Monthly Archives: December 2014

Dragon (The Five Ancestors #7)

Title: Dragon

Author: Jeff Stone

Long has won the championship, but at the cost of several injuries and a price on his head. Now that Tonglong has secured many allies, as well as the jade swords and armor set, he marches to his ultimate destination: the Forbidden City. The seat of the Emperor. Can the members of the Resistance break Tonglong’s evil plans?

I like several things about this series. I like how good the historical detail is: everything from clothing to cities to using Chinese names for things like guns. I like how realistic the story is portraying fights and injuries and how long it takes to heal, thus demonstrating vividly why even a master is not quick to jump into a fight (especially when it’s kung fu against guns). I like the mix of nationalities, Dutch and Chinese, and how those tensions play into the story. I like the complex web of relationships, betrayals, and counter-betrayals.

Long’s story is in many ways as atypical as the rest of the series. He’s not even able to do too much in the beginning thanks to all the injuries he sustained during the pit fight in the previous book. Like Seh, he’s a plotter, gathering information and positioning himself before he makes his move. I found his fight against the bandits particularly interesting, as a movie would portray the Dragon master easily toppling a handful of men with bows and pistols; the book, in contrast, shows how very human even someone with Long’s abilities is.

As a finale, this does a nice job. Most of the loose ends tied up; the only thing I really noticed that got dropped was Malao never reacting to Bing as the one who killed his father—I don’t remember anyone telling Malao how or why it happened, so he took to her a little too easily, considering. I liked what happened with Ying particularly, as it proved he really had changed.

Overall this was a very quick read, like all the rest. If you’ve followed the series at all until now, this will be a satisfying conclusion. I rate this book Recommended.

Mouse (The Five Ancestors #6)

Title: Mouse

Author: Jeff Stone

ShaoShu was an orphan, all alone until he met Hok and Ying. Their kindness inspired the most reckless deed of his life: sneaking aboard Tonglong’s ship to spy on their enemy firsthand. But when the plan backfires, ShaoShu ends up caught in the middle of Tonglong’s schemes. Can a little mouse do anything in the face of the Mantis?

The series continues to show the fascinating interplay between the end of one era and the beginning of a new. ShaoShu isn’t a martial arts master like the other protagonists. He’s a little boy who steps softly and can squeeze himself into unlikely hiding spots. But with the deadly force of guns, which makes any man the equal of a martial artist, Tonglong has leveled the playing field considerably. It’s also interesting because these are the very early versions of guns, which only fire one shot and take so long to reload it makes more sense to carry multiple weapons than it does to carry more ammunition.

As Tonglong’s plans blossom, the situation looks darker than ever. Now the national issues surge forward: no longer is it about the fate of one man, but the whole of the kingdom.

Overall these are very short, enjoyable reads. They have considerable depth for the age range, and would be good for anyone who enjoys historical fiction or martial arts. I rate this book Recommended.

Eagle (The Five Ancestors #5)

Title: Eagle

Author: Jeff Stone

Ying succeeded in his revenge against Grandmaster only to find a new–and far more formidable—opponent in Tonglong. But Hok helped him out of prison, and every time Ying tries to repay his debt to her, he finds himself indebted again. The lone eagle may find himself in need of more than a few friends as he flies against Tonglong to reach the treasure promised by the dragon scrolls.

Ying has always had his point of view crop up in the other stories, but here’s the first time he gets to lead. He’s egotistical, arrogant, and blunt, but he’s also handicapped by his old injuries (and a few new ones) which leaves him much more dependent on Hok’s treatment and her goodwill than he would like to be.

And that’s the real draw of this volume. Hok puts herself on the line for Ying, which he doesn’t understand. The little Crane proves herself more than a match for the Eagle. And Ying learns more about her, about himself, and about his history than he ever would have suspected.

It will be curious to see how this wraps up. With two volumes left, and plenty of room for things to go wrong, the series continues to forge firmly ahead. I rate this book Recommended.

City of Stairs

Title: City of Stairs

Author: Robert Jackson Bennett

It was supposed to be nothing more than a murder investigation.

Shara Thivani, top intelligence officer of Saypur, has decided to assign herself to the case when fellow historian Dr. Efrem Pangyui turns up dead in the city of Bulikov. Bulikov—once the capital city of the world, in a way, for the people of the Continent were backed by six Divinities and soon conquered anything they set their minds upon. But Saypur’s founding father, the Kaj, murdered those Divinities and reduced the Continentals to mere men.

