Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is officially the first volume of “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club,” but I think that’s only because “The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen” might have had some trademark problems.
Because really, this is doing the same thing that Alan Moore’s comic was doing: Grabbing characters out of Victorian pulp fiction as if they were real people living in a shared universe, and then giving them an adventure together. But of course, here it’s taking heroines rather than heroes, which provides an opportunity for some social commentary along the way.
So the book starts off with Mary Jekyll dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy, and proceeds to wind its way through the streets of London, encountering everyone you might expect to encounter, and a few that you might not have thought of.
It’s a solid, well-paced adventure story with a bit of feminism tossed in along the way. It’s a little weirdly blind about class issues—there’s a lot of matter-of-fact acceptance of the privileges that come with being a gentlewoman—and I think basically everyone in the book is white, but maybe some of that is explored in later books. Enjoyable light fun.
So let’s be real clear here: David Weber’s Through Fiery Trials is not a good book. And sure, none of this Safehold series is objectively good, but even through the lens of someone who’s in the tank for this series and all its godawful names, this is pretty terrible.
The thing about Weber is, his failure case is well-known, because it’s happened in a whole bunch of books so far: It’s when his characters have a moment to relax, so they spend 1100 pages just sitting around telling each other how awesome they are.
Before I started this book, I suspected strongly this might be one of those volumes, because having just wrapped up a major conflict in the last volume, everyone seemed primed for a fuck-you nothing-happens volume. But as the book began, Weber was careful to actually lay out the stakes that remained, and set up a conflict, and… maybe this will actually be a book that has a reason to exist?
But haha, no. The conflict he sets up gets resolved over maybe, idk, 100 pages or so, the rest of which is taken up with pure fluff. If you’re a super-super-super-super-super-dedicated reader of the Safehold series, you’ll want to read this book, with its meetings between characters you’ve come to know and love, where they sing paeans to each others’ greatness. But no normal human could possibly sit through this interminable, insufferable book.
Not recommended, but then look it’s like book ten, and are you really going to stop now? No, I didn’t think so. Suck it up, buttercup.
So Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series is sort of loosely like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, in that it’s globetrotting in a basically-Napoleonic setting with dragons. But it’s not quite doing the same thing.
Partly that’s because the setting here is not our Earth—it’s a fictional subcreation. This doesn’t matter a whole lot, because it’s usually pretty easy to translate things into not-London, not-Russia, not-Japan, and so forth, but it does mean that there’s no actual Napoleonic War going on.
Which gets into a larger difference, which is that these aren’t really about the military at all. Lady Trent is a natural scientist who’s interested in dragons, so while she is traipsing all over the globe, she’s doing it for research purposes, rather than military ones. (Though of course, it’s hard for a not-British subject to go on expeditions all over the globe without getting mixed up in political and military concerns at least a little bit.)
But… still and all, you’ve got a book with old-timey genteel protagonists exploring all the corners of their world, and seeing how the dragons and the people are in all these different places, and making discoveries scientific and historical along the way, so it’s not totally different. Maybe the best way to think of it is that Novik’s books are about Captain Aubrey’s concerns, while Brennan’s are about Doctor Maturin’s.
As far as handling the problematic aspects of imperialism, the book is a little bit of a mixed bag—it’s written from a first-person perspective (the narrator of the books is the elderly Lady Trent talking about her younger life), and that perspective is sort of a screaming leftie by the standards of her fictional time, in that she questions some of the assumptions of the imperial project and constantly is an advocate for the interests of the people she meets on her travels; and plus is lightly against the not-British class system, and is of course a feminist. But still and all, she’s a citizen of not-Britain and tends to think of the people in other places as having concerns that are secondary to those of her country, and their beliefs as quaint folkways to be politely respected but not really taken seriously.
Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable series and a quick read. Recommended to anyone who wants to read an elderly woman who clearly dgaf talking about the scientific exploits of her youth.
There’s nothing about Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series that would obviously indicate that Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling, but my reaction to it ended up being weirdly similar: The first book was trashy, but just good enough for me to bother finishing it; the second book was clearly better, if still not actually good as such; but before you know it, I’m just tearing through them and it doesn’t even really matter if they’re good, because I just want to find out what happens next.
