Review: Death at Daisy’s Folly

October 29, 2013 at 8:05 pm (cozy mystery, historical mystery, Reviews)

Death at Daisy's Folly
Death at Daisy’s Folly by Robin Paige
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pleasant historical mystery series continues, this one featuring prominent historical figures (the duke and duchess of Warwick and the Prince, perhaps amongst others). Murder at a big high-society weekend house party – what could be more routine for a British mystery? It’s the characters and the progress of the investigation, and the fiddling details of the plot, that make such things fun to read.

And to my relief, it only took the authors three books to get Kate and Charles engaged! Some of these fictional romances in series books drag on for so long I just want to kick both of the characters, but these two face up to facts and decide to charge ahead, maternal and societal disapproval be damned. Huzzah!

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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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The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells (2011)

March 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm (fantasy, Reviews, science fiction)

Wells has invented a fascinating fantasy world with an abundance of very different species and glimpses of complex economies and political structures, scattered across a vast world. It has magic, at any rate, so it must be fantasy, but the factors I just mentioned actually make it feel a bit more like science fiction. To me, this is a bonus! But your mileage may vary, as they say.

It’s also a very personal story, in which protagonist Moon finally meets up with the first member of his own species he’s seen since his mother and siblings were killed. That’s partly because of how big this world is, and partly because the Raksura live in small, rather tribal communities, and partly because large swaths of the world (especially where Moon has been) are inhabited by people who still live in remote and poorly-connected villages.

Part of his problem has been that in his winged form (he has two), he resembles another species called the Fell, which is vicious and predatory. He knows he’s not one of them, but other people are generally inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. Anyway, Stone, the Raksura who finds him, brings him back home. There Moon struggles to adjust to a foreign culture where he doesn’t have to be afraid of discovery … and then the Fell appear not just on the horizon, but up close and dangerous.

So, remember the “sense of wonder” that science fiction is supposed to have? This has got that. Plus a sympathetic protagonist, various interesting other characters, some hard-won battles, creepy evil folks, and lots of neat stuff to explore. I hope to actually buy my own copy at some point.

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Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010)

October 1, 2010 at 2:23 pm (fantasy, Reviews)

I am a fan of Kay’s historicist fantasies – A Song for Arbonne actually made me cry.  As a historian and reader of fantasy, I’m their ideal audience.  (Admittedly, I couldn’t finish Sailing to Sarantium because it was just too depressing, but that’s an exception.)

So yeah, I liked his new book.  A lot.   Eighth-century China is a culture even more foreign than medieval France or Spain, so there was a lot to learn.

But, to enjoy Kay’s books (other than his early Arthurian trilogy), one needs to be willing to read long, long passages whose primary purpose is to illuminate the culture and the characters who live in it.  Yes, there is a plot, and yes, it involves danger and death and arranged marriages and courtesans and love and war, but the story definitely takes its time to get where it’s going.  The pacing, in other words, is not everyone’s cup of tea.

As is usual with Kay’s work, there is magic but not as a central part of the plot – just enough to add some spice and affect a few crucial points.   (Even if you think you can’t stand the book, do read up to page 46, at least.)  There’s a lot more in it about the importance of family, the Emperor’s court, and poetry than there is about magic.  The characters are slowly and wonderfully drawn – Tai in particular is a study in continuity and change.

I also suspect that the structure of the plot is itself a reflection of ancient Chinese ideas about cause and effect, but I could be wrong.

I’ll confess that the Epilogue, which apparently imitates the style of ancient Chinese historians, was a little slow even for me.   You don’t have to read that part, just the rest of it – but do read it.

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The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan (2010)

June 16, 2010 at 1:21 pm (fantasy, Reviews, teen)

Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, delivers more great hair-raising mythological adventures in this first volume of The Kane Chronicles.   Carter and Sadie Kane are the children, they discover, of two ancient lines of Egyptian magicians – and through no fault of their own, are in trouble with the other magicians.  It seems, also, that the Egyptian gods are too dangerous to be allowed loose in the world (or so almost everyone says), but now some of them are.

I don’t want to give much of the plot away; a lot of the fun of this book is learning exactly what’s going on, along with the characters.  Suffice it to say that the world is in great danger, and only the Kanes are likely to save it.   Also fun is that while Carter Kane is not quite the wisacre that Percy is, the book has much the same tone.

Finally, and to my mind most importantly, the book deals very deftly with an issue that rarely comes up in YA literature, but should be more present: the realities of being a mixed-race child.  Kudos to Mr. Riordan for bringing it up and dealing with it head-on, instead of comfortably pretending the whole world is colorblind.

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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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#17: May 2009

June 1, 2009 at 8:52 am (Reviews)

Okay, so I haven’t finished any of the books on my bedside table – I’m *partway* through several of them still.  Here’s the books I actually did finish this month.

Springer, Nancy.  The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (2008).  Enola Holmes’ next case involves one of her previous ones – the left-handed lady is in danger again, this time from her own kin!  The hard part is finding the young woman again; helping her escape is a trifle in comparison.  And she runs into (and escapes) her brothers Sherlock and Mycroft again.  Coincidence continues to play a large role in events once more, but Enola’s planning (and daring) also feature largely.  Ms. Springer can keep this series going for as long as she likes, if you ask me.  There’s a new one that came out in May, in fact, but the library hasn’t processed it yet, alas!

