Thursday, 21 February 2019

A Treacherous Curse / Deanna Raybourn

4.25 stars out of 5

London, 1888. As colorful and unfettered as the butterflies she collects, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell can’t resist the allure of an exotic mystery—particularly one involving her enigmatic colleague, Stoker.

His former expedition partner has vanished from an archaeological dig with a priceless diadem unearthed from the newly discovered tomb of an Egyptian princess. This disappearance is just the latest in a string of unfortunate events that have plagued the controversial expedition, and rumors abound that the curse of the vengeful princess has been unleashed as the shadowy figure of Anubis himself stalks the streets of London.

But the perils of an ancient curse are not the only challenges Veronica must face as sordid details and malevolent enemies emerge from Stoker’s past.

Caught in a tangle of conspiracies and threats—and thrust into the public eye by an enterprising new foe—Veronica must separate facts from fantasy to unravel a web of duplicity that threatens to cost Stoker everything. . .

I do love sassy, sarcastic Veronica Speedwell! I am caught up now and ready to enjoy the next book in the series, which is due out in March 2019. (Next month! Squee!)

I adore Raybourn’s writing and the particular voice that she has established for Veronica. For example:
“Boys!” I said sharply. “There will be no brawling with your shirts on. Kindly remove your upper garments and give them into my keeping.” Both men turned to look at me, wearing identical expressions of astonishment. Mornaday spoke first. “I beg your pardon?” I adopted my best nanny tone—one that I had used with excellent results to bring unruly suitors to heel. “You cannot strike an opponent properly while hampered by a tight coat,” I pointed out. “Or a fitted waistcoat. And white does show the blood so badly. The shirt must come off as well.” I put out my hands. “Come on, then. Shirts off, both of you. Shall you fight to first blood or unconsciousness? I always think first blood is a little lacking. Let’s go until one of you is entirely senseless, shall we?”

Needless to say that the “boys,” Stoker and Moraday, think better of their impulse to beat on one another.

I’m also enjoying the slow progression of the friendship between Veronica and Stoker—we get the distinct impression that Raybourn will bring them together eventually, but she realizes that would change the chemistry of the books substantially and wisely is proceeding slowly towards that end. Throwing them into each other’s arms would take the wind out of the sails of the series.

The author has hinted that there may be further books (after #4) in this series, if she gets the word from the publisher. I can only hope that they give her the green light, as I would totally read as many as she can produce.

Silent in the Sanctuary / Deanna Raybourn

4 out of 5 stars
Fresh from a six-month sojourn in Italy, Lady Julia returns home to Sussex to find her father's estate crowded with family and friends— but dark deeds are afoot at the deconsecrated abbey, and a murderer roams the ancient cloisters.

Much to her surprise, the one man she had hoped to forget—the enigmatic and compelling Nicholas Brisbane—is among her father's houseguests… and he is not alone. Not to be outdone, Julia shows him that two can play at flirtation and promptly introduces him to her devoted, younger, titled Italian count.

But the homecoming celebrations quickly take a ghastly turn when one of the guests is found brutally murdered in the chapel, and a member of Lady Julia's own family confesses to the crime. Certain of her cousin's innocence, Lady Julia resumes her unlikely and deliciously intriguing partnership with Nicholas Brisbane, setting out to unravel a tangle of deceit before the killer can strike again. When a sudden snowstorm blankets the abbey like a shroud, it falls to Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane to answer the shriek of murder most foul.

I know that this series is generally considered a mystery series, but to me it is more of a romance series. The mystery portion of the plot merely provides the grit around which the pearl of the romance is gradually being formed. As per usual with Gothic romances, the mystery portion unfolds at an extremely leisurely pace and at least half of the fun of the reading experience is the amount of time the couple spends bickering rather than kissing—they seem to get 1-2 kisses per book.

There are the usual romance tropes—a strong willed heroine, a man who doesn’t feel like he quite fits into her world, annoyance gradually changing to passion.

Raybourn also gives me enough amusing dialog to keep me entertained:

”I suppose it is quite certain he is dead?” I asked faintly.
“There are bits of him stuck to your shoe,” he remarked, rather unhelpfully.

