The King’s Shield by Sherwood Smith (2008)

July 29, 2011 at 12:30 pm (fantasy, LGBT)

It’s not fair, I know, to review just the third book in a series of four – especially when it’s a positive review! – but between one thing and another I never got around to posting reviews of the first two.  Sorry about that.  The good news is, they’re all still in print (I was actually able to pluck all the first three off the shelves in bookstores).

These are long, dense novels that primarily follow the career of Indevan Algara-Vayir (known to friends as Inda) from early adolescence to some time in his twenties.  They’re busy years, as Inda attends a military academy (Inda), is exiled and becomes a pirate-hunter (The Fox), returns home and helps defend his country against invaders (The King’s Shield), and tries to secure a peaceful future for his country (Treason’s Shore).

Other important point-of-view characters include Tdor, the girl Inda was betrothed to at birth; his sister Hadand; fellow sailors and pirate-hunters (especially Jeje and Tau); the crown prince and the king’s second son; and others I’m probably forgetting.  There are, in fact, a lot of point-of-view characters, many of them situational.  And some of them die.

Part of the novels’ density is that Marlovan society (that’s Inda’s home country) has a lot of formal, complex relationships, and a lot of the characters have both personal names and titles used as names (and which are in a foreign language, and some of which change during the course of the story).  These can be hard to keep track of.

Another part of the density is that this world is different from ours in a number of notable ways.  A couple of samples: the cities don’t need sewer systems, because the “Waste Spell” disposes of such things; and women can only get pregnant if they consume a certain plant, and sometimes not even then.  There are other more subtle but significant differences as well.  Smith lays out a bunch of it (as well as explanations that the characters are largely not aware of) here, if you’d rather have all the background up front.

Finally, the world has a long history that directly affects the cultures and politics that are present in it; some of it is explained, and a lot of it is just there.

It’s all fascinating, if you like dense tapestries of culture, politics, and war.  And then there are the characters – individual, interesting, imperfect, and subject to growth and change over time.  The difference between adolescent and adult versions of several of them is great, and very believable.

So much goes on even in the third volume that I’m not going to try to be specific about the plot.  Suffice it to say that the enemy approaches the shore; desperate last stands are made; politics turns deadly; secrets are revealed; people rejoice, suffer, and die.  These are great books, really intense experiences, and definite permanent additions to our library.

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The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner (2006)

February 19, 2011 at 11:04 pm (fantasy, LGBT)

I started writing this post back in July.  Wow.

For a person who really enjoyed Swordspoint, I sure took my time acquiring a copy of its sequel.  But it was certainly worth waiting for, both in terms of publication and purchase!

And also very hard to describe.  What historic epoch is this setting trying to echo?  Renaissance Italy, maybe.  Probably.  Except for the part where the names are more English.  Regardless:  A decadent society, dominated by a noble class, with a tradition of dueling by proxy that in the present book is beginning to fade.

Politics.  The Mad Duke Alec Tremontaine whose aims are, clearly, more ethically elevated than those of his peers – so of course he’s mad.  And naturally, he has enemies who seek to destroy him.

Katherine, the niece who’s more easily manipulable than she imagines – yet become less so as her story progresses, as being forced to adopt a masculine pastime (dueling with the sword) and garb (to her own cringing embarrassment, at first) leads to the unfolding of a will and personality that had been comprehensively repressed by a culture that consigns upper-class females to marriage or penury.   (Lower-class females, of course, are relegated to marriage and drudgery, or just to drudgery.)

It’s very hard to reduce a novel this complex to a simple review, particularly without spoiling most of what happens (I don’t like it when reviews do that).  I must say that I believe it’s noticeably different from Swordspoint, yet in some ways seems like a logical extension of it; not surprising considering that a good two decades passed between the writing of them.

I enjoyed it immensely … the baroque politics, the gradual and largely unremarked alteration of Katherine’s personality, the unsparing depiction of the varied deleterious effects of a glorified whoredom on the women of the so-called nobility, and even the tragic yet effective reason that Alec’s lover Richard St Vier doesn’t take over the story.

There are many more characters than the three mentioned here, each worth getting to know, in the vicarious way of fiction.  And of course, the world itself – of which the island of Riverside is only a small part – is very much worth seeing again.

