M. L. Brennan: Tainted Blood (Generation V)

I started to read this series because of the kitsune deuteragonist, and I had some quibbles with the first two books. Many of them are still present in this third installment: the main character is annoyingly dim-witted and oblivious at times and the plot, while well paced and reasonably complex etc. seems like it came from a “how to write a good noir PI story in 57 easy steps,” just somehow a bit too planned and clinical. I couldn’t begin to say why a properly executed and planned plot bothers me.

What the third installment has going for it, in addition to the kitsune and the decent murder mystery, is the vampire aspect. The way the novel addresses the practicalities of its vampires, and the protagonist has to confront what he is and what he will have to do to survive was wonderfully refreshing.
There is some repetitive introductory material, presumably for people who want to start from the third installment. Otherwise, the storytelling has improved a bit from the previous two installments, and the book is fine pop-corn reading. Sufficiently so that I actually am about to buy the next installment.
Three and a half out of five, with an extra fox star.

M.L. Brennan: Generation V (Generation V)

I started to read M. L. Brennan’s urban fantasy series because of a post TOR made regarding a major kitsune character.

The basic premise is pretty usual fare; there are vampires, kitsune, witches, sidhe and other legendary/supernatural creatures. The main character is a fresh vampire trying to survive as a minimum-wage barista with a film degree. He ends up with a competent, beautiful, and tricksy kitsune bodyguard.

The bad: the author is trying to sound authoritative about things they don’t really know, like firearms. The main character is, on purpose, a wet noodle; judging by the way the second book is going, this is so character growth can happen. Regardless, it rubbed me the wrong way. The worse feature is that he’s not exactly the brightest crayon in the box, and things that are clearly telegraphed to the reader as well as other characters completely go past him and make me want to slap some sense into him.

The OK: the plot is competent; in some ways too competent. Somehow it seems like a carefully crafted construct, with all the necessary conflicts and expositional components rather than an organic story. The cast of characters is of reasonable size has promise. The prose is competent, with a smattering of unusual words thrown in.

The good: So far, the kitsune are awesome. I’m not convinced that he author is particularly knowledgeable about Japanese culture or mythology, and the major character is pure fan service, but even so the trickster nature of the kitsune comes through wonderfully. The book reads well, and is very engaging popcorn reading.

Three out of five, with an extra star for foxes.

Elizabeth Bear: New Amsterdam Series

Here be a list of some nifty vampire novels:

  1. New Amsterdam
  2. Seven for a Secret
  3. The White City
  4. Ad Eternum
  5. Garrett Investigates

Elizabeth Bear does vampires and steampunk. Enough said.

Okay, I’ll say more. The series consists of several novels and one collection of novellas, following generally the same set of protagonists. Aside from being alternative history whodunnits, they play with the idea of what the immortality of a vampire means in the context of friendship and love with mortals. One of the main draws to me in the series definitely was the way in which Ms. Bear gives some of these themes more than the usual lip service.

The series jumps around in time a bit, and we get to see the same protagonists in several periods along their lives, and as the world changes around them. The narrative choices are well done, although I have to admit that the series leaves me wanting more, and there certainly is plenty material in the world and set of characters for countless more books. Bear’s web site suggests none are planned, but doesn’t exclude the possibility.

There is tragedy, but overall the stories are light enough to remain enjoyable. The prose is throughout competent, although not amazingly exceptional, the pacing is nice and the characters are interesting. Overall this was a pretty refreshing series, so I’ll give it four out of five.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.