the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘mystery

The Tea Master and The Detective, by Aliette de Bodard

available March 31, 2018

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher (thanks Sub Press!)

 

 

Aliette deBodard’s newest novella, The Tea Master and the Detective (available March 31 from Subterranean Press)  wears the disguise of a space opera Sherlock Holmes type story, complete with an insensitive detective who is a master of deduction and the annoyed lackey who follows behind until finally seeing the light. I say wears that disguise because while this is a highly enjoyable and  tightly focused mystery, it functions better as a showcase for deBodard’s characterization and worldbuilding prowess. If you’ve not yet experienced the beauty of one of deBodard’s Xuya stories, The Tea Master and The Detective is an excellent entry point. (click here for an in depth chronology and list of Xuya stories, many of which are available to read online) If you enjoy character driven narratives, beautiful prose, and multi-sensory worldbuilding, this is the story for you.

 

Us reviewers, we’re always talking about worldbuilding –  which among other things is literally how an author builds a world and how successfully they transport us, the reader, to that world. How big is the city? How wide is the river? How many ships are in the harbor? How small is the escape pod? What color are the androids?  How dark is the forest?  What color is her dress?

 

Did you notice something about all those worldbuilding questions?

 

They are all visual.

 

Don’t get me wrong, visual worldbuilding is important! I want to know that the city is so large you can’t walk across it in a day, that the river is narrow here but wider further south closer to home but I walk a ways to cross here because I refuse to pay the bridge toll, that there aren’t many ships in the harbor because of those idiotic tariffs, that this damn escape pod is so claustrophobically small that i can barely turn around and i’m about to lose my damn mind, that the android is a dull gun-metal grey, that the forest is as dark as midnight, and that her dress was blood red.

 

But there is more to the world than seeing.  Smell, taste, texture, memory, if presented right, those sensory experiences will tell you more about how a character has moved through a world than anything else.  deBodard does that kind of worldbuilding exactly right.

 

There is this gorgeous short scene (the best always are) where two shipminds are having tea together. They have tea and snacks, and they just chat.  There is tea, of course, but also a medley of sumptuous dishes. Both shipminds know that none of this is real. There is no food on the table, the two of them are physically incapable of actually eating or drinking anything. But the concept of the food reminds them of their families. The pork is the same dish from childhood festivals, the scent of the tea is the same of family discussions and decisions generations old. All of that and more, in a few short paragraphs about a meal that neither of the participants are actually eating. A meal that doesn’t actually exist, but symbolizes everything of import, connects these two people to family members and conversations that have been dead for decades.  More worldbuilding and characterization in that small handful of paragraphs than I sometimes find in an entire novel.  I’ve read this short scene like three times now. It gets better every time, like shining light through a prism and having it come out a rainbow of the rest of the story on the other side.

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Mightier Than the Sword, by K.J. Parker

published June 30, 2017

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

 

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Recently out from Subterranean Press is K.J. Parker’s newest stand alone novella, Mightier than the Sword.  Parker fans will delight in the dry humor, banter, and plot twists of this fast paced story, while readers new to the Parker style may be left scratching their heads a bit yet at the same time itching to read the book again.  At 130 pages and mostly action and dialog, this novella can easily and happily be devoured in an afternoon.

 

Presented as a translation of a historical document from a nation that never existed, the environments presented here could be ancient Rome, could be early Britain, could be anywhere in between. The story may be fast paced, but it takes place  in a time when communication was as fast as the horse under the messenger and a two week journey in a wagon barely got you across the country.

 

Our unnamed narrator, the nephew of the Empress, is given a mission to discover just what the hell has been happening to the monasteries at the border of the country. Harried by pirates, burnt by raiders, no survivors, and hardly anything of worth has been stolen.  Is the empress trying to get one more heir killed? Is she trying to get him out of the capitol for some reason?  But off he goes on his errand, but not before proposing marriage to the woman he loves, after purchasing a house for them to live in and a doctor to save her life.

 

His rounds to the monasteries is also a convenient excuse to visit relatives he hasn’t seen since childhood.  Nobles who piss off the royal court can’t exactly be banished or excommunicated, so monasteries seem as good a prison for them as any other place – it’s cold,  boring, and out of the way. The abbots and abbesses tell our narrator who they think he can trust (no one), and what they think they know about who the raiders might be. Our narrator, wisely, pays close attention to what everyone says and  stays quiet about the knowledge he collects.  He has money to buy whatever he needs along the way, but more often than not, knowledge is of far greater value than coin.

