Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Band Series by Nicholas Eames

Although Nicholas Eames The Band Series is only 2 books in (a 3rd is apparently in the works), it's quickly made its way to being one of my favourites (I've already read Kings of the Wyld 4 times), and Eames is one of the few E authors that is on the shelves with a series.

Both were in my favourite books of the year, so I'll reproduce those reviews here to cover it:

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Oh my God, this one blew me away! I first read it in March, and I've already read it again since that. The last book to do that to me was Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora (18 reads on and I still love that book).

Every so often a reader is lucky enough to encounter a book that is like a shot of nitro glycerine to the head. I get one every so often. Kings of the Wyld was my nitro glycerine book for 2017.

I can't really tell anyone why I love it so much, but I just do. There's the perfectly executed conceit that the mercenary band of Saga are like an old school rock band doing a one last time tour, but going out to rescue their front man's daughter Rose from where she and many other doomed heroes are trapped by a horde of monsters from everyone's worst nightmare.

It's the characters that form Saga themselves, from the lead of Gabe, to the wild, hard drinking ladies man Matrick Skulldrummer, the eccentric and dangerous wizard Moog and the mysterious, ageless hell on wheels Ganelon. Then there's the every man Clay 'Slowhand' Cooper, the glue that holds the band together. Clay is what makes this book, he gives it heart.

The other thing that I loved about Kings of the Wyld was the way it neatly skewered every cliche of grimdark and never took itself too seriously.

So often sequels are the difficult second album and they just don't live up to expectations. I am happy to report that Bloody Rose is not one of those. I still personally prefer Kings of the Wyld (having read it 3 times since I picked it up just over a year ago), but this is a worthy follow up.

Eames resisted the temptation of making Clay 'Slowhand' Cooper and rest of Saga the focus of Bloody Rose and instead gave us a brand new protagonist; Tam Hashford, totally unconnected to Saga, well at least until she joins the band headlined by Bloody Rose, the daughter or Golden Gabe, the front man of Saga.

Kings of the Wyld was very male dominated and Eames redresses that with Bloody Rose by flipping it around. Rose's band is more girl than boy, although she has male associates and they're an important part of her group.

Despite the book's title, the story is told through the eyes of Tam, not Rose, and I felt that Tam, not Rose was more the focus. Whereas Kings of the Wyld was about an old band getting back together (can't help thinking it was based more on Led Zeppelin than anyone else), Bloody Rose is about a newbie starting out with a currently hot band, so that gives it a different dynamic.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley

When Star Wars first came out, this was back when the first movie was still called Star Wars and not A New Hope as it was later christened, (I don't think anyone even knew that it was the 4th story, but considered it the first) there was no EU, and kids like me, whose imaginations had been fired by the concept were eager for more content featuring our heroes.

I read Alan Dean Foster's 'sequel' to Star Wars; Splinter of the Minds Eye, as soon as I could get my hot little hands on it, and I did enjoy that, but what I really wanted were more stories featuring the roguish smuggler Han Solo. Solo was the favourite character of many, and I was no exception.

There was no internet then and I didn't live close to any bookstore of size, so the first I heard that Brian Daley had given me my wish was an excerpt from the second book that I found in a magazine at my grandmother's house. Once the genie was out of the bottle I knew I had to get these books, so I tracked them down. I read them and loved them and I'm pretty sure that they only whetted my already heightened appetite for The Empire Strikes Back.

I have read them a few times over the years, and I know they're no longer canon, but I tend to prefer Daley's background for Solo over others that I've read.

As an example of old school science fiction/space opera they still hold up. Maybe it's because I like my science fiction with a lot of cheese, it could also have to do with my love of Han Solo as a character. He has held a top spot in my list of fictional heroes right from the time he swaggered into that cantina in Mos Eisley.

The books are set not all that long before Han and Chewbacca met Ben and Luke on Tatooine. I base that on a short conversation between the Corellian smuggler and the Wookiee at the end of the last book; Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, where Han suggests that they try their luck again with the Kessel Spice Run and the idea of being financed by the Hutts is also mentioned.

Han's back story isn't investigated in great detail, but it is covered briefly in a conversation with a character in Han Solo at Star's End where he says that he lost his spot at the space academy due to an incident with a lady and his superior officer and the only one who could clear Han's name was an off worlder and who would believe a Wookiee?

The books are really old school with Han and Chewbacca going from one wild adventure and money raising scheme to another. There are chases and gunfights as well as shootouts between star fighters and space pirates. While they're very definitely set in outer space and they use blasters rather than six shooters, there's a lot of the Western in these stories. Han's definite matinee movie hero material and he even has a different love interest (all failed) in each book.

They're a huge amount of fun and in my opinion about the best thing to come out of the franchise since the movie that started it all. I would have loved to see them filmed, but I do understand that logistically that would never have been possible and that's without taking into account Harrison Ford's indifference to playing the character.

