varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-10-19 10:46 pm

Leigh Bardugo: Six of Crows


I encountered Leigh Bardugo and the first part in her trilogy by being invited to a YA book club meeting to discuss the book.

During my teenage and young adult years I read a lot, thanks to the excellent Finnish library system, although I never really had the concept of YA as a separate genre. Perhaps it's because there are so many memories from my formative years, or perhaps because there are many tremendously strong fantasy and urban fantasy authors that publish under the YA pigeon-hole that I quite often find myself reading works from that section of the bookstore.

This book club is being sponsored by Inkwood, a local brick-and-mortar (or rather restored bungalow) independent bookstore, and I actually ventured there to purchase the hardcover version of the book. It's been quite a while since my last visit to a bookstore; much like libraries, they're magical and wonderful places. The visit left me very conflicted. I absolutely do want to preserve the magic there is in these places, but having to drive forty minutes through rush hour to a store with limited hours to purchase a book at more than twice the cost of a Kindle version... I wish I knew how to make the economics work.

In the case of Six of Crows, though, the hardcover is worth the price. The book is wonderful. I was going to make some comment about separating the physical form of the book from the content, but then I realized doing so really wouldn't be fair; the presence and quality of the book in my hands absolutely contributed to the reading experience.
The book itself was good. Not great, but good. The basic structure is a number of street urchins from a fictitious medieval world banding together for a goal that promises them all which ever kind of dreams or hopes they have. There are strong influences from medieval Dutch, Scandinavian and Venetian trade empires, coming together in a fairly distinctive and original setting.
The story is told in chronological order with interspersed chapters of the history of the various characters. The prose is good, and the pacing is solid. Unfortunately, once again, something triggered my feeling that the book was too carefully planned and put together. I can't quite put my finger on it, as we find out things in a nice, measured, balanced way, the characters complement each other and work well, but something just feels too artificial and missing an organic soul.

Nevertheless, there's enough depth in the plot and the web of relationships, a lot of exploration of self-worth, finding oneself and balancing of conflicting priorities.
As befits a set of youth trying to eke out a living in a ruthless world, things aren't nice. The characters all have various traumatic pasts, and even the actual story gets pretty grisly at times. YA certainly doesn't mean PG-rated by any means.
I completely missed the mention of it being a part of a trilogy, so the ending that leaves a fair bit of things hanging was a tad jarring; be aware that getting into this series likely requires commitment of three books.


Four out of five, with a bonus half point for the gorgeous presentation.



varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-10-11 05:29 pm

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3)

This contains some possible spoilers of the previous two books.

Brief recap of the concept and some of the tech assumptions of Leckie's world: AI exists, humans can have implants that allow them to communicate with, or be completely controlled by said AI, war ships have a number of such humans, called ancillaries, at their disposal; they're individual intelligences and consciousnesses, but synchronized as parts of a greater whole. There's an interstellar empire that is keeping peace by conquest, ruled by one apparently immortal empress. A few alien races exist, but they're alien, and generally keep to themselves as do the humans.

The protagonist is one of these ancillaries; after the destruction of her ship, her part of the AI is all that remained. While this book plot-wise can largely stand on its own, it really should be read as part of the trilogy, since the protagonist's nature and relation to her crew are otherwise left less explored than it should. Notably, the use of gendered pronouns when referring to an artificial intelligence was intentionally muddied in the first book; by this third volume any assumptions of the accuracy, relevance or meaning of sex or gender should not be taken at face value.

The plot continues from where it left off at the second book — the empress consists of multiple clones, and they've unsychronized and are now waging war amongst themselves. The premise is dicy: arguably the current system of rule isn't perfect and might makes right instinctively doesn't sit well with the reader or the protagonist, but even beyond that all the loyal subjects of the empire are asked to pick a side, even when they just want to be loyal to the concept or system, and since all the sides are supposedly the legitimate authority, the choice is impossible.

We learn more about the Presger aliens, and this is generally that they are alien. Leckie does a good job at making aliens, their behavior and motives alien.

The themes familiar from the previous works continue here — trying to find the right choice, trying to decide what is just, navigating class and religion and fallible and imperfect people, as well as exploring the nature of the AIs in more depth. Between the three books concepts such as identity, self-determination, end justifying the means, ones responsibility to oneself and others are pretty well examined.

There's action as well, and the novel works well as space opera, but the added aspects really elevate the entire series a notch above even good space opera.

The pacing is good, the prose competent — while it might not be most elaborate writing on its surface, there's a clear level of consideration that has gone into it.

