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: (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: (studious)
This is the book [ 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: (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 [ 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:

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.

"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.

"The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn", by Usman T. 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.)
I love this one. So nominating it. Both sensible and humorous, and full of charm. a 9.

"Milagroso", by Isabel Yap (4300 words)
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)
[ 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 [ 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 [ 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)
I decided to live-tweet this book as I read it. I expected this would entertain the author ([ profile] haikujaguar) and myself, and be ignored or perhaps mildly irritating to our mutual friends on Twitter. I did not expect to entertain several of our mutual friends, including making a new one who had the express purpose of reading all my Mindline tweets. In retrospect, this should not surprise me as much: I know full well the joy of sharing a good book and listening to others talk about it. Still, it surprised me. Lagniappe!

Not surprising: live-tweeting the book increased my enjoyment of it. I expect that effect only works because I liked it to start with, though: tweeting about a story I disliked would probably only make me hate it more.

Mindline does have some of the same issues that I noted with Mindtouch: most of the supporting cast feels underdeveloped. Some parts of the setting feel weak or nonsensical (for instance: Jahir is crippled by casual contact -- to the point of passing out if someone bumps into him -- and appears to be typical of his race, which makes one wonder how they ever manage to have sex, much less reproduce). Sometimes the questions that arise are lampshaded, and I suspect Hogarth has explanations for some if not all of them that just don't come out in the story, but whether it's a real disconnect or deliberate coyness, it still grated on me.

This aside, the story had a lot to love. Jahir and Vasiht'h are more adorable than ever, and in very different ways. I enjoyed how Jahir combines the archetypal noble, ageless, self-sacrificing elf with a geeky love for modern science and new things. Vasiht'h is generally the calm, stable center for the pair, but they're not two-dimensional: sometimes things that Jahir shrugs off will strike Vasiht'h deeply, and always in ways that make sense and are consistent with the characters. They are beautifully crafted, and it's delightful to watch them interact.

Mindline has more conflict and tension than the previous novel, to its benefit. I spent four days reading Mindline, which contrasts sharply with the five books I read in the week previous -- so obviously I didn't feel compelled to rip through it. On the other hand, I was always looking forward to reading more of it: I wasn't bored, I was just willing to pace myself. Honestly, this is a relief. Yes, it's fun to get swept up in a book and be desperate to get to the end, but it's also good just to let one wash over you slowly, with enough time to think about what's happening and savor events instead of a driving Need To Know How It Ends Right Now. Also the book's biggest climax comes near the middle, so there's a nice leisurely denouement winding down from that. After a bajillion books that are "here's your climax and we're DONE", this is a profound relief. Seriously, so sick of books that end two pages after the climax. I like crises in my fiction, but it's still great to read a book where the author can come up with interesting things to have the characters do even when they're not in crisis mode.

I will rate this one at an 8.5. Recommended!
rowyn: (studious)
Captive Prince, by C. S. Pacat:

Superficially, from the start, this book looks like it'll be a BDSM sex-slave gay fantasy, either erotica or romance. It has all the elements:

Tall, strong, warrior-prince, betrayed and enslaved by his enemies
Arrogant, handsome, domineering master
Decadent palace full of beautiful slaves being sexually abused
Harsh punishments for perceived infractions, or for no particular reason

And yet: IT IS NOT EROTIC, and it is DEFINITELY NOT A ROMANCE. I don't mean this in the sense of "it is badly-written and so fails to be either erotic or romantic". I mean "the main characters (both master and slave) obviously do not find this situation erotic, romantic, or in fact appealing in any way at all". It is, by design, not written to be erotic. I'm not gonna say "no one would find this titillating", but as someone who generally does find BDSM sex slave fantasies to be erotic: this one isn't. It is brutal. It includes treating people like objects, multiple scenes of rape (some explicitly described, some mercifully off-camera), torture, sexual abuse. At the book's outset, I disliked basically all of the characters. They have a bland acceptance of slavery as an institution: not tolerating it as a necessary evil, but seeing the subservience of slaves as a just and reasonable thing. Of course they're abused. It's why they exist. The entire setting is permeated with this and it's repulsive.

I need to reiterate that it is repulsive by design: the author is not trying to make it sound acceptable or tolerable but failing. The author doesn't want the reader to feel like any of this is justified or good. For me, reading it was a lot like reading a suspense or horror novel (genres I avoid). I was constantly braced, anticipating the next horrible thing that would happen. Realistically, the novel is not nearly as rife with horrors as I've described it thus far: it's 241 pages and I doubt there's more than 50 or so that depict torture/humiliation/sexual abuse/etc. But because the setting made it a constant threat, it loomed much larger in my consciousness as I read than it did on the page itself.