And, once you’ve read this book (but NOT before, I warn you!), don’t neglect to go over to Tor.com and read the short story “The Man with the Knives,” which finally completes the tale of Alec and Richard.   (It was only published online this past December.)

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The House on Durrow Street by Galen Beckett (2010)

November 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm (fantasy, LGBT)

This is a sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, and also seeks to replicate (with considerable success) the atmosphere and society of Regency-era Britain, only in a fantastical alternate world.

Beckett does not attempt to explain why this world has days (called lumenals) of varying length and no discernible seasons, which is probably just as well: accept it and move on.  After all, it also has wizards, witches, and hereditary illusionists, along with an imitation High Anglican Church and a Parliament – excuse me, a “Hall of Magnates.”   What’s a bizarre astronomy compared with that?

Quite a lot, actually, since the appearance of a “new” planet is very important in the plot of both books.  It’s been a very long time since it last appeared – so long that it’s almost been forgotten; and both the wizards and the state of Altania have in fact forgotten the important role that the witches played the last time it came by.

Okay, I’m sort of teasing; but the slow reveal of exactly what has been forgotten, and why it needs to be remembered, is one of the many interesting plot threads.  (It involves a lot of history; what’s not to like?)

The others involve Ivy Quent’s exploration of her father’s magic-riddled old house and her witchly abilities; Lord Rafferdy’s reluctant acceptance of something vaguely resembling adult responsibility and his abilities in magick; and Eldyn Garrit’s deeply affecting personal conflict between the life of an illusionist and the life of the Church.

Like the first book, this one ably sets up various situations that seem familiar to a long-time reader of fantasy – and then neatly proceeds to a somewhat different, but credible, conclusion than one would expect.   The series is certainly not to everyone’s taste (no-one would call it a rollicking adventure story!), but I consider it a valuable permanent addition to my library, and I look forward to The Master of Heathcrest Hall.

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#15: March 2009

April 7, 2009 at 9:46 am (LGBT, Reviews)

Lackey, Mercedes. One Good Knight. Snagged this one on our last bookstore run. This is her second “Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms” and it’s just as much fun as the first. In the 500K, fairy tales are all too real – sometimes depressingly so. Here, The Tradition is a narrative force that can manipulate people into established storylines, many of which come from the unexpurgated Brothers Grimm. Of course there are positive ones too, and a person who is knowledgeable about The Tradition – and very determined – can try to redirect The Tradition into a more positive outcome. (Though of the villains can do that too, unfortunately.) This is a Luna book, so there’s also a romance in it – but frankly most of the book has nothing whatsoever to do with that, so the double wedding comes as a pleasant surprise (I suspect that only an established author like Lackey could have got this one published by Luna, actually). It’s light but fun, with an intellectual princess, dragons, wicked sorceror, and heroic knight. It has a couple of the same characters as The Fairy Godmother (the first one), but isn’t a sequel. And, there are more 500K books, too!

Duane, Diane. The Tale of the Five. Or at least the first three volumes of it: The Door Into Fire, The Door into Shadow, and The Door into Sunset. It seems the used bookstore didn’t have the fourth, The Door into Starlight. So. I have rarely read an epic fantasy with this much moral and personal complexity, or a second world fantasy so determined to have a society markedly different, at fundamental levels, from medieval Europe. The books are, intensely, about the personal development of each of five characters: Herewiss, the man who must learn to be his power before he can draw on it; Segnbora, whose forgotten trauma must be dragged back into consciousness; Sunspark, a fire elemental who learns to love; Hasai, a dragon whose choices finally lead his people back to themselves; and Freelorn, the Crown Prince who must learn to be selfless enough to gain his crown. They have tools – raw power, magic, swords, and wands – but those are only tools. They explore magic-ridden ruins, slay monsters, knock down a mountain, fight battles and face down the ultimate evil – and it all takes much, much more than steely determination and a strong arm (though that helps).

The connections with Duane’s “Wizards” series are clear – this world could certainly be one of the infinite series of worlds that the Wizards cosmology includes, and Sunspark is in fact a traveler across them, while the dragons originally came from a different star (or perhaps a different world also – it’s hard to say). But there are no Wizards here, and the cosmology and society are very different from Earth’s. The Middle Kingdoms have a Maiden/Mother/Crone Goddess who is very real, and the Shadow that is Death (cf. Wizards universe again) wants to destroy all life. The world was under Shadow for an unknown time; at the time of the books it had been mostly free – due to the Dragons’ intervention – for about 2,000 years. And the region’s population is still recovering from the Dark Years, and they’re still at a medieval level of technology. And there’s also working, sometimes essential, magic.

