Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

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Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published July 12th 2016 by Tor

I want to preface by saying that I know David a bit, as he’s a prominent figure in the local book scene, however I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup. I’m a huge fan of his short fiction – I really have legitimately enjoyed pretty much all works from him I’ve ever read. Knowing that, I was more than excited to get my hands on his full novel, especially once the details on the plot and setting came out.

Arabella Ashby is a Martian. Actually, let me rephrase that: Arabella Ashby is a lady of English descent, who is part of a generation of colonists who were born and raised on Mars.

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In the 1600s, leaps in technology allowed Captain Kidd to take an airship to Mars, and begin the process of colonizing the planet. Obviously, there’s some suspension of disbelief here, but this is a fantasy/steampunk novel afterall, so that’s expected. The sooner you get over those improbabilities, the sooner you can enjoy novels like this. Arabella’s family runs a wood plantation on the colonized Mars, however her mother is concerned with the danger Arabella faces on the planet, as well as her increasing levels of tomboyish endeavors that take her away from being a proper English lady. Mother packs up Arabella to head back to Earth, leaving Arabella’s father and her brother, Michael, behind to run the plantation. However, word comes back later of her father’s passing, and soon after Arabella is surprised by deceit within her family, necessitating her getting to Mars to protect her brother – as soon as possible.

Arabella then escapes her family (whose mother I don’t remember her ever actually getting a hold of, despite thinking about it at one point) and looks for passage to Mars, however without any money on hand. She steals some men’s clothing, poses as a boy, and joins the military. However, before she can leave, she’s approached by a private sailing cargo ship, who employ her as a captain’s boy. The book follows Arabella’s adventures on the trade ship Diana, a dirigible capable of space travel on coal/steam power, wherein she learns valuable skills and proves her worth, fights the French, and has to deal with a ship mutiny, while hiding her true sex, before negotiating with the native Martians to get her brother back.

There are a lot of pieces moving in this story, despite it’s overall straightforward feel. Levine’s writing is, as always, an easy and pleasing read, technically sound but not stuffy at all. The dialogue is intelligent, believable, and consistent, and the story flows at an excellent pace, without major stalling at any point, or unnecessary info dumps. The shorter format of the novel means it’s a quick read overall, which is superb as it’s a hell of a page-turner. All of the characters are diverse, with unique voices and traits, and I had no issues keeping people separated based on their actions and speech alone.

I really enjoyed the way the space travel was handled – hints at some of the various things that went into it occurring, but not going overboard in technical explanations, or using magic of some sort. The fact it was just “it is what it is” was a great touch for me, and helped keep me from thinking of unnecessary details, and just enjoying the story within the framework of the world developed. The ship scenes were well done, giving the intrigue and excitement of a long voyage, but without some of the boat-porn we get in other novels, such as Red Seas Under Red Skies. There were ample anxiety-inducing scenes, where I found myself actually concerned for what might happen or the consequences thereof. The ending of the book, while a bit expected, was a satisfying conclusion to this novel, leaving it open-ended enough to continue if desired, but closed tight if not.

There’s a bit of been-there, done-that for sure. Less so with the steampunk aspects, as I found the dirigible-to-Mars to be a fresh take, and really interesting. However, Arabella is similar to most teenage female protagonist in Regency-style fantasy I’ve seen; the proper lady who desires to do the things denied to her by her status as a woman. The girl posing as a boy and staying undiscovered while proving their worth. I could continue – however, this archetype works, this is popular, and people obviously enjoy it, being as I’ve seen it time and time again. Arabella herself is a deep character, who is intelligent and unique in her own way, despite meeting a lot of the characteristics I’ve seen time and time again. The cast of supporting characters are, however, quite vibrant and interesting, and help carry Arabella through her trials.