The real plot of the novel is "political intrigue at court". The single PoV character, Damen, is an enslaved foreigner. He has no idea what's going on and is not much good at figuring it out: he's an honest, straightforward man, and totally out of his depth. This makes it a challenge to the reader to figure out what's actually going on, too. There are abundant signs that the PoV character is oblivious to big chunks of the greater picture, in some cases to the degree of not recognizing that a greater picture exists. There are cases where he's just stunningly WRONG and it's obvious. For instance, he often reflects that his master, Laurent, is "spoiled/decadent/over-indulged", and let's be clear: there are many, MANY things wrong with Laurent, but "spoiled" is NOT one of them. The PoV character is not an unreliable narrator in the sense of "he is deliberately withholding information from the reader, or lying to the reader", but you can't count on him to interpret things correctly. By the end of the book, things have started to make sense, but it's a long way getting there.

Beyond the content, the book has some issues. The characters all have a kind of shallowness to them, which I think in retrospect may be intentional. Damen has been a rather shallow, straightforward man, and he views others in a shallow way. His dehumanizing position as a slave makes him unable to humanize the people around him. Sometimes details feel inauthentic: the main character has gold cuffs and collar welded permanently around his neck and wrists, which made me think "that's gotta chafe" and anticipate that it'd damage the skin eventually, but no mention of discomfort is made. (Maybe that wouldn't be an issue? I dunno.) The slaves all walk around practically naked and the nobility dresses in several layers, but no one ever describes the slaves as cold or the nobles as overheated. Little details. The setting is medieval-ish: it's a fantasy in the sense of "not on Earth", but there's no magic.

I don't know how to rate this book. Let me describe how reading it went:

* Wednesday morning: read the prologue at work. If [ profile] haikujaguar had not recommended the novel to me specifically, I probably would've stopped there. Disliked the protagonist, disliked what was happening to him, was equal parts horrified/fascinated by the setting. Decided I should not be reading this book at work. Read Jackdaw instead.
* Wednesday evening: Started reading it again off and on through the evening. Read it in bed. This was a terrible mistake. Put it down at midnight but still couldn't sleep: brain full of unpleasantness from book. Fell asleep at maybe 1AM.
* Thursday morning: woke up at 5AM, couldn't get back to sleep. Gave up on sleep at around 5:30, futzed about online for an hour, then started alternating reading with online activities. Finished reading. Stared into space. Whimpered pitifully at Micah on Twitter while she made comforting noises and assured me that book 2 had a lot less cruelty (albeit higher stakes).

So obviously it was compelling, although I've done a terrible job of articulating why or making it sound like you should read it.

The real reason you should read it is so that you can read book 2 and get the full impact.

I'm not gonna give it a number; it is not a reducible quality. I'm very glad I read it now. I may well read it again at some point, if only to try to catch all the things I missed because the narrator didn't understand their significance at the time.


Prince's Gambit, by C.S. Pacat:

So this is book 2. This is a more straightforward book: action/adventure, romance, and intrigue. Yes, that gay romance you thought you were going to get in book one? It's here! Surprise! Seriously, at this point, I was surprised. I also didn't think it'd work, but it does, and it's a marvelous thing to behold. The main characters get away from the horrible court of horrors, and onto the road where they deal with assassination attempts, betrayals, incompetence from people they have to rely on, and enemy forces, all of which was far less harrowing to me. It may be that my definition of "harrowing" is weirdly skewed.

Damen and Laurent start feeling both fully developed and believably transformed by their experiences, so that I came to like both of them. In part this is a change in them, and in part a change in perception (which makes sense, given how it's been obvious Damen hasn't understood a lot of what goes on around him.) As a pair, they remind me of Thor and Loki: Damen is straightforward, earnest, honorable, and superlative in his areas of expertise. Laurent is twisty, devious, imaginative, secretive, and has a mind like a bag of cats. He is always planning, extrapolating, working out angles and alternatives, and he doesn't trust anyone.

It has a lot of fun action scenes, and the way Laurent is always concealing his true plans means that Damen (the narrator) gets hints about them but never knows exactly what to expect. So whenever they run into trouble, it may or may not turn out to be a contingency Laurent has planned for. The action and politics are just as solid as the development of the relationship between the main characters. I had a great time with this book, and am still having fun (three days later) contemplating it. I am not sure how well the second book would come off if I hadn't read the first. There was a certain quality of "oh, but it feels so good now that the beatings have stopped". That the main characters are able to have a conversation where each treats the other like a person feels like a gift, and I doubt that effect would be possible without the long set up from the previous book. But as it was, I found this a very solid 9 and definitely recommend it.
rowyn: (studious)
I have done a lot of reading this week! Two quick reviews, because the two after this are Not Quick:

Flight of Magpies, by K.J. Charles: The third book in "A Charm of Magpies". My favorite of the three novels in the series. It resolves well a lot of the outstanding issues from earlier books, and while the climax was a little overwrought, it hung together well. I'll give this one an 8.5.

