Dave Duncan’s Ivor of Glenbroch books are a YA trilogy (actually collected in one volume now as The Adventures of Ivor), and they’re YA of the old school: They focus on a boy coming into his manhood, and show him being competent and honest and just generally exhibiting virtues of all sorts as he faces particular challenges.
In this case, the challenges are those facing a message-runner in medieval Scotland, as he seeks out a hermit on behalf of his thane, negotiates with a prince on behalf of his feudal lord, and carries a proposal of marriage where all is not what it seems.
They’re straightforward books, with plots that barely even have a half-twist in them, and characters that mostly exist in broad archetype. But they read quickly and Ivor’s a pleasant companion, so they go down easily. Recommended as a palate cleanser between weightier works.
So when I was reading Station Eleven, it had a glancing (and enormously spoilery) reference to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which got me interested in reading it. So I did.
Turns out The Passage is an apocalypse novel (subgenre: epidemic, sub-subgenre: vampirism); it starts off well before the apocalypse and focuses on a handful of characters who are significant to the event; shortly after the event itself, it jumps forward some decades into the post-apocalyptic society that emerged from the rubble.
The apocalypse itself is interesting; the post-apocalypse… well, it’s okay. It’s fine. It’s a perfectly reasonable post-apocalypse. Good enough that after the book was over, I started in on the sequel, The Twelve.
Started, but didn’t finish. Because the problem is, The Twelve jumps back into the middle of the apocalypse with a set of new characters, which saps forward momentum. But okay, I can get through that before we get back to our story in progress… except then it jumps to a new set of post-apocalypse characters, which is yet another frustrating digression and for much less reason. And, halfway through the book, when it finally does get back to our main characters, their story is dull and repetitive enough that I just didn’t care anymore.
But I don’t know, maybe I’m being unfair. The book wasn’t bad or anything, and I read over a thousand pages of it before calling it quits. If I can’t recommend it highly, I wouldn’t warn anyone off of it. If a vampire apocalypse sounds interesting to you, it’s worth a shot.
The Phoenix Project, by Kevin Behr, Gene Kim, and George Spafford is a book about IT management practices and techniques in the shape of a novel, the protagonist of which is a dude newly promoted to the Director of IT and trying to solve some critical infrastructure problems while getting a big software project delivered.
I should probably have enjoyed it less than I did; reading about someone having problems at work and calling meetings and instituting processes to fix them really should not be a fun, compelling page-turner. But… uh, well, it was. Also some good advice in it.
Eli Goldratt’s The Goal is a similar novel, only this time it’s about a newly-promoted plant manager in the ‘80s. He’s trying to boost his plant’s production to stave off (of course) Japanese competition. As a piece of entertainment, it was somewhat less fun—partly because factory management is less interesting than IT management to me, partly because the marriage subplot is painfully dated and kinda ooky. But as a management techniques book, it’s probably more coherent—whereas The Phoenix Project was kind of a melange of techniques to apply, The Goal is a focused explanation of the Theory of Constraints.
Either way, if you enjoy reading novels about management, a) what’s wrong with you, but also b) go ahead and read both of these.
Naomi Novik’s League of Dragons is the concluding volume to her Temeraire series, and it is is a worthy ending to the series, one that satisfactorily wraps up the various themes introduced by the earlier books.
This had looked implausible at one point, so this is a very welcome development. In retrospect, the key thing is that this book focuses on Europe and Napoleon—the series was always strongest when it was exploring the contrast between Britain and France, and the complicated morality and honor to be had in that war. All the stuff elsewhere in the world is interesting enough, but it’s not the heart of the series, and it shows.
But this book doesn’t totally throw away all the global wanderings of the previous volumes, either—that stuff comes back in ways that matter and turn this European conflict into what might fairly be called a World War, in some ways.
So yeah: Excellent novel, and excellent end to a series. Highly recommended, and my initial enthusiasm for the series (which waned a bit in the middle there) is renewed. If Napoleonic wars fought with dragons, exploring issues of self-governance and human rights and international relations and the morality of war sounds good to you, check this out.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is an unusual book. In its broadest outline, it’s basically an apocalypse novel (subgenre: superflu). But… it’s not really an apocalyse novel, nor even a post-apocalypse novel, for all that it shares elements of those genres.
