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Fantasy Book Critic

Hello all!

This blog is going to start changing a bit. Over time it became more focused on reviews than anything else, which isn’t quite what I wanted for it. So, while I may still cross-post reviews here for a while, I’m mostly going to be reviewing for Fantasy Book Critic. I’m really excited about this. My first review there on Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent,” the first of a new series, just went up today. I hope you’ll check it out!

~Casey

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Etiquette and Espionage (The Finishing School), Gail Carriger

E&EEtiquette and Espionage is the first of Gail Carriger’s new YA Finishing School series, set in the same world as The Parasol Protectorate but 25 years earlier. If you’ve read the Parasol Protectorate, you’ll recognize a couple of characters; if you haven’t, don’t worry.

Our protagonist Sophronia is essentially drafted into a finishing school that is nothing like what a proper finishing school should be, where the girls are being trained to “finish…everything…and everyone…as needed.” That is to say, they don’t just learn proper curtsies and quadrille technique; they are also taught poisons and covert operations. Sophronia, not being the passive sort, adapts to her new circumstances, assembles cohorts, and sets about unraveling a mystery.

Of course, there are mechanimals, flywaymen, evil genius societies, werewolves, and vampires, to name but a few complications. Unlike in The Parasol Protectorate, the main characters are not endowed with any kind of magical abilities, and so Sophronia’s perceptiveness, quick-thinking, and daring are the most powerful tools in her arsenal, and she applies them with aplomb.

This book has the same lighthearted whimsy, fascination with etiquette and steampunk technology, and stroppy lady protagonist that I loved from Soulless. Although the tone is light, Carriger nevertheless sneaks in commentary on and subversion of first impressions, racial generalizations, gender roles, and social hierarchies. It’s a fun, fast-paced read, and it looks like there will be three more books in the series, the next of which, Curtsies and Conspiracies, we can expect this November.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Book Reviews

 

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Impulse (Jumper), Steven Gould

impulseSteven Gould — currently running for SFWA president, for those who are interested — is most famous for his YA series that began with Jumper. You may remember the book was adapted into a movie in 2008. I’m told that the movie’s story deviated from the book quite a bit, and that the book is better, but I can’t really weigh in on that: to be honest, I haven’t actually read the first book yet, or even the second.

I started with Impulse, the third book in the series, which was released this January. So, I can assure you that coming into the series late won’t adversely affect your enjoyment in the least. I’m now curious to read earlier adventures, but Impulse gave me all the background I needed to understand what was going on, and without any troublesome info-dumps.

“Jumping” is the in-world term for teleportation, and there are exactly three people capable of it: our protagonist Cent (short for Millicent) and her parents, the protagonists of the previous books. The story never tells us why they can jump, but it does get pretty deep into the physics of how jumping works, and Cent explores the skill in ways her parents never thought of.

While I understand previous books dealt more with murky political machinations, this book deviates from that a bit, focusing more on the ethics of parenting: how much freedom is unsafe, how much control is stifling, and how to balance those. I could quibble that Cent adapts suspiciously easily to social environments when she was essentially raised in isolation, but that’s a minor complaint at best, and I still loved her and her story.

My favorite thing about this book is that it made me want to go learn about new things, or relearn things I’ve forgotten: everything from Boyle’s Law to international relief efforts to Jane Austen’s publishing history. I love learning things from books, and a book that inspires me to go learn more about such a variety of subjects is a rarer find. This book’s characters are competent and intelligent, and it expects its readers to be, too.

I love that Cent doesn’t choose between loving reading, physics, manga, or snowboarding; I love that there are plot-relevant gay characters; I love that this book makes being smart cool. I could list all the things I loved in this book for pages; it was an absolute joy to read. Happily, it looks like there will be a sequel, so we can look forward to more Cent stories in the future.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Book Reviews, Genre Staples

 

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Stormdancer (The Lotus War), Jay Kristoff

stormdancerI really wanted to like Jay Kristoff’s debut novel Stormdancer, first in the Lotus War trilogy, but it was not for me. There were many good things about it, like the extent of Kristoff’s research into Japanese culture, or his attention to details in world-building like the economics of farming and wearing out the land, but there were many other aspects that bothered me.

