Tanya Huff: The Silvered

I’ll have to hand it to Ms. Huff — she’s not happy with any one setting or world or genre, and boldly explores new ones. I generally like her work, though find the quality of it somewhat uneven.

Amazon had suggested, or at least one of its reviews did, that Silvered was Huff’s foray into steampunk. Since I like her and I like steampunk, I picked it up. It’s not steampunk. Yes, there are cannons and balloons and such, but the role of technology is minor, and the type and technological level is not close to that genre either. Instead, it’s a tale of a nation of witches and werewolves at war with a nation of technology and religion. A young witch and a young werewolf have to step up when it becomes obvious that only they can prevent a great calamity.

I have some trouble figuring out just what this book tries to be. There’s obviously a bit of romance. It’s a tale of a girl growing up to a woman, and a powerful hero. It’s a tale of personal conviction and morals overcoming duty when duty is immoral. It’s a werewolf story, it’s fantasy paranormal romance, it’s… a bit hard to pin down.

The characters never quite gain the depth I wish they did. The setting has potential, Ms. Huff doesn’t shy away from brutal violence in her depiction of evil, of fear and war. The plot is well crafted. And yet somehow it doesn’t quite get together, the chemistry doesn’t quite work. There’s nothing wrong with the pacing, the prose or the setting, it just didn’t quite grab me that way I think it should have.

Two and a half out of five.

Sharon Shinn Troubled Waters

I rather liked Sharon Shinn’s Thirteen Houses series, and of course her science-fiction flavored Samaria series.

Troubled Waters starts a new Elemental Blessings series; currently this and the second book (Royal Airs) are out.

The setting is, as expected, a late-medieval world, just on the cusp of industry and transport beginning to change the world. The protagonist is a privileged woman, people are generally smart, nice and wise, there’s a small amount of magic in the world, and there’s an undercurrent of romance or relationship. In that respect it’s quite similar to Thirteen Houses and has a similar Mary Sue air to it, if you find that offensive.

In this series Shinn has created a new world, with a very convincing numerology-based system that permeates social organization, religion, timekeeping and commerce. There’s a regent and five essential houses. There are five fundamental dual human characteristics — Elay (Air/Soul), Hunti (Wood/Bone), Sweela (Fire/Mind), Coru (Water/Blood) and Torz (Earth/Flesh). Each of those characteristics is associated with a set of eight blessings such as “joy” or “resolve” or “honesty.” The character of a person is somewhat determined by blood, based on their parents or grandparents, and typically is predominantly one dominant characteristic with a possibility of another lesser one. Some combinations are good, some make for a conflicted or difficult personality. There are temples in which you can divine a person’s character as well as coming events by drawing random blessings.

It all sounds rather convoluted, but it really isn’t. The entire setting flows naturally as the plot progresses, and once I was done with the book I was a bit surprised to remember that that’s not how the world actually works. The money and timekeeping are a bit more work, but an appendix explains it, should it become confusing.

The system reminds me somewhat of a role-playing game with its archetypical characteristics or alignments; so much so that this entire world would lend itself rather well to a game setting. Either way, Shinn does a brilliant job structuring a world around people whose personalities are either predetermined to some extent, or who appear to be easily sorted into these categories. The protagonist is a Coru (Water/Blood), and the way she is always moving, restless, calm yet potential for amazing fury does the element of water and the likeness of a river great justice.

The plot eventually becomes court and succession intrigue. Frequently new revelations cast past events — both major and seemingly inconsequential — in a new light, either to the reader, the protagonist, or both. The machinations and motivations generally seem believable and consistent and weave a rich tapestry.

The pacing is good, though falters a bit towards the end; it almost feels as if the book vacillates between finishing properly or splitting into another volume — as she’s done before, Shinn picks up the next installment years after the events in this, so how repercussions played out is hinted at but not given as a story. That being said, this volume clearly stands on its own, and ends in a way that doesn’t make you demand the next volume to found out what happened. The prose itself is good enough to overcome any desire I might have to skim, with occasionally delightful vocabulary. Most importantly the flow is great, and this easily was one of those books that makes one ignore bedtimes or even mealtimes.

Four out of five.

Anne Bishop: The Tir Alainn Trilogy

I’ll bundle The Pillars of the World, Shadows and Light, and The House of Gaian into a single review. The plot and storytelling was sufficiently consistent between all of them, and each subsequent book immediately picked of where the previous left off that they might as well be considered one long work.

The premise is an idyllic fantasy world that has fae crossing into the human world at their leisure, and generally behaving somewhat like arrogant brats. There are sprites and other little folk, and witches that are either appreciated or shunned, and of course humans.

An evil power is gathering and hunting the witches, and old linkages between all of the races have been forgotten, so now fae, witches and humans desperately need to relearn what their role in the greater weave is to counter the threat.

So far, so good. What I didn’t like was that the evil was incredibly caricatured. There’s a strong women’s rights lesson to the story, but the threats are so overt that they detract from the point being made. Another major shortcoming is the plotting. Occasionally evil and conflict gets built up only to utterly deflate. Occasionally it actually leads to tension.

Overall, I was left with a feeling of quite a mess that didn’t have a good dramatic flow; huge amounts of traveling between random places for what occasionally seemed like very contrived reasons, and at other times excessively plot-convenient proximity of people and events. The characters were witty, but didn’t quite ever develop proper depth or sufficient differentiation from each other. The one exception and my clear favorite of the series met with a tragic end, for which I’ve tried to find a good plot justification but haven’t, so I may have a bit of personal beef on that account.

The cosmology, on the other hand, was noteworthy. The origin of the fae or man is not explained satisfactorily, but their roles in the world, their realms and their connection to the witches is a very nice and consistent. The maturation of a couple of the primary characters was pretty well done, even if it didn’t give them that much more depth as people. The duality of some of the more powerful creatures, the tempering of power with responsibility, of destruction with compassion, was interesting.

The characters and prose were sufficient to make me read, if somewhat skimming at times, the entire trilogy, so for that I give it two and a half out of five.