Monthly Archives: December 2016

A Mortal Song

Title: A Mortal Song

Author: Megan Crewe

Sora has lived on Mount Fuji with the kami for her entire life, until a demon and his army invade. Then she learns she’s not kami herself, but only a substitute—a human traded for the real kami princess, a hedge against a prophecy of darkness that her parents hoped wouldn’t happen until the kami girl had grown strong enough to handle it. With the only home she’s ever known in danger, Sora is determined to save it . . . even if she is destined to be nothing more than support for the real princess.

This was fascinating on a number of levels. Sora wants desperately to be the hero. It’s her mother and father, her friends, her people that are suffering under the brutal tyranny of the invaders. Nor is the wider world immune, for without the kami’s guiding influences, various natural forces will get more and more unbalanced. But wish as she might, she continues to stumble across her own weaknesses and inadequacies. The need for food. The need to rest. The terrible truth that her inner self is changeable, not an incarnation of strength like Takeo’s nature is to loyalty. And the humiliation that another girl exists, a kami that is everything she thought she was.

The people around her are fascinating, too. Takeo’s loyalty is to the princess—but which one? Sora can’t figure out if their friendship since childhood will put her above the true princess . . . or if it’s for the best if he doesn’t. I liked the difficulty Chiyo has in accepting her own role, which is even more poignant because this struggle comes through Sora’s point of view, who is dealing with the same thing herself but is less able to admit it. Keiji is also a good foil to Sora, as his own humanity and weakness helps her to come to grips with her own. I do wish Haru had gotten more time, though. He felt barely developed, and once I realized his character wasn’t going where I expected, I was a bit disappointed not to know him better.

The setting is also wonderful. The story takes place in Japan, but since this is the world everyone knows, the story doesn’t waste time over-describing things that may not be familiar to a Western audience. In fact, the various kami, ogres, and other creatures justly get more attention. And what a nice variety! I knew a fair number of them and still found a couple I hadn’t seen before. Also some of the ones I had given up on seeing made a surprise appearance right before the end.

And the ending! I kept wondering if the prophecy would play out straight or get subverted, like the whole plot has subverted the typical tropes. I think it’s a testament to how well told the story is that it kept me guessing right up until the last. It felt like a very fitting way to finish things.

I was less fond of the romance, more because I dislike love triangles in general, and I felt that Sora’s new attraction happened really fast. But it never got pushed hard enough to overwhelm the rest of the plot, and I did like that it ended relatively positively for everyone involved.

The plot does wrap up well enough that a sequel doesn’t seem likely. Still, this was a very good read, and one I’m likely to come back to again and again. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Spartan Gold (Fargo Adventure #1)

Title: Spartan Gold

Author: Clive Cussler with Grant Blackwood

Series: Fargo Adventure #1

A lost mystery discovered by Napoleon Bonaparte leads to a treasure hunt two hundred years later. Sam and Remi Fargo were tracking down a different mystery when a glass bottle and an old German U-Boat give them their first lead to something much bigger than they anticipated. Because Napoleon’s secrets have also captured the attention of a much more dangerous man, who will stop at nothing to get there first.

This isn’t typically my genre, but I read this for a book club.

The book as a whole made for a somewhat frustrating read because most of the strong parts are balanced out by weaker parts. The history, the clues, the treasure, and the various links to locations around the world were well thought-out, and the various exotic locales helped with the sense of adventure. The plot never flags, and the occasional switch to the villain’s point of view helps to heighten the tension. It’s easy to visualize the whole thing as a movie.

On the other hand, I found the characters only believable about half the time. I usually like competence, but this is the first book I can remember where I kept thinking they pushed it too far. In the first half of the book especially, it felt like every time they came up against another situation, either Sam or Remi had a degree/hobby in exactly that area, and of course they were experts in various wildly diverging fields. Their extreme abilities took a lot of the fun out of most of the situations they got into, as I didn’t really feel the tension until the scope got much further out of their control.

The beginning also felt like it pushed very hard to make them “good guys” which to my mind the story as a whole doesn’t support. Technically, Sam and Remi go a step farther than the actual villain in several areas, particularly in how they acquired one bottle’s riddle and what they ultimately did in the caves at the end. I fully support that kind of ending for most bad guys, but the way it happened left me wondering why I was supposed to cheer for this. In a way it was almost amusing to compare the way both sides were breaking a lot of the same laws. For more amoral characters this would be less problematic, but again, it felt like the story was setting them up as complete contrasts to the villain, when in reality they’re not all that different.