So it’s no simple investigation when practically the entire population of Bulikov would have been happy to see Dr. Pangyui dead for being allowed to investigate the history they themselves cannot know, for looking into the Divinities they no longer possess. But worse than that, Shara is finding disturbing signs that the Divine may not be quite as dead as Saypur would hope . . .

It’s a refreshing change to find Shara exactly what she appears to be: a historian and an intelligence officer, not some incredibly competent fighter. That’s what Sigrud is for. Sigrud has no fear of death or danger (he much prefers them to diplomatic parties). And he’s violently ferocious when the situation calls for it.

The current mystery doesn’t take long before it unravels to a fantasy much deeper. As expected of a historian, Shara delves deep into Bulikov’s history, trying to understand what Dr. Pangyui knew or learned that made him such a danger. Each chapter begins with a snippet from various holy books, diaries, or history books. Taken together, it’s a very well-drawn world. There’s a rich depth of culture for both Saypur and the Continent.

The only thing I didn’t care for was the sheer amount of sex. Nothing is on-screen, but there were a few details provided in places that was a bit more than I wanted to know. Vohannas sleeps with men and women, and waxes quite poetic about it near the end, but the whole speech (perhaps his whole life) just seems like a desperate cry to find someone who actually loved him without the sex, only he never made the connection. I also don’t buy that Saypur’s marriages being six-year renewable contracts has actually created stability, as it seems the logical reaction to being forced to rearrange your marriage on the whims of a bad master would be to encourage lifelong unions. Despite the contract saying it’s over at six years if either party wants it over, I can’t see that going over much better than a divorce where one person wants to stay married, especially if there’s kids who suddenly lose a parent.

Overall, though, it’s certainly an interesting read with some very memorable characters. There’s an impressive amount of worldbuilding, a solid mystery with a rather surprising conclusion, and a good dose of humor along the way. I rate this book Recommended.

Crane (The Five Ancestors #4)

Title: Crane

Author: Jeff Stone

Hok has always needed to be more careful than her brothers—no one must know she is a girl. And not only a girl, but a girl with brown hair, whose color will betray her mixed blood. After the temple is destroyed, she finds an unexpected chance at new life. But the secrets that placed her at the temple as a child, the national intrigue that continues to broil, and the false accusations laid against her will make any kind of life difficult. . .

Hok’s perspective is similar to Seh, in that she’s much more likely to think things through before doing them. Unlike Seh, however, she’s more relationally-focused. On the one hand, that makes sense as her past required her to constantly be aware of what other people noticed about her. On the other, though, she’s just much better than he is at reading people.

There is an interesting twist involving Seh about halfway through that did a lot to show both his character and hers, and force them into a much more dependent teamwork. In some ways this is his story as much as hers. There’s another interesting twist that implies Hok has probably done the most of any of them so far when it comes to fulfilling Grandmaster’s request to win Ying over.

Now that the separate storylines look to be closing in, it will be interesting to see how the plot proceeds. One thing I don’t know if the kids have realized yet is that the changing national forces will deeply affect them no matter what happens with Tonglong and the others. They’ve certainly managed to get the Emporer’s attention . . . I rate this book Recommended.

Snake (The Five Ancestors #3)

Title: Snake

Author: Jeff Stone

Unlike his brothers Fu and Malao, Seh (the “snake”) is much more detached and logical. His first thoughts upon the temple’s destruction are how he can turn the situation to his advantage. And so begins a curious journey through a bandit’s lair and the perils of family. As Ying and his devastating qiangs continue to reshape the world, can the boys continue to survive?

After two impulsive main characters, Seh was a nice change. He’s solitary, preferring nature to people, and he’s got a few tricks other than kung-fu. Sensing chi is fairly typical of martial arts stories, but it is nice to see the series branching beyond the merely physical.

The convoluted plot is still unfolding. Tonglong is ascending at Ying’s expense . . . but are his motives good or evil? It is a little amusing the scrolls are doing as well as they have been, considering how much they’ve been manhandled, dunked in water, and so on. There is a small amount of overlap with the previous books but most of this is new material.

For those who liked the first books, this one continues to drive a strong story. It will be interesting to see how the intrigue plays out. I rate this book Recommended.

Monkey (The Five Ancestors #2)

Title: Monkey

Author: Jeff Stone

Malao, the Monkey, can’t sit still when the temple where he’s spent all his life is destroyed. But he doesn’t have the strength to confront his enemies directly, so he does what a monkey does best: makes trouble. But as he’s trying to save the Dragon scrolls and foil Ying’s plans, he starts uncovering secrets . . .

