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Lynn Flewelling: Nightrunner Series

I’ve been working my way through Lynn Flewelling’s Nigthrunner series, so far:

  1. Luck in the Shadows
  2. Stalking Darkness
  3. Traitor’s Moon
  4. Glimpses
  5. Shadows Return
  6. The White Road
  7. Casket of Souls
  8. Shards Of Time (Reading)

I didn’t see Glimpses listed in the Amazon list of books (and I’m again completely baffled as to why the publisher, author or Amazon won’t clearly mark the order of books in a series), and I skipped Shadows Return based on reviews which suggested it was just too heavy on misery and torture for my tastes.

Warning, mild spoilers ahead.

The series is your typically tropy high fantasy setting; there’s a good kingdom with good rulers, and noble wizards, and magic, and brave warriors and all the other goodies. What was mentioned from the outset in the series was that the two romantically involved main characters are both male, but I’d say the whole romance and relationship aspect is done so well that it really doesn’t matter. They deal with it for the first couple of books, then decide they’re OK and have a perfectly fine and healthy relationship past that, which to me is wonderful.

At one point in one of the first books, though, there’s a brief sexual encounter which, at least to modern sensibilities, crosses over to the Bill Cosby side of the fence, but that is never really explored, and left me bothered a bit.

The protagonists are on the scouting / thieving side of things, which I tend to like. Overall, the cast of characters is interesting, and while there is no amazing depth to any of them, they’re serviceable. There’s also a slightly longer than usual timescale, and over the seven books the series follows, for example, some children growing up and establishing themselves.

The writing’s a bit uneven within and between the books. At times it seems like the author couldn’t quite figure out what she wanted to do, and never really went back and cleaned up the style of narrative she had produced. The vocabulary has a lot of gems when referring to specific items and things, but is otherwise pretty decent. Overall a pleasant read, though it can get a bit dark at times.

The books stand on their own plot-wise within a larger story arc, although you really do want to read the series in order, as picking up a later book would leave out a lot of backstory and character development.

In summary, a nice entertainment fantasy series to be enjoyed with a bowl of popcorn. Three out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Patricia Briggs: Dead Heat (Alpha and Omega 4)

Patricia Briggs is one of those authors that I preorder, and if it’s a book she’s written I haven’t read I’ll buy it without any further thought. Not because her books are amazing literature, but they are among my favorites in popcorn reading, with interesting characters, a world, and well-paced plots.

That being said, of all her books I tend to like the Alpha and Omega stories the least, and while I haven’t quite identified why that is (since they share the world and to some extent characters from my favorite series of hers with Mercy Thompson), the pattern unfortunately still holds.

The setting is your typical urban fantasy, our world except with fae, werewolves, vampires and the like. The plot is that there’s a fae doing nasty things to children, and our protagonist couple has to save the day.

The pacing is weird, and while the book does wrap up this particular story, the whole affair felt unfinished. I am still not fond of the protagonists, and the longer story arch about werewolf babies does not resonate with me at all.

On the upside, since this world is shared with the Mercy Thompson series and takes place at the same time, it’s obvious that this ties in with some larger meta-plot regarding the fae, so it may be of moderate interest in that respect.

Two and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Rachel Aaron: Eli Monpress

Under another recommendation I just went through the first four books of The Legend of Eli Monpress.

The setting is a medieval-ish fantasy world with magic and (un)surprisingly modern and North American morals and customs, so pretty standard fare. The magic is interesting, in that everything is based on manipulating the spirits that inhabit things; you either con, force or negotiate them into doing things you want them to do.

The titular main character, Eli Monpress, is the greatest thief in the world, or at least he wants to be. He and his two sidekicks wander the lands, and while ostensibly stealing things for their own reasons, end up generally doing a lot more good than bad. Then there are their enemies, or in some cases frenemies, similarly motivated by their ideals, and of course a few caricatured villain or two bent on destruction. That being said, at least a few of the antagonists actually have pretty decent motivations, even if no characters are really all that deep.

The most significant drawbacks are the Marty Stu aspects, and how conveniently everyone always ends up in the same place at the same time, or has rather unlikely connections. They also introduce a number of metaphysical aspects that will become relevant later.