What it really is, is one of those literary novels that tells a portrait of a handful of characters over the course of their lives—an anecdote from their childhood, key moments from relationships, quiet moments when they’re alone—and shows them through each other’s eyes as they interact with each other. And oh yeah, these character’s lives just so happen to span an apocalypse.
This works well; the apocalypse is a relatively quiet and unsurprising one (as such things go), but because the story is more about the people than the Event, there’s no frustration from not seeing more intricate details of post-apocalypse society or the immediate logistics of the apocalypse itself, in the way there would be if (say) S.M. Stirling had decided to skip over key elements in one of his apocalypse novels.
Recommended both for fans of quiet literary novels and fans of apocalypses, and I don’t think there’s another book I can say that about.
So I really did not like Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, and I think one reason why is that it’s structured around a false mystery.
What I mean by that is… okay, this is going to be easier to explain by contrast. So consider those M.L.N. Hanover books, right. They start off with a bit of action that’s not entirely clear—who are these guys? why is he trying to do this thing?—then cut to our protagonist narrator, who does not know anything about this action, but quickly gets dumped into it. So there’s a genuine mystery, and we follow along with the protagonist, finding out the stuff with her, including some characters infodumping at her and the whole works.
And so A Madness of Angels does something that seems similar at first: We get a bit of unclear in media res action, which introduces a bit of a mystery, right—who is this guy, how did he get in this situation, all that. But the difference here is that it’s only a mystery to the reader. The protagonist narrator understands perfectly well what’s happening (give or take a few minor points), but the book is so committed to its false mystery structure that it can’t just have the narrator narrate to us. It has to keep us in the dark, slowly doling out pieces of information and giving us cryptic hints about what’s going on that we couldn’t possibly understand, but which are supposed to be tantalizing.
At first, you roll with it; it’s pretty normal to go through an action scene and not be entirely clear about what’s happening, and have the narrator fill you in afterward. (That’s a pretty common story structure in Butcher’s Dresden books, for instance.) But when you get to a pause point, where the narrator should go back and fill you in… he doesn’t. And he keeps not filling you in for at least the first half of the book, keeping you in this false suspense.
And of course, the reason the book is structured that way is that if you take away the false suspense and false mystery, there’s not a whole lot there. It’s bland, generic urban fantasy with characters that have literally zero personality or distinctiveness. I want to say that it’s not a terrible book, and it probably isn’t in some sense. And yet at the same time, I quit reading it 2/3 of the way through, because I just gave zero shits about any of the characters or any of the storylines of the book.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the latest Vorkosigan book; the protagonist this time around is Cordelia, who was also the protagonist of the first book, Shards of Honor, published back in 1986.
And this feels like an installment of a series that’s thirty years old, featuring a character who’s aged some forty-odd years over the course of the books. It’s quieter, it’s slower, and it’s suffused with reminiscence—almost everything that occurs summons up memories and associations with past events; for all that the book is taking the storyline forward, it’s doing so while continually looking backward.
And not only is it looking backward at events we’ve read about, but it’s presenting us with something of a retcon while doing so. (Call it a secret history if you think Bujold had it in mind all along; I have no idea, myself.) As suspicious as I was of the retcon before reading, I think it actually works medium-well. It’s a thing that developed over the course of her marriage to Aral Vorkosigan, and almost all of the books we’ve had since then have been from the POV of Miles, who wouldn’t after all have any idea about the inner workings of his parents’ marriage.
At any rate, this is a quiet, slow book that’s really just about the reshaping of a relationship between two people who’ve known each other a long time. It’s traded in the pyrotechnics and manic energy of earlier Vorkosigan books for a more reflective and deliberative middle age.
If I saw them in a bookstore, I would have passed right over M.L.N. Hanover’s Black Sun’s Daughter books. They look like the cheesiest sort of urban fantasy—all the covers have a midriff-baring, tattooed, leather-sports-bra-wearing woman on them—and they’re clearly marketed as the kind of books where people go around banging vampires.