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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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borrowed-manA Borrowed Man, by Gene Wolfe

published in 2015

where I got it: purchased new

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  1. Protagonist and supporting characters who you’re pretty sure are lying to you and to each other?
  2. Dialog that can be inferred in multiple ways?
  3. Not much of a pay-off at the end?
  4. Feel like you need to read the whole book again to figure out what’s going on?

 

If you answered Yes to all those questions,  you might be reading a Gene Wolfe. In classic Wolfe  fashion A Borrowed Man answers all those questions with a resounding Yes, and I’m tempted to read the whole thing again, just to see what additional hints I can pull out.

 

In the far future, not only can you take discs out of the library, but you can take an entire person out the library. Famous authors, artists, and poets have been “re-cloned” – they talk like a person, act and walk like a person, need to eat and sleep like a person, are a person, but are owned by a library. Reclones are property.  When someone takes out author A.E. Smithe, he has no choice about what they do with him.  But if enough years go by with no checkouts? He might get sold at a library discards sale, or he might get tossed into the incinerator without a second though.

 

To Smithe, his life is normal. He lives on a shelf in the library, he gets up every day and washes his hair and has breakfast. He paces, he reads, he fights with his ex-wife. If no patrons come to consult you, life is easy but boring.  Smithe remembers everything (or nearly everything) his original remembers, but he also remembers everything he’s experienced since becoming a reclone. Many libraries have E.A. Smithes, all with the same core memories. Reclones are forbidden from writing or creating art, it would cheapen what their originals did.  Yet, A Borrowed Man is told in first person, so  . . .  is Smithe writing this story?

 

Regardless of who is writing this story,  Smithe gets taken out of the library by one Colette Coldbrook, who says she needs his help solving a mystery. Both her father and brother were recently killed, and the only thing found in her father’s safe was a copy of the book Murder on Mars written by E.A. Smithe, yet our Smithe has no memory of every writing it. Are his memories incomplete? Was the book actually written by someone else (a law-breaking reclone, maybe?)?

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purloined-poodle-hearneThe Purloined Poodle, by Kevin Hearne

published Sept 30, 2016

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

 

 

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Swap out the recipe and/or knitting pattern for lots of butt sniffing, and The Purloined Poodle would make a perfect cozy mystery.

 

Told from the point of view of Oberon, Atticus’s wolfhound, this is a fun and fast paced mystery about doggies that have gone missing. And not just any doggies, but a prize winning poodle!  As Atticus chats up other dog owners at the dog park, Oberon gets to know the other dogs. By shaking hands and saying “Hi!” in the doggie way, which of course, as everyone knows, is sniffing the other dog’s butt and letting them sniff yours. But enough playing and getting to know each other, there’s a mystery to solve!  Atticus promises Oberon plenty of snacks, so Oberon is on the case! Just like that other mystery solving guy, you know, the one with the pipe!

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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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the ark tomlinsonThe Ark, by Patrick Tomlinson

published November 2015

where I got it: Netgalley

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The original fifty thousand residents of the generation ship, known as the Ark, were chosen for their intelligence and skills. These were the families we wanted to restart humanity with after we learned a black hole was headed straight for Earth. Eleven generations later, the total number of humans is still around fifty thousand, thanks to strict population controls. It’s a pretty boring journey for the most part, so everyone finds entertainment where they can. Watching Zero, a ballgame played in the low G of the center of the ship, is hugely popular. One of the game’s most famous players, Bryan Benson, grew up to become a detective. Fame has it’s bonuses – everyone is usually very happy to see Benson on their end of the ship, and he usually gets free drinks at the bar because his autographed photo is up on the wall.

 

Generally speaking, life on the Ark is pretty easy. Sure, there’s politics and gossip and sports and such, but in general very little changes. How much can life change, when you live in a tin can and families and child rearing are done only by approval? If you’ve seen the TV miniseries Ascension, the environs of The Ark feel similar.

 

Before I get into the plot of the novel, I want to tell you about the Ark ship, because it’s awesome. The propulsion system is basically Project Orion on crack. Nuclear bombs are detonated out the back end of the ship, and the force of the explosion pushes the ship forward. It sounds crazy, but it works. Tomlinson really did his research when it comes to both the design of the ship, astrophysics and how gravity changes in different areas of a rotating habitat. One of the opening scenes involves an EVA outside of the ship that could have easily been botched. But thanks to the author’s understanding of physics, the EVA scene firmly solidifies the legitimacy of the worldbuilding. I really loved the ship, how it works, and the other tech that the author dovetailed into our future society.

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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.
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