Jackdaw, by K.J. Charles: from the same setting as "A Charm of Magpies", Jackdaw guest-stars some of the characters from it, but it's about a new couple. Where the Magpies books made the gay romance a subplot while the primary plot to each was a mystery, Jackdaw is pretty much all romance, with some action-oriented escapades for spice.

I loved this book and had a wonderful time with it. I usually find single-POV romances dissatisfying, but this one works well. In part because the other protagonist wears his heart so plainly on his sleeve that you don't need to be in his head to know what he's feeling.

The climactic scenes (there are several significant turning points) were all beautifully set up and brilliantly resolved. Often it felt like the characters were hopeless: how could this possibly come out well? But they do it, and it makes sense, and it's delightful. There are some hard scenes to read, including an angry-sex scene early on, but it's well worth the trouble. There are some long idylls in between the solving of serious problems, which I particularly enjoyed: it gave the characters a chance to relax and be happy without leaving the reader feeling like the story has stopped moving forward, or that all the conflicts are over. This gets a solid 9.
rowyn: (studious)
These two books are fantasy novels with a mystery/action plot and a gay romance theme. (I think I can blame [ profile] haikujaguar for this one, too. I know she was tweeting about the author, though I forget who told me the first book was on sale, which is why I snagged it.) I found the first book, The Magpie Lord, engaging from the start: I hadn't even decided that was what I wanted to read next, but when I brought up my Kindle app, it opened to the first page and once I started I didn't want to stop. It's fast-paced and leaps right into the action, with one protagonist, Lord Crane, under the influence of an unknown curse, trying to kill himself. It's set in fantasy-19th-century-England, with magic as a quasi-secret: not widely known about in England despite the practitioners, but common knowledge in China. Crane had been living in China for the last 20 or so years, and so looks for a magical solution to what appears to be a magical problem. He finds Stephen Day, and then we have a lot of plot about Day helping Crane and then they try to unravel who was trying to kill him and why. There's a fair amount about Day and Crane's background. Crane is an interesting mixture of ruthless and just. He was exiled to China by his monstrous father, who was protecting his even more monstrous brother. The latter two are both dead at the book's outset, and Crane is expending considerable effort trying to right their wrongs as best he can, despite wanting nothing more than to go back to China, where he was a trader, smuggler, and occasional thug. Stephen Day reminds me of Maturin from the Aubrey-Maturin book, as a small, exceedingly dangerous man, with a keen moral sense. They make an unlikely but endearing couple.

The romance is more of a subplot than main story, and more erotica than romance. The sex tends towards consensual BDSM. But there's quite a lot of story that has nothing to do with the relationship between the leads.

I found the novel's climax rather too by-the-numbers and forced; it didn't feel as well-constructed as the first two-thirds of the book. The abilities and limitations of magic are never clearly established and the mystery's solution, while reasonable, isn't one either the readers or characters had sufficient (in some cases, any) clues to derive.

So it starts off as a 9 and ends as a 7 for me -- I'll average it out to an 8.

The sequel, A Case of Possession, didn't engage me as much as the first. Also, I was disappointed by the author's choice to drop Day as a viewpoint character and switch to Crane only. (I find single-viewpoint romances uniformly less enjoyable than dual-viewpoint). That said, there's more romance (which is a plus for me) in addition to sex, as well as another mystery/action story. It's solid, and good enough that I'll read the next, but gets a 7.
rowyn: (studious)
Mindtouch is MCA Hogarth's light fluffy asexual science fiction romance about grief and the inevitability of death.

The novel weaves together a few different plot threads:

* The relationship between Vasiht'h and Jahir, as roommates, friends and partners
* Their tele/empathic powers and the way they interact with one another
* Their education in psychiatry and their choice of specialization/career path
* Their relationships with other students and faculty on the campus
* Their friendship with a group of six critically ill children who are patient-in-residence at a nearby hospital

I list these in approximately the order of how much I enjoyed them. The friendship and anxieties about same between the protagonists is sweet and endearing. The protagonists are well-drawn and delightful. They are distinct, each with his own strengths and weaknesses. The choice to make each a viewpoint character works well, letting the reader see both what they're like on the inside and how that differs from the way others see them.