But it turns out that Hanover is actually a pen name for Daniel Abraham, and I’ve loved everything he’s written, so I figured I’d give them a chance. I wasn’t super-optimistic, and figured this might just not be my kind of book, but what the hell, dude’s earned at least a look-see, right?
Well, so, it turns out that even if this isn’t particularly my preferred genre, these books are excellent. I plowed through the five book series in a handful of days, and would have been happy to keep reading if there were more of them.
Structurally, they have the episodic nature that seems common to urban fantasy—there’s a case/monster of the week in each book—but with a strong overarching plot here. Since this is a series that’s done in five books (as opposed to the 25 or so Anita Blake books or the 15+ Harry Dresden books), the plot feels a lot tighter and less ad hoc than in those longer, ongoing series.
That tight plotting, combined with the other attractions of the genre—the found family element is pretty much straight text here rather than subtext, and there’s plenty of world-building discovery and competence porn—makes this compellingly readable. This is one of those books where I’d actively read pages while walking across a parking lot or hallway, and pretty much blew off any activity I could ignore in favor of reading.
It was actually disappointing that the series was only five books, because while the story does wind up its big questions and feels finished enough, there are enough sequel hooks to support more entries in the series. Apparently sales have been disappointing, though, so presumably those won’t be coming anytime soon. This would bother me a lot more if it weren’t that I love all of Abraham’s other work maybe even more than this, so am fine with him writing other things even though I would like more of this thing.
Anyway, highly recommended. It’s not doing anything startingly original with the genre (Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series is probably more distinctive), but the execution is just top-notch, and it’s hard to imagine anyone liking the urban fantasy genre but not liking this series.
So I’ve loved pretty much everything Daniel Abraham has written—both his Long Price Quartet and his Expanse series of SF. So as soon as Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series was finished, I started in on the first book.
And pretty much didn’t stop until I came to the end, because it turns out this series is absolutely excellent, probably the best epic fantasy series of this millennium. I’m not going to talk about the plot, because this is one of those books where part of the pleasure is seeing the shape of the story forming, without knowing even the big picture about how the storyline shapes up. So don’t read any book jackets or capsule descriptions or anything, because they’ll spoil too much.
But what I can safely say is that it combines the virtues of “modern” epic fantasy—the genre that George R.R. Martin really brought into being with his Game of Thrones, all full of psychological and political realism—with the virtues of traditional ‘80s-era quest fantasy, with their found-family D&D party characters and worlds deep in ancient magical mysteries.
It actually reminds me a lot of Robin Hobb’s Assassin/Ship/Fool/Dragon serieses (which I also love enormously), except that where Hobb’s books tend toward the bleak—usually staying on the right side of the line to my taste—Abraham puts enough humor into these books that I actually laughed out loud a couple of times.
Recommended super-highly for anyone looking for a serious-but-not-grim mix of quest fantasy and political intrigue.
So one of the things Brandon Sanderson does best is build up a magical world on logical principles, not tell those principles to the reader, and then make discovering those principles drive the plot of the series. Brandon Sanderson’s Calamity, and really the whole Reckoners trilogy of which this is the third book, is a perfect example of that approach.
As I read the first two, I liked the mystery setup, but was unsure whether he could actually resolve all the mysteries in the third book. The good news is, he was able to. By the end of the book, everything is wrapped up in a way that’s relatively satisfying. The better news is, this series really is self-contained and not part of Sanderson’s horrifically misconceived Cosmere multiverse, so you don’t have to worry about another book coming along later and retconning this into being about shards and investiture and a bunch of other meta-series nonsense.
Taken as a whole, the Reckoners trilogy isn’t super-great or revelatory or anything—but it’s decently enjoyable superhero-flavored fantasy, so worth reading if you’re looking for a satisfying quick read.
So when I wrote up Shadows of Self, the book to which Brandon Sanderson’s Bands of Mourning is the sequel, I said a bunch of positive things, but was wary that the series might devolve into “Cosmere” meta-story bullshit, so the obvious question is: Has it?
