Nice Dragons Finish Last and One Good Dragon Deserves Another (Heartstrikers, Books One and Two)

Monday, February 1, 2016

Nice Dragons Finish Last and One Good Dragon Deserves Another (Heartstrikers, Books One and Two)
Rachel Aaron, 2014, 2015

Premise: Julius is the most insignificant dragon in the Heartstriker clan, and he’s spent his short life happily unnoticed by his more powerful kin, until now.

This is a fast-paced, fun fantasy with just enough bite. (I think the only time I paused in reading through both books was at one point when I was convinced a scene was going to end in the death of one of two great characters.) It’s set in the near future on an Earth where magic has returned and influenced society.

Rachel Aaron is also known as Rachel Bach, under which name she wrote the Paradox series (sci-fi fabulousness) that I devoured in 2014, so I had been meaning to try some of her fantasy for some time.

The main characters are Julius and Marci, a young human mage. I like how her magic is completely different from dragon magic, and humans are still rebuilding their knowledge of magic and magical creatures. I also loved the contrast of Marci’s brash, ask-whether-this-is-a-good idea-later attitude against Julius’s caution and (justified) paranoia.

Marci’s perspective is also great because it grounds the reader. Julius, despite being an odd dragon semi-permanently disguised as a human, is still a dragon. He thinks and looks at situations in a way which is subtly but fundamentally different than a human, and getting Marci’s take on events reminds you of that.

Julius has to prove to his mother that he can be useful to the clan, otherwise she might just eat him. This is not a metaphor; dragon families are not cute and cuddly. Marci, meanwhile, is trying to make it as a solo mage, and is on the run from a magical mob boss type.

I really enjoyed the range of personalities and abilities in the rest of the Heartstriker clan. Particularly in book two, many of Julius’ siblings get some time to shine. Justin is a brash frat boy, but an impressive fighter. Chelsie is the clan enforcer. Ian is a scheming businessman who will use anyone to climb the ranks. Bob is ineffable. But they’re all Heartstrikers, and they have a certain bond, even when they’re threatening or fighting each other.

Prophecy and a certain twisty take on foreseeing is key to the plot of these books. There are three dragons on Earth who can see the future, and when they work against each other, things get extremely complex, and I really liked the way this magic was used.

The books take place mostly in the Detroit Free Zone, a city ruled by an ancient earth spirit who hates dragons. Naturally, this further complicates matters for all the characters.

I had a great time reading these books and being introduced to this world. While book two didn't end on a cliffhanger, exactly, there are enough unanswered questions and new elements introduced by the end that I am eager for the release of book three later this year.

Both books: 4 Stars - Very Good Books

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance, Book One)

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance, Book One)
N. K. Jemisin, 2010

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read the first book in a series by a person of color

Premise: Shortly after her mother’s death, Yeine is summoned to the city of Sky, the city of the ruling Arameri family, the city and family her mother rejected and abandoned. She was brought up to be a local leader and a warrior, but if she hopes to survive her scheming high-born kin, she’ll need knowledge and allies that are both in short supply.

I love it when a book is worth the hype. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an exquisitely crafted novel. It explores culture, cosmology, theology, and morality in a gripping, personal story about one woman, her past and future, and her place in the universe.

The world is made up of countless kingdoms, but they are all under the ultimate rule of Sky and the Arameri, because the Arameri have an advantage granted them by the Skyfather, Itempas. I don’t want to say much more if you haven’t read it, because it’s a delight to explore and discover the truths about the world alongside Yeine. Every time she finds an answer, there’s another question, another truth, or a darker secret lurking in the silences.

I love Sky itself: a ridiculous, impossible palace atop a spire that quite literally looks down on the rest of the world. I love the characters: each grasping for survival or success, some with an intricate, inhuman sense of morality, and some with a lack of compassion that is all too human.

Yeine’s narration is immediate and compelling, while also integrating an aura of myth and destiny. She is telling it from the end of the novel looking back, and occasionally the story fractures, leading us down new paths and hinting at the deeper stories. Now that I’ve finished, I am tempted to re-read it just to catch all the foreshadowing and alternate meanings.

