Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout (2009)

February 23, 2011 at 9:35 pm (mythology, urban fantasy)

This novel gave me what I can only call a “seventies vibe.”   That is, something about the execution reminded me of speculative fiction novels from the 1970s, or possibly even the 1960s.  Which is odd, because I haven’t felt similarly about other urban fantasy novels (of which I have read some, not many).

At any rate, van Eekhout’s premise is that the Norse gods were and are real, and that Ragnarok thing?  About to happen.  Fimbulwinter (three years of just winter) is already in progress.   One of the main characters, Mist, was recruited to be a Valkyrie and is having second thoughts; the other is Hermod, a god still carrying around a load of guilt about his brother Baldur’s death.  The big plot, of course, is about whether the world’s going to end or not, or more specifically, whether Hermod and Mist can keep it from ending.

I enjoyed the read – it’s definitely a well-written book – but I don’t think it’s going to remain part of our permanent collection.  Fundamentally, it didn’t hold many surprises for me.  Perhaps I just know too much about Norse mythology already, or I’ve just read too many Norse-based books in the last few years.

Okay, I’ve read two others: Runemarks by Joanne Harris, and All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear.   And upon reflection, it might be difficult to find three books based on the same mythology that are more different.

Still, I reached the end of the book with a feeling of satisfaction that it wound up more or less as I expected.  I suppose from some perspectives that’s a good thing.  But while it’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t have that whatever-it-is that sets it apart from other books.   Your mileage may vary, of course.

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Child of Fire by Harry Connolly (2009)

June 28, 2010 at 9:07 pm (urban fantasy)

Well.  Unless and until I hear otherwise, I have to assume that Connolly either (a) played rather a lot of Call of Cthulhu during college, or (b) has spent a lot of time reading H. P. Lovecraft.  Or both, I suppose – or else convergent evolution is at work here.

Regardless, if you understood what I just wrote, then the rest of this review is probably redundant.

If not, then please understand that this novel skirted very close to being too much like a horror novel for me.  I can’t read most horror novels; I’ve never even finished a Stephen King novel, because I just don’t want to know what horrible thing is going to happen next.  Mind you, it’s plenty horrific, but having played a modest amount of Call of Cthulhu myself, I found it almost a homey, familiar sort of horrific.  (Your mileage may vary.)

See, what’s going on is that the real modern world could contain lots of things that Man Was Not Meant To Know.  Usually it doesn’t.  But of course various fools decide they Need To Know anyway, and so unleash nameless horrors into the world.  And the Twenty Palace Society (this the first “Twenty Palaces Novel”) goes around cleaning up these problems, often in a bloody and violent fashion.

Ray Lilly got mixed up in Twenty Palace business awhile back, and as a result he’s stuck as driver, sidekick, and punching bag for Annelise Powliss, Twenty Palace enforcer and serious, dangerous hard case.  They’re visiting the town of Hammer Bay, Washington, to investigate otherwordly activity and eliminate it … and anybody else who even accidentally gets in the way, actually, as far as Annelise is concerned.

It takes some fumbling around, but at a certain point the fire-spitting clerks kind of give away who the main villain really is.  Then they just have to find and eliminate him, and it would’ve been nice if that went easily, wouldn’t it?  Well, actually that would make for a boring novelistic climax, so of course it’s very hard, and being the actual main character, Ray gets to take center stage.

This novel is not recommended for people who can’t tolerate reading about the death of children.   It is recommended for anyone who’s interested in a good novel with a hard-boiled mystery, eldritch horrors, character development, and incidental werewolves.

Also, I’d gladly play in a Cthulhu campaign using this setting.  Anybody up for organizing that?

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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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ARC Reviewed: Dark Time by Dakota Banks

July 23, 2009 at 10:57 pm (ARC Reviews, fantasy, negativity, urban fantasy)

This book could actually be worse, if the basic sentence-level writing wasn’t competent.

This is only my perspective, of course; the book may be much more appealing to people other than me.   I have never, for example, been a fan of bed-hopping characters of any gender – so that’s a reason for me not to like it right there.  Your mileage may vary.

But there’s a lot more to disapprove of in this book than that.  Indeed, as I slogged through to the end (only actually throwing it across the room once!), I began trying to think of it as a manuscript handed to me by a friend.  A friend I’d like to keep.  So this review should be seen as a round of constructive criticism, insofar as it’s possible to offer such a critique of an already-published work.