I also didn’t buy the fact that the home base was secure enough to make even a man with those kinds of connections back off. Unless they’ve physically fortified the structure, all an alarm system is going to do is ensure the police arrive in time to take people to the hospital. If they did fortify the structure, why not just bomb it? A quick and dirty bomb is ridiculously easy to rig together (as events like the Boston Marathon unfortunately proved). Even just as a warning, perhaps with the aim of taking out a bodyguard or two, if he really needs them to keep hunting down the treasure he can’t quite get to himself.

I did like the fact that the lead couple being married meant a complete lack of romantic shenanigans to distract from the action. This left the focus on the action and not on some flimsy relationship likely to be completely discarded by a sequel. Having other people back home to help with the research also eased a lot of the logistical problems.

All in all, I suppose it was a good choice for a book club since there will be a lot to talk about, but I’m not convinced I want to read another one. As a historical mystery it works just fine, but I had a lot more problems with the present-day side of things. I rate this book Neutral.

The Queen’s Poisoner (Kingfountain #1)

Title: The Queen’s Poisoner

Author: Jeff Wheeler

Series: Kingfountain #1

Owen never asked for this. Because his father hung back during a crucial battle, preferring to support the challenger to the throne instead of the current king (albeit indirectly), Owen has now been chosen to live as the king’s hostage for his family’s good behavior. It’s a role his eldest brother had until recently. Until the king killed him.  Now 8-year-old Owen is caught in a web of adult alliances and betrayals, just trying to stay alive . . .

This book surprised me several times, in good ways. Owen is largely ignorant of the political structure he’s been dumped into, which makes it a good way to find out not only what’s being said, but in the end, that the real story is more complicated than that. King Severn has a reputation for being a monster, and not without reason. But he’s also a man, in a position of power that precludes most friendship, and even the crown can’t protect him from other people’s wagging tongues. I liked all the different angles the book gave to a man who otherwise might have been nothing more than a villain.

Other characters, especially the Queen’s Poisoner of the title, are also very well drawn. The setting, too, has solid detail without ever being overwhelming. Other reviews have mentioned knowing history as background, but I don’t think that’s necessary (I didn’t even catch any connections others mentioned, but it didn’t preclude me from enjoying the story).

I do wish the magic system had gotten more development, although what was there made sense for the story. Owen will likely find out a lot more about this in the future, so I’m content to wait for the next book. The images of the Fountain as a source of magic and life, and the types of power that flow from it, are intriguing.

Overall this is an excellent book. It wraps up decently well, but I certainly am interested to see how Owen grows into his role and abilities. I rate this book Recommended.

Storm Front (Dresden Files #1)

Title: Storm Front

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: Dresden Files #1

Harry Dresden is a wizard and PI in Chicago. When a pair of people are found dead—and the method looks like magic—he’s pulled into the case. But even figuring out that kind of black magic is going to get him on the bad side of the White Council, if not outright pegged for the murder himself. Still, he’s the only one who could help. Except now everyone seems to want him dead too . . .

I generally like urban fantasy like this, but Dresden Files never clicked for me. Frankly, I found Harry’s bits of backstory more compelling than the present-day story. The magic and creatures tends to only get introduced as they comes up, which makes for a better story, perhaps, but a rather haphazard magic system. I would’ve much rather read a book about Harry’s younger days, when he was first introduced to real magic, and the sequence of events that led to him having all the baggage he starts this story with.

The murder mystery isn’t the strongest. It was fairly easy to guess early on who would be involved, and Harry burns a lot of bridges with people he should be respectful of as contacts (or employers). I also wasn’t a fan of the sheer volume of nasty stuff that worked its way into this. Blowing up hearts, fine. Demons, fine. But I’d rather skip the people blown up in the middle of sex, and the orgies, and all the naked bodies (including, actually, Harry, who has a shower scene that goes bad). It just felt like mystery by shock factor rather than actual puzzle.

Overall, even though I’ve been told the series gets stronger, this book confirmed my disinterest in reading the rest of it. (Sorry, friends-who-recommended; I gave it a shot but I’m not going to keep going.) I rate this book Neutral.

Bounders (Bounders #1)

Title: Bounders

Author: Monica Tesler

Series: Bounders #1

Jasper has spent his whole life keeping the secret of his birth. He’s a Bounder, a specially-bred human crafted to make quantum leaps across galaxies. Even if most of the time he feels like a spaced-out klutz, he’s got that program to look forward to. A place where he’ll finally be with other kids like himself. But when he enters the program, he finds there’s more going on than just another type of school. And once he knows, he has to figure out what he’s going to do about it.