There are some differences to the Star Wars universe as it existed back then pre The Empire Strikes Back. One is the absence of the Empire (it's too late for it not to be a factor), it's place is taken by a massive oppressive commercial conglomerate known only as The Authority (I assume there were contractual issues around using the Empire). The other departure was the droids. Han does have droids, he acquired them early in the first book; Zollux and Blue Max. Zollux is a fairly old labour droid and his constant companion is the advanced little blue cube who uses the name Max. There's probably meant to be a correlation between them and C-3PO and R2-D2. Max is very R2 in that he is widely regarded by everyone as a child, because of his obvious newness and his voice, which sounds childlike (even Han treats him that way, scolding him for using bad language just because he does). Zollux is less like 3PO, having been a labour droid. I would have preferred he take 3PO's place to be honest. The protocol droid has been little more than an annoyance since the first film. Zollux and Max parted company with Han and Chewbacca at the end of the last book.

I could read these again and again and I probably will.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Reawakening Trilogy by Myke Cole

I first encountered Myke Cole with his Shadow Ops series, books set in a near future world where otherwise ordinarily people start to develop super powers. The powered individuals are then used by the military as super soldiers. Those that don't agree or self report are hunted down and killed. There was never any real reasons given as to why people gained powers/magic, but Cole is a big X-Men fan so it was sort of a fantasy version of the mutant X-factor theme. Myke Cole is also a combat veteran, having served 2 tours of Iraq as a member of the US military and a 3rd as a civilian attached to the Department of Defense. He uses his military knowledge to great effect in his books, they do give them that air of authenticity.

I enjoyed the Shadow Ops series, but unlike the majority, I preferred the opening book in the series and didn't think the following novels quite lived up to the potential shown in his debut.

When I heard that Gemini Cell was a sort of prequel to Shadow Ops I was a little wary, but I did pick it up and was glad I did so. The entire Reawakening trilogy is a high point for Cole as an author. He definitely levelled up and upped his game with each subsequent novel in the trilogy.

Some of the action sequences, while terrifically written, do stretch the believability bone a bit. Mostly around the level of punishment even a magically enhanced and powered corpse can actually take before it just can't continue.

Central character, former Navy SEAL Jim Schweitzer is a hero that an audience can get behind. Someone to whom loyalty and love is everything and who even transcends death to rescue his family. In the Reawekening trilogy Cole gives his readers two fantastic female characters; Schweitzer's wife Sarah and in Siege Line, the character of Wilma 'Mankiller' the Dene sheriff of a remote Canadian frontier town, In many ways Wilma was actually more than main character of Siege Line than Jim was.

Every time I thought he couldn't top himself, Cole did just that with this series. I haven't even had it all that long and I've read it twice. I actually think it was even better the second time around. I don't advise to start reading Gemini Cell before bed because if you do you won't go to sleep that night, this is a compelling book and its hard to stop reading. Also once Gemini Cell is done, you're going to want to find and read Javelin Rain and then go onto Siege Line. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

I’d always wanted to do a complete reread of Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series The Dresden Files

Part of the problem was that I wanted to wait until the final volume was due out, and while Butcher’s put the estimate at 20 books, he isn’t firm on that and considering that the 15th book in the series (Skin Game) came out in 2014 and there’s still no release date for book 16, I felt that this wasn’t going to conclude any time soon. I did want to do finished series for this reread, but I don’t have many B authors to do and as the Dresdens tend to be relatively self contained (one obvious exception being book 12 Changes and it’s followup Ghost Story) I figured I could break that rule here, and mind you it’s unlikely to be the last time I’ll break it, either.

Rather than being a book by book review of the 15 published novels and the 2 short story collections this is more of an overview of the series and to a certain extent it’s impact on the sub genre of urban fantasy.

I don’t think it’s stretching things too much to describe The Dresden Files as a game changer for urban fantasy. Prior to the appearance of Storm Front (the first book in the series) the genre that people were starting to call urban fantasy tended to be dominated by the likes of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries. Now Anita Blake tends to be thought of as paranormal romance, or as some people refer to it vampire porn, and Charlaine Harris has always thought of the Sookie Stackhouse’s as southern gothic with supernatural elements. Both also feature sex fairly prominently.

Dresden was different. Harry is a wizard for hire, he even advertises in the phone book. While he’s a wizard, he’s more Phillip Marlowe than Merlin. The conceit made was that he was as much a hard boiled private eye as he was a wizard. He did much the same work as a PI, he just used magic to get the job done a lot of the time. The books, especially the early ones, do have a very noirish feel to them. The feel is continued by Butcher deciding to set the books in and around Chicago. He also makes the setting feel older than it should, by giving a side effect to Harry’s use of magic, it also affects most magic users, use of the power tends to foul up complex machinery, mostly anything invented post WW II. It creates some interesting obstacles for Harry and gives him a reliance on his ever growing list of allies.

Two other points of difference were the fact that while creatures such as vampires and werewolves do exist, their existence is not common knowledge as it is in the Anita Blakes and the Sookie Stackhouses. The other was the lack of sex. Harry’s not a monk, and he does have sex, but it never becomes a focus of the story the way it did in other works. To my count by book 15 he’s had 4 significant romantic connections; his adolescent crush Elaine, the reporter Susan Rodrigues, Karrin Murphy and Anastasia Luccio, and he didn’t sleep with them all.

