Serena’s Review: “Doomsday Book”

Doomsday Book Book: “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

Publishing Info: Bantam Spectra, July 1992

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

Review: This book has been on my list for a long time. Connie Willis is regularly mentioned as one of the top women authors for science fiction, and “Doomsday Book” shows up on lots of “must-read” lists. So, when I spotted it as available when browsing my way through the library’s audiobooks a couple of weeks ago, it was as if the stars had aligned and it was finally, finally time for me to get to this one. And for the most part, it was ok? Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to all of my expectations.

For one, the story is told with alternating perspectives between Kivrin in the Middle Ages and her mentor, Dunworthy, in Oxford in 2054. My usual problem with this storytelling method was highlighted again here. One story almost inevitably is much stronger and more interesting than the other. While Dunworthy learns very quickly that something (he doesn’t know what) has gone wrong with Kivrin’s trip to the past and works to find answers while also handling a sudden mysterious disease crippling the city, there’s just no way for him to compete with Kivrin’s story, stranded in the past, with her carefully laid plans crumbling around her.

So, too, there were aspects of Dunworthy’s story that were incredibly frustrating as a reader. It’s hard to know whether, as a longtime reader of sci-fi/fantasy, I’m more familiar with the trail of clues laid out in these types of stories and can anticipate the final destination from long practice, or whether these clues have simply become more standard in the genre all together in the 20 plus years since this book was initially published. Either way, Dunworthy’s progress learning what had happened to Kivrin was so drawn out. At certain points in the story, the character would outright ask another character a basic question and then, bizarrely, the other character would change the subject or, what, pretend not to have heard him? It started to feel really contrived, and by about two thirds of the way through the book when he was still struggling to get basic answers to simple questions, I started doubting my ability to finish all together.

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Only, it was an audiobook, so there was no flipping, just sad, sad listening.

Unfortunately, this forced confusion carried over to Kivrin’s narrative as well. While the a large part of the story revolves around the incompetence of the current director who even allowed Kivrin’s trip to the Middle Ages (an era of time that had previously been rated a “10” on the “too dangerous to travel to” scale), Kivrin herself would at times come across as equally incompetent. I have to imagine that this was not intended.

Things go wrong for Kivrin from the beginning, and it becomes clear why time travel to this era was going to be a bad idea for a young woman traveling alone. Beyond the obvious factors, things that Dunworthy pointed out from the beginning in his effort to stop her from going, the fact that a woman in this time period has almost zero agency seems to be an obvious reason to avoid this. If everything had gone right, how was Kivrin, a young, unmarried woman, supposed escape the household she was in? Women didn’t go anywhere by themselves, let alone walk miles into the wilderness along strange roads! Kivrin’s struggles in this area seemed easy to anticipate. The book even discussed two-person drops in time, and I never felt like there was an adequate explanation for why things moved forward as they did. Like I said, a lot revolves around the new director being an idiot. But for something as important as time travel, it was a bit hard to swallow that a disaster like this could so easily happen due to one man’s ego and ignorance.

Here too, Kivrin’s confusion and inability to catch on to simple clues didn’t feel right for a character who was presented as supremely thorough in her preparation for this trip. She seems genuinely confused at one point to discover that a 13 -year-old girl is engaged to  a much older man, after many, many clues to this have already been lain out. This kind of bizarre storytelling was very distracting. I feel like Willis was trying to build tension in these choices, but all it did was make me question the sanity of her characters and wish things would just start happening already.

That said, Kivrin’s story was still a very interesting read. I would recommend this book for fans of history, however, rather than sci-fi fans. Time travel aside, the majority of the story is an intricate look at life in the Middle Ages. This is where Willis shines. Not only did the characters feel exactly right, highlighting the various challenges of people’s different roles, but the small details of the challenges of every day things were touched upon in a way that felt incredibly natural. What could have come across as a history lesson, instead felt like catching a glimpse into a beautiful painting of a small slice of time. But this glimpse is entirely honest, and with that honesty comes a lot of tragedy. This book was very hard to read towards the end, but I appreciate that Willis didn’t shy away from the realities of the world she brought Kivrin into.