On the upside, the first three books which can be purchased as an omnibus edition, are actually quite passable pop-corn reading in the vein of a good high-energy caper tale. The effortless prose, clever events and interesting characters make up for the shortcomings, and I’ll give them a three and a half out of five. I found them more enjoyable than Nice Dragons Finish Last; Ms. Aaron does not do self-pitying characters well.

The fourth book, The Spirit War, takes the world and begins to go further into the level of gods and creation and total war. While I appreciate the unique and interesting way the world is set up, and the many questions that are raised about how it came to be what it is, it just did not flow nearly as well as the previous three books. Where they made me stay up a bit too late, and insisted I carry them with me to dinner, this become at times almost a bit of a chore. The plot was just not as interesting, despite being a lot more significant, and when very powerful beings begin to use their powers in the context of war, it just always seems like the people getting killed, maimed and destruction is just a backdrop, and that does not sit well with me. The book ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, although the primary threat to the world will get resolved in the end. I’m not sure whether I’ll pick up the next book. Two out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Marko Kloos: Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure (Frontlines Series)

The setting of the Frontline series, so far, has been good old military space opera. Earth is overcrowded, has started to colonize other worlds, North America is at a conflict with the Sino-Russian alliance, and the protagonist enlists in the military to get out of poverty, hopelessness and public housing, and prove himself.

The first novel progresses quite slowly, and it’s way past the half-way mark before the plot has progressed past basic training.

The writing style is fairly distinctive, present tense and first person, and reads a bit like a diary or narration. The result isn’t the best prose, and there’s a distinct lack of structure to the story. Being old-fashioned space opera, there’s plenty of military jargon and gear porn. Some aspects of physics, like FTL communications, seem to randomly appear and disappear, and there are a few other niggles with fundamental science, but in general it sounds like Mr. Kloos has a decent grasp of the military, weapons and science. By the end of the second book, very little if any really original content in world-building has been presented.

The first novel ends properly, rather than at a cliff-hanger, although the larger story arc is only started. The second novel picks up a good while after the first one, and the intervening events are briefly summarized. The structure and prose are largely the same as those of the first installment, so you’re not left hanging and waiting for the next novel.

While the events are dramatic and exciting, generally everything goes well for the protagonist, and competency is rewarded, and this adds to the journal-style, where eventually you expect that things will work out. The characters never gain much depth. At the end of the day, the first two books can be summarized as daydream material for teenagers that want uncomplicated relationships and shiny military hardware and space ships.

The setting does introduce a number of issues on the role of the military and social organization etc. but in these respects the books don’t have much substance either. The protagonist reflects on some of the issues, but it all comes across as very academic and clean, rather than as experiences that shape an individual.

Despite all of these shortcomings, the books are actually surprisingly readable and great popcorn entertainment. They’re also affordable as Kindle versions.

Three out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Terrorism and Charlie Hedbo

A few disjointed words on my musings while reading the papers.

Trying to figure out what drives people to kill, to hate, and to extreme intolerance is hard. A lot of very smart people have tried to make headway for a long time, and yet we know little of practical use. Consequently, don’t expect me to change the status quo. It’s not (just) deprivation, it’s not your local church, it’s not your parents.

Calling the attack on the Canadian parliament, or the rampage in France, or similar attacks “Terrorism” or “Islamic” “Militant” etc. bothers me. France definitely falls in the terrorism category, Canada and some others less so. However (and this may change) we’re stirring mentally disturbed people, people clearly having difficulty being part of society, and radicalized criminals together with evil terrorist masterminds familiar from TV, and I don’t think that’s at all helpful. Terrorism has never been well defined — one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter, and today things are even more murky. Anti-IRS? Anti-abortion? KKK? Anti-semitist? Firebombing mosques? Bombing schools? Done by individuals, done by small groups, done by militias, done by people coming back from a training camp in the Middle East? Sometimes the line is clear, sometimes much less so.

The Canadian shooter was mentally disturbed, and there’s little need to go down any more rabbit holes with that.

