The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: May 15 to 20, 2017

This is an interesting police procedural with an interesting hook that you don’t find out until somewhat later in the story. Or at least I didn’t find out until it happened. That caught me of guard and, at the same time, pulled me further into the plot. Best way to get into this story, or any short form fiction, is to not know anything about it.

Since it’s so short there’s not much to say without giving the hook away, but I’ll try anyway.

Set in present time Chicago and it actually feels like Chicago and not, say, New York or some other generic urban sprawl. The writing is short, to the point, and what we come to expect from John Scalzi. He doesn’t mince words or beat a morally gray topic to death. He has a minimalist style that I like.

We’re introduced to Tony Valdez just as he’s about to enter the OR, not as a patient or doctor, but a dispatcher. He’s there as insurance, so to speak, to make sure everything goes “smoothly.” What he is and what his job entails is the hook.

Shortly after the operation, Tony finds out that a friend and colleague has gone missing, and he’s pressured by a detective to help her solve the case. She thinks the job has something to do with the his disappearance. The investigation reveals all the gray areas of what dispatchers do off the books and all the ways in which life and death could be just a game.

And I admit I’m hooked. I hope this is just the beginning and that Scalzi has long term plans because there’s still so much left to explore. Crime statistics, law enforcement, religion, politics, the tenuous definition of homicide in this new age of mortality–an endless trove of gray topics to take on. 

I’m not a fan of short form fiction, so this novella feels somewhat incomplete even though loose ends are tied up and most questions are answered. But if this becomes a procedural series and each book an episode, I could totally get behind that.

A Rare Book of Cunning Device (Peter Grant, #5.6) by Ben Aaronovitch

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: April 28 to May 6, 2017

Funny, too short, and available only on audio, for now anyway, and it’s still going for free at Audible.

Nightingale is out of town again, and Peter gets called to the British Library about what appears at first to be a poltergeist problem. But after some investigating, it turns out to be a book running amok after dark and keeping the librarians up at night.

The book isn’t actually a book, but an ancient device of magical origins. It has moving parts and seems somewhat sentient, or at least aware of its surrounding. I’d love to learn more about it and see it featured in later books.

Peter brings Toby and Postmartin along to the library and learns from the librarians that the good professor has a reputation for stealing rare tomes. This comes as no surprise to me because I’ve always suspected that about him. Gatekeepers like the people of the Folly have always seemed like the kind to “confiscate” rare books and other objects of magical origins for safe keeping.

This short story reads like another sequence from the cutting room floor, not unlike The Home Crowd Advantage. I get the feeling these two should have been part of the main novels, but for whatever reason, they had to be cut during the editing process. But they were too good to delete permanently, so we get these little snippets to entertain us while we wait for #7.

Foreigner (Foreigner #1) by C.J. Cherryh

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: April 10 to May 5, 2017

This book ends when the story is just about to get interesting. And that’s the most effective way to lose an audience.

Up until the ending, it’s a real repetitive uphill slog, and I say that as someone who liked it more than most people. Reading it was a labor-intensive task that I never thought would end and I would never have been able to get to the end without the help of the audio–again, speaking as someone who liked the story. The prose and plotting could use a lot of editing, and the inner monologues could use some deleting. But the alien world and cultures were interesting, and they seemed to have the potential to become even more interesting. For that alone, I would pick up the second book.

Back to the ending and what I think most people don’t know about this book: it’s not an ending, but it’s not quite a cliffhanger either, and thus the reason behind so many frustrated reviews. While it’s not an ending, it does leaving you in the middle of a scene that could potentially be interesting if you were already invested in the story and characters. But if you weren’t, it wouldn’t be a huge loss to not know how it all ends or whether or not Bren Cameron survives and is able to navigate the delicate relations between humans and atevi.

I wouldn’t say I’m invested, but I do want to know what happens next–alien worlds and political intrigue are an interesting combination. Maybe not right away though because a break is in order after that slog, but as soon as the audio for the second book is available, I’m on it.

Full review when I get through the first the books or a complete story in the case of this series.

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His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire, #1) by Naomi Novik

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: January 15 to 23, 2017
Recommended by: book club’s pick
Recommended to:

Simon Vance to the rescue once again as he saves another book for me that I would have set aside for another time or probably indefinitely. Not the book’s fault though since it’s perfectly fine and well written for a historical fiction. It was more a case of bad timing when I picked it up, too much going on and not enough time or energy to spare and all that, but I made it through, with a lot of help from the audiobook which was superbly read by Mr. Vance, and I really enjoyed it.

