rowyn: (Default)
This is a book on fashion in England from the Roman invasion to the present. The author's primary focus is on the most elaborate trends, and on women's fashion in particular. She does discuss some of the elaborate things men did in the name of fashion: codpieces, for example, which were often absurdly suggestive, and the trend of shoes with points so long they were hard to walk in. And powdered wigs that required hairbags to keep the powder off the wearer's clothing. But mostly it's women's fashion: farthingales and half-farthingales and ruffs and corsets and stays and crinolines and bustles and so forth. The author pretty much gets to Regency England, and says "Beau Brummel pioneered a relatively simple, clean look similar to the modern three-piece suit, and men's fashion has been boring ever since so it's all girls from here on."

It's interesting, though the narrow focus on "English middle and upperclass women" made it less informative than I would have liked. There's most of a chapter that is just "crinolines were freakishly dangerous clothing in the 19th century", primarily because (a) women of every class wore them, as opposed to the even more unwieldy farthingale, which was worn only by the upperclass and the (then very small) middle class of the 16th century (b) crinolines were made of highly flammable materials, and women are working around all kinds of open flames.

There is an anecdote about a woman deliberately wearing a bustle that had a mouse nest in it. She cut a little hole in it so she could feed the mice at the dinner table. I am pretty sure this is apocryphal but I am in love with this woman anyway.

There is a lot on the politics of fashion, and denunciations of various trends (also, sumptuary laws!) One thing I found interesting was that the author described some of the most extravagant trends in women's fashion as extremely unpopular with men. The ginormous skirts of crinolines and farthingales and panniers (in various different time periods), for example. Or, on the simple side, the straight silhouettes and short hair of the 1920s. That men decried these trends did not apparently deter women from wearing them, however. I wouldn't want to draw conclusions from one book, but it did reinforce my own belief that women dress to please themselves* and impress other women. Impressing men is not irrelevant, but it's not the dominant goal for most women.

* not to be confused with "for their own comfort".

Anyway, if you want to know about upper & middle class women's fashion in England from the16th century to the mid-20th, this is pretty good. Also good for some ancillary anecdotes on other trends impacted by clothing. (Thieves hiding their goods under the massive crinolines! Armless chairs designed specifically for farthingales!) For the rest of the time period and for men, it's got some information but not much. Other nations are only mentioned insofar as impact English fashion. It's written in an engaging manner with a good number of illustrations. It is clear the author did considerable research, but this is not a heavily-footnoted scholarly work.
rowyn: (Default)
I thought I'd already posted this review, but I can't find it so HERE:

"Who Is Willing", by MCA Hogarth

I was fortunate enough to be a first reader on this space opera novella, and loved it. This is a standalone story, which I say with confidence since I haven't read any of the earlier stories. it presents some fascinating insights on leadership that aren't usually touched on in sf-action stories. It's a thoughtful story about the ordinary problems of service in a military during a time of mostly-peace. Awareness that peace is not a permanent condition permeates the narrative, adding significance to it, and includes a well-executed action sequence. There are some well-drawn alien-aliens as well, but my favorite part was the relationship between Beringwaite and Alysha, which changed in interesting ways over the course of story. It has a slow and prosaic start, but once I got past the first couple of scenes, I had a great time with it. The resolution surprised me while still making sense, and I liked the emphasis on contemplative solutions rather than charging through trying to solve everything with brute force. I'll give it an 8.5.

"Mira's Last Dance", Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the fourth novella in the Penric and Desdemona fantasy series, and pleased me with its lack of violence-as-the-solution, and the way the characters look for smart, ethical solutions to their problems. There's very little use-of-force in the story at all, in fact, despite the central conflict being "characters trying to flee country without being captured and killed".

The first two in this series are standalone, but the 3rd & 4th should be ready together. Along with, I expect, the 5th, whenever it comes out. There's a romance subplot that runs through 3 & 4 and the ending of this one suggests it's not really resolved. Anyway, I liked it and still recomend the series. I'll give it an 8.
rowyn: (Default)
I read Frederica over the weekend. This is a romantic comedy set in 19th century England. Like the other Heyer novels I read, I found the comedy worked better than the romance. The orphaned 24-year-old female protagonist has charge of her three youngest siblings (12, 16, and 19), and one thing I particularly liked about the book is that the male protagonist's relationship with the two youngest is not an afterthought. He doesn't cultivate their affection or put up with them for the sake of Frederica. It would be more apt to say that the youngsters cultivate his affection and he finds himself powerless to resist them. Having found myself on occassion wrapped around some small child's finger and doing the most tedious things because they looked all hopeful at me, I can relate. :D The protagonists are both pretty likeable, and the male protagonist exerts himself to become a better man over the course of the novel -- but not because Frederica actively reforms him, which is another point in its favor. I like characters to redeem themselves rather than be coaxed to redemption by some outside force. The comedy in the novel is more understated rather than laugh-out-loud absurd, as in some of her other books. I'll give it an 8.
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I haven't written a review in a long time. This is because I haven't finished reading a book in even longer. Brood of Bones is the first book I've finished in 2017.

I started several other books, and have arguably reduced my to-be-read-pile by a few because I threw books out of it. I don't know. I might give some of the books I gave up on quickly another chance; one was "this is a gay romance and right now I really want to read a book with some girls in it and not ALL BOYS ALL THE TIME". But I was pretty grimly disappointed with the start of some others.

Anyway, I feel like I was being exceptionally judgy about book during this time, so Brood of Bones probably deserves bonus points just for making it past the "meh" barrier and getting me to read it to the end.

This is the first of the Enchantress series, which is currently five books. I don't know if Marling plans to release more, but it looks like all of his writings to date have been in this setting (though not this series), and with overlapping characters.