The first few books were very standalone, and they began the work of introducing and setting up Harry’s support crew, and his list of enemies and frenemies. Some of these form what I feel are the best and most multi layered of the characters (‘Gentleman’ John Marcone and the Leanan Sidhe are two that spring to mind).

Reading them back to back as I did, and it took me the better part of the last 5 months, gave me a fairly good insight into how Jim Butcher developed as a writer, although it has to be said that his characters are largely a case of what you see is what you get. They pretty much remain as they first appear in the books. They do go through some changes depending on their situations, but essentially they’re still the same internally as when the readers first encounter them.

The early books were a little formulaic, Storm Front concerned itself mostly with an evil sorcerer, although it established that a staple of urban fantasy; vampires, were significant players in Harry’s world. The second book Fool Moon introduced werewolves and with book 3 a religious element entered the series when the Holy Knight of the Sword Michael Carpenter made his first appearance. I always liked Michael as a character and his large family, I never guessed how important his pre adolescent daughter; Molly, would become at that time, though, which is a clue to how while the stories have always been firmly rooted in the urban fantasy genre, they’ve become more like a high fantasy epic in scope.

Over the first few books Butcher set up his world and introduced his characters. The first five or so books were quite episodic and this was probably because before that the writers deal with the publisher hadn’t looked that many books ahead. By book 5 there was a significant amount of public interest. Each volume wound up high on the best seller list, the author had a hardback deal and later on there was even a regrettably short lived TV show.

Around book 5 or 6 the major cast of characters had all been introduced. Mainstays like Harry himself, Karrin Murphy and Bob the Skull were always there, and other peripherals came and went: Bill Borden and his pack of werewolves, the fairy warrior Toot Toot, Thomas the White Court vampire, Michael Carpenter and his family, Susan Rodrigues. Ebenezar McCoy and Waldo Butters the polka loving medical examiner. There were also Harry’s animal companions, Mister the cat and Mouse the dog, who turns out to be much more than he originally seems. There were others like Mac the bartender, Father Forthill, Kincaid and Ivy.

That was where I think Butcher decided how big this was going to be and the series arc seemed to be set from book 7 on. They’ve remained quite self contained, except for Changes and Ghost Story, but have become harder and harder to pick one up and read it without feeling as a reader that there’s a fair bit of story unread.

Since The Dresden Files made it’s appearance with Storm Front and succeeded spectacularly, it’s opened up the genre and moved more into a detective style of fiction rather than the more paranormal romance side of things, where the relationships are the focus rather than the plot.

In the past I’ve described the Dresdens as the literary equivalent of fast food. They’re attractive and easy to digest once in a while, but a steady diet of them would ultimately do the reader more harm than good. I still stand by that, and after largely shot gunning the entire 15 novels followed by the 2 short story collections that’s only firmed the opinion. I did enjoy it, but it wouldn’t be something I’d want to do again in a hurry.

When I read the second short story collection: Brief Cases, for the first time last year I tore through it and my overwhelming feeling was that it was great to read about Harry and Co again. Kind of like spending time with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. Part of that was because I do enjoy the books and part of it was that the 15th book; Skin Game came out in 2014 and readers haven’t had another Harry Dresden since, although book 16 is promised.

15 novels and the better part of 20 years is quite an achievement and I think it’s not only a testament to the sheer readability of Butcher’s writing, he’s no prose stylist, but he is easy to read, he has a lot of what author and critic Jo Walton once described as ‘I want to read itosity’. There are also the characters. The cast is diverse from all sorts of backgrounds and they’re quite relatable to the majority of Butcher’s readers.

The books like their major character rose from humble and unlikely beginnings to become quite powerful and much talked about. When people in the books mention wizard, everyone knows that they’re talking about Harry, and now when readers mention the words urban fantasy, Harry Dresden is often the first name of plenty of people’s lips.

I’ve already started the C’s, but you’ll need to wait for a bit to find out who it is, I promise it won’t take this long or be this big.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Top 10 2018

Somehow for this years edition of what I read and really liked I managed to get the even 10, okay I did sort of cheat a bit with one of them, but it still technically rounds out to 10. I had 7 last year, but I read 114 books this year (a record for me I believe) so naturally the number went up a tad.

So here we go, 2018 through my readers eyes:

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Until a couple of years ago Mira Grant (pseudonym of urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire) confined herself exclusively to zombie fiction (they didn't call the monsters in the Symbiosis trilogy zombies, but that's what they were). That changed when she wrote a novella called Rolling in the Deep (also made this list in its year of publication).

Into the Drowning Deep is the sequel to Rolling in the Deep. In the novella a TV network (it's not called SyFy or National Geographic, but it's an amalgamation of the two) set out to make a mockumentary about the existence of mermaids. The boat turned up, but all the crew members had disappeared.

