Tag Archives: neutral

Winter of Ice and Iron

Title: Winter of Ice and Iron

Author: Rachel Neumeier

When the Mad King invades, Kehera finds herself a pawn in a struggle between nations and their Immanent Powers. Innisth is a minor lord determined to keep his land under his control, and is searching for the best way to deflect his king’s attention so he can be left to rule his lands as he sees fit. The two of them may be the only ones able to stop the world from plunging into chaos during the four days of winter when the Unfortunate Gods are strongest. . .

First, a content warning: although the acts happen offscreen, the book does contain numerous instances of rape (of both men and women), abuse, and Innisth has a homosexual relationship with one of his staff. If I had known this going in, I might have passed on the book, because I really don’t like reading stories with rape or abuse, no matter how obliquely they’re portrayed.

For me the magic system was the most interesting part of the book. Each country has become so largely because of the Immanent Powers that are tied to the land in that location. The strength of the Immanent determines if it’s subordinated to some other or ruling others, which is how the four main countries formed. But it’s not like the people know all that much about Immanent Powers and how they work—there’s a very strong prohibition against experimenting with them thanks to one major and a couple of minor disasters spawned from bad things the Immanents did when humans got creative. And of course, as much as humans may want more power, if their Immanent decides to ascend to godhood, even the best of them cause disasters and leave the land empty for a time.

On the flip side, it is puzzling that the Powers have no concept of equivalent relationships. It’s all about dominance and subordination.

The book did feel a bit long to me. There are a lot of longer descriptive passages, and I wasn’t always a fan of when the story would cut away from the main two to show some of what the more minor characters were doing. It felt like it took a long time for Kehera and Innisth to meet. Once they do, Kehera–who was able to go along with the idea of being married off to a maniac on the slim chance she could be rescued, and to keep her country from being destroyed–balks at the idea of a similar sort of alliance with Innisth. Even though she agrees with all of his reasons.

It’s not her protest I minded so much as what she did next. In a moment where she totally loses her head, she causes a disaster within Innisth’s household. That was one of two moments I really didn’t care for in the book. Innisth did need people to stand up to him and challenge him in a nice way (those not trying to take over his country), but that was a cruel–and more importantly, really stupid–way to do it. Now she’s really angered the guy that needs to help save her country.

Another thing I really disliked was Innisth telling his new wife, right after they get married, that he has no intention of giving up his homosexual lover. This fits his character. What bothers me is that his wife is totally fine with the fact he’s going to be sharing his attentions with someone else. She’s started to care for him, and regardless of whether she agrees with his decision or not, I can’t believe she wouldn’t feel at least a little slighted or rejected or jealous that he’s basically told her she won’t be allowed his full loyalty.

And I didn’t care for how the ending treated Innisth. Tirovay seems to be advocating for himself the exact thing he doesn’t want Innisth to do, but it’s okay because he’s not Innisth.

Anyway, overall it was not a story I would read again. I rate this book Neutral.

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Azrael’s Twins (Nearworld Tales #1)

Title: Azrael’s Twins

Author: V.J. Mortimer

Series: Nearworld Tales #1

Niamh and Grady O’Connell never expected to find out that their parents are magic-users from another world slightly offset from our own. Or that they have powers too, and an evil sorcerer is after them. With the help of a phoenix, a unicorn, dragons, and more, their lives are about to change entirely. On the other hand, school is still school, parents are parents, and sometimes things can feel a bit TOO normal . . .

I have very mixed feelings about this. I started reading for the promise of a phoenix, and because I generally like portal fantasies (all the more so because in this case, the whole family is involved and not just the kids). And I do really like the phoenix, though the dragons are mostly treated like slightly smarter horses. The magic system is messy, but not the worst I’ve read, and it supports the story well enough. The characters are generally decent, with a few more unique angles, like the were-setter.

The main problems I had were that the story gets sloppy in a couple of places, and extremely derivative in others.

First, the sloppiness. Niamh and Grady have lots and lots and lots of magic, but no training at all, and unsurprisingly find themselves having a hard time actually using it once in this wonderful new world. There’s specifically some kind of block on their powers . . . but this seems to equal not wanting it badly enough, and once given enough incentive, they unleash their full potential. This was extremely unsatisfying. The plot had been hinting it might have something to do with the fact that both kids were born in the world of deep magic (and it also feels like cheating that being born on normal-Earth qualifies you for both magics, but magic-Earth only qualifies you for normal magic). In the end, though, it’s just “try harder.” And it’s really hard to gauge what any magic user is capable of because the most we get in the sense of limits is simply elemental, but then a number of spells like transformations don’t exactly seem limited to a particular element.

Second, the derivative nature of a few key components. To be honest, the iWands almost made me quit the book. We have an obvious Apple clone, from the way the wands are named, to the way they look, to how they’re sold in stores, and even an app market. Why? Why can’t there be something magic-specific (even if it is a particular type of wand)? Why would an alternate-Earth reflect that kind of product placement when those wands are basically the only thing that does?

