Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1) by Juliet Marillier

Rating: – – – – –
Date read: May 1 to July 15, 2017

I’m leaning toward 4 stars overall but with lots and lots of reservations which I can’t go into without hitting on spoilers. So beware of spoilers.

This book was Beth‘s pick for May and I just finished it today. In July. I’m not even sure where she is because we kind of let it drop after hitting a wall, but I think she’s still pushing on. I’d like to say it was my fault, because I’m usually the one dropping out of buddy reads, but this time it’s a combination of bad timing and a brutal rape scene that put a nail in this buddy read.

The story loosely follows the Six Swans fairy tale and it’s set in Medieval Ireland. There are druids, magic, and mysticism, and the writing does a lovely job of setting the scene and creating an otherworldly atmosphere. We follow Sorcha, the youngest and only daughter of a lord, and her six older brothers through their lives from when they lived at the castle in the middle of a strange magical forest to when tragedy struck and tore their family apart.

I had known of the rape scene going in–it’s part of some retellings of this tale–but I didn’t know about the aftermath, that the main character Sorcha had to live with it, alone and in silence, as she was in the middle of her vow of silence that she had to make to the fae in order to save her brothers. And then her dog, her only companion, was brutally killed. How much worse could it get, right? Not much worse, but bad things did keep happening. Sorcha had to continue knitting six sweaters from nettles to save her brothers and break the curse that turned them into swans.

I don’t like fantasies featuring the fae as it is, so when this scene happened, followed by the dog’s death and Sorcha’s suffering in silence and the fae’s meddling and the nettle knitting, I checked out. It was too much and the amount of brutality seemed somewhat unnecessary. But I get it–objectively, intellectually, whatever. I get why Marillier had Sorcha suffer in silence; I understand it from a big-picture perspective and see the need to portray the aftermath of rape, but still. It was too emotionally consuming, too close to real life, so I checked out and set the book aside. Every time I picked it up, I could only get through a couple of pages, and that’s why it took over two months to get to the end.

I’m glad to have read it because Juliet Marillier’s writing is always lovely and the stories she’s telling are much needed in fantasy. They exist in that tenuous border between folktale and historical fantasy, and Marillier weaves those elements so well, but this is one of those books I don’t think I’ll revisit. And I will pass on the rest of the series too, even though I know I’ll be giving up on an amazing world rich in history, culture, and magic.

Reading this book was kind of like a coming of age experience–I appreciate it and am glad I got through it, but I’m more glad it’s behind me now.

* * * * *

My first Marillier was Heart’s Blood, a retelling of the beauty and the beast fairy tale, and I loved it. I went into Daughter thinking it was like Heart, and in many ways, it is. The setting, time period, prose, magic, and atmosphere are very similar, but the amount of suffering the main character is put through is incomparable.

Witches of Lychford (Lychford, #1) by Paul Cornell

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: May 29 to June 7, 2017

Quaint and very pleasant with a touch of autumn chill, like a brisk stroll through the cemetery at sunset when it’s just starting to drizzle. Not exactly what I expected from books with the urban fantasy label, but this was a nice surprise.

If you like charming small-town stories with a cast of oddball, neighborly characters and more magic than magical realism, give this a try.

But by “neighborly,” I don’t mean friendly, although I’m aware that’s how most people will interpret it. What I mean is they’re more like my neighbors and others I grew up with–somewhat hostile and suspicious of people they don’t know, very straightforward, aren’t really aware of personal boundaries or overstepping them, but caring and hilarious once you get to know ’em.

The writing is contemporary fiction loaded with trivial everyday life things–gossip, relationships, falling outs, homecomings, etc etc–but along the side, there’s a heavy dose of magic and other-worldliness for those who could see it and command it.

The town itself is near the border that separates our world from the underworld, so the people here are used to strange things happening without much explanation. That’s just part of the life, along with the gossips and falling outs.