It’s a fantastic read, start to finish.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Waterborn (Children of the Changeling, Book One)

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Waterborn (Children of the Changeling, Book One)
Greg Keyes, 1996, New ebook edition 2015

New ebook release! I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

Premise: Perkar lives in a land full of gods: the little gods of things, the gods of places, the bigger gods of the old places that bargained with his ancestors. Hezhi lives in a city with one god. The River controls the city, controls the priesthood, controls the rules that govern Hezhi’s royal blood. They each set forth to change their fate, and so may change the fate of many more.

I really liked this. It’s been a decent while since I’ve read such a strong fantasy novel. It’s long without dragging, although if it were written today, it would probably be broken up into two books.

Both Perkar and Hezhi’s societies are explored carefully, and the differences are stark. I want this book to be a movie or a miniseries. Casting it would make some people’s heads explode.

You see, it features a young man who loves a stream-goddess and does many foolish things for that love, and then has to face the consequences. It features a girl who seeks knowledge and truth above all else after her cousin disappears. He lives in a ‘barbarian’ land where honor and combat is prized, and young men are expected to have a household and a herd. She lives in a huge palace in a vast city where class mobility is miniscule and the power of the royal family is above all. The herdsmen of the hills are explicitly light-skinned, while the city people are dark.

Hezhi is probably the most powerful character, and she is a young girl of color. Awesome.

Perkar and Hezhi are tied together by fate, by the gods who take an interest in their lives, and by their own struggles to understand and survive what destiny has in store. They are both interesting, flawed characters who come into kinds of power, and have to figure out how to handle that.

It’s not perfect, and the plot does meander occasionally, but the world is really interesting and the characters compelling. That’s most of what I’m looking for in a novel, and I’ll probably read the sequel.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1: Cosmic Avengers

Monday, January 11, 2016

Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1: Cosmic Avengers
Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, Sara Pichelli, et. al., 2014

Premise: The Guardians of the Galaxy, plus fan-favorite Iron Man, are up against a coalition of galactic powers with ambiguous goals. One goal is clear, though: Quill's father, lord of the Spartax Empire, wants him home... or dead. Collects Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1, #1-3, GotG: Tomorrow's Avengers #1

I enjoyed reading this, but only a few days later, not much of it stayed with me. The art is nice, modern comic art. Sticking Iron Man into the story feels more than a bit like an obvious marketing ploy, although his snark adds a fun dimension to the book.

Issue #0.1 is a retelling/revamping of the origin story for Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord). It’s fairly well done and probably the most interesting bit of the book. The main plot of the book concerns King J-Son and a council made up of rulers of all the major galactic powers. They discuss the jurisdiction of Earth, and J-Son seems to be using the others to set the Guardians up for a fall. The team, meanwhile, is trying to figure out what's really going on and escape galactic forces while simultaneously protecting the earth.

That's the plot of only about half the ‘pages’ of the book, because I have the digital version. The other half ("Tomorrow’s Avengers #1") is a short series of digital comics: one for each member of the Guardians except Quill, putting a spotlight on each character and telling what they were doing just before the events of the main story.

These are pretty good, although it might make more sense to read them before the main story, since that's when they take place. Each short is done by a different artist.

This might be the first digital comic book that I've read that was built for the form. It's effectively a cross between a traditional comic and a flip-book. Many times, very little changes between panels, just adding a speech bubble or changing a character's position. You could also think of it at times like animation that is only keyframes, that you're manually advancing. It was really interesting to read, although it took a little to get used to at first.

Overall this was fun but nothing groundbreaking or incredibly compelling.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett
Nathan Ward, 2015

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Everyone familiar with Hammett’s writing knows it was inspired by his time as a Pinkerton Detective. But what does that actually mean? Nathan Ward attempts to reconstruct Hammett’s pre-writing career and its impact.

I enjoyed reading this book, but it’s trying to fill a very specific niche. It’s not a complete biography; it’s not much about the later part of Hammett’s life. It is mostly an attempt to reconstruct where and when he worked as a detective and the people or kinds of people he worked with.