All in all, there were parts of “Doomsday Book” that I really enjoyed, however, I also felt like the story could have used a heavy dosage of editing. It was’t a short story to begin with, and the continued delay of basic facts that readers could guess on their own, only made it feel longer. It was not a light read, but if you enjoy history and a richly detailed story, I would recommend “Doomsday Book.”

Rating 6: I enjoyed the historical aspects, but I also wanted to knock the characters’ heads together a few too many times to fully get behind it.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Doomsday Book” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Time Travel Fiction”  and “Books for a Pandemic.” 

Find “Doomsday Book” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Providence of Fire”

The Providence of Fire Book: “The Providence of Fire” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, the people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy.

Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire’s most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

Spoilers for the first book “The Emperor’s Blades”

Review: The second book in Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” series is like one of those scenes that starts zoomed in a on kid playing, and then zooms back and the kid is in large park, and then zooms back and the park is in a huge city, and so on and so forth. What I’m saying is that the world building goes from complex to wait…what now?? But Staveley’s control of his narrative, world, and characters never stumbles under this added mythology. If anything, the strength of this series only grows with the additional challenges and complications thrown in the mix.

What is the most impressive about this series is Staveley’s ability to handle his three main characters. Kaden, Valyn, and Adare have a more equal balance this time, as far as page time goes. Each is traveling such a distinctive path. Kaden’s is a cerebral journey pealing back the mysteries of the Shin, the portal-like doorways of the kenta, and the history between the Csestriam, the gods they sought to kill, and humanity caught within a struggle between power players completely out of their league. Valyn’s journey continues as the most straight forward. He is a man of action, and action itself becomes his motivation. While Kaden and Adare spend much of their time balancing the intricacies of the pieces on the world-sized board, Valyn sets a goal and moves towards it, even if reaching that goal means aligning with the Urghul, the savage enemies of his own Empire. Adare, the politician, is forced to re-evalutate her own role in this crumbling world. Betrayed by her own general, Adare is driven out of her city in desperate attempt to gain allies and a find new foothold to combat the roving Urghul armies heading her direction.

What is so amazing about this balance is also what is so frustrating. Kaden, Adare, and Valyn all are seeing limited parts of the story and reacting in ways that are consistent to their worldviews and preferred operating methods. But these choices and stories conflict, setting the three up against each other with misunderstanding and suspicion. While reading each chapter, I could completely understand and sympathize with each character’s decisions. But then once I switched to the next chapter it became clear that no, this other character had the right idea about things.

As the story progresses, each character made decisions that made me want to shake them. However, I see this as a strength of the story. Staveley’s characters are flawed and limited by the knowledge they have and their own personalities and tendencies that lead them towards one decision or another. It was perhaps more uncomfortable if only because I think many fantasy readers are accustomed to our heroes and heroines quickly evolving into specific tropes. Kaden should be all-wise, calm, and reasoned. Valyn should be completely heroic, using violence in only the most esteemable ways. And Adare should be clever, easily wrapping her foes around her finger and springing elaborate traps. When they fail to behave as we expect, it’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and frankly, awesome.

This book also made a lot of strides to improve upon the last as far as page time and use of its female characters. Adare is given an equal portion of the story; in fact, hers becomes my favorite of the three siblings. And a new character, Gwenna, a member of Valyn’s group of Kestrel fighters, gets her own sprinkling of chapters. This was particularly welcome. As I said, the three siblings become very caught up in the increasingly complicated web that is the Empire, and it was a relief to read chapters from the very straight-forward thinking Gwenna. She was brash, sympathetic, and highly entertaining. So, too, Triste’s role in the story is greatly increased.

And, as I mentioned, the amazing world building cannot be over emphasized. Most epic fantasy relies on a complex historical past for its world. In this book, it becomes more and more clear that this history is not as understood as it was thought to be. Not only that, but history is still unraveling even in the present. The Csestriam, the old gods, the new gods, the mad, power-hungry leaches of centuries past, the Atmani. They all weave in and out of the story in completely unexpected ways. By the end of the book, I was left questioning everything I thought I had understood from the first book.

