the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy

los nefilimLos Nefilim, by T. Frohock

published 2016

where I got it: purchased new

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Angels and Demons constantly play at war.  Someone has to keep them in check, because what happens in the unearthly realms is reflected in the earthly realms. When angels and demons go to war, humans pay the price. The Los Nefilim are beings of angelic descent who use their magic to keep angels and demons in check. Their magic is in part fueled by their angelic vocal chords, and each Nefilim must find their own unique melody.

 

You know how a lot of fantasy novels start out with a huge infodump of the political situation, how the magic works, who has the magic, and why? An introduction, or a prologue, or whatever?  Frohock does none of those things, or at least she doesn’t do them in the expected order, and it was so damn refreshing! The first novella, In Midnight’s Silence, is so light on the worldbuilding that at times I had a tough time figuring out who was who, and what was going on, and how all these characters were involved with one another.  But I enjoyed the characters and the writing style so much that I didn’t care that I felt a little lost. Los Nefilim is a slow and dark burn, and that slow but steady rise to intensity makes you want to know more and more about what’s going on.  There is a lot of darkness in this story,  but also some laugh out loud funny moments.  And when the reveals come, they are that much more satisfying.

 

Los Nefilim reads a little like Steven Brust’s The Book of Jhereg, where upon first read you may not be entirely sure what is going on, but the characters and what they are dealing with is so damn fun / awesome / dark / cool as hell that the pages just fly by, and eventually you get to those chapters that explain everything. So if you feel a little lost at the beginning of Los Nefilim, trust me, just keep reading.

 

When we first meet Diago and Miquel, they’ve already got plenty on their plate. Miquel has been part of Los Nefilim for a while, and although Diago has an ancient connection with their leader, Guillermo, he’s got a long way to go to prove himself as worthy. Miquel, Guillermo, and the other Los Nefilim are of purely angelic ancestry, and Diago was dual born – which means his magic can be used by either side. And that’s just a portion of the big picture, political stuff.  What made this book shine for me was the small, intimate things. The family stuff.  Diago learns he has a son.  A child conceived through psychological manipulation,  no one can blame young Rafael for the situation of his conception. Diago and Rafael adopt him from the orphanage he grew up in, and there are all these unexpectedly funny and endearing parenting scenes.  More than anything, Diago and Miquel want Rafael to have a normal childhood.  But when you fight demons and develop your own magic, is normal and safe ever possible?

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This is a most unusual book review, because I am not going to tell you the name of this book, the name of the author, or the year the book was written.  You don’t get any cover art either.  We all judge books by their covers and all that, so I’m curious what everyone’s thoughts will be if I tell you everything you need to know about the book except what you’d see on a bookstore shelf. A deliberate experiment, if you will. And don’t worry, I’ll reveal the author and cover art in a few days.  For those of you who recognize this book, or think you do, please, please don’t reveal the book’s title in the comments.

 

Are any of you familiar with the anime TV shows Sword Art Online or  Log Horizon? In these shows, gamers get transported into the world of their MMO video game, and have to survive. This book has a similar, if simplified premise. A bunch of college kids are in a table-top Role Playing Game club, with a professor as their game master.  I won’t get into the how’s or why’s, but the professor is able to transport the students to the fantasy role playing world, and the students have to survive. What’s really neat here is that while everyone comes through into the fantasy world as their characters (a cleric, or dwarf, or thief,  etc) and with the skills and attributes (strength, speed, dexterity, etc) from their character sheet, they also retain all their knowledge and morals from the real world. One woman depends on her real world travel experiences to help her haggle with traders, there’s even some “innovative” WWF style fighting moves that no one else in the arena had ever seen.

 

At it’s heart, this is a coming-of-age fantasy quest story . The goal is to find the gate between worlds, so they can get home to the real world. But, as we learn, not everyone wants to go home.  Sure, home has modern dentistry, and cars, and our parents, and health insurance. But one guy, if he goes home, the only thing waiting for him is his wheelchair and people pitying him. Here, in the fantasy world, he can walk. He can do all the things he can’t do at home. Another character, this is the first time in his life he’s respected for his knowledge and abilities. If he goes home, it’s back to being the guy everyone makes fun of.   It was neat, how some characters abandon their real world  first names right away to only go by their fantasy role play character names, and how others never take on their characters names because they don’t want to be these fantasy world characters, and how others have an internal conflict as to who they are because they have a compelling reason to be a little bit of both.  The author presents the character’s inner conflicts with subtlety. The author doesn’t shy away from tough subjects either. Like another very popular series, main characters die – usually in shockingly awful ways.