The premise of Into the Drowning Deep is that the same network wants to find out what happened to the crew of the Atargatis and are sending another expedition, even better equipped than the initial one to uncover what exactly does lurk in the depths of the Marianas Trench. The cast all have their own reasons for wanting to go on this journey, some because of a personal connection, some because of personal vanity and others for entirely scientific reasons.

I say cast like it's a cinematic term, because both the novella and the sequel read like they were written to be filmed (in fact Into the Drowning Deep has been optioned and will hopefully be made as a film). There's a lot of the disaster movie in the book. As the various members of the cast are introduced, I found myself having fun as a reader trying to work out who and who wouldn't survive the coming ordeal, just like I often do when I'm watching a disaster film for the first time.

Having read Rolling in the Deep (and I do recommend reading that before trying Into the Drowning Deep), I knew what the monster was, and so it's testament to the skill of the author that she was still able to create a great sense of tension in the book, even though I as the reader knew what was coming.

The cast is quite diverse and well handled, the majority of them are given enough time on the page to grow and allow the reader to make a connection. There are some that made me angry and others that made me cry, some made me laugh, too. Being an Aussie I was particularly appreciative that the Australian character was not a Steve Irwin clone, the temptation to do that must have been strong.

Fantastic book that keeps the pages turning and whitens the knuckles while doing so. Hopefully the film will do justice to the source material.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

This isn't fantasy, so much as it's secondary world fiction. It's not even an alternate history, because it is set on a world that is like ours, but at the same time isn't. I've read a few low magic fantasies, but it's not often I read one that is no magic, unless it's an alternate history. Amberlough is such a beast. It's also utterly brilliant!

The city of Amberlough is kind of like a cross between 30's New York and Weimar Republic Berlin. The book concerns itself with a few characters in that city just before the hammer comes down. They are a spy (one quibble, the spy was called Cyril and try as I did, I just couldn't see him as a Cyril), a black marketeer and a dancer. They're all connected in one way or another and all have an interest in what is about to happen to their world as it will directly affect them and those close to them.

Because the reader knows what this is based on and what ultimately happens in our world, there could be a lack of tension, but there isn't and this is because I became invested in the characters and wanted to see how events would both affect and involve them.

It's hard to say what drew me in about Amberlough, it's not a standard sort of fantasy and not a hell of of a lot happens, but it is remarkably atmospheric and compelling and I did love the people I was reading about. It does end on a bit of a cliff, but the sequel Armistice is out and did let me off that particular cliff. I liked Armistice, but not quite as much as Amberlough and that's why it's not in the list, although when the series is complete, it may make the list as a whole. In fact when the 3rd book comes out this year I may read the first 2 again, because they are that good.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

I picked this one up on a whim in of all places a bookstore in Cairns (I seem to have luck with random bookstores in Cairns. I found D'Shai, in a second hand bookstore in Cairns many years ago and I had been searching high and low for that for ages). I liked the idea of what it promised to combine.

Meddling Kids is basically Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Scooby Doo combined, they even have a dog, and grown up.

The years when the kids were a group of sleuthing youngsters uncovering the mysteries in a small town are long gone and they've all gone their separate ways into less than stellar futures, one of them has even died. That's when something draws those that remain back to the little town where they first made their names. There's also more than a bit of Stephen King's It about the book, and that's a good thing because I absolutely love It, probably makes my all time favourite list.

Meddling Kids is one of those sort of books that just draws the reader in and won't let them go. I started it on the plane on the way home and read it fairly intently until I had it finished. I found myself reading it whenever I had a spare moment and also resenting whatever took me away from it when I had to go back to work or sleep or whatever else I do when I'm not reading.

I hope they make this as a film or a TV series, because it honestly would work in a visual medium.

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

There is only one author in the world who could take The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and cross it with the Eurovision Song Contest then throw in a homage to glam rock, specifically David Bowie and somehow it make it all work. The author is Catherynne M. Valente and the book is Space Opera.

I adore Valente and have ever since I first encountered her and her work at Worldcon 2010. I was however unaware that she could do comedy. Some of her books have funny moments, but never out and out comedy. Space Opera destroys that misconception. It is screamingly funny from start to end

It's one of the weirdest concepts that there is. The other many many sentient species throughout our universe and all its countless galaxies have discovered each other and abandoned war in favour of a gladiatorial talent contest. Compete or  cease to exist.

The fate of the world hangs on the skinny shoulders and fading vocals of washed up, alcohol and drug affected former rock star Decibel Jones.

When the term space opera is used the mind immediately goes to laser firing rocket ships and hotshot pilots. Star Wars is pure space opera. It doesn't think of what happens in Valente's book, but it kind of fits the term even more than the accepted idea.

As well as being really funny, Space Opera also contains Valente's incredibly magical prose and we get some genuinely alien aliens. I'm kind of sick of vaguely humanoid aliens, I want ones that are so different I have trouble getting my head around them and that's what Space Opera gave me.

While I often say I can see things being made into films and I'd like someone to try it, I don't want that done to Space Opera (it has apparently been optioned), because I just don't think anyone can do it justice. I want this on to live on in my head and all the heads of other people who have read it.

