The short version:
Highly recommended – The Poison Master
Recommended – War of the Oaks, Alice at Heart, When Demons Walk
Average – Tinker, Seraphim, You Slay Me, The Royal Treatment, Curse the Dark
Mediocre – Shards of Honor
The long version:
Actually, I’m not really into doing actual reviews. More like opinion snippets. An actual review spoils things–personally, I don’t like in depth analysis of character motivations, symbolism, or authorial philosophies. Aside from the plot, most people (or at least I think it’s most people) want to know: do you like the book or not? Of course, I must qualify that question further by saying that if you like depressing fiction or hard military sci-fi or action adventures with lots of lawyers, CIA agents, and a smattering of clowns–you might want to skip this post.
The Poison Master by Liz Williams. First, let me just say that this is an awesome book. Sure, I like other speculative fiction as well, but it says a lot when I automatically put it on my mental “keeper” list–that is, I read a library copy of this book but I’m definitely going to get a copy of my own to read it again. On the surface it’s about the apothecary Alivet Dee, a descendent of John Dee, trying to earn enough money to buy back her twin sister Inki from slavery. But on one of her jobs, she gets accused of murder and runs into the mysterious Poison Master who claims that he can help her and her sister in return for bringing down the Lords of the Night. I suppose what I loved most about this novel was the concept–Lovecraftian (in ideas, not prose), occult, and gothic. I haven’t seen anyone else work space travel through alchemical philosophy, which on first glance might seem a bit flaky, but Williams not only makes it work but makes it shine.
Tinker by Wen Spencer. The last time I read a book where a melding of traditional fantasy and science fiction sort of worked was back in middle school when I thought Anne McCaffrey was really cool. The world building in this book works as well–here we have a future Pittsburg that’s been transported to Elfhome (home to what else–the elves) for about a month and then transported back to Earth for a couple of days when the hyperphase gate allowing travel between the parallel dimensions shutdown. But I have a bit of a quibble with the characterization. Tinker, the eighteen-year-old girl genius running a junk yard, seems too much of a Mary Jane and some of her actions are puzzling at best. A supporting character made a whiplash transformation from trusted friend to would-be rapist. And Tinker’s love interest, the elf Windwolf, was too perfect and enigmatic. Windwolf would have fit in nicely in Lord of the Rings but was much too cardboard in a character-centric novel.
Seraphim by Michele Hauf. In an alternate medieval France, demons, angels, and fairies walk among humans. Seraphim d’Ange is on a quest for revenge–to destroy the de Morte brothers, fallen angels in human form, who have terrorized France and slaughtered Seraphim’s family and fiancé. She is aided by a family retainer and a mysterious mercenary who has secret reasons of his own for helping her. It’s not anything like a reworking of Joan of Arc–Seraphim is a very flawed and damaged young woman who has little faith aside from her anger. There is some comic relief provided by the family retainer, but aside from that, the story is pretty bleak. Don’t read this one if you’re looking for a quick pick-me-up.
When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs. A lot of mediocre fantasy makes use of major characters who are assassins or thieves, which to me is immediately a black mark. It takes a lot of effort for an author to bring a cliché into something palatable and most of the time, the author fails. But I’m pleased to say that here, the heroine is no average thief. Shamera is recruited by Kerim, the Reeve of Southwood, to help find the one responsible for the sudden murders throughout the city. But to avert suspicion of her new role, she is introduced into society as his mistress. Aside from the court intrigue and bits of magic–both parlor tricks and otherwise–this is at heart, a mystery masquerading as a fantasy. For the relatively short length, it’s complex with some surprising twists, but the resolution is both satisfying and consistent.