The French perpetrators were criminals and drug dealers with pornography and dubious religious discipline. Yes, they were motivated by some fantasy version of Jihad and Islam, but from all we’ve learned so far they were thugs, and not particularly observant Muslims. This to me is at odds with the narrative that Islam is the driving force behind the massacres.

Another point to make is how rare these kinds of attacks in the West are. Considering the population statistics, they’re complete and utter outliers. If any sizable portion of the Muslim population in the US, France or Germany for example were radicals bent on violence, things would look completely different. There are bombings and similar attacks due to job grievances, racism or just plain mental illness.

One of the clerks in the kosher shop that was attacked in Paris was a Muslim, and he shepherded many clients to safety. One of the policemen either responding to, or guarding the newspaper offices was a Muslim. Obviously, then, there are Muslims, and Jews, and Christians and all kinds of believers that have figured out how to live and work together in France.

Reading the comments, both on FB and various newspapers, suggesting that the violence is inherent in Islam and by corollary all Muslims should GTFO or convert if we want peace in our countries is pretty painful. Yes, there’s a violent aspect to Islam and the Koran. Surprise, ditto for Christianity. Or, seen from a different angle, there are plenty of Muslims that are living amongst us. They run businesses, have families, have integrated in the communities, and want nothing to do with the hateful versions of Islam. To tell them that no, it doesn’t matter what they believe or do, they implicitly support barbarism is not only rude, it’s very disturbing, because it’s the textbook example of religious intolerance, and exactly the kind of thing that all the anti-discrimination principles are meant to combat. We live with Islam, and we will live with Islam, and that will not change. We better figure out a way to deal with it. You can be against ISIS and yet respect the religion of your neighbor doing database administration for the phone company.

Things are never as black-and-white as we’d like. Of course communities are responsible for doing something about hateful preachers or those advocating violence. But what exactly are Muslims in perfectly civil and nice mosques expected to do about things that maybe happening in another city? Maybe there are things that can be done. Maybe there are things that should be done. If so, they’re not obvious to me. There is media bias, and there’s whitewashing. Unless clearly overwhelming, cherry-picking one or the other as an anecdotal example doesn’t redefine reality.

Drawing a line between unhealthy self-censorship and healthy respect is no easier. Should you be able to offend a religious figure? Yes. Should you? Possibly not. Personally, I strongly believe that those in power must be held accountable, and parody is a way to do so; if history is any guide, there are no things that do not eventually require us to lampoon them. Making fun of a religious figure and making fun of a problematic interpretation or representation of said figure are two different things. The prophets pictured in many of the controversial caricatures are not those venerated by most Muslims, they are the prophets venerated and imaged by intolerant, destructive fanatics. To me, this difference is crucial. As usual with parodies, if you’re offended by someone’s depiction of things you hold dear, it’s always worth re-examining said things and just why you were offended.

There’s a virulent and extremely dangerous ideology in radical Islam. It appeals to people. The organized barbarism, as well as the individual criminals motivated by their visions of it define themselves in terms of Islam. This makes it very difficult to separate militant Islam from the peaceful, everyday Islam. Is there a media bias giving extra weight on the religion in headlines? I don’t know. Meanwhile in Africa, for example, there are utter atrocities being perpetrated in the name of Christ, but much fewer headlines about this. Is it because of the particular religion, or is it because we just don’t happen to care about that part of the planet currently? Then again, we’re also not greatly publicizing a lot of the Muslim-on-Muslim violence, all of which does suggest that what we see on the news is skewing our perceptions.

Terrorism in the modern era isn’t new. There were, and are, the Red Army Faction, Weathermen, Unabomber, (P)IRA, ETA, crazy American militias and many others. Some were driven by political grievances. (Although in the case of the IRA this was often dressed, simplistically, as Protestant vs. Catholic. Tell me there are not at least a few corollaries there.) Often these were movements that attracted people because terrorist life was exciting, gave a person a way to belong, a way to make a difference, to be famous, and get girls. Many of the same reasons seem to be drawing youth to fight in the Middle East as well, except now under the guise of Jihad instead of anarchy or communism. To think that somehow the threat of a bomb in a shopping mall was brought to us by Islamists is inaccurate.