Four out of five

While this "concludes the trilogy," there's room for future exploration of the universe, and I'd definitely welcome it.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-10-11 04:58 pm

Tanya Huff: An Ancient Peace (The Confederation of Valor #6, Peacekeeper #1)

While this novel is oddly part of two series, continuing the adventures of gunnery sergeant Torin Kerr of the Confederation Marines, it can stand on its own as well, as the setting is pretty familiar science fiction trope territory.

The genre is space opera on an individual scale; the action isn't space fleet battles as much as boots on the ground in the dirt. It's feel-good pop-corn reading; the eminently competent sergeant Kerr is thrown into any number of dicy situations and manages to get herself and most of her people back out of them, showing integrity and honor and all the romanticized values of a military in the process.

The above shouldn't be taken to imply this book isn't good. Ms. Huff continues to deliver the tropy feel-good romp with great skill. Everything is just a notch above what one would expect: the characters, while by no means deep, are interesting and sympathetic and different; the world building feels natural; while the protagonist manages to overcome the plot challenges elegantly enough to satisfy Hollywood sensibilities, a lot of politics and morality and big picture setting somehow still manages to come through.

The basic plot: A group of grave robbers are about to unearth ancient weapons from one of the Elder Races, and it's up to Kerr and her no-longer-marines company to stop them before their actions can cause another war. The plot pacing isn't perfect; a lot of the book is a dungeon crawl with one group following the other, and consequently covering some of the same ground. While this allows for comparison between the motivations of the two groups it still felt a bit annoying. The story follows multiple viewpoints as needed in chronological order, and it flows very naturally. The prose is good, albeit not extraordinary.

In summary — if you want a competent, tough-but-good idealized version of a space marine leading a motley crew of races on a romp for justice, this is a book for you.

Three and a half out of five.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-10-05 09:30 pm

Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires 1)

Jim Butcher does steampunk.

Oh, I'm supposed to say more? Fine.

Mr. Butcher can produce great, fun stories that are a step above the average disposable urban fantasy (in the case of the Dresden Files), although his foray into actual fantasy (Codex Alera) appealed to me considerably less.

In this case the setting is interesting — humanity lives in huge spires, the surface of the planet is too dangerous to venture on, ether technology and power allows for all kinds of things, including flight, and trade, war and privacy happens via ships powered by crystals and ethersilk sails, and iron and steel rot quickly and are an unreliable basis for machines, and cats can talk. There is a tremendous amount of mystery about why things are the way they are, and I'm pretty sure that it'll be a major plot point moving forward.

The book introduces a cast of characters from various backgrounds and interests, and there isn't a clear single protagonist. The plot, instead, begins to craft a team of the various characters, and lies a groundwork for higher adventure.

While the novel is clearly a way to set up for another series, it stands well enough on its own, and doesn't feel like it sacrifices too much for being a pilot episode.

The characters and setting are good, and I found myself wishing I could see the visuals Butcher may have had in mind for many of them. The absolutely biggest shortcoming of the work is unfortunately the prose. It sounds like the first attempt to speak at a steampunk RPG or convention, mixing overly polite and proper archaic English with modern enough concepts and an alien setting. He doesn't take it nearly as much over the top as some others (Gail Carriger, I'm looking at you), and to me it just always felt annoyingly tentative. I either got used to it or he figured out the style towards the end of the book, though.

The plot, once it starts rolling, is heavy on action, and here Butcher has struck a much better balance between describing cinematic battles and not getting carried away than he did with Codex Alera, and I found myself enjoying the fights, which is not too often the case. Of course, perhaps as part of the genre, the outcomes are about as predictable as anything on primetime TV.

In summary, I enjoyed the romp a lot more than I really ought to have, and will be keeping an eye out for the next installment.

Three out of five, at least half of those being for just sheer fun.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-10-05 09:13 pm

Holly Black: Red Glove and Black Heart (Curse Workers 2 & 3)

Since I quite liked Holly Black's first Curse Workers installment, I went ahead and read the rest of the series. All the things I liked about the first volume continued to work on the next two, and if anything they got better. The magic and abilities are present in the world, but mostly in the way it shapes society and interactions, and are very rarely actually used.
The clear strength of the series are the relationships between its characters. A mother who means well but is dramatically inconsiderate, siblings who have their own motivations, and friends who have their own problems.
It's very refreshing to not have simple Mary Sue / Marty Stu settings, or unnecessarily dramatized relationships. The protagonist's friends will be unhappy if they're not treated well, but nobody will cut off ties for a single slight of some kind. Everyone has their own motivations, and occasionally they're unrelated, occasionally they coincide with those of others, and occasionally they're in conflict, and the character will have to make value judgments, just like real life.
The pacing is generally good; the books aren't the most action-packed thing out there, but they easily held my interest. The love interest plot is devilishly complicated and clever in its set-up, and as some other situations, the protagonist is faced with multiple choices, all seemingly less than ideal.
The first book is readable on its own, the next two do better as part of the full trifecta.
Four and a half out of five for the whole enchilada.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-09-20 01:11 pm

Holly Black: White Cat (Curse Workers 1)

I've had a few false starts with books recently, where the book I started just doesn't manage to keep my interest even to the point of wanting to finish it. It was therefore a welcome change to pick up Black's White Cat and get promptly sucked into the story.

