Review: The Second Death by T. Frohock (2016)

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Kindle Edition, 128 pages
Published March 29th 2016 by Harper Voyager Impulse
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Wow.

I should start by clarifying that this piece, The Second Death, is the third and final entry in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series of novellas. Obviously, you will need to read the first two to actually understand what’s going on here – but that’s a good thing, because they’re wonderful. And I apologize in advance to Teresa if I misuse any wording or abbreviations while writing this review – I’m not sure of all of the correct terms 🙂

As this series has progressed, things have gotten more and more intense; the different threads of the story, the deceptions, the hatred, the two-timing, the relationships, and the implications of each series of events. We left Without Light or Guide with Diago and Miguel hiding in Don Guillermo’s Santuari, with Diago’s son, Rafael. Diago is still recovering from his previous injuries and trauma, and suffering lingering symptoms of that, however is trying to reintegrate himself with the Los Nefilim as quickly as possible, while getting to the bottom of the events unfolding around him.

All of this is thrown for a quick loop, as Diago is attacked outside of his home, and him and  Rafael are taken prisoner by corrupt German Nefil, who are conspiring with certain members of the Spanish Los Nefilim, and their distrust of Diago, and his daimon blood. Diago’s husband, Miguel, springs into action to recover his lover and their boy, along with the help of Don Guillermo, the leader of the Los Nefilim, and one of Diago’s few true supporters. Along the way, they gain help of a pair of ancient angels of death as well, and some of their allies in the Los Nefilim.

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Diago is frantic to rescue his son, who is being used as leverage by the Die Nefil, the German Nefilim, who are working alongside the Nazis it appears, and are seeking plans for an ultra powerful magical weapon that the Nazis plan to use. Diago is forced to choose between unthinkable events – helping to aid the Die Nefil and the Nazis to save his son, and potentially doom them all, losing his son forever as he would receive the Second Death, or a potentially even worse idea, especially for his reputation amongst those who doubt him – turning to daimons for help.

The Second Death is a thrilling, heart-wrenching conclusion to this series, and one that engrossed me from the start. Much of the unexplained aspects of Frohock’s world are explored in this novel, at least to some degree, and some of the lingering questions were answered. We learn a lot more about the other Nefil branches, and how easily swayed in different directions and philosophies they can be. The corruption within the Los Nefilim alone becomes more apparent, as an overthrow attempt is made on Don Guillermo’s claim to power among the Spanish Los Nefilim.

We also learn more of the true star of the series – Miguel. A patient, understanding lover, who supports Diago through everything; his problems, his infidelity/rape, his lack of perspective and understanding, his health. Miguel accepts Diago’s child, borne of infidelity, as his own, bonding with the boy, taking care of Rafael when Diago can’t, and in ways that Diago cannot due to his overwhelming personal problems. Miguel is the best spouse anyone can ask for, and Diago struggles knowing that Miguel is far more than he deserves, knowing that Miguel has laid it all on the line for him time and time again, as he struggles with his own self worth and self-trust, even as those who care about him support him.

Diago’s internal struggles make up much of the entire series, and it was really fascinating to watch him grow, change, adapt. He struggles with the turmoil around him, with his own thoughts, with his doubts, with the doubts of others, with his upbringing and his relationship with his daimonic father. He struggles at every turn, and it makes him a much more real and relatable character, not superhuman, not able to shrug off things just at the drop of a hat in the name of moving the plot forward, as you see in so many other books. He’s the most ‘human’ character I’ve may be ever read, while simultaneously not truly being human – ironic, isn’t it?

Death is a large theme in the series – while many of the characters are, essentially, immortal, the fear of the dreaded second death looms over them all. To kill an immortal so that they cannot reincarnate, to end their lives forever. Rafael being threatened with the second death is a heartbreaking and terrifying prospect for Diago, much more so than his own personal death, and leads him to risk it all by negotiating with his father, who has become one with the evil Moloch, in order to try and save his son by fooling the German Nefil into thinking they’d received the plans for their weapon.

Frohock brilliantly handles almost every aspect of the series, keeps it interesting, keeps things moving, while not ruining the pacing, not overdoing it. A lot of questions are still left unanswered, but that’s a reality when you are writing a short novella series, and don’t have the time and space to really explore things. I feel she could do significantly more to explore this world, and I hope she opts to do so going forward. However, the amount of info given in the books, the level of understanding the reader leaves with, while still leaving a large amount of intrigue and questions, is skillfully done, and very enjoyable.