The approach to telepathy/empathy is interesting. It's very synesthetic in description, often portrayed as flavors or scents. For both characters, it's increased by touch, particularly skin-to-skin. But otherwise, the characters have drastically different approaches. For Vasiht'h, it's a thing he can do, that he rarely uses, and that's about it. For Jahir, it's a disability that he struggles to mitigate. I read a lot of books with psychic characters in my formative years, and I'm pretty burned out on them, particularly on the psychic-powers-as-curse trope. Still, Jahir's case was interesting, because it really does feel like a crippling disability, and not even for the "society doesn't understand me" reason. Nope; it's "I can pass out from the stress of having people touch me unexpectedly". One doesn't hear much about Jahir's background, despite him being a POV character. He's a member of the mysterious, secretive, xenophobic Eldritch race. At one point during the book, one of the other characters says that Jahir's extremely reserved, controlled manner is similar to one might expect from a psychopath, military operative, or abuse victim. That last option is never mentioned again, but it resonated with me because the hints about his society sound rather dysfunctional. Not abusive in an obvious or malicious way, just ... dysfunctional.

There's a lot about the university, their studies, classes, and choices. I found this less engaging overall, but still interesting.

Then there are assorted minor characters, most of whom blended together for me. Mostly they felt like foils for the protagonists to demonstrate their skills upon or to bounce ideas off of. The six critically-ill kids especially felt interchangeable. This may be an inevitable result of having a very large cast in a single standard-length novel, but it did mean I got bored reading conversations with characters I didn't feel any attachment to. The kids compounded this by being too sweet and adorable. I wanted one of them to throw a tantrum and scream, or at least be sulky and obstinate, at least once. The scenes with them had some d'aww and good lines, but felt particularly unconvincing.

The theme of "grief and the inevitability of death" is partly brought out by the six critically ill kids, but the main reason it's an issue is that Jahir's race has a natural lifespan around 1500 years, which is 10-12 times that of all the other characters. He's 150 years old but everyone thinks of him as a "young man"; he never really acts like he's significantly older than his fellow students. Having chosen to leave his own people (at least for a while) to live with the short-lived Alliance races, Jahir is troubled by the prospect of watching generation after generation of them grow old and die. Since this is a high-tech society that's been spacefaring for centuries without major increases in lifespan, it doesn't seem likely that this problem is going to go away. Jahir thinks about it a lot. Honestly, not sure it's any less depressing to think "everyone I know will be dead in a hundred years" when that includes you than when it doesn't. (In other news, I am past due for my mid-life crisis.)

The first part of the book was slow for my tastes; it became more engaging around the second half. It's very definitely Part One of a Series: the ending leaves the central issue of the novel (ie, the asexual romance between the two protagonists) unresolved.

Overall, I liked the book and plan to read the sequel, though not right away. I'll rate it a 7.
rowyn: (studious)
This book.

Trade Me is a contemporary genre romance about an impoverished college student who tells her billionaire classmate 'if we traded places, you wouldn't last two weeks in my position', and he takes her up on it.


The above sentence is technically true. It is similar to the description of this book on Amazon. It is the description that made me decide to pass on reading it, because: meh, contemporary. Meh, billlionaires. Meh, unbelievable meetcute.

But then [ profile] haikujaguar recommended it, and I decided to give it a try.

And this book.

That summary is true, and it is such bullshit.

This is a story about a man who uses the Imperial March as the ringtone for the father that he loves, for the dad who loves him, who's always been there for him, who is his best friend, because even so he is That Kind of dad.

It is about a woman who, when she has $50 to get her through the next nine days, sends $30 of it to her mother to help her little sister, and her mother who gives it to an immigrant who's fighting to avoid deportation. And that sounds maudlin and self-sacrificing but it's not: it is love tied up with resentment and raw terror and more love. With "you have to do this, but you can't, but you have to, so you find a way to even though it's destroying you."

It is about self-abnegation, about self-obliteration. It is about loving parents who are doing their best, whose kids adore them -- and the way these same parents are asking so much that is destroying those kids. It's about college students in love, and they feel like real college students, and they are adults but they are still so young, too young, for all those expectations that weigh them down.

It is a ridiculous meetcute with a ridiculous premise and yet somehow it rings with so much truth. Every character in this book is raw and real. There is no brutality in this book: no screaming, no violence, no hatred, no villains. But it is brutal nonetheless. Even more brutal because there are no villains, because no one is being unreasonable and yet they are all asking too much. They need too much. People are broken, and even billionaires with the best will in the world cannot fix that.

There's so much honesty in this story that when I got to the end, the happily-ever-after that every genre romance has, it was like driving a car into a wall at 50mph. The book stopped but I kept going. The reasons that kept the characters apart for so long were all still there, and yes, I was glad they were going to try instead of giving up, but I can't believe in the happily-ever-after. I need to know that they're going to be okay, and I don't think they are. I don't know how they can be.

Trade Me is a romance, and it has the things I expect of a romance: sensuality and attraction and love and the characters who think about Their Relationship and the stupid things that keep them apart. Except they're not stupid things. They're real. Terrifyingly real.

It is all of this, but far, far more. It transcends.