The words we use to define concepts and the words we use in our headlines shape the way we think of things. I’m afraid the ones we’re using now don’t help us make sense of the world we live in, but I have no better ones to suggest.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Ilona Andrews: Magic Burns

A good while back I read the first book, Magic Bites in Andrews’s Kate Daniels series of Magic verb books. I was not too overly impressed, it seemed like just another one of the endless stream of paranormal romance novels flooding the market. However, some friends recently strongly suggested I give the series another try, so I did. The second book in the series, Magic Burns is better, and I enjoyed it a fair bit. It still has a lot of the tropes of the genre and a fair bit of convenient coincidences, and frankly the plot was like something out of a SyFy movie — but for some reason it just worked for me. Perhaps I was in a more receptive mood, perhaps I don’t remember the first book as well, but I’d say that Ms. Andrews has clearly improved as a writer between the first and second installments. The setting is an alternate near future; magic has returned to earth, and magical creatures have reawakened. In some ways the semi-post-apocalyptic setting reminds me of Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, and having a magic-user protagonist only adds to the comparison. Harrison has better secondary characters, but Andrews’s protagonist doesn’t constantly elicit the urge to yell at her. As to the plot, the stakes are high, the action is constant, and overall the read was a good romp that was more enjoyable than it really should’ve been. I’ll likely keep following the series. Three and a half.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Patricia Briggs: Night Broken

I’m a big fan of Patricia Briggs, and I’m willing to buy pretty much anything she’s released because I’ve always enjoyed the read. Her books are entertainment, perhaps not the deepest or best of literature, but fun. The Mercy Thompson series has been one of my favorites in the paranormal or urban fantasy genres, so my expectations were pretty much set for the eight book in the series. Unfortunately Night Broken fell short of my expectations. Mercy is running the show, and everyone else just sort of tags along and has little agency of their own — in that respect it reminded me a little of the McGuire’s October Day series. Not only that, but the pacing and structure of the story was off; the final resolution was almost anticlimactic and then the book just ends. There is also another plot arch with a romantic rival of sorts that I assume will develop over the upcoming releases, but here it’s just set up and then doesn’t do anything. The prose is competent and pleasant to read as always, but the book being largely a one-woman show with a dubious and not entirely satisfying plot left me a bit cold. Two and a half stars.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Rachel Aaron: Nice Dragons Finish Last

This book was another Amazon recommendation. The setting is alternative future urban fantasy: magic has returned to earth, and a lot of mythological creatures have awakened from their slumber and have re-arranged some of our way of life and cities to be more to their liking.

The origin story is a bit weak, and it’s quickly glossed over; otherwise the world seems pretty standard urban fantasy fare with monsters, dragons, fae, vampires, nature spirits and humans working magic. In her other books Ms. Aaron is known for world-building, though, so there may be a bit more to the world than meets the eye.

The protagonist is a young dragon that has been cursed to remain in human form until he can prove himself. This is because he’s a Nice Guy and doesn’t live up to draconic greed and ruthlesness. Luckily he meets a girl that appreciates him for his inner chivalry and things go from there.

The setup sounds cliche-laden and saccharine, and some of the self-pity-parties and teenage romance were over the top. The protagonist is supposedly 24 years old, but his behavior would befit a teenager. I’m hoping that at least some of it is intentional, and there’s more interesting character development to come.

My reason for optimism here is the plot. As it progresses, more and more layers and underpinning machinations are revealed, and I was fairly impressed by the end. The dynamics of the protagonist and his love interest, aside from the Marty-Stuisms, are both fanservice and yet unexpectedly refreshing in that the girl appears to be the more ruthless and morally flexible half of the couple.

The prose is decent, but not excellent or particularly noteworthy, the pacing is good, and the plotting is competent with some nice hints of future things to come. Some of the plot seems like it’s a “starter adventure” to introduce the characters and setting and the actual events are secondary to the ultimate goal, but seeing good intentions and cleverness win out over brute strength is nonetheless pleasing.

In summary, the characters are neat once you get over the excessive timidity of the protagonist, the plot is kind of clever, and there is plenty to hint at interesting future installments. Here the sum is greater than its parts, and I enjoyed the read a fair bit and will pick up the next volume once it’s out.