The second book in this series takes the unusual tactic of being more of a companion novel than a direct sequel. The events here start exactly where Tiger started, but it all plays out from Malao’s perspective (and quite a bit of Ying’s). Since the gaps from the first book, where Fu was off on his own, are generally places where Malao was involved, the gaps for the most part are filled in. But it is good the plot stretches beyond the end of Tiger and takes the boys farther on their quest.

The strengths of the first book are equally strengths here: complex characters, a twisting plot, furious kung-fu. And this starts to broaden the story to the rest of the world, dropping some nice hints about certain relatives as well as laying a foundation for what looks to be an eventual plot against the Emperor.

Given where this goes, you could almost start at either Tiger or Monkey, so it’s not too important if you haven’t read the first book yet. But it’s a fast, fun read. I rate this book Recommended.

Tiger (The Five Ancestors #1)

Title: Tiger

Author: Jeff Stone

The year is 1650 AD. A hidden monastery in China that trains warrior monks is under attack. Fu and his four brothers are the youngest masters of their respective animal kung-fu: Tiger, Monkey, Snake, Crane, and Dragon. When their temple is destroyed by a traitor, they are the only ones left alive. Now it is up to them to protect the Dragon scrolls, save their own lives, and somehow redeem the one who has destroyed their home.

Fu, the Tiger, is the focus of this first story, and he makes an endearing lead. Heavyset, grumpy, and instinct-driven, he doesn’t exactly come off as a master of his art. He doesn’t like thinking too hard or talking too much. But he’s willing to take risks to do what he thinks is right, and he’s also willing to apologize when he turns out to be in the wrong.

The fighting is lavishly detailed and flows like a movie. It’s easy to visualize every action sequence. Equally of interest to me was the fact that the characters show a lot of depth, including a few who are more than they seem. I am particularly intrigued by the Grandmaster’s command to the five boys to turn Ying good again, if it’s possible, rather than kill him. Killing him would certainly be enough of a challenge, but the Grandmaster isn’t interested in turning his students on to the same kind of blood vendetta that’s driving Ying.

This is short enough to read in one sitting but intriguing enough that it’s a good idea to have the sequels handy, as it will be hard to stop after just one. I rate this book Recommended.

Circle of Three (Tales of the Nine Charms #1)

Title: Circle of Three

Author: Erica Farber and J. R. Sansevere

Walker is a joker, until the day he finds a pretty little talisman and his life turns deadly serious. Taken to another world, he must learn to fight to survive. Niko is a boy who yearns to be a warrior, until the day that he ends up on that path despite himself. Aurora is a Gypsy unwillingly drawn into a web of conspiracies that may cost her life. But the three of them are tied to an ancient prophecy about a coming war between the light and the dark. They must survive . . .

If anything, the book feels a little overly ambitious. Murders, plots, and conspiracies abound. Each of the three children has his own circle of family, friends, and enemies, which doesn’t leave time for anyone but the main characters to get any development. But, for the age range, the target readers probably won’t care. There’s plenty of action, even if most of it is simply running away from someone who wants to catch them.

I would’ve preferred something more to have happened other than just running away, but the real problem with the book is that it opens a series that never materialized. Aside from a direct sequel, which looks to only introduce one more talisman’s user, nothing more was published, and it’s been so long the odds the series will revive are small. Although there is always the self-publishing option, I suppose.

Overall this is an action-packed book that doesn’t go enough of anywhere to stand alone, and doesn’t have the series behind it that would allow it to be the introduction to something larger. I rate this book Neutral.

Stories of the Raksura

Four stories of the Raksura are collected in this volume. Most of these stories tie in some way to the events of the main trilogy (The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, The Siren Depths), but they can all stand alone, though certainly they’ll have more meaning in the context of the trilogy.

The Falling World – The first story is a novella about Moon after Jade has gone missing when traveling to a neighboring court. It’s long enough to be a good look at the place where they now live, and toss a few surprises in to boot.

The Tale of Indigo and Cloud – The second novella, and another strong piece. This expands an event briefly mentioned in the trilogy—that of a queen, Indigo, stealing a consort, Cloud, from a neighboring court. The political ramifications of the act ripple throughout the Reaches, and somehow Cerise, the ruling queen, must figure out a way through without bringing war down on their heads.

The Forest Boy – A short story about Moon when he was young. This was available for free on Martha Well’s website (might still be) which is where I read it first, so it wasn’t new to me, but I still appreciate being able to have it in print.

Adaptation – A short story about Chime turning from mentor to warrior. This was also available on the website.

Overall this is definitely worth a read for fans of the Raksura, and it has enough variety to introduce the species to those who many not have read the trilogy yet (though some spoilers will show up, mostly in The Falling World). I rate this book Recommended.