The setting is mild urban fantasy / alternative history. Magic exists, but very few people can do it, and the magic is hexes where witches (or curse workers) can shift someone's emotions, dreams, etc.

I'm not sure whether this book falls under the umbrella of Young Adult literature, but I don't think it matters; the characters, their relationships and problems are just as applicable to YA readers as to anyone else.

It's those relationships and characters that make this book so great. Everything feels new and original and fantastic and not like just another fast food version of a literary adventure. Things are complicated, the way they can be in real life, everyone's flawed, and there is not really black and white.

The pacing isn't perfect: the story spends some time with us getting to know the protagonist and the demons haunting him, but once the plot kicks into gear it doesn't let go and I finished the book in a single sitting.

This isn't popcorn reading. There will be complicated emotions and bittersweetness, but it's well worth it. This is the kind of book that makes me happy for having read it, and wanting me to recommend it heartily.

Holly Black is often mentioned in conjunction with Neil Gaiman, and as much as I hate to go that route, I think this novel clearly shows why.


Four and a half out of five.

varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-09-13 11:29 am

Refugees

At work we recently took a personality test to find our strengths. One of my results suggested that I leverage my ability to foresee problems in projects to prevent roadblocks from arising later. I found this a very sweet way of saying my glass is half empty. Regardless, I keep thinking of this as I watch the Syrian refugee crisis unfold.

The Guardian published a collection of some very eloquent opinions on the current state of the crisis, well worth a read even if you might not agree with the authors.

The Middle East and North Africa is a mess. This isn't new. Outside meddling there isn't new. Not interceding in atrocities isn't new, and the difficulty of figuring out how to intercede even if the international legal framework and domestic political will exists isn't new either. Much has been written about that, and since I have no constructive additions to offer on "save Syria by following these easy steps!" I shan't add to it.

The whole situation where the wealthy central and norther European countries can act as a shining beacon of all that is good while relying on the poor southern European countries to keep out and house the riff-raff is offensively hypocritical. Europe and the rest of the Westernized wealthy world needs to get their act together and distribute and relocate refugees humanely and proportionately, and at the very least provide concrete support to the border countries who have to bear the load currently. If I was fleeing a war-torn region and I was given a choice to relocate to Romania or France to make a new life, you bet I'd have a preference. At the same time, those border countries, poor as they may be, need to be clearly held accountable to common standards of decency and human rights. But none of that is news either.

Instead I'll go into some musings about the refugees.

When I say refugee, I mean a person fleeing conditions that any sane person would flee from. Consequently, the line between refugee (poor innocent family escaping a bombed-to-rubble city) and an ambitious young person who wants to make something of themselves (economic migrant) is much blurrier than we pretend it is. A snarky comment to illustrate the bias in language: A Westernized country is one that takes immigrants sends expatriates. One of the Guardian essays made the point that the only way to guarantee that foreigners don't want to come to your country is to make your country one that you wouldn't want to live in -- i.e. as long as your country is nice, people want to come there.

Not only is the line blurry, there's little real way to determine who's what. When an individual shows up at your border with no papers, how do you tell whether they want to live in a rich country, or whether they fear for their life, or whether they're there to wage religious war? How do you even tell who they really are? Yes, of course some investigation can be done if you can spare competent detectives and great resources, but in reality that's not feasible. What many countries have consequently done is to subject people claiming refugee status to treatment sufficiently unpleasant that only those who really fear for their lives would put up with it. That, of course, is absurd and inhumane.

I'm heartened by the warmth and welcome and humanity people in Central Europe have shown in welcoming refugees. As much of a realist as I occasionally am, in my dealings with individual people I tend to find humanity to be, on a family-level, good and generous. What bothers me about the scenes of Germans welcoming refugees with such warmth is the sustainability of the feel-good tide. I hope I'm wrong in fearing that people have a romantic notion of welcoming poor huddled families who will be grateful and make no fuss and quietly settle into a proper Western lifestyle.