However, the ending of the book, with Julia’s final visit to the Roma camp, just didn’t ring true for me. In my humble opinion, she drastically overpaid for the information that she received. Nevertheless, I will be happy to proceed to the next novel.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

I Still Miss My Man But My Aim is Getting Better / Sarah Shankman

4 out of 5 stars
Tuesday, eleven-thirty, a bright spring morning .... Just off the breakfast shift at Sweet Willie's meat-and-three, Shelby Kay Tate rushes down an old-fashioned Nashville sidewalk with Thursday night playing itself out in her mind. It's songwriters' night at the Sutler, a chance to serve up her big, bluesy voice to a crowd hungry for new country songs. Shelby's picturing herself onstage, a girl from Star, Mississippi, belting one clear against the back wall, when a familiar head of golden hair brings her out of her reverie. She'd know Leroy Mabry's puny frame from a mile away - and the last time she'd seen it was in divorce court. Though she wonders what the devil he's up to, she's got better things to think about.

An eclectic mix of jealous women, scouting agents, and a big-name star ready for a big-time comeback make their own plans!

With this title, how could I resist this book? And it is highly appropriate that it is also the title of the country song that the main character, Shelby Kay Tate, is working on. She has come to Nashville to follow her passion, singing & song writing, having finally divorced her dead-beat husband Leroy.

When I first was getting going, I must confess that I was a bit worried that it was all going to be too cutesy. But once I gained some momentum, I got into the spirit of the book and was willing to go with the author’s plan. She is playing with stereotypes, both of the Nashville scene and those of what life in the Southern U.S. is like. As a Southerner herself, Shankman is obviously fondly making fun of her home and that affection shines throughout.

I loved how she kept introducing characters who all improbably are connected, creating a real tangle of yarn as all their threads cross during the course of the story. There is also a strong feminist vibe through the whole book, as both Shelby and several other women break free of bad or abusive relationships and are able to sing along, “I still miss my man, but my aim is getting better.”

Athyra / Steven Brust

3 out of 5 stars
Vlad Taltos is very good at killing people. That, combined with two faithful companions and a talent for witchcraft, makes him an assassin par excellence. But lately his heart just hasn't been in his work, so he decides to retire. Unfortunately, old enemies have scores to settle with Vlad. So much for retirement!

Although I liked this story well enough, it is my least favourite of the Vlad Taltos books that I’ve read thus far. I think it’s because it’s not narrated by Vlad, but by a young Teckla man who befriends Vlad on one of his self-directed missions. I missed the cheeky, smart-ass remarks that we have come to expect from our Eastern (ex-)assassin friend.

As I say, the story isn’t bad, but it suffers from this change in point-of-view. Brust has made the young man ignorant--he’s smart enough, but he’s had relatively little education and no experience to cause him to question any of his culture’s world views. There’s limited interest in his learning about the outside world and how others perceive it and him, but it’s not riveting.

I imagine that Brust wanted to experiment with a new writing technique--writing the same thing over and over may appeal to your core audience, but I can see needing to try new things to keep yourself interested in an established character. My hope is that book 7 will revert to Vlad as the main voice.

Book Number 309 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

The Wicked King / Holly Black

4 out of 5 stars
After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.

When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

Move over, Machiavelli, now we have Jude to give you a run for your manipulating money!

For a very young woman, she has managed to make everyone dance to her tune and has out-maneuvered much more experienced politickers. Now her challenge is to control herself! When she first placed Cardan on the throne of Elfhame, he was more interested in drinking and carousing than in ruling. Will she still be able to control him if he develops an interest in governing?

After the very dirty trick that she played on Cardan to get him on the throne, the tables are turned and he proves that Jude is not the only one who can play hard-ball. When Jude shows him how to use emotional manipulation to get information, she did not expect him to learn the lesson or to practice on her.

Black has written a fascinating second stage in their relationship--one in which neither one of them is willing to admit how attracted they are to each other. They are still very much at odds. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I keep feeling like they will eventually be a couple and I can hardly wait for the third book to see how Black accomplishes this about face.

