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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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.

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.

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.