Of course the big bad that threatens most small towns is a corporate entity. Here, it’s a superstore that wants to build a franchise right on the border, which would destroy it and let all the evil into our world. So the good townsfolk must fend off this superstore to save their town. And a lot funny moments ensue.

The humor is what you’d expect to see from British authors–dry, deadpan, and pointed. Reminds me of The Gates by John Connolly, but with adult characters and adult problems. For those unfamiliar with John Connolly, imagine Terry Pratchett’s humor, but less manic and more evenly paced and with fewer details crammed in.

Out this way there was the lonely last pub, the Castle, which now had an angry chalkboard sign up that said “drinkers welcome” to indicate its dissatisfaction with other establishments’ fads like pub quizzes, bands, food, and, presumably, conversation.

[…]

To human beings it won’t look or feel like a war, it’ll be more like… one of those modernist paintings you lot do, if it melted. Inside all your brains. Forever.

[…]

Judith hated nostalgia. It was just the waiting room for death.

[…]

Judith realised, with horror, that they were heading over to talk to her, and couldn’t find, at a quick glance, anyone else she knew well enough to get into a conversation with. There were, just occasionally, drawbacks to being a nasty old bitch.

Judith is the embodiment of gtfo-my-lawn, and she is very free with her feelings. When I grow up, I hope to be that free.

A couple of years ago, I tried London Falling by Paul Cornell, but couldn’t get into it. It was more like the traditional procedural urban fantasy that I was used to, but I just could not get into the writing. It was too… cold and staccato, too much like a police procedural, and there was nothing about it that pulled me in, not even London itself. So I gave up and didn’t look back. I almost gave up on Paul Cornell altogether, but I’m really glad I didn’t. This book is a gem. So different from that other one in almost every way. Worlds apart even. I’m not sure I believe it’s from the same author…

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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Continue reading

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1) by Genevieve Cogman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: April 5 to 17, 2017
Recommended by: book clubs’ pick
Recommended to: 

A combination of The Rook, which I liked a lot, and The Eyre Affair, which I didn’t really care for. This one falls right in the middle.

There’s a secret library hoarding books, immortal secret agents of the library who are sent out to steal books, multiple alternate worlds and timelines in which these agents enter with the sole purpose of stealing books and bringing them back to the library (for safe keeping and language evolution, as we’re told), a much sought after alternate Grimms’ fairytales, plucky young heroines, dragon shapeshifters, murderous fae, former agents who defected for reasons not yet clear, an alternate steampunk London setting, and quite a few literary references. All well and good. I enjoyed it and will most likely pick up the second book.

While this book lacks some of the humor and comedic timing of The Rook, it has much better pacing and characterization than The Eyre Affair. The beginning kicks off with the main character Irene in the middle of a mission. She has gone undercover as a cleaning girl at a magical boarding school so that she could relieve the school of a first edition copy of an ancient magical text. After completing the mission with some close calls, Irene returns to the library only to be sent out again, but this time with Kai, a librarian in training. They are to enter an alternate steampunk London to retrieve a Grimms’ fairytales. This assignment turns out to be more complicated and dangerous than either anticipated, and when the defector shows up to take the book for himself, it becomes a deadly game and chase around steampunk London.

I was immediately pulled into the action, and if it had kept up, I would’ve liked this book a whole lot more. But unfortunately, the middle faltered and got somewhat boring. It was muddled by too many explanations and long-winded conversations between all the characters trying to figure out their next moves or what the defector’s next moves are. Much of these moments felt to me like they led nowhere because, while they did work to expand on the action, characters, and steampunk London, they failed to add much to the world or worlds at large. I’m not convinced there’s much out there that exists outside of multiple alternates of London. The writing is rather myopic in this regard now that I think about it.