I loved this series, and I just want more of it. Diago and Miguel and Rafael, their family of bears, are near-and-dear to my heart after spending this time with them. The incomparable Don Guillermo, his family, their friends in the Los Nefilim have left an impression on me that will last. I couldn’t recommend this series more – to fans of dark fantasy, of fantasy horror, or to people looking to branch out into something new. Los Nefilim is approachable, quick to read, incredibly well-written, and above all – it’s just really, really damn entertaining.

Bravo, Teresa.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review: This Census-Taker by China Mieville (2016)

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Hardcover, 210 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Del Rey (first published January 5th 2016)

My relationship with China Mieville’s works are….tumultuous. He simultaneously has written one of my favorite books (The City & The City), and one of my least favorite books ever (Perdido Street Station). Mieville is another author whom many people I respect adore, but my first impressions were not very good. However, I feel motivated to figure out what it is people see in him. Luckily, my last couple book experiences with China’s novels were generally positive. This Census-Taker was another one of those successes for me.

The story is told from the perspective of a young man – an incredibly unreliable young man. He is a victim, he is naive and uninformed, and he is scared. After noticing a disturbing pattern with his father’s behavior, he walks in on his father committing a heinous act. He runs to town, for protection, for escape, for comfort – only to find that the townsfolk do not believe his story, find his inconsistencies in telling to be suspicious, and side with his father, releasing him back to his father’s care. He stays with his father, alone, until a knock on the door comes, and his world is turned upside down yet again.

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A novella-length novel is a bit of an odd format for a guy like Mieville, and because of that, the book is a very ambiguous telling. Little background is given, even at the end, and the reader is left to fill in pieces in their head, following along as the young man figures out what is happening around him, tries to piece together why his life is falling apart before his eyes. You’re left wondering what exactly is going on at every turn, whether the narrator is accurately depicting or interpreting things, whether there’s something less obvious happening behind the scenes.

Additionally, this book is DARK. Right from the start, you’re smashed in the face with tragic events, and they continue as the story progresses, along with undercurrents of even more sinister things. It does not feel “dark for the sake of being dark”, it feels dark for a purpose. It drew me into the book even more, as I could feel the confusion and terror of the protagonist, I could feel the impact of the terrible things occurring, I could feel his exasperation at the lack of support he’s receiving, and his feelings of helplessness. His terror was palpable.

There are periods of the novella where I was a bit confused, a bit lost – but that was part of the point. With a drastic economy of space, Mieville paints a vivid picture, the gaps in the story leaving the imagination to fill in the rest – not in a lazy way, but in an incredibly skillful way. The prose and wording lack some of the “overcomplication” that Mieville can get himself into, such as he did in the New Crobuzon novels. Instead, we’re fed an eloquent and enjoyable format, one suited to following a young boy experiencing trauma, but not one that feels YA or childish. I was never left searching for a dictionary, nor was I left wishing for more .

It’s open-ended enough, especially the ending and some of the details about the narrator’s future (where he is telling the story under guard and incarceration for some reason). The unreliability is further enhanced by changes in tense, switching from second to third to first to third, and giving a bit of a schizophrenic feel. Very little is ever laid out in the book – it’s implied, it’s subtle, it’s gently addressed.

It’s a weird format, but it’s coming from a weird author. And it works.

Rating: 4 / 5

Throwback Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (2006)

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Paperback, 368 pages
Published January 3rd 2006 by Harper Paperbacks (first published 2004)

“Destiny is all. And now, looking back, I see the pattern of my life’s journey. It began in Bebbanburg and took me south, ever southward, until I reached the farthest coast of England and could go no farther and still hear my own language. That was my childhood’s journey. As a man I have gone the other way, ever northward, carrying sword and spear and ax to clear the path back to where I began. Destiny.”

Why do more people not read Bernard Cornwell novels? This is my third from him, and I have LOVED all three so far, and intend to continue reading more. As far as historical fiction is concerned, there are very few authors that I have found to even remotely hold a candle to Cornwell.

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This is a retelling of historical events, which follow Uhtrid, a young Englishman, son of a noble landholder, who is captured by the invading Danes. He is subsequently accepted into their culture and family as a son, trained to fight, trained in their ways, and even helps the Danes fighting the British. However, he is returned to the English at the behest of their king, Alfred, who has visions for the young man his scouts identified as assimilating into the Danish culture.