I can’t really explain it; it’s not like the writing is sparkling or anything—it’s fine, it’s there, it works. The characters are pleasant, but not really jumping onto my list of favorite fictional characters. And the story itself is paint-by-numbers TV detective/PI stuff, the basic plot you might get from any generic CBS cop show episode. Objectively, it’s nothing special, but… I’m tearing through them quickly and want more.
(Although—and this is lightly spoilery—I also want Rowling to knock it off with the “will they or won’t they” bullshit; when the series started, it was clear that the protagonists were coworkers and friends, not romantic partners; the more she flirts with their potential relationship, the more aggravating it is.)
If you happen to be taking an airplane flight somewhere, load these up on your phone before you go, because they’re basically perfect for the purpose.
Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a historical semi-biography—that is, it’s about a real person, and it doesn’t contradict the facts that are known about her life… but also, this is 7th century proto-England, and almost everything we know about the real-life person is based on a short bit in Bede, so most of this is pure invention.
But it’s a convincing invention. What we know about this time period is very limited, so Griffith is doing a lot of world-building, but… it feels real. The attitudes that people have are convincingly unmodern in most respects—how they think about religion, sex, politics, the good life are all very different from how we do—while still being believable and coherent.
To a very real extent, more than being a story about Hild, this is a story about the world she lives in, a world on the cusp of major changes; Griffith’s writing (aided by the length of the book) draw you into this world and make it feel as real as anything. This collection of bare names and scanty events from historical documents is given the weight and texture of reality.
It’s quietly excellent, and the one warning I’ll give is that this is the first volume of a planned trilogy, which I didn’t know going in. That’s not a big problem for this book taken on its own—it tells a reasonably complete coming-of-age story—but I do worry that if I grab the next one in a few years, I’m not going to remember all the intricate relationships between the large supporting cast.
I didn’t intend to sit down today and write about a bunch of books that aren’t as good as earlier entries in their series, but I guess that’s what’s happening, because here’s Alex White’s A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, the second of his Salvagers novels, and it’s fine, it’s perfectly enjoyable, but it’s not as good as the first book.
I think it really boils down to the plot of this one feeling too similar to the plot of the first. There’s the part where they get the gang together (again), the investigation of the machinations that are going on (again), and a climactic battle with the forces of evil (again).
I mentioned that the first book felt a lot like Firefly (the TV show, not the godawful Piers Anthony novel); this book really doubles down on that TV show feeling; it’s not quite Monster of the Week, but it’s not far off.
If that turns out to be what the series is, hey, I’m here for it. I like the characters, the world-building remains interesting, and the action is absorbing enough. But a series that just keeps doing the same thing over and over again is still a bit of a letdown after something like The Expanse, where each novel completely reshapes what the series is about.
Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping is the latest in the Rivers of London series. I’ve liked this series, but… okay, the problem is that this is like the fourth book dealing with the ongoing hunt for the Faceless Man, and a) I’m already bored with that plotline, plus b) I don’t remember its ins and outs that well (a problem that I probably wouldn’t have if I were reading these all in one go, rather than spaced out by a year).
So as I’m reading this book, I understand it, I know what’s going on at any moment. But if you had interrupted me from my reading and asked me why the characters were doing what they were doing, I’m not sure I would have had an answer for you. They’re… um, following up on clues, probably? I don’t know, who cares.
So from my perspective it’s just a lot of them going places and doing things for no really great reason, as they try to unravel a plot whose complexities I don’t remember, and work to capture a villain I don’t give a shit about.
It’s a testament to my fondness for these characters (and to Aaronovitch’s writing, I suppose) that I lightly enjoyed this book rather than just noping out entirely. The good news is that I’m optimistic the next book will be about something else more to my liking.
James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded is the second of his superheroes vs. vampires novels. I liked the first book a lot—it had verve and energy, and combined an interesting plot with a solid character arc. This one isn’t quite as good, though.
