Category: book reviews

I took the Goodreads Reading Challenge this year and committed to reading 60 titles in 2014.  I surpassed my goal by 6 books!  Maybe a few more before December 31st!  Looking back on all that I read, I’m realizing these books are a chronicle of my life this past year.  ‘Scuse me while I reminisce.
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2014 started off heavy!  I was diggin’ on philosophy, evolution, atheism and HP Lovecraft.  What else am I supposed to read during winter in Colorado?  By far one of my favorite books this year was David Quammen’s Spillover – a hardcore and thoroughly researched work on zoonotic viruses.  Recently Quammen’s section on Ebola was published as a separate special edition.  Highly recommended.  Reading Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion made me feel intrigued, irritated, and enlightened all at once.  I agree with so much of what he says, but the dude can be a bit snide.   I balanced out all this deep thinking (or my sad attempts at deep thinking) with a long term battle to finish Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantasy doorstopper Tigana.  Good grief I wanted to love this book, but it took me forever – I listened to the audiobook while hiking in Colorado and Wyoming.  That was perfect, since the novel is about a beloved homeland, and mine is the Rocky Mountains.
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I moved to Wyoming for the summer and went on a thriller fiction rebound binge.  I plowed through the entire Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  The books got progressively less impressive, but I had a good time.  And, okay, I couldn’t stay away from science and religion – I began my joyous discovery of Carl Sagan’s works, and will be reading more in 2015.  Then I realized that I wanted to immerse myself in all the scifi and fantasy I’ve been too busy to read during the last few years.   I jumped into The Expanse series and Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard books, and I listened to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series on my regular hikes up Josie’s Ridge.  I didn’t give up nonfiction though – I loved The Emerald Mile, Kevin Fedarko’s jawdropping account of the fastest-ever run down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon – in a wooden dory.  I still get chills.

Thinking about rivers, I traveled from Jackson, Wyoming to Shelton, Washington in late summer, following the Columbia along the way and listening to A Canticle for Leibowitz.  A true sci fi classic, I was riveted by this post-nuclear dystopian novel, even more powerful to experience while driving along the river south of the Hanford Site.  I don’t recommend doing a solo road trip through California and listening to T. Jefferson Parker’s serial killer fiction The Blue Hour – but I definitely recommend the book – harrowing and suspenseful.
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By far the last quarter has been the most fun reading I’ve done this year.  I drove from Arizona to Texas listening to Marisha Pessl’s bizarrely riveting novel Night Film.  I devoured Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft and the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and I finally tackled Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, all of which did not disappoint – great examples of why I prefer speculative fiction to anything else: innovation, daring, otherworldliness.  And I read Shards of Time, the last book of Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series.  A bittersweet conclusion to a series that I love so much.

I also started reviewing books for this very blog, which led me to volunteer as a blogger for the women’s speculative fiction website Luna Station Quarterly.  My first audiobook review, of Melissa Scott’s wonderful Five-Twelfths of Heaven, will be online in January!

Booooooooks.  I love them so.  Find me on Goodreads!

Thanks to Unsplash for the great library photo.

 

book reviews

book reviews

As soon as I finished reading Chris Evans’ novel Of Bone and Thunder, I immediately went to Roger Ebert’s website and reread his review of Platoon.   Publishers Weekly characterizes Evans’ novel as “Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Rings,” but I think the book’s themes channel Oliver Stone more than Coppola.  But don’t let me stray too far discussing American movies about Vietnam.  I bring up Ebert because he was a brilliant, compassionate observer – of both film and the human condition.  And I am a child of the 80’s, whose first glimpse into the horrors of the Vietnam War came not from history class, but from a Charlie Sheen flick.

Ebert’s Platoon review ends with a grave piece of advice:  Before you can make any vast, sweeping statements about Vietnam, you have to begin by understanding the bottom line, which is that a lot of people went over there and got killed, dead, and that is what the war meant for them.