OMG, I have to wait until some time in 2020 before I get my next hit of Jude & Cardan! It is going to be an agonizing wait.

Oh, and incidentally, that is a gorgeous cover illustration!

The Myth Manifestation / Lisa Shearin

4 out of 5 stars
New York is one of the most popular convention destinations in the world—for humans and supernaturals. Every hundred years, rulers of thhe world’s supernatural races come together to negotiate and renew a peace treaty. Meeting in the same hotel are the governors of our world’s goblin and elf colonies. SPI is saddled with the security nightmare of keeping the living delegates alive and the undead delegates from becoming permanently deceased. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

I’m Makenna Fraser, seer for SPI. Our security nightmare becomes real when monsters from the delegates’ mythologies begin mysteriously appearing in the flesh to hunt delegates from every side of the debate. And when the hotel gets sucked into another dimension, there’s no escape.

We discover that we’re all pieces in an elaborate and deadly game. A game about to spill out into the real world. Failing to escape is game over and not an option. We have to save the world—but first, we have to save ourselves.

I’m still enjoying this series--there’s plenty of action in each book, but somehow the overarching plot line moves along very, very slowly. But this seems to be a Shearin thing, as her Raine Benares series is exactly the same in this regard.

Speaking of the Raine Benares series, this is the volume where the two series come together. One of Raine’s piratical relatives shows up as a diplomat here in Makenna’s universe and Mac’s goblin love interest, Rake, turns out to be a cousin of Raine’s one-time love interest, Tam.

I’m not entirely sure, but it seems that Shearin has had to publish this book (and later volumes of Raine Benares) as an independent, rather than with a traditional publisher. My public library wouldn’t order this volume, because their policy is to only purchase from traditional publishers, so I had to put out my own cash for this adventure. Not a big deal, since I’ve purchased the entire series, but it makes me a bit sad that people who depend on the library can’t continue on.

I think I’m safe in saying that if you liked previous volumes of the SPI Files, you will also enjoy this one. If I have any critique, it’s that I didn’t get nearly enough of Mac’s partner, Ian, in this volume. The Mac-Ian show has been entertaining and I’m sorry it got short shrift in this outing. I’m also a little disappointed with Rake, who seems to be going all ooey-gooey good guy. Where is the dark mage that Makenna fell for in the first books?

Despite these concerns, I don’t think there’s any doubt that I will put out the money for the next volume!

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Steel Beach / John Varley

2 out of 5 stars
Fleeing Earth after an alien invasion, the human race stands on the threshold of evolution, like a fish cast on artificial shores. Their new home is Luna, a moon colony blessed with creature comforts, prolonged lifespans, digital memories, and instant sex changes. But the people of Luna are bored, restless, and suicidal -- and so is the computer that monitors their existence... 

I would have to say that this book is very much an homage to Robert A. Heinlein. That’s not necessarily a bad thing--there’s a very strongThe Moon is a Harsh Mistress vibe, which I was totally okay with. The Central Computer (CC) in Steel Beach is channeling the self-aware computer in TMiaHM and ends up having similar problems.

There are nods to other writers as well. There’s a lot of sex-changing in this novel, which made me think of Iain Banks’ Culture series and George Effinger’s When Gravity Fails. Varley’s version also made me think of Tiersias of Greek mythology--you know, the guy who found a pair of copulating snakes and hit them with a stick? Hera was so displeased with him that she turned him into a woman for seven years (apparently being female is a punishment). Needless to say, the Ancient Greeks were eager to hear his perspectives on this and he confirmed their bias by saying that women got much more out of the sexual experience than men did. It seems that Varley believed this too.

There’s also a shout out to Arthur C. Clarke, when the CC is worried that he’s going to end up singing “Daisy, Daisy,” like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Another Heinleinian element: a scrapped spaceship called in R.A. Heinlein, within which his spiritual descendents live & grumble. When Hildy is handing out pseudonyms, she christens one of them Valentine Michael Smith (see Stranger in a Strange Land).

I read until the end because I wanted to see how things were wrapped up, but if you’re not a big fan of RAH, my advice is to skip this book.

Book number 308 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.