While many of the refugees are educated and young and liberal, many may have very alien cultural and religious norms and practices. Many are deeply traumatized and are in desperate need of intensive psychological counseling and treatment. They may be human, with all the foibles and irrationalities that implies. They may also just be jerks. What I want to see is that people realize this; that there's a responsibility that comes with accepting people into your society and that responsibility is much more complex and deep than just giving them housing and food. What I want to see is that people understand this, and show warmth and generosity and acceptance even when those refugees do not act the way we expect them to. I want to see this because the alternatives are ugly; they're firebombing of refugee centers, they're ostracizing refugees into permanent second-class citizen status, and they're watching as desperate people drown at your borders. I desperately want any country and society I'm part of to be better than that.

If you're interested about the scale -- about twice the population of Finland has fled just from Syria alone, never mind all the other conflicts in the region -- NPR has a good summary.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-09-02 08:39 pm

Convention Fever

Years and years ago I went frequently to science fiction and fantasy conventions with my friends, and had a good time. This was during a time when digital SLRs were uncommon, and being at a convention with a good camera, not sucking at taking photos, and sharing them online was nice because not too many people were doing it. You got instant street cred just for having a nice camera.

Years went by, my circle of friends changed, everyone and their cousin got impressive cameras and bigger flashes, and started to aggressively take photos of people in costumes at conventions. Trying to compete of a costumer's attention, and taking duplicate shots of the same costumes really weren't something that brought me a lot of enjoyment. Since both of my main reasons for going to conventions had gone away, I largely quit.


Fast forward half a decade, and I was successfully tempted to visit another local convention, MegaCon. I had made some acquaintances at wonderful local interactive theater events, and many of them were at the convention. Even if I wasn't in their social circles per se, I had been asked to take some photos, so I again had a reason to go.

Many things changed over the last half decade. Anime conventions have exploded in popularity, and with all the superhero movies conventions and costuming have become mainstream. Even my coworkers who have no interest in these kinds of things now have children who do. Facebook, despite its tragic image quality, has transformed the way people share and interact with photos. Getting comments, feedback, having people set a shot as their profile picture is rather nice for a photographer's ego. Being able to easily share, comment and tag people on a platform the majority of people use has made pictures more accessible again, and greatly increased the likelihood that the costumers will find the images I've taken of them.

Instead of the three or four conventions of a decade ago, the Southeast, and Central Florida in particular, nowadays has an amazingly vibrant con-scene, and many of the specific anime or gaming conventions have become more welcoming of other costumes and fandoms.

There's a definite energy at conventions; people displaying their skill and passions and being social, bonding over common interests. I'm still waffling between the utility of being just one more person taking photos of people in hallways and the joy of photography and the enjoyment people get out of them, and the occasional chance to grab better shots.

For now, I printed some cards, I've packed my bags for DragonCon, and I will see what comes.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-08-30 06:07 pm

M. L. Brennan: Tainted Blood (Generation V)

I started to read this series because of the kitsune deuteragonist, and I had some quibbles with the first two books. Many of them are still present in this third installment: the main character is annoyingly dim-witted and oblivious at times and the plot, while well paced and reasonably complex etc. seems like it came from a "how to write a good noir PI story in 57 easy steps," just somehow a bit too planned and clinical. I couldn't begin to say why a properly executed and planned plot bothers me.

What the third installment has going for it, in addition to the kitsune and the decent murder mystery, is the vampire aspect. The way the novel addresses the practicalities of its vampires, and the protagonist has to confront what he is and what he will have to do to survive was wonderfully refreshing.

There is some repetitive introductory material, presumably for people who want to start from the third installment. Otherwise, the storytelling has improved a bit from the previous two installments, and the book is fine pop-corn reading. Sufficiently so that I actually am about to buy the next installment.

Three and a half out of five, with an extra fox star.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-08-25 09:26 pm

M.L. Brennan: Generation V (Generation V)

I started to read M. L. Brennan's urban fantasy series because of a post TOR made regarding a major kitsune character.

The basic premise is pretty usual fare; there are vampires, kitsune, witches, sidhe and other legendary/supernatural creatures. The main character is a fresh vampire trying to survive as a minimum-wage barista with a film degree. He ends up with a competent, beautiful, and tricksy kitsune bodyguard.

The bad: the author is trying to sound authoritative about things they don't really know, like firearms. The main character is, on purpose, a wet noodle; judging by the way the second book is going, this is so character growth can happen. Regardless, it rubbed me the wrong way. The worse feature is that he's not exactly the brightest crayon in the box, and things that are clearly telegraphed to the reader as well as other characters completely go past him and make me want to slap some sense into him.

The OK: the plot is competent; in some ways too competent. Somehow it seems like a carefully crafted construct, with all the necessary conflicts and expositional components rather than an organic story. The cast of characters is of reasonable size has promise. The prose is competent, with a smattering of unusual words thrown in.