The story reimagines the Napoleonic War years from the perspective of Will Laurence, an English captain, formerly of the navy, currently of the air force, and the dragon Temeraire which he took from a captured French ship. The pair bonded over a short period of time and grew to become a funny, sweet, interesting partnership by the end of the book. Some of my favorite moments consist of Laurence and Temeraire talking about books, battle tactics and strategies. There’s no magic or magic systems, no mysterious relics or quests, no coming of age farm boy set out to save the world since this isn’t high fantasy; dragons are the only fantastical elements here.

And the dragons in this world are intelligent and can communicate with their handlers and crew, and their interactions are really fun to read, or more accurately, really fun to hear Simon Vance read because he’s got a lovely voice and he has different voices for all of the characters, but the dragons’ voices are by far the best. The historical aspects of the story are well done and really immerse you in the time period, save for the part where there were dragons involved and both England and France used them like fighter jets, intelligent fighter jets with personalities and quirks. But this too, inserting dragons into this part of history, was also well done and really added to the overall historical feel of the story.

The reason I switched to audio was because of the slow beginning. Not much happened following the capture of the French ship as Laurence and his crew waited for Temeraire to hatch, and not much happened afterward when they left the navy to join the air force. While Temeraire was interesting, Laurence was not, unfortunately. Although a captain and in his thirties, he still had a lot of growing up to do and a lot of personal obstacles to overcome, and he didn’t become interesting until he fully gave in to the life and culture of the air force and dedicated himself to Temeraire (and dragons in general). By this point, more than half the book was over, and without Mr. Vance’s reading, I most definitely wouldn’t have made it this far or past all of Laurence’s shortcomings to really get into the story.

I’ve only read one other book by Naomi Novik and that’s Uprooted which was mostly okay, so I went into this book expecting it to also be mostly okay, but found myself enjoying it a lot, especially once more characters and dragons were introduced. They’re all a lot of fun except for Rankin whom I’d like to stab–repeatedly, but that’s another matter, unfinished business, saved for another time. Since there are 8 more books of dragon adventures, I look forward to continuing this journey with them.

“How did you come to see it?” [Laurence] said with interest, turning it over in his hands and brushing away more of the dirt.

“A little of it was out of the group and it was shining,” Temeraire said. “Is that gold? I like the look of it.”

“No, it is just pyrite, but it is very pretty, is it not? I suppose you are one of those hoarding creatures,” Laurence said, looking affectionately up at Temeraire; many dragons had an inborn fascination with jewels or precious metals. “I am afraid I am not rich enough a partner for you; I will not be able to give you a heap of gold to sleep on.”

“I should rather have you than a heap of gold, even if it were very comfortable to sleep on,” Temeraire said. “I do not mind the deck.”

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Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, read by Tom Mison

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ (for the narration)
Date Read: March 30 to 31, 2015
Read Count: lots
Recommended by:
Recommended for: fans of the show Sleepy Hollow

So good. Haunting and whimsical. Tom Mison has the perfect voice and intonation for this story (because he is Ichabod Crane). Although the story is told in third-person, Mison remains in character from start to finish as the Ichabod Crane he plays in the show. So if you like him in the show, then listening to him read the story is exactly like having Ichabod recount the story of his life in Sleepy Hollow. What’s unique about Mison’s narration is that he presents Icabod as a layered, nuanced character who is full of wonder and ahead of his time. As a character trapped in his time, Ichabod must abide by society’s prim and proper lifestyle, but what he really wants is the freedom to explore. So Sleepy Hollow suited him just fine. It’s a small secluded town full of mystique and “alleged” hauntings. Everything about the locale and history interested him and brought out a sense of wonder.

What I like most about Mison’s reading is how close it is to how I see Ichabod Crane. I’ve always imagined him as a bumbling professor from the backwoods with a morbid youthful glee that’s at odds with Washington Irving’s stiff, puritanical writing style. There’s just something about the character that’s curious and mischievous, but that side of him isn’t shown much due to the prudish writing. At the beginning of the story, Ichabod was a learned man of logic and science, though not entirely adverse to witchcraft or the supernatural; he was, after all, full of wonder and ahead of his time. When the natural and the supernatural coalesced in Sleepy Hollow, however, he couldn’t separate fact from fiction and thus began to lose that sense of wonder. It’s one thing to believe in the supernatural and entertain the idea of facing it head on while never encountering it directly; it’s another thing to see it for yourself and having it shatter your romantic illusions. The change is subtle and gradual, but deeply felt in Mison’s narration. And for that, five stars.

