The Mad Queen

By T. Mountebank

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.

 

The Magister Trilogy

By C. S. Friedman

In Feast of Souls, the first book of the Magister Trilogy, C. S. Friedman introduces a truly novel (to my knowledge, at least) magic system. The imperious and nearly omnipotent Magisters can wield incredible magical abilities, but their powers draw upon the life force of a randomly chosen other individual. As long as they are willing to ignore the fact that their powers literally come at the price of someone’s else’s life, Magisters can use their powers willy-nilly. The only exception to this rule is that when a Magister’s “host” eventually kicks the bucket, the Magister is totally vulnerable for a short period of time.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a writing podcast created by Brandon Sanderson and some colleagues (Writing Excuses), and one of Brandon’s observations that I like a lot is that in fantasy, “the constraints on using magic are more interesting than the magic itself.” That is, we can imagine a character who can overcome every obstacle, effortlessly, with magical powers, but that’s not an interesting story. What is interesting is in seeing a system of rules created, and then watching our protagonist exploit those rules in order to overcome obstacles. In that sense, I think Friedman has a great setup here. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come together.

My main beef with the implementation of Friedman’s characterization of the Magisters is that their whole shtick is about avoiding death (which in practice means being really careful about the circumstances in which they use significant amounts of power). However, early in book one, it becomes clear that an ancient enemy may be re-emerging, which would be a clear threat to the magisters. Nevertheless, Friedman allows virtually all of the magisters to put their heads in the sand, even though some of them were alive the last time this enemy existed, and should be highly aware of this threat. It may seem like a quibble, but it really drew me out of the story, and made it difficult for me to see various characters’ actions as being believably motivated. That’s a dangerous slope, and indeed, I petered out early in book two.

Final analysis? These aren’t bad books by any means, but they didn’t capture and hold my attention.

Rating: 1 – Skip it

 

 

 

His Dark Materials

By Phillip Pullman

In my most recent post, I reviewed Phillip Pullman’s new book, The Book of Dust, which returns us the the world (universe? multi-verse?) of the original trilogy, His Dark Materials. That in turn caused me to detour from my previously scheduled reading list in order to plow through the original trilogy once more (and detouring was particularly difficult, because Brandon Sanderson’s latest epic just came out!).

Consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, the His Dark Materials trilogy was published between 1995 and 2000, and it is a difficult series to describe. On one hand, it definitely spills over into the “young adult” genre (Amazon pegs it as being for those “10 and up”). On the other hand, this is a series just teeming with adult themes (the innocence of children, the fall of man, original sin, a corrupt church, etc.). This is no sugar-laden lullaby of a fantasy story, but rather a thoughtful, cynical adventure that mixes religion, science and morality into potent brew. I admit I had forgotten just how “out there” the story eventually gets; how many children’s stories have you read lately that feature a knife that may or may not be able to kill God? Probably not many.

Part of Pullman’s charm is that he’s able to pull the reader along through a narrative that could easily seem clunky in another author’s hand’s. There must have been ample temptation to over-explain as he painted an increasingly complex story, but instead he’s able to use an almost minimalist style to just add enough detail to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, while keeping his focus on our child protagonists, Lyra and Will. Ultimately, this is a universe (multi-verse, I guess) in which magical, unexplainable things happen, and Pullman asks us to just take that on faith (which is ironic, I guess, given the content of the story). I, for one, was happy to go along for the ride.

Ultimately, this is a trilogy that straddles the line between childhood and adulthood, both in terms of the reading level, and of the story itself. So while I don’t recommend that anyone run out and buy The Golden Compass for their ten year-old, this is a perfect series for an adventure loving teenager with a slightly cynical bent (or for an adventure loving adult with a slightly cynical bent, for that matter). Still not sold? Well did I mention that there are fighting armored bears with opposable thumbs?

If that doesn’t sell you, nothing will!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Book of Dust, The Witches.

 

Sol’s Harvest

By M.D. Presley

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in return for my review. 

This review includes information from book one of this series.

Thus far in this blog’s short lifespan, I’ve resisted book review invitations that came from the authors themselves, mostly because I only have a limited amount of time to read, and would prefer not to spend it reading things that are half-baked. However, I’ve made an exception for The Woven Ring, in part because the author asked nicely, and in part because the book’s Amazon page indicated that it might be worth a shot.