Since the story is told from her POV, Irene has a knack for overstating the obvious, which bored and bothered me because, personally, I don’t think this world or these worlds are complicated enough to warrant such long info-dumping passages that slowed the story down. I think it would have been perfectly fine to leave some of the mysteries of the library, its purpose, and all these alternate Londons up to the imagination.

Another thing that hindered the writing is the main characters, Irene and Kai, coming off as younger than I expected. This gives the story a YA feel that I’m not a fan of. I would have liked for them to be a bit older and wiser in their thoughts and actions since that would have made more sense in the context of the library and immortality and time immemorial and whatnot. But since Genevieve Cogman is somewhat a YA writer, the YA-ness of the writing is unavoidable.

Lastly, there are a few plot holes and details that don’t quite work in light of the ending, but they didn’t bother me enough during the read to dwell on them, mostly because Irene is an unapologetic book lover and book hoarder, and the idea of an endless library that exists outside of time and space that hoards books is very amusing to me. A personal favorite of mine is reading about book lovers and all the ways in which they profess their love for books.

[T]he deepest, most fundamental part of her life involved a love of books. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to shut the rest of the world out, and have nothing to worry about, except the next page of whatever she was reading.

[…]

And she didn’t want great secrets of necromancy, or any other sort of magic. She just wanted—had always wanted—a good book to read. Being chased by hellhounds and blowing things up were comparatively unimportant parts of the job.

[…]

“[A]ll of us who are sealed to the Library are people who have chosen this way of life because we love books. None of us wanted to save worlds. I mean, not that we object to saving worlds…” She shrugged, picking up her teacup again “We want books. We love books. We live with books.”

[…]

Getting the books, now that was what really mattered to her. That was the whole point of the Library: as far as she’s been taught, anyway. It wasn’t about a higher mission to save worlds. It was about finding unique works of fiction, and saving them in a place out of time and space. Perhaps some people might think that was a petty way to spend eternity, but Irene was happy with her choice.

And this book hits the spot. Well… not quite, but it’s close enough to keep me interested in the next installment.

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: February 22 to April 5, 2017

I meant to take it easy, but ended up blowing through the second half of this book in just 3 days. The pages just kept on turning by themselves, and I didn’t get much sleep.

Woke up this morning and was like

But seriously. What year is it?

This is not a review because I don’t have enough science in me to understand it or to begin diving in and deconstructing it, but I did enjoy it very much and it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, maybe even this millennium. Will have to return for a few more rereads because I’m pretty sure I missed a ton of details in my rush to get to the end.

The concept of solar year is tenuous at best in this book because the story takes place six million years from now. I was in a bleak, gloomy, end-of-the-world state of mind when I started reading, so the idea that somehow humanity has a future six million years from now and that it’s a thriving future was extremely uplifting. And I approached the rest of the story with that in mind.

So. Six million years from the start of the main plot, the genius Abigail Gentian made an army of clones she called the Gentian Line and sent them out into the universe to learn and collect as much information on any planet with any signs of life as they can for the purpose of trade with alien planets and other clones of different lines. These clones, called shatterlings, reunite every couple hundred thousand years to share their findings, and they’ve been doing this for six million years.

At the start of the main plot, we follow two of Abigail’s shatterlings, Campion and Purslane, on a collection trip to a couple of planets. It’s kind of like a sea voyage, but in space, at high speed, and I was totally sucked into the story from the start. The prologue with Abigail as a child was all the hook I needed to jump in. I liked both Campion and Purslane almost immediately and the way they played off one another was very funny–love the subtle humor–and spending more time with them only increased my fondness.

Campion is on a quest, with Purslane’s help, to find something of value to bring back for the next Line reunion, but as usual he procrastinated so much that he’s behind schedule and would probably have nothing to show. The last time they all met he didn’t do very well, and thus the reason for their planet-hopping visits to many different galaxies in a short amount of time. They come in contact with a ton of interesting creatures and entities, many of which exist outside of time and space, and communication with them is fascinating to read about.

