the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy

June, where did you go? Last I checked it was June 2nd, how is it already July??   I didn’t post many reviews in June, but I did get a lot of reading done.  Some of these I’ll write reviews for, some of them will get a capsule review in this post.  Here’s what I was up to this month:

 

I finished this fun little gem:

Spock Must Die is the famous novel where thanks to a transporter malfunction, the Enterprise now has two Spocks. Which one is the “real” one? What will they do with the other one? When war breaks out at the Klingon border, the importance of solving the mystery ratchets up. Even when Kirk is sure which Spock is the true, original Spock, he insists on calling his friend “Spock Two”. When questioned why, Kirk responds that by saying “two” every time he says his friend’s name, it forces him to remember how important it is to solve the problem at hand.  Fun little book, right around 200 pages.  Great beginning, satisfying end, a little slow in the middle.

 

then there was this other little gem:

Mightier than the Sword is the new novella out from K.J. Parker.  I’m not going to say much because I do plan to write a review, but it was fun, smart, snarky, and a joy to read. I’ve read it at least twice now, maybe three times?  I read these quick little novellas, and then I get ready to write a review, realize I don’t remember the details, so I read the whole thing again.  If you like Parker, you will love Mightier than the Sword.

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Penric and the Shaman (Penric and Desdemona #2) by Lois McMaster Bujold

published: Feb 2017

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Subterranean Press!)

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Four years after the events of Penric’s Demon, Pen has settled into an insulated life in Martensbridge.  He’s grown in his maturity, and his relationship with Desdemona has somewhat settled down.  They’ve gotten used to each other, and settled into how their life together will function on a day to day basis. While Pen’s passion project is copying Learned Ruchia’s volumes on sorcery and magic so that it can be distributed to the other Temples, there is still plenty about magic and demons that he, and even Desdemona, don’t know.  There’s the magic that is taught in the schools and temples, magic education and knowledge that can be controlled.  And then there’s the hedge magic, magic learned by accident and never written down only passed around orally. There’s this neat undercurrent in these novellas about official scholars who want only the magic they teach (and control) to be seen as “good” magic, and anything outside these scholarly and proscribed is considered dangerous to the safety of all.

 

If while reading Penric’s Demon, you had hoped for more explanation about how the magic system worked, and what exactly demons are, you’ll be pleased to know that there is a fascinating conversation near the beginning of Penric and the Shaman where Pen takes the opportunity to explain the difference (now that he understands it himself!) between magic that descends from gods and demons and hedge shamanic magic, which is believed to be taken up from the earth and mortal animals. Penric’s Demon is the shortest and most focused of the novellas in this series, and I appreciate that Bujold waited until a little later in the series to explain how everything works, rather than bog down the opening novella with it.

 

The Princess-Archdivine tasks Pen with travelling with Locator Oswyl to assist him with investigating a Shamanic murder. A less skilled writer could easily have taken this story down the road of standard police procedural starring two unlikely partners. Luckily, it was written by Bujold, so while yes, there is an investigation of sorts, and yes, Pen an Oswyl are absolute opposites and aren’t sure what to make of each other, there is nothing standard about this story and it doesn’t feel like a procedural.   It feels more a ghost story, and a story about knowing how and when to let go, actually.

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Penric’s Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

published in May 2016

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher (Thanks Subterranean Press!)