Described as a “fantasy re-imagining of the civil war,” The Woven Ring centers on the character of Marta Childress, one of three children to a powerful and secretive political operator (kind of a spymaster, I guess?). The novel unfolds on two parallel tracks, as the author juxtaposes Marta’s childhood (and later participation in the nation’s civil war) with her more contemporary post-war travails. The use of this narrative device is one of the strongest things about the book, as it functions as a great way of slowly filling out Marta’s backstory, while giving Presley the ability to foster tension in multiple scenarios, rather than being tied to one more linear story-line.

As we discover, Marta (and most of her family members) are among the ranks of the nation’s magic users, which manipulate the substance known as “breath” in order to utilize one of a set of magical abilities (for instance, as a “shaper,” Marta is able to manifest magical weapons and armor). These skills (and her family background) lead Marta to play an important role in the civil war, and much of the book’s suspense comes from waiting to find out exactly how “the old Marta” transforms into “the new Marta” of the modern timeline. (As an aside, the ways that people should, or should not, utilize the power of “breath” seems to be the impetus for the civil war itself.)

As self-publishing grows easier, the line between “professional” and “amateur” work is certainly blurring, which I think is generally a good thing (though it does make choosing each next read a little more challenging). The Woven Ring certainly straddles that line, and as such, there are definitely some instances where the inner editor in me said “oops, there’s something I would have changed” (a few omitted words, and other stuff that’s challenging to catch with a spell checker). While Marta’s character itself is certainly nuanced, several of the other main characters (particularly the bad guys) have a certain cardboard cut-out quality (though there is a revelation towards the end of the book that might help to explain this). I’m also still not sure what to think about Marta’s companions in the modern timeline, who will presumably have their stories fleshed out further in the series’ later books.

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read, and it is certainly an impressive debut! While I wouldn’t put The Woven Ring up against Sanderson and co. just yet, it’s a promising start, and I’m eager to see where Presley takes the series (and lest I appear to be damning it with faint praise, I’d say the same thing about Sanderson’s debut, Elantris). The writing could still use some refinement, so I’m going to stick with the “recommended with reservations” rating, but I’m confident that there’s the potential here for some great stories to come.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Elantris, Blood Song

The Inheritance Trilogy

By N.K. Jemisin

So I’ve taken a mini-break from fantasy/sci-fi in order to read some nonfiction (I’m currently enjoying re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the umpteenth time). But never fear! I have a deep repository of past reads to draw from, so the blog shall march on.

I picked up The Inheritance Trilogy last November, after coming across it in a bookstore in Asheville, NC. At almost 1500 pages, it passed my “Sir Mix-A-Lot” test, and so ended up coming home with me. As the title would imply, the this is actually a collection of three books in one: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of the Gods. The first book introduces us to the city of Sky, the center of the kingdom, which is run by a ruling family who (I’m oversimplifying here) have managed to subjugate the gods who created the world. Our initial protagonist, Yeine, is summoned to Sky from her more rural home, where she is plunged into political machinations, as well as the internecine drama of the gods. Throughout the later books, readers are further introduced to the history which has led to the gods’ downfall, which involves a heavy dose of self-imposed punishment and penance.

I think the word that really resonates with me when I think of this trilogy is “original.” Perhaps not so much in the source material (Jemisin clearly draws on worldly religious traditions and lore), but certainly in the execution and the framing. This is indeed a work of “fantasy,” but one that doesn’t share much similarity to the epics of Jordan, Martin, etc. Instead, we’re treated to a more slow moving, character-based drama. Much of the conflict in the books arises as a result of one character’s determination to do X, even when X is going to make their life more difficult, etc. There’s a dream-like quality to much of the plot, but the story moves along at a brisk enough pace to avoid losing the reader’s interest (most of the time).

I hedge a little on the “most of the time,” because I think the trilogy does lose some steam as it progresses. The first book, IMHO, is the best: we’re still so new to the situation that each new piece of information feels important, and by showing us the city of Sky through Yeine (who is not familiar with it), Jemisin gives herself an easy method of slowly revealing the larger story to us. I still enjoyed book two quite a bit, though it seemed to get a little bogged down in the relationship between some of the primary gods (though to be fair, their relationship is kind of the crux of the story). By book three, I felt like things had slowed down considerably, and my interest definitely waned.

To recap: this is a long, dreamy fantasy trilogy that is a significant step away from more traditional fantasy world-building. The conflict tends to be emotional and interpersonal – there’s little explicit combat. Instead, Jemisin poses a whole new set of questions: what would it mean to fall in love with a god? What would it be like to be a mortal, made into a god? What about being a god, made into a mortal? How would one cope?