The school portion is obviously going to remind people of Harry Potter, and the prose makes a few digs at that (including, amusingly, a conversation about why they’re still learning ordinary subjects and not magic-specific ones). Why NOT magic classes, though, even though there’s no reason for it to be the whole curriculum? And the allowances for the “games” done over breaks and lunch is frankly crazy and I’m amazed no one’s getting killed. No one bothers to protect students like Grady who can’t defend himself, and the one instance that pushed things too far relied more on the students not seriously wanting to kill each other to work out. These aren’t little spells—people are getting transformed. So why the lack of adult interest?

And why broomsticks? Why are we once again shown someone who gets a handcrafted, high-qualify broom that’s the envy of every other kid in the school? It’s almost forgivable because their parents are royalty, and therefore rich enough to afford it, but still, it’s going to draw even more parallels to the famous boy wizard this story is trying (mostly) not to emulate. No one has bothered finding something more comfortable than a stick between your legs in the supposedly modern era in which they live? There’s no technical reason presented for why it has to be broomsticks and not a flying car, or a surfboard, or something that might actually be better suited for riding. I get that broomsticks are traditional, but if we’re going with an iPhone clone for a wand, why wouldn’t the transportation be a bit nicer?

Anyway, I could go on, but the characters aren’t particularly noteworthy, and the setting and plot are full of holes. Some people may have less trouble with the things that bothered me, but I don’t intend to go on. I rate this book Neutral.

Subjugation (Subjugation #1)

Title: Subjugation

Author: James Galloway

Series: Subjugation #1

Humans had dreamed of alien contact, but nobody expected the Faey to show up one day in a gigantic battleship, demanding Earth surrender or be annihilated. These blue-skinned humanoids then solidified the subjugation by using their telepathy to root out and crush any resistance. But Jason Fox refuses to surrender. His plan to do just well enough in school to avoid forced labor on the farms and then wash out to a quiet career comes to a screeching halt when he captures the interest of one of the Faey Marines stationed in his town. She wants him, and she won’t take no for an answer. Soon his little resistance snowballs into a far bigger fight than he ever imagined.

I’m really torn on this book. On the one hand, I love the detailed descriptions of alien tech. The ideas behind it, how it fits together, and how Jason scrapes by with obsolete components built to do something outside the original specs is a lot of fun. The plasma-based technology is interesting, and some of my favorite parts are where the story spends a page or more simply breaking down how the newest gadget works. Add to that the challenge of building a habitable base in an urban wilderness of abandoned towns, or the various prank wars Jason initiates, or the eventual real war that happens despite everything, and there’s a lot of fun to be had.

And the twist about human telepaths was really good.

On the other hand, there’s just no way I buy the “romantic” relationships. The Faey are a female-dominated society whose women are a teenage boy’s wildest dream come true: girls whose thoughts are dominated by sex, all have great bodies, and don’t mind sleeping around. All. The. Time. In fact the book gets pretty fervent in its defense of why it’s totally okay for Jason to be true loves with one Faey female but bedding anyone else he finds attractive. And his partner equally expects to be able to sleep around herself.

I don’t buy the lack of jealousy (he rationalizes the situation over and over to himself, but since when was jealousy rational?), or on the flip side, the way his roaming eye isn’t degrading his bond with his true love. I don’t see anything deep in his relationship with the woman he gets involved with. It’s a relationship that starts with her not honoring his “no,” and even though that drives him wild, once he ends up sleeping with her they’re golden. I could go on, but it boils down to Sex Makes Everything Better just being something that ought to work out better in theory than in practice.

(For a great counter-example, see Teckla by Steven Brust, where Vlad and his wife love each other but have irreconcilable political differences. And this is not because I think everything ought to end unhappily, but because it highlights the hard truth that holding to convictions can cost you, and which ones you choose to hold on to determine what has to be sacrificed).

Overall, whether or not you like this is going to depend on two things: if you like getting a lot of details about pretty much everything, and if you don’t mind or enjoy the way all the sex gets presented. I rate this book Neutral.

Gryphon’s Eyrie (Witch World Series 2: High Hallack Cycle #7)

Title: Gryphon’s Eyrie

Author: Andre Norton

Series: Witch World Series 2: High Hallack Cycle #7

Kerovan and Joisan have survived numerous trials so far, but their journey isn’t over yet. A strange longing tugs at Kerovan–and he flees it. Joisan is determined to remain by his side, no matter what forces of might or magic might come against them. When they find their way to a tribe of nomads, both of them hope for peace. But their coming stirs up enmity . . .

One of the perils of picking up books on the clearance rack is that it is quite easy to get something like this, a book obviously well into a series (that had nothing on the cover indicating it wasn’t a standalone). So I haven’t read anything that comes before this, which might color my thoughts somewhat.

This was pretty tame, though, and I found it almost bland. The characters clearly have a great deal of history, but the exposition provides enough that although I never got attached, I never really got lost either. Kerovan fears his heritage as one touched by Powers from before his birth, one his mother hoped to bend to evil. Joisan, on the other hand, makes full use of what power she can summon, in her role as a healer.

There are no gryphons. This was annoying because I had been hoping, based on the title, to find one. Apparently there was one in a previous book but he does not show up here. The closest we get is a brief mention of a statue of a gryphon. I am still not entirely clear on this but I think the title is supposed to refer to Kerovan’s heritage and the home he finds through it.