I didn't like it as well as the other two books I've read by Marling, which is a pity because Brood of Bones is the first and the free one. Ironically, the one weak spot in Dark Lord's Wedding -- the climax -- was my favorite part of Brood of Bones. The story leading up to the climax dragged on too much for my tastes, with the protagonist either unsure what to do or pursuing options that I could tell weren't going to work. But the climax was very satisfying and proceeded well from everything established in the story so far.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book -- the protagonist is determined to Do the Right Thing, and to help people even at personal cost. While Hiresha has a number of flaws and in some ways is hard to like as a person, her strong moral compass is admirable. And I liked that she had various flaws that made sense in the context of her society.  A lot of characters in fantasy have attitudes very similar to contemporary American ones regardless of how different their culture is, and I appreciated the effort put in to make Hiresha a part of her world.

Overall, I will give this one a 7, and will probably pick up the second book in the series at some point, given that I like Marling's recent work.
rowyn: (Default)
 ​I forget if I ever reviewed the first novella in the series, but Bujold has three novellas total in the "Penric and Desdemona" series now.  I finished reading "Penric and the Shaman" recently, and I gotta say how much I like this series. I love the way Bujold portrays the gods in the Five Gods setting, because they are a real power in the stories. They are, at various times and some times simultaneously, awe-inspiring, benevolent, utterly terrifying, subtle, and overwhelming in power. The characters in the setting pray to the gods, and sometimes their prayers are answered, and usually this is both terrifying and to their benefit. It feels very much in the nature of divinity. One of the running jokes of the setting has characters thinking hard about whether or not they actually want to pray.  "Do I want divine intervention here?  I know what divine intervention looks like."  There's a delightfully alien feel to it.
 
This is especially in evidence in "Penric and the Shaman", which is one of those stories when the gods are clearly working hard to bring people together to do what needs to be done, whether they want to or think they can or not.  It's also one of those stories where all the characters have good reasons for what they're doing and why they're doing it, which I always appreciate.
 
I enjoyed "Penric's Mission", too, which had more about their form of sorcery and fewer miracles. I'm kind of annoyed at this one, however because it didn't really resolve at the end.  It wasn't a cliffhanger, but it left the characters in an uncertain position with no clear indication of how they'd end up after it. 
 
Still, I have come to adore both Penric and Desdemona. One of the things I really like about the three novellas is that Bujold has let a lot of time pass between each one: Penric is 19 or 20 during the first, then mid-twenties for the second, and about thirty during the third.  The reader gets glimpses of what he's been doing between stories, and you can see the way the relationship between Penric and Desdemona has changed and deepened over time, and the way that Penric continues to mature. I'll give the series as a whole an 8.5. Definitely recommend, and I'm looking forward to the fourth one.  Bujold's released all three in the last 18 months, so I'm hopeful it won't be a long wait for the next.
rowyn: (Default)
I did not read much last year, and I never got around to posting reviews for most of it. I will catch up a little here!

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky's, A Girl Corrupted by the Internet Is the Summoned Hero!? is written in the style of a Japanese "light novel". This is not a subgenre I'm familiar with; to me, it read like a dialogue-heavy, description-light novella.

 

This is kind of a strange concept for a story, because it's kind of about pornography while not actually containing any pornographic scenes.  One of the key plot points is that the main character is a teenage girl who shamelessly consumed lots of online pornography.  She is summoned to a fantasy world to save them from the "Dark Lord", and the magic system in the world revolves heavily around notions of sexual purity/impurity/desires.

 

You might think "okay, this sounds like an excuse for erotica" but no, there is no erotica. At all. 

 

What you get instead is a lot of humor, and clever exploits of the way magic and prophecy work in the setting.  Some attempts at exploits work, some fail, and the whole hangs together sensibly.

 

I heard about this novella because Yudkowsky is the author of the fanfic "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", which I'd read and enjoyed.  This novella does have the same "clever people coming up with clever solutions" quality to it. There's also a certain genre-savviness to it; the protagonist knows the kind of story she's in, and also that it's not technically a story so may not follow the conventions she's expecting it to.

 

Overall, I liked it but didn't love it; the characters could've been more engaging, mainly.  The protagonist is interesting but the only person one really gets to know as a distinct personality. Still, the premise was cute and the clever stuff is delivered well. I'll give it an 8.

 

Courtney Milan, Hold Me

 

I have mixed feelings about this book.

 

Some of them are from the tropes used: "Enemies to Lovers" and "Secret Identities" are not my favorite tropes, although ironically I was writing a book that used both of them (The Sun Etherium) when I was reading this book. Apparently I only like those tropes when I'm the one writing them. -_- Anyway, if you like those tropes, you will enjoy this book more than I do.

 

Things I liked about it: the female protagonist, Maria, is a Hispanic transwoman, a fact which is not very plot relevant. It's nice to see trans protagonists just being people in the story as opposed to "This Is A Story About What It Is Like to Be Trans". In a similar vein, the male protagonist, Jay, is a bisexual Thai-American man and that's even less plot-relevant. This stuff informs the backstory of the characters, but it does so in much the way that characters being middle-class white cis American does.  Maria does have some distant-past trauma rooted in being trans: her parents kicked her out when she was 12; she grew up with her grandmother, who was both loving and accepting.  But it's not the focus of the book and, since Milan always gives her characters traumatic backstories*, it doesn't feel like a commentary on transness per se. 

 

* No, really, she does.  I like Courtney Milan's writing but I can't binge-read her books because ZOMG ALL THE TRAUMA.  I think her theme is supposed to be "even broken people can find love" but after the third one in a row it feels more like "only people who have known TRUE HORROR AND DESPAIR can understand what love really means".

 

Anyway, Jay doesn't have a problem with Maria because she's trans. Jay is, however, a disrespectful elitist snob, and he takes and instant dislike to Maria because she's beautiful and well-dressed. He is not precisely a misogynist; he doesn't so much hate women as think that female-coded  behaviors like "wearing makeup" and "liking pop music" indicate that a person is shallow and not worthy of being treated with common decency.