Alfred is an ultra-pious Christian, as most everyone seems to be at that point. However, Uhtrid, having spent some time as a child around the extra strict Christians, finds he prefers the Danish way of life much more, namely it’s warrior culture and lack of rules. He begrudgingly agrees to help King Alfred fight the Danes, protect his lanes, and provides info and fighting prowess. He bounces around quite a bit through his youth and teen years, back and forth between the Danes and English, accepted by both, fighting for both and against both, before finally settling with the English, marrying at the command of his king, and assisting in bringing down the invading Danish forces and protecting Alfred’s quickly shrinking lands.

The story is, in a word, outstanding. Cornwell’s writing style, prose, dialogue, fight scenes and other action – all are fantastic. I loved watching Uhtred grow, change his views, become self-reflective on how he is a child being manipulated, including realizing at one point that he “follows the last person who spoke with him”, upon becoming conscious of the fact that he tends to agree and follow the Danes when they speak with him, and the English when they speak to him. It’s a refreshing change from the oblivious, head-down characters that are so often present.

Cornwell does an excellent job of portraying information without feeling “dumpy”, and his dialogue always felt realistic, un-stuffy, and smooth. Characters interacted well, reacted and grew based upon their conversations, and tended to act within character, rather than catering to the story being told (which, admittedly, is limited due to being close to historical records). The pious nature of the English is well handled – presented often and assertively, but without feeling hamfisted or awkward. It was a great presentation of Uhtred’s struggles with his countrymen’s religion versus his own beliefs, his struggle for identity, swapping between the Danes and English often as his moods, motivations, and maturity level changed.

I really, truly enjoyed everything about this book. I could make minor complaints – it is a bit jumpy at points, skips over some periods of time. The standard ‘ye olde strong female character’ is another English girl who is captured while Uhtred is with the Danes, and sticks around with Uhtrid as he goes back and forth between the English and Danish. She is, however, a bit bland, and I found she did not contribute a whole lot other than an occasional assistance in talking their way out of a sticky situation, or just kind of ‘being there’. I would have liked to see her play a bigger role than she did, and the way she exited the story was abrupt and did not serve a lot of purpose.

However, speaking of endings: this book’s was SPECTACULAR. A huge battle between Uhtrid and one of his former friends and leaders, with some snappy dialogue and a very satisfying finish. The final line of the book, without spoiling, is a tribute to the quote I made at the top of this review, and felt like a total “mic drop” situation. It was badass, and I was left going “Daaaaamn”. I loved it.

I am eager to read more of these stories.

Additionally, the audio narration done by Jonathan Keeble is some of the best I’ve EVER listened to – he gets excitable when needed, and adds an edge to important battle scenes or dramatic moments. His accent adds a feeling of authenticity to the English protagonist, but is thin enough to not distract from the story. Absolutely A+ work by him.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review – A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab (2015)

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Hardcover, 398 pages
Published February 24th 2015 by Tor Books
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A Darker Shade of Magic is a wildly creative book, encompassing parallel worlds that, for the sake of the book’s POV, contain four variations of the city of London. Our main protagonist, Kell, is a magician, who possesses the increasingly rare ability to travel between these Londons, and thus is afforded a life as, essentially, an honorary prince for a noble family, used to travel between these parallel Londons and relay messages between the royal families of each. His London, “Red” London, is still magical, still a place where folks like Kell are embraced. “White” London…not so much. Magic is scarce there. “Grey” London has no magic remaining, no signs of it, little to no knowledge of it. And “Black” London? Well, we don’t really want to talk about Black London.

The worldbuilding for the book is a lot of fun – there aren’t a TON of details about each individual London to go around, but the entire situation is handled fluidly by Schwab, keeping things interesting while introducing the concepts, never leaving the reader feeling as though they’re the victim of a textbook-style infodump, while simultaneously getting a lot of relevant items across. Kell’s early struggles seamlessly expose us to the majority of the information we need, including the creative blood magic that he (and one of his counterparts) possess, as well as the varying differences between the parallel Londons.