Review: Storm Front (Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher

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Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: August 25 to 28, 2014
Read Count: once all the way through; first chapter too many times
Recommended by: a lot of people
Recommended for: no one

HARRY DRESDEN—WIZARD
Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment

Here, let me ftfy.

HARRY DRESDEN—WIZARD (and good guy chauvinist)
Lost items found… maybe, depending on what or whom you lost and when and where you last saw him/her/it. If black magic is involved in retrieving the item or person, then I can’t help. I’ll feel bad about it for awhile, but I can’t help… (okay, I can try, but it’s gotta be off the books.)

He’s on magical probation or something like that. It’s a long sordid tale, one which he only hints at in this book. I’m mildly interested, but not invested enough in the series to get to the bottom of this mystery. People, much wiser than I, say skip all the way to book #7 because that’s when the writing improves noticeably. Which begs the question: it takes Jim Butcher SEVEN books to get the ball rolling? OY.

I’m glad I finally got through this one though because now I can stop wondering and cross it off the DNF list. Harry Dresden, as I predicted, is inherently unlikable and annoying, and the story told from his POV just grates on me, but I hear it’s supposed to get better later on in the series. Hopefully that’s the case.

Of all the narrative modes, first-person is my least favorite. I can’t stand it most times, but I like urban fantasy and, since almost all UFs these days are written in first person, I have to tolerate it. Sometimes it’s okay when it’s written from a compelling perspective, like when there’s an interesting main character with a captivating inner life and hilarious commentary; when it’s done well, you don’t even notice you’re spending too much time in just one character’s head. When it’s not done well, it feels like being stuck on a long flight next to a tiresome obliviously egotistical seatmate who would not shut up.

The narration in this book isn’t quite as tiresome as that oblivious seatmate, but it comes awfully close. Dresden’s POV is ostensibly self-absorbed while also being self-conscious which seems to suggest he’s “just a regular guy” who’s in over his head, but the thing is Dresden himself isn’t particularly interesting, and the world he lives in also isn’t interesting. And so the combination is tedious, instead of nuanced. In other words, there’s a lot of bravado and showmanship, but not much depth to the characterization or world. On top of that, Dresden’s inner thoughts are just rife with quips like these:

Maybe my values are outdated, but I come from an old school of thought. I think that men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts. Try and convict me if I’m a bad person for thinking so. I enjoy treating a woman like a lady, opening doors for her, paying for shared meals, giving flowers–all that sort of thing.

[…]

Magic came from life itself, from the interaction of nature and the elements, from the energy of all living beings, and especially of people. A man’s magic demonstrates what sort of person he is, what is held most deeply inside of him. There is no truer gauge of a man’s character than the way in which he employs his strength, his power.

Wait, it’s gets “better”:

I gestured toward the room. “Because you can’t do something that bad without a whole lot of hate,” I said. “Women are better at hating than men. They can focus it better, let it go better. Hell, witches are just plain meaner than wizards. This feels like feminine vengeance of some kind to me.”
“But a man could have done it,” Murphy said.
“Well,” I hedged.
“Christ, you are a chauvinist pig, Dresden. Is it something that only a woman could have done?”
“Well. No. I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?” Carmichael drawled. “Some expert.”

Then again, this is exactly what I expect from an unapologetic self-professed chauvinist. Mr. Butcher really knows what he’s talking about.

Dresden also makes a powerful vampire (vampiress) cry.

She was furious that I had seen her true form, horrified and embarrassed that I had stripped her disguise away and seen the creature beneath. And she was afraid that I could take away even her mask, forever, with my power.

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I’d made the vampire cry. Great. I felt like a real superhero. Harry Dresden, breaker of monsters’ hearts.

Good grief, man, have you no mercy! Absolutely none. He also brings “tough-as-nails” Chicago PD cop Karrin Murphy to tears when he wouldn’t let her in on a lead. (I headdesk’d so hard, almost gave myself a real concussion.)

