Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Masked City / Genevieve Cogman

4 out of 5 stars
Librarian-spy Irene is working undercover in an alternative London when her assistant Kai goes missing. She discovers he's been kidnapped by the fae faction and the repercussions could be fatal. Not just for Kai, but for whole worlds.

Kai's dragon heritage means he has powerful allies, but also powerful enemies in the form of the fae. With this act of aggression, the fae are determined to trigger a war between their people - and the forces of order and chaos themselves.

Irene's mission to save Kai and avert Armageddon will take her to a dark, alternate Venice where it's always Carnival. Here Irene will be forced to blackmail, fast talk, and fight. Or face death.

 The Masked City is definitely more focused than The Invisible Library, which was seething with ideas, not all of which actually contributed to the plot line. This installment has fewer distractions and more Fae, which is always a good thing in my books.

Irene is faced with a lot of challenges in this book: a kidnapped apprentice, a trip into a highly chaotic alternate world, an uneasy alliance with the notorious Fae Lord Silver, uncertain support from the Library hierarchy, and having a large, extremely powerful dragon sitting in judgment of her actions. And yet, she does what so many people have to do—she just keeps moving, keeps thinking, keeps doing, despite what life throws at her.

May I say that if I could get the very cool Library tattoo, I would. I, who have steadfastly refused ink for 55 years. I wish that real-life library work was remotely as exciting as Irene’s world (she says as she sits surrounded by old, grimy military tomes). Also, if I was Irene, I’d be pursuing Mr. Vale, the Sherlockian detective, and seeing where his restrained, Victorian admiration would take me.

However, I must say that the ending of this volume was a bit abrupt in my opinion. It had a definite cliff-hanger element to it, shall we say, which disappointed me. What appeared to be more pages of story ended up being little side tales—Irene’s favourite book heists, an interview with the author, and a preview of the third book. That will teach me for being one of those people who never flips to the last page of the book before I actually get there. I would immediately rip into the third volume for satisfaction except that my public library still has it ‘on order,’ but not yet received or processed! Obviously I’m not the only one waiting with bated breath—I’m tenth in the line of people with holds on the new book, trying to be patient. **Just checked and this 3rd book will be published in December, that's why I can't get my grabby hands on it.**

Monday, 28 November 2016

All the Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr

4 out of 5 stars
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

This is the December pick for my real-life book club. I always shy away from World War II books, if left to my own instincts. My father was too young to participate in WW2, although he was old enough to be obsessed with it and remembered listening to the radio, hanging on every word of the reporting. I think he was just old enough to get kind of romantic about the bravery & necessity of fighting that war. As an adult, he read piles of non-fiction about the war, went to Remembrance Day services every year and I think he really wished that he’d been of age to join up.

I have no such romantic ideas about war. It’s a dirty, dangerous business and I’m glad that Dad never had the opportunity to get mixed up in it. So I have reservations about fiction concerning this war—I don’t want it glorified or romanticized any further.

All the Light We Cannot See doesn’t romanticize, despite the fact that it is beautifully written, well plotted, and a rather seductive read. Indeed, it is the tension of people doing things that they know aren’t right or doing things that they consider dangerous that gives the book its tension.

I was reminded by Werner’s part of the tale of Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief. As an orphan, Werner’s options are scanty, but he has intelligence on his side. But what if the only outlet for that intelligence is working with the Nazis? Should he have chosen to go down into the mine that killed his father? And even if he did, wouldn’t the flow of minerals still be aiding the Nazi war effort? There are no good choices, not even for the rich (as the story of his friend Fredde shows us).

I also loved the scenes set in the Museum of Natural History, being a museum worker myself. Plus, I loved Fredde’s obsession with birds and Marie-Laure’s appreciation of shells. Having pursued a life-long amateur study of natural history, I could see myself in these pursuits.

So if you, like me, are sitting on the fence about reading this book, I recommend that you give it a try. Yes, you will read about the brutality of war, but you will also meet people who will give you hope for humanity.

Whispers Under Ground / Ben Aaronovitch

4 out of 5 stars
It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher—and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom—if it exists at all—is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as “the Faceless Man,” it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and—as of now—deadliest subway system in the world.

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah—that’s going to go well.

If you haven’t yet met Peter Grant, main character of this series, may I suggest that you find the first book (Rivers of London/Midnight Riot) and make his acquaintance.