On one of these trips, Campion and Purslane come across and see something they shouldn’t have. And Campion, being Campion, careless and carefree, does something he definitely shouldn’t have, which then sets an unknown pursuer on their tail. The unknown thing goes after not only Campion and Purslane, but the whole Gentian line with the purpose of annihilating all of the shatterlings of Abigail’s creation.

It’s a race against time to figure out what is after them and how to destroy it, and it had me on the edge of my seat all the way through to the stunning end.

I love everything about this book–the action and adventures, the high-speed chases, the planet hopping, the ingenuity, the breathtaking breadth of deep space, and of course the characters–and yet I don’t fully understand any of the high concept science stuff. Love it anyhow though. Will have to seek out a real life science person who has read this book to explain deep space, time travel, astrophysics, the infinite universe, etc etc. to me.

Alastair Reynolds has created something truly special here–a enjoyable balance of interesting storytelling and theoretical science–and my mind is sufficiently blown.

The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: March 28 to April 3, 2017

Another winning tale by Patricia McKillip. This is only the second book I’ve read by her, but I’m convinced she can do no wrong. There’s something delightful and magical about the way she writes that pulls me into her stories, and I don’t surface until the last page is turned.

It doesn’t happen often to me, but once in awhile I come across a book and wish I was young again to enjoy it with an open, less burdened mind, and to enjoy it in the spirit it was written and, just for a moment, be its target audience again. This is one of those rare books in which the magic is real; I just can’t feel it anymore.

Even though I enjoy it now and really like the writing, it’s a cold, intellectual kind of enjoyment. Lovely prose, lovely story. I love the way it reads on the page and can methodically deconstruct all the things that I like about it and appreciate the parts as much as the whole story, but it doesn’t hit me right in the feels like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Yet I’m certain I would have loved this book more when I was younger, when I would have been eager to be fully immersed in the mystique of the sea and its mysterious magical pull. I think, back then, I would have been able to hear it calling as clearly as Peri.

“Be happy now,” she whispered, aware of all the shining waves behind him reaching toward him, withdrawing, beckoning again. She added, feeling the pain again in her throat, “When I’m old–older than the old women who taught me to make the hexes–come for me then.”

“I will.”

“Promise me. That you will bring me black pearls and sing me into the sea when I am old.”

“I promise.”

[…]

“Your heart sang to the sea. I heard it, deep in my coral tower, and followed the singing. Humans say the sea sings to them and traps them, but sometimes it is the human song that traps the sea. Who knows where the land ends and the sea begins?”

“The land begins where time begins.”

[…]

“It’s an odd thing, happiness. Some people take happiness from gold. Or black pearls. And some of us, far more fortunate, take their happiness from periwinkles.”

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read: March 25 to 28, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

This book gave me chills. Still does.

I went in knowing nothing about it. I mean, I did skim some of the reviews, so I knew it was highly rated and people seemed to love, but other than that, I had no idea what it’s about or what to expect, and I had never read Patricia McKillip before.

And that was the best way to approach because the writing blew me away. It is simply SO GOOD and has a beautiful fluidity to it that makes it so easy to fall into.

What impresses me most is that the prose is neither purple nor flowery; it’s just lovely to read. There’s a dreamy, poignant, lyrical quality to it, yet it’s so easy to read and so concise. There’s not an unnecessary scene or line or moment anywhere. Every word serves a purpose, and not once during the read did I feel like the story was wandering around aimlessly. Nothing is out of place, and so much happens in so few pages. And I just love that kind of writing–purposeful and minimalistic in execution.

So what is this book about?

Briefly: Sybel, a young powerful sorceress who knows nothing of the world below her mountain and wants nothing to do with it, is pushed into the affairs of two warring sides within a kingdom when a baby is brought to her to raise.