All told, “The Providence of Fire” only improved on what was an amazing fantasy epic to begin with. The added complexity of the world and the characters left me constantly guessing and re-evaluating my opinions. While the previous book had slow sections, particularly in the beginning with Kaden’s chapters, this story moves at full throttle from beginning to end. “The Emperor’s Blades” laid out the threads of each storyline, and “The Providence of Fire” tangled them all up into such a mess that I have no idea how Staveley is going to wrap this all up. But I do know that I’m looking forward to finding out!

Rating 9: So good! So worried about what’s coming next!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Providence of Fire” is included in this Goodreads list: “Must Read Epic Fantasy.”

Find “The Providence of Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Review of “The Emperor’s Blades”

Serena’s Review: “City of Stairs”

City of Stairs Review: “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett

Publishing Info: Broadway Books, September 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the quiet woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.

Review: This book is like a magical combination of everything I love to read.

Ingredients for Serena’s favorite reading experience:

  • a unique, fantasy setting
  • a compelling main character with a diverse and interesting set of companions
  • a mystery that is both challenging but has also been well laid out with clues
  • a good helping of action scenes
  • a dash of philosophy
  • a sprinkle of witty dialogue

Mix well and consume!

Bennett’s “City of Stairs” was a perfect concoction.

Honestly, this book was so good, I don’t even know where to start. Not only that, but the world that Bennett has created, its history, its peoples, its culture, is so elaborate and detailed that almost anything I say will be wildly, misleadingly, simplified. I guess I’ll try to just touch on a few of my favorite aspects.

The characters. I could probably list every single character here and just call it good. Shara was a great leading character. She’s reminiscent of a noir detective, combined with Hermione Granger, with the chops of James Bond. Her “secretary,” Sigrud is essentially a giant Viking with a dark past who’s taking names. Turyin Mulaghesh: grizzled war veteran. She just wants to retire on an island, but her inherent badassery is always going to get in the way. Vohannes, a Continental native whose political savvy and charm make him an indisposable ally or a disastrous foe. Aunt Vinya, the “M” of the Saypurian spy network. I could go on. Essentially, this cast is diverse, complex, and perfectly balanced. There wasn’t an unrealized character or point of view to be found.

But the real strength of this story is the intricate analysis of its world. There are two aspects that I most want to focus on: colonialism and religion. The relationship between the Continent and Saypur is laid out in a way that is so perfectly imperfect. The Continent, once the powerhouse of the world, invaded Saypur and enslaved its people for centuries. After their Gods fell at the hands of a Saypurian general, the Continent sunk into disrepair. Saypur has risen as the new center of culture and economics. Saypur has occupied the Continent and outlawed the Continent’s own history. What makes this balance so striking is the honest portrayal of the failings of countries. The line between the oppressor and the oppressed is constantly tested.

The real success here is the sadness this book evokes. The Continentals did terrible things. But the remnants of their history are laid slowly before you, the ruin of what once were glorious feats of architecture, and you can’t help but feel a sense of loss. This ability to balance the wonder, beauty, and terrible, sudden quenching of culture and people with the true horror that was the Continentals’ reign makes this book special.

The commentary on religion is even stronger. In a world where once Gods walked the earth and directly touched the lives of people, religion and faith have a different meaning. The sense of entitlement that can come with a belief system would inevitably become even more prevalent. The Continentals can see and interact with their Gods. Saypur is literally Godless. How can the Continentals not be blessed and meant to be the center of the world?

Beyond this, each God has his or her own set of beliefs, ways of interacting with their followers, and chosen method of influencing the world. Kolkan reflects a rule-based religion. Judgement and punishment is at its core. Olvos is the Goddess of light. Hers is a faith based in thinking for oneself and living a life of service. Jukov is a God of mischief. He’ll as likely bless you as turn you into a flock of birds. Life should be lived to its fullest and the chaos of the world embraced. Each of these Gods and their specific faith systems carry traces of the familiar. Buried within it all is a deeper discussion of power and where it lies. Does faith and religion carry meaning because of the power of its God or the power of its followers?

It’s hard to discuss much of this book without spoiling the best parts. For a story that takes place in a world where knowledge of its past is forbidden, the slow reveal of history, its lies and truths, is a huge factor in the reader’s enjoyment. I won’t ruin it for you!