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However, what I missed in this entire process was that this is a YA novel, through and through – I’m sure this has been mentioned, but I missed the memo. While it does not appear to be directly marketed that way, it contained all the elements: teenage protagonist (bonus points for female), mild romance storyline, the proper-but-intelligent-and-full-of-ingenuity protagonist who goes outside their comfort zone to save the day, etc. The ending, while containing some fantastic writing and plot twists, also had a very feel-good-everything-went-ok feel to it that I associate with YA novels. While this is not a problem, it did catch me off-guard, as I was used to the much more adult feel and tone of much of Levine’s short fiction. He does a terrific job at this style, however, keeping the book interesting and complicated enough to keep anyone invested, while making it accessible and enjoyable to most reading age brackets.

Arabella of Mars isn’t perfect, but it’s a really great read, and a tantalizing taste of what David Levine can do when writing at novel length. If you’re the type who enjoys steampunk settings, even with a bit of Regency-era behaviors and dress, as well as space tales, this book is a home run for you, and a must-read.

Rating: 4 / 5

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Double Dip: Zero World by Jason M. Hough (2015) and The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung (2012)

Zero World by Jason M Hough (2015)

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Hardcover, 592 pages
Published August 18th 2015 by Del Rey (first published August 11th 2015)

While the largest bulk of my reading is in the fantasy genre, sci-fi is certainly the second largest part of my list. When I read sci-fi, I generally feel that I am not quite smart/nerdy enough to really enjoy ‘hard’ content, with focus on spaceships and math and realism and such – I often say I err towards the people-centric, ‘soft’ stuff, ala Scalzi. Beginning with his Dire Earth series, I certainly found that Jason Hough’s works fit enough in that mold to engage me, while also including some ‘harder’ elements that he makes very easy and unintimidating to consume.

Zero World is the story of Peter Caswell, a spy/assassin who works in a unique field – he does covert ops, assassinations and the like, however his memory of each of these missions is wiped afterwards, Men-in-Black style. His missions are received semi-anonymously, transmitted to him via a liaison from his employer, and at the end of the day, he has no idea what he did, who he killed, or even how many people he killed, aside from a clever but subtle method of leaving himself notes via beer bottles.

Peter’s world is flipped a bit when he’s given a new mission, to track down a missing crew member from a recently re-discovered ship. However, this crew member turns out to have found a way to travel through something similar to ‘tear in the fabric of space’, and Caswell soon finds himself on an alternate version of Earth – one with similar speech patterns, slightly outdated versions of Earth’s technology, and their own set of politics and problems. As well as Alice Vale, the missing crewmember from the ship, who in this world has made herself a super-scientist and celebrity, slowly introducing technology from Earth to this planet.

The book is an absolute blast – it’s very fast paced, and despite being quite long, it reads very quickly and easily. I found myself blowing through the pages, eager to find out what happens next, and caught up heavily in all of the politics and action. The book was never too predictable, and I found the twists to be surprising to me almost every time, including several “aww snap!” moments. The characters were unique and engaging, and I found myself feeling for Caswell as he felt his way through the isolation on this planet, the problems he faced, and his forthcoming memory wipe. As the story progresses, he’s put through more and more trials, and eventually has to come to terms with being forced to face all that he’s done in the past, which he was assured would remain anonymous and unknown to himself.

Zero World lived up to it’s hype as an action-film-on-paper, but despite that it never felt shallow or unfulfilled. The plot was unique enough (at least to me), very interesting, and did not feel cheap or easy. The politics felt very real, very realistic, and very plausible, and the way the characters interacted, adapted, and communicated was as well. Hough’s writing is incredibly approachable to almost anyone, while still being professional and well rounded – space is not wasted on unnecessary elements, while I was never left feeling like bits were skipped over, or shortcuts were taken.

I enjoyed this every bit as much as I did The Darwin Elevator, in fact I’d say I enjoyed it more. It was a great balance of substantial storyline and characters, mixed with breakneck action and exciting plot twists. A great read, and it was really nice to have a page-turner that also kept my mind stimulated throughout.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung(2012)

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Kindle Edition, 210 pages
Published November 28th 2012 by Michael McClung

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids came fairly highly acclaimed as an independent novel, even winning Mark Lawrence’s self-published Fantasy Blog-Off. I heard quite a bit of buzz about it in the last couple years, enough that I felt it must be added to the reading list. When I finally got a chance to read it, however, I found it didn’t necessarily live up to all the hype.