 

Jay exemplifies a certain kind of person, one who thinks that since he respects women who share his own interests, that means he is off the hook from treating people with respect when when they don't. Slowly, over the course of the novel, he pieces together that this is not actually how mature adults behave.

 

It's kind of exhausting.  Like it really shouldn't be this hard to figure out "treat people decently" and "no, it's not okay to assume someone is shallow based on the way they look and also EVEN IF THEY ARE SHALLOW YOU SHOULD STILL TREAT THEM DECENTLY."  Seriously.  "Treated like a person" is not a thing people need to earn from anyone. It should be the default. Be polite. It won't kill you. Why is this so hard?

 

There are lots of things to like about Jay: he is smart, loyal to his friends, supportive, and hard-working. But the fact that he really has to work HARD at a thing like "basic politeness" which frankly even most outright bigots can manage better than him is just ... sigh.  Okay, Jay.  

 

Maria was much easier to like than Jay; her habit of baiting Jay got a little wearing, but (a) he deserved it and (b) it wasn't that big a part of the book.  Also, Maria gave me nerd-like-me feels; she is studying to be an actuary and on the side writes an apocalypse-of-the-week blog, where she researches meticulously various possible ways forms of "the end of the world as we know it" and what the world would look like after it happened. Her blog has reasonable blog-like levels of success, which means it has lots and lots of readers and earns about as much as a good part-time job. It had a good plausible feel to it.

 

The last 40% or so of the book is mostly Jay trying to make it up to Maria for being such a jerk in the first 60% of the book. I admit I have always had a soft spot for that sort of thing, so this part worked for me.

 

Overall, I did not love this book nearly as much as the first in the series, Trade Me. But I did like it overall, and will give it an 8.

 

Alexis Hall, Pansies

This is a contemporary gay romance. Its basic premise is "man falls for the man he used to bully in school" with the bonus of "main axis of bullying was 'because weaker boy is gay'". Which, obviously, the bully turns out to be, too.  There's another bonus bit where the victim used to fantasize about dating/making out with the bully.  

 

That last bit was pretty hard for me to relate to; I can't imagine lusting after any of the people who bullied me. But aside from that piece, the book was a fun read and I enjoyed it overall.  Not too much else to say about it.   I'll give it an 8. 

rowyn: (studious)
I read this book while on the plane to North Carolina to visit my parents, back in June. It took me a little while to fully engage with it, but by the halfway mark I didn't want to put it down. In fact, I stayed up an extra half hour to finish it (at like 1AM) at my parents' house. It's a standalone novel, but there's another book in the setting that takes place after it, The Dark Lord's Wedding*, and I was very tempted to buy it immediately and start reading. I resisted temptation, because visiting people, but nonetheless.

Magic Banquet is a middle-grade fantasy novel. One of the reasons I picked it up was for the table of contents, which is a menu. I suspected the menu might prove metaphorical, but no, the items on the menu do correspond to actual dishes served at each section of the book. The various courses of the banquet all have dangers and adventures associated with them, as the characters are transported from one locale to the next to enjoy or potentially get killed by their meal.

The mini-puzzles and adventures of each part add up beautifully to the overall arc of the book, and the different members of the cast are great fun to watch (especially the dark lord, whom one never knows quite what to make of). I'll give an 8 (mainly for the slow start), but definitely recommend.

*

I read Dark Lord's Wedding during my trip to Seattle. I had a great time with this right from the start. There was one jarring note for me: Magic Banquet, which immediately precedes it in the setting, is a middle-grade novel. Dark Lord's Wedding is an adult novel in tone and themes, but has much the same straightforward and charming writing style, so it kind of took me by surprise.

As it turns out, Wedding is the fifth novel in a different series that happens to be in the same setting, with some of the same characters. It works fine as a standalone, although there are various references to the previous books.

The story does revolve around the engagement and marriage of two of the protagonists, but it's not a romance. The plot is mostly fantasy-adventure in tone, with some politics and alliance-building.

I am ambivalent on the trope of the "not-all-bad bad guy", which is definitely the category that the Dark Lord and his bride fall into. Hiresha, the Lady of Gems and prospective bride, is clearly well-intentioned but still commits atrocities in the course of the book. Tethiel, the Dark Lord, is a more ambiguous character. I am not quite sure how Marling managed to sell me on these characters, but I definitely rooted for them despite their flaws. Tethiel in particular has a unique charm founded on his extraordinary outlook. I laughed aloud many of his deadpan remarks throughout the book.

One of the many things that's well-done about the book is the use of different magic systems, with just enough explanation of how they worked to make them intelligible to the reader, and not so much as to make them less magical or awe-inspiring. The protagonists are both tremendously powerful in their own right, far more so than the vast majority of the people around them, and it shows in the way they interact with others, this uncrossable gulf of power. They feel too large for ordinary morality, which is the sort of thing that often grates on me but worked well here.

The only thing I didn't like about the book was the climactic scene, which kind of felt like it came out of nowhere and was there mainly to add more drama and conflict to the narrative. Still, I had a good time overall and plan to check out the earlier books in the series. I give this an 8 too.
rowyn: (Me 2012)
I finished this book a couple of weeks ago. I'd actually forgotten that I bought it back in February, so it was a nice surprise to find it with my Amazon books.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is in Bujold's Vorkosigan setting. The Vorkosigan books are mostly action-adventure sf, but some of the books don't fit in the "action" category. A Civil Campaign, for example, is a romantic comedy bordering on farce. This newest novel is mainly a romance, but it's much less drama-filled than the typical romance. The central protagonists are solidly middle-aged and, more importantly, mature. The reader never seriously fears that they will make stupid choices based on flawed analysis. They are afflicted with some doubts and indecision, but they doubt sensible things and dither over reasonable options. Even when the outcome was uncertain, I never thought, "oh, this is going to end in disaster if they make the wrong choice." They're smart people. There are good reasons for both paths. They'd be okay.