It is magnificent.

And harrowing, and heartbreaking, and I don't know what to say about it even though I've been talking about it for a page and a half already. It is not a great romance (I hit that wall at the end, Ms. Milan, and it hurts, oh lord, it hurts) but it is an amazing book.

It is a 9.5, and yes, that is the highest I've rated a book in any of my reviews on LJ.
rowyn: (studious)
Thief of Songs is set in a fantasy world, where humans have four sexes: male, female, hermaphrodite, and neuter. The latter two are created due to the effects of magic in the setting. The story feels like a poly triad romance to me, with one member of the triad being asexual romantic. The emphasis is on the sexual-and-romantic relationship between the male and hermaphrodite members of the triad, though.

One thing that I like in a romance novel is a lot of romance: while I want some obstacles for the characters to overcome on their way to happily-ever-after, I also want to spend some time watching the protagonists actually being happy together and in love.

In this respect, Thief truly delivers. There's plenty of intense emotion and lots of tender, touching scenes. If anything, the story is too light on conflict. The book has a large cast of different people, and while they all have distinct personalities, almost all of them get along amiably and civilly. Even when characters representing conflicting sides air their grievances, in most cases they quickly come to accord. It is, on the one hand, delightful to hang out with this assortment of reasonable, well-behaved individuals. On the other, it feels too facile, and the pacing in the second half felt slow due to a lack of urgency.

There were a few other things that niggled at me about the book, but overall I had a splendid time with it. The protagonists are charming. Both of them are composers, and there're some splendid lyrical declarations of feeling that would feel over-the-top in most characters but that fit right. The setting is well-described, with enough detail to convey a good mental image and not so much as to overwhelm. Likewise, I enjoyed the descriptions of the composers at work, which included enough musical details for verisimilitude but not so many as to feel like jargon, accompanied by judicious use of metaphor to convey a sense of the composition. Overall, I'll rate it an 8*, and look forward to reading more in the series.

* A long time ago, someone noted that my actual range of ratings has been 5-9 even though the theoretical range is 1-10, and suggested that therefore my 5 = 1 star and a 9 = 5 stars. But I actually rated this book as 5 stars on Amazon, mostly because Amazon's ratings suffer from the kind of grade inflation that makes 4 stars translate to "meh, it's okay" instead of "this was good!" So I figured I'd try to stick to their implied norms.
rowyn: (studious)
Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy reminds me more a Shakespeare-style comedy than of a romance: everyone's paired up for marriage at the end, but the story is about Hijinks Ensue, not about exploring romantic feelings.

And there are Such Hijinks. The book's eponymous heroine often made me think "This is who Austen's Emma wanted to be but wasn't." Sophy knows what's best for everyone and sets out to see that they get it, whether they know they want it or not. She goes beyond meddlesome and into the insane. In a way, the "Emma" comparison was an unfortunate one, because it made a forceful reminder that Sophy's success hinged on the author letting her be right in situations where she could very easily have been wrong.

It's a laugh-out-loud funny book, although I did find some of the hijinks implausibly and unnecessarily over-the-top. Recommended for the humor value; very entertaining. I'll give it an 8.5.


Jim Hines's Goblin Tales is a collection of stories using characters from the Goblin books. All but one of them are in the same setting. Most rely on black humor and a reversal of traditional tropes, much like the books. There's a story about Veka, the female viewpoint character from the second book, and I liked that one because it had more camaraderie than is usual for the setting, and it was good to see Veka having developed substantially as a character since her first introduction. There's also a prototype version of the "Libriomancer" setting and characters. It's not a prequel -- the rules of magic are a little different, and while the protagonist has the same pet fire spider (from the Goblin books) and the same given name, his personality is different. I liked some of the stories better than others, but they're all solid. I'll give it a 7.5 overall.
rowyn: (studious)
The Heiress Effect, by Courtney Milan

A Victorian-era historical romance, and the second full-length book in the Brothers Sinister series. In this one, the woman has a traumatic past and the man is threatened by scandal! It's almost an inversion of the roles in the previous books I read by this author. (But not really. The man isn't on the verge of being destroyed by his horrible past: more like 'political ambitions would be thwarted if he doesn't conform to social expectations'.) It's a good read; I particularly enjoyed some of the minor characters. Milan does a good job with making even bit players have their own motives and reasons for the things they do, even when the protagonists don't realize it. I give it an 8.

The Countess Conspiracy, by Courtney Milan
Third Brothers Sinister book. There's a scene in the middle of Heiress using the protagonists of Countess that was so WHAT that I felt compelled to get this one to find out more. (Though it turned out the teaser for this book that was at the end of Heires would've answered my main question.) Like the other books in the series, a fun read. Milan doesn't exactly deliver on some of the the particular things I want in a romance -- I like a long leisurely exposition where the characters talk about their feelings, for instance -- but she writes consistently solid stories with entertaining characters and deft use of the occasional counter-trope. I'll give this an 8, too.