Amra Thetys, a thief, finds herself in the middle of a quagmire, after her friend comes to her following a heist. He’s been hired to steal a set of artifacts, but feels the need to keep one of these for himself, for reasons unknown at that time, and asks his friend Amra to help guard it, as he’s being hunted in order to recover it. Shortly thereafter, he turns up dead, murdered in cold blood in front of his house, and Amra is quickly swept up in the investigations, and the many layers of drama involved.

While a bit on the sparse side, the worldbuilding in Thief is interesting enough, presenting an interesting city, full of vivid and unique characters and places, as well as some very interesting (and morbid) customs and supernatural problems. The characters are numerous, which can be a bit of a problem at times as there’s quite a bit to keep up with in a very short novel, but they are all distinct enough, with their own voices and habits, as well as their own ways of handling things.

There are tons of twists and turns in the story, as Amra fights off various forces, incarceration, contracts on her life, supernatural monsters, and various other obstacles in her quest to resolve her friend’s murder, as well as gain the revenge against his killers that she so desires. She enlists the help of a friend, a powerful mage, who assists her in her struggles, while at times feeling almost too powerful.

Wherein the crux of some of the book’s problems begin – Amra seems to be constantly in unbeatable situations, extreme danger, extensive bodily or mental harm, yet comes out just fine, often with very easy, simple solutions that seem too convenient for the situations she finds herself in. The main issue I had with the novel was essentially that – everything seemed so…underwhelming. So convenient. So undeveloped. The novel is short, yet a TON of things are wedged into it, so very little time and energy is spent on individual events.

It ends up leaving an anemic feel to things – situations get built up quickly, then resolved quickly, and on to the next thing. Lather, rinse, repeat. And at the same time, the writing lack a very distinct something – I could only describe it as “soul”. Everything is so matter-of-fact, so “this happened, it was ok”. Amra goes through an amazing amount of trauma, and each is just presented as a thing that occurred, with very little insight into the effects, very little “feel” to it. The entire book felt like a casual storytelling, with no heart, nothing to make me feel for the characters, or situations, or drama. It just came across so bland in presentation.

McClung’s writing and ideas are clearly good, but the execution in this novel is lacking. I found myself unable to “get into” the book very much, because it lacked anything to draw me in, any feeling to give to the story or characters. I love a nice short novel, but this book would have benefitted greatly from another 50 pages, wherein McClung could explore the emotions, and take some time to show some impact to events, rather than just saying “x happened”. There was a ton of potential here, but it just missed the mark for me. It was close to being a very good book, but yet very far away at the same time.

Rating: 2.75 / 5

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)

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Hardcover, 438 pages
Published May 19th 2015 by Del Rey

Many in the fantasy community likely know Naomi Novik for her Temeraire series, a wonderful ‘if-dragons-were-like-horses’ kind of adventure that makes up the bulk of her published works. However, Uprooted hit with a splash last year, and amid nearly universally positive reviews, it made it into the finals of this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, where it meets some stiff competition in The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (which I adored), as well as juggernaut big-name authors Neil Stephenson and Jim Butcher, and past champion and three-time finalist, Ann Leckie.

And, if you put a gun to my head right now and made me choose a winner, Uprooted would get my vote hands down. It’s that good.

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The story centers around Agnieszka, a young woman living in a quiet village; a village that is, however, bordering The Wood. They live in somewhat constant fear of the evil of the wood, of being corrupted or taken, of the terrible things living within the forest. Their solace lies in The Dragon, a powerful wizard who helps keep the deviltry of the forest at bay; be it magic, creatures, or corruption. The Dragon’s protection comes at a price – every ten years, he comes to the village and takes one girl, generally the most beautiful and outwardly talented, and holds them in his fortress for 10 years. Much mystery surrounds what goes on in the Dragon’s tower, but they all know that the girls who leave rarely will speak about their time there, generally move away from the area, and many believe that the Dragon is an evil force who forces himself upon the girls he takes.