It still has the energy and style, right, which means that at the very least it’s a light fun read, and I’m always up for that. And the plot was okay—a little shaggier than the first one, with some story detours in the middle that end up kind of making the plot structure feel a bit lumpy and back-loaded—but basically engaging and all.
But the character arc was a bit off. So this series is about a group of friends who get superpowers and become a team, right. And the first book focused on one of them, and had a whole psychological journey for that character. And so this book focuses on a different character, and it starts off setting up the problems that this character is going to have to confront over the course of the novel. Okay, cool.
But then… the problems either don’t get resolved, or get resolved in extremely unsatisfactory ways. I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but we’re talking like “wave a magic wand to solve your personal problems” level of plotting here. The only way it really works at all is if I’m misunderstanding the structure of this series, if it’s not supposed to be a book per character, and actually this character’s arc is going to continue on into future books, so we haven’t actually seen their third act yet and the magic solution isn’t really a meant to be a solution at all.
So I guess we’ll wait and see about that. But I will still be reading, because even with a questionable character arc structure, this was still some good solid fun, and I’m interested in where the series is going.
Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is an alternate history, all right, and it’s got the dirigibles to prove it. But it’s not another WW2 or American Civil War alt-history; it’s diverging from Leopold II’s atrocities in the Congo in the late 19th/early 20th century, with the founding of the nation of Everfair.
As an alternate history, this one is heavy on the “history.” Its characters are the kind of people that history is made out of: complicated, flawed as hell, brilliant at times, occasionally very stupid, and driven by their own idiosyncratic interests that are often pulling them in different directions even from their friends and allies. This may not be the history of our world, but it feels like the history of some world.
This is actually maybe the one weakness of the book, too: It does span decades, and it doesn’t do it in a few big chunks, it does it chapter by chapter. Every time you have a chapter break, you might be skipping ahead by hours, weeks, or years. This can be disconcerting if you’re not paying attention; at first I was ignoring the dateline, as fantasy novels have trained me to find them worthless, and was getting very confused.
But even once you’ve realized what’s going on, it can still cut against narrative momentum and sap the tension out of scenes, as you’ll be getting up to a big crisis point, and then you cut to a year and a half later and a whole new set of characters, who mention in passing that oh yeah, that happened. (The positive side of this, though, is that it doesn’t wallow in things that we already know—lightly skipping through World War I, for instance, cuts out a lot of slog.)
Recommended for anyone looking for Victorian steampunk alt-history that doesn’t skip blithely over the awfulness of Victorian normpunk regular history.
Madeline Miller’s Circe follows on her biography of Patroclus by telling the life story of the famous Greek witch. I had mentioned that The Song of Achilles was genuinely mythical, with real gods and magic, and that’s all the more true here, where Circe is a goddess, born of Titans.
If you’re like me, you’re now wrinkling your forehead like, “wait, are we talking about the witch who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs? That Circe?” Yep! Turns out that she actually pops up a lot in classical literature after Homer created her—she’s in Hesiod, she’s in Ovid, she’s in lost plays by Aeschylus, actual living Romans claimed to be descended from her, and so on. I’d link to the Wikipedia page, but if you’re not familiar with all the stories, they might actually be reasonably considered spoilers, for all that they’re centuries old.
Because what Miller does is to take all this material from this classical shared universe, which is about as retconned and inconsistent as the Marvel Universe (where Jack Kirby created the Eternal Sersi, by the way), and turns it into a story that works as a single unified whole, and that not only turns all this hodge-podge into a coherent narrative, but gives it thematic unity, psychological depth, and a compelling character arc or three.
As good as The Song of Achilles was (and it was excellent), this is even better. If you have any interest in classical Greek literature and mythology, this is basically mandatory reading; even if you don’t, it’s still strongly recommended, because it’s just that good.
Writing up the previous Ethshar book, I talked about how a strength of the series is its ability to jump from the epic to the low-key, and that’s definitely at play in Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Stone Unturned.
As the book starts, we have three plotlines, with three sets of characters, and it’s not at all clear what the relationship between them is. It becomes a bit clearer once you realize that you shouldn’t just ignore those datelines at the top of every chapter—which, quick tangent: I really super-wish writers wouldn’t put chapter-heading dates in books that go in straight linear order, because then I just get used to ignoring them and don’t realize that they’re significant when they’re critical to understanding a non-linear book—and of course eventually they converge, in a way.