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I’ve been on a short stuff kick lately. Short stories, short novels, novellas.  There’s just something about knowing I can get through an entire story with a beginning, middle, and end in a weekend.  It’s not that I’m not reading fatty mcfat doorstopper novels, but these days they don’t hold as much allure  (except this one, of course).

 

Anyhoo, I recently zipped through these new novellas from Tim Powers and K.J. Parker. They were so quick to read in fact, that I was able to read them twice!  Downfall of the Gods by Parker came out from Subterranean Press in late March, and Down and Out in Purgatory will be available in late June from Subterranean Press.  If you’re a fan of either of these authors, watch for these titles!

Downfall_of_the_Gods_by_K_J_Parker

 

Let’s start with the Parker, because of the two, it was my favorite.  Imagine a parallel ancient Rome or Greece, where a pantheon of gods keeps the sun crossing the sky, keeps the crops growing, and occasionally visits Earth in human form for entertainment.  What I most enjoyed about this story is that it’s from a Goddess’s point of view, and how the myths and what the humans believe the immortals do isn’t exactly the truth. The Greek mythology I grew up learning humanizes, but still idealizes Gods and Goddesses.  The Goddess at the center of Downfall of the Gods has her own family issues, the aunts and uncles who hate her, the stupid things she says to her parents. She gets in trouble for forgetting things, she gets “grounded”, she’s bored out of her mind.  I loved her as a character, even if she was a bit of an emo teenager.

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CP5_front-200x300Clockwork Phoenix 5, edited by Mike Allen

Available April 5, 2016

Where I got it: received review copy from the editor

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Some people describe anthologies as a journey.  I’ve been known to compare them to techno music. But  today, I’d like you to think about anthologies as restaurants – the stories are the dishes on the menu, and the editor is the restaurateur.   Some restaurants have great atmosphere, some restaurants you only like a few dishes on their menu, or maybe there is a great Sunday brunch, or maybe it’s just a super convenient location and the food is pretty darn good.  Think about restaurants you’ve returned to again and again. There was a reason, right?

 

Tom's_Bistro_outside

 

Some restaurateurs love attention for one particular dish their restaurant specializes in, or whatever. Maybe they are the King of Deep Fried Butter, or the Home of the Original Whiskey Waffles.  Maybe they did a Taco throwdown with Bobby Flay or something.

 

And then there is that secret restaurant.  The one all the locals know about. It doesn’t look like a fancy place,  but every dish you’ve had there has been amazing. Sometimes the flavors are complex, sometimes they are simple.  You go as often as you can, with the goal of trying every dish on the unique menu before the menu changes, because the chefs and owners are always trying something new and different, because the rules don’t apply here. There are no rules, there is no pretension, there is no ego, there  are no signs proclaiming fame or autographed photos of Food Network personalities.  But, omg, the food! It is perfection on a plate! And you feel better about yourself and your life and the world every time you go there.  Clockwork Phoenix is the name of this restaurant, and Mike Allen is the restaurateur.  One sublime dish after another, and yet I still have my favorites that I keep coming back to.

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ship of magic hobbShip of Magic (Liveship Traders #1),  by Robin Hobb

published in 1998

where I got it: purchased new

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It’s been a while since I read a Robin Hobb. Like many Hobb fans, I devoured the Farseer trilogy, and then wasn’t sure where to go from there. Most of her trilogies  take place in the same universe, and each trilogy follows different characters. Some need to be read in order (read the Farseer trilogy before reading Fitz the Fool, for example), but the Liveship Traders trilogy I think can be read as a complete stand alone.

After Farseer trilogy, I jumped over to the Soldier Son trilogy, which is set in a different universe, but one that feels very much like her primary universe. Hobb has this thing about completely deconstructing her characters – forcing them to a precipice built of self loathing, doubt, and full scale rejection. It forces the character to do something they never would have done otherwise. The horrible things that happen to them give them strength towards what is coming next. Or Something. It’s like tough love to the n’th degree. I couldn’t get past what happens in the second Soldier Son book, Forest Mage. It hit too close to home. It’s been four years since Forest Mage, and I’m finally ready to pick up another Hobb.

Ship of Magic takes place in Bingtown, which is a merchant city. Originally a city of refugees, some families settled in the harbor town of Bingtown, while others settled up the Rain Wilds river, and over the generations a trading empire was born. For the most part, the story follows the Vestrit family, a prominent trading family. On his deathbed, Ephron Vestrit decides his eldest daughter Keffria and her husband Kyle will inherit the family’s Liveship and trading business, leaving his younger daughter, Althea with nearly nothing. It’s a decision that nearly tears the family apart – Althea has sailed with her father, she knows every inch of the family liveship Vivacia, she’s already built relationships with the other ship captains and merchants in other cities, she assumed the ship captaincy would go to her on her father’s death. Kyle on the other hand, knows little of the Bingtown traditions, and he certainly has no understanding of the life cycle of a Liveship or the contracts made to obtain such a ship.