If those sorts of questions interest you, give this a shot. If your tastes run more towards “swords and sorcery,” you may want to give this one a pass.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations.

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Assassin’s Apprentice, The Name of the Wind.

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, Book 3)

By Ann Leckie

In most book series, and particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy genres, the narrative universe tends to grow and expand with each new book. It’s a rare series that narrows in focus over time, and off the top of my head, I can’t recall another sci-fi “space opera” type that fits that descriptor, with the notable exception of Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which concludes with Ancillary Mercy.

As blog readers will recall, I found the series’ initial installment, Ancillary Justice, to be a show-stopper. I loved the flashbacks to Breq’s former existence as a multi-bodied AI, and found the universe of the Radch to be both mysterious and intriguing. Like many other authors before her, however, Leckie seemed to struggle a bit with the “middle” book of the series (Ancillary Sword) which seemed a bit slow and myopic compared to book one.

Book three picks up just where book two had left off, with Breq continuing to try to maintain control of the Athoek system, and opposing the machinations of the many-bodied ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. But like book two, much of the actual narrative of the book is devoted to Breq’s relationships, both to the members of her crew, and to the inhabitants of Athoek. (I notice that one of the prominent Amazon reviews refers to the book as being more “soap opera” than “space opera,” and I’m inclined to agree.) While I’m not normally a fan of that kind of narrative (it’s part of what I didn’t love about Cherryh’s Morgaine books), I think Leckie does an admirable job of tugging on the readers’ sympathies. Even as the pace slowed in books two and three, I found myself rooting hard for Breq, even as I occasionally reminded myself that Breq was an android (sort of).

Unfortunately, while the narrowing of scope does allow for some increased attention on the characters’ emotional state, it doesn’t help with the overall arc of the story, which seems underdeveloped. As in book two, Ancillary Mercy’s conclusion seems rushed and unsatisfying, and I thought Leckie’s resolution re. Anaander Mianaai felt forced. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but it suffers in comparison to book one, which is unfortunate.

Final analysis: if you’ve gotten through book two, by all means, finish the series. Though I thought books two and three represented a step down from the start of the series, I was never tempted to stop reading, and I would happily read future stories about the Radch. If you don’t mind a little “soap opera” mixed in with your “space opera,” this could be the series for you!

Rating 2- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoyA Fire Upon the DeepHouse of Suns.

 

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, Book 2)

By Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice, book one of the Imperial Radch series, is a tough act to follow. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start! Leckie’s initial foray into the world of the Radch was truly innovative, and not just because of her unusual treatment of gender (see my book one review for more details).

In book two (*spoiler alert*), the story re-centers on Breq (formerly the ship known as Justice of Toren, and now an AI installed in a single human body), in the slightly implausible position of having been appointed captain of her own ship. Breq, like the rest of Radch civilization, finds herself caught up in a conflict inspired by Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch. With her newfound ship, Breq travels to the planet Athoek, where she is determined to right past wrongs, and to resist the influence of Anaander Mianaai.

If you peruse other reviews of the book, you’re likely to see people argue that Ancillary Sword suffers from “second act” syndrome, insofar as it lacks the initial punch of book one, and doesn’t offer the satisfying conclusion typically associated with a series finale. I’m not going to argue differently. The scale of the book is much smaller than that of Ancillary Justice, in particular because we are given no more of the flashbacks into Justice of Toren‘s past, which constituted a lot of the appeal of the first book. The events of book two are restricted to a relatively short period of time (a year, maybe?), and while (presumably) there is a lot going on elsewhere in Radch space, we never get to see or hear about it.

In classic “second act” fashion, the book doesn’t finish with a bang, but rather sets the stage for book three. The conclusion felt a bit rushed to me, though that could have been because my kindle kept reassuring me that I had 10% more book left (appendix and excerpts from other books… boo.).

With all that said, do I regret reading the book? Not at all. While it may not be as strong as book one, I was still eager to read more about the Radch, and even though Breq’s character might not seem as nuanced as it was in book one, I still found myself rooting hard for her. I also really enjoyed the interplay between Breq and her ship, as both settle into an unusual relationship of “AI captain in charge of AI ship.”

So here’s my take: if you read Ancillary Justice and enjoyed it, there’s no reason not to continue with the series. If, however, you tried book one and weren’t blown away, it’s unlikely that book two will win you back.

Rating: 2- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, House of Suns