the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘mystery

Much thanks to Annorlunda Books for providing an ARC of Lagoonfire by Francesca Forrest, out March 3, 2021.  You can read my interview with Francesca Forrest here

 

On the surface, Lagoonfire is a mystery starring an investigator whose best friends are retired gods. 

 

And underneath that first mystery was a garden that unfurled into verdant blossoms, as an entire world unfolded in front of me.  One of the many things I loved about Lagoonfire is how it felt like opening my eyes.  You know how you feel when you walk into a bookstore, or a library, or a museum you’ve never been in before and your face just lights up? Yeah, Lagoonfire feels like that.

 

Hmmm . . .  now that I really think about it, Lagoonfire isn’t a mystery. 

 

It’s about how the stories we tell shape us and our world and our beliefs. It’s about how the people we love will lie to us, to protect us. It’s about how love makes us selfish.  It’s about how easily the present can erase the past, if we let it. And we always let it.  It’s about how if we tell ourselves a story enough times, it becomes our truth, and a fact, and how facts are not always the truth, just the version of history we were convinced of, so we live as if the story was real, because that’s easier/safer than the alternative.  I really love stories like this, and I love how Forrest tells this story.

 

The sequel to Forrest’s 2018 novella The Inconvenient God, Lagoonfire works perfectly well as a stand alone. That said, The Inconvenient God (read my review) is an absolute treat, and absolutely worth reading, and worth reading first, because Lagoonfire has so many big reveals.

Lagoonfire was so good, it took me a few hours to come back to myself after I’d finished reading it. It took me a few hours to remember how to form words into sentences.  (Books literally floor me, ok?)

 

Decommissioner Thirty-Seven prefers that people call her by her formal title, not her real name. Her friends know her name of course, but she cringes when they use it.  If she has to, she’ll allow people to call her by her childhood nickname, Sweeting. 

 

She’s worked at The Polity’s Ministry of Divinities most of her adult life, and I should be very clear about what her profession entails. As a decommissioner, her job is is literally decommission, or “retire”, deities.  They become mortal, to then live out a regular mortal lifespan, and then die.  Gods no longer worshipped become truly forgotten. In the name of unity and progress,  the Polity has the ability to give mere mortals power over any god who roams the earth, as prayers to a multitude of local harvest gods and goddesses now become shiny modern devotions to the Abstraction of the Harvest.  The Polity views this as bringing harmony and equality to all. And should you forget that harmony and prioritizing the common good are virtues, the Polity’s job is to ensure that you remember.

 

The story opens with a freak flood at a new shoreline construction project. Decommissioner Thirty-Seven is asked to check in on her friend Laloran-Morna and make sure he wasn’t responsible.  He’s not just a retired guy that she’s friends with, Laloran-Morna was an ocean god that she decommissioned, she botched the job, and they became friends afterwards (long story).  And how could he be responsible?  Laloran-Morna lives in a 4th floor apartment, requires nearly 24 hour home care, and is practically on his death bed.  There’s no possible way he can make it to the seashore, so he asks Sweeting to go to the shore to pray in his place, to his lost lover.

 

Why does Sweeting seem okay working for The Polity? They seem authoritarian and kinda horrible!

 

Why do these retired gods seem okay with being mortal, and no longer having worshippers?

 

Why doesn’t Sweeting want anyone to know her real name?

 

If you’ve ever read a Francesca Forrest, you’ll know that what the story is “about” isn’t what the story is about. 

 

What if you were the god of a particular place, and that place no longer existed?

 

Calling Lagoonfire a mystery is like calling Buckinham Palace a building. Like, yes, it is a building, but it’s so much more than a building! 

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The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

published in 1952

where I got it: purchased used

 

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I was nineteen or twenty years old the first time I met R. Daneel Olivaw. I didn’t know what to make of him.  Was he a good guy? Did he care about humans? What kind of person was he? I was maybe 24 or 25 when I made it to the end of Daneel’s life.  I like that Daneel has been a part of my life all these years. I think my early 20s was the perfect age for me to get to know him.

 

Prior to writing The Caves of Steel in 1952, Asimov had already written a handful of robot short stories that had been published as I Robot in 1950 (Asimov reportedly protested the title of the collection, as another author had already used that title, but his publisher didn’t care. But that’s a whole ‘nother story).    When unsure of how to stretch a robot story out to novel length, Asimov’s editor suggested he write a mystery novel, and make one the detectives a robot. That one conversation started everything.