Chris Evans understands, and he makes his statements with crossbowmen as infantrymen, dragons instead of Hueys, M.A.S.H. wizards and mage radio operators.  Red Shield is the platoon on the ground, fighting the Kingdom’s war against the Forest Collective, deep in the mountain jungles of Western Luitox.  The Forest Collective resemble elves or goblins,  are characterized as “disgruntled peasants” and given the derogatory nickname slyts by the troops.   The FC’s guerilla tactics are more than a match for Crossbowman Carnin “Carny” Qillibrin and his fellow soldiers, enduring wicked heat rash, relentless insects, haphazard training, and each other.

In the air, Flock Commander Vorly Astol captains his beloved dragon Carduus and learns to get along with a newly assigned RAT, Breeze, a mage from the Royal Academy of Thaumology who operates a communications crystal that’s totally new magic-tech and resembles a cross between an iPad and a magic mirror.  This device, and the fact that Breeze is a woman, irritate and terrify Vorly – at first.  Breeze’s skills, and the even stronger abilities of her fellow mage Jawn Rathim, will have great impact on the battles in the Valley of Bone and Thunder.

Let’s not ignore the dragons, though.  The rags, as they’re nicknamed, aren’t simply tossed into the story as a handy fantasy trope.  We see them from all perspectives – in the fearful troops’ last-minute training on how to avoid being eaten or crushed; from in the saddle as Jawn pukes his way through his first dragon landing, and through the respectful eyes of the dragonsmiths.  There’s a lot to be learned about dragon husbandry here, but I won’t spoil it.

The lexicon of slang in the novel is colorful and spot-on, and as can be expected in a military novel, not always politically correct.   Evans calls up all the war tropes and gives them new dimensions: the raw recruits (fawns), the racial tension (freed dwarf slaves are denigrated as mules); embedded journalists (criers).  He doesn’t leave out the delusions of battlefield glory; drug abuse; war propaganda; disinformation campaigns; the killing of women and children.

I kept asking myself while I read Of Bone and Thunder – is this book necessary?  Do we need another book that riffs on Vietnam, regardless of genre?  Science fiction and fantasy stories are fertile ground for social commentary.  Sometimes – not always – the focus is more on the glory of battle, though, rather than the reality that war is hell.  Props to Evans for focusing on the latter.  And yet – I had expectations for this novel, which in hindsight weren’t fair, but which still hover in my head.  I wanted a novel from both perspectives – the one portrayed and that of the Forest Collective.  I wanted a book that incorporated the struggles and suffering of The Other – TheEnemy – too.  I kind of expected Carny or Wraith to go full Natty Bumppo, but maybe that’s coming in the next books?  Maybe I’m the only one who hopes for that.

There’s a lot of death in this novel – like, Game of Thrones level body count.  Maybe that’s the takeaway – people get killed, dead, and that’s war.   We shouldn’t ever stop reminding ourselves of this.

I received this book as an ARC from Netgalley.

 

book reviews

Rebecca Alexander’s The Secrets of Life and Death reminded me of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins novels – and that’s a compliment.  Alexander’s novel isn’t a doorstopper like a Rickman book, but it’s a suspenseful supernatural mystery with charming yet flawed characters, and even an old cottage in the country (here, it’s Devon).  I wanted to put on a wool sweater, brew a pot of black tea, and tuck my feet up next to a cozy fire.  And then start looking over my shoulder!

It’s difficult to pin down a genre though, for The Secrets of Life and Death.  The title is somewhat generic – it doesn’t tell you at all that inside these pages you’ll find a fictionalized account of real life alleged serial killer Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who may have murdered hundreds of young women and girls in Eastern Europe from 1585 to the date of her imprisonment in 1610.

In this novel, it’s the occultist Edward Kelley who, within the harrowing pages of his journals, recounts the story of how he and his mentor Dr. John Dee saved the young Countess from a deadly sickness, only to make her into an immortal monster – a vampire who derives superhuman strength from human blood.  Kelley and Dee were real historical figures, both of whom studied the full gamut of metaphysical and alchemical lore in the late sixteenth century.  These men were equally at home discussing algebra and astronomy or magic and divination, and saw no division between magic and science.  Edward was said to have the ability to channel angels, a talent – or self-deception – evident in this novel.