Let it just be said, beyond having some really interesting things to say, there are also some truly fun adventures. Shara and Sigrud battle a sea monster. Sigrud battles ninjas. There are portals, there are magic carpets, there are mysterious cults and creepy beasts. Like I said at the beginning, everything I could possibly want!

Rating 10: Practically perfect in every way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Stairs” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Sword and Laser Fantasy List” and “Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.”

Find “City of Stairs” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Fire Touched”

Fire Touched Book: “Fire Touched” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Tensions between the fae and humans are coming to a head. And when coyote shapeshifter Mercy and her Alpha werewolf mate, Adam, are called upon to stop a rampaging troll, they find themselves with something that could be used to make the fae back down and forestall out-and-out war: a human child stolen long ago by the fae.

Defying the most powerful werewolf in the country, the humans, and the fae, Mercy, Adam, and their pack choose to protect the boy no matter what the cost. But who will protect them from a boy who is fire touched?

Review: Another quality cover for urban fantasy! Seriously though, covers like this explain why people hide their books on ereaders when they’re on the bus. But I will not obsess over this again! “Fire Touched” is the latest addition to Patricia Briggs’s “Mercy Thompson” series. I think I’m going to struggle reviewing this book, however. I mean, things happen, but…not much really happens.

First off, there was an attempt to rectify one of the problems I had highlighted from earlier books: the lack of positive female characters other than Mercy. The tension within the pack with regards to Mercy is faced head on in such a way that I doubt we will see much having to do with that anymore. This leaves the door open for Mercy to form closer relationships with the women pack members, like Honey and Mary Jo. There was also an attempt add a new Fae woman as a friend for Mercy. They had some good girl talk in a car that one time. It’s still not perfect. Adam’s ex-wife was shoed in unnecessarily, albeit briefly, in the beginning. But I feel like we might be moving in a better direction, all said.

Many things I had liked from previous books are still here. Mercy and Adam are still great. And I enjoyed the time that was given to Adam’s daughter Julie. She’s a fun character who I always wish to see more from. Mercy’s old boss (and powerful fae) Zee, and his son Tad, re-entered the story, and they were also favorites from past books. And the two new additions to the cast of characters were interesting.

Aiden is a boy who has spent the last several centuries trapped in the fae homeland of Underhill. While there, he has gained abilities with fire and a unique understanding and relationship with Underhill, a connection that is highly envied by the Fae who have been having a rocky time getting Underhill to cooperate. Of course, Aiden only looks like a child. He hasn’t aged, but centuries of being disconnected from the world and trapped in a land (a personified place/being?) that both loves him and toys with him like a pet has left a mark. His interactions with Julie, who takes it upon herself to update him with the ways of the modern world, are particularly fun. The summary of the book is rather misleading, as his fire abilities had very little impact on the story as a whole. His understanding of the Fae and capricious Underhill was much more interesting.

Baba Yaga also makes up a larger part of this story. She was briefly introduced in a previous book, but she plays a more integral role here. She’s a fun character, but she also highlights some of the problems I’m beginning to see with the series. She’s yet another super powerful character who rather arbitrarily decides to be Mercy’s friend. My biggest problem with this story was the lack of stakes. The team of characters that Mercy has built up around her over the past 9 books really limits the story’s ability to create situations that feel threatening anymore. There were several fights in this book, and yet I found myself largely bored by them. Mercy now has Zee (super powerful Fae), the Walking Stick, (personified powerful Fae artifact that follows her around), Adam (werewolf Alpha), Bran (werewolf Super Alpha), Stephan (powerful vampire), Thomas Hao (super powerful vampire), and on and on. Who’s going to compete against all of that? The answer is no one.

So, too, with all of these characters, the cast is just feeling bloated. There’s not enough time to focus on many of them, and I was having to constantly remind myself who people were and how they fit into the bigger picture. I miss the early days of the book where it was just Adam and Mercy against the world, with a nice sprinkling of fun personalities like Ben, Warren, and Stephen.

