The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt (2007)

October 27, 2009 at 5:22 pm (Reviews, steampunk)

I am of two minds about this book.  On the one hand, it is set in a gloriously imagined and marvelously written steampunkish world (bearing some incidental resemblances to a very dark Victorian London, but don’t let that fool you), and presents a whole complete story in one volume.  On the other hand, it skids into its conclusions so rapidly, and with such inexorability, that I was a little put off.  I even wonder if perhaps the story would have been better served by being told in two volumes.  Shocking, I know.

Short version:  The orphan Molly is pursued by a deadly assassin and until quite late in the book, has no idea why.  The orphan Oliver is pursued by the authorities – or perhaps pseudo-authorities – after being falsely accused of murdering his uncle (plus a friendly police officer) and also has no idea why.  I read this book back in June and didn’t take detailed notes, and I can’t actually remember why Oliver was being persecuted like this.  (I do remember that Molly’s persecution had to do with her heredity – that was straightforward.)  Their mostly-separate efforts to not die lead to the rediscovery of ancient magic-technology and puts a stop to a serious revolution/war that breaks out in the latter portions of the books.

Seriously, the plots were actually so convoluted (including a large cast of secondary characters, some with their own bits of point-of-view), and parts of them so obscure, that I kept reading partly because the special effects were so awesome, and partly in the hope that everything eventually would be explained.  I don’t actually feel that everything was, though.

But there were also magically-coerced soldiers; a weird anti-monarchical history; vast underground caverns; a magical-technical city floating in the air; a balloon-riding archaeologist; sentient “steammen” with their own kingdom and civilization; self-aware weapons; gigantic Babbage engines; and quite a bit more.

The effect of the novel on me was ultimately like watching a spectacular feature film that’s enjoyable enough that the holes in the plot seem (somewhat) irrelevant.  I certainly would give his next book set in this world, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves (July 2009), a chance to turn out better – if it turns up in the library, or when it comes out in paperback.

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Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

October 13, 2009 at 11:41 am (fantasy, Reviews, teen, urban fantasy)

And now, as they say, for something completely different.  The Teen section of the library came through for us once again with a funny, creative, scary, contemporary fantasy adventure story.  I enjoyed it immensely, and according to the series website, there are now three volumes!  And this first one is now available under the title Scepter of the Ancients, too.

In this real-world-with-hidden-magic story, Stephanie Edgley (age 12) learns about the hidden magic the hard way – when a stranger breaks into the house she inherited from her uncle and demands “the key.”  What key?  She has no idea.  Then she’s rescued by her uncle’s detective friend, a walking, wise-cracking skeleton named (you guessed it) Skulduggery Pleasant.

Stephanie’s a pretty tough twelve-year-old (apparently she’s an athlete, though this all goes down during summer break), and that’s a good thing, because she winds up doing a lot of running, stopping fast-moving objects (fists, tree limbs, floors), and jumping off heights.  When they make the movie (they’d be stupid not to make a movie of this book … oh wait, never mind), the fight choreographers will have a grand old time.  Not to mention the SFX people.

So anyway, the Scepter of the Ancients is an unbeatable weapon, and thought to be a myth by everyone except the major villain and a very few others.  Naturally, the villain’s correct on this one.  Skulduggery and Stephanie have to figure out everything from what the villain’s after, to where it is, to how to keep it (and then get it) away from him.

Don’t think from what I’ve said so far that this novel is all jokes and hijinks – people are seriously threatened, killed, tortured, etc.   If it wasn’t for the humor it would be a terribly dark story.  As it is, even being nearly eaten by a carnivorous plant has its amusing moments.

Hmm … my library has the second and third volumes shelved in the Juvenile section instead of Teen.  Whatever.  At least they’re there!

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Lamentation by Ken Scholes

October 12, 2009 at 8:12 pm (fantasy, Reviews)

This is a mentally and emotionally exhausting novel.  At least, it was to me.

The Named Lands were founded in the New World only a few thousand years ago, by refugees from a land blasted by madness and magic run amok.  Their heart and center is the city of Windwir – seat of the Androfrancine Popes and the Order’s Great Library, where dangerous knowledge is kept hidden and from which useful bits of knowledge are slowly, carefully disseminated.

In the opening pages of the book, the city is utterly destroyed.

The rest of the story is a clash of competing powers and a gradual circling-in on the truth of what, in all the (apparently multiple) gods’ names the one who brought about the destruction thought he was doing, and also who will successfully claim the honor and responsibility of trying to re-build the Library.

I like a book that puts so much emphasis on libraries and knowledge, even though the Order’s research was also the cause of its destruction.  The world Scholes has invented is fascinating, rife with bits of commonplace magic (message birds, stealth magic) and less commonplace magic (mechanical men … maybe they’re aren’t magic, but I doubt it, and of course the spell that destroyed the city).  Small and useful magics and technology are what the Order feels is safe to let out – most people live in a low-tech, low-luxury world.