Three out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Jim Butcher: Skin Game, Seanan McGuire: The Winter Long

I like urban fantasy as a genre, ever since I read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and got hooked on the idea of there being supernatural beings in the world we inhabit, or one like it.

I’ve read a reasonable number of authors in the field, and I’m getting increasingly annoyed by the paint-by-the-numbers paranormal romance flood; a lot of the novels and authors entering the fray are perfectly serviceable, but I’d like more; more original settings, plots, and just more attention to making a good book, rather than a good-enough book.
Seanan McGuire’s latest release in her October (Toby) Daye series is The Winter Long. While there have been great things about the series, and it harkens back to my roots in the genre, the works just don’t seem completely polished. The banter and descriptions of places, items and such come occasionally as an attempt to show how knowledgeable or cool one is, without being fully convincing.
The book continues from where the previous one left off, though as usual the plot is mostly self-contained. A lot of assumptions are being made about the reader being familiar with the settings and characters, and more history and meta-plot is being revealed. In the foreword Ms. McGuire says that this is a pivotal part of the story she’d been plotting since the beginning, but unfortunately the book does not feel finished enough for it. While there’s a certain comfort that the protagonist’s relationships are more settled, and she has allies rather than going it alone (thereby saving the reader from a near-universal trope of the paranormal romance genre), being comfortable with the kind of supernatural powers that Toby hangs around with ends up feeling a bit wrong, and the awe and respect for the creatures is lost. On the other hand, the romance aspect isn’t central, and we’re largely back to a supernatural mystery, which I’m happy with.
Prose is good, the characters that have been developed are being taken for granted and don’t gain much more depth, even if they do get a bit more history, and the plot and final result seem a bit loose. Three out of five.
Having read The Winter Long, and having also just made my way through Brust’s Vlad Taltos-series, I’ve had a fair bit of protagonist heavy on narration, witty banter, and lack of respect for authority and power. But hey, let’s have more Harry Dresden.
When a friend recommended Jim Butcher and the Dresden Files to me, I picked up the first book and didn’t care for it. I then caught the unfortunately short-lived TV show, which I liked, and read a few more of the books, partly to fit in with a bunch of people who kept talking about them. And indeed, the series grew on me.
The latest book, Skin Game, is brilliant, perhaps the best in the series so far. I fear that Ms. McGuire fares poorly in a direct comparison here: Jim Butcher’s prose and characters are just solid and well crafted on an entirely higher level. The novel is set some time from the previous one, but largely picks up from its ending for all intents and purposes. Harry was left in a bit of a pickle, and he remains in it — except of course things just get hairier. The complexity of the game the powers in his world are weaving, and his role in it is fairly remarkable, as is the difficulty and moral ambiguity of the situation Butcher places his main character.

At times the prose and narration ends up taking some long detours of (self-)reflection, but in the end I think it works out quite well, bringing a clear intellectual and ethical depth to the plot. In particular, several of the supporting cast are given a lot of responsibility to put Harry in his place and show him where his worldview might need adjustment. This really helps in making the protagonist more human, not only because on a meta-level the author is willing to show us that his perfect lead isn’t nearly as well in tune with reality as he thinks, but also because it gives the character more depth when he has to face re-evaluating things. There way we see family through Harry’s eyes spoke to me a fair bit a well — perhaps it wasn’t realistic, but it hit close to home.

The pacing is noteworthy. No allowances are made for people not familiar with the characters and settings, and once the plot takes off, the foot doesn’t lift from the gas pedal. A comparison to Orphan Black‘s second season opener comes to mind. There’s one plot twist that seemed like a bit of a cheat, but over all it was very well realized indeed.

The grimness and challenges facing the protagonist feel somehow proper, rather than artificially crafted to fulfill the melodramatic quotient, and humor is expertly applied at the exact right proportion to keep things balanced. There are some nice vocabulary treats, but also clever uses of more common words.

Four and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Steven Brust: Vlad Taltos series.