Right there, you’ve got an Ethshar book that’s on the intricate and involved side, but it goes on to set up even more puzzles to be resolved, with some large-scale magics in play. The end result is a pretty major book in the series, although not as world-changing as a handful of others.
This is like the mumbleteenth entry in the series, so really there’s not a whole lot to say that I haven’t said before; but yeah, I like these books, and the way they give a kind of light puzzle feel to an epic fantasy world. Recommended.
So I’ve now read the rest of Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns series. You’ll recall that when I read the first, I wasn’t thrilled about how the fun military stuff was integrated with the blah fantasy stuff. The straight-up good news is that this got a lot better very quickly.
Mostly this is because the books stopped being straight-up military fantasy—the scope of them expanded beyond a pseudo-Napoleon leading a military campaign, to encompass the whole pseudo-French Revolution and revolutionary politics, with the supernatural stuff being much more seamlessly integrated.
In a way this is disappointing—I was really looking forward to these bubblegum military fantasies, and instead ended up reading a lot of morally semi-ambiguous political fantasy, which wasn’t what I was expecting—but on the whole the books are probably better than the trashy fun Napoleon-with-magic I was hoping they’d be.
I do have one quibble with them, though, which is that the demands of fantasy narrative really clash hard with a sensible political philosophy. Because when you have a sympathetic protagonist who is a fantasy version of a real-world military dictator, and you have a sympathetic protagonist who is a monarch, it’s very difficult to make democracy actually seem like it’s necessary and good. So you end up with this situation where your very non-democratically-elected characters are all “pro-democracy” but also totally going off and being autocratic, because that’s what heroic protagonists in fantasy do.
But dubious politics notwithstanding, these were fun books, and my concerns about the first should be dismissed in the context of the larger series. Recommended for anyone wanting a Napoleonic-esque fantasy who’s already read Novik.
Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names is a secondary-world Napoleonic-esque military fantasy. It’s got lots of loving talk about cannon, it’s got infantry forming up in square, muskets and bayonets, the whole thing.
And I loved the military part of it, with its brilliant colonel who comes in and invigorates a decadent army, with its clever strategems and tactics, with its individual characters who rise up to heroism or fall into brutishness.
But then there’s the fantasy stuff, which, ugh, you’ve got an ancient cult of priests, and demons, and another religious order, and a McGuffin of Great Power, and blah blah, meh. I want more Weber/Novik-style Napoleonic military fun, and way less McClellan-esque grimdark demon bullshit.
It was good enough to keep me reading, and I’m moving on to the second one, but depending on how it goes, I might not keep reading on to the third.
Describing Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, they sound a lot like the latest Craft novel from Max Gladstone: So there was a war in which the old gods were killed off, and as the story begins, we’re in a city under colonial rule, in which the very geography of the city is shared between the old city-that-was and the new city, and there are rising tensions between the locals and the imperial overlords.
See what I mean? That’s almost precisely the premise of Ruin of Angels. But Bennett’s doing a very different thing with that premise; his world-building is a lot less weird, and more conventional, than Gladstone’s. (For both good and ill: It’s less original and densely-packed with new ideas, but it’s a more accessible, breezy read.)
Each of the three novels in the series tells a complete story, following different characters out of the first novel on their further adventures; like Gladstone’s Craft novels, they tend to be about modern political themes, examining colonialism, democracy, technological progress (feeling a bit like Pratchett at times), religious pluralism, and so forth.
But they also come together to tell a larger story that manages to acquire some of the scope of history to it. And that’s maybe what the series is most about, looking at the bloody sweep of history, and wondering if it’s possible for there to exist meaningful justice or lasting peace.
But I don’t want to give the impression that these are dry, grim, big-concept reads. The characters in them are great; they’ve got a good solid mix of humor, action, and mystery; and the writing is compellingly readable. Highly recommended for people who like Pratchett and Gladstone.
Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange starts off with a magical mystery in modern-day San Francisco, and then immediately jumps into the pre-WW2 past to give us the backstory. Mostly, this consists of a portrait of gay culture in pre-war SF, and just enough plot to carry the story through its interesting (and I assume well-researched) setting.
When I got to the end, I had a bit of a “that’s it?” feeling, and thought that it would probably have been a better novella than a novel… at which point, I discovered that it was, in fact, a novella. Oh. That would explain why I read it so fast, I guess. And as a novella, it’s very good.
Martha Wells’ Exit Strategy is also a novella, but nobody would ever accuse it of being short on plot. This is the conclusion of the first arc of Murderbot novellas, and it’s got a lot to wrap up, both action and character development. In doing so, it’s maybe more straightforward than previous installments—there aren’t any new characters introduced (though old ones return) and there’s not a whole lot of mystery to puzzle through. This is taking all the pieces that have been set up in the previous novellas and knocking them down. Which it does well, while leaving just enough hooks for there to be a place to hang the upcoming Murderbot novel. Good stuff.
So the setting of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion is interesting. There’s a swarm of worldships around a star, each with their own inhabitants (all of them female) and civilizations. And the tech is entirely biological in ways that are about as gross as real biology is.
And the part of the novel that’s dedicated to exploring that setting, which feels like one of those journey-of-discovery novels like Ringworld, is similarly pretty great. The protagonist finds new societies, makes new friends and new enemies, encounters surprising creatures and places, all that. It’s stickier and slimier than Ringworld maybe, but it’s working in a fun space.
Unfortunately, that’s a relatively small part of the book. The rest of it is a morass of horrible people being horrid to each other. It’s full of betrayals and counter-betrayals, casual cruelties and elaborate vengeance, brutal acts of war and even more brutal acts of “love.”
The book spoon feeds out the background to you, as the main protagonist has lost her memory, so there’s a kind of puzzlebox feel as she regains it—who can she trust? what is not actually as it appears?—but as it becomes clearer what’s actually happened before, my ability to care if any of these people succeed in their too-complex schemes fell to basically zero.
This is another one that might appeal more to people who like grimdark antiheroes doing horrible things, but I can’t really recommend it.
So Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is the story of Achilles, as told by Patroclus. There are a lot of novels that try to retell Homer (or other such epics), and it’s usually pretty predictable how they go: They take as their viewpoint character one of the more minor characters on the edge of the thing (check), they add in psychological complexity that gives the mythic characters human depth (check), they add in a bunch of sex (check; Patroclus’ relationship with Achilles is not subtext here), and they make it gritty and realistically historical.
It’s that last one where Miller breaks from the mold, because the story she’s telling is still openly and unabashedly a fantasy. When Chiron appears to train Achilles and Patroclus, he’s not just a guy, he’s an actual centaur. When Thetis, Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, appears, she’s not just a lady who lives down by the water, she’s a genuine goddess. The plague that strikes the armies outside of Troy is unambiguously brought about by Apollo. The focus of the novel isn’t the gods, it’s the human characters, but the gods are unquestionably real and acting directly.
And so along with setting the book in a genuinely mythical world, Miller writes in a tone that isn’t crisp realism, it’s much more lyrical and poetic. Achilles appears as a golden demigod of a man; the army of the Greeks isn’t one of shit and blood, it’s courage and bronze; everything is grand and epic. And, too, this isn’t really a story about war in the modern sense, it’s about glory and legacy, about love, and about what it means to be aristos Achaion. Recommended.
Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series reminds me a lot of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Not in the specifics, mind—they have some commonalities (vampires and werewolves as institutional powers, and a hero who deals with the supernatural on the regular), but also many, many differences (Carriger’s series is a romance-flavored thing, set in Victorian London).
No, the similarity that strikes me is how both series deepen the world-building as they go. Carriger’s first book is really a pretty standard supernatural romance, and there’s not much more to the setting than what’s needed to support that. But as the series go on, Carriger is forced to think about how her societies really work, and about what various characters’ backstories really are. So book by book, they evolve in subtle ways, never quite contradicting earlier books, but definitely taking advantage of the blank spaces present in the earlier ones to fill in an awful lot of stuff that wasn’t really lurking in the background then.