Between too many characters, a lack of stakes, and a plot that felt like it was actually moving backwards a bit (undoing previous books’ work at setting up the Fae as an ongoing threat against humanity), I was underwhelmed by this book. Sure, a few new fun characters showed up, but as the large cast is part of the problem, even this isn’t a huge point of favor for the story. I liked it for the carried over pieces from other books, but mostly it just felt bloated and unnecessary.

Rating 6: I still enjoyed it, but I’m concerned about whether the legs are running out on this series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fire Touched” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Books with Action Heroines” and “Native American Paranormal.”

Find “Fire Touched” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Reviews of “Mercy Thompson” series: “Mercy Thompson series review”

 

Serena’s Review: “The Emperor’s Blades”

The Emperor's Blades

Book: “The Emperor’s Blades” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again . . .

The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must bury their grief and prepare to unmask a conspiracy.

His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. He expected a challenge, but after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can take action, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.

Meanwhile, the Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. And Kaden, heir to an empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways – which Kaden must master to unlock their ancient powers. When an imperial delegation arrives, he’s learnt enough to perceive evil intent. But will this keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?

Review: It’s just a fact that a lot of high fantasy novel descriptions start sounding all the same over time. If you’ve read a lot of the genre, you immediately recognize staples in these summaries. Ruler’s death. Fight for the throne. Assassins. Mysterious religious/mystical figures. A forgotten past. And this isn’t a gripe about lack of creativity. If you pick up a horror novel or a science fiction novel, there will be a similar case with each. It’s just the nature of genre storytelling. If a reader loves a specific genre, chances are good that what they really love are these specific features common to that type of story. But there is a balancing act to be found between crafting these typical elements to support new and interesting characters and support creative world building and using them as a crutch. More and more, I am wary of the latter. So when I read the description for this book, I kind of sighed and thought, well, here we go! But not only was I wrong; I was so, so wrong. This is Brian Staveley’s first book, but “The Emperor’s Blades” reads like it is already a fantasy classic.

The narrative is split between the lately deceased Emperor’s three children: the youngest and heir to the throne, Kaden, the oldest child and only daughter, Adare, and the middle son, Valyn. So, from the get go, Staveley sets himself up with a challenge. Three perspectives ranging in age, gender, and life experience is no easy task. Often I find myself strongly gravitating towards one narrative and wishing to flip quickly through the rest. And while I feel like I could rank the three stories in an order of preference, I truly did enjoy them all. If anything, a large part of my complaint has to do with unequal distribution. I wanted more from each character!

Specifically, I wanted more from Adare. Sadly, Adare only has a handful of chapters in this book which I felt did her story a disservice. The author is clearly attempting to set up these three storylines as parallel journeys  with each character taking a unique path and answering different questions in the mystery of what happened to their father, the Emperor, and what political mechanisms are in play in the Empire. And Adare is the politician, the daughter who has grown up in the capital city, learning at her father’s knee from birth. But she is not the heir, and after her father’s death, she discovers he has placed her in a political role not typically held by women. Struggling to find allies and unravel the truth behind her father’s cryptic messages, Adare’s story seems central to the larger tale being started with this book. Not only is her position so clearly important, but her practical, no-nonsense approach and savvy political mind were fascinating to read about. A few chapters weren’t enough!

Kaden’s story, on the other hand, is the slow burn in an otherwise fast-moving story. As customary for the heir in the Empire, he has spent the majority of his life being raised far away from the capital by a holy order of monks. This was a fascinating swap in typical fantasy tropes. Kaden spends a large part of his narrative discussing the peaceful, meditative practices that he has spent the last several years learning. Not only was I (a fantasy reader used to hearing all about a typical princelings learning fighting and politics in the middle of court drama) confused by Kaden’s segregation from his family and kingdom, but Kaden himself struggled to understand the value of his tutelage. This storyline was initially a bit slow for me. Kaden is the most cut off from the mayhem that comes from his father’s death, and as a character, he is drawn as a thoughtful, careful person. But while it might have taken a bit for me to become fully invested in his story, there was a big pay off in the end, and I am excited to see where Kaden goes next.