After reading three romances back-to-back, I felt that I really needed to read something Not Romance. I'd downloaded a ton of free books from Apple's "First in Series" promotion, so I started to look through those. This became something of a slush-pile reading experience. I don't normally write about books I didn't finish, but I'm going to touch briefly on these before I get to the last book I did finish. The process of deciding not to read several books in a row was interesting to me.

Carpe Demon, by Julie Kenner

iBooks on my phone put this in the "Fantasy, Futuristic & Ghost" category. I think the store had it as "romance", but "paranormal urban fantasy" seems more like it. The premise here is something like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer grows up, retires, becomes a soccer mom, then gets dragged back into demon-hunting'. It's written for humor; the first 15% or so covers the protagonist trying to host a dinner party without giving away that she's already killed and hidden the body (badly) of one demon and suspects that one of her guests is another. It's very "how do I conceal this from the mundanes?" The writing is fine, and I may come back to this at some point. But I am pretty turned off by everything in the "must conceal paranormal/magic stuff from everyone I know" genre these days. So I moved on.

Dimensions Saga, T. M. Nielsen: This was under "fantasy". It looks like epic fantasy of some kind? The first page included the sentence "Beautiful women were sold as wives or bartered for the lives of the family", and let me know that the beautiful female protagonist was a former slave on the run from the "Shadowmere Consortium". I decided I was not in the mood for this. I probably never will be. NEXT!

Troll Mountain, Episode 1 Matthew Reilly. Under "Action & Adventure", but seemed to be fantasy. 10-15% of the way through this short story/novella, I still hadn't been introduced to a character. It was all exposition. About how much life in this valley sucked and was mostly about dying. NEXT!

Agent I1: Tristan, Joni Hahn. Under "Adventure".  The first page featured the invisible protagonist reveling in watching an unwitting woman get dressed. OH JONI HAHN NO oh so much NEXT.

(I actually skimmed the first chapter and a couple of pages of the second, mostly in the vain hope that the woman would get the chance to deck the creeper protagonist. No, instead the creeper protagonist kidnaps her at her brother's request, presumably 'for her own good', and when it switches to her perspective, she marvels at how hot he is. I believe this is an sf romance. Even were I in the mood for romance, it is not my kind of romance.)

Apocalypse, Kyle West. Under "Adventure". The first few pages suggested this was a variation on the zombie apocalypse theme. Nothing against it specifically, but I wasn't in the mood.

Pennsylvania 1, Michael Bunker. Under "Adventure". This one was about an Amish youth going to join a space colony. I thought the premise here was promising, actually. But 10% of the way through, I was still reading the same scene of the same two characters doing an "as you know, Bob" exposition about the teen's plans to join a space colony, and I was kind of bored. I might give it another try later. But: NEXT.

At this point, I remembered I'd bought a copy of:

Rise of the Spider Goddess, by Jim Hines

So I gave up on finding a good book and read one that the author himself described as bad.

The genre here is best described as "MST3K". In 1995, a college-age Jim Hines wrote a short novel based on his D&D character. In 2014, he decided to intersperse mocking commentary with the otherwise unedited manuscript and self-publish it.

The original 1995 manuscript is a pretty terrible epic fantasy. It's about an elf druid/thief named Nakor, a random handful of adventurers who come along with him for no discernable reason, and their quest to destroy the evil goddess Nakor accidentally helped free two years earlier. If I've made it sound promising somehow, it's not.

Jim Hines' 2014 commentary on the manuscript gives it the skewering it deserves. I laughed out loud many, many times while reading it. The phrase "elf-pain" even now makes me giggle. I went to look for some good quotes from it, and cracked up all over again at it. Two excerpts:

(Original MS, discussing Nakor's pet owl): “His name is Flame,” Nakor said. “His parents were killed by poachers while they were hunting.”
(Commentary): Even the bird has a tragic backstory.


(original MS, monk talking to a vampire): "Even your curse is not evil in itself. Look at the good that has come of it.”
(2014 commentary) Sure, your husband was murdered and you’ve become a blood-drinking killer and sunlight will turn you into instant barbeque, but on the bright side, there’s only 43,000 words left in the book!