None of this is a big concern for Agnieszka, as she is a clumsy, awkward youth with a penchant for getting dirty and getting into trouble. Kasia is the perfect one – beautiful, talented, level-headed, and dear to Agnieszka. Everyone knows Kasia will be the one the Dragon takes, and everyone has prepared themselves for it. However, when he comes to the village, it’s not Kasia he takes – it’s Agnieszka. It does not take long for our protagonist to discover the true purpose of the Dragon taking the girls, or even to discover why the girls leave his indentured servitude changed, and altered.

However, no matter how different from her expectations and fears the exile is for Agnieszka, nothing can really prepare her for what she’ll learn, what she’ll become, and what she’ll have to do in order to save her best friend, her village, and the Queen of the land.

Uprooted is, in a word, brilliant. The writing is superb – no wasted space, but no shortage of emotion, of imagination, of drama. The dialogue between the characters was so vivid, visceral, and impactful. Each character had a very unique and distinct voice, mannerisms, patterns, and Novik was superb in her use of all of these factors, adding characteristics at the right time, not overusing anything (there’s no braid-tugging or dress-straightening here). At almost any time, you could read a sentence from any of the main characters, and be able to say who it likely was without any other clues, which is a great talent.

The worldbuilding, while contained to a small area, is subtly magnificent. The Wood is so beautifully imagined, something right out of dark fairy tales and nightmares. The magic system is simple in it’s use, broad in it’s powers, but not overpowered or underpowered. The royal family and the politics involved are introduced very slowly, and the drama and characters found within the big city and the castle were very well done, unpredictable, and very ‘real’ feeling, acting in ways that make sense within the story, and within human emotions.

The action was frantic at times, but never felt out of control, or rushed. Battles small and large felt equally impactful, and there were some very stressful moments, even though I felt relatively safe for the characters. But the fact I cared enough about them to become nervous for their wellbeing is a great sign, as I don’t generally get all that invested into characters, even ones I love. But Uprooted kept me nervous, kept me engaged, and made sure that it tugged on every heartstring it could in the process.

The only downsides I can think of are a bit of jumpy plot around the ending, as well as some slightly awkward sex scenery – which was better than most, mind you, but I kind of feel like if those scenes were written by a man, people would roll their eyes a bit at them. Fair or not. However, otherwise, I was in awe the entire story, I was glued to it, and I devoured it in just a couple days while out camping. It was a great atmospheric story to be going through while alone in the forest, and I couldn’t recommend a better reading place for a book like this – it honestly added quite a bit to the experience.

For me, Uprooted fired on all cylinders, and absolutely lived up to the reviews, award nominations, and acclaim it’s been getting. I think it’s a genre-defying novel, the type I would heartily recommend both to fantasy readers, as well as those who aren’t too into traditional fantasy, and definitely to my female friends who aren’t big on the genre. It’s a great read all around, and I am incredibly happy to have read it.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review: The Whirlwind In The Thorn Tree by SA Hunt (2013)

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Kindle Edition, 490 pages
Published February 22nd 2013 by Madman Press (first published February 21st 2013)

The Whirlwind In The Thorn Tree has been kicking around my ‘to read’ list for quite a while. I learned of the book, and it’s author, largely on r/fantasy, where he tirelessly promoted it, and it garnered quite a few recommendations from others. I’d actually bought the ebook while it was on sale, but opted to pick up the self-produced audio edition for easier listening. In general, the book came fairly highly acclaimed from many readers, though some folks I trust weren’t particularly high.

Unfortunately, it didn’t always work for me. Whirlwind is, essentially, an 80’s-style portal fantasy, through and through. Kid goes through random modern day life things, kid discovers object (in this case, a mirror – original) is a portal to another world he never knew existed, and gets wrapped up in the events happening in aforementioned world. Stop me if you’ve heard this one…namely like, a billion times. However, in a genre like fantasy, I’m not overly quick to begrudge folks for a bit of “been there, done that“, being as there’s only so many ideas to go with, and after a while everything gets a bit incestuous.