By far, the character with the most page-time and the most to do was the youngest son, Valyn. Valyn, too, has been growing up disconnected from his family and home. From a young age, he’s been training to be a member of the Empire’s most elite fighting force, a group of warriors whose primary skill set revolves around their ability to fly huge falcons. I mean, right there, you know this guy’s going to be fun. Valyn, also, is the first character to begin fully realizing the extent of the problems going on in the Empire following his father’s death which leads to a lot of exciting action. He also is surrounded by the most interesting tertiary characters. The other trainees provide for a very diverse look at the other people living in the Empire. The female members of his group also did a good job of making me feel slightly less disappointed in the small number of chapters that Adare was relegated. Valyn is probably the most typical character, as far as high fantasy goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing either. Like I said, genre readers like what they like. And by sandwiching his story in between Adare and Kaden, two far less typical high fantasy characters, Valyn’s familiarity works as a good balance point.

“The Emperor’s Blades” is the first in a trilogy, and it definitely reads like one. Major cliffhanger warnings! But luckily, the second book came out a while ago, and the third was just published this month. I’ll be diving into those immediately.

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Rating 8: Loved it. Wished there was more Adare, but I’ll by jumping right into the sequels, so hopefully I’ll find it there!

Reader’s Advisory: 

Getting on a bit of a soapbox here: I went to look up lists on Goodreads for this book and found not only one, but two lists that were titled something like “Best Fantasy Books for Guys.” There might have been even more, but after the first page included two of these lists, I stopped looking. Here is a pretty generic list that it’s on “Best New Fantasy Novel” and here are two articles worth checking out about gender and reading. Elaine Cunningham briefly discusses epic fantasy and the misconception of them as “boy’s books” here and Caroline Paul writes about how boys should read “girl’s books” here. Both really get to my main point: there is no such thing as “boy’s books” or “girl’s books.” People who like high fantasy will like “The Emperor’s Blades.”

Find “The Emperor’s Blades” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Series Review – “Mercy Thompson” Series

Mercy Thompson series

Books: “Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, 2006, 2007, 2008,  2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: Bought the first few, the rest from the library

Spoiler warning: I will try to avoid large spoilers, but some minor spoilers are inevitable to cover the progression of the story throughout the series. 

Review: The “Mercy Thompson” series holds the perhaps ignoble position of being the first urban fantasy series I picked up. As an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi, I’m not sure what has held me back from urban fantasy overall, though I can’t say the cover choices are helping anything! I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but when I’m browsing the shelves in the library, covers featuring scantily clad women are probably not going to be the first to jump out at me. Which is unfortunate, because overall, these books are pretty darn fun. I am currently reading the most recent (the 9th!) book in the series, and prior to posting my thoughts on that, we’re going to jump into yet another series review!

Mercy Thompson is a coyote shape-shifter who lives in central Washington state and works as a mechanic. (Fun aside: I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest and get unreasonably excited when I’m reading a book that’s set in, believe it or not, Pasco, Washington. Surprising, central Washington is not a go-to setting for most authors!) Mercy was raised by a pack of werewolves after her mother discovered that her baby had turned into a coyote cub in her crib and being understandably perturbed by this decided that werewolves would be the best option as caretakers. Now an adult, Mercy has broken ties with the werewolves and is determined to make her own way through the world. Unfortunately for her, she just happens to share a backyard/field with the Alpha werewolf of the Columbia Basin Pack, Adam Hauptman.

Starting with the worldbuilding: Briggs calls on several of the traditional characters found in fantasy and urban fantasy. The series begins in a world that has just learned that the fae exist about 20 years ago. But the fae have been sneaky and carefully ensured that humans only know of their more “kindly” folk, hiding their power players in fairy reservations that the humans have set up for them. In an interesting take on the history of reservations stifling the people they are meant to protect, the fae make great use of their allocated land, much to the humans’ dismay as the series progresses.

Unbeknownst to humans, however, are the werewolves and vampires. They, understandably, have larger “image issues” when thinking of coming out to people. The vampires, specifically, just aren’t nice guys. Though Mercy does have an awesome vampire friend, Stephan.

