Steampunk Review: ‘The Inexplicables’ by Cherie Priest

The Inexplicables is the forth full length entry in the Clockwork Century series, an alternate American history.  In this alternate world the Civil War has been going for twenty years, with Texas on their own and the south freeing their own slaves to continue the war.  In the first book of the series, Boneshaker, we learn that a gassy blight was released in Seattle, leading to the requisite steampunk zombies.  A wall was set up to keep the blight in, but a lucrative side business has sprung from those who have learned to refine the gas into a highly addictive drug known as ‘sap’.

Priest has taken a unique approach to this series, making the world itself the most consistent aspect between books, rather than follow one character or overall story arc.  Each book has had a separate main character and taken place in different parts of the country.  Each book could probably be read as a stand alone, though several story arcs are slowly coming together in the forth outing.  Characters from each of the previous books are present in The Inexplicables, with the lead this time being a minor character from Boneshaker.  This book also goes back to where the series began, Seattle.

At the beginning of the book Rector is about to be kicked out of the orphanage he has been raised in.  With zero work prospects and a nasty sap habit, Rector decides to go through the wall that keeps the blight in old Seattle, knowing a former acquaintance made it through in the past, but thinking him dead.  From there he runs into rotters, takes a job from the crime lord who rules, and helps search for something unknown to the residences, something inexplicable.

I  did enjoy the book.  It was an incredibly quick read, quickly paced and fun.  Rector is a nice character, someone who is turning his life around more from the help of others than any sort of will power.  Yes, it is whiny and annoying at times, but in a city where everyone looks out for each other he is given time to work through his issues.  Rector’s friend Zeke has some great tender moments, and the return of the Princess gave the book its most compelling character.  The discovery of what the new monsters living in the city are will intrigue some, and make others groan, but I liked it. 

Though I enjoyed the book, it was unfortunately the worst in the series so far.  While the smaller scale plot lines(no fight for the survival of the world in this series) worked well in the first three books, in The Inexplicables almost nothing of note happened.  Rector’s mission was too easy and too short.  Rector seemed to give up his drug habit easier than I could drop caffeine.  The reasoning for Rector thinking he sees a certain character as a ghost is never explained, nor why he stopped seeing said ghost.  The big ‘battle’ was laughable easy for the protagonist, and there was never really a feeling of danger for any character through the whole book.  If I was to sum up the overall plot of this book it would be as such; Rector goes around Seattle meeting characters from the first three books.  Name drops seemed to be the entire purpose of a full third of the book.

So for fans of the series, there is enough here to keep you interested and hoping the next in the series gets back to the same quality as the second and third books.  But I don’t foresee this book being listed as many peoples favorite in the series.

Pros: The world these characters live in still has me enthralled and wanting more.  So very good relationships develop between a few characters.  Some of the separate plot lines from previous books are starting to converge. 

Cons:  Very little suspense or movement of the story.  Not a lot of focus. 

3 Stars, but let it be known that I still recommend this series as among the best in Steampunk I have read.

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Fantasy Review: ‘The Spirit War’ by Rachel Aaron

With truly horrible covers and very little publicity, the first three books of Aaron’s series flew completely under my radar for a long time.  It wasn’t until they were put together in an omnibus, The Legend of Eli Monpress, that I discovered this very fun series.  Eli Monpress is the greatest thief in the world, and his ultimate goal is to get enough notoriety to have the largest bounty ever placed on his head.  He is doing so in a world were every thing has a spirit, with some people having the ability to persuade or control them for their purposes.  After a fairly cartoonist first book, the quality in book two went up, followed by a third book that took the story down a much more serious path.

Which leads to The Spirit War, forth book in the series.  While the series isn’t turning into a dark tale and has kept some whimsy, this book defiantly keeps the more serious tone, with stakes that are higher than ever.  The heist plot lines are gone, and while Eli and his crew still have the skills needed to be great thieves, those skills are now needed to save the world.

While Eli is still  present, this time the story is more focused on Josef, the swordsman of the group, who is called back home to take his place as Prince of an island nation, surprising his friends in the process.  Of course Nico(the third member of the group) and Eli have no choice but to follow along, where they soon find themselves helping prepare for war against the Immortal Empress, ruler of half the world.

This is not a complex book, reading more like an adventure tale.  The joy in it come from the three main characters slowly learning a new piece of each others past, enormous clashes between spirits, and the different way’s the groups less lawful skills come in handy in each situation.  As a continuation of the series I can’t recommend this book enough to people who are yearning for fantasy that is fun and less grim than the average series.  The ending was the best of the series, even if it ends with a cliff-hanger.  With an epic confrontation brewing, the ending would have seemed too simple if Aaron hadn’t done so well in showing what a sacrifice was needed to make it happen.

Some small things hold the book back.  Intrigue is not a strong point, and the first third of the book suffers from trying to include it.  All the politics and betrayals were way too easy to spot, i knew who was going to cause problems almost from the character introduction.  And as unique as the “everything has a spirit” angle is, it is often conveniently forgotten to advance the plot. 

Pros: Tries to be fun, good banter between characters, a strong ending.

Cons: The spirit angle has constrained the author in some ways, and the politics truly are cliched.

4 stars.