Catherynne M. Valente knocks another one out of the park!

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

I really liked Matt Ruff's Mirage, so that's what made me pick up Lovecraft Country.

It was one of those books where I knew I was on a winner almost from the opening lines.

Creepy as fuck were the words that kept popping up in my mind as I read it. It's not only the supernatural elements, either. It's the attempts of people of colour in certain parts of 50's US trying to live in a country that is theirs, but does everything possible to make them feel like they don't belong.

Ruff infuses this into very Lovecraftian stories. Lovecraft Country isn't one single narrative. It's a series of interconnected stories that weave in and around each other. It's very well done and makes the reader really sit up and think. While there is major creep factor and plenty of ick moments, there's also a good deal of humour and humanity in this. I got a sense of real about it and it's characters and that's not easy to do these days, or at least not too many authors do it well.

Hollywood and I must be on a wavelength at present, because after reading Lovecraft Country I found out that a TV series based on it was in the works. Hope it can do the same thing to me that the book did.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I really liked Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories, I also enjoyed the film Hidden Figures. The Calculating Stars combines the two.

Admittedly subject material for Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories and The Calculating Stars are vastly different. One is a series about magic being used in a Regency setting and the other is about a how useful a mathematical genius is when a meteorite hits the Earth and the space program has to be accelerated greatly as a result.

The two do a little more than share an author, though. They're both alternate histories, they both feature strong female protagonists that have talent in traditionally male dominated areas. Because she is not talking about magic, though The Calculating Stars is far more granded in reality.

A lot of The Calculating Stars hinges on Elma and her struggle as a Jewish woman with a facility for numbers who also happens to be a highly talented pilot to make not only the males around her (her husband is one major exception) take her seriously, but also her fellow female 'computers' and pilots, who often seem to feel that Elma is given advantages by the colour of her skin, her family connections (Dad was a highly ranked and regarded military official) and her marriage (husband is an engineer, although Elma as a mathematical genius is actually smarter and better qualified than he is).

The book is actually a prequel to the author's Hugo award winning novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars, but it doesn't need to be read to help with The Calculating Stars (in fact I'd recommend not reading it before, because it does contain some very slight spoilers).

Kowal captures 1950's America beautifully in this. Meteorite and its effects, aside, this is a great view of the period. Again it's not an action laden book, but no less compelling for it's talk of numbers and trajectories as well as the moral and gender politics of the time. In fact for a fairly 'hard' science fiction novel, there's not a lot of jargon and I found myself merrily zipping through the pages and I am an extremely unscientific reader.

Elma's story is well worth discovering. There's also a sequel; The Fated Sky and I believe there are plans for a 3rd novel.

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

Nicholas Eames debut Kings of the Wyld was probably my favourite book of 2017, so I awaited the publication of its sequel Bloody Rose with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.

So often sequels are the difficult second album and they just don't live up to expectations. I am happy to report that Bloody Rose is not one of those. I still personally prefer Kings of the Wyld (having read it 3 times since I picked it up just over a year ago), but this is a worthy follow up.

Eames resisted the temptation of making Clay 'Slowhand' Cooper and rest of Saga the focus of Bloody Rose and instead gave us a brand new protagonist; Tam Hashford, totally unconnected to Saga, well at least until she joins the band headlined by Bloody Rose, the daughter or Golden Gabe, the front man of Saga.

Kings of the Wyld was very male dominated and Eames redresses that with Bloody Rose by flipping it around. Rose's band is more girl than boy, although she has male associates and they're an important part of her group.

Despite the book's title, the story is told through the eyes of Tam, not Rose, and I felt that Tam, not Rose was more the focus. Whereas Kings of the Wyld was about an old band getting back together (can't help thinking it was based more on Led Zeppelin than anyone else), Bloody Rose is about a newbie starting out with a currently hot band, so that gives it a different dynamic.

Bloody Rose also makes it very clear that this is a duology, not a trilogy or an open ended series. I like that to be honest, and I'll be interested to see what Nicholas Eames does next.

Small Change by Jo Walton

This is where I'm cheating a bit, although technically this is 3 books (Farthing, Ha'Penny and Half a Crown), it's a very closely connected trilogy, so I think I can include it as one story.

Small Change is a clever alternate history, it works on the theory that small changes can have massive effects. The 'small change' is that Rudolf Hess' attempted peace mission to Great Britain actually worked. This ended hostilities between Nazi Germany and Great Britain in 1941 and meant that the US never entered the European Theatre of war, it also kept Hitler in power and altered the path that Great Britain took.

The first book in the series; Farthing, takes place in the late 40's and has the feel of a British cozy mystery. While that is the focus of the story, there's also a sinister side story going on about how Great Britain is inexorably sliding towards a fascist style of government. The story is told using two points of the view. The story of Lucy Kahn (one of the Farthing set and a bright young thing married to a successful if not socially acceptable Jewish banker) is told in first person and the story of Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard investigating the murder at the heart of the mystery is told in 3rd person. Carmichael is the hero of all 3 books and each time his story is written in 3rd person.