I really enjoyed reading this novel, especially now, when I'm in the middle of writing The Sun Etherium. TSE's main romance also proceeds fairly smoothly, and the main challenges the characters face aren't life-or-death either. So it was nice to see Bujold making it work. GJ&TRQ isn't her strongest work, certainly, but it's solid and fun and I loved seeing a middle-aged couple get to be the romantic leads.*

There were some elements that didn't work as well for me. It felt like Bujold was ret-conning in Jole's importance in the lives of Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan over the last 14 or so books. I don't remember Jole being mentioned before, actually, and am kind of wondering if he was (as an extremely minor character). On the one hand, the last 14 books were about Miles and I can quite easily see him being completely oblivious to his parents' private lives. On the other, it did not really feel like Bujold had always intended Jole to have been part of their lives. I'm happy enough to have him in the backstory, I'd just be happier if there'd been prior hints about his presence there.

Anyway, this is a solid 8 and I am happy to keep recommending and reading Bujold's work.

* I tried doing this in The Moon Etherium -- the protagonists are both over 50 -- but since the characters in TME are unaging, they don't come across as middle-aged as strongly.
rowyn: (Me 2012)
I had the good fortune to be a first reader for this novel, a sequel to Thief of Songs, which I reviewed last February.

Cantor is a romance between Amet, the male protagonist of Thief, and Always Falling, an asexual neuter and longtime romantic partner of Amet's beloved from Thief. Essentially, we get to see the polyamorous V of Thief turn into a full triad. This romance unfolds against the backdrop of strife between Always Falling and its estranged family, when Always returns for its grandmother's funeral.

I enjoyed Cantor even more than the first book in the series, in some ways. As with Thief, Cantor for Pearls is light on conflict. But the characters do face real problems and resolve them through reason and thoughtfulness, and it felt authentic and sometimes heart-wrenching. Some of the problems that were only kind-of-resolved in Thief come up again in Cantor, which is a touch I loved. Because life is rarely "I had an epiphany and now I will never have this problem again". It's usually "I had this epiphany and that settled the problem for a while but now it's back because PROBLEM and AGH". And often we come back to the same epiphany, slightly reframed for the newest circumstances. Some problems, like anxiety and depression and culture clash, are things we must struggle with over and over and over again in new variations.

Since this is a romance between a sexual and asexual character, there's none of the passionate sex that one often reads in modern romance. There is cuddling and some masturbation, however. I liked the way Hogarth portrays Always's physical appreciation of Amet: not in a sexual way, but nonetheless physical and intimate. Overall, the emphasis of the romance is on the way their personalities mesh and their enjoyment of each other's company, which is the thing I like best in a romance. I adore when characters love each other based on what they are like, rather than rooted in physical attraction. I'll rate this one an 8.5.
rowyn: (studious)
This is the book [livejournal.com profile] haikujaguar wrote while I was writing The Moon Etherium. We talked about what we were writing a fair bit as we did so, but we weren't reading on another's work while it was in progress. I didn't start reading Only the Open until it was published.

I finished Only the Open (Amazon link) less than 24 hours after I started reading it, and enjoyed it a great deal. The cast is huge and deftly-drawn, with lots of distinctive personalities, traits, and quirks to make even minor characters endearing. I loved some of the little touches, like the two enslaved Christians who debated religion to pass the time.

This is my favorite book in the series since Even the Wingless. I like the way the Chatcaavan Empire has become fleshed out as a more real and varied place than Wingless suggests, and that while the author still shows the casual cruelty of the culture, there's also Chatcaavans doing ordinary things and taking pleasure in pedestrian acts. In general, I think this worked very well: the point being that even monsters can be banal or kind. At certain points, they struck me as too flexible, too willing to accept the possibility that they were wrong, which made some solutions too facile.

But overall, I like the way the scope and variety of individual natures was portrayed, and the way experience of the setting varied depending on the character's place in it.

There's a lot of violence, torture, rape, and abuse in Only the Open (and a little bit of consensual sex). Not as much as with Wingless, but more than in Some Things Transcend or Amulet Rampant. Also lots of action and clever planning, some of which is amusing in its outside-the-action/adventure-box quality. It's the fourth in what will probably be a six book series, so it relies heavily on elements established in the previous books. It has a satisfying wrap-up of the central conflict for this book, but there are many more unresolved conflicts and some major characters are left in serious jeopardy at the end. I have faith Micah won't leave her readers dangling for too long before the next installment, however. I am rating this one a 9,
rowyn: (studious)
This is the sequel to Even the Wingless.

Most of the Some Things Transcend takes place with the protagonists trapped on a small spacecraft in enemy territory. Both sides of the conflict, the Alliance and the Chatcaava, are technologically sophisticated, spacefaring cultures (they've both got, for instance, FTL, highly advanced medicine, and short-range teleporters). There are a few combats that take place as boarding actions, because the aim is to capture rather than destroy. Most of the combat is hand-to-hand, because the ships have tight corridors and little room to get range. The setting and action work well to provide urgency and momentum to the story, and to motivate the characters.

I occasionally had trouble suspending disbelief, however. For instance: the most effective weapons used in these conflicts are the Chatcaavan's natural claws, and swords. Neither side appears to have armor, or any more sophisticated hand-to-hand weapon. This just didn't seem to fit with the rest of the tech on display. The not-working-for-me was compounded by one of the characters being deathly ill but in a way that didn't impede him from using the handful of days they had to prepare between boarding actions to practice and teach hand-to-hand combat. I ended up spending too much time thinking about how various elements were convenient for the purposes of the emotional arc of the story, which made it less immersive.