Edward Kelley’s story parallels the present-day events in the lives of Jackdaw Hammond and Professor Felix Guichard.  Jack too, is undead, but far from a monster.  She and her friend Maggie use their knowledge of magic and Enochian sigils to save young women from tragic deaths, in the same way Jack herself was saved years ago.  The price the women pay for life is to be metaphysically chained to the power of the protective symbols they must wear on their skin; they become revenants, and their blood carries the power to extend life.

When a disbelieving young girl in Jack and Maggie’s care runs away, only to suffer the fate from which she’d been rescued (an overdose of drugs), her body is found on a train, her skin covered in strange symbols that the police believe must be satanic or black magic.  Professor Felix Guichard, an expert in belief systems outside the mainstream – his degree is in West African sorcery – is called in to evaluate the scene.   In this, the book reminded me too of Michael Gruber’s excellent Jimmy Paz novels, though Gruber is more adept at weaving his research into a narrative.  Nonetheless, Felix, intrigued by the symbols, seeks out Jackdaw, who has recently found a new young girl to save, Sadie.  But something else is hunting Jack, too.  And in 1585, Edward and John are about to make a terrible mistake that will have consequences far in the future – Jack’s future.

It’s the characters that carry this book.  Tormented Edward; fierce Jackdaw, kindhearted Felix, feisty Sadie.  As Jack and Felix’s relationship deepens in the midst of chaos, as Sadie accepts her reality with dignity, and as Edward understands the consequences of his actions, we can reflect on not so much the secrets of life and death, but the ideas of good and evil.  It’s never been completely undisputed that Elizabeth Bathory committed all the atrocities of which she was accused – she was a powerful woman with enemies.  In the novel, she chooses to become cursed.  Jack is given the same choice, but she is not the same kind of person as Bathory.  I wondered why Alexander gave her female character a man’s name, but I think the point is more that she bears the name of a bird – the small black crows – daws – of England and Europe.  Jack means ‘small,’ yet this woman is anything but.  Alexander is currently penning the third book in this trilogy; I can’t wait for Jackdaw to carry more light through darkness.

I received this book as a free ARC from Netgalley.

 

book reviews

Beth Bernobich’s The Time Roads is Steampunk Lite with a twist of Time Travel.  That might sound less enjoyable than the actual reading experience, which is mostly a mild disappointment; flat but still somewhat entertaining.  The prose is crisp and the vocabulary appropriately antique; the worldbuilding is thoughtful, but not spectacular.  It’s plausible that more research went into Irish names than almost everything else here, except possibly prime numbers.

So, there’s this alternate-history Ireland, see, in 1897.  Éire.  And in this reality, Éire is an empire with a savvy new Queen and civil unrest brewing in the world.  Intriguing premise!  Sadly, other than that, there’s nothing truly wowza here.   Even thrilling subplots (a love triangle; a string of violent and bizarre murders; even the dire quest for time travel itself) don’t live up to their potential and left this reader unsatisfied.  If the main point of the novel had been to focus on the scientific pursuit of the time roads, that would be understandable, but even the method of traveling through time is confusing and unbelievable.  The political intrigue, time slippage and interpersonal relations that slowly unspool the plot are too tangled, and no amount of cool steampunk hot air balloons, strong tea drinking, or alternate history lessons can knot it all together quite well enough (though I do love reading about a good cuppa).

The elaborate description of scientist Brendan Ó Cuilinn’s strange time machine – an octopus-like brass and silver contraption with wires and glass tubes – opens the first section of the novel, with a focus on mystical mathematics, as Ó Cuilinn uses his machine to make an iron-chromium bar “disappear,” claiming he has sent the bar into the future.  But despite much emphasis on insanity, prime numbers and lots of philosophical name-dropping, it seems as if the reader is expected to accept the book’s time travel premise based mostly on magical descriptions of the time roads themselves, and the characters’ sudden encounters with inexplicable nausea and fugue states – or being dead one minute, and alive the next – with the ability to remember different realities.  Why bother with science or pseudoscience at all?  There is no concern with paradox.   The most pressing issues for the main characters are that of overlapping timelines, the resulting confusion, and possible war among nations, but the narrative is itself so switchbacky  that I began to doubt everything, and not in ways that I think were intentional.