The good: So far, the kitsune are awesome. I'm not convinced that he author is particularly knowledgeable about Japanese culture or mythology, and the major character is pure fan service, but even so the trickster nature of the kitsune comes through wonderfully. The book reads well, and is very engaging popcorn reading.

Three out of five, with an extra star for foxes.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-07-12 09:24 pm

Elizabeth Bear: New Amsterdam Series

Here be a list of some nifty vampire novels:

  1. New Amsterdam
  2. Seven for a Secret
  3. The White City
  4. Ad Eternum
  5. Garrett Investigates


Elizabeth Bear does vampires and steampunk. Enough said.


Okay, I'll say more. The series consists of several novels and one collection of novellas, following generally the same set of protagonists. Aside from being alternative history whodunnits, they play with the idea of what the immortality of a vampire means in the context of friendship and love with mortals. One of the main draws to me in the series definitely was the way in which Ms. Bear gives some of these themes more than the usual lip service.


The series jumps around in time a bit, and we get to see the same protagonists in several periods along their lives, and as the world changes around them. The narrative choices are well done, although I have to admit that the series leaves me wanting more, and there certainly is plenty material in the world and set of characters for countless more books. Bear's web site suggests none are planned, but doesn't exclude the possibility.


There is tragedy, but overall the stories are light enough to remain enjoyable. The prose is throughout competent, although not amazingly exceptional, the pacing is nice and the characters are interesting. Overall this was a pretty refreshing series, so I'll give it four out of five.

varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-07-12 08:56 pm

Lynn Flewelling: Nightrunner Series

I've been working my way through Lynn Flewelling's Nigthrunner series, so far:

  1. Luck in the Shadows
  2. Stalking Darkness
  3. Traitor's Moon
  4. Glimpses
  5. Shadows Return
  6. The White Road
  7. Casket of Souls
  8. Shards Of Time (Reading)


I didn't see Glimpses listed in the Amazon list of books (and I'm again completely baffled as to why the publisher, author or Amazon won't clearly mark the order of books in a series), and I skipped Shadows Return based on reviews which suggested it was just too heavy on misery and torture for my tastes.


Warning, mild spoilers ahead.


The series is your typically tropy high fantasy setting; there's a good kingdom with good rulers, and noble wizards, and magic, and brave warriors and all the other goodies. What was mentioned from the outset in the series was that the two romantically involved main characters are both male, but I'd say the whole romance and relationship aspect is done so well that it really doesn't matter. They deal with it for the first couple of books, then decide they're OK and have a perfectly fine and healthy relationship past that, which to me is wonderful.


At one point in one of the first books, though, there's a brief sexual encounter which, at least to modern sensibilities, crosses over to the Bill Cosby side of the fence, but that is never really explored, and left me bothered a bit.


The protagonists are on the scouting / thieving side of things, which I tend to like. Overall, the cast of characters is interesting, and while there is no amazing depth to any of them, they're serviceable. There's also a slightly longer than usual timescale, and over the seven books the series follows, for example, some children growing up and establishing themselves.


The writing's a bit uneven within and between the books. At times it seems like the author couldn't quite figure out what she wanted to do, and never really went back and cleaned up the style of narrative she had produced. The vocabulary has a lot of gems when referring to specific items and things, but is otherwise pretty decent. Overall a pleasant read, though it can get a bit dark at times.


The books stand on their own plot-wise within a larger story arc, although you really do want to read the series in order, as picking up a later book would leave out a lot of backstory and character development.


In summary, a nice entertainment fantasy series to be enjoyed with a bowl of popcorn. Three out of five.

varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-03-15 09:22 pm

Patricia Briggs: Dead Heat (Alpha and Omega 4)

Patricia Briggs is one of those authors that I preorder, and if it's a book she's written I haven't read I'll buy it without any further thought. Not because her books are amazing literature, but they are among my favorites in popcorn reading, with interesting characters, a world, and well-paced plots.

That being said, of all her books I tend to like the Alpha and Omega stories the least, and while I haven't quite identified why that is (since they share the world and to some extent characters from my favorite series of hers with Mercy Thompson), the pattern unfortunately still holds.

The setting is your typical urban fantasy, our world except with fae, werewolves, vampires and the like. The plot is that there's a fae doing nasty things to children, and our protagonist couple has to save the day.

The pacing is weird, and while the book does wrap up this particular story, the whole affair felt unfinished. I am still not fond of the protagonists, and the longer story arch about werewolf babies does not resonate with me at all.

On the upside, since this world is shared with the Mercy Thompson series and takes place at the same time, it's obvious that this ties in with some larger meta-plot regarding the fae, so it may be of moderate interest in that respect.