This aside, I enjoyed the emotional arc, the character development, and particularly the way the relationships between different characters unfolded. The relationships are all nonstandard: there's an asexual romance between Jahir and his longtime partner Vasiht'h, which gets tested in various interesting ways, and a complicated M/M relationship between Jahir and Lisinthir, which is sweet and romantic despite them both being (a) committed to other people and (b) having only semi-compatible BDSM interests (that they discover and talk about but do not consummate in this book). So it's a kind of polyamorous story, in that the characters have multiple interests and don't expect sexual or romantic fidelity from their partners. I had a lot of fun with that. Vasiht'h and Jahir are both psychologists, and their training resonates through their conversations. They feel very real and solidly-grounded. The characters are delightfully complex and multi-faceted. Overall, I'll give this one an 8.
rowyn: (Me 2012)
I've known about
Even the Wingless
for several years but never read it, because I lean towards genteel, fluffy fantasies and this is a story full of sexual violence and torture.

But recently, I've been in the mood for something dark and intimate, and with the third book in the series just out, I figured I would finally give it a try.

Somewhat to my surprise, I loved the book.

It does have some weaknesses: it's a book about diplomacy between two interstellar nations, the Alliance and the Empire, and the complexity of politics on that massive scale is glossed over. The backdrop of nations feels more like a painted image than a living thing that twists, turns, and wreaks havoc behind the scenes. Further, there were points where I wanted the characters to succeed by brilliance and instead the results felt more like chance.

This aside, the story has a lot to recommend it. Lisinthir is delightful, especially in the first half of the book, where his wit, courage, and insight all shine. Watching the Slave Queen evolve over the course of the narrative is remarkable, and the way the two characters rely on each other's strengths is wonderful. I especially liked that the Slave Queen's ability to simply endure, which looks like helplessness, was in its own way a power.

I'd expected to have my suspension of disbelief tested by the set-up: The Alliance and the Empire are described as "allies", but the Empire openly enslaves, tortures, and rapes Alliance citizens at their court. Yet it hangs together well: they are not "allies" in any usual sense of the word" rather, the Alliance is attempting detente. The Alliance doesn't want to start a war unless they have to, and they're not sure they'll win if they do. So they are tolerating things that, say, the modern USA wouldn't tolerate. (And of course, even the USA has put up with some pretty flagrant crap: the Iran hostage crisis comes to mind.) The Empire is technologically sophisticated yet their court spurns the use of any weapon that's not innate; this makes sense in the context of their culture and the entire heirarchy on which it's based. It's not obvious how they became an advanced society while retaining a horrific feudal culture that seems more likely to stifle innovation, but there are hints that suggest possibilities. It worked.

The book's core strength, its true glory, lies in the portrayal of the relationships between the main characters and the complexity of their emotions. The story navigates a whole range of emotional states: fear, pain, horror, pleasure, love, hatred, anger, hope, despair, and more. These are powerfully, at times overwhelmingly, depicted. The transformations of all the characters -- and everyone is strikingly transformed before the end -- are difficult and plausibly conveyed. It is an intimate, personal story.

The book is full of depictions of rape, sexual violence, misogyny (oh the MISOGYNY), dominance contests, humiliation, etc. None of this is written for titillation: it is not a remotely erotic novel. Nor is there any sense of authorial approval or even liking for it: none of this is okay. None of this is remotely okay. There is a certain fascination with the power exchange involved, with the emotional response of characters to all this horror. That gets a fair amount of loving detail. Most of the abuse itself is dealt with in few words and not explicitly described.

I found the work as a whole compelling and engaging, the kind of story that devastates in the best way, and that uplifts by the end. I rate it a 9.
rowyn: (studious)
This is the third book in a trilogy; I think it's the last, though perhaps the author will write something more about the characters.

I have many feelings about this series.  MANY FEELS. Of the three books, I liked the second, Prince's Gambit best. The first, Captive Prince, I found absolutely harrowing. The second was much less harrowing: there was still violence but it was less intimate: conflict rather than abuse. The difference between being under the constant threat of death and the constant threat of torture. IN THEORY, I should be more worried about death, but in practice I find the prospect of torture worse. Sometimes I wonder if that's a side effect of depression. When you're used to fantasizing about death as an escape, it doesn't seem nearly as terrifying as having to endure horrors much worse than the life that left you suicidal. Anyway, maybe it's just me, but I found the first book engaging but traumatic. The second book was a fantastic exploration of the characters, still with lots of conflict and tension, but also lots of "protagonists being brilliant and talented in order to improve their position".

Kings Rising opens with several chapters that I found even more harrowing than the first book, because now instead of horrible things happening to characters I didn't care about, these were inflicted on ones I loved. I found it powerful but, to my surprise, not unpleasant. Books that do horrible things usually make me want to stop reading, but here I just wanted to see what would happen next, whether it was awful or not. And I wanted explanations: a reason for some of the extreme emotional abuse being dished out. So that impressed me, that throughout reading it I never wanted to put it down. (I did, because I had to work, but I didn't WANT to.)

Kings Rising displays an emotional intimacy of considerable range: not just love and lust, but the kind of deep cruelty and pain that only happens when someone loves a person who mistreats them, whether by accident or design. There are many highs and lows, and I rode them often with glee. Even the lows; I think that's because this is a romance and I was depending on a happily-ever-after, rather than being abandoned in a pit of misery. This was also well-done and engaging.

Some of the characters in the book are brilliant planners, and there's a sense of wonder, the I-didn't-see-that-coming-but-I-should've, that I love when I see it well-done. Of all the things one can hope for in a romance, this is one of the least likely to get. Pacat delivers it, multiple times, through Kings Rising. Unfortunately, this means that when it's NOT delivered, it's all the more disappointing.