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However, Whirlwind isn’t a particularly good portal fantasy, in my opinion. Hunt’s writing is, at times, quite enjoyable – engaging, economical, and free flowing. However, he at times suffers from the trap which many self-pub authors find themselves locked in – over exposition. Sentence after sentence of adjectives and metaphors, in an effort to sound sophisticated or talented as a writer. In my opinion, Hunt’s writing, when it’s not in this trap, is good enough that he doesn’t need the over-writing in areas, but it comes and goes in cycles, with a paragraph you have to trudge through that is completely unnecessary.

The actual world created is pretty interesting, and I enjoy the concept of author-writing-what-he-experiences-in-alternate-world, however everything is just a bit too convenient, almost lazy. Everyone in the alternate world all but immediately accept Ross and his friends as allies, believing their outlandish story with very little prodding. Ross and co, for their part, seem to take to this much much less futuristic world very easily, not struggling at all without their modern amenities, and adapting to everything with very little issue. It all felt too..easy. It left me saying to myself “…really?” quite often.

Overall, the novel was not bad, I just found nothing really original here, and periods of dodgy writing that could have used a bit more polishing up. I can tell that Hunt has talent, has some vision of where he wants this book and his writing to go, but the pieces aren’t all put together here. I can totally understand why some people would love this and immediately engage in it, however for me, I’ve just read this same thing too many times, and done with better execution, to really give it a big endorsement.

Rating: 2 / 5

Quick Review: Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie (2016)

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Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 26th 2016 by Orbit

There are few things I love more than Joe Abercrombie’s writing, specifically his First Law works. I was excited, after getting a short-story collection from Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series last fall, to get back into Fitch’s series as well.

Anyone who’s read my reviews and blog knows that I’m a big, BIG fan of novellas and shorts. Love them. A collection of shorts is a great thing as well, especially a novel containing something like 12 new shorts, containing some characters we know, and a handful we have not seen much of – if anything – before. The new characters were bright and refreshing, and brought a new life to stories that sometimes were distinctly First Law, and some that could have been almost anywhere. But, lying under all of that, is signature Abercrombie writing – the wit, the edge, the beautiful word stylings.

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Overall, I enjoyed the majority of the stories. Some, such as Two’s Company, Wrong Place Wrong Time, and Three’s a Crowd were exceptional and exciting, vintage Abercrapple, with cracking one liners and multi-dimensional characters. Others, such as The Fool Jobs did not do much for me, and I moved right through them. Overall, I enjoyed the majority.

The only major thing I could point out is that every single story features some kind of LGBT element – a main character with romantic feelings about a member of the same sex, some kind of casual gay sex, etc. It was only a noticeable effect  because of the fact that having a gay character of some sort in every story is still a bit of an oddity – we are making great progress in that department, with some brilliant works like NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but as of now it’s still an under-represented fact. Not so much with Applecrumble in this set of stories.

Overall, an enjoyable package, full of wit, charm, humor, hard-hitting action and moral dilemmas – just like Joe himself. I am still eager to get more from him, more stories and new worlds, but these things take time.

I just lack patience.

Rating: 4 / 5 

Double Novella Review – The Last Witness (2015), and The Devil You Know (2016) by KJ Parker

The Last Witness – 2015

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Paperback, 144 pages
Published October 6th 2015 by Tor.com

This is a fantastic and interesting little tale, which packs a LOT into it’s relatively short format, while somehow not feeling rushed or crowded. The prose in this one is smooth, more in a full-novel format than many novellas, which makes it a fairly easy read, and the pages just fly by.