Two and a half out of five.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-03-07 04:08 pm

Rachel Aaron: The Legend of Eli Monpress

Under another recommendation I just went through the first four books of The Legend of Eli Monpress.

The setting is a medieval-ish fantasy world with magic and (un)surprisingly modern and North American morals and customs, so pretty standard fare. The magic is interesting, in that everything is based on manipulating the spirits that inhabit things; you either con, force or negotiate them into doing things you want them to do.

The titular main character, Eli Monpress, is the greatest thief in the world, or at least he wants to be. He and his two sidekicks wander the lands, and while ostensibly stealing things for their own reasons, end up generally doing a lot more good than bad. Then there are their enemies, or in some cases frenemies, similarly motivated by their ideals, and of course a few caricatured villain or two bent on destruction. That being said, at least a few of the antagonists actually have pretty decent motivations, even if no characters are really all that deep.

The most significant drawbacks are the Marty Stu aspects, and how conveniently everyone always ends up in the same place at the same time, or has rather unlikely connections. They also introduce a number of metaphysical aspects that will become relevant later.

On the upside, the first three books which can be purchased as an omnibus edition, are actually quite passable pop-corn reading in the vein of a good high-energy caper tale. The effortless prose, clever events and interesting characters make up for the shortcomings, and I'll give them a three and a half out of five. I found them more enjoyable than Nice Dragons Finish Last; Ms. Aaron does not do self-pitying characters well.

The fourth book, The Spirit War, takes the world and begins to go further into the level of gods and creation and total war. While I appreciate the unique and interesting way the world is set up, and the many questions that are raised about how it came to be what it is, it just did not flow nearly as well as the previous three books. Where they made me stay up a bit too late, and insisted I carry them with me to dinner, this become at times almost a bit of a chore. The plot was just not as interesting, despite being a lot more significant, and when very powerful beings begin to use their powers in the context of war, it just always seems like the people getting killed, maimed and destruction is just a backdrop, and that does not sit well with me. The book ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, although the primary threat to the world will get resolved in the end. I'm not sure whether I'll pick up the next book. Two out of five.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2015-01-19 09:56 pm

Marko Kloos: Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure (Frontlines Series)

The setting of the Frontline series, so far, has been good old military space opera. Earth is overcrowded, has started to colonize other worlds, North America is at a conflict with the Sino-Russian alliance, and the protagonist enlists in the military to get out of poverty, hopelessness and public housing, and prove himself.

The first novel progresses quite slowly, and it's way past the half-way mark before the plot has progressed past basic training.

The writing style is fairly distinctive, present tense and first person, and reads a bit like a diary or narration. The result isn't the best prose, and there's a distinct lack of structure to the story. Being old-fashioned space opera, there's plenty of military jargon and gear porn. Some aspects of physics, like FTL communications, seem to randomly appear and disappear, and there are a few other niggles with fundamental science, but in general it sounds like Mr. Kloos has a decent grasp of the military, weapons and science. By the end of the second book, very little if any really original content in world-building has been presented.

The first novel ends properly, rather than at a cliff-hanger, although the larger story arc is only started. The second novel picks up a good while after the first one, and the intervening events are briefly summarized. The structure and prose are largely the same as those of the first installment, so you're not left hanging and waiting for the next novel.

While the events are dramatic and exciting, generally everything goes well for the protagonist, and competency is rewarded, and this adds to the journal-style, where eventually you expect that things will work out. The characters never gain much depth. At the end of the day, the first two books can be summarized as daydream material for teenagers that want uncomplicated relationships and shiny military hardware and space ships.

The setting does introduce a number of issues on the role of the military and social organization etc. but in these respects the books don't have much substance either. The protagonist reflects on some of the issues, but it all comes across as very academic and clean, rather than as experiences that shape an individual.

Despite all of these shortcomings, the books are actually surprisingly readable and great popcorn entertainment. They're also affordable as Kindle versions.

Three out of five.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2014-10-22 10:56 pm

Ilona Andrews: Magic Burns

A good while back I read the first book, Magic Bites in Andrews's Kate Daniels series of Magic verb books. I was not too overly impressed, it seemed like just another one of the endless stream of paranormal romance novels flooding the market. However, some friends recently strongly suggested I give the series another try, so I did.

The second book in the series, Magic Burns is better, and I enjoyed it a fair bit. It still has a lot of the tropes of the genre and a fair bit of convenient coincidences, and frankly the plot was like something out of a SyFy movie — but for some reason it just worked for me. Perhaps I was in a more receptive mood, perhaps I don't remember the first book as well, but I'd say that Ms. Andrews has clearly improved as a writer between the first and second installments.