The differences in the society spring from the religion, basically, along with the population trouble and the magic. The religion honors life and love – and that means love of all kinds. Sex is called sharing and nobody seems to be against it; further, the gender of the partners is irrelevant. I’d thought Lackey was the only fantasy author who’d put homosexuality in her novels, but in this series the serious love relationship (distinct from ordinary sharing) is between Herewiss and Freelorn (who are, technically, bisexual – everybody seems to be – but have been in love for many years). Another interesting aspect of the society is that no one is allowed to get married until they’ve produced children (one for men, two for women). No stigma against illegitimacy here. And when they do get married, they can marry anyone who’ll agree to it – and even more than one person. This is not to say that this is a perfect society; there are still criminals, thoughtless and cruel people, jealousies, and so forth, because the Shadow is still around.

These are not easy books to read, because of the characters’ pain, distress, and need to think things through. They’re remarkably cerebral, in fact. I found them fascinating, but they’re definitely not your typical epic fantasy and other readers might not like them. If they can even find copies – I doubt this series is still in print.

Pratchett, Terry. Night Watch. Every time I read one of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, I think, How does he do it? I still don’t know. But never mind! This one is another adventure of Sam Vimes, in which he accidentally goes back in time, alters history somewhat, and collars the psychopath he was after in the first place. We also get to learn a bit more about Vetinari, and about how perceptive people see the mature Vimes. One of the things I like about Vimes is that he got his talents the hard way – by learning and earning them, and giving it all a lot of thought over many years. This time out, he shows everything he’s ever learned about crowd control and managing unmanageable situations. And about self-control. If only the people who really need these lessons could ever be found reading this book! Or learning from it.

Riordan, Rick. The Titan’s Curse and The Battle of the Labyrinth. Vol. 3 & 4 of the YA/Teen series in which the ancient Greek gods are real and still have a habit of having kids. Unfortunately, the monsters are all real too. Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, is (naturally) still caught up in events that could determine the fate of the gods (and possibly the entire world). In Curse, he and his friends go on a quest to prevent the ancient Titan Kronos from getting his minions’ hands on an obscure monster that would be crucial to the overthrow of the gods (they succeed, with losses). In Labyrinth, the enemy is planning to attack their stronghold through the Labyrinth, which still exists in a multi-dimensional, continent-sprawling way. Percy in particular explores the outer limits of his powers, with some ensuing damage to the landscape. I enjoy the witty descriptions of the first-person narrator (Percy) and the amusing chapter titles, but they also work well as novels – well structured, good world-building, enough character development to satisfy without prematurely ending the series. Most of the characters are under 16, so it’s mainly growing-up type development. Not great literature, but fun.

Evans, Chris. A Darkness Forged in Fire. Book One of The Iron Elves (published July 2008). First, let me say that I blame George R. R. Martin for the present rush of big, dark, politically complicated fantasy. This one is less depressing than Song of Ice and Fire (so far) – though I have to admit I never finished the first volume of that series, because I decided at a certain point that I really didn’t want to know what happened next. But Martin’s characters are an order of magnitude more finely drawn and sympathetic than these, which may be part of why I was able to read Darkness through to the end.

I don’t mean to say Darkness is not worth reading on its own merits: it’s just that Martin is a master, and Evans is still a journeyman. His book is a mix of derivative and original materials, and as a bonus, it doesn’t chart all the characters’ lives from childhood. While I found the slapstick elements of Konowa’s early characterization a bit annoying, and the aloof yet hot-blooded druidess type predictable, the nature-loving elves are presented as rather annoyingly single-minded, really, and I’d probably find the dwarf stereotypical if he didn’t keep stealing every scene he’s in. So the characters really aren’t all that bad.

The book is a bit sprawling and seemingly uncoordinated in some ways, but to a certain extent that’s a function of a plot that revolves around an army traveling from Point A to Point B. It’s also, I think, a function of something I rather admire about the book: there are no discernible Predestined Fates here. In fact, despite the apparently linearity of the travel narrative, there’s very little that’s predictable. People have incomplete information and make mistakes and generally fumble along trying not to get killed … and whether the dark magic is necessarily evil remains up in the air through the end of this volume.