The premise is very interesting – the last witness has the power to enter someone’s mind, and remove memories; unwanted in most cases, but this power is vast, and he can do it without the people desiring the memories be taken. This is, of course, a very useful, powerful, and lucrative talent to have. However, as you would imagine, there are quite a few risks associated with this, and possessing knowledge of many things is not always a safe place to be. In this line of work, our narrator comes across unsavory characters looking to cover illegal activities, which they are often paranoid about covering.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, as the last witness ‘absorbs’ that persons memories into his own, it begins difficult for him to differentiate which memories are his own, versus those of other people, and this distinction becomes more and more difficult as time goes on. As you can imagine, this leads to an unreliable narrator, one struggling with memories and visions, and having minor identity crisis.

I found The Last Witness to be a great piece – easily the best of Tom Holt KJ Parker’s works that I’ve read. The difficult narration of the story is handled brilliantly, the prose is entertaining, yet cuts to the point with a terrific level of skill. It stays entertaining throughout, and is absolutely a rapid page turner throughout it’s (relatively limited) duration. And, speaking on the duration – it was just right  for a novella, in my opinion. It did not drag out, yet did not skimp on details or writing, and stuck around long enough to do what it needed to, and not overstaying it’s welcome.

A lot of fun, and very enjoyable.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Tom Holt, photographed by Charlie Hopkinson © 2010

The Devil You Know – 2016

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Paperback, 128 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Tor.com

The Devil You Know presents an interesting conundrum – in a world where you can sell your eternal soul to the devil, in return for a few years of service from a pseudo-god, how can you be sure it’s worth it? How can you be sure who is getting the better half of the deal?

When the person making the deal is Saloninus, known to be manipulative, genius, subtle and crafty, as well as the greatest philosopher of all time, that question gets even more muddled. Saloninus enters into his contract with the demons almost too happily, none too concerned about damning his eternal soul in return for, relatively speaking, a minor increase in life’s length, and the power and assistance of a demon who is all powerful, but also essentially a slave by contract. How could that be worth it?

Of course, the tricky philosopher lives up to his reputation, twisting words to his benefit, and taking advantage of his abilities to use forbidden and discouraged practices, such as alchemy, to meet his end goal, which turns out to be even more sinister than the demons and Devil are ready to address. What begins as a simple and somewhat-routine contract quickly turns into one with huge-scale repercussions, and the demons are scrambling to decide how to best address this in order to protect not just themselves and their reputation amongst the mortals, but also potentially the world itself.

This novella isn’t as well written as The Last Witness in my opinion, especially the odd decision to switch POV at a few points in the story, which were a jarring and confusing switch, as there was little notification at the time, and you are suddenly left trying to figure out what exactly was happening. The characters, however, were bright and vivid, Salolinus every bit the genius and unsavory character he’s made out to be, and manages to maintain control at almost all times, despite his precarious circumstances.

So, while not quite as good as The Last Witness, this is yet another quality piece from Parker, as well as Tor.com, who has impressed the hell out of me with their novellas. Some big names, and some really great work by those names, in gorgeous packaging and with fantastic cover arts. The ones that made it to audio are an even bigger bonus (I got through this one in part of a day), and the quality of the production is high as well. I look forward to more, and I feel like I should continue reading Parker’s works, even after the disappointment from the Two of Swords series, which just did not quite hit the mark for me.

Rating: 3.75 / 5

Review – Eleanor by Jason Gurley (2014)

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Hardcover, 384 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Crown (first published 2016)

Authors get asked to do a lot of blurbs, especially once they’re on bigger publishers. However, some authors give blurbs that I take very seriously, especially if they follow up by repeatedly praising a book – Hugh Howey is one of those guys for me, and he has bestowed the quality of Jason Gurley’s work for some time. While I am very crappy at it, I do my best to support local guys as well, and Gurley is a Portland guy like myself, and I have had him on my to-read for a while. On my to-read, but not actually read, and I was never quite sure why, other than I just didn’t quite get to it. With a to-read list like mine, and a slow reading schedule, the best way to get read by me is to be available on audio, and Gurley finally was as of a couple months ago – rejoice!

Eleanor is what I’ve noticed recently called “magical realism” – a story in an otherwise normal, (usually) modern earth, but with some magical elements. Seemingly differentiated from ‘urban fantasy’ by the focus – less on first person magical character, more on mundane people with magical abilities, or in a slightly-magical world. I’ve read a lot in this “genre” of late – This Census-Taker by China Mieville, and A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab being the most obvious. However, Eleanor trumps those – and how.