The downside here is the same as with MST3K: you do have to suffer through the original awful story in order to appreciate the jokes. One advantage it does have over MST3K is that you needn't feel bad for laughing at someone else's beloved creation, because the writer himself is encouraging you to do so. If you like this kind of "so bad it's funny" humor, it's well worth the read. (Heck, it may be worth the read even if you don't: I often don't, but enjoyed this. Though it may help that I'm a writing nerd and so jokes that rely on knowing good writing habits work fine for me.) If there'd been a higher commentary/story ratio, I'd give it a 9. As it is, there was a little too much story unleavened by humor. So, an 8.
rowyn: (studious)
The Golden Transcendence, by John C. Wright, is a solid, satisfying conclusion to the trilogy that started with The Golden Age. I liked it better than the second book. The loving detail given to the setting remains the series' strongest point. [ profile] tuftears described the series at one point as a 'space opera', a term which doesn't do justice to this remarkable vision of the future. I think of 'space opera' as a genre where the science is largely hand-waved, set dressing for stories that could be told anywhere. Whether or not Wright's hyper-advanced technology is possible, it's anything but hand-waved, and it doesn't have the feel of technobabble or pseudo-science. The series has various weaknesses, as mentioned in my review of the second book, but I'm glad I read it. It's a breathtaking glimpse at a future full of wonders, one so well-realized that it feels hauntingly possible. A very solid 8 on the how-much-I-liked-it scale.


Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch is the sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamorra, a book I reviewed nearly two years ago. I was ambivalent about reading the sequel, and I will admit the deciding factor was Scott Lynch's delightful response to a critic (warning: link contains ample swearing). In particular, this sentiment:
Yeah, Zamira Drakasha, middle-aged pirate mother of two, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. [...] Why shouldn't middle-aged mothers get a wish-fulfillment character, you sad little bigot? Everyone else does.
For whatever reason, that response was rattling about the internet again a while back, and it kept this book in my mind. Also, Lynch has a wonderful piece in George R. R. Martin's Rogues anthology; I enjoyed his short story there so much that I was eager to read Red Seas by the time the library finally managed to get a copy into my hands. (The local library system has books 1 & 3 in this series, but not 2. Inexplicably. They had to go to Topeka to get it for me. I asked if I could buy them a copy and donate it, but they were all "nooooo we just sell donated books". Sigh.)

I liked Red Seas better than Lies in many ways. It's better-constructed: it has something of the same "tear down the protagonists and let them claw their way back up" arc, but both tear-down and claw-back felt convincing this time. There were still points where the characters planned things that struck me as unnecessarily complicated or heavily dependent on luck, but for the most part, reasonable. I found the first half of the book a bit of a slog: it really does perk up a lot when the pirate mom shows up. Not just because pirate mom. I'm pretty sure. I suspect I liked the second half better in part because the book stops alternating chapters between past and present, a technique I did not love in Lies and still don't love here. Also, the second half starts adding some more likeable characters to the mix, giving it the ensemble feel that I enjoyed in Lies and is missing from the first half, where it's basicaly two protagonists against the world.

I enjoyed the characters, and the depiction of the relationships between them. The relationships between Locke and Jean and the pirate mom captain and her first mate were especially fun to watch develop. Miss Not-Appearing-in-This-Book from Lies continues to Not Appear in Red Skies, but the mentions of her feel natural now instead of like a weird foreshadowing of an appearance that never happens, so it worked.

There are some factors that work against the story for me: I'm not a big fan of the rogue archetype, and these remain stories where you're rooting for thieves and conmen, if not murderers. The book is grim; I'd forgotten how much death there was among significant characters in Lies, and that continues here. And y'all know I love my stories light and upbeat. The author uses frequent profanity in the dialogue, which I'm meh about. So people who enjoy or at least do not object to these things will probably like this book more. Even so, I'll give it a 7.5 and plan to read the third.


Unveiled by Courtney Milan is a Victorian-era historical romance. [ profile] haikujaguar reviewed and recommended the author and this series specifically, which is the only reason I gave it a chance. Because the back cover blurb sounded horrible. Romance as a genre is full of unlikely first meetings and improbable coincidences, but even for romance, Unveiled goes above and beyond on the ZOMG REALLY scale with its initial setup. The starting premise is that Ash, the male protagonist, has gotten the marriage of his distant elderly cousin, the Duke of Parford, invalidated on grounds of bigamy. This makes the Duke's children illegitimate, and allows Ash to inherit the duchy as the nearest legitimate male relation. (So far, still within the bounds of normal romance-novel contrivance.) Ash then uses some legal manuever to get the right to take up residence on the ailing duke's estate while the duke is still alive and lucid, albeit bedridden. The female protagonist, Margaret, is the old duke's now-bastard daughter. Her two brothers leave the estate to pursue legal remedy for their disinherited status. Margaret stays behind to (a) nurse her father, (b) make sure her father doesn't get murdered by Ash and (c) spy on Ash while pretending to be a nurse. The entire 100-person serving staff backs her ruse.