The second book; Ha'Penny, is another mystery, but this one centres around a terrorist plot with Hitler being one of 2 targets. The first person part of the story features the voice of Viola Lark; an actress and also loosely based on one of the real life Mitford sisters (I'm actually quite interested in the Mitfords and I could pick most of them mentioned in Ha'Penny, but Viola's character eluded me. I suspect she was a combination of a few of them and not meant to be any one of them in particular, the timing's also out. The book is set in the late 40's and the Mitford's real hey days were in the 20's and 30'). Peter Carmichael's investigation into the plot that Viola is drawn into forms the other part of the book, and details how he finds himself going further down a slippery slope he never wanted to be on.

Half a Crown is a bit of a departure. One the title references currency that is a worth a good deal more than the first two (a farthing is equivalent to a quarter of a penny, and a ha'penny is slang for half a penny. Half a crown is worth two shillings and sixpence, which is one eighth of a pound). This time the mystery Carmichael is investigating is a lot closer to home as it concerns his 'niece' or adopted daughter Elvira Royston (and she takes the first person narration). The other departure was the timing of the book. The first two were set in the late 40's, this one is in the early '60's.

There's a happy ending to Half a Crown, which is in contrast to the other two and everything seemed to end too neatly, tied up in a bow, While it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, I think a more bleak ending would have suited the whole thing better. The happy ending seemed tacked on and contrived. Overall a great series, but the ending left me slightly dissatisfied.

The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams

Remember how before I spoke about space opera and how the book named that was absolutely not what people think of when the sub genre is mentioned? Well, The Stars Now Unclaimed is what people think of when the term space opera is mentioned.

There's a quote on the front of the book by author Becky Chambers: 'come for the exploding spaceships, stay for the intriguing universe' and that sums up The Stars Now Unclaimed perfectly.

What begins as a fairly standard extraction for Justified mercenary Kamali soon turns into a massive space battle that Kamali not only has to win to save the life of the gifted young telepath that she's rescued from a dying back water planet, but to secure the existence of the Justified from inexorable power hungry hive mind that calls itself The Pax.

There's a lot of action in this and that includes plenty of battles and snarky, pithy quips as well of heaps of stuff going boom, but there's also time to build a bit of a world and a back story about exactly how this particular universe found itself in the situation that it is in.

The characters are, as in most things that push my buttons, likeable and relateable. One thing I did love were the ships themselves. They're AI's, but they have personalities and make the reader feel for them and support them. It's essential in anything like this to get reader buy in and that's what The Stars Now Unclaimed does. It's been successful and I really hope there's a sequel, because it is perfectly set up for one.

The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

This is an example of why I do my best of lists at the end of the year, not in October or November, which many others seem to do. That way this one would have missed out (I read it mid December) and that would have been a great shame, because this was a fantastic fun book.

I don't really like grim dark. I find it too bleak and often contains content that seems to be dark just of the sake of it, however something about The Grey Bastards made me pick it up off the shelf. I think it may have been the fact that the half orcs were the focus of it and it's always interesting to see something from the point of view of characters that are often seen as villains.

Right from the beginning I got a very strong feeling that I was reading a fantasy version of Sons of Anarchy. The half orc bands came across as being organised like outlaw biker gangs, they ride giant war pigs, which they refer to as 'hogs'. The main character, tough as nails, but intelligent and with a bit of a soft spot is called Jackal, but many refer to him as Jack. The leader of The Grey Bastards has a shadowy past, is largely out for himself more than the band, conflicts with Jackal and is called the Claymaster. Jonathan French couldn't have really made his inspiration much more obvious. This was actually fine by me, because I really liked Sons of Anarchy and occasionally thought that it would make a really good fantasy novel.

French had me with his characters. I loved Jackal, Oats (you have to love a character who's steed is called Ugfuck) and Fetching. I sat up reading way later than I had intended one night because I hit a key moment in the book and I just couldn't stop at that point.

The world itself was interesting, it was a different setting, The author admitted to being inspired by spaghetti westerns and Reconquista Spain. Nice to see different views of some of the standard races like the orcs (called 'thicks'), elves, centaurs and I think the halfings were hobbits, but they could have as easily been gnomes.

There's a lot more story to come and a new book is due this year. I'll be getting a copy.

So that's 2018, 2019 could be worse than equalling that lot.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron

As threatened at the end of the last review I'm going to reread series that I've read before. Most of them will be rereads, but there are a few series in the library that I only read part of (Katherine Kerr's Deverry series springs to mind) before abandoning and they've since been completed, so some of those series will be entirely new to me. In most places I'll cover complete series, but in some cases when the series is composed of relatively self contained volumes (Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files for example), I'll do as much of the series as is already out. I also want to where I can highlight lesser known series, which is why I picked The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron for the first entry, rather than something by Joe Abercrombie, or Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series.