The climax in particular felt overwrought rather than brilliant. One of those where the characters are in way more trouble than it looks like they can possibly get out of, and then they manage it, and on the one hand you're glad, but on the other you're like "that rescue wasn't very plausible or brilliant". This is my problem with the common 'up the stakes' advice writers get: the more trouble protagonists are in, the more likely it is that the solution will throw me out of the story by seeming too unlikely.

But my biggest fault with the book is it ends like a page after the climax. I HATE THAT. If you're one of those people who likes Hollywood endings, where the credits roll 30 seconds after the protagonists win, then you will be fine with this. I am not fine with this. I don't want to get kicked out of bed right after the climax: I want some post-coital cuddling. SHEESH.  This one actually annoys me much more than the lack of brilliance in the climax, because I know how tough it is to balance a challenge for your characters. But how hard is it to write some pages of your characters dealing with other loose ends, or living happily together, or SOMETHING after the big resolution? I'm not asking to be blown away by cleverness here, I just want to have some denouement.

I am going to stop nitpicking here, because the truth is that my complaints are based in significant measure on my expectations. I expected a 9 or even a 9.5 from Kings Rising, and I only got an 8. And the disappointment will make me review it like a 7, and it deserves better than that. This is an emotionally powerful book with many brilliant moments and flashes of genius. It is a flawed diamond, to be sure, but still a diamond, and still recommended.
rowyn: (Me 2012)
Unbound is the third book in Hines's Libriomancer series.

As with the first book, I found this one improved as it approached the climax, with several clever uses of the magic available to the protagonists. The characters are a little overwhelmed by the plot in this book: it's a big world-and-history-spanning epic, with lots of ramifactions that reverbate through the narrative.I do like the way the series started as a "secret magic" setting, and is evolving into "secret exploded, everybody knows" instead.

Isaac has been ground down by the events of the last two books, but still gets some delightfully geeky moments. The polyamory angle is handled well, with maturity and commitment on the part of the participants, and obvious imperfections that they deal with. There were some weaknesses in the book, but overall I enjoyed it and am looking forward to the series' conclusion, coming out in February! (I will note that the book has a solid conclusion:it resolves the central conflict decisively. No cliffhangers!) I'll give it an 8.5.
rowyn: (Me 2012)
This is less a review than me rambling about the tropes in the book. You've been warned.

Uprooted is a fantasy action/adventure novel. Reading this book was an odd experience. At about 30 pages in, I commented to some friends, "I'm trying to give this story a chance and not throw it across the room, but it's hard. I hope it doesn't turn out to be a romance between the 17 year-old first person narrator and her 150 year-old wizard-master who's a jerk. At which point I probably will throw it across the room.

"I'm not saying it's impossible to write a good romance with a first-person narrator who's a 17 year-old girl and a super-powerful 150 year-old male jerk, but ... actually, maybe I am saying that."

Shortly thereafter, one of my friends looked up the reviews and said, "It looks like it is a romance?"

But at that point I was 50 or 60 pages in, hints of a non-romance plot had appeared, and the narrator had stopped being a useless sack of self-pity, so I decided, somewhat grimly, to stick it out anyway. In part this is because I felt like I was being terribly unfair to the book. It has a bunch of elements that are similar to a story idea my brain keeps trying to convince me I want to write, and part of me is all "(a) you can't blame this book for not being the book you haven't written and (b) you shouldn't resent it for using tropes that you yourself want to use, seriously, how hypocritical is that?"

Anyway, Uprooted has a hate-at-first-sight romantic subplot between the 17 year old girl who's the first-person narrator and a 150 year old uber-powerful male jerk. There is pretty much nothing in that sentence that doesn't scream UNPROMISING at me. If that combination of tropes doesn't instantly rub you the wrong way, you should enjoy this book. For me, the romance turned out to be a minor enough subplot that I could pretty much ignore it.

The book contained a couple of other standard tropes that worked against it for me: a fairy-tale-medieval-European flavor to the setting, and a hand-wavey magic system where wizards could cast weirdly specific amazingly useful spells, with no clear demarcations on what can/can't be done by magic or why.

None of these tropes are innately bad. Some people like wizards who are very powerful and have no clear limits or thematic unity in their abilities. Magic is not used as a "cheat" in the story-- plot-critical spells are introduced before they become crucial. It's somewhat like the way magic is handled in the Harry Potter books. I like magic to be more clearly defined and thematically unified, and I like a sense that magic is integrated in the socio-economic fabric of the setting -- but that's a personal preference, not a reflection on quality.

What I'm trying to say is: this is a well-written, entertaining novel that happens to use a lot of tropes I don't care for. It's not you, book. It's me.

Tropes I dislike aside, the book had a number of qualities I did enjoy. The sinister antagonist embodies the Xanatos Gambit trope to good effect: many times that the protagonists think they've scored a win, it turns out the antagonist has a clever way to turn it against them. The descriptions of the way characters cast spells and their different styles of spell-casting are fun and elegant. The protagonists put their grab-bag of spells to good effect. While the narrator spends the early part of the book having things happen to her while she takes no effective actions whatsoever, she does spend most of the book asserting herself, often coming up with clever and useful ideas. The situations the narrator found herself in often changed quickly, and the suddenness and sometimes horror of these changes is well-captured. There really was a lot here to like. I do feel like some of the key plot points weren't telegraphed as well as would be ideal, but most of what I didn't like is covered by "tropes that don't suit my personal tastes." Anyway, I'll give it a 7, and am certainly open to reading more of Novik's work.
rowyn: (studious)
I have not reviewed anything in forever. Like, other than the reviews that I timed for the book launches on Mating Flight and "The Three Jaguars", I haven't posted a review since APRIL.

I haven't been reading as much, either. My Kindle account is cluttered with unread books and samples. Still, I have read a bunch of stuff that I haven't written reviews for, and I am obviously not ever going to give them the attention they deserve. So: onward to the mini-reviews!