Especially an already-published work by a pseudonymous author who has previously had six (!) books published under a different name.  And here I thought I was reading a first published novel.  I suppose I should have known better – first published novels are generally much better than this.

Seriously, Dakota – your editor has let you down.   Your agent, too.

To begin with, facts are important.  Even in a story loaded with impossible fantastic and pseudotech elements, the details about the real world need to be correct.  Why?  Because you never know which incorrect fact will, for any given reader, strike a swift, sharp blow at your story’s credibility and even your credibility as a writer.

Nor do you know exactly how many of these errors it will take for any given reader to start questioning every potentially dubious detail – and/or start complaining about your horrible fact-checking to all of her friends.  Break the reader’s trust in your reliability and you’re halfway to losing her entirely.

Sooo, you say, what facts are you talking about, Text?  The big one is a really big one, since it deeply involves the protagonist’s entire reason for being in this book.

See, the demon got a hold on our multiply-renamed protagonist because she’d been burned as a witch (even though she wasn’t one, and was pregnant to boot) – in late seventeenth-century Massachusetts.  Dakota, honey, the number of witches burned in New England is zero.  They were hanged.  Furthermore, the likelihood of a 17th-century English justice system executing a pregnant woman is approximately zilch.  The English regularly postponed executions due to pregnancy, for offenses up to and including piracy on the high seas.  There was even a term for it – “pleading her belly.”

You can see, I think, how this undermines nearly everything about Protagonist’s initial motivation.   The fact that she miscarried the baby before her execution is immaterial – she was convinced, against all reason, that they would’ve executed her even if she’d still been pregnant. So, the entire first chapter needs to be re-worked.  I’m sure you can think of other reasons for Protagonist to be so embittered she threw her lot in with a demon.

The fact that caused me to throw the book across the room (and start questioning everything) was actually a minor detail in a flashback about Protagonist’s time in Brazil.  As part of the effort to add depth and color to the scene, Protagonist recalls that the man she’s going to see still lives in this crime-ridden favela because he’d been there back when it was still a “respectable neighborhood.”   In reality, Brazilian favelas are shantytowns on the edges of major cities that have never been respectable.  Fascinatingly, some of them have gradually achieved a sort of respectability over the years, but they are not good neighborhoods gone bad.  Happily, this fact problem is more easily fixed than the other one.

These are the two errors that particularly stood out for me (other readers may find different ones).  The latter error, especially, suggests a regrettable level of carelessness with detail.  It drastically heightened my level of skepticism about everything in the story, though to be fair, the initial witch-related error made me more inclined to be suspicious anyway.

And then there’s this other thing – not so much an error as a mind-boggling omission.  Seventeenth-century Massachusetts Protagonist never thinks about her (Christian) God.  Never prays to Him.  Is never shown jettisoning her faith in light of the cruelty being imposed on her by her own religion and justice system.  This makes no sense – and really, the whole thing would be more affecting if she did go through the faith wringer in this chapter or the next one.  But nothing of the sort occurs.

For that matter, almost no one in the novel ever mentions God or Jesus (even in the too-common meaningless interjection form).  Apparently the only real supernatural powers in this world are ancient Sumerian demons and their absentee overlord god, Anu (infodump, pp. 31-32).   And I’m not really comfortable with that, personally.  But in addition, the response of the characters in the novel who learn of this seems to be, “Oh.  That explains everything!”  Or something of the sort.  Nobody, it seems, has ever been to Sunday school, or had to struggle with such a direct contradiction of their traditional faith.  It’s incomprehensible.  This issue needs to be given a lot more thought, and dealt with directly.  It’s a novel with a demon in it, after all.  That ought to loom a bit larger than it does.

Next, the name thing.  For the first fifty-one pages, Protagonist is consistently referred to by her original name – Susannah Layhem.  At the opening of Chapter Nine, she’s renamed herself Maliha Crayne – a decision that took place some time after Chapter Eight: a decision already accomplished, and thus tensionless and relieved of any particular narrative significance, despite a fairly lengthy (action-free) pause to describe her current circumstances.  I think the multiple time frame shifts of the preceding chapters have a lot to do with why this important change falls flat, but more on that in a moment.