Part of my problem was expectation. The book is marketed as Japanese steampunk, which is misleading. It’s steampunk in the sense that there are artificers, airships, and goggles, though goggles seem to be somewhat decorative, as people periodically take them off with no ill effects.

It’s not set in Japan; it’s inspired by Japan. The problem then becomes, without using actual Japanese history, how you reconcile the development of the culture: where the code of Bushido comes from, or how it fits in with the very Shinto gods—with the except of Enma, who’s just kind of there.

This is no different than the problems of incorporating Norse or Celtic myth, but it’s rarer, but I wasn’t satisfied. Maybe I’m being overly picky because Japanese-inspired fantasy is rarer; I’m also conscious of the ways in which Kristoff’s interpretation isn’t like mine, which doesn’t make it wrong, but it does bother me. (I spent a lot of time with Japanese mythology for one of my undergraduate theses; I may not be an expert, but I’m pretty well versed in the subject). Again, I give Kristoff points for through research. What he did with the purity cult was clever, and I liked reading the retelling of Izanagi’s trip to the underworld. Yet because I was so conscious of the differences, the analytical part of my brain was in high gear during my reading, which in this case adversely affected my enjoyment of the book.

I’ve heard some complaining that he really should just call “thunder tigers” griffins, but that didn’t bother me. However, I worry that for someone without any background in Japanese culture, there are way too many foreign words too quickly. Some words he deftly defines in-line, but I don’t think he defines yokai outside of the glossary. References to arashitora and nigirizushi and ryu won’t throw me off because I speak Japanese, but all those new words plus new descriptions creates a steep learning curve.

Now, as for the story itself. I hated the first chapter. Not at the time, but in retrospect, because it really confused my sense of chronology. It’s out of sequence just to begin everything with a bang and maybe to start off with a Yukiko chapter, but it confused me more than it helped.

I really liked Yukiko as a protagonist, though I think the arashitora is the best character and has a great character arc. Yukiko is active, and though others try to push her around and influence her, she makes her own decisions and she grows a lot. I also love that we have a woman going on a quest and wreaking havoc on people’s clearly seen visions.

The POV bothered me. It’s third person, but I felt like it kept zooming in and out from limited to omniscient. Omniscient always makes me want to know who the narrator is, and the really zoomed out bits I don’t think were necessary; I would have preferred a much tighter POV, which is a matter of taste, but at the least I wish it had been more consistent, because I found the shifts jarring.

Although there are some serious issues addressed, too many issues didn’t make sense or only had token arguments against them, and it felt very didactic. Though Yukiko protests at first we never get a good explanation for why the kage might be problematic. If the shogun is so awful, why hasn’t someone already assassinated him? Why does anyone listen to the guild if all they’re good for is building weapons and burning people? What are the reasons for growing lotus, or for the war? Everyone we see who approves is evil, but there must be a reason besides just making money. Otherwise, why is yukiko supposedly the only person asking these kinds of questions who isn’t a rebel?

I also found the plot unsurprising. On one hand, this is good, in that the story ended the only possible way it could have. On the other, well, nothing surprised me.

I guess the verdict is that this book is probably better than I am giving it credit for. The story execution is solid, there is a wide range of character types, and there are a lot of interesting issues to wrestle with. I love that it’s an Asian-inspired fantasy, but I’m not sure how effectively Kristoff is walking the line between inspired by and based on Japan. I like inspired by, but if that’s what you’re going with, you have to fill in all the holes that history doesn’t. Even my critical self can see there are good things in there, but there are too many that bothered me to have enjoyed the book.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2012 in Book Reviews

 

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The Emperor’s Soul, Brandon Sanderson

emperor's soulToday I’m reviewing some Asian-inspired fantasies, and I want to start with Brandon Sanderson’s The Emperor’s Soul, published as a stand-alone novella by Tachyon. After World Fantasy Convention, I ended up with an extra signed copy of this one, so if you’re interested, message me in the comments!

For those who read Sanderson’s other works, here’s an interesting tidbit: this novella is set in the same world as Elantris, but on a different continent. If you haven’t read Elantris, that won’t affect your enjoyment at all; if you have, watch out for the allusions.