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The writing quality of the book stays consistent – Schwab has a very eloquent, approachable prose, that keeps the pages turning. I felt as though I was finally getting some of that ‘whimsy’ that everyone is so in love with in books – it felt like a bit of a cross between Neil Gaiman and, say, Jo Walton. The book had a fairy-tale quality overall, but without sacrificing it’s structure and validity in the process. The dialogue was generally snappy and witty, the various characters bright and vibrant.

However, the main issue I took with the book was, in fact, it’s characters. Not because they were poorly written, but because I just didn’t like them. Kell, for a powerful magician with a rather interesting history, is often 10-ply soft. He waxes emotional poetic about how the family that took him in, cared for him, accepted him as one of their own, and provided him with many of the luxuries and power of a full fledged royal did not love him enough, or the motivations behind their acceptance of him. He gives in to almost everyone, then will turn around and use very powerful magic to kill someone. It was an interesting dichotomy, and often the switches back and forth were jarring. That said, I felt connected to him, I felt some understanding of his struggles, and I felt for him as he watched his princely brother suffer and almost die, the closest friend he had.

The bigger problem, however, was our secondary protagonist, Lila. Lila is a pickpocket/thief in grey London, and robs Kell of an important bauble that could have huge-scale negative effects if it fell into the wrong hands, and forces Kell to pursue her. The issue I took was that Lila was gods damned obnoxious. She was arrogant, childish, extremely immature, self-centered, and downright annoying at times. She was, essentially, every negative aspect you could pick out if you hung around a group of middle school preteens, wrapped into one adult-aged overgrown brat. She is ungrateful, defiant in EVERY way, so self-aggrandizing as to think she’s significantly more important and powerful than she is, and essentially constantly says “no” to everyone and everything said to her. Yet, somehow, she comes out as the hero in the end, which was a VERY “YA” style touch, to me. I appreciate what Schwab was trying to do with her, but she just came across as a constant thorn in everyone’s side, a TERRIBLE person overall, and one of the most grating characters I’ve ever had to read.

I would find myself reading the book, smiling, really enjoying the whimsy and story progression, then it would be broken up by Lila acting out like a petulant preteen, and I would immediately groan and be taken out of my enjoyment and immersion in the story. It’s frustrating to read other reviews and see people loving Lila – I just found her to be abhorrent, some ways blatant and some subtle; she reveled in murder, bragging to Kell about how much she enjoyed the aspects of killing. She reveled in her self-centered thievery, robbing those who cared for her and gave her love, despite her complete lack of appreciation. She refused to listen to any instructions or suggestions, instead selfishly hoarding the magical item for her own use and putting it in constant further peril. She was, frankly, a monster.

I’d like to clarify, here, that I don’t rate down books because people act badly, or are evil. Jorg Ancrath is a terrible person, but I loved him and his stories. However, Lila has a grating quality, and it felt like every third thing she said or did made me physically cringe, made me uncomfortable, made me angry and annoyed. She was well-written as that style of character, and I feel like everyone knows some obnoxious, self-centered snob like Lila in real life, to compare her to. However, the “annoying” factor really drug her down for me.

That giant rant aside, Lila’s nature did not take away from the book quite enough to drag it down. Schwab’s writing was wonderful, and the story had a fantastic ‘feel’ to it. The actual plot of the story wasn’t the most creative ever, but at this point, there’s only so many different story types to choose from. The details, however, were creative and lovely, and I enjoyed the way that, despite the main character having control over the magics, they still felt powerful, rare, scarce. The worldbuilding, overall, was really well done, and really transported me into the story. I can’t rightly give exceptional marks to a story where I hated a character so much, however, the rest of the story warranted praise, and I can safely say that I really enjoyed the book overall, and plan to read the sequels.

Rating: 4 / 5

Review – Calamity by Brandon Sanderson (2016)

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Hardcover, 421 pages
Published February 16th 2016 by Delacorte Press
PURCHASE ON AMAZON ($10 hardcover as of today!)

Calamity is the conclusion to Brandon’s ambitious ‘Reckoners‘ series – a young adult, superhero epic that deconstructs what it means to be a superhero, and what would happen if superpowers tainted their users into selfish, evil acts. It’s a fantastic concept, and a really fresh take on what is, often, a bit of a worn out concept (especially considering the rush of superhero movies and TV media of late).