There is very little confirmed material to work with, so the author has to rely on third-party recollections or examples from similar operatives and/or operations. He questions the truth of some of the more impressive stories Hammett told about his time with Pinkerton, but replaces the whiz-bang tales with a more grounded sense of the people and cases Hammett would have encountered and what published work they may have later inspired.

The portrait that emerges, of a man always working against the clock of his health, is a compelling one. I also really liked the actual corroborated stories of cases that Pinkerton operatives worked, whether Hammett was involved or not.

However, while I think it succeeded in its specific mandate, I might sometime like to read a more complete biography.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The New Year Cometh

Monday, December 28, 2015

Another year is on the wane, and like so many, I find it a good time to look back and look forward.

This year I read more books than I blogged about. Most of the ones I skipped writing a full review of were fun but not exceptionally strong or weak reads, unexceptional sequels to books I did review, books outside of my normal genres, or re-reads.

I also quit reading a decent handful of books this year, which is unusual for me. I have become more protective of my time, and I am less willing to waste it on books that don’t grab my attention.

This was a really strong year for comics and graphic novels. Half of the books I rated 5 stars this year were graphic novels; three of those are the first in a new series and one is a prequel:

As far as comic books that I’m collecting in issues, everyone should be reading The Wicked and The Divine and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Also if you like dark fantasy, check out Monstress. Loki: Agent of Asgard wrapped up this summer, and it was very good as well.

I rated four novels 5 stars this year: two in the same series, one classic Hugo winner, and one new release:

In 2016 I plan to continue my read of the Hugo Winners (I only got through three this year), and I’m starting into a section of the list where I’ve read many of the winners before.

I’d also like to be a bit more conscious and methodical in expanding into new authors and genres. I already regularly sprinkle mystery, memoir and some nonfiction into the mix, but I do it haphazardly, when a cheap book catches my eye or I hear about something on a website or a podcast.

I had been thinking about this when I stumbled across the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. A lot of sites post year-long challenges in December, but this is the first one that’s really appealed to me. I like the mix of categories, and that for me the range of genres seems neither too hard or too easy. Also I have a huge pile of Kindle and paper books that I purchased over the last few years but have not read. I’m going to fill as many of the Read Harder slots as I can with books I already have, and slow down the accumulation of new stuff until I make some inroads on the existing piles.

This year also saw the release of two books I worked on: A Count of Five and A Tide of Ice. I am really enjoying editing this series: the characters are great and the scale of the world is amazing. Expect book three next fall.

Happy new year, everyone. May your to-read piles be full of unexpected gems.

The Raven in the Foregate (Cadfael Series)

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Raven in the Foregate (Cadfael Series)
Ellis Peters, 1986

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This is book number twelve in the Cadfael series, but I jumped ahead to it because it's set explicitly at Christmas.

Premise: In 1141, a new priest comes to the town outside the abbey. He is harsh with the people and quickly makes enemies. The woman and young man who came into town with Father Ailnoth are not who they say they are, and all mysteries must come to light after a violent death on Christmas Eve.

I've very much enjoyed all of the Cadfael books I have read, although this one seems to retread some ground. Cadfael's friendship with and patronage of the young couple particularly, is a repeated thread in more than one of these stories. It's still an enjoyable yarn, with the final solution to the mystery held secret to the end, despite how steadily pieces are revealed.

Cadfael, as usual, keeps his own counsel and works only for what he thinks is the best outcome for all concerned. If you haven't read any of the books, or seen the PBS series starring Derek Jacobi, you'll enjoy meeting the down-to-earth herbalist with a knowledge of both early forensics and what drives men's hearts. I understand why for story reasons the reader occasionally follows other characters, but I prefer more straight Cadfael in these books.

One of the plots in this volume pertains to the struggle for power in England at this time between the Empress Matilda and Stephen of Blois. Some basic knowledge of this time, either from reading other books in this series or just from general history, will be helpful in following the motivations of various characters.

The presence of Christmas is strong enough, I think, to give this credit as a Christmas story. The murder is done during the overnight service between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as is the first meeting of the young couple. The riddle's solution is discovered on New Year's Day.

This isn't my favorite Cadfael volume I've read, but it is a decent entry in the series, and paints a picture of what Christmas may have been like in both abbey and town in 1141.

3 Stars - A Good Book