The Suffragette Scandal, by Courtney Milan: a Victorian romance novel. Like all of Milan's work, I enjoyed this book. It is noteworthy mainly for its contra-trope angles. For instance, the male protagonist is a rogue archetype, but instead of starting out by trying to trick the female protagonist into liking him, he generally tries to make her think he's much worse than he really is. There is the inevitable romantic-conflict silliness, some of which is sillier than is at all necessary. I'll give it an 8.

"The Young Lord's Servants", by Anna Waite: action/adventure middle-grade fantasy short story. A short, fun story about two kids facing off against a beast that threatens their village's property. I liked the way the author established the setting and made it feel unusual but still understandable -- hard to manage in a short story -- and the way the responsibilities of the boys are laid out by the adults, so that the absence of adults at the climax makes perfect sense. An 8.5.

Everything's Fine, by Janci Patterson: contemporary YA mystery/drama novel. I think I got this because it was on sale and because Ms. Patterson is [livejournal.com profile] sandratayler's sister. It's an interesting read, dealing with such heavy issues as suicide, child abuse, and date rape. I am not an expert on any of these topics, but I found the story hauntingly plausible on the whole. Not sure what number I'd give it, probably an 8.

A Bollywood Affair, by Sonali Dev: contemporary romance. This one is hard to rank. There were some things I loved about it, like the depiction of a wide cross-section of Indian society, ranging from immigrant Indians in America (at various socio-economic levels) to those in India. The clash between old traditions and roots and modern society is deftly handled and fascinating. On the downside, the typical romance-conflict silliness is gratingly absurd at times, and neither protagonist had the level of respect for the other's autonomy that I want to see (they both end up tricking/manipulating the other into doing things that they think the other should do/wants to do, and in both cases the narrative implies that this manipulation was justified). The characters also suffer from feminine and masculine stereotypes, and I do mean "suffer". Like "this is hurting you as a human being, please stop". The female protagonist seems more resilient by the end, but the male one remains stuck. I am not sure what this combination averages out to. Let's say 7.

Hugo-eligible reading:

Novel:
Castle Hangnail, by Ursula Vernon: A charming, entertaining middle-grade illustrated fantasy. I liked Molly, the friendly, cheerful protagonist, and the way she generally took charge of her own story but also occasionally lost control or became overwhelmed, and the supporting cast was full of colorful characters. I didn't love it; it rates about an 8. My suspension of disbelief struggled to swallow the basic premise of the story: that there are castles and mansions of great power, populated by Minions, and these have to be occupied by Evil Sorcerers/Wicked Witches/Mad Scientists/other leaders of dubious morality, or they'll be decommissioned. And the protagonist is a Wicked Witch but not really wicked-wicked and ... this works better if you are just willing to roll with it from the get-go and are not giving the whole concept the side-eye. But I did enjoy it, which speaks well to the author's skill and humor. I might nominate it. We'll see how I feel about the other books I read from 2015. An 8.

Novella:
"Penric's Demon," by Lois McMaster Bujold: action/adventure fantasy novella in Bujold's "World of the Five Gods" setting. Bujold is a splendid storyteller and this novella is a solid, enjoyable read. I particularly liked the final resolution and the relationship that develops between Penric and his demon. The build-up was somewhat slow, and the generic Euro-medieval feel of the setting in this time period doesn't appeal to me much, so it gets an 8 overall. Definitely recommended, and likely one I'll nominate.

Novelette:
"The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn", by Usman T. Malik
http://www.tor.com/2015/04/22/the-pauper-prince-and-the-eucalyptus-jinn-usman-malik/

I bought this novella on Amazon because I find it incredibly annoying to use a webpage to read anything more than a few thousand words long. It was ... okay. Like a 6 or 7. I'm not sorry I bought and read it, but doubt I'll nominate it for an award, either.

Short Stories:
"Cat Pictures Please", by Naomi Kritzer (3400 words.)
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kritzer_01_15/
I love this one. So nominating it. Both sensible and humorous, and full of charm. a 9.

"Milagroso", by Isabel Yap (4300 words)
http://www.tor.com/2015/08/12/milagroso-isabel-yap/
OK. I wouldn't No-Award it. But probably won't nominate either. Vividly described, and I like that the family is family-like (imperfect but not dysfunctional) and that it's not about a physical conflict. Still, it didn't grab me, and the theme of fake vs natural food didn't work for me. A 6 or a 7.
rowyn: (Me 2012)
[livejournal.com profile] haikujaguar's The Three Jaguars is now out in print! It's a comic collection about the intersection of art, marketing, and business, personified as three separate individuals who sometimes complement one another, and sometimes conflict.

It is delightful. Witty, sensible, beautifully illustrated, and entertaining even as it educates. It is not a how-to book. It is much, much better than any how-to book. I have been following Micah's work online for many years, and The Three Jaguars -- in the combined essay and webcomic forms -- is my favorite of all her works. No one writes about business like Micah does, with laugh-out-loud punchlines, adorable illustrations, fantastic expressions, and an abundance of both wisdom and sympathy. The beauty of this book is that you will pick up knowledge without even realizing you're learning. Not just the explicit lessons on business and creativity, but the craftsmanship on display: the amazing expressiveness of the characters, the composition of scenes, the dialogue and plot choices, the gorgeous inking -- there's SO MUCH to enjoy. And learn from!

And unlike all those tedious how-to books, you will actually WANT to read this one. Because it's FUN!

I love The Three Jaguars enough that I took the time to illustrate my testimonial:
Cut for large image! )
rowyn: (Me 2012)
Bard Bloom has published the Mating Flight duology! This is one of my favorite stories, which I somehow or other have totally failed to write much about on LJ before. *facepalm*

Bard posted about the book launch over on [livejournal.com profile] sythyry. I put together that launch post, so I stuck a recommendation in the middle of it, and I've reviewed Mating Flight: a Non-Romance of Dragons and World in My Claws: Mating Flight Concluded over on Amazon, too.