Unrelated to the review, but for discussion only.   Did anyone else who read the book see possible illusions/homages to Feet of Clay by Pratchett or The Black Company by Cook?

Fantasy Review: ‘The Light Fantastic’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 2 of the Complete Disworld Reread

The Great A’Tuin(who is of course a giant turtle on which the world rests) appears to be flying right into a giant red star(and certain doom), and nobody knows why.  A book of eight spells left during the worlds creation may be needed, but one of the spells is lodged in the head of Rincewind, the most inept wizard in the land, who may be falling off the face of the earth.

A direct sequel to the The Color of Magic, this book continues to follow Rincewind and Twoflower around the disc.  But while the first book was a loose set of stories held together by the characters, The Light Fantastic acts like a more traditional novel with a single major story line the isn’t resolved until the end.  Unfortunately for Rincewind that resolution may be the end of the world.

Pratchett really shows he can craft a detailed story around his humor.  The greatest strength of the book is that even plot points played for humor at first can have a lasting impact on the story.
 The pacing is quick and the book is still quite short, but bloat is kept out in unique ways.  For instance when Rincewind decides it is time to go home it is done in a couple of pages, but in a way that fits the story rather than rushes it(which I am finding very hard to describe without spoilers).  The final showdown is well crafted.  The reason for the flight to the red star is completely surprising and a great moment.

The humor has really evolved from the first book.  The Color of Magic relied on the easy joke.  It would take a trope, then exaggerate it to the point of absurdity.  In The Light Fantastic the humor is more intelligent, more subtle, and twists tropes rather than just exaggerate them.  A highlight involves a discussion of the practicability of the outfits fantasy artist tend to paint on female warriors, but allowing that disappointed readers can picture her henchmen in leather if necessary.

4 Stars. In almost every way this outing is an improvement over its predecessor.

*Possible Spoilers Below*

While the second in the series, in many ways this feels like the first Discworld novel, and certainly more typical of the rest of the series.  When reading CoM i had forgotten just how silly some of it was, and I saw why many have problems recommending it.  In TLF Pratchett crafted a much stronger story, and really started showing his strengths.

The land and people of Discworld are starting to show their unique personalities in this book, rather than being typical fantasy tropes.  Death loses his malevolence and starts acting like the Discworld Death that is so well loved.  Rincewind goes from pure coward to reluctant hero who happens to be a coward.  Cohen the Barbarian is introduced, and is the same character that we see in later books.  We start to see some names that will crop up later, such as a gnome with a name of Squires and a wizard named Weatherwax, Pratchett likes to recycle names.

As mentioned in the review the humor here is much more typical of what is to come in his better books.  TLF doesn’t have too many groaners, nor some of the pop culture in Discworld jokes that bogged down several titles.  For me Pratchett is at his best in stories like these, a tight plot where humor is in the background, rather than some later books where he tries to be a humorist first and the plot hits a slog of bad puns.

Notable Firsts: Cohan the Barbarian, Ysabell, the name Mort(though it seems to refer to Death himself at this point).  This is also the book where Rincewind receives luggage.  And I may be proven wrong, but I believe it is the only book of the series where Rincewind is actually home, rather than in another dimension, falling of the world, etc.  Something to watch out for I guess.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Wizard Hunters’ by Martha Wells

The land of Ile-Rien is under attack by the seemingly invincible Gardier, who use their black airships to destroy, then seemingly disappear.  The Gardier also somehow have the ability to block all the magic the Ile-Rien have for protection, and they also have a magic of their own that destroyed mechanized weapons.

Invincible army, one person holds an object of power, a person may wonder why I even cracked the cover of what seems like a very trite read.  I admit at times in the book I wondered the same thing.  There is some interesting stuff in this book, and in many ways it pushes beyond the cliches, but I can’t say it ever grabbed me.

What worked well in this book?  It had some unusual hooks.  The main character, Tremaine, is looking for a way to keep herself in danger, a death wish without the desire for people to know it.  This keeps her early motivations mysterious(though this plot line is almost completely discarded by the mid point).  Both the Ele-Rien and the Gardier are living a technological era where magic is in use everyday, not hidden from the common eye.  And there is an early culture clash when it is found the the Gardier hold a staging area in a land with a more “primitive” culture.

For all that almost nothing worked for me.  There just wasn’t the focus needed to make any thing work, none of the good ideas were really expanded on.  Tremaine has a death wish, but it is gone  halfway through the book, then explained away at the end.  Not transitioned out, just explained away.  The interesting first contact plot line is ruined for me by the ease of communication and by just how little difference there really is in the cultures, despite the characters seeming to think otherwise.  And the neat mix of technology and magic comes to nothing, as magic rules throughout the entire book.  The Gardier are given no depth, they are a faceless evil.  The “primitives” are shallow, following the typical book wherein they need to have all their traditions proven to be wrong by a more knowing culture.

The book could not seem to decide what it wanted to be.  At times high fantasy, escape story, war story, epic quest, and even a sad attempt at subversive espionage activities.  Perhaps if the focus had been on a couple of these items it would have worked better, but none were expanded on enough to catch my interested, making the whole read fairly disjointed. 

Lastly, and this is neither good nor bad, this book is definitely the first in a series.  There is very little resolution in this book, it is obviously a setup for the future.

And for perhaps the strangest nit-pick I