The werewolves are the central group of this series, and as the books progresses it was fun watching the evolution of how the werewolves viewed and interacted with the world. Starting from a very isolationist perspective, they must adjust their perspective as they grow to have closer relationships with humans and as the fae begin making power moves against the human world.

Mercy, of course, plays a large role in this. There are no other coyote shape-shifters, so while not human, she is also not a werewolf and quickly becomes a bridge between these many different groups. Mercy is a great narrator for the series as a whole. Perhaps one of the things I appreciate most about her, as compared to other urban fantasy leads, is her acknowledgement of her limitations. Of course, she’s still heroic and always ends up in the middle of situations above her pay scale. But she is honest about her abilities, both the advantages they give her but also the weaknesses that restrict her.

And, per usual, there is the inevitable love interest. Love interests plural, actually. Sadly, the first few books of the series commit one of my larger “book trope sins” by setting up a love triangle between Mercy, Adam, and a werewolf from the pack she grew up with, Samuel. Mild spoilers for this: I didn’t mind the love triangle that much as it seemed very clear to me from the very beginning that Adam and Mercy were the eventual goal, and Samuel was more a stumbling block than a legitimate second option. That said, I feel like I could have lived without this aspect of the story all together. I have yet to find a love triangle that I feel truly adds value to the story. The best I can say is that this one doesn’t derail the story, and I was able to largely ignore it. High praise, as far as I’m concerned.

Briggs’s world is very creative, especially her version of the beings within it. The fae are set up in a way that allows for endless imagination, and Briggs takes full advantage of this. So, too, she expands the mythology of the vampires in her world in a way that also allows for creative new stories. This creativity most fully hit its stride later in the series when Mercy begins exploring her family history and the origins of her shape-shifting ability. Briggs’s unique take on the creatures in this world is what has allowed this series to remain engaging through 8 book.

However, there are also some weaknesses to the series that I must point out. While Mercy has a lot of admirable qualities, she also tends to fall into the trap of blaming herself for everything that happens. At a certain point, I just found myself rolling my eyes at this. There’s a fine line between accepting responsibility for things that happen that are truly a result of your own actions, and adopting a sort of “world revolves around my decisions” perspective that begins to come off as self-centered and denying the fact that other people have their own agency. This is especially a problem towards the last few books in the series, a point at which Mercy is surrounded by friends and family who care for her and make their own decisions to protect her or follow her lead.

Another flaw is the lack of other positive female characters in the series. In the beginning, this flaw isn’t as apparent as the cast of characters is significantly lower. But as the story continues, it becomes more and more apparent and uncomfortable. It’s not that female characters aren’t there. It’s that they are there, but then are set up in a way that makes them a negative contrast to Mercy’s awesomeness. Female members of the werewolf pack continually have issues with her. And then in the last book, Adam’s ex-wife is brought into the story in a way that is doing none of the characters any favors. I don’t appreciate stories that sabotage other women characters as a way to promote the female lead. The last book does make some cursory attempts with other women characters, but the unfortunate, and frankly unnecessary, use of the jealous ex-wife largely wiped out these small steps. This is an area that I will be on high alert for improvement in future books.

One of the books also includes a very violent scene with Mercy that was hard to read. I’m still not convinced that this was necessary to the story overall, which is perhaps the most unfortunate part. I don’t believe these types of scenes should be included lightly. The aftermath was also very challenging to read. I appreciate that Briggs made an honest attempt to deal with the lasting effects of this situation, and in a lot of ways she was very successful. But it’s a difficult situation to write, and there were a few stumbling points that were cringe worthy as well.

Overall, I have enjoyed the “Mercy Thompson” series. As with most long-running stories, some of the books are stronger than others. There have been points that I have enjoyed throughout them all (creative world building, fun characters, snappy dialogue) and also points of annoyance throughout them all (misuse of female friends for Mercy, love triangles, confusing plot points). However, if you like urban fantasy, this series is a staple in the genre and definitely one worth checking out. Stay tuned for my review of the newest “Mercy Thompson” novel: “Fire Touched.”

Rating 6: Reliable urban fantasy series. You know what you’re going to get, with the pros remaining solid, but unfortunately some of the cons are persistent as well.