And the answer is: No, not yet, but… it’s getting closer. There was one moment in the book when I thought it was going to jump the rails, focusing entirely on meta-cosmic nonsense, but it pulled back from that brink, and went back to being about the actual world the characters live in, and the things they should care about. But if this book wasn’t irredeemably contaminated with Cosmere silliness, it points the way clearly to a next book that is. Given a couple of plot elements here, I actually don’t know how this series can wrap up without being all about Cosmere stuff, which displeases me greatly.
And that’s a particular shame, because—just as I said about the previous book—this is some of the best work Sanderson has done. It has the best characters, maybe the most absorbing plots, and certainly the sharpest writing stylistically. Having that ruined by Foundation and Robot-style meta-fictional awfulness is just a huge waste.
Maybe I’ll be wrong, and things will wrap up without crossing over the bullshit event horizon; that’d be wonderful, and if it happens, I can recognize these books unreservedly. But for the moment, I’ve got reservations.
So the thing about space opera is, what you really want is for it to feel like it’s taking place in a universe rich in history and lore and strange alien cultures and maybe just a touch of the eldritch. And there’s two ways to do that. The first way, the way that Star Wars used, is to pretend. Make the odd reference or two to things that don’t really exist, and let the audience’s imagination fill in those gaps. (And no matter what you do, don’t try to backfill those gaps with prequels.)
And then there’s the other way, the way that Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge’s Exordium series went, which is to actually build out a universe full of all kinds of thought-through history and aliens and cultures, and to actually immerse the reader in all of that, with dozens of points-of-view from different perspectives.
The upside to the Exordium approach is that it works amazingly well, and really does evoke that sense of a rich, historic galaxy. The downside is, when every chapter starts with a totally new viewpoint character in a new setting, it’s hard to get reading momentum going. And I’m only barely exaggerating about that “every chapter” thing—the first 22 chapters of The Phoenix in Flight start with sixteen different viewpoint characters, and they don’t stick with just one character per chapter, either. As much as I was enjoying these books, there were a bunch of times when I almost just put them down because I was too exhausted to take in another new setting and batch of characters and try to integrate them into the larger picture.
But it would have been a mistake to put them down, because this really is an excellent series. The plot is multi-layered and nearly as rich as the setting; the characters are wonderful, unique and complex; and in general, this is doing what I want far-future epic science fiction to do—providing a universe to get fully immersed in.
This isn’t for novices to the genre, but if you’ve read a bunch of SF, you should read this. And as a nice plus, the authors self-published the revised e-book editions, so you can buy them for a reasonable price and know that your money is actually going to the creators instead of multinational media conglomerates.
Kerry Greenwood’s Flying Too High is the second of her Phryne Fisher books, and it’s the one that’s convinced me not to read any more.
When I read period books, I have a lot of tolerance toward characters with period attitudes. These characters think women are inferior? This character is an awful homophobe? As long as the book itself doesn’t seem to agree with the characters, I nearly always skip right by that without being unduly bothered. This may not be an ideal reaction, but it’s how I read.
And so there was a scene near the end of the first book that got really weird in a homophobic way—I’m reluctant to go into details for spoiler reasons—but it didn’t bother me unduly for that reason. But when the second book went to the same place in an even weirder and more offensive way (again, don’t want to spoil something from near the end), and did so in a way where it was clear that the author wasn’t writing super-weird/offensive historical attitudes but thought they were just writing something normal… yeah, no. The ick factor is high on this one.
So: tentative recommendation withdrawn, and I won’t be reading any more of these.
David Weber’s Hell’s Foundations Quiver is the latest installment in his Safehold series, which started off as a Napoleonic Wars + Reformation mashup, but is at this point a Spanish-American War + Reformation mashup.
In this series, you can tell how good each book is by looking at the ratio of dialog (bad) vs. tech-infodump ‘n’ fighting (good). In the first third of this one, it was looking pretty talky; but fortunately the ratio improved, and it ends up as a medium-solid installment.
But so one caveat is: This is the eighth book in the series, and the war it’s telling has been going on for a long time with no obvious end in sight, and this book doesn’t change that. Stuff happens, but it’s hard to argue that the situation at the end of the book is significantly different than at the beginning. I can see a lot of people being annoyed by that.
