Scrapbook of Secrets by Mollie Cox Bryan (2012)

April 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm (cozy mystery, negativity)

This cozy mystery brings us to Cumberland County, Virginia.  (Apparently by reading a lot of these things, I’ll be able to vicariously visit the whole country.) And it’s also one of two series I’m aware of that have scrapbooking as the, hmm, creative focus of the characters.

There’s a lot to like about this book, such as: characters ranging in age from youngish moms to outright elderly; a Jewish point-of-view character who actually struggles with issues related to being Jewish in exurban Virginia; acknowledgment of racial issues (at least in the past); generally matter-of-fact dealings with issues of sex and sexuality and infidelity.  And I’m okay with the slight supernatural element (ghosts).

Unfortunately, it has no narrative tension.  The story meanders through multiple points of view, which is generally interesting but does little to advance the plot.  I think the author’s goal was to explore the repercussions of the victim’s murder and of her activities prior to her death.  Laudable, certainly, but the result is a series of incidents that connect poorly to each other and don’t create much of a feeling of progress toward the goal of solving the mystery.  This may be like reality, but reality doesn’t make a good narrative.

Also, I was really annoyed by certain characters’ decision to go off and confront the probable murderer.  They’re both smarter than that … and then the whole confrontation fizzled rather than exploding.

The bones of a good story are here; it just needed to be executed better.  I may give the forthcoming second volume of the series a chance, but I’m not sure.

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Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (2012)

April 16, 2012 at 8:41 pm (fantasy, Reviews)

This book is magnificent, and I’ve been trying to come up with a review worthy of it.  Silly of me, I know, and I’ll stop now.  So:

This book is magnificent.  It provides all that the dedicated reader of fantasy fiction requires for a superlative reading experience – an exotic setting (quasi-Central Asia!), distinctive characters (one horse-obsessed ~mongol warrior, one ~tibetan magician, one ~arab priest/magician/villain, among others), and a sinewy plot that somehow manages to admire the scenery while racing forward to … a good stopping-point for Volume 1, with a real sting in its tail.

Things I really liked:  The way the sky changes from realm to realm.  The horse called Dumpling.  The villain not always succeeding in controlling events.  Necessity.  Butterflies.  The best initiation narrative that it has ever been my privilege to read. The facts that heroism requires putting one foot in front of the other on the correct path, magic requires sacrifice, and evil requires the conviction that anything – anything at all – is justified in order to reach a desired end.  That sneaky, sneaky trick the villain played on the girl.  And did I mention the horse?

The plot itself is not especially complicated: war and treachery and chaos-sowing evil, curses, oaths, escapes and long journeys.  At a certain point, it turns into a quest story, which is fine by me.

If I may digress, I was once told that a piece of my own writing was good, but lacked “grounding.”  This is, I was informed, a bit difficult to define, but consists of placing the characters in their contexts in ways that make both feel immediate, fully fleshed-out, and real.  It’s tricky.  Some are better at it than others.  This author is excellent at it.  As Temur plods across the plain, as Samarkar meditates in the dark, as al-Sepehr contemplates his deadly crystal book of spells, the characters and circumstances are as convincing as any reality you care to name.

The book is not flawless – but what book is?  In this case, I find Samarkar to be rather cold, as if she’s willingly substituted dedication to her goals for everything else in life.  I am uneasy with the fact that the evil guy’s religion venerates a written text, as do the monotheistic faiths in the real world (yes, he’s leader of a small cult, but he’s also the only representative of his faith that we see in this book).  And every time Temur has the point of view, we get detailed descriptions of any new horse the narrative happens to introduce, which gets a little tiresome (I did mention horse-obsessed, so at least it’s consistent with his character … and can easily be skipped over).

But overall? Wow.  This thing has depth; the narrative is suspended over history.  It’s awesome.  It’s as good as anything Guy Gavriel Kay has ever written (and better than some).  You’ll see what I mean, because you are going to read this book.

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