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Everyone has heard of Lois McMaster Bujold. Creator of the beloved and long running Vorkosigan space opera series, and creator of the World of the Five Gods fantasy series, among other series and stand alones. I imagine she has multiple mantles in her house to display the myriad awards she has won during her long career.
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When Subterranean Press sent me advanced reading copies of her new novellas that take place in her World of the Five Gods series, my first thought was how many additional novels will I have to read for these to make sense? New novels and stories in the Vorkosigan series make me nervous because I am so under read in that series that I miss more than half the jokes. So as more Penric novellas showed up on my doorstep, I got more and more nervous. But? The first one was scarecly 200 pages, and if I read 20 pages and nothing made sense, I could always put it down, right?
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So, the good news is that I had nothing to worry about, because Penric’s Demon is a pleasure to read, and requires zero knowledge whatsoever of the world.
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The better news is that there are now four novellas in this group (not exactly a series?), so if you like what you read in Penric’s Demon, there’s plenty more for you to enjoy.
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Ok, I lied. You need to know a smidgen about the World of the Five Gods for Penric’s Demon to make sense. You need to know it’s a medieval secondary fantasy world with a feudal government and sorcerers receive formal educations to best use their powers. Also, there are five gods. There. That’s all you need to know to go into these novellas and enjoy yourself.
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Penric, the son of a country baron of dwindling fortune, is nineteen and naive. On his way to his formal betrothal ceremony, he stops by the side of the road to help an ailing old woman. She doesn’t make it, and this is the end of Penric’s boring provincial life. She wasn’t just any old woman. Learned Ruchia of Martensbridge was a physician, high sorceress, and she was carrying an old demon. When she died, the demon had to go somewhere. It went into Penric.

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City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published May 2017

where I got it: purchased new

 

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All artwork (other than the book’s cover art) in this post is by the very talented Chanh Quach. You can view the rest of her Divine Cities character portraits here.

 

This is the third book in a trilogy, and I’m a little jealous of people who will read City of Miracles as their first Divine Cities book.  How different would City of Stairs be if you already knew Sigrud’s secrets, if you already had Vinya’s backstory?  I imagine those early conversations would read much differently and have layers of subtext.

 

Picking up twenty years after the events in City of Stairs,  City of Miracles feels slower, more introspective, and less subtle than the previous installments in the trilogy.   The pace and quietness reflects Sigrud’s personality – he’s not slow by any means, but he’s self contained, doesn’t waste words, and comes to things on his own terms.  Still wanted by the government for his actions after his daughter’s death, he’s been living in hiding under an assumed name. At his age, he should be slowing down, but to Sigrud one day is timelessly much like the next – he patiently waits for Ashara Komayd to contact him, he keeps to himself, and if anyone suspects his identity, he disappears.  In the first two Divine Cities books, Sigrud stole every scene he was in, so it is nice to have an entire novel where he is the star of the show.

artwork by Chanh Quach

As with other Robert Jackson Bennett books, the world building in City of Miracles is fantastic. Gorgeously rendered city scapes,  barren hinterlands, everything in between, and more importantly everything has a history. When you close your eyes, you see it, you are there, you can hear the breeze through the trees, you can find someone nearby who can tell the story of those ruins.  In the twenty years since we first met Shara and Sigrud, the world has changed. A young industrial revolution, of sorts – more automobiles, a sky gondola contraption that goes over the mountains instead of through them, more telephones, etc.   As the younger generation is excited about these new technological developments, the older generation is still getting used to a changing world.

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Cold Iron, by Stina Leicht

published in 2015

where I got it: purchased new

 

 

 

Cold Iron came out in 2015, and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since.  Stina Leicht? Everything she writes is gold,  so why did I wait so long to read this one?

 

This is why I was nervous:

  • It is a fat book. It looks like it would take me forever to read, and through all of 2015 and 2016 I had very limited reading time. Did I want to commit to a book that was going to take me a month to read?
  • The cover art screams military fantasy.  Yes, I know I went through my Joe Abercrombie phase, but then I realized I was no longer interested in trails of dead bodies. I was no longer interested in stories that glorified battle and killing. The cover art shows a dude with a pistol, looking over a field of battle.   Was I going to like this book??

 

Every so often I reread my reviews of Stina Leicht’s Fey and Fallen books, and am reminded of how much I love her writing. Prose sharp as a knife, plotting so tight you’ll never escape, and good god the characters she develops.  I recently did a 5 books 50 pages, where I grabbed 5 books I’d been meaning to read, and only committed to reading the first 50 pages. If I liked what I was reading, I could continue, and if the book just didn’t do it for me, I was under zero obligation to read further.  My comments about Cold Iron after 50 pages were:

 

“Nels is broody, his personal bodyguard/spy/assassin Viktor is snarky AF, I want to join up with the Waterborne, and Leicht has already written the sequel.  As she always does, Leicht writes characters you immediately become invested in.  Cold Iron is some solid awesome.”