But I love this series so much that I am going to blather on about it MOAR here. I am even going to say different things!

One of the things I adore about Mating Flight is that, amidst the fantastical backdrop of alien worlds and extraordinarily powerful dragons, Bard depicts wonderfully realistic relationships. I wrote about polyamory in A Rational Arrangement as wish-fulfillment. Obviously, I believe that's a totally valid choice for a story, and I did my best to make the triad in RA plausible and believable. But it's an optimistic and idealized take on the subject. In Mating Flight, Bard depicts a a race of dragons for whom a certain amount of sexual promiscuity if biologically advantageous: dragon eggs must be fertilized multiple times, ideally by multiple different male dragons. Draconic society has chosed to satisfy this biological drive by arranging "mating flights", during which three affianced newly-sexually-mature female dragons and their six affianced newly-sexually-mature male dragons go off together (a) have lots of sex and (b) compete to see which dragoness gets to marry which drake. At the end of the mating-flight there are only going to be three married drakes: sexual promiscuity past that initial period is strictly taboo.

Jyothky, the narrator of both novels, has a mating flight that goes wrong in too many ways to list here, all of which make for a wonderful book. But one of the themes in the novel is "how do you deal with the conflict between individual needs and societal taboos?" and the way the characters grapple with this question is marvelous. Because it's not just a matter of "these taboos are stupid and we're going to do something else and it will be perfect". OK, the taboos may be stupid, but there are still reasons for them and the existing society works well for many dragons. The characters can't just shrug them off, and when they do let their own needs take precedence, it's a struggle to accept the consequences not just of society, but in the resulting complexities of their new relationships. They try to make a new path that works for them, but it's not perfect and it does not solve everything. And I love how real, how genuine it is.

Another great thing -- this story has a large cast: nine dragons of the titular mating flight, plus assorted others. In another book, I'd've had a hard time keeping track of who was who among all the different names. But the characters in Mating Flight are so well-drawn and distinct, with unique voices and personalities, that it was easy to remember exactly who they were and how they related to other characters. Someday, I hope to write characters so well.

I did fan art for this story quite a long time ago, so I'm going to close with that. The small dark dragon in the background on the left is Jyothky, the narrator. The foreground dragon on the right is one of her fiances, Csirnis.
no title

PS: Did I mention book one is just $0.99? Go on, try it. It's wonderful!
rowyn: (Me 2012)

It has been SO LONG since I did a book review. I got far enough behind on writing them that I stopped reading books. Also, I feel guilty for asking for nonfic recommendations, and checking out a bunch of nonfic books, and then not finishing any of them and reading fantasy romance instead.

ANYWAY. I am gonna do some short reviews at least.

Herb Witch & Herb Wife by Elizabeth McCoy
These read more like one long book than two separate books: I bought Herb Wife as soon as I finished the first. The split into two books isn't wholly arbitrary and the end of the first book does signal a shift in focus. But neither volume is meant to stand alone.

I enjoyed the books more as fantasy-slice-of-life than anything else. The setting is well-developed and interesting, and the characters are plausible and nuanced. The magic of the setting -- alchemy and herb-witchery -- is low-key by fantasy standards; it's almost believable as a form of chemistry instead of being magical. The central plot is technically a romance: it's mainly about the relationship between the two protagonists. Still, it reminded me more of Bard Bloom's irromances: it is more about making a relationship work when you're stuck with it than about finding a soulmate or getting swept up by a grand passion. There's also some mystery and adventure elements. Overall, I liked it: I'll give it a 7.5.

The Chocolatier's Wife by Cindy Lynn Speer

This is a rare example of a book that [livejournal.com profile] bard_bloom gave a positive review to and which sounded like something I'd enjoy. (Bard's reviews tend not to be very positive, and some of the few endorsements have been books that sounded WAY depressing). So I picked it up, and was not disappointed. It's a lively, quick romance/mystery, with a charming archaic voice that sounds almost fairy tale-like at times. The characters are engaging and likeable; the author has "flashbacks" to letters exchanged before they met, which I found especially sweet. A few times the narrative struck me as a bit off, like the characters might express a feeling which doesn't make a lot of sense and seems to be stuck in purely in an unnecessary effort to add drama or tension. But overall the story is enchanting and I had a lovely time with it. A solid 8.

rowyn: (Me 2012)

Sweet Disorder is a Regency romance I picked up by recommendation of Courtney Milan; I think it was on sale at the time. I didn't get around to reading it for some weeks, but when I did, I went through it in a day. I enjoyed the book a good deal. There's a great deal going on in the background with minor characters that the protagonists don't catch until much later. The male protagonist is lame from a war injury: it's a comparatively minor disability, but in this time period particularly it's significant, and the author treats it sensibly. I liked the characters: they made me laugh frequently, and they had a pleasant rapport. The sex scenes were much more interesting than the usual ones, and included an aborted attempt that was strikingly novel. One of the book's themes is "being seen for who you are"; all of the characters (minor and major alike), tended to see what they expected in the others, rather than what was really there. Interestingly, I found this extended to my own perception of the male protagonist, whom I saw at first as "what I expect from a male protagonist with these traits" instead of what he was actually like and doing. It was deftly done. Other cool things: it's a "poor woman matched with earl's son" book, but instead of the woman getting drawn into the man's gilded life, she brings him into her own world. It's a Regency novel that offers a glimpse into the everyday life of people who actually have to work for a living, and doesn't portray that as either idyllic or nightmarish.

I didn't love it enough for a 9, and I'm not sure why. Maybe because the characters' sexuality felt too disconnected from their setting, or because the background characters, while they had interesting subplots, didn't engage me as people. Still, it's a solid 8, and definitely recommended.

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