Me, I’m good with it. I think one of the common failure modes of wars in fantasy books is that authors want them to be small things that happen quickly, and they end up feeling like just one big skirmish. Weber’s war feels like a global conflict, a true civilization-mobilizing total war, with random ups and downs and reversals. The longer timeframe helps to make the (still very rapid) pace of technological advance seem more plausible, too.
For all its very real flaws, I love this series and I’ll be fine if it goes on basically forever. I can’t recommend it unreservedly, but if it’s your kind of thing, you’ll probably like it a great deal.
Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues is the first Phryne Fisher mystery, about a self-described “lady detective” in Jazz Age Australia, as she investigates a potential poisoning, and quickly gets embroiled in a bunch of complications.
Lady detective she may be, but Fisher is no Nancy Drew—she’s a determined libertine, daredevil, and fashionista, and her character is definitely the sparkling core of the book. Unfortunately, the rest of the book just isn’t up to its protagonist. Scenes are choppy, pacing is uneven, the writing is rough (particularly noticeable when it jumps perspective in the middle of a scene), and the plot is driven by a fair pile of coincidences and events that don’t actually make sense if you think about them.
But it’s clear this series has been successful (there are twenty books and a TV show), and this is the author’s first novel, so presumably those rough edges get polished off as the series goes on. Tentatively recommended, on the optimistic basis that the series gets better from here.
So as I was reading those Kowal books, people recommend Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown as another fantasy-Regency book worth reading. And it absolutely is. But it doesn’t read much like Kowal (or Austen), and instead feels more in the mold of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in that it’s about gentleman sorcerers exploring the nature of English magic.
Except not “gentleman sorcerers” as such, because one of the main characters is a woman. And both of them have a complicated relationship with English gentility, due to their non-white backgrounds. This ends up working a lot better than writing around a should-be slave rebellion, and gives the characters depth and complexity that go beyond the cliches of Regency fiction.
Sorcerer to the Crown is extremely well-written stylistically, has great characters, and keeps its plot moving along nicely. There are a few places where the world-building is a bit unclear—it’s hard to tell how important or surprising things are when they don’t exist in the real world and characters in the book react with the flat affect of aristocratic reserve—but that’s a minor complaint. This is good stuff; it’s complete in itself, but it’s apparently the first book of a series, and I look forward to the sequels.
Brandon Sanderson’s Shadows of Self is the fifth Mistborn book, the second Cowboy Mistborn book (after The Alloy of Law), and the first of a new Cowboy Mistborn trilogy. Straightforward, right?
And that’s not the least of it, because it turns out that the Mistborn books are only one of the many subserieses that comprise Sanderson’s “Cosmere” multiverse, which he is apparently going to be bringing more to the forefront in these and later books. The degree to which I am not excited by a series-spanning ultra-tie-in storyline cannot be overstated. Already, there’s one big story element in this book that was basically ruined for me, because I have no idea if it’s a legit in-book mystery that’s going to drive plot events in the next two Cowboy Mistborn books, or a bullshit meta-book mystery that’ll be resolved in some other series entirely.
Which is a damned shame, because taken on its own, this is a very good book, one of Sanderson’s best. His plotting is just as fast-paced as ever, Wax and Wayne are great characters, Cowboy Mistborn is a great setting, and Sanderson’s writing seems more assured than in previous books—there’s less of the clunkiness that I normally associate with his writing, and plenty of great lines and wit. What’s more, the book is addressing the nature of law and justice in a 19th-century city in a time of technological upheaval, which ends up making it feel like the spiritual successor to Discworld—a Vimes book with more action and less humor.
If Sanderson could leave his books alone to be themselves, I’d be able to enjoy his growth as a writer and recommend this series with no qualms. As it is, though, I’m worried that the Cosmere tie-in nonsense that already hurt this book is just going to get more obtrusive as the series goes on. So this is enjoyable enough for now, but we’ll see where it goes.
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy is a very good book, but it’s a terrible end to a trilogy. In some ways, it doesn’t even seem to be trying to do that job.
