Those Who Hunt the Night

Monday, October 27, 2014

Those Who Hunt the Night
Barbara Hambly, 1988

Premise: James Asher is a professor. He knows a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about linguistics and anthropology. He is also a retired player of the Great Game. This is why, when Simon Ysidro demands his help, Asher’s first response is to notice his unique accent. His second is notice that Ysidro isn’t breathing. Ysidro needs Asher to help him find out who is killing the vampires of London. Asher just needs to not get killed.

A little fun with vampires for Halloween.

I feel like it would be a little unusual today to see a novel that deals so well with the potential ambiguity of vampires. Even if they once were human, and retain some human qualities, that just makes them, at best, as untrustworthy as humans. Even when he becomes engrossed in the problem for its own sake, Asher never forgets that Ysidro might turn on him, or stops thinking about options should he need to turn on them.

These are dangerous predators. Asher is blackmailed into helping Ysidro try to discover the killer, even though most of the vampires would just as soon ignore the problem and kill Asher.

This is a really fun novel. It took me a while to get over how many annoying times James’ wife Lydia is described as a waifish beauty… but it’s in tone for the style of the time the book is set in. Plus she’s actually a medical researcher, and pretty great. It’s set in the early 20th century, shortly after the publication of Dracula, naturally. The characters are intriguing and the plot twists mostly satisfying. One of the biggest reveals was such a surprise to me, though, I had a little trouble following. Even so, the ending was great.

A solid thriller/mystery with some appropriately scary monsters.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Fountains of Paradise

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Fountains of Paradise
Arthur C. Clarke, 1979

Hugo Winner - 1980

Premise: Vannevar Morgan has a vision. He is already the most acclaimed architect of his generation, but now he wants to help man climb to the stars in the first space elevator. The only thing in his way is the monastery sitting on top of the ideal building location.

The Fountains of Paradise begins with a flashback to the ancient story of King Kalidasa (a fictionalized version of Kashyapa I who terrorized his enemies and built a massive tribute to his own power, in sight of the proposed site of the elevator. The book, on a certain level, is all about men’s efforts to make a mark on history, to build something that will outlast them.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit. Like Rendezvous With Rama, it does a nice job of balancing the intricacies of theory around the technology with the human stories of the people interacting with it. It’s not a book for those that need their stories to be purely character driven. We observe Vannevar and the other characters from close enough to sympathize and be engaged with their stories, but never connect to them on a very deep level.

Another theme that I enjoyed centered on the relationship between the continued existence of religion and gaining new knowledge, particularly knowledge of extraterrestrial life. It’s only sort of tied to the rest of the book, and it’s (sadly) not terribly believable these days, but it’s a pleasant subplot, posing a fairly utopian outcome.

I’ve found both Hugo-winners I’ve read by Clarke so far to be excellent palate-cleansers: intellectual puzzles and intriguing worlds make a nice break from books (or movies/tv) full of over-the-top romance, angst, and strife. Fountains has its life-or-death moments, but they aren’t emotionally exhausting to read.

I found this book very solidly satisfying, and I’ll have to make room for some more Clarke in my to-read pile.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

List of Hugo Winners

Cold Fire (Spiritwalker, Book 2)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cold Fire (Spiritwalker, Book 2)
Kate Elliot, 2011

Premise: Sequel to Cold Magic. Armed with some, but not enough, of the answers, Catherine tries to protect her cousin, disentangle herself from her arranged marriage, not get arrested, decide whether to help one of the factions of radicals, and figure out who or what her father is. It’s sort of a busy time.

Let me start with the nitpicks. I don’t like how this book/series plays to the trope: ‘hot guy who is attracted to the main character conveniently secretly a good guy, despite initial evidence to the contrary.’ This was touched on in book one and expanded here. I’m willing to go with it, but… I like the magic plot and the politics plot so many times more than the romance plot here. I’m warming to Vai a little, but I need to spend like a few months sometime only reading books with NO romance to reset my internal calibrations.

I hated how many times Cat was just floored by a twist. There are a lot of plot twists in this book, but in book one it was established that she was trained from birth in subterfuge and spycraft and politics. Why does it sometimes seem like everyone in the world can pull one over on her? She gets a few wins, but I was just so annoyed by people tricking her.

Little warning for impaired consent in this book. It’s addressed (later) to a certain extent, but still. Be ye warned.

But saying all that makes it seem as though I didn’t like the book. I did like it. I really enjoyed the read. It’s fast paced. The world is greatly expanded in a way I really enjoyed, that gave it more depth and color. Cat finds out about her heritage and both embraces and fights it in a way that makes me not want to put the book down.

I missed Rory, absent for much of this volume, and I could have used even more Beatrice.

I did enjoy this book, and I’ll probably get around to the third, but not until it’s on sale.

And if you have any suggestions for great sci-fi or fantasy novels that feature awesome lady protagonists who decide to entirely chuck their would-be lovers because of duty or a higher purpose or just the desire to form a lesbian utopia, send them my way.

Cold Fire gets 3 Stars - A Good Book


Monday, August 18, 2014

Vonda McIntyre, 1978

Hugo Winner - 1979

Premise: Snake is a healer traveling on her first year out of training. After a heartbreaking setback, she is determined to return to her people with something worthy of the trust placed in her.

Looking at most covers of this book, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a fantasy. The first few chapters don't do much to discourage the notion, either. The full picture of the setting and the lives of the people there is only slowly revealed.