On one side, there’s an insecure king who fears being dethroned. On the other side, there’s family of nobles who would like to dethrone the king. Their animosity toward each other go way back. Both sides want Sybel and use her powers for their own, but only one seeks out a way to break and bind her to their will. What follows is an all consuming tale of near destruction.

Well… not exactly, but that was what it felt like during the read, like everything was coming apart at the seams, and I could not turn the page fast enough.

Sometimes, after a string of bland genre picks, I would forget what it’s like to read well written fantasy, but then something always comes along to remind me. McKillip was the perfect reminder.

“What, in years to come, will you have in your life but a silence that is meaningless, ancient names that are never spoken beyond these walls? Who will you laugh with, when Tam is grown? Who will you love? The Liralen? It is a dream. Beyond this mountain, there is a place for you among the living.”

[…]

“You can weave your life for so long–only so long, and then a thing in the world out of your control will tug at one vital thread and leave you patternless and subdued.”

[…]

“Be patient. It will soon be over.”
“Soon is such a long word,” she whispered.

The Emperor’s Edge (The Emperor’s Edge, #1) by Lindsay Buroker

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: March 15 to 24, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

A decent, light fantasy.

It was easy to read and kept the pages turning, and that was all I was looking for this week.

Since this is the author’s first book, there are various things in the story that aren’t as polished or fully developed as they could have been, like the “steampunk” setting and world building, but I found myself not too preoccupied with figuring them out or trying to make sense of the technology or politics while reading because the story was entertaining and it didn’t seem to take itself too seriously.

The main character, Corporeal Amaranthe Lokdon, is one of the few female enforcers (police) in an imperial city that only just recently allowed women into the force. Lokdon is a hard worker and fairly good at her job, but she continues to be ignored by her superiors and thus gets passed over for promotions. Meanwhile, her slacker partner gets noticed and promoted.

At the beginning of the book, Amaranthe is investigating an arson case when she catches the eye of the young emperor who quickly becomes attracted to her. Because of this attraction, she’s marked for death by Hollowcrest, the emperor’s right hand man, who just happens to be controlling the throne behind the scenes. Hollowcrest sets her on a mission to bait and kill the infamous Sicarius. When she unravels his plan, Hollowcrest has her captured, and that sets the rest of the plot in motion.

Amaranthe goes on the run and teams up with Sicarius, all the while coming up with a plan unmask Hollowcrest and save the emperor. She puts together a rag-tag team of misfits to help her carry out her plans. Sometimes annoying, other times endearing; nevertheless their interactions and misadventures in the city are amusing to read. I can see the potential for them becoming an interesting team later on.

Where he had found the outfit, she did not know, but everything from the boots to the gloves to the parka and fur cap fit reasonably well. And there were no grizzly bloodstains to suggest he had killed someone to get it. That was something, at least.

[…]

“Do you have…” A list? A pamphlet? A room full of naked men lined up like pastries on the shelf at Curt’s Bakery? “How does it work?”

[…]

“If we’re discovered, I’ll do everything I can to make time for you and the others to escape.”
“Sicarius too?” he asked with a hint of amusement.
“If Sicarius is discovered, I’ll have to try and make time for the enforcers to escape.”

[…]

“Any assassin who allows himself to be distracted by his word deserves a knife in the back. It’s not professional.”

With that said, I should mention there’s some suspension of disbelief required to enjoy this story. Like for instance, I still have a hard time figuring out

  1. why Hollowcrest wants Amaranthe dead almost immediately–there really is nothing threatening about her
  2. how Amaranthe isn’t recognized more often if her face is on wanted posters plastered all across the city
  3. how she’s gotten so lucky recruiting just enough men for her elaborate plan
  4. that “elaborate” plan…
  5. and why so many men

Anyhow.

Although this book doesn’t really give you a good sense of the scope of the story arc, the empire, or the world in general, it does lay the groundwork for something bigger with the promise of more depth and adventure to come. I’m hoping the next few books will provide that, and I’m willing to give this series a few books to find itself and get going.