Evans’ debts to Kipling, the British Empire generally, and the Raj in particular provide some of his most solid material (as in the details of army life, etc.) and also some of the weakest (as in the new cardboard-cutout Viceroy, who has a key role but whose name keeps getting not mentioned, and whose development is nothing but a downward spiral).

And then there’s the magic. There are real elves in this book; Konowa, who happens to be an elf himself, finds them as annoying as I do, though perhaps that’s mostly sour grapes on his part, since he’s always been a failure at that stuff. The elves are also the source of the Great Evil – the Shadow Monarch whose goals are obscure but seem to involve reshaping the world into the dark, evil forms She seems to prefer. Near the beginning, Konowa is given a fragment of Her magic (by someone who presumably guessed what would happen), and inadvertently begins to use it (or is it using him?) in ways I find fascinating. He manifestly is not becoming evil, but can he learn to really control Her power – and actually use it against Her effectively? Stay tuned.

Then there’s Visyna, the native druidess (or witch), and the story never grapples with the similarity between her powers and those of the elves. Her history (unlike Konowa’s) is apparently being saved for a future volume (as is, perhaps, that similarity). She and Konowa are (cue eye-roll) both annoyed by their magnetic attraction to each other. She’s handy to have around, but it remains to be seen whether she’s really anything more significant than the Handy Girlfriend.

The jacket copy ignores Yimt (the dwarf and Grizzled Veteran) and Alwyn (the Weedy But Promising Recruit), who operate as a combination of comic relief, á là Shakespeare, and grunt’s-eye view of events the commander (that’s Konowa) won’t see. But they get a lot of screen time, and as I mentioned, every scene he’s in belongs to Yimt even though I don’t recall him actually holding the point of view.

The journey I mentioned is also related to the magic – there’s something called a Star that the army (nominally led by the Prince) is going to try to collect, in competition with Her Emissary (the former Viceroy) and the natives. It’s powerful magic and not well explained – none of the point of view characters know much about it. It’s the magic and the army parts (go Yimt!) that carry the story for me – and Konowa manages to be interesting, though a bit flat and predictable outside his struggle with the magic. And there’s another character who becomes increasingly fascinating as the story rolls on: Raille Synjyn, an older woman and reporter who proves to be a lot more than another homage to Kipling.

The final few chapters were definitely worth reading the whole book for, in my opinion. Still, I’ll wait to see how the next volumes turn out before deciding whether to add this one to my permanent collection. It’s a wild mix of elements that annoy me and ones that intrigue me, and I’ll be interested in what some of my friends think of it. So I’d say it’s recommended, but with reservations.

Brett, Peter V. The Warded Man (ARC). See separate review.

Fluke, Joanne. Cherry Cheesecake Murder. I’m still liking these Hannah Swensen mysteries (with recipes!). In this one, an independent movie comes to Lake Eden, Minnesota. The whole town gets involved in the production, including Hannah, of course. They mystery is, who arranged for the director to shoot himself with what should have been a prop gun – if he was even the target? In fact, though, the mystery almost takes a back seat to the all the character stuff here, but that’s okay by me. The only jarring note was a bit that reminded me that I am not my demographic – one of the actors claimed the director’s habit of demonstrating lines for the actors sometimes included donning ladies’ garments and doing a great impression of a female. I was, apparently, the only person involved in this book who found this amusing rather than deeply insulting. But it’s easy for me to shrug this off – I’m not even part of that demographic. I can see, though, how it does demonstrate that even pleasant fluffy novels can be unintentionally cruel.

Jinks, Catherine. Evil Genius. This was gloomy and weird and I enjoyed it very much. In a way it’s part of the new super-hero novel thing that I’ve been hearing about, only this one starts from the villains’ point of view. Cadel Piggot is a genius and has been raised in an environment that seems designed to make a disconnected, hostile supervillain out of him. But one thing this novel makes pretty clear along the say is that supervillains really are quite barmy, no matter how intelligent they happen to be … and Cadel is actually quite sane. Which is not to say that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. It’s set in Australia and the author is Australian, and I find my library has a number of books by her, but the earlier ones are filed under Juvenile, while this one is Teen. I’ll be looking up the sequel, Genius Squad.

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