Reader’s Advisory:  As a series, it’s not on any Goodreads lists as a whole. However, Patricia Briggs has also written a companion series called “Alpha and Omega.” This series features a new protagonist but has several cross-over characters. The main characters from each series never interact directly, but there are references in later “Mercy Thompson” books to the happenings from this series, so it’s worth checking out if you want more of this world.

Find the first book in this series, “Moon Called,” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Rithmatist”

"The Rithmatist"Book: “The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, May 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: Audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery—one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.

A “New York Times” Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2013.

Review: Full disclosure: Brandon Sanderson is one of my all-time favorite authors. I think I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written, which is actually saying a lot as the man is known as a speedwriter. He published 2 novels just this year! And is writing another series that is made up of 900+ page books at the same time! I think he may have no life? Another fun fact, I got to meet him last year at a book signing here in Minneapolis!

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First and foremost, Sanderson is known for creating elaborate, unique magic systems. No lazy wand waving here! Rithmatics is comprised of a complicated system of chalk diagrams, essentially. As I was listening to the audiobook, each chapter would start with the narrator describing one diagram or another, all based around a system of circles. It was a bit challenging to picture it all: 9-point circles based on inscribed triangles, 2 point ellipses, jagged lines used for attacks, etc. But then, when clicking to hear the next chapter one time, I noticed that on the cover image it included illustrator information. *sigh* So, this was probably not the best book to be listening to as an audiobook. Live and learn! Considering that, I’m even more impressed by the fact that the narrator was mostly successful with these descriptions and that by the end of the book I had a fairly good understanding of the whole thing.

Essentially, Rithmatists are able to “activate” chalk drawings to accomplish different tasks. A circle is for protection, certain jagged lines can be used to break through circles, and you can draw “Chalklings,” little creatures who can be instructed to perform certain tasks, such as protecting a circle or attacking a circle. In school, Rithmatists will hold duels to practice these skills with the end goal of being prepared to guard the United Isles (in this world the United States is made up a series of islands based on state names essentially, like “New Britannia” and the “Floridian Isles”) from Wild Chalklings, vicious creatures that will attack and eat people if not warded off.

The whole concept was a very fun idea. It was even more fun to have our main protagonist, Joel, NOT be a Rithmatist, but instead a regular student who just happened to be obsessed with the whole idea and befriends a Rithmatics professor, Professors Finch, and student, Melody. This was a clever way of introducing the audience to the world, through a narrator who, while knowledgeable, is still an outsider like we are in many ways. Joel was a good protagonist, but a little flat, I felt. He seened a bit like a paper cutout version of a YA hero. Good enough, but his personality didn’t stand out to me in any really interesting ways.

However, Professor Finch and Melody were amazing! Professor Finch is the typical bumbling, wise mentor. Combine Dumbledore with Dobby and you get Finch. Wise, kindly, but not self-confident. And Melody had all of the personality that Joel lacked. An unskilled Rithatmatics student herself, Melody is also an outsider who is taken in by Professor Finch. She’s dramatic, witty, and just the right foil for straight-laced Joel. She also loves to draw unicorn Chalklings, much to Joel’s continuous dismay.

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“The unicorn is a noble and majestic creature!”

The mystery itself was good. There were a few moments towards the end where I began to think Sanderson was going to take the easy way out, and I’m glad to say he didn’t. For the most part, the revelations were a surprise.

One criticism I have, however, is that after reading this and the first book in Sanderson’s other YA series, “Steelheart” I’m beginning to think he struggles just slightly with adjusting his tone for YA. While overall I liked this book, Joel is not fully fleshed out, and in some ways this feels like a result of the author’s discomfort with writing teenage characters. The story itself suffers from a similar feeling of slight “offness.” Again, maybe a discomfort with not knowing how to tone down a story for young adult audiences? It’s very hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. But having read his other works, this just felt like slightly…less.

Overall, however, I still enjoyed this book and think it would be a great recommendation for fans of YA fantasy/sci fi.

Rating 6: Strong concept and fun story, but had a few weaknesses

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Rithmatist” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Most Unique, Original, and Interesting Magic Systems” and “The League of Extraordinary Kids.”

Find “The Rithmatist” at your library using WorldCat!