’s who, and what outcomes I’m rooting for. There were plenty of interesting narrative elements in the opening of the book, and Mountebank is clearly a skilled writer, but I just didn’t find myself getting pulled into the action. My sense is that there was just too much going on, involving too many characters that I didn’t know well yet, for me to make the necessary progress to start empathizing with people. Too much, too soon.
My lack of interest in the story may also have to do with my general inclination towards magic systems that add clarity to the story rather than lessening it. On the spectrum of “fantasy as science” (e.g. Brandon Sanderson’s clearly delineated magic systems) to “fantasy as primordial magic” (e.g. Gandalf’s somewhat unknowable powers), I tend to prefer the former. If I can’t predict what Sister Sable will use her powers to do next, that’s not necessarily a good thing from a story-telling viewpoint. Chaotic, unpredictable magic abilities can certainly shake the story up, but I don’t think they mesh well with a story that itself is already rather chaotic and complicated.
Rating 1 – Skip it.