This is urban fantasy, but not like the UF that I usually read. Somehow, the magical elements of Aaronovitch’s fiction just melt into the story and don’t stick out like sore thumbs. Peter is primarily a copper and only secondarily an apprentice wizard. And despite the warnings of his wizardly mentor, Nightingale, Peter continues to try to analyze, quantify, and extemporize with his magical abilities.

Speaking of Nightingale, I would definitely like more information on his background! Aaronovitch deals out a few more details in this installment, but I would love more history on him, the Folly (where he & Peter live), and Molly, their creepy live-in caretaker.

Have I mentioned that Peter is funny? That he can wryly explain London and the police force in ways that make me smile every time? Sure, he can be a bit of an asshole from time to time, but really who among us isn’t? He is much gentler with his injured partner, Lesley, than I would have expected from previous books. And his impulsiveness is kept in check by Stephanopoulous and Guleed, not to mention American Kimberley Reynolds. He has many good women in his life!

I also appreciated the many pop culture references—everything from “Holy paranormal activity, Nightingale - to the Jag mobile,” to an inscription on a demon trap written in Tolkien’s Elvish (which incidentally, Peter is nerdy enough to be able to read).

A true pleasure to read. I look forward to the next installment, Broken Homes.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Magic Lost, Trouble Found / Lisa Shearin

4 out of 5 stars
A girl with attitude. An all-powerful amulet.  This could only mean trouble.

My name is Raine Benares. I’m a seeker. The people who hire me are usually happy when I find things. But some things are better left unfound… 

Raine is a sorceress of moderate powers, from an extended family of smugglers and thieves. With a mix of street smarts and magic spells, she can usually take care of herself. But when her friend Quentin, a not-quite-reformed thief, steals an amulet from the home of a powerful necromancer, Raine finds herself wrapped up in more trouble than she cares for. She likes attention as much as the next girl, but having an army of militant goblins hunting her down is not her idea of a good time. The amulet they’re after holds limitless power, derived from an ancient, soul-stealing stone. And when Raine takes possession of the item, it takes possession of her.

Now her moderate powers are increasing beyond anything she could imagine—but is the resumé enhancement worth her soul?

A charming introduction to a series that is new for me and which I will definitely read to the end. I love Lisa Shearin’s SPI Files and picked up the first three books of this series when I found them in my favourite used book store. A good impulse, that.

While not without its flaws, I found this to be an excellent distraction from the boredom of sitting most of a day in an airport in Santiago, Chile. One flight got in at mid-day and the next didn’t leave until after 10 p.m. Distraction was definitely necessary!

If you like your elves regal and beyond reproach, set this book aside immediately. Raine Benares isn’t that kind of elf. She is the white sheep of a family of pirates, trying to make a living as a Seeker (someone who finds lost objects or people). Fierce, loyal, brave, and funny, Raine is a woman I’d love to have as a friend. And that is one of my only criticisms of the book—Raine needs some female friends to make her a bit more real. All the male characters are just fine and treat her pretty well, but a girl needs someone to really confide in, someone to bitch to, and someone to have her back when things don’t work out.

Also, be warned that there is some romance involved—certainly the book doesn’t qualify as a paranormal romance, but if romantic attraction gives you the hives, walk away immediately. The romantic elements don’t bury the plot, but they are significant. There are also signs of a love triangle to come, so those who hate the trope would do well to stay away. However, it is well set up: Raine (herself conflicted over the whole good/bad dichotomy) is attracted to both a goblin bad boy (Tamnais) and to a white-knight elf (Mychael).

Although a lot takes place and we learn a lot about the world that Raine lives in, not much time passes in this novel and not much progress on the plot line takes place (much the same as SPI Files, honestly). But I found that I could cheerfully put up with that because of the delightfulness of the world and the fun that I was having along the way.

Ms. Shearin’s sense of humour appeals to me strongly, so I enjoyed this adventure a lot. Also appreciated, the cover depicts Raine fully clothed and of a normal figure (i.e. not some scantily clad, wasp-waisted, busty comic book character).

Sweep in Peace / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
Dina DeMille doesn’t run your typical Bed and Breakfast. Her inn defies laws of physics, her fluffy dog is secretly a monster, and the only paying guest is a former Galactic tyrant with a price on her head. But the inn needs guests to thrive, and guests have been scarce, so when an Arbitrator shows up at Dina's door and asks her to host a peace summit between three warring species, she jumps on the chance.