I think this novella is a great example of how to use something from the real world to inspire your fantasy story. In this case, it’s the stamps on Chinese pottery and art. Sanderson talks more about that aspect, and the process of writing this novella, in this twenty minute podcast. That podcast is absolutely full of spoilers, though, so if that bothers, you, read the novella first.

First, if you want to see how writers use limitations, in particular time pressure, to raise the stakes, this is a great example.

As with all Sanderson stories, there are multiple magic systems at work, and we’re given enough to know that the world is big, complicated, and fleshed out without overwhelming details of every difference.

The protagonist, Shae, was awesome. Clever, competent, active, thoughtful, all the things I want in a protagonist. I appreciated that this is a story with a female protagonist and yet has absolutely no romance. Characters Shae and Gaotona were both a joy to read. I loved their interactions and how consistent each character was. They’re trying hard to understand each other given how each categorizes and deals with the world, and the ending felt perfect.

I agree with the comment on the podcast that we could have done without the extra POVs; I liked one for Gaotona at the beginning and end for symmetry, and to contrast Shae’s perspective, but the other came out of nowhere and threw me off.

My only real question is why on earth a novella is priced at $15. I’m sure there’s a good reason, but I don’t know what it is. However, the novella is fast-paced, clever, and fun.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2012 in Book Reviews

 

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11/27 Urban Fantasy Follow-ups

TrappedSince I’ve talked about these series before, I’m just doing quick follow-ups. Happily, the latest installments in every one of these series were awesome.

Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles), Kevin Hearne

Trapped, while a lot of fun to read, felt like it was largely preparing for future books. The druid’s apprentice graduates, and she is very much her own druid and not just Robin to Atticus’ Batman. Atticus bests some more gods, and the book sets us up for Ragnarok, which can only be epic.

Steel’s Edge (Edge), Ilona Andrews Steel's Edge

Steel’s Edge might be my favorite Edge book yet, though it has tough competition for me with Bayou Moon, the second. I wasn’t convinced I’d like Richard as a hero, but Ilona Andrews pulled it off, and Charlotte de Ney is completely and unexpectedly badass. “Knowing the precisely correct thing to do in every situation, then doing it with unshakable entitlement” indeed. I’ve mentioned before that female healers annoy me, but Charlotte can also unleash plague and horrible death with her “healing” power, so I’m more than okay with it. As horrifying as parts of the book are, I couldn’t put it down for all the rest. Also, once again, the younger generation (George, Jack, and Lark/Sophie) steal the show more than once, and I loved every bit of it. Andrews is taking a break from the series, but I hope she’ll pick it up again in the future.

cdcover_lgCold Days (The Dresden Files), Jim Butcher

I thought Ghost Story was the best Dresden yet, but Cold Days has edged it out. The emphasis of this series leans more and more toward the importance of individual choice, and I love that. Dresden is more out-gunned than ever before, the faerie queens are the best, except for Molly, who gets progressively more interesting, complicated, and badass with every book. Butcher has been writing a 20-book series, and now in book 14 I begin to see where everything is fitting in. Butcher has not only stepped up his endings in terms of sheer “oomph!” value, the depth of his writing improves with every book. Also referencing the Bumble made me smile. Loved it.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2012 in Book Reviews, Genre Staples

 

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11/27 is Magical for UF Readers

Three new installments in some of my favorite urban fantasy series are all coming out on November 27th. I have no idea which one I’m going to read or review first. If you want to buy them when they come out, or start catching up on reading earlier books in the series, here’s your advance warning.

- Cold Days by Jim Butcher, the latest in the Dresden Files

- Steel’s Edge by Ilona Andrews, probably the last of the Edge books

- Trapped by Kevin Hearne, the newest of the Iron Druid series

As a bonus, since Trapped takes place 12 years after the events of the previous book, Hearne wrote a novella that happens in the interim, bridging the time gap a bit. Our favorite druid has to deal with some more of the fallout from his Asgard adventure, and the Morrigan is featured prominently. The novella is called Two Ravens and One Crow, and he published it as a *free* ebook. Like everything in this series, it is great.

Happy reading!

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2012 in Genre Staples

 

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