 

I was hooked in the opening chapter. Nine pages in, and I knew I’d be devouring this novel.  A ritual done after a death, swords that carry the memories of the dead.  I was happily hooked. And the book only got better from there.

 

Everything about this novel was so wonderful, that I don’t know even where to start.  The characters were fantastic, the pacing is spot on perfect, and I loved that Leicht built a fantasy world that exists in a changing world.

 

I loved the world of Cold Iron.  Leicht created a magic filled fantasy world, one where blood remembers and swords and knives carry memories, a world where water-weavers can control the weather and speak to creatures of the ocean deep.  And then she had a non-magical culture (humans!)  invade it with muskets and small pox.   Yep, small pox. And that’s not a spoiler, by the way.  The Eledorians are used to fighting with magic,  but how do you magic away a high mortality infectious disease to which no one has immunity?

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It’s time for another installment of five books 50 pages!  This is where I grab 5 books that I’m kinda sorta intrigued by reading just the first 50 or so pages.  The goal is that hopefully at least two will really stand out as something I want to keep reading. I’m going into these books knowing barely anything beyond them other than the back cover blurb. But I have high hopes! Last time I did five books 50 pages I discovered a book that ended up being one of my top reads for 2016.

The contestants this week are:

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Nine Fox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Cold Iron by Stina Leicht

Dear Sweet Filthy World by Caitlin R. Kiernan

What was YAY,  what was NAY, and what was MEH. Let’s find out!

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the-narrator-ciscoThe Narrator, by Michael Cisco

published in 2010

where I got it: received free e-book, and then purchased a new print copy

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It’s the atmospheric beauty of Sofia Samatar’s A Stanger in Olondria, combined with the dense verbal wordplay and visual magic of China Mieville’s Embassytown,and gilded with the lyrical poetry of a Catherynne Valente,  Michael Cisco’s The Narrator is a very special book for a long list of reasons.

 

I don’t gravitate towards military fiction. I don’t even like military non-fiction.  Neither does Low, the protagonist of The Narrator. As he says on the first page of the novel:

 

“An army is a horror. It’s a horrible thing. They say you might change your mind about that when the country is invaded and your people are suffering wrong, but for me this is all just more horror, more army-horror.”

 

He’s a student, he shouldn’t ever have been drafted. But drafted he got, and off he went to a war he knew nothing about in a place he never wanted to go.  Why didn’t he just run, or hide, you ask? Because he fell under the view of a Edek, creatures who need a human handler to function in our societies. Once an Edek sees you, you will never be unseen.

 

This novel is solid prose poetry and literary experimentation.  That makes it sound uppity I know, but The Narrator is a surprisingly easy book to read for how dense it can feel. Every page is illuminated with metaphor and alliteration and grammar that shouldn’t work but it does and words that sent me to the dictionary, words like ambuloceti, velleity, clayx, and quiring.  Choose any page, any paragraph, and you’ll find a miniature work of art surrounded by a million other miniature works of art.

 

As a trained narrator,  Low’s profession is part biographer, part translator, part bard.  He speaks many languages, and knows the unique linguistic quirks of each. He has even been trained in the arcane arts of creating personal alphabets. He’s a scholar, not a soldier.  This forced journey he is on will make him, or unmake him. Or perhaps a bit of both.

 

On an almost Gene Wolfe Severian-esque journey to the muster site, Low finds himself on the death-worker side of the city and has a strange affair with a mysterious woman who has been accused of horrible crimes.  Once he joins up with his unit, they end up at a mental institution / prison to recruit what functioning adults are left who can be made into soldiers. And then, into the war zone and towards an island with a mysterious interior that outsiders never return from.  Every minute, Low wants to run. He wants no part of this war that makes no sense.  This is a story of Low’s misery, of his coming to be comfortable with the inevitable.

 

Jeff Vandermeer wrote the introduction to this edition of The Narrator, and it was through Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword that I learned of the literary trick of describing the grotesque via the sublime while at the same time leaving seemingly important details purposely out away in the periphery.   As a lover of metaphors and adjectives that are not known for working together, Vandermeer was and Cisco is speaking my language. That is to say, if you like Vandermeer, you’ll really like Michael Cisco.

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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.