The Time Roads is divided into four books, each taking place in a year between 1897 and 1914 (althought at one point, we’re in the 1940’s), and in multiple time streams.  The division of the book unfortunately breaks up the narrative flow into a collected of disjointed novellas, further scattered by the use of different points of view.   Disjointedness and multiple viewpoints are techniques that really work in time travel stories – hey, they’re often key to the plot.  I didn’t feel that applied here, which may have been the point, but if it was, I don’t actually see the point of that.

The first and last books are told in first person by Queen Áine, while the second and third books are told in third person and focus on two other characters.  The Queen’s chapter introduces Ó Cuilinn’s machine, Queen Áine (our sharpwitted and independent heroine), and her trusted agent Aidrean Ó Deághaidh – the love triangle that goes in circles.  The second book follows Síomón Madoc and his sister Gwen, student prodigies and future (past?) discoverers of the time roads and how to travel them.  Gwen is literally two split people in the book – tragically mad and scientifically gifted – but the two personas are neither fleshed out nor threaded together to make either one, let alone two, solid characters.  The third chapter involves Ó Deághaidh investigating reports of unrest in the country of Montenegro.  Oddly, this section of the book – “Ars Memoriae” – is the strongest, because it is completely unlike the other sections.  “Ars Memoriae” is Jason Bourne meets HG Wells, a spy novella with trust issues, reality issues, and thriller-level suspense.  If the whole novel could have been like this – BOOM, yes!!  It really seems like it tried to be.  Alas, no.

The character of Queen Áine is the book’s strong, smart heroine – yes, but more like a box to be checkmarked than a woman to care about – which is too bad.   In Montenegro, Ó Deághaidh meets Valerija Delchev, who definitely has the most charisma of the female players, and then she’s promptly dropped from the storyline and footnoted.

For a novel about time travel, The Time Roads is two-dimensional.  Is it because the characters are developed only enough to simply suffice for the plot and general reader interest?  Is it because the book’s concept of time travel requires advanced degrees in mathematics and physics (does it – really?)?   This is a book that could have been.  Could have been more.  Kind of calls for someone to go back in time and add what’s missing.  I would read that alternate-reality version of this book.

I received this book as a free ARC from Netgalley.

 

 

book reviews

Some more free goodies on Kindle Unlimited.

Supernatural mystery with Detective Chen – this is probably the find that I’m most excited about. There are more books in the series.

 

 

 

More gritty supernatural noir, starring shapeshifter detective Jeremy Stake.

 

 

 

Ghosty literary suspense.

 

 

 

 

Short fiction from smarter-than-you Peter Watts’ giant sci fi brain.

 

 

 

 

Who isn’t always looking for good time travel fiction?

book reviews

Have you been thinking about signing up for Kindle Unlimited, but $9.99 a month seems kinda pricey?  It’s true that you can only “check out” 10 books at a time.  That’s probably plenty for the average reader, but you have to count on a few Did Not Finish’ers.  You can return books and exchange them for others any time.  I signed up for the 30 day free trial and went on a hunt for good speculative fiction.  So far I’ve found some pretty great stuff, but the trick is to go after what you really want (I used my goodreads list), instead of relying on Amazon’s genre lists to spoonfeed you.  They don’t seem to be doing a good job of curating these lists at all.  Example – even though there’s a paranormal/urban fantasy list, there’s nothing for horror or supernatural.   And the sci fi list seems to rely on Wool and Fluency.

So, here’s what I’ve found so far.  If I stay signed on, I’ll update this monthly with whatever I find.  Either way, the book prices are on the low side even if you don’t do Kindle Unlimited.

Click on the covers to link to Amazon.

 

One of the best vampire series out there kicks off with this book.

 

Phil Rickman (aka Will Kingdom) is a Welsh author who writes extremely good supernatural mysteries with wonderful characters.