I liked this. It’s got a huge cast of characters for a rather short book, but everyone is distinct enough that telling them apart isn’t much of a problem. Jasper narrates, but the reader can easily pick up on a few things he’s too young (or too distracted) to see for himself, like the reason everyone in his pod gravitates towards him as a leader.

The technology is a lot of fun, too. The quantum ships, the tube transports, and the Civilization-type game that everyone finds so addicting are all nicely detailed. And I liked how the technology brought questions as well as answers, as in the case of genetic engineering. Humanity decided to excise “bad” genes, only to find some of those undesirable parts actually had benefits as well.

Overall this is a fast, fun read. The kids are a likeable bunch, and the plot never slows. I rate this book Recommended.

The Masked City (Invisible Library #2)

Title: The Masked City

Author: Genevieve Cogman

Series: Invisible Library #2

Irene is enjoying her post as Librarian-in-Residence. She’s been able to collect books for the Library, heal, and–if not take it easy, exactly, then at least settle down to one place. But then Kai, her dragon apprentice, is kidnapped by the Fae. In the interests of preventing a war between the dragons and the Fae, she has to get him back. Even if it means traveling deep within chaos-controlled realms . . .

Like the first book, this is full of crazy twists and a lot of fun action sequences. Irene, who struggles to be competent and professional and above all, grounded, finds herself in a place where story is more important than reality. Stories are reality to the Fae. The question, as Irene continually asks herself, is which kind of story has she stumbled into? One where the prince is rescued and everybody goes home more or less okay? Or one where the clever Fae stumble across the antagonist out to ruin their grand plan and do away with her?

I liked the chance to dig deeper into both the dragons and the Fae. Irene’s starting to pick up on the fact that the Library is probably playing some game of its own, but that takes more of a backseat to fleshing out the various sides outside the Library. Irene herself is for humanity, but it’s Vale who is the actual human involved in this mess. Vale takes Kai’s kidnapping personally, not in the least because of what the Fae do to try to distance him from solving the case. I did wonder towards the end why Vale did better than Irene in a certain area. It would be interesting to know if the reason was merely personality and experience on his side, or if something else was going on.

Once again I wasn’t all that fond of the sexual tones of certain parts. Pretty much every powerful male except the adult dragons tries to seduce Irene, or at least would like to sleep with her (though Vale would probably prefer marriage, and I like him best just because he’s the only one who isn’t PUSHY). This is personal preference, but is one reason I like reading books for kids more; I find the constant repetition of that theme really boring. Although once again Irene actually says no to all of them (and her point about Silver in particular was illustrating… he literally can’t stop himself, even if his life is at stake).

All in all, this was an interesting follow up to a strong first book. Given the hints about some of the deeper games in play, there’s plenty more material to fuel an ongoing series. You could technically start here, but it would spoil some good twists from the first book, so I’d encourage reading them in order. I rate this book Recommended.

Sethra Lavode (Khaavren Romances #5)

Title: Sethra Lavode

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Khaavren Romances #5 (The Viscount of Adrilankha #3)

Kana’s defeat at Dzur Mountain hasn’t slowed the Dragonlord much. But it has taught him to work more carefully around Zerika’s advantages. He’s laying the groundwork for a decisive blow. And Grita, together with the outcast Phoenix Illista, is determined to take revenge on Khaavren and his friends.

Meanwhile, Zerika struggles with the realities of running an Empire (at least, those pieces of the old one that now recognize her as Empress). Khaavren cannot make peace with his son’s determination to marry outside his House, and he’s bothered, as well, by some of the decisions his new Empress has seen fit to make. He’s loyal to the Empire, but he’s no longer sure about the Empress . . .

This book has a number of nods to various things that come up in the Vlad Taltos books, such as the Teckla on Tazendra’s estate, which help with the feeling of the books as a history to the events in those days. Morrolan continued to amuse me, especially when he finally gets his chance to get revenge (and how apologetic the book gets trying to describe his particular method of insult).

The climactic battle with Kana that’s been building finally comes to a head. I liked how such a complicated scheme met its undoing in a few simple, impossible to predict, very human interactions. Luck and chance play a small but vital role, as these are not pieces on a chessboard but people who will, occasionally, act out of character (or within character but to an unexpected degree).

Overall this is a good cap on the series, though I think the second book (and the bits with Morrolan in this one) is my favorite of the lot. I rate this book Recommended.