I liked Snake - her attitudes and assumptions felt right for someone caught between being highly trained and being still pretty young. I could have done with a bit less screen time for the guy crushing on her, but he was inoffensive and made a decent spearcarrier/exposition man.

I do want to mention: part of the early set up for the plot gave me a real emotional punch in the gut. It's supposed to, so that you feel Snake's own anger and despair, but if you, like me, have a particular sensitivity to cruelty to animals and an intolerance of superstition, it'll probably hit you hard as well.

I can't decide whether I liked the overall level of exposition about the world. Part of me thinks it's perfect - that we see the outlines but are left guessing about many of the deeper questions. Part of me wants to know more. We're left, though, with just this one story, just one part of one woman's story.

One thing I’m sure of: it is a lovely, surreal journey to take.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

List of Hugo Winners

The Superior Spider-Man: Volume One: My Own Worst Enemy

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Superior Spider-Man: Volume One: My Own Worst Enemy
Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman, et. al., 2013

Premise: Otto Octavius has finally defeated Spider-Man. Defeated him, and become him. Now resident in Peter Parker's brain, with access to his memories, what will he make of Peter's quest to balance power and responsibility? Collects Superior Spider-Man #1-5

This is one of those cases where you just have to go with the insane set-up. Don’t worry, Peter doesn’t stay completely dead for even the entire first issue. The tension between the reader’s knowledge of Otto’s internal motivations and everyone else trying to make sense of his behavior is pretty fun, although not the real story. The real story is whether this Spider-Man’s different tactics and priorities will actually do a better job of protecting the city. It’s a classic ruthlessness-vs.-belief-in-redemption story that’s common to a lot of superhero tales, but it’s very well executed here.

Oh, there’s also the side story about whether Otto will sleep with Mary Jane. (Don’t worry, the answer is no, it’s just really creepy for a while.)

Also, why anybody could fail to notice that something was seriously off...

Really, this guy’s a super-villain? Do tell.

With quite a bit of humor leavening the occasionally brutal action, this is a fun title, and I enjoyed it.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Alias Hook

Monday, July 7, 2014

Alias Hook
Lisa Jensen, 2014

New Release! I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.
Premise: The story of one James Hook, his rise, his fall, and his struggle with the reality and surreality of Neverland.

If you read, I mean really read, Peter and Wendy as an adult, you discover a curious thing. On the one hand, it is the story of a delightful adventure in a land where children’s games rule. On the other hand, it is the story of the Darlings, left bereft and terrified by the disappearance of their children. It is the story of the pirates, men casually murdered by children with no moral sense and a great deal of power. It is about the tragedy as well as the joy of childhood, the utter carelessness and amorality of children.

All that is to say that I enjoyed Alias Hook for the way the author is building on the original story. (I’ve seen a few reviewers already not take this into consideration and it bugs me. Yes, it’s inventive, but it’s impressive BECAUSE it works with the original. BECAUSE it’s NOT a full re-imagining!) For one thing, she explains and describes the fairy orgies, alluded to once in the original text! I really liked the expansion on some of the aspects of Neverland and the way it ties into wider myth-systems.

The prose is well constructed, the description in-depth without dragging. I did enjoy Hook, the reality of his situation and his grasping for something, anything to end the cycle between him and Pan.

I liked Parrish (the woman whose arrival in Neverland may be an indication that things are changing). I liked her story and her gumption.

That’s the good.

There is a great deal of flashback, and Hook’s early backstory either needed more or less time. I found it fractured and split between dull and nonsensically violent. Once all of the plot (past and present) was on Neverland, the book improved dramatically.

I have real mixed feelings about the ending. I feel like there were different/better ways certain of the characters could have gone. I fundamentally disagree with the tone of the ending, and feel that it leaves a lot of really unpleasant plot holes created by the expansion of/meta explanations for Neverland. That said, it’s… uh… romantic? Sure. That’s fine. But not satisfying. The prologue is satisfying, the resolution is thin.

Okay. To sum up: Worldbuilding is really strong, meta-plot is interesting, resolution is structurally and tonally weak.

Still strong enough for: 3 Stars - A Good Book

Unwept (The Nightbirds, #1)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Unwept (The Nightbirds, #1)
Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman, 2014

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

Premise: Ellis wakes up on a train after a terrifying dream. She is sitting across from a woman with a baby, who tells her that she’s been sick, and she is going to stay with her cousin. She has no memory, only a sense that something is terribly wrong.

This is one of those books where the discovery is half the joy. You, the reader, will figure out things faster than Ellis, who doesn’t have the ability to notice references and foreshadowing. I went back and forth while reading the book over which of a few possible reveals I thought it would be, and which I wanted. While I’m not 100% on board with the final reveal, I think the world could go interesting places from here.

The setting, a tiny New England town, is perfectly creepy, and the build slow without losing tension. It helps that the book is rather short. Ellis uncovers one unnerving thing after another, while everyone around her is so happy that she’s back, and so eager to hear about her trip to the city, which of course she can’t recall.

All the details about the town and the people in it just contribute to the mystery, and just a heads up: the tone of the book takes a swing from dark fantasy into horror for the last section.

I really liked Ellis, I liked the way she tried to stand firm as everything around her fell apart, I understood her fear and confusion, I liked where she chose to push and where she chose to conserve her strength.

I wish the book had more of an ending, but this is a ‘real’ series, where you’ll have to read the next one to find out what happens…

4 Stars - A Very Good Book