Goldman, Ari L.  The Search for God at Harvard (1991).  Apparently this was a national bestseller back when it was first published.  I was expecting, I think, a little more about Harvard and a little less about Goldman, but it was an interesting book all the same.  The author, a New York Times reporter and a Modern Orthodox Jew, took a year off work to attend Harvard Divinity School and learn about other religions, in order to become a better reporter.  He was nervous; he had in mind (taking it as an analogy for visiting the non-Jewish world) the first-century Talmudic story of the four who went down to the orchard: One died of illness, one became a heretic, one went mad, and one, Rabbi Akiba, emerged whole.  But in the remarkably liberal halls of mid-1980s Harvard Div, Goldman was hard put to it to find anyone who would directly challenge his faith.

The author is mindful of the historic context of his experience and his work – namely, the rise of right-wing religion, even in his own branch of Judaism.  Perhaps the reason the book did so well is because it spoke to everyone else in the country – those who were (and are) trying to figure out the role of their own faith in a largely secular world.  Perhaps that’s why the perspective of an Orthodox man wrestling with the same questions, and documenting the experiences of some of his fellow students, seems so helpful.  This is not a very profound book, but it is moving all the same.

The Editors of Cook’s Country Magazine.  America’s Best Lost Recipes.  I really, really liked the baked goods section of this book – so much that I renewed it and then kept it overdue.  Still haven’t actually tried any of the recipes, but they looked good.  Next time I have time to do some experimental baking, maybe I’ll borrow it again.  The other sections (vegetables, main courses, etc.), unfortunately, contained fewer and less interesting items – otherwise I’d be seriously tempted to add this to my collection.

Garwood, Christine.  Flat Earth:  The History of an Infamous Idea (2007).  An interesting work that’s fundamentally about the production of knowledge, and remarkably sympathetic to the admittedly odd proponents of the flat earth idea.  I was surprised to learn that there’s a widespread idea that Columbus thought the world is flat, which in turn is based on a work by Washington Irving (who made it up).  Garwood emphasizes this bit of trivia because flat earthers – or zetetics, as some have called themselves – often claim the idea of a globe is new, when in fact it’s been widely accepted (among educated people) since the 5th century BCE.  Garwood’s study goes into the beliefs and lives of some of the chief proponents in sometimes excruciating detail, beginning with the campaign’s nineteenth-century originator, a man who called himself Parallax, through a Canadian professor’s satiric version and a Californian man’s efforts through the 1990s.  The notion of a flat earth, though never widespread, fits into the dialogue between science and religion, and (as Garwood says) is interesting because of that location – and also for the way it shows how belief, even when couched in the same appeal to reason and logic as science, can trump evidence for some people.

Gilman, Laura Anne.  Blood from Stone (2009).  Still not your typical paranormal romance series – here, Wren finds herself in a race with some unscrupulous European mages to get her hands on a book that’s extremely important to her friend, P.B.  She and Sergei are still working on how to fix the romance part of their relationship, and I believe it’s not often that a “romance” features snippets from one of the parties’ therapy sessions.  And I have to wonder if the persistent FBI agent is going to be important in the new series set in this world (the first volume of which just came out, I believe).  I enjoy Wren’s adventures and this one ties off and resolves a number of background issues that have been lurking for a while, while delivering a fast-moving plot and more development of this alternative version of the real world.  I gather it’ll be a while before we see more about Wren and Sergei in print, but I suppose I can console myself with the police-investigation style series that’s (temporarily?) replacing it.

Riordan, Rick.  The Last Olympian (2009).  Another series closer!  Percy Jackson’s adventures have a suitably dramatic conclusion, with a Titanic invasion of New York City and Olympus, Percy taking terrible (but necessary!) risks, and most of the characters reaching their full potential and/or completing their personal plot arcs (including, amazingly, Clarisse).  Okay, so I figured one of those out in about Chapter Two; the most plot-important one might be seen as hackneyed, but it fit the structure and type of story perfectly.  And of course it all ends with a new “Great Prophecy,” and the author’s acknowledgments refer to this as the “first” Olympians series, so I guess we can hope there’ll be more some time soon.  (This is a YA series, incidentally.)

Nix, Garth.  Mister Monday (2003; Keys to the Kingdom #1).  The new bedtime reading, and a re-read for me.  Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series for older juveniles is a wild ride, full of bizarre and alarming creatures and events – as if Nix were channeling Roald Dahl on speed.  The action almost never stops as Arthur Penhaligon, surprised and not really willing Heir to the House, has to pursue his weird inheritance.  It seems the real center of the multiverse is a House (itself multidimensional), which is inhabited and run by unaging Denizens, only some of whom appear human.  The Architect, who created all this, apparently went away some time ago and left a Will – which the seven Trustees have demonstrably NOT been following.  Part of it escapes, chooses Arthur, and the ride begins.  I still haven’t gotten around to reading all seven, mainly because I expected to be reading them all to my son at some point.  The story is a bit dark and the symbolism (to me) a tad heavy-handed, but I’ve enjoyed the three we own so far.

Moon, Elizabeth.  Hunting Party (1993) (re-read).  Space opera!  One of my favorites, with a number of follow-ups in the same setting.  Vile villains, young scions of wealth getting a major shock and growing up a bit, and interesting major characters – Heris Serrano, former space navy captain, and Lady Cecelia, maiden aunt and horse enthusiast.  Okay, so the plot isn’t the most original out there (how many times will “The Most Dangerous Game” be re-done?), but it’s a fun book all the same.  I also happen to like horses, and it’s a character-driven story and all that.

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