I will admit, openly, that I often struggle with YA books – I find that, more often than not, YA novels feel watered down, neutered, unfulfilled. There are obvious exceptions – the brilliant Hunger Games comes to mind, as well as a piece of art such as Red Rising (which was not really a YA novel). However, if Brandon Sanderson writes something, I will read it – in the case of the Reckoners series, I’m glad that fact pulled me in, as I’ve enjoyed my ride through this world.

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Brandon and I – Worldcon 2015, Spokane, WA

Calamity picks up where Firefight left off – Prof has given into the evil that his powers brought, leaving the Reckoners behind. Meanwhile, Megan, formerly working with Steelheart, continues to help the Reckoners alongside her boyfriend – our protagonist and POV – David. The team is fighting to stop the destruction of more cities, stop Prof and hopefully turn him back into his old self, free of the taint of being a high Epic. The end goal is, of course, to stop Calamity, the head Epic, so to speak, from continuing his path of destruction and influence over the other epics.

The feel of Calamity, for me, was a tad different than the previous novels. It’s the same band of characters, plus a few new faces, but the focus in this novel focuses a lot more on those characters themselves, whereas the previous novels spent a lot more time looking into the Epics, exploring the ramifications of their actions, and highlighting the Oceans 11 style plans the team comes up with to bring them down. While the team is still planning, the Epics are still Epicing, and there is ample high-intensity fighting, Calamity pumps the brakes a bit on the pacing, brings things back into focus, and puts the character changes and development into a much bigger spotlight.

Which, in this case, both works, and also does not necessarily work. I really enjoyed watching some real, tangible character growth – especially towards the end of this novel. More “Oh, damn, I guess I need to change how I think about things” moments, rather than discovering a problem or solution, and just going with it. The downside to this, however, is that with how much focus is placed on this, the action and development of their plan and course of action is stunted, and it brings the series’ rapid pace down quite a bit. It was more of a shock related to the change of pace, rather than a real ‘problem’.

On that note, I did enjoy the characters quite a bit. The Reckoners squad are a lot of fun – a varied group, almost like a stock textbook photo; people of all sexes, races and backgrounds. They work together, each having their own unique speech patterns and quirks: David’s terrible metaphors, Abraham’s sage knowledge, Cody’s ridiculous made up Scotland stories. They are entertaining as hell, and the interplay between these characters, as well as the slight focus placed on each of their ‘quirks’, makes for a very fluid read when they’re interacting with each other. I enjoyed the addition of Nighthawk quite a bit, and thought his predicament was very unique (avoiding spoilers there).

Where this fails a bit is with Calamity himself, the ubervillain of this tale. While all the other characters were bright, fleshed out, explored – Calamity feels…incomplete. He comes across as a whiny, spoiled child, but has little else to him. His background is not explored nearly enough, and I was left with a bit of longing towards the end, wishing I knew more about him, more about his motivations, more than him just being a malevolent baddie. I know in superhero roles, the bad guys are often black/white “baddies”, but this series transcends those “typical” characters, explores them quite a bit, and I wanted Calamity to be explored a lot more.

The ending, as a whole, didn’t quite work for me. I didn’t understand some pieces of it – why certain characters had certain powers, why certain characters gained aforementioned certain powers, and the general feeling of…unfulfillment. I enjoyed my journey through this series, but was left feeling that the conclusion was too open-ended, and not the satisfying, fleshed-out series completions I’ve come to know and love from Sanderson. The book had all of the characteristic things I love from a Brandon book, but the ending came across as a more watered down version of the ending I expected.

The feel-good portions of the ending, namely in the epilogue, I enjoyed quite a bit. I didn’t really see it coming, and it made it all the more enjoyable. I’m normally not the kind of guy who actively seeks a happy ending, but I was glad to see one in this series – it just felt right, it felt like it SHOULD have a happy ending, so I was glad that decision was made.

Overall, I enjoyed Calamity quite a bit. There were a lot of laughable points, some sadness, and a lot of moments in character growth that I really enjoyed. That said, the book felt a bit incomplete, the ending leaving a bit to be desired. I’m a bit torn overall, as I really did have a great time reading this book, as well as the rest of the series, and I’m a bit sad to see it go (for now). This wasn’t my favorite Sanderson novel, but his bar is set so high that I feel I’m not saying much by stating that. Sanderson with some ‘holes’ in the writing is still better than 99% of writers out there, so needless to say, it’s still a great book, a great series, and an enjoyable read.

It just wasn’t perfect.

Rating: 3.5 / 5