Because, so, Ancillary Justice set up a universe and a conflict and launched everything into motion in a huge way, with stakes for all of human civilization. And then Ancillary Sword went off and focused on a small backwater as kind of a microcosm of this big conflict. Which was fine as far as it went, but it felt like a bit of detour from the larger story that was set up in the first volume. So it was a reasonable assumption that the third book would take the events of the second book, and bring them back up to the larger scale.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the third book seems to be a direct sequel to the second book—it takes place in the same backwater, dealing with the same characters and the same conflicts, and the larger story only barely breaks into it at all, and certainly isn’t resolved satisfactorily.
And so in its own right, Ancillary Mercy is a good book—it’s enjoyable and fast paced and smart. And if it were the second half of Ancillary Sword and the real third volume was still forthcoming, I’d be extremely excited about it and looking forward to the next book. But to all appearances, Leckie really thinks this is the concluding volume of her trilogy and that she’s done now, which… you know, I like endings that just point the way toward the inevitable conclusion, but this isn’t even that. This isn’t an ending at all.
So that sounds negative and all, but like I say: This was a very good book, and if it turns out that this isn’t really “the end,” then there’s no problem at all. So all of my discontent with this book can be easily solved if Leckie keeps writing in this universe, and treats this “trilogy” as just the start of a longer series. Here’s hoping she does.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s Valour and Vanity and Of Noble Family are the fourth and fifth books in her Glamourists series; allegedly, they’re also the last ones, but there’s plenty of room for sequels yet, so I’ll refrain from stating that as an outright fact.
The fourth book follows our protagonists as they travel to Europe again, this time to Venice, where they are quickly embroiled in intrigues and skullduggery. It’s a good read, but I think the plot might not hold up on close examination—it’s one of those stories that’s so intricately plotted with reverses and bluffs and detailed schemes that it seems like the whole plot would fall apart if all the characters hadn’t behaved in precisely the right way at all times. But that’s a problem that mostly comes up after the book is done, and it’s enjoyable while you read it, so… just don’t re-read it, I guess? (Or do, if you want; maybe I’m wrong, and it all does hold up plausibly well.)
The fifth book follows the same protagonists as they travel to the West Indies, where they end up dealing with the ethics of running a sugar plantation worked by slaves. This might be my least favorite of the books, because yes, the protagonists are good and decent and humane people and do their best to do the right things within the narrow confines of social acceptability; but at the end of the day, the only “right thing” to do with a system of hereditary aristocracy and slavery is to burn the whole corrupt edifice down. Breezing in and out with some genteel reforms before going back to a life of noble privilege seems insufficient.
And I understand the genre Kowal is working in here doesn’t really allow for that sort of revolutionary action; nor would it be in keeping with the character of the protagonists, who are thoroughly inculcated with the staid, conservative values of the English aristocracy. But it’s hard to really feel too bad about the personal travails of a wealthy noble couple when they’re set in the midst of a brutal slave society, no matter how vaguely well-intentioned they are.
And yes, that slave society was always there even when it was offscreen in the other books, and so in a way Kowal is just showing what the previous books (and other works set in the time period) were ignoring; still and all, it’s frustrating and unsatisfying in a way that is not really compatible with the sort of books these are. It’s very difficult to tonally reconcile an unflinching look at societal evils with an airy aristocratic romance.
Still, if I didn’t find the last book wholly satisfying, it does have a lot to recommend it; and the series as a whole is solidly enjoyable. Worth reading for fans of the genre.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s Without a Summer, the third of her Regency/Napoleonic-era-with-magic novels, is yet again a different sort of thing from the previous books in the series. The first was a countryside romance; the second was more military; and this one falls on the political side.
It takes place in London, among labor unrest (the original Luddites pop up prominently) and political turbulence, with plenty of attention to racial prejudices (particularly toward the not-yet-white Irish) and class divisions. Remarkably, Kowal doesn’t fall into the trap of making her protagonists into twentieth-century people transported back in time, either—there are points in the story when the main characters are every bit as narrow-minded and insular as you’d expect nobility to be at this time.
I don’t want to say too much, because: third book of a series, so hard not to spoil stuff. But I’m pleased with the way this series is going, and the way each book feels different from the ones before it. It speaks well to Kowal’s evolution as a writer, and my recommendation for this series gets stronger with each book. And now, on to book four.