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Eleanor begins as the tale of a young mother, a depressed mother of young Agnes, who has watch her dreams fail due to her family/relationship choices, and lives in a constant state of resentment. Until, one day, she disappears. The story then switches to that of Agnes and her two twin daughters, one of whom named after aforementioned young mother, Eleanor. Another depressed mother, living in resentment, until a tragic accident takes the life of one of her daughters. We then shift into the main POV character, that of the remaining daughter of Agnes, Eleanor.

We watch as Eleanor 2.0 copes with her father, Paul, having left Agnes and Eleanor, largely caused by Agnes’ spiral into nothingness, drinking her life away and doing little else other than lashing out at those around her, and feeling sorry for herself. Meanwhile, her young and emotionally damaged daughter is forced to single-handedly care for herself, while coping with harsh migraines and mental distress, as well as the lack of real parenting. However, one day, Eleanor is at school, and as she enters a doorway, she feels an electric crackling sensation, and is suddenly no longer in her school, but rather an entire place entirely.

We follow Eleanor as she, as well as her best friend Jack, her father, her mother, and her aunt, try to figure out why Eleanor suddenly disappears, reappearing (sometimes forcefully) in different places, over varying time delays. We also explore the people behind these disappearances, their motivations, their struggles, and eventually, their identity. It is hard to describe much more without giving away spoilers, at least without giving away more spoilers than I already have.

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I am not quite sure what I expected going into Eleanor – I had honestly heard very little about the novel, aside from “it’s really good”. I wasn’t aware of the setting or characters, and I certainly was not prepared for what it was: a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking story of a family in peril, numerous tragedies, and a young girl forced to cope with all of this without much help from around her, aside from essentially one single person.

However, this, as well as almost every other aspect of the novel, is brilliantly and skillfully handled by Gurley. Eleanor feels as close to a real, tangible girl in her age bracket as I could possibly imagine, especially being written by someone who was not a preteen girl (I assume?). Considering the number of tragic events, the family trauma, the degeneration mentally of many characters, it was integral to the success of this novel for this grief to be written well, to have the characters address situations in a manner that is both realistic, but also does not limit the story progress. Thankfully, Jason handles these situations brilliantly, and I frequently found myself feeling as though I’d been punched, sympathizing with the characters, rooting for them, grieving their losses, feeling their pains.

The novel builds and builds as it goes – it begins so bleak, so harsh, and so shockingly. You’re introduced to characters, before they change drastically, or go away altogether. This is a book of loss, of handling loss, of addressing adversity. Everyone in the novel seems to go through serious and terrible events, and everyone is forced to cope, to manage their grief, to either move on and try to live, or spiral in self-destruction. Everyone handles things differently, everyone feels their pain differently. It was as close to perfect as I think I’ve read in that aspect – unique characters handle situations in unique and suitable ways.

Eleanor’s growth is brilliant as well – her changes from being a young girl, to an overly-mature-for-her-age teenager, to a constantly traumatized adult who had no time to adapt to the years of her life she’d lost due to her ‘blips’ (for lack of a spoiler-free way of putting it). No change is as drastic as hers, but the other characters all evolve, all adapt to their situations in varying ways. This is the biggest strong point of the book to me, as my immersion was kept at a consistent level because the characters always felt realistic, and visceral, and engaging.

The creativity of the book varies, but I am not looking for groundbreaking changes all the time – I’m looking for great writing, great characters, and enough unique aspects to keep me interested. There’s a portal aspect to this story, as well as a certain level of magical beings and/or powers, or at least unexplainable powers. I thought the escalation of the side-storyline was terrific, as we were led closer and closer to the climax and conclusion, as Eleanor figured out what was happening, explored it, and completed what she needed to.