As it happens, this also goes hand-in-hand with her getting better as a writer. Soulless, the first book in the series, is kinda weak. The romance is super-tropey (hey look, two characters who hate each other at first sight, will they end up falling in love? okay, but what if he’s a gruff and uncommunicative alpha male, and she’s a free-spirited “spinster” in her twenties who thinks she’s unattractive because her breasts are too large and her complexion too Italian?), the supposed-to-be-witty banter mostly feels labored and unfunny, and the plotting relies on people being idiots in obvious ways.
Some of the plotting problems persist for a few books—there are scenes where people will narrowly avoid assassination attempts and then never mention it to people who really, really ought to know about it, and will take virtually no action as a result of it, because it’s not time to tug on that plot thread yet—but it gets better as it goes, and by the fifth book, that mostly doesn’t happen. The character and dialogue problems improve faster.
Still, even by the end, these aren’t much more than light fluff, with some serious flaws. They don’t seriously interrogate the underpinnings of their world—that all the characters are aristocrats in the service of the British imperial project isn’t really called out in any way whatsoever, for instance; and the idea of female political equality is openly mocked within the books in a way that I guess might be period-appropriate, but still seems a little weirdly off—especially given how aggressively independent the female characters in the book are. (The books do have a bunch of non-straight characters, though, so are good on that front.)
I enjoyed them enough to power through all five in a row, but I’ll only recommend them weakly: If this is the sort of thing you love, you’ll probably like these.
Fonda Lee’s Jade City is exactly the sort of thing I’d normally hate. It’s set on the fictional island of Kekon, a couple of generations after it’s won its independence from a colonizing nation. The guerrilla fighters who won that war went on to become basically ganglords, and now we’re watching their grandchildren—who are modern, educated, cosmopolitan people—trying to meld their modern attitudes with the macho bullshit needed to be successful ganglords. If this sounds a lot like The Godfather to you, you’re not wrong.
So yeah, it’s about criminals doing murders and being lightly angsty about it, and it’s about gang wars and street violence and loyalty and intimidation and all that jazz. Not really things that are in my wheelhouse at all. But for whatever reason, it really worked for me. Maybe partly because of the interesting setting, with magical jade that only specially-trained people (who get pulled into high positions in the warring clans) can safely use; just the presence of magic and calling the gangs “clans” kinda makes it feel more like a fantasy novel more than a straight-up street crime thing (even though it’s clearly set in modern-esque times—roughly the ‘80s, I’d guess?).
But also it works because of the characters, who are unexpectedly interesting—even the ones who seem blandly obnoxious have more depth to them than you’d expect. And a few of the prominent characters in the book are women, which seems atypical for the testosterone-drenched street crime genre.
Recommended to anyone who likes gangster stuff, but also to people who (like me) don’t. (This is the first book of what’s apparently going to be a series, but it stands alone well, even as the sequel hooks are obvious.)
I super-hated the third Chalion book, so I didn’t really rush out to read Lois Bujold’s Penric novellas, which are set in the same world (though in a different country and featuring different characters); but people said good things about them, and I’ve been liking the novellas I’ve been reading, so I figured I’d give them a go.
They’re pleasantly enjoyable books. Penric is a young lad who unexpectedly finds himself possessed by/of a demon. He then has a series of adventures—solving a murder, hunting down a shaman, doing some light spycraft, and engaging in a jailbreak. The novella format works well for letting Bujold tell relatively small, direct stories without needing to pad them out with a whole bunch of complications or an elaborate B-plot or whatever. (It really is nice that the e-book world has let writers free of the length constraints around paper books, so they can tell stories that are whatever length makes sense for the story, rather than always having to cram everything into novel length.)
If there’s a criticism, it’s that they really aren’t more than pleasantly enjoyable. They’re not brilliant, they aren’t breaking new ground, they’re just little light adventure stories that go down easy. But that’s not really a failing on their part, so much as it’s a failure of the Hugo organizers and voters for instituting a stupid “Best Series” award and giving it to this series.
Recommended, but don’t expect one of the Best Series of all-time.