The setting is an alternate near future; magic has returned to earth, and magical creatures have reawakened. In some ways the semi-post-apocalyptic setting reminds me of Kim Harrison's Hollows series, and having a magic-user protagonist only adds to the comparison. Harrison has better secondary characters, but Andrews's protagonist doesn't constantly elicit the urge to yell at her.

As to the plot, the stakes are high, the action is constant, and overall the read was a good romp that was more enjoyable than it really should've been. I'll likely keep following the series.

Three and a half.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2014-10-22 10:36 pm

Patricia Briggs: Night Broken

I'm a big fan of Patricia Briggs, and I'm willing to buy pretty much anything she's released because I've always enjoyed the read. Her books are entertainment, perhaps not the deepest or best of literature, but fun. The Mercy Thompson series has been one of my favorites in the paranormal or urban fantasy genres, so my expectations were pretty much set for the eight book in the series. Unfortunately Night Broken fell short of my expectations. Mercy is running the show, and everyone else just sort of tags along and has little agency of their own — in that respect it reminded me a little of the McGuire's October Day series. Not only that, but the pacing and structure of the story was off; the final resolution was almost anticlimactic and then the book just ends. There is also another plot arch with a romantic rival of sorts that I assume will develop over the upcoming releases, but here it's just set up and then doesn't do anything. The prose is competent and pleasant to read as always, but the book being largely a one-woman show with a dubious and not entirely satisfying plot left me a bit cold. Two and a half stars.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2014-10-15 09:42 pm

Rachel Aaron: Nice Dragons Finish Last

This book was another Amazon recommendation. The setting is alternative future urban fantasy: magic has returned to earth, and a lot of mythological creatures have awakened from their slumber and have re-arranged some of our way of life and cities to be more to their liking.

The origin story is a bit weak, and it's quickly glossed over; otherwise the world seems pretty standard urban fantasy fare with monsters, dragons, fae, vampires, nature spirits and humans working magic. In her other books Ms. Aaron is known for world-building, though, so there may be a bit more to the world than meets the eye.

The protagonist is a young dragon that has been cursed to remain in human form until he can prove himself. This is because he's a Nice Guy and doesn't live up to draconic greed and ruthlesness. Luckily he meets a girl that appreciates him for his inner chivalry and things go from there.

The setup sounds cliche-laden and saccharine, and some of the self-pity-parties and teenage romance were over the top. The protagonist is supposedly 24 years old, but his behavior would befit a teenager. I'm hoping that at least some of it is intentional, and there's more interesting character development to come.

My reason for optimism here is the plot. As it progresses, more and more layers and underpinning machinations are revealed, and I was fairly impressed by the end. The dynamics of the protagonist and his love interest, aside from the Marty-Stuisms, are both fanservice and yet unexpectedly refreshing in that the girl appears to be the more ruthless and morally flexible half of the couple.

The prose is decent, but not excellent or particularly noteworthy, the pacing is good, and the plotting is competent with some nice hints of future things to come. Some of the plot seems like it's a "starter adventure" to introduce the characters and setting and the actual events are secondary to the ultimate goal, but seeing good intentions and cleverness win out over brute strength is nonetheless pleasing.

In summary, the characters are neat once you get over the excessive timidity of the protagonist, the plot is kind of clever, and there is plenty to hint at interesting future installments. Here the sum is greater than its parts, and I enjoyed the read a fair bit and will pick up the next volume once it's out.

Three out of five.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2014-08-24 08:41 pm

Steven Brust: Vlad Taltos series.

By the recommendation of a coworker, I started to read Steven Brusts's series of fantasy novels, known either as the Jhereg series (from the first book and the mafia-like organization in the books), Vlad Taltos series (based on its protagonist), or The Dragaeran books, though that term encompasses some others as well.



The first thing I should mention is that I think this series absolutely deserves to be thought of as one of the major fantasy series helping to define the genre. The second is that in many aspects it's a bit different from most other series I've read.



The books have been written over two decades and several more are planned. Wikipedia informs me that many aspects of the books have been influenced directly by events in the author's own life; notably the storyline with Vlad's wife, which I had been planning to mention as a wonderful example of a rich, complex relationship that does not feel like it follows the usual norm one expects in literature.



The setting is a fantasy world with magic, monsters, artifacts, gods and a typical low-technology idealized semi-feudal middle-ages social organization. The main character is, as far as we can tell, human. In a slight twist, the majority of characters however aren't; as far as we can tell they're close to the fantasy archetype of elves — who of course consider themselves "human" and the humans to be something lesser.



There are several houses or clans of elves, each of which has personality characteristic of an animal, either mythological or real — though almost all the "real" animals are still unique to this setting. In this respect it reminded me a bit of the Legend of the Five Rings role playing game.