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. Space opera is a bit hit-and-miss for me. Mostly it’s a coordination between plotting and character motivation as well as holding the story up to my mental yardstick which is mostly comprised of Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy. (Asimov wasn’t a great writer, but he sure came up with some interesting ideas and plots.) In Shards of Honor, the astrocartographer Cordelia Naismith gets stuck on a newly discovered planet with Aral Vorkosigan, the leader of the Barrayarans who’ve ambushed her expedition. There’s a lot of things going for the book–survival, honor, love, intergalactic war–but somehow, it didn’t work for me. I guess my feelings for this book is best summed up by one scene–where Cordelia semi-drowns a psychiatrist in a fish tank in an attempt to escape.
Alice at Heart by Deborah Smith. Although it’s light reading mostly concerning the relationships in a southern family, this one shouldn’t be overlooked. Alice Riley is the family outcast–she lives in a cabin high in the mountains where she can swim in the water all day and eat butter for breakfast–and her unusual abilities eventually force her to find the people she came from. The three Bonavendier sisters are Alice’s half-sisters who have reasons for keeping to themselves on an island just off the coast of Georgia. And a distant cousin, Griffin Randolph, is searching for the answers to his parents’ death twenty-five years before. The narrative is unusual as it switches from first to third person, but it allows the reader dawning insight on the characters all the while getting introduced into a whole new take on mermaid mythology.
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. On her way home after the breakup with her boyfriend as well as her band, Eddi McCandry finds herself pursued by a faerie creature called a phouka and drafted into the long-running war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. This novel is Bull’s debut work, but it has since launched many imitators of this urban fantasy subgenre (the first one that comes to mind is Holly Black‘s Tithe which has younger characters and grittier setting). The characterization of the faeries is decidedly unhuman–which can at times be cold, cruel, and chimerical. The story is quite well crafted despite the somewhat problematic climax which makes a faerie war in the middle of Minneapolis exciting rather than ridiculous.
You Slay Me by Katie MacAlister. Aisling Grey must deliver a dragon statue to one of her uncle’s clients but instead finds said client murdered and the statue is stolen by a strange man named Drake Vireo who claims to be an Interpol agent. With her papers confiscated by the police, Aisling is stuck in Paris trying to clear her name and get back the stolen statue. Aisling is the typical MacAlister heroine: mostly ditzy with occasional flashes of brilliance. But it is the secondary characters which make this an amusing read, particularly the demon that Aisling summons who comes in the form of a talking dog who goes by the name Jim. Aside from eating and humping people’s legs, Jim delivers zingers about Aisling’s ineptitude as she gets herself entangled in Paris’ underground occult community.
The Royal Treatment by MaryJanice Davidson. It’s chick-lit that’s more like the result of an alternate history crossed with People magazine. In a parallel universe where Alaska became a sovereign country instead of another state in the Union, Christina (the “e” is silent) Krabbe has just been fired from the job of a cook on a cruise ship when she stumbles onto King Alexander who’s doing some fishing. Although with the exception of Christina, the locals know exactly who the king is despite his disguise. The king takes a liking to the displaced American and schemes to fix her up with his son Prince David who is more of a marine biologist obsessed with penguins than a royal. The rest of the novel is a string of comic wackiness as the foul-mouthed and assertive yet sensitive Christina gets swamped with wedding plans, pre-marital counseling and a very eccentric Alaskan royal family. Funny, but the heroine is far more grating than sympathetic.
Curse the Dark by Laura Anne Gilman. This is the second novel in Gilman’s Retrievers trilogy. Picking up from where Staying Dead left off, Wren is contracted by an organization called the Silence (who monitors the activities of another organization, the Cosa, which is comprised of mages) to investigate the disappearance of a cursed manuscript originally in the keeping of the Catholic Church. The disturbing thing about the manuscript is that all the people who’ve read it have gone insane and died. Compared to the first novel, the narrative is a bit fractured as we jump locales from Italy to the New York Public Library and viewpoints from the Silence, other secondary characters, and Wren and her partner Sergei. The author appears to be juggling too many different lines at once–perhaps the fault of sequel-itis–and hopefully may be resolved in the next book.