After 30 or so pages of this, I’d had enough. If it hadn’t been for James Marsters’ narration, I would’ve DNF this book again for the Nth time. If Mr. Marsters should decide to continue narrating books outside the Dresden realm, I’m so there. Unfortunately he’s restricted his voice to just this series, which puts me between a rock and a hard place. Continue the series even though I can’t stand it just to hear Marsters narrate or abandon it because life’s too short, tbr list’s too long, and I’m not getting any younger? Decisions, decisions.

And another thing. Did Jim Butcher spend any time in Chicago before writing this book? Because I got the feeling he didn’t. It looks like he did his research by perusing travel websites because all descriptions of the city, which is a huge character itself in urban fantasy, are so generic that you could replace the word Chicago with New York or Detroit or Philadelphia or Washington DC and the change wouldn’t affect the story much. As a character who’s familiar with the seedy underground world of magic, Harry Dresden should also be familiar with the seedy underground locations in Chicago, the actual seedy underground locations of Chicago; anyone who lives in the city and has this particular background would know these places. But Harry Dresden does not. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t seem all that familiar navigating the city, and that’s a huge setback for the story, that Dresden isn’t as knowledgeable of the locales as he should be.

 

Some years ago, the Sci-fi network (before it became “Syfy”) produced a show based on these books starring Paul Blackthorne as Dresden. It ran for only one season and got canceled before it could find an audience. I was sad to see it cut so soon because, as far as SFF procedurals went, it was a fun show and the only one of its kind at the time. It had all the action and mystery of the books without any of Dresden’s usual hang-ups, like his personality or casual chauvinism.

I went into this book expecting it to be like the show but better. Then I found out quickly they’re two different animals. This is one of those rare moments where I say something blasphemous like the adaptation is much better than the original because it was better made. Chicago and urban magic minus Dresden himself was basically what the show was like. It was a good decision to cut out book-Dresden’s personality and replace it with a better one. The show didn’t do well because it was on the Sci-fi channel, not because it deviated so much from the book series.

 

One last thing

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Review: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archives, #1) by Brandon Sanderson

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: March 17 to April 15, 2014
Read count: 1

Only 3 stars?! BLASPHEMY.

Here’s why: This is a 1,000 page prologue. The action, the real action, doesn’t start until near the end.

I understand the need for a huge set-up to kick off a huge series, but there’s a point when too much set-up is just overkill. And that point is somewhere past page 500.

If not for the audio CDs*, there’s no way I’d get through this whole book. No one was more surprised than I about my reaction to this book because I’ve read a lot of Sanderson and liked most of his work.

As this is Sanderson’s most epic of epics (to date), I was expecting epic-ness of epic proportions which the first chapter did deliver, but then the second and subsequent chapters did not. I kept waiting for things to pick up where the first chapter left off, thinking this couldn’t be it, could it? This is what everyone’s been going on and on about? I was also expecting to see what everyone was gushing about–I still don’t it see. The story is more interesting than most average epic fantasy that promises bigger things to come, and that’s all I can say for the time being.

The writing is classic Sanderson, but with a heavy-handed tone that I didn’t care for. This isn’t so much a critique of the story, but more a reflection of how tired I’ve become of over-blown epic fantasies and Sanderson’s style of fantasy in particular. The former is a matter of personal taste; the latter is creeping up on me and threatening to stay. Sanderson’s style is becoming heavy and drawn-out, so so much that it made reading this book feel more like work. Generally speaking, I don’t like when I can see the author’s hand manipulating the story; it takes the fun out of reading.

However, if you’re an aspiring fantasy writer who’s in the process of honing your own style, I would recommend taking a look if you haven’t already. Even if you don’t enjoy it, there are a few pointers you might find useful.

The whole book is easy to dissect and deconstruct, and here’s why: the writing, as much as it drags, is precise in description and plotting. Sanderson uses vivid imagery and tactile examples to draw out each scene. I find the action sequences and internal monologues easiest to take apart and examine. Sanderson must’ve worked painstakingly hard to write each scene because you can literally feel the time and effort he put into them. He must’ve worked equally hard to achieve that slow build-up leading toward the climax. I would have appreciated the effort and attention to detail more if they didn’t result in a heavy-handedness that dragged the story down.

Because of a semi-cliffhanger, I’m tempted to pick up the second book just to see where the chips fall, but that won’t be for a long while.

* which I won GR’s first-read giveaway (I know, I was just as shocked as you are), and I’d like to thank MacMillan Audio and Samantha Beerman.