By the recommendation of a coworker, I started to read Steven Brusts’s series of fantasy novels, known either as the Jhereg series (from the first book and the mafia-like organization in the books), Vlad Taltos series (based on its protagonist), or The Dragaeran books, though that term encompasses some others as well.

The first thing I should mention is that I think this series absolutely deserves to be thought of as one of the major fantasy series helping to define the genre. The second is that in many aspects it’s a bit different from most other series I’ve read.

The books have been written over two decades and several more are planned. Wikipedia informs me that many aspects of the books have been influenced directly by events in the author’s own life; notably the storyline with Vlad’s wife, which I had been planning to mention as a wonderful example of a rich, complex relationship that does not feel like it follows the usual norm one expects in literature.

The setting is a fantasy world with magic, monsters, artifacts, gods and a typical low-technology idealized semi-feudal middle-ages social organization. The main character is, as far as we can tell, human. In a slight twist, the majority of characters however aren’t; as far as we can tell they’re close to the fantasy archetype of elves — who of course consider themselves “human” and the humans to be something lesser.

There are several houses or clans of elves, each of which has personality characteristic of an animal, either mythological or real — though almost all the “real” animals are still unique to this setting. In this respect it reminded me a bit of the Legend of the Five Rings role playing game.

The main character starts off as a minor boss / assassin in a criminal organization, though he also possesses some magic of his own. There is certainly moral ambiguity, and whether the protagonist is a good person or not is immediately apparent.

The series follows the same set of characters, but not in a strictly chronological order. Indeed one of the noteworthy aspects of the series is how skillfully Brust jumps around in Vlad’s timeline, filling in events hinted at in previous books, or surprising us with a setting far in the future, and making us wonder how he got there.

The same skill with jump-cuts is also applied within the books themselves, which tend to interleave events and scenes, but do them in such a way that it adds to the story rather than seeming like an artificial storytelling device. For example, in Dragon, a military battle, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath all alternate. In one of the books one of the alternating narratives switches to two of the women in Vlad’s life discussing his actions that are being covered in the book.

Finally, the style and approach varies from book to book. Sometimes the next book in the series picks up exactly from where the previous one left off, sometimes the next book jumps far away in time. Whether a book is high fantasy, a mystery story, military fantasy or something else also changes from book to book, as do the storytelling devices used. Not every book uses the same alternating narrative devices or the same way. As a consequence I like some books more than others; the aforementioned Dragon is likely my least favorite, but otherwise they’ve all been eminently readable and gripping.

The books are written from the narrative viewpoint of Vlad; he has a familiar with whom he is mentally linked, and aside from being amazingly useful, it affords a very powerful and constantly utilized way to add levity, exposition and and an excuse to voice Vlad’s thoughts.

What the series isn’t is high brow literature. There are aspects to the dialogue, plot and setting that clearly are intended to be humorous and almost meta, relying on our modern sensibilities and knowledge of our own world, rather than remaining an completely and utterly isolated treatment of a fantasy world. Perhaps this annoys some of you, for me it was sufficiently unobtrusive and worthwhile that it added to my enjoyment of the books. Brust also places some affectations on his character, primarily the indulgent descriptions and concentration on foods.

The prose is good; not amazing and lyrical like Patrick Rothfuss, but the vocabulary used is good and the use of language is skillful. The pacing of the plot is good, and while we obviously know some things ahead of time, I do not find the events predictable at all.

All of the books and stories seem to contribute to a coherent meta-plot and story. We see Vlad transform from the person we met at the first book; we learn what he was and how he got to that point, and we learn how he ends up changing with subsequent life events. Vlad’s relationships with people and increasing knowledge of the world he lives in shapes him, much the same way those things shape us. We learn more about the cosmology of the world, and about the deeper meanings of many people, events and threads that may not have seemed important in the past.

The books are self-contained. They do not end on cliffhangers. I suspect you could, mostly, pick up any of
them and start reading, though it certainly is helpful to be familiar with the world and characters.

In short, the series is on my awesome list and gets four and a half out of five; four for the books, and the extra half for managing to turn it all into a truly epic scope of a tale.

As a bonus, here’s Penny Arcade’s take.

Posted by Toivo Voll