I had an interesting history with Eli Monpress. I read the first book; The Spirit Thief, when it first came out and it was part of a experiment publishers played with back at the time. It may have been that readers of epic fantasy were becoming increasingly hacked off by the wait between volumes (we all know the authors I'm talking about, so there's no need to mention them again here) and so the publishers printed the books shot gun fashion, one after the other. The first one I can remember seeing do this with success was Brent Weeks Night Angel trilogy. It doesn't happen now, so as a marketing ploy the whole thing may not have been as successful as the publishers hoped.

The Legend of Eli Monpress started out as one of these experiments. By the time I picked up The Spirit Thief, the 2nd and 3rd volume were out. This gave me, and I am sure many others, the impression that it was in fact a trilogy. It's not. There are actually 5 books in it, although because it went through a few different formats, plenty of readers also have it as 3 volumes. What they did, for reasons known only to the marketing department of Orbit, was put the first 3 books out. Then wait for them to go out of publication, collect them into an omnibus, wait again for a whole bunch of new readers to discover Eli and then eventually put out the final 2 books, although they took their own sweet time about that, too.

There was also a bit of a marketing issue. The Eli Monpress books don't really fit neatly into any category. I can remember when they first came out, due to the cover (it was pretty bad) people asking what they were: paranormal (they're not), urban fantasy, epic, secondary world, etc... They have elements of a number of different sub genres, but they fit neatly as fantasy without confusing it with a bunch of sub genres.

The Spirit Thief introduces readers to the cocky, but strangely charming thief Eli Monpress and his partners in crime, the swordsman Josef Liechten wielder of the greatest awakened sword in the world; The Heart of War, a sword that has the power of a mountain within it and Nico, a insubstantial girl that carries the spirit of a demon within her small frame. Because Eli's aim in life is to get the biggest bounty ever offered for a single person on his head, that brings him direct conflict with the determined, straight down the line spiritualist Miranda Lyonette and her ever present friend the giant ghost hound Gin.

The first book is fairly light, and I can see in this grim dark worshipping world why some readers shied away from it. For me that was a selling point. I do read grim dark (in fact a grim dark will be making my books of 2018 post tomorrow), but it has to be in my opinion superlative to separate it from the unrelentingly bleak, dark for the sake of being dark, stuff that is glutting the market. The kingdom of Mellinor in the first book wouldn't look out of place in a Disney film (having said that the whole thing would make a great animation if anyone were minded to do it. Eli is as much Flynn Rider as he is Locke Lamora).

The first 3 books have the feel of a trilogy with each book giving us a new story about Eli and his two partners. Having reread it I can't see how the author could have wrapped it up earlier, but I think it could have been accomplished by making all 3 of them a bit bigger.

I think that maybe it was a trilogy and for various reasons it was decided to make it into 5 books. The gap between the 3rd and 4th book does show. They have different feel and it felt to me like they were written a fair time after the first 3, when the author's mind set had altered. They're a lot darker and they're also a lot bigger, in some cases unnecessarily (I'm completely over the extra words so many authors now, especially fantasy ones, seem to need to use to tell a story. I blame the ease of using a word processor), but they're still fairly good if they lack the joy of the original books.

There are some excellent ideas present in the series: the Heart of War, the ability to speak to the spirit present within all things like buildings and cutlery or carts, the way the spirits bound to the spiritualists interact with whoever they're bound to (Miranda's spirits were particularly fun to read as was Karon, Eli's lava spirit) and then there was Benehime, the Shepherdess, who over the 5 books went from beautiful, loving goddess to carelessly evil and cruel, especially where Eli was concerned.

It's a fun ride as a series, and it's a shame that it often gets overlooked now.

Next up, in the new year will be The Dresden Files. not including the 2 short story collections (I haven't decided whether I'll do those as well, I may inlcude them in a separate post if I do) that weighs in at 15 books, so I may be some time.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mount Toberead 18 Small Change by Jo Walton

I first encountered Jo Walton as a writer when Among Others was nominated for the 2011 Best Novel Hugo. Up until reading it, I had been intending to vote for A Dance with Dragons by George R. R Martin, but after reading Among Others, voted for it, instead. It wound up winning the Hugo that year. My next Jo Walton experience was What Makes This Book So Great? A collection of essays she wrote for the website about reading and rereading some of her favourite SFF works and authors. My wife then drew my attention to Tooth and Claw. Tooth and Claw actually won the World Fantasy Award in 2004. I absolutely loved Tooth and Claw. It’s not the easiest book to describe, but the best way to do it from my point of view is if Jane Austen were a dragon in a dragon dominated society then she would have written Tooth and Claw. I’ve read other authors who have attempted to write in an Austenish style, but Jo Walton has done it the best and with dragons, no less!

My wife read Jo Walton’s Small Change series a few years ago, but it sat in my tbr pile for a while, until undertaking this project gave me the time to actually read it.

It’s a trilogy, although the books could be read separately, although as there’s a fairly major spoiler in Half A Crown (the 3rd book) for something that happens in Ha’penny (the 2nd book), it wouldn’t be wise to read those 2 out of order. I found the title of the trilogy and each book itself quite clever. Small Change has a double meaning. It can refer to small denominations of British currency, which farthings and ha’pennies definitely are, but in the case of the books, which are alternate history, it also refers to what may have appeared to be a small change in history at the time it happened, but had much wider reaching implications for the future.