Laird Barron is one of the spookiest dudes writing horror fiction today.

More people need to read Melissa Scott.

Tentacles on the cover!  Feel the Lovecraft.

 

 

 

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

YYEEESSSS! YES! This is what I want to read when I want to read a vampire novel.

And get me: I’m addicted to The Vampire Diaries on the CW, I read Anne Rice when I was in high school, and I still consider Stoker’s Dracula to be one of the finest novels ever written (and I can’t stand epistolary novels!). Near Dark kicks Zero Dark Thirty ass in Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial canon, in my opinion, and if you haven’t read Anne Billson’s novel Suckers, you need to immediately. Hopefully this all suffices to establish my street cred as vampire novel evaluator. Notice I’m not mentioning Stephenie whatshernameTwilight here. At least, I’m trying not to.

First, Barbara Hambly is a thinking woman’s writer. Because yes, there are nonthinking women out there. I should know, I am a nonthinking woman sometimes. I read the first Sookie Stackhouse novel (cringe) and ditched the books for HBO’s True Blood adaptation so I could salivate over Alexander Skarsgaard. And there’s of course Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, who is apparently supersexycool (ok, I’m not really sure if she’s that because I haven’t read any Laurell K. Hamilton, but I’m sure I’d prefer Anita Blake over Bella and Edward). There’s now enough vampteen and hip-chick vampire hunter lit out there to make a bookstack that would stretch from here to the Wraith mothership in the Pegasus Galaxy (yes I’m referencing Stargate Atlantis here, and I’m not ashamed). Speaking of the Wraith, what you get with Hambly’s novels is scary vampires. The ones who want you dead because you’re an inferior humanoid food source. The kind of vampires Stoker had in mind.

Anyway, Barbara Hambly’s James Asher novels. Because Those Who Hunt The Night is the first in a series, people. Get on board. And, if you’re not reading my WOGF reviews (it’s ok I know no one is…. I’m sucking at the polls, no vampire bloodsucking pun intended here), you’d also know that without trying (I swear, without trying), I keep choosing novels with serious bromance going on. This one is no different! Well, it definitely starts off differently, however, both in terms of bromance and vampire-human relationships (as recently depicted in film and teen lit, I mean).

Let’s get to the plot, shall we. Or sort of, because I’m really bad at synopses and reviews (see previous three babble-rant paragraphs). Suffice to say, our undead story takes place when and where it damn well should, in early 20th century Britain. Our hero James Asher is an Oxford professor who has a background in the spy trade and a brilliant, headstrong young wife named Lydia who is training to be one of the few female doctors of the time period. You know James is badass because he rides an Indian motorcycle, and Lydia rocks because she isn’t a wilting flower but a sharpwitted scientist who isn’t afraid to perform autopsies.

At the very beginning of the novel, Asher arrives home to find waiting for him the vampire Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadena-Ysidro. No, really. Ysidro’s presence confirms the existence of vampires for our hero, and then he pretty much coerces Asher into helping him find out who is murdering vampires in London. You’d be coerced too by a 300 year old superhuman blooddrinker who knows where you live and threatens your wife. The two reach an uneasy bargain, and sleuthing ensues. This isn’t just a vampire novel, it’s a delightfully tense murder mystery and character study with a dash of mad scientism thrown in. James Asher is courageous and resourceful, and so is his wife, and their love story is as important to the book as the bromance between the noble Asher, tormented by his actions during his spy years, and the lonely, ancient Ysidro, who is nobility of a different sort. It’s inevitable that the two men – though really only one of them is a human man – are going to be allies, and you hope despite Ysidro’s age and his coldbloodedness that they will be friends. By the time Asher calls Ysidro by his first name during their scaaaary foray into the Paris catacombs, it’s clear they’re gonna bond and save each others’ lives at some point. Yay! And yet, there’s still that undercurrent of distrust and wariness, punctuated by moments of sly humor. It’s just electric!

Those Who Hunt the Night was published more than ten years after Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, but it’s not a ripoff or some kind of vampire reboot – it’s unique and rewarding. There are three more books in Hambly’s series, which is a wicked little treat! I’m keen to see more of Lydia Asher, whose canny medical know-how helped reveal the mystery at the heart of this story. There are other minor characters in the form of Ysidro’s vampire buddies (and not-so-buddies), and Hambly portrays them as separate personalities, not simply stock villains to be despatched or befriended. One of the best moments of tingly fear comes from a scene in which James meets an abandoned, newly-created vampire thug who has never learned self-control. They have an intense conversation in a dark alley, and Hambly does a masterful job of conveying the vampire’s rage, desperation, and hunger, in sharp contrast to Asher’s brave self-control and quick wits. I was simultaneously terrified, repulsed, saddened, and intrigued.

Hambly has written some great books in other genres as well – you might know her fantasy novel Dragonsbane, and her Benjamin January mystery series. Highly recommended. Me, I’m on to Traveling With The Dead, book 2 in the James Asher series. YES!!!

 

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

Even though this is a woman-thang reading challenge, I seem to be on a bro-mance roMANce kick lately, witness my lovefest WOGF review of Luck in the Shadows from last month. This month it’s no different, though I didn’t intend to continue the trend. I got The Whitefire Crossing as a free Barnes & Noble download, thinking I’d probably never read it because I already have at least 90 books in my nook library. And yet – I started in on Courtney Schafer’s novel while on the treadmill at the gym, and I didn’t quit (I mean, I quit the treadmill after my usual 3 miles, puh-leeze, but I kept reading the book later at home).

Unlike Luck in the Shadows, there’s no gay love story here, but this is still a tale about the origins of a partnership and a friendship (this is the first book in a trilogy) that two men are both in desperate need of, whether they realize it or not. In the fantasy kingdom of Ninavel, Dev is an outrider, a sort of mountain guide-slash-smuggler between the two magical realms of Alathia and Ninavel, divided by the Whitefire mountain range. He takes a business deal to lead Kiran over the treacherous mountain passes to Alathia with a cargo convoy, assuming that Kiran is just a rich, inexperienced boy, when in actuality the boy is a blood mage with some serious issues, on the run from his scary mage-daddy Ruslan. Though Dev and Kiran come from very different backgrounds, both characters have backstories fraught with childhood abuse and tragedy, both have been influenced by magic, and both have hidden agendas, making them more alike than either of them know.

It was a big surprise to me that I wanted to finish this novel, because right away I was disconcerted by the way the author sets up the two main characters’ points of view.

Lemme break it down for ya: Dev and Kiran’s personalities are distinct, likable, and well-developed, but Schafer writes Dev’s chapters in the first person, and Kiran’s chapters are told from a third-person point of view. I can’t think of any other book where I’ve encountered this, but that doesn’t mean that this trick makes the book unique or better. No, it makes things really confusing, jarring, and disrupts the flow of what otherwise would be a smooth, captivating narrative. I kept thinking my nook was malfunctioning and I’d suddenly switched to a different ebook. I don’t know why an editor would have gone along with this dual-POV gimmick, but TAKE NOTE that I kept reading despite! That speaks a lot to how much I enjoyed the story.

The absolute best part of the book is the setting. One quick Google and you’ll find out that Courtney Schafer is a serious mountain girl with all kinds of badass rock climbing experience. I was impressed that she was able to bring in elements of wilderness skills and survival, as well as a reverence for mountains, and enhance the novel without sacrificing plot, world building, character development, or dialogue.

Most of the plot involves traveling over the mountains and avoiding spies, avalanches, and the evil mage-daddy’s Sauron-style I-will-find-you sorcerer-vision. Too many hyphens there? Too-bad.

There’s a suspenseful ending that of course involves a perceived betrayal, sex, a rescue, and lots of bloody knifey nasty magick (a few times I thought I was watching an episode of Supernatural….Castiel!!! oh wait…).

As a first novel, I could only lament that it didn’t undergo one final edit by someone more ruthless. There’s some incongruous, modern-sounding vocabulary that knocks the tone sideways (a character says “yeah, right” which seemed out of place to me; a thug is nicknamed ‘muscle guy’ – what, is he a bouncer at an LA nightclub? And also the word “pants.” That just bugs. In a sword and sorcery novel, really – pants? Why not breeches or trousers or even leggings?). Also, Dev uses the word fuck a LOT. Now, don’t get me wrong, I use the word fuck ALL the time, so I ain’t offended here. It’s more that the overuse struck me as a total copout by the author. And in most of the instances where the F-bomb is invoked, it was overkill. An S-bomb or even “Bollocks!” would have sufficed.

In closing, let’s talk about all these fantasy novels that go over the top in taking their gods’ and goddesses’ names in vain. Every other freakout, a character’s shouting “By Khalmet’s bloodsoaked hand!” Nightrunner series (it pains me to mock the series, but alas): “Bilairy’s Balls!!” I’m reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana right now, too, and it’s the same thing: “Oh, Triad, I am slain!!”

Hey, fantasy authors who DON’T fall into this sort of overkill, I applaud you – Alan Rickman just called to say, “By Grabthar’s Hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged!!!”

 

book reviews

Part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

Luck in the Shadows was published waaaay back in ye olde 1996, the first volume in the Nightrunner series.  The sixth and most recent book, Casket of Souls, came out in 2012.  I’ve spent the last two weeks gulping down these books in a delirious frenzy.  I’m just starting #5, and also starting to dread having to wait for book #7.

It’s not easy for me to find fantasy series that have the emotional depth of a Robin Hobb trilogy or the intrigue and suspense of the Game of Thrones epic.  Granted, Luck in the Shadows is not as sophisticated as either, but Flewelling progresses wonderfully through her next Nightrunner novels, in both her world-building and in the passionate portrayals of her characters.  There are some minor flaws that I think an editor should have smoothed over, such as clunky shifts in point of view, but for the most part, I didn’t care.

This isn’t merely an adventure novel about nobleman-spy-thief-faie Seregil of Rhiminee and his protege Alec of Kerry.  It’s not just a sword and sorcery tale.  Yes, we’ve got women warriors, wizards, court politics, and archery!  We’ve got secret passageways and dungeons, spells and disguises, minstrels and magic!  But Flewelling didn’t just load up a grab bag of fantasy tropes, shake it up and pop it.  Oh no.  There is story arc and character depth here that unfolds delicately and slowly in this first novel, and truly blooms in the next volumes.

Looking back over the book, it’s amazing how much happens.  Seregil and Alec meet as dungeon prisoners condemned to death.  After they escape, the wily and roguish Seregil takes young Alec under his wing and teaches him the ways of a nightrunner – which pretty much involves spying, housebreaking, singing in pubs and swordfighting, mostly for the greater purpose of aiding the wizards and royals of Skala.  But war is brewing between old enemies Skala and Plenimar, and of course the two men will be caught up in it, and when Seregil becomes the unwitting victim of an evil sorcerer’s dark magic, it’s up to the innocent but brave Alec to save him.

Maybe this all sounds mildly fun, but kind of trite and run-of-the-mill.  It could have been a letdown, were it not for the gleeful, derring-do action balanced with dark necromantic horrors – sort of like Robin Hood meets Lord of the Rings.

The real joy of the book – and the reason I love this series so much – is the relationship between Seregil and Alec.  Seregil is an absolute gem (yes, it’s him on the bookcover rocking that awesome mullet), and Flewelling’s skill in revealing his identity and his layers of complexity with wit, emotion, realistic dialogue and internal conflict is pure bittersweet delight, especially as she portrays the growing bond between him and Alec.  As much as Seregil loves the excitement of living as a master of many disguises – and the decadence of a good bath – his past and his future are fraught with perilous journeys and dangerous secrets.  Good thing Alec has the courage, curiosity and loyalty – as well as his own surprise backstory – to stick around.  I don’t think I’ve ever adored a fictional pair as much as these two.  Luck in the Shadows had me hooked, Stalking Darkness (numbah 2) broke my heart, and by book 3 (Traitor’s Moon), I was a goner.

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