Unfortunately, for Dina, keeping the peace between Space Vampires, the Hope-Crushing Horde, and the devious Merchants of Baha-char is much easier said than done. On top of keeping her guests from murdering each other, she must find a chef, remodel the inn...and risk everything, even her life, to save the man she might fall in love with. But then it's all in the day's work for an Innkeeper…

Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.

Dina learns a lot about Murphy’s Law when she agrees to host a peace arbitration at her Inn, Gertrude Hunt. Three species with a lot of history will be coming: the Holy Anocracy (space vampires to you & me), the Hope-Crushing Horde (also known as otrokars), and the Merchants (cunning little blue foxes). Dina’s job is to house them, feed them, keep them from murdering each other, and cater to their every whim, all while making sure that no earthlings find out what’s going on. Add to this an Arbitrator who doesn’t always play by the rules, and there is yet another kink in the works. If that sounds like an impossible task, well it’s pretty close.

With many of the specifics of this world established in the first book, the Andrews writing team is free to devote a bit more time to characters and plot in this installment. There’s a lot going on and they keep the reader on their toes, reading furiously to keep up with all the developments.
My favourite new character? The Quillonian chef, Otro, who reluctantly agrees to cook for this crew. A true professional (despite the fact that someone was poisoned at the last banquet he catered), we see him produce beautiful and delicious meals out of ordinary ingredients. When one of the vampires is punished by being left in a water world to fight sea monsters for a half hour, Otro collects the head of one of the vanquished beasts to produce delectable sushi. Making the best of it, that’s Otro!

The very gentle love triangle which got its start in book one seems to be resolving itself to some extent in book two. But this part of the tale is so slow burning, that I don’t feel that I can count of the situation staying stable. I have been corrupted by the amount of urban fantasy that I’ve read this year—I’m starting to find these romance tropes more entertaining than annoying! Dear me!

I tip my hat to the Andrews—they write a fun and funny urban fantasy. Now I want to read their Edge series, which I understand has cross-over characters with this one.

Local Custom / Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

4 out of 5 stars
Master trader Er Thom knows the local custom of Liaden is to be matched with a proper bride, and provide his prominent clan Korval with an heir. Yet his heart is immersed in another universe, influenced by another culture, and lost to a woman not of his world. And to take a Terran wife such as scholar Anne Davis is to risk his honor and reputation. But when he discovers that their brief encounter years before has resulted in the birth of a child, even more is at stake than anyone imagined. Now, an interstellar scandal has erupted, a bitter war between two families-galaxies apart-has begun, and the only hope for Er Thom and Anne is a sacrifice neither is prepared to make...

Local Custom has been described as a Regency romance in space. I would have to agree with that assessment. The romance between Er Thom and Anne is the major plot of the book, highlighting the differences between the two. They are not only of different social classes, but from different planetary societies. It is very much a novel of manners, as Anne tries to deal with the very honour-bound and visciously polite Liaden society that Er Thom inhabits. Think “going to Japan” on a grand scale—meeting people requires an appropriate bow, the inclination of which depends on the status of the person you are meeting relative to yourself. Add to that numerous levels of speech--high, low, familial, etc.--and the pitfalls are treacherous. Plus, like many if not all societies, outsiders are not desirable as marriage partners for one’s children. The barriers between Er Thom and Anne are substantial to say the least.

Anne at least has the advantage of being familiar with Liaden language, as she is a comparative linguistics scholar and has specialized in Liaden literature. She has also produced a son, Shan, for a family line that is desperate for children. You would think that both of these attributes would make her a desirable daughter-in-law, but that would remove the major conflicts of the story line. In true romance novel style, she is too tall, too different, too foreign—too difficult for the elder generation to accept.

Also true to romance norms, there is miscommunication. Er Thom assumes that his society is clear to Anne and although she realizes that she’s not fully comprehending the implications of their actions, she doesn’t feel safe asking for the required clarification.

I was reminded strongly of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books about Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan (Shards of Honor and Barrayar). There is a similar flavour to the romantic problems, as both Cordelia and Anne struggle to comprehend a foreign culture, deal with prejudice, and somehow salvage a relationship of great importance.

Although I’ve never been an ardent fan of the romance genre, I thoroughly enjoyed this, my first dip into the Liaden universe. It is book number 231 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.