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city of blades RJBCity of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published January 2016

where I got it: Received ARC from the publisher (thanks Broadway Books!)

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Two asides, by method of introduction:

 

Robert Jackson Bennett knows how to make a damn good sandwich.

 

I find mythology tragic, yet addictive. It’s like a scab I can’t stop picking at, a trainwreck I can’t look away from. The more we tell these beloved and culturally powerful stories, the more we trap their inhabitants. One of my favorite examples of this is Loki (Fenrir is another).  He is trapped in his destiny, he can’t make other choices or do other things, even if he wanted to. And every time his story is told, the shackles get tighter. As storytellers, we need him to be a particular archetype, we need him to act a certain way, to be a certain lever of the world as we know it. Because otherwise, the myth wouldn’t have the desired effect.

Mythologies are cultural artifacts of incalculable value, and as we gain strength and inspiration from their telling  we enslave the characters within the myth, because we know how the story has to end.

 

Confused yet? Excellent. Let’s talk about City of Blades.

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City of Blades is both a very easy book to talk about, and yet a very difficult one.  It easily falls into my favorite category of books, those “that aren’t what they say they are about”, which makes it very easy to talk about without spoiling important plot bits. However, it is hard to talk about, because there are intimacies and honesties in this book that as a reader, I feel I have been trusted with. I do not want to betray that trust by mis-speaking about someone’s experiences.   I just realized I am treating Bennett’s characters as if they are real people. I talk about not wanting to betray someone’s trust, yet that someone is a fictional character, whose life and secrets are available to anyone who wishes to turn the pages of her life. You know what? I like thinking about Turyin Mulaghesh as a real person.  It’s a comfort, to give that kind of weight to her life, and to the lives of the other characters in the book.

 

Both this new novel, and it’s predecessor City of Stairs, reminded me a little of Cordwainer Smith – as in both Smith and Bennett flat out refuse to follow any of the expected and so-called “rules” of the genre in which they are writing. Both authors write as if there simply are no rules or conventions, as if no one ever took them aside and said “you know you’re not supposed to present this type of story this way, right?”. With City of Blades, Bennett takes it one step further and joins Seth Dickinson in dragging an eraser through the genre, erasing the so called rules and conventions.

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end of the storyThe End of the Story, the Collected Fantasies Vol 1, by Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger

This collection published Sept 2015

Where I got it:  rec’d ARC from the publisher (Thanks Nightshade!)

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Last summer, I received an advanced reading copy of the new The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, vol 1, from Nightshade Books.  It’s funny, because these are short stories from the 1930s, yet this is a new printing, with a new introduction, new cover art, etc. It’s lucky this book arrived, as I’ve always heard the name Clark Ashton Smith, but never came across any of his work.

 

Skimming through the introduction and the table of contents, I quickly learned two things – Clark Ashton Smith is known for cosmic horror and weird fiction, writing in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft; and that most of these stories were blessedly short. Don’t get me wrong, I like a meaty short story, but sometimes a super quick 5 page story, one that’s practically flash fiction, is exactly what fits the bill.  These were short stories I could read half a dozen of before bed, or read one while cooking dinner in between steps of stirring occasionally, and seasoning to taste.

 

It’s funny reading stories that were written so long ago, and most of these were written between 1925 and 1935.  Just think, in ten years, these stories will be a hundred years old. So, are they dated? Oh completely. But what’s most fascinating to me, is things that readers would have been horrified at (vampires, waking nightmares, succubi, etc) in the late 1920s, most readers today are completely used to.   Do you remember the skinny “Scary Stories to Read in the Dark” books that were popular with the 3rd to 6th grade crowd in the 80s?  Ghost stories,  stories about people’s heads falling off, all rated G, but totally creepy to any nine year old?  This is not an insult, but many of the Clark Ashton Smith stories felt quite a bit like those.  His literary style is a nicer kind of horror in a way – nothing gruesome, nothing squicky.  Many of his “big reveals” are fairly cheesy by today’s standards, such as the man’s visions were all a dream, or the old person relating the scary story disappeared into thin air, and such.  I’d happily give this collection to any ten year old, and not only would it scare the pants off them (in a fun way, I swear!), but they’d learn all sorts of fun new words, like asphodels, psammite, innominable, obloquy, invultuations, and dilatoriness.

 

So, the stories are dated, the big reveals aren’t at all shocking, but the prose is illuminating, and poetic. Here’s a sample, from the beginning of “The Planet of the Dead”:

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.