Several chapters later in the book, it’s revealed, indirectly, that her current public name is Marsha Winters.   Various people call her Ms. Winters before one finally mentions the whole thing.  Even though, back in Chapter Nine, it was revealed that she was earning a nice living writing popular trashy crime novels, this pen name / “real name” is not mentioned at that point.  This is needlessly confusing (though at least she never thinks of herself as Marsha).

In addition, if she never uses this Maliha Crayne name, why did she bother to adopt it at all?  And stating that she felt she needed to change her name isn’t the same as showing why it was so important to her.  This whole name change concept needs rethinking, or a better portrayal.  I know the symbolism of changing one’s name is powerful, but it isn’t shown powerfully, and the addition of the Winters name dilutes whatever effect it might have had.  But at the very least, put something about the Winters name in the same scene as the reveal about her novel-writing, instead of playing all coy with it, please.

The fact-checking and names problems are perhaps not the major issues that the number of words I’ve just spent on them might suggest; they are, however, symptomatic of the larger problem with the novel, which is a fundamental lack of coherence.

The book just doesn’t seem to know what kind of book it is.  Most of the time, after page 51, it seems like it’s being a techno-thriller; at other points, it has definite overtones of a semi-humorous caper story.  Early on, there are strong elements of supernatural horror / redemption story, but these pretty much vanish, aside from technical details, after page 51.   Starting on page 55, Maliha is being stalked by a really nasty and unnamed guy, so maybe it’s actually a crime novel.  There’s some romance mixed in, too, which doesn’t jell particularly well with all the other elements.

Oh, and there’s a quest – if Maliha can acquire the Tablet of the Overlord and the seven shards of the Lens to read it with, she’ll probably be able to destroy her personal demon (Rabishu) and his six siblings.  In fact, she does acquire the Tablet – in a flashback.  And she finds one of the shards – in the course of a minor side plot.  What’s up with that?  Why the focus on the would-be techno overlord / terrorist, instead of the big quest?  Of course, there is her ongoing quest also – under the escape clause in her contract, she needs to save as many lives as she can (why taking more lives in the life-saving process doesn’t affect the outcome is not discussed) in order to escape eternal torment.

In fact, there’s just too much going on here.   A lot if it is really interesting stuff, actually, but it just doesn’t add up to a coherent narrative.  Some of it has to go.

Part of the problem is the flashbacks – I’ve mentioned those already.  The novel zig-zags through time at intervals that make very little sense to me.  Not only are there flashbacks to crucial moments in Maliha’s progress from assassin to ex-assassin (plus the one about getting the Tablet), but each of her good buddies gets his own flashback showing exactly how they met – even though the narrative already briefly explained that, sometimes many pages before the flashback.  In fact the only one who doesn’t get one is her best girlfriend; what’s up with that?  Anyway, this zig-zagging only exacerbates the problem of figuring out what kind of story this is supposed to be.

Now, there are some good, powerful scenes in this novel, especially in the first fifty pages.  There are also events that make no sense at all (how, exactly, did she sneak onto the plane sitting on the remote runway in broad daylight?).  There are random things that annoy the heck out of this particular reader (she drives a McLaren F1?  Seriously?   Including on trips to break into two different corporate HQs?). But with some judicious pruning and alteration of plot lines – and I have to recommend playing up the quest at the expense of the the techno-thriller plot, because it’s a lot more central to the character’s purpose in life – the pretty good book that’s in here could be liberated.

I’m not sure it would be all that much to my taste even then, but it wouldn’t be such an almighty trial for me to get through.  The average Clive Cussler novel isn’t much more believable, in a lot of ways, but the man does know how to plot and I can read his books without repeatedly going, “What?  No, that makes no sense.  We’re going where now?”

I mean, I know this book is not meant to be Great Literature.  But in its present state it isn’t even a “good read.”  And, Dakota, I have a couple of things to say in this regard, which may be a little hard to take:

First, if you really, truly believe this is the best you can do, then you’re not trying hard enough to get better at what you do.

Second, if you believe this is the best you need to do – and even if that’s actually true – why aren’t you trying to do better anyway?

I could offer some more remarks on structural elements, not to mention the flat characters, but 1900 words is more than enough for a book review.  And, well, it’s already been published, and I think I’ve made my point(s).  Fin.

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