 

The Caves of Steel takes place roughly three thousand years in the future, and humanity is a star faring race.  We’ve colonized planets, tried to terraform planets, lost some colonies and built others. While the humans of space are living in the future,  humans on Earth seem to be stuck in the past. People on earth mostly live in gigantic domed cities (sort of arcology-esque?), and rarely if ever leave the domes to stand under natural sunshine.  Many Terrans resent the Spacers, for a variety of reasons that Asimov touches on. “Clinging to the past” seems to be a character trait for many characters in this book.

 

Detective Lije Bailey has just been assigned the strangest case:  He’s to investigate the murder of a visiting Spacer. Stranger yet,  the Spacers demand that Bailey partner up with one of their own. His new partner is R. Daneel Olivaw.  The “R” stands for Robot. If Bailey is going to solve this case, the first thing he’s going to have to do is get over the revulsion he feels for Daneel.  And the first thing Daneel is going to have to do is get really good at passing for a human.

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Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille by Steven Brust

published around 1990

where I got it: purchased used

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After Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, I needed a unicorn chaser. And by that, I mean I needed a comfort read. Something fun, fast, with witty dialog, a plot that wouldn’t fry my brain, and some sexy romantic scenes wouldn’t hurt either.  You know what bookshelf never lets me down? My Steven Brust bookshelf. As my finger went over the spines of Vlad Taltos paperbacks, I hit on a paperback that looked like it didn’t fit: Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille. Thinking I was going to be reading a fantasy novel, somehow I’d landed on straight up futuristic science fiction!   Nice!

 

This little paperback is everything I was looking for in a happy unicorn chaser comfort read: it was a fast read full of snarky and witty dialog, the plot is a slow burn that was distracting enough to keep me from remembering all those scenes in The Wasp Factory,  there was some satisfying (although mostly off-page) sex scenes, much of the book was strange to the point of loopy, and overall it was super fun.

 

When you’re inside Cowboy Feng’s, you’re always in the same place. It’s the outside that changes all the time.  You see, nearly TARDIS like, this bar jumps around the galaxy. Always landing on an populated planet, and always jumping just before a nuclear bomb or other disaster hits the block, the trick is to be inside the bar when it jumps. Cowboy Feng’s serves some excellent food, and they have an excellent house Irish band, so any customers (or musicians) who happen to be in the restaurant when it jumps are along for the ride too.  If a space-jumping restaurant doesn’t sound like your thing, read this just for the heavenly food and meal descriptions!

 

Libby the bartender and Fred the de facto manager have been with Feng’s for darn near forever. Along the way, they picked up Rich and Eve. One day, as the restaurant was getting ready to jump, the members of an Irish Band where there too.  Billy, Tom, Rose, and Jamie became the house band that night. Even if they wanted to go home, they have no idea how to do that.

 

The story is told from Billy’s point of view, and starts just as the restaurant lands at a new location. Everyone gets settled, they scout out the neighborhood,  open the bar for business, meet some locals, and the musicians even rent an apartment a few blocks away. And then a murder happens in the bar and the police don’t seem to care.  By the way, this is the kind of story in which murders don’t randomly happen in random bars, and the kind of book in which it sure looks suspicious that the cops don’t seem to care. Seems even more suspicious that the poor sap who got killed bears a striking resemblance to Billy.

 

Traditional  Irish music, the best food in the galaxy,  a murder mystery, and the possible destruction of humanity. Who could ask for anything more?

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Time Was, by Ian McDonald

published April 2018

where I got it: purchased new

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Stories tell us who we are, but books are the vehicle. Physical books are vehicle, medium, and method,  a metaphor unto themselves, they are both particle and wave.

 

I’ve read Time Was by Ian McDonald twice now, both times started out exactly the same: A quick glance at cover art that communicates nothing, a quick skim of the back cover copy, a quick shrug. A few pages in an immediate annoyance with Emmett, who speaks quickly and with little context, a man who isn’t ready to let anyone in. Then I meet Tom, who I immediately feel protective over as I imagine his quiet smile and puppy-dog eyes.  In the moment that Tom’s eyes meet Ben’s, I feel honored just to be in the same room with that beautiful blossoming emotion of their immediate chemistry.

 

When Emmett stumbles upon a battered and slim volume of poetry at the death of a local bookstore, he find a folded and faded love letter inside.  Entitled “Time Was”, the book has no copyright date, no publisher information. Used bookstores lucky enough to have a copy appear to be under strict instructions to never sell the book, only to always have it on the shelf.

 

Emmett has grazed the edge of the mystery of Ben and Tom,  two men who were forced to discover a means of communicating across time by leaving letters in specific books in specific bookstores. To sully something beautiful, a particular book was their dead drop. But it’s been decades since the war, why are the instructions still being followed to the letter?

 

Whoever is writing Doctor Who these days could do a lot worse than writing an episode based on Time Was.

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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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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.