Tag Archives: fantasy

Ben Aaronovich — Rivers of London

I’m just going to review it under this title because I like it a lot better (and the cover is a lot classier) than the US version, which is just tacky. This always seems to happen–the covers for Joe Abercrombie’s books are always yards better in the UK but alas, there’s not a lot I can do.

I will preface this review by saying I am not much of an urban fantasy reader (though I did really enjoy Stacia Kane’s Chess Putnam series, which I will have to review one of these days) and the genre name seems to have a number of negative connotations. However, this is a modern fantasy set in an urban environment so I guess that’s the best genre definition you could have? Anyway, I was excited to read this book because I thought the UK cover was lovely and the summary sounded right up my alley (and in fact is a distant cousin to the general idea of one of my own works in progress), a mix of police procedural and fantasy.

Probationary constable Peter Grant, after witnessing a violent murder and subsequently interviewing a ghost, is thrust into a division of the police force that deals with magic–it’s all real, and there are a number of in-jokes and weary nods regarding common misconceptions. It’s led by Thomas Nightingale, England’s last wizard, who may be much older than he looks, and who takes Peter under his proverbial wing. Together, they are forced to deal with a number of problems including a vampire nest in Purley, territorial disputes between river gods, and of course, the main mystery: why are people suddenly losing their minds, having their faces collapse, and murdering each other violently?

It’s a good police procedural; I appreciated the little nods and inside jokes, and Aaronovich really does a good job of making London come alive in a similar Neverwhere-ish fashion. I liked the dry humor that ran throughout the story, including a Harry Potter reference; the writing was self-aware of the tropes it used but not obnoxious about it. Some of the twists and turns were a little predictable, I had an idea of where the malevolent spirit was “hiding” about a quarter of the way in, and guessed a few other things, but there were enough surprises to make it not disappointing to read. Peter was a good character to follow the world through: as we are introduced to magical concepts, so is he, though the exposition isn’t done in a dull way because of his inquiring mind and “deviousness” (several characters make reference to this–I didn’t quite see it, myself, but that’s all right). I felt the “romance” sideplots were a little underdone, and read another reviewer complaining about Peter’s attitude towards women, but to be honest, it just seemed fairly normal for a man… I don’t know what THAT says, exactly.

The writing really gave a nice sense of London’s multiculturalism, again seen through Peter’s background (his mother is from Sierra Leone; his father is a white Londoner) as well as through the people with whom he interacts: the river gods are both traveling folk and African immigrants. The descriptions of both the rituals and the food give the book a lively bit of flair and really drop you into the world. There are some scenes of intense violence, as well, but they were not overdone.

In summary, it was a good, fluffy light reading book in between all of my schoolwork, though it was occasionally scary (a nice balance of fluff and fright). I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this series. And hopefully getting back into the swing of book reviewing for a bit.

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Jonathan L. Howard — Johannes Cabal the Detective

I know I had read and mostly enjoyed Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (although it was a while ago and for the life of me, I cannot remember anything about it, and it was too late to grab it from the library when I picked up this book). Luckily, although it does help to have some familiarity with the first volume, this sequel can also function as a stand-alone. Howard’s world is vaguely like our own (there are Englishmen and pork rinds, for one thing…) but different enough: the countries the character traipse through are all fictitious, there are zeppelins and vaguely steampunk explanations for their structure, and of course, magicians have the ability to raise the dead (as a rather hilarious scene involving a newly revived Emperor proves).

Picking up where Johannes Cabal the Necromancer left off, The Detective finds Cabal in Mirkarvia, a vaguely Germanic country known for its rare steaks and heavy beer, caught stealing a tome on necromancy. He escapes, of course, and ends up on a zeppelin, fleeing the country, where he just happens to run into Leonie Barrow, also en route out of Mirkarvia. While in the air, a murder occurs, followed by more suspicious circumstances: after Cabal investigates, an attempt is made on his life, and other dangerous happenings are afoot. It doesn’t help that the sociopathic Cabal is being his usual self, attempting to stay one step ahead of everyone else and escape with his life and as much money as possible.

The plot moves quickly and the mystery is intriguing, and Cabal is one of those rare characters who is totally unsympathetic but yet entertaining all the same. It’s an enjoyable, fluffy book with all of the ends tied up neatly. There are certain little touches in addition to the writing that I liked; the summaries of the chapter titles (i.e. “In which Death awaits and a Plot is Hatched”) are clever and reminiscent of Victorian novels; the little illustrations accompanying them are also cute. After every chapter is a chart depicting some kind of airship and accompanying explanations, in period-toned voice, providing some context and amusement.