My biggest complaint about the book was the odd gender discrepancy. I am one of the last people to complain about this kind of thing in books (really), but I could not help but notice in the novel that the male characters are, largely, featuring only minor flaws. Jack is a borderline Gary Stu – he is the best friend a person could have, always forgiving and protecting Eleanor, being there for her at all times, altruistic in his actions and feelings, and despite being head over heels in love with Eleanor, he is patient with her even when she disappears. Paul, while struggling with losing a daughter and not getting much out of Eleanor, does his best, doesn’t do anything outwardly negative, and swoops back in to care for Agnes later in the book.

Meanwhile, basically all of the female characters are heavily broken in one way or another. The original Eleanor is self-centered, whiny, and apathetic, essentially caring for her feelings only, caring about how upset she is, how the things that happen to her and the events in her life are unfair, until she throws it all voluntarily away, leaving everyone else behind to deal with things. Agnes herself takes up her mother’s footsteps, having a major anger problem, reacting aggressively to Paul’s business trips and work schedule, harboring animosity towards almost everyone, including, eventually, her own daughter, going as far as to blame her for her sister’s death, when it was clearly Agnes’ fault. Even our Eleanor is flawed, not only having massive headaches and health issues, but frequently snapping out at people, and while she was more perfect than any of the other females, she still had huge issues.

Again, I normally would not even notice a thing like this, but the fact I did means it was a bit of a glaring dichotomy. Maybe there was an intent there by Gurley that I missed, some message or metaphor, but if there was, I missed it, and it just felt like the females were all inherently largely flawed, while the males were much less so. Despite that, it did not really distract me from the story much, and I felt the female characters were well written, including their flaws.

Overall, I was blown away by the book. I invested emotionally into it significantly more than I have with almost any recent novel I can think of. I felt for the characters, I was anxious for them, and I was hooked – always wanting to know what happened next, how things would turn out. I blasted through the book in only a few days, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. If this is the kind of quality I can expect from Jason Gurley, then I absolutely agree with Hugh Howey’s assessment – he’s excellent.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Quick Review – The Price of Valor by Django Wexler (2015)

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Kindle Edition, 515 pages
Published July 7th 2015 by Roc (first published July 2nd 2015)

One of the biggest books on my “Books I Meant To Read But Somehow Didn’t Get To” from 2015 was the third in the Shadow Campaigns series, The Price of Valor by NW Author Django Wexler. I have a big habit of reading the first book of a series, enjoying it, then never quite going back to the rest of the series. However, generally, if I like the first book in a series enough to read the second, I’ll continue reading throughout the course of the series. This was the case with The Shadow Campaigns, where I found the first book, The Thousand Names, to be exceptionally fresh, interesting, and well written. The second novel, The Shadow Throne, was equally as enjoyable. 

Thankfully, my patience (ok ok, laziness) paid off, and The Price of Valor was exactly what I wanted, and needed, to revitalize my feelings towards the genre. Wexler manages to avoid the “more of the same” feel that a third book in a longer series could fall victim to, keeping things feeling fresh. The book was, for the majority, much more mild and slower moving than the first two, fewer battles, fewer major events, and a lot of character development. Luckily, Django handles this very well, the interplay between Winter and her peers, her lover Jane, and her superiors enthralling, and it’s impossible not to cheer for her. Winter is one of the more relatable and likable characters I can think of, despite being not remotely relatable to me (can’t say I could ever find myself in the same situation).

The action picks up later in the book, and when it comes, it’s hot and heavy. Django does a really great job with the military aspects of the novel, but when things break down to the actual action, it’s exciting, nerve-wracking, and a total page-turn situation. The book picks up in intensity as it goes, and finishes with a flourish, followed by some very intense moments, and one of the more “oh snap!” epilogues I’ve ever read.

Overall, I did not feel the book was the best in the series, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading through it. The ending really kicked things up a notch, but despite the lack of ‘action’, the rest of the novel stayed interesting and fun, as well as incredibly smooth to read.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

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

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Kindle Edition, 128 pages
Published March 29th 2016 by Harper Voyager Impulse
PURCHASE ON AMAZON

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