The Hanging Tree (Peter Grant, #6) by Ben Aaronovitch

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: November 14 to December 19, 2016
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

The tag line on the cover says: Back in London, back in trouble which pretty much sums up this book. We’re back in London, and Peter Grant and friends are back in trouble. And it’s the same kind of trouble that’s been plaguing them since Moon Over Soho.

But finally, we stop chasing after ghosts and faceless mysteries and come face to face with the man behind the mask. And there really is a face behind that mask. This reveal was indeed a surprise, but whether or not it does anything for the series’ continuous arc will depend on how it plays out in later books.

This book picks up a month or two following the events in Foxglove Summer, and the trouble all started when one of the Thames sisters called in a favor from Peter. What started out as a simple, straightforward investigation into whether a teenage girl’s drug overdose was accidental or deliberate turned into a huge Falcon case, uncharacteristically complete with a huge revelation at the end. Not as big, imo, as the ending of Broken Homes, but it’s relatively seismic as far as revelations go in this series.

With that said, I must admit I’m mostly lukewarm toward this book in particular, and I’ve been mulling over it for a few months now, trying to figure out why that is. The writing isn’t that different from previous books.

“So when a bunch of fucking kids waltz into the building, the DPG wants to know how. And I get woken up in the middle of the fucking night,” said Seawoll. “And told to find out on pain of getting a bollocking. Me?” he said in outrage. “Getting a bollocking? And just when I thought things couldn’t descend further into the brown stuff–here you are.”

As a matter of fact, it’s very much in line with previous books in terms of quality, plotting, pacing, humor, adventures and misadventures. Peter and the rest of the gang are developing and progressing at their usual pace–I very much enjoyed every scene with Seawoll and Stephanopoulos.

“So he’s a French fairy tale,” said Seawoll and turned to look, thank god, at Nightingale instead of me. “Is he?”
“That’s a difficult question, Alexander,” said Nightingale.
“I know it’s a difficult question, Thomas,” said Seawoll slowly. “That’s why I’m fucking asking it.”
“Yes, but do you want to know the actual answer?” said Nightingale. “You’ve always proved reluctant in the past. Am I to understand that you’ve changed your attitude?”
“You can fucking understand what you bloody like,” said Seawoll. “But in this case I do bloody want to know because I don’t want to lose any more officers to things I don’t fucking understand.” He glanced at me and frowned. “Two is too many.”

[…]

Generally when you’re interviewing somebody and they seem remarkably calm about one crime, it’s because they’re relieved you haven’t found out about something else.

Plus, there are plenty of humorous moments scattered throughout the book, and Peter is still his usual funny, likable self. So it’s just like previous books.

Bollocks, I thought, or testiculi or possibly testiculos if we were using the accusative.

[…]

“What I’m saying here,” Seawoll had said, “is try to limit the amount of damage you do to none fucking whatsoever.”
I don’t know where I got this reputation for property damage, I really don’t–it’s totally unfair.

[…]

“I’m planning to blow up some phones for science.”

And yet…

Something’s missing. Something’s not quite there anymore. And I don’t know why.

Maybe the timing wasn’t quite right when I read it. Or maybe I’m just tired of chasing after faceless nemeses–both of ’em.

I’m all for more Peter and more (mis)adventures in London. But more faceless mysteries and/or conspiracies? Nah, that’s okay.

I could read back to back stories of Peter running around London solving all sorts of mysterious happenings, and they may even be unrelated to each other and the series’ arc, and that would be fine. Actually, I would love that. But more mysterious faceless happenings? Thanks, but no thanks.

However, I am looking forward to the next installment and being back in London and back in trouble because, honestly despite the gripe, this series is still one of best urban fantasies out there, and every single book is a blast.

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Throne of Jade (Temeraire, #2) by Naomi Novik

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: February 17 to 22, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

I have never audiobook’d a whole series before, but I might have to for this one because Simon Vance is simply amazing. He should read all the books that way I could enjoy them all, even the ones I probably wouldn’t like–pretty sure he could make me like ’em. So 5 stars for him and 4 stars for the book itself because, honestly, I don’t know how far I’d get or how much I’d enjoy if I’d read these books on my own.

The writing is very descriptive, with long passages about early-19th Century culture and society of both Britain and China, and then there are more long passages about politics and intrigue. The previous book was mostly about Napoleon and his continued efforts to take over the rest of Europe; this book expands on that some more, but now there’s also China thrown into the mix as both Britain and France fight for the Celestial Emperor’s favor.

In middle of all of that, you have Temeraire and Laurence and their unbreakable bond. Or, well, what we thought was unbreakable. It was revealed at the end of the first book that Temeraire is a Celestial, the most prized breed of Chinese dragons, and here we learn that Celestials are companions only to Emperors and crown princes. Laurence is most definitely not royalty–he’s barely nobility–and so the Chinese disapprove of his bond with Temeraire, and they would very much like their dragon back. The British aren’t willing to comply with the request, but they see it as an opportunity to gain an alliance with the Emperor–and to one-up the French–and so they ship Temeraire, Laurence, and the rest of their crew halfway around the world.