In this case the ‘small change’ was that Rudolf Hess’ 1941 ‘peace’ mission actually succeeded and brought Britain’s war with the Third Reich to a peaceful end 4 years earlier than in our reality (in our reality Hess’ plane crashed, he was taken into custody and spent the rest of his life in prison).

Farthing picks up 8 years later in 1949 and we see a post war Britain that in some ways is similar to the one we know, but in other ways vastly different. Politically in particular. The aristocracy used the peace and their part in it to keep themselves at the top of the tree and the country appears to be at the start of a slide into a Nazi style fascist government. The book itself centres around the murder of a powerful and influential man, what this means politically and how it gets blamed on an innocent party. The book is told from two points of view. One is that of Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard, and Jo Walton elected to use tight 3rd person for his story and investigation into the homicide of James Thirkie. The second is from Lucy Kahn (nee Eversley), and it is told in 1st person. Although Carmichael is her major character (his 3rd person pov is consistent across the trilogy), I found Lucy more engaging and was actually more taken in by her story than Carmichael’s. The author admitted drawing inspiration from the ‘cosy’ mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, and there is definitely a sense of that in Carmichael’s story, although the deeper he and Lucy dig into the murder, the darker things become and the entire book has this sinister undertone, which was actually very effective. The incidents in the book will forever alter the lives of the two narrators.

Ha’penny takes place mere weeks after the events of Farthing and Carmichael is once again called into service on a major case, this time involving a terrorist plot to assassinate both the visiting Hitler and the British PM. The first person POV in Ha’penny is Viola Lark, an actress, and one of the famous (in this world) Larkins sisters. The Larkins’ girls are loosely based on the Mitford sisters (they were a fascinating bunch, kind of like the 30’s equivalent of the Kardashians. To find out more about them I highly recommend The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell). Jo Walton obviously had to change a few things (the time for one) I couldn’t really work out which of the sisters Viola was meant to be, it was either Nancy or Diana, it was more obvious who Unity, Decca, Deborah and Pamela were. I liked Viola and found her relationship with Devlin quite interesting, however I never warmed to her in the same way I did Lucy. I think knowing a bit about the Mitfords worked against me on that score, as I think individually the actual Mitford girls were more interesting in real life than any fictional counterpart could be. Whereas Farthing was a ‘cosy’ mystery, Ha’penny had more of a political thriller feel about it. Owed more to Len Deighton than it did to Dorothy Sayers.

The final book in the trilogy; Half A Crown pis set in 1960, and Britain is looking more and more like the Third Reich all the time. The small change known as half a crown does feature, but the title refers to Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor (Jo Walton’s afterword leaves the reader in no doubt about her feelings on the man, I feel largely the same from what I’ve read about him, and I haven’t even read his autobiography, which Jo Walton has). Again Carmichael has to foil and uncover a sinister plot to save himself and the country to which he has devoted his life. The fate of his ward; Elvira Royston; a young debutant, through which the 1st person narration is handled is also at stake. I liked Elvira more than Viola and I had her up there with Lucy. In some ways Half A Crown was the least satisfying of the trilogy, this is largely because the happy ending felt a bit tacked on and contrived. I felt my believability bone creaking a bit. Maybe I’m getting old and cynical, but in many ways I would have preferred a bleaker ‘rocks fall, everyone dies’ ending, or even an ambiguous one.

Overall, though, the trilogy was excellent. Although I know the books were written over 10 years ago now (Half A Crown came out in 2008) I’m surprised that they don’t get more attention (in fact Jo Walton as an author does not get the attention that she deserves, not just from the SFF community, but from the reading public in general). She said she wrote them because of the world political situation at the time, but I think they’re even more apt now, particularly with the current US administration, and it’s attempts to shift everything further right. There is a Fatherland and SS-GB feel to them, because the result of WWII was significantly altered, and if they’d been set in the US, they probably could have felt rather like The Man in the High Castle. There is also more than a hint of Orwell’s 1984 (and that is in fact referenced in the trilogy a couple of times as the ‘scientifiction’ novel 1974), which Orwell was prompted to write by events he saw happening around him in Britain in 1948 (the title is the last 2 numbers of the year inverted, Orwell saw Britain getting there in approximately 40 years). Because of the gentle way its presented and the way the menace just lays there in the background for the most part I think that it’s a little better than either Harris’ or Deighton’s efforts and more believable (the end to Half A Crown aside).

Wonderful, under appreciated trilogy, and a great way to end the Mount Toberead project. I don’t have anything for X, Y or Z. After this I’ll be attempting to reread, and in some cases, read, series. I’ll endeavour to cover mostly completed series, but a few ongoing ones may also slip in there. I’ll also try and cover things that may not be as well known. For instance, I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get to M, but I can promise you that it will not be A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve read all the books multiple times and quite like them, but the internet doesn’t need another review of it, by the same token T won’t be Lord of the Rings.