Overall, this was a quick read, but not a memorable one. I rate this book Neutral.

Brokedown Palace

Title: Brokedown Palace

Author: Steven Brust

Four brothers live in a crumbling Palace. When Miklós, the youngest, butts heads with his eldest brother László, he finds himself walking straight into myths. But though he journey all the way to Faerie, his heart and his destiny are with his home. Only Miklós seems willing to admit the Palace is rotting. Yet he has no idea what he’s supposed to do about it.

This was an odd book. I liked the way it balances between myth and fact, often muddling the two so much that it’s not clear where any lines ought to be drawn. The Palace is both itself and a symbol of many things, primarily the old, broken, and decaying. I liked the Palace, too. The little details about various things going wrong is almost comical in places, because the King is so determined to just keep on with his everyday life he can ignore gaping holes in the floor.

The complex relationships between the four brothers is also more of a literary bent. The story doesn’t follow events as much as the twists and turns of those relationships, as Miklós tries to escape László, then re-integrate into some kind of family (which is troublesome because he and his eldest brother have polar opposite views on some critical things, and both of them aren’t willing to give any ground). There are also two women, one that László takes as a whore and one he intends to wed, who are themselves set against each other as foils.

The problem for me is that all this literary stuff isn’t nearly as interesting as even my least favorite Vlad Taltos book. This book isn’t often funny, or full of action, and the nods to the wider world it shares with the Vlad books are either incidental or rather subtle (for instance, Brigitta’s end very obscurely ties to a familiar character, but it took out-of-book author confirmation to say for sure as the reference could have also referred to just about anything).

Overall, this will probably appeal more to those who like diving into complex family relationships and spotting various bits of symbolism. For myself, I don’t think I’m going to read it again, but I don’t mind having read it once. I rate this book Neutral.

The Secret Country (The Eidolon Chronicles #1)

Title: The Secret Country

Author: Jane Johnson

Series: The Eidolon Chronicles #1

Ben’s plans to get himself a pair of Mongolian Fighting Fish only last as long as it takes him to save up the money. At the pet store, a cat insists on being taken home instead—and since Ben has never heard a talking cat, he gives in. Little did he suspect he had encountered the fringes of something much bigger. Another world exists alongside our own. A world of magic. A world in trouble. A world that needs Ben to help it . . .

This was a bit too young and straightforward for my tastes, but it was still a decent story. There’s no complexity to the villains or the heroes: once you’ve met someone, you can easily tell which side that person is on. (Amusingly, the only exception is Ben’s sister, but she’s not a major part of the story.)

I did like the variety of mythological creatures. There are dragons, of course, but also selkies and dryads and Gabriel’s Hounds. I particularly liked the twists in how the selkie was presented. That made much more sense than the whole sealskin thing.

I also liked that the whole destiny card doesn’t give Ben a free pass. He’s still himself, with his only real ability apparently being able to talk to magical creatures, which is something a lot of people share.

On the other hand, Ben doesn’t do a whole lot either. Mostly he’s enabling or directing others to do most of the work. I would hope a future book would involve more of his own deeds and not just the help of his friends.

All in all this sets up for a series, but the story wraps up well enough in the first book to have something that feels like an ending. I doubt I’ll continue just because it feels a little younger than the stuff I enjoy, but it isn’t a bad book. I rate this book Neutral.

Rose Daughter

Title: Rose Daughter

Author: Robin McKinley

Beauty remembers her mother’s scent more than her mother’s face: a strange perfume she later learns is made of roses. Beauty has always liked gardens, flowers, and helping the helpless. But when her father’s business implodes, her family must move to Rose Cottage, a home inherited by chance, a tiny house in the middle of nowhere. A house near a town that’s said to be cursed . . .

This is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but has no relationship to any of McKinley’s other books. I think this one does a better job in a few ways, although overall it makes less sense than the earlier book titled Beauty.

The world building and character building remains top-notch. Beauty herself doesn’t change much throughout the story, but it’s interesting to see her sisters lose their biggest character flaws as poverty teaches them to think of themselves more humbly and treat others with more respect. Similarly, their father’s fall and recovery is well done.

This book has a lot of details on gardening, particularly how roses work. It’s fun to see Beauty wonder what those strange thorny bushes are that are planted all around Rose Cottage, and when she does fall in love with their blooms, how she works to reclaim both her roses and the Beast’s wild garden.

The story gets confusing when it tries to explain the origin of the Beast and what exactly happened, as three somewhat similar versions of the story get presented back to back. And the end isn’t exactly clear on what happened with the Beast, either. Those bits are annoying, but the thing I find most puzzling is that Beauty isn’t experiencing the passage of time normally, and therefore is only a scant handful of times acquainted with the Beast before deciding she loves him enough to marry him. It feels like there should have been more story to get to that point.

Overall it’s still a book I enjoy reading, though it isn’t my favorite McKinley book. I find the earlier version of the fairy tale, Beauty, to be better put together, but this one has its own moments of charm. I rate this book Neutral.