The whole "I'm just a nurse" ruse is ridiculous at the start, and only gets more ridiculous as the book goes on. (For one thing, if you have a hundred servants so loyal to you that they won't betray this absurd secret, surely you could have at least one or more of them doing a, b & c for you.) The ruse continues waaaaay too long, to the point of me throwing the book down at one point and declaiming, "The STUPID. It BURNS."

However, if you can get past the insanity of the initial premise, Unveiled makes a fine romance. The characters are loveable (though Ash takes some getting used to; he comes across as a total jerk at the start based on his thought process, but his actions speak better of him.) There are lots of sweet romantic scenes, many of which subvert some of the more annoying tropes of romance. Once the stupid "lying about her identity" contrivance is finally put to one side, the next contrivance to keep the protagonists apart is actually understandable and fuels character development. I was a little disappointed by the resolution of the legitimacy question, but eh. It worked.

In addition to the traditional erotic romance between Ash & Margaret, there's a kind of platonic romance between Ash and his two younger brothers, who are destined for books of their own. The relationships between brothers also have some contrivances to create additional angst. You don't see as much of them as I'd like, and I suspect the various issues in this platonic romance don't get resolved until the end of the last brother's book. But the relationships between brothers are one of the strengths of the book, and I liked how distinct they were as people. The next book is about Mark, who was my favorite character in this one, so I'm sure to read it. I will give this one a 7.5, and note that it would've been a 9 without the ridiculous, awful premise. I suspect readers not repulsed by the back cover blurb would be delighted by this book.
rowyn: (Me 2012)
This is the second book of a trilogy.  I read the first book, The Golden Age several years ago.  I was  sure I'd written about it at that time, but apparently not.

This series depicts some of the most plausibly alien and unique cultures I've ever seen, an achievement which is in no way lessened by the fact that all of the cultures originate from Earth. Set in the distant future, the setting is remarkably rich and deep. The characters are diverse, and by "diverse" I mean 'these characters are all technically human and/or machine intelligences but their physical incarnations, thought patterns, modes of speech, etc. are wildly different'. Instead of different species and races, the setting has different neuroforms: base, Warlock, Invariant, Cerebelline, Mass-mind, etc. People are not defined by what they look like, but how they think. People can change neuroforms if they really want (and sometimes do), to the extent of people who were "born" as AIs incarnating as humans, and vice versa. Different neuroforms can be so incomprehensible to each other that they require translators, not for different langauges but for alien modes of communication and thought patterns.

The place really feels DIFFERENT: it's not "take modern Americans and give them some new tech toys and tweak a few cultural values". Even the characters who are have based their customs on Victorian England don't feel Victorian: they feel like a far future culture ripping off the parts of Victorian society they happen to like, using it for veneer, and ditching the rest. Like cosplay or the SCA taken to the next level.

The universe has history: mankind has gone through wars, technological breakthroughs and upheavals, obtained immortality, and continued to progress throughout. There is neither a sense of stasis, where technology remains roughly the same for long periods, and it's neither a unidirectional upward climb nor a post-apocalyptic waste.

IIRC, in the first book, Wright wisely avoided talking about lapsed time between eras. This one makes the mistake of talking about many millenia having elapsed and the main character himself being three thousand years old (and unremarkably old for the setting). I found those time frames unnecessarily long, but that's a minor quibble in a story which does such a great job of describing a society so technologically advanced it feels like an alien culture.

The story is rife with jargon based on English words -- neuroforms, the mentality, partials, dolls, Sophotechs, etc. It can get overwhelming, but the jargon does not feel obscuring or superfluous. Rather, it's integral: leaving it out would be like trying to write about 2014 without mentioning the Internet, smartphones, webpages, blogs, etc. It's jargon, but it's also part of everyday life.

The setting is easily the strongest point of the series. The characters are weaker by contrast; there are occasional points where I was thinking about the author puppeting the characters through dialogue, instead of feeling immersed in the interaction. The plot is reasonably engaging and kept me thinking. The main character spends a lot of time fending off accusations that he is insane, and the reader is left really wondering if he is, in fact, crazy and maybe even an unreliable narrator. ("Why don't you think you're crazy? I am pretty sure I'd think I was crazy in your position.") It's well-done, and the resolution of this point is wonderful.

There are some weird artifacts of 20th century thought: the narrator inexplicably refers to adult women as "girls" and there are conversations about gender-based roles that are at odds with a far future world where a number of (minor) characters have nonstandard genders and where biological sex is obsolete if not meaningless.

Even so, overall I found it one of the most wholly-realized futures I've seen depicted in sf. I wouldn't say "this is how I expect the future to look", but it feels real in a way sf rarely does to me. Real in that there is so much that is unrecognizable, so little that can be taken for granted. It's got flaws, but for that alone I have to recommend the series. The individual book I'll rate at an 8.IIRC, I like The Golden Age better, but both are well worth reading.

April 2019



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