Most of the main characters are not ordinary, though.  There is Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses, who gets blamed for the destruction of Windwir by the real culprit.  There is Jin Li Tam, loyal daughter of Vlad Li Tam, whose career of information-gathering and occasional information-dropping is interrupted by, of all things, love.  There’s Petronus, the Androfrancine who reluctantly admits he has to take up the job he laid aside thirty years ago.  And there’s Nebios, a young Androfrancine student who actually witnessed the destruction of Windwir and lived – but to what purpose?  (Vlad Li Tam also gets some point-of-view space later on, which is remarkably informative and unilluminating at the same time.)

So, Scholes is an absorbingly good writer.  He made me really want to know which replacement Pope was going to win out … whether the accusation against Rudolfo would survive … why the real culprit thought he was doing the right thing … what the Marsh King is up to and what Nebios has to do with it … what Vlad Li Tam has been doing … how Rudolfo was going to handle all this … and especially, why the real culprit thought he was doing the right thing.

There’s a sequel (it’s another stealth series!!), so of course the answer to that last question (and a couple of the others) is not entirely complete or satisfying.  Fortunately, the next volume, Canticle, is coming out later this month.  Maybe some more of my questions will be answered, or more completely.  I still really, really want to know.

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The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

October 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm (fantasy, Reviews)

Yes, an actual new book, released in September of 2009.  Go me.

Full disclosure:  the author is a friend of a good friend of mine.  Not that this would affect the content of my review – it only affected my decision to buy (vs. not buy) the book.  (Which is, incidentally, Book One of The Necromancer Chronicles.)

And actually, the indirect connection did keep me reading past being interrupted (and leaving it lying for several days) after only the first couple of pages, which fell a little flat after the opening “quotes page” (“Drowning is not so pitiful / As the attempt to rise” (Emily Dickinson), and “Hope lies in the smoldering rubble of empires” (Rage Against the Machine)).  They’re actually quite, quite appropriate, but the multi-threaded and highly political plot needs a solid base of Information that is more than adequately presented in the opening chapters.  It just doesn’t start with ‘splosions.

So, what have we got here?  Spies!  Revolutionaries!  Traitors!  Ghosts!  Mages!  A city of canals!  Carnivorous mer-people-things!  Volcanoes!  Okay, only one volcano.  But it’s an awesome volcano, and Downum clearly understands that it’s not the lava that gets most people, but the lahar.  That warms my little geographer’s heart.

The setting is, unusually, not European.  I’ll call it approximately Indochinese for its tropicality, banyan trees, and tribal native society, but I think a lot of it’s original, too.  The northern country from which a few of the characters hail may be more European-ish, but Symir is definitely not.  Marvelous, if a trifle disorienting.  Sivahra, the country where the city lies at the mouth of the river Mir, was conquered awhile back by the Assari Empire – that’s why the revolutionaries.  And why Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy for the northern country of Selafai, is there – to stir up trouble and keep the Empire too busy to invade Selafai.

It could only get more complicated from there, right?  Right.  For additional point-of-view characters there’s Zhirin, a young female mage and cautious revolutionary, and Xinai, a woman native to the country, Isyllt’s ex-co-bodyguard, and much less cautious revolutionary.  Plus sundry other revolutionaries, mages, spies, sailors, government officials loyal and traitorous, and relatives.  And of course, the ghosts.

In this world, not properly burying the dead can lead to their ghosts becoming insane and malevolent.  A necromancer like Isyllt can sometimes gather useful information from the murdered, and has a variety of other handy skills, but is perhaps most important for their ability to excorcise and capture such insane ghosts.   That’s only one of the reasons this fact about ghosts is important, though.

The author is clearly familiar with the habits of imperial colonizers and the dynamics of resistance – the clashing goals and motives of the different groups of revolutionaries, native power brokers, and Imperial representatives are entirely convincing (only the military folks didn’t get any space in this narrative, except as weapon-bearing bodies).  Don’t disbelieve what she says about what colonizers do – if you knew as much as I do about what happened in the real world, you wouldn’t be surprised.

Isyllt (and her remaining bodyguard/assistant, Adam) has her hands full with trying to contact and supply revolutionary groups, while staying unmurdered and unarrested as several encounters with the Imperial official Asheris lead her into involvement on both sides.   The arrival of her and of Xinai proves to set off an avalanche of events that very nearly destroys the city.

Yes, I don’t like to give spoiler-ridden reviews, so this is going to have to stay pretty vague.  In retrospect, I’m not completely convinced by all of the many plot twists, but while I was reading?  Almost total suspension of disbelief.

Except.  The only thing that bothered me as I read is something that … is not a problem with the book, per se.

It’s that none of the people in this book offers any doubts that women are equal in rights and potentially equal in abilities.  There are no gender-based insults.  Women are sailors, customs officials, mages, soldiers, priests, legislators, etc.  And the various female characters (including Zhirin, who’s only 18 or 19) wander around at night worried only about political violence, not the gender-based kind.  Why is it that we can only see this in an imaginary world?

Yeah, so.  Other than an occasional bobble of “that’s not believable” on that score, GREAT BOOK!

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