Peking and Macao of the early-19th Century are a sight to behold for the British envoy and a whole new world full of wonder, for Temeraire especially who’s eager to learn of his birth country and discover his roots. The lives of dragons of the East are fascinating to him, and the more he learns about them, the more he’s pulled away from Laurence. Laurence, too, is fascinated by the treatment of dragons in Peking, and not just of the Imperials and Celestials, but of the smaller and less important breeds too. He’s surprised that they all can live among people so peacefully, and thus comes to understand why Temeraire is so taken in by what he sees. At the end of this book, Temeraire and Laurence are still in China.

I’m most impressed by how Naomi Novik inserted dragons into actual history, and with just a little adjustment, she’s inserted dragons into the tides of Chinese politics that will forever change the landscape of China for centuries to come. Colonialism is on its way, gradually at first but it’s coming nonetheless. I can’t help feeling a sense of dread, knowing what’s coming in just a few years, but since this story is told from the British perspective, there’s a sense of accomplishment and celebration in the writing, especially near the end, when the British envoy have permanently established themselves in China to open up more trading opportunities.

It will be interesting to see how much Novik sticks to or deviates from history in later books. I looked ahead and see some hints of Temeraire and Laurence traveling the Silk Road, visiting the Ottoman Empire, and making a stop in Russia. Lots to look forward to, and I can’t wait.

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: January 31 to February 13, 2017
Recommended by: buddy read with Beth

Recommended to:

3.5 stars, though not sure if I should round up for the subversive narrative and character-driven writing style because I feel like I should judge this book by the standards of the time period in which it was written–the 80s–and not judge it by what I normally like/prefer in high fantasy–books written much later in the 90s and beyond.

Even though it’s called Dragonsbane and the Dragonsbane is a knight named John Aversin, the whole story is told from the perspective of his mageborn partner, Jenny. It’s through her that we see and come to understand this Medieval Scotland inspired world, the magic within it, and the dragons. And it’s through her that we see the hardship of the mageborn and we see who holds the true power, in this story and in this world.

As for John, he’s not only a knight, but a country knight and a pig farmer too, which comes much to the surprise of Gareth the crown prince when he comes seeking the Dragonsbane to slay the dragon. John is not at all what he expected, and all the hopes and dreams he had of the Dragonsbane as a noble knight in shiny armor are shattered upon their first meeting. It’s quite funny. I laughed all the way through that first scene of them together, and afterward every time John speaks, there’s cause for snickering.

John and Jenny have been together for awhile; they have two sons and have slain a dragon together. All in all, they’ve been through a lot together, and there’s a sense of ease, strength, and security in their relationship, the kind that can withhold all kinds of storm together. You don’t often see this kind of lasting bond in genre fiction, and it’s yet another thing that sets it apart from other of its kind.

Although neither John nor Jenny is what we expect of a knight and mage, Gareth the crown prince is exactly what we expect of a sheltered, inexperienced, starry-eyed young prince. At least in the beginning of the story, he’s like that. After meeting John and Jenny, he comes face to face with the reality of his dragon problem and grows up quickly. And then he accompanies them on their quest to slay the dragon and grows up some more, so that by the end of the quest there isn’t that much of that starry-eyed young prince left in him, for which I was grateful because that guy was annoying, especially when looked at from Jenny’s perspective.

The only weak link in this story that I could find is the man-eater antagonist Zyerne. She’s a bit too muahahahaha for my taste. I prefer villains to be subtle and to withhold information instead of flaunting it. Unfortunately, Zyerne is definitely in the flaunt-it camp. There’s not much depth or complexity to her, and I wished there had been more, more layers or more sides or more personality. Something to give her more purpose than just being the force of darkness out to get our heroes.

I liked this book a lot more upon first finishing it than I do now. But now? Now that I’ve some time to process the story as a whole, my interest and enjoyment of it is waning. I think it’s the combination of the slow pace–it took over half the book for me to get into the story and characters–and Zyerne’s shallow characterization that kept me from being fully engaged. But since this is the first book of the series, I understand the necessity of the slow pace and gradual world building effort Barbara Hambly had put in to lay the groundwork for the rest of the series.

One of my favorite scene is Gareth meeting John for the first time and realizing he’s the Dragonsbane:

Still Gareth had not spoken. Aversin, interpreting his silence and the look on his face with his usual fiendish accuracy, said, “I’d show you my dragon-slaying scars to prove it, but they’re placed where I can’t exhibit ’em in public.”

It said worlds for Gareth’s courtly breeding–and, Jenny supposed, the peculiar stoicism of courtiers–that, even laboring under the shock of his life and the pain of a wounded arm, he swept into a very creditable salaam of greeting. When he straightened up again, he adjusted the set of his cloak with a kind of sorry hauteur, pushed his bent spectacles a little more firmly up onto the bridge of his nose, and said in a voice that was shake but oddly determined, “My lord Dragonsbane, I have ridden here on errantry from the south, with a message for you from the King, Uriens of Belmarie.” He seemed to gather strength from these words, settling into the heraldic sonority of his ballad-snatch of golden swords and bright plumes in spite of the smell of the pigsty and the thin, cold rain that had begun to patter down.

“My lord Aversin, I have been sent to bring you south. A dragon has come and laid waste the city of the gnomes in the Deep of Ylferdun; it lairs there now, fifteen miles from the King’s city of Bel. The Kind begs that you come to slay it ere the whole countryside is destroyed.”

The boy drew himself up, having delivered himself of his quest, a look of noble martyred serenity on his face, very like, Jenny thought, someone out a ballad himself. Then, like all good messengers in ballads, he collapsed and slid to the soupy mud and cowpies in a dead faint.