The main character starts off as a minor boss / assassin in a criminal organization, though he also possesses some magic of his own. There is certainly moral ambiguity, and whether the protagonist is a good person or not is immediately apparent.



The series follows the same set of characters, but not in a strictly chronological order. Indeed one of the noteworthy aspects of the series is how skillfully Brust jumps around in Vlad's timeline, filling in events hinted at in previous books, or surprising us with a setting far in the future, and making us wonder how he got there.



The same skill with jump-cuts is also applied within the books themselves, which tend to interleave events and scenes, but do them in such a way that it adds to the story rather than seeming like an artificial storytelling device. For example, in Dragon, a military battle, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath all alternate. In one of the books one of the alternating narratives switches to two of the women in Vlad's life discussing his actions that are being covered in the book.



Finally, the style and approach varies from book to book. Sometimes the next book in the series picks up exactly from where the previous one left off, sometimes the next book jumps far away in time. Whether a book is high fantasy, a mystery story, military fantasy or something else also changes from book to book, as do the storytelling devices used. Not every book uses the same alternating narrative devices or the same way. As a consequence I like some books more than others; the aforementioned Dragon is likely my least favorite, but otherwise they've all been eminently readable and gripping.



The books are written from the narrative viewpoint of Vlad; he has a familiar with whom he is mentally linked, and aside from being amazingly useful, it affords a very powerful and constantly utilized way to add levity, exposition and and an excuse to voice Vlad's thoughts.



What the series isn't is high brow literature. There are aspects to the dialogue, plot and setting that clearly are intended to be humorous and almost meta, relying on our modern sensibilities and knowledge of our own world, rather than remaining an completely and utterly isolated treatment of a fantasy world. Perhaps this annoys some of you, for me it was sufficiently unobtrusive and worthwhile that it added to my enjoyment of the books. Brust also places some affectations on his character, primarily the indulgent descriptions and concentration on foods.



The prose is good; not amazing and lyrical like Patrick Rothfuss, but the vocabulary used is good and the use of language is skillful. The pacing of the plot is good, and while we obviously know some things ahead of time, I do not find the events predictable at all.



All of the books and stories seem to contribute to a coherent meta-plot and story. We see Vlad transform from the person we met at the first book; we learn what he was and how he got to that point, and we learn how he ends up changing with subsequent life events. Vlad's relationships with people and increasing knowledge of the world he lives in shapes him, much the same way those things shape us. We learn more about the cosmology of the world, and about the deeper meanings of many people, events and threads that may not have seemed important in the past.



The books are self-contained. They do not end on cliffhangers. I suspect you could, mostly, pick up any of

them and start reading, though it certainly is helpful to be familiar with the world and characters.



In short, the series is on my awesome list and gets four and a half out of five; four for the books, and the extra half for managing to turn it all into a truly epic scope of a tale.



As a bonus, here's Penny Arcade's take.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
2014-08-24 08:41 pm

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice

Another Amazon / Goodreads suggestion, Ancillary Justice is Ann Leckie's first novel (though not her first published work), a space opera — when a review made a comparison to Iain Banks, and I saw the huge Kindle discount, I was sold.


The premise is that of a far future interplanetary empire. Humans have colonized hundreds if not thousands of planets, and there are huge ships and space stations with superhuman artificial intelligences. These AIs can use human bodies as "ancillaries," avatars of sorts. The main character is one of these ancillaries separated from their ship's AI. By now the parallels to Bank's Culture are probably apparent.


One particular, if not entirely believable, aspect is the way the book deals with gender from the viewpoint of a genderless language and a genderless machine. It'll cause any future Finnish translators a lot of grey hairs. While the rationale behind introducing the verbal trickery may be a bit suspect, the effect was pretty interesting, at least to me.


The language and prose were well crafted, and it's clear time was spent on this book. The pacing is a bit slow — this isn't as much space action as it is a more measured "what if" exploration, which speeds up towards the end. Unfortunately I felt like many of the moral issues were not entirely satisfactorily dealt with. Since the main character isn't human, criticizing them for not really getting all the depth one might want seems churlish.


Overall, I'm a bit torn; if I look at any single technical aspect, Ancillary Justice is a good enough, but not great. And yet it kept me turning pages and neglecting chores and sleep; it clearly is better than the sum of its parts, and all of those parts are perfectly serviceable, if not excellent or particularly original.


Three and a half stars, and I'll definitely pick up the sequel. The plot is self-contained; things are fairly well wrapped up making the read rewarding on its own, but there's a clear larger story arch that has been set up. At least in the Kindle edition, after all the marketing fluff, there's an interesting interview with the author. (And thank goodness, this book knows where it ends, rather than the Kindle thinking I have to page through all the previews for the book to be finished.)