Issues: while Howard is very funny, occasionally I found myself wishing that he would give it a rest. There were so many bons mots and snide narratorial asides that it was a little too much for me. While I laughed a few times, I was also taken out of the story–I found myself putting the book down and picking it up again many times. Also, this might be a ridiculous complaint, but I counted at least three uses of the phrase “hoi polloi,” which is at least two uses too many. It’s one of those things that is an interesting word choice the first time, and becomes successively more annoying any times following. It’s not common enough to go unnoticed and it’s not uncommon enough to justify using it quite that many times. A minor nitpick but something that stuck out.

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Mark Charan Newton — Nights of Villjamur

I’m late to the party on this one, as I often am with fantasy… So I’m just adding another redundant voice talking about this book (hence the shorter review). Villjamur is the largest city at the heart of the Jamur Empire in a world that is settling in for another 50 year ice age. Jamur Rika is on her way back to the city after the death of her father, the Emperor. Her younger sister, Jamur Eir, is causing trouble on her own. Inspector Jeryd is investigating a mysterious murder… and at the heart of all of this are the undead, cultists, secret religions and conspiracies, and refugees crowding outside of the city, terrified of the impending Freeze.

It’s certainly a lot to absorb, but Newton has a lot of interesting ideas, and I liked that the world was so different–although Dying Earth isn’t a new concept, the impending icy freeze still felt fresh, and Villjamur had real character. The prose was a little awkward at times, but really readable at others–there was never anything so bad that I stopped reading (like that ‘best wetboy ever’ line in the Brent Weeks trilogy), but it does feel like there is some room for editing or improvement (dialogue, especially, was often redundant or stilted). Still, there were more than enough flashes of innovation, originality, and characters to keep it interesting, and piquing my interest in the rest of this series.

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Brent Weeks — The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge

I enjoyed The Black Prism so I went back and tried to read the Night Angel Trilogy. I say “tried to read” because I gave up about halfway through Shadow’s Edge. I think this is partially because Weeks has definitely matured as a writer since these books–there were phrases in them that set my teeth on edge. In a vaguely medieval world of assassins and thieves and high kings, seeing a phrase like “Durzo Blint was the best wetboy ever” just seemed out of place. Little things like that–phrases that were somehow a little off popped out at me constantly throughout the one and a half books that I read. The world building was not as developed as in The Black Prism; there were hints here and there, but with everything that was going on in the plot (and the plot was CONSTANTLY going) and the scattered nature of those hints, it was sometimes hard to build a coherent picture of the world of The Way of Shadows.

A brief plot summary for anyone who hasn’t heard of this trilogy (though I’m fairly sure most fantasy readers have). Azoth is a young “guild rat” (i.e. a street thief involved in the organized crime of the city of Cenaria), trapped in a hard, violent life. His ticket out is to apprentice himself to the legendary wetboy (a magical assassin) Durzo Blint, the best of the best. In the background of all of this is political intrigue of the most violent and deadly variety, a looming invasion by the villainous (almost cartoonishly so) Khalidor, and the threat, of course, that Azoth, now known as Kylar Stern, will lose everything he has come to hold dear.

I eventually just gave up because of the plot, though. It was certainly exciting, and with a lot of twists and turns, but the crushing misery and constant deaths of everyone involved in the book just turned me off. (Also, the love scenes were cringeworthy.) For all that there was talk of hope, it was hard to see any. And while I do enjoy “dark” plotting and depressing literature, by the middle of Shadow’s Edge, it almost just felt pointless to me. It’s frustrating because there were a lot of things about the trilogy that interested me, a lot of things that were a little cliche but well done anyway or with a little twist, but it just wasn’t enough to keep me reading. I’m looking forward to the next book in The Black Prism series, but I can’t say that I’ll be revisiting The Night Angel again.

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Brent Weeks — The Black Prism

So I had never read Brent Weeks before, but I heard a lot about his Night Angel trilogy, which didn’t really pique my interest at the time. However, from what I was reading about The Black Prism it seemed like something that was worth checking out. Although this trend of trilogies is a little distressing. Sometimes you want payoff NOW.

At 600+ pages, The Black Prism is chock full of twisty, turny plot, a fully fleshed out world (more on this later) and intriguing and at times frustrating characters. Weeks definitely kept me guessing, which is always awesome. There were so many surprises, so many characters with hidden motivations and secrets and reasons to lie, that the book definitely keeps you compulsively turning the page.

The world of The Black Prism is recovering from a brutal war, divided into seven satrapies and possessed of an intricate, well thought out magic system based on the use of color and light. Each color of the rainbow, as well as superviolet and sub-red, represents a different form of magic with very different characteristics. Humans can draw on this power by creating luxin out of light, the magical substance that can do everything from create fire to walls and buildings. A person can only “draft” a certain amount of magic in his life, or risk going mad and turning into a “color wight.” The drafters are ruled by the Prism, the only man in the entire land who can channel every color. Gavin Guile is the current Prism, ruling longer than any other before him. He discovers, on the eve of another brewing war, that he has a bastard, Kip Guile, a fat, sarcastic addict’s son from the provinces who, of course, shows great promise in drafting himself. Kip’s entire village is destroyed by a rogue satrap, setting in motion the fast-paced events of the book.

The first 100 or so pages are very slow, though the pace picks up quickly after that. My main problem with this novel was the clumsy exposition–Weeks’ world is so well-imagined and he’s just bursting to tell you everything about it–but occasionally it comes in the form of long speeches from characters that seem stilted or out of place, memories that go on for several pages and while interesting jar you out of the flow of the novel, or asides explaining certain aspects of either magic or persons that do the same. Other than that this is an engrossing book, and Weeks has managed to create several characters who, while they make despicable choices, always seem mostly sympathetic and making these choices for reasons that make sense to their own moral systems, which is a fine balancing line and done very well here.

The writing style wasn’t quite my cup of tea all of the time, there are short repetitive sentences that follow the way the character thought that again jumped you out of the flow of the story, but this conversational style worked very well at other points. The battle scenes were exciting and evocative, and some of the horrible things that the drafters do to each other shiver-inducing.

I think some of the expository and pacing issues will be smoothed out now that this introduction is out of the way if the boulder-rolling-downhill pace of the last third of the novel is any indication. There is a LOT going on (and a lot of originality) in the world of the Black Prism and while it wasn’t a perfect book, it was a really engaging, entertaining book, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this trilogy.

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Mary Robinette Kowal — Shades of Milk and Honey

I had a bit of wait for this one. After seeing the cover, reading the first chapter and concept of the book, I was really interested in reading it. On release day though I found that no bookstore downtown seemed to have it, and the library didn’t have a copy either. I watched the catalog like a hawk to make sure I could reserve it as soon as they got it. Today, I’ve got it in my hands, hoping the wait was worth it.

The concept was intriguing, it is a mixture of Jane Austen inspired regency drawing-room drama, and magic, known in the book as “glamour.” The opening of the book will remind a reader of a mixture of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; a kindly father with two daughters wishing he had more to leave them (and a very silly wife), and the eldest daughter, slightly plain at age 28 (even though she is quite accomplished), remains unmarried and will most likely become a spinster. Jane Ellsworth does remind me a lot of Anne Elliott, one of my favorite Jane Austen heroines (although this is probably an unpopular opinion): she is concerned with propriety, kind, and an art lover and appreciator. Her younger daughter, Melody, is capricious, emotional, and lovely, and will probably not have a hard time finding a husband. However, at the beginning of the novel, both sisters feel an attraction towards the pleasant, handsome Mr. Dunkirk, a source of growing tension between them.

In reading the book, it was fun to pick out the episodes that seemed particularly Austen-inspired (a sprained ankle, a strawberry picking party, discussions about Anne Radcliffe, a rogue and a secret engagement with a young girl… the homages are numerous but done well so that they don’t seem too obvious). Kowal obviously has more than a passing familiarity with both the time period and the language; I liked her use of the archaic spellings you can find in Austen, lending a familiar gloss even when the characters are creating illusions out of the ether. The magic doesn’t seem out of place; it is fundamental to the ways that the characters view art, the way they interact, and even the social system–one young girl is always fainting because she has a glamour to hide her crooked teeth.

It is not a fast-paced book, unfolding slowly, in almost a cozy manner. I enjoyed this part of it, because the pacing, again, seemed Austen inspired. The hero and heroine (though the hero might not be who you think at first) come together gradually, with initial antagonism through a series of misunderstandings, but come to esteem each other as their values and views are truly well-matched. Jane is a sympathetic and charming heroine, though her sister is a little harder to stomach (all of the bad qualities of Marianne Dashwood but none of the good ones). Still, I enjoyed seeing all of the relationships played out and be allowed to develop at their own pace. This slow pace contrasted a little sharply with how fast the ending came (and let me say that it is certainly an eventful ending!) but overall I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the sequel.

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One chapter preview of Shades of Milk and Honey


Thanks to the tip from Aidan at A Dribble of Ink, that Mary Robinette Kowal has the first chapter of her new book, Shades of Milk and Honey up on her website.

I’ve been really looking forward to reading this since I first read about it, because how could I not love a book inspired by Jane Austen but with the addition of magic (called glamour in the book) to the mix of womanly arts a girl is supposed to know? Well, if the first chapter is anything to go by, I’m now REALLY looking forward to its release. Kowal’s regency voice is spot-on but not stuffy, the magic system seems intriguingly realized, and the main character, Jane, is appealing and level-headed.

Shades of Milk and Honey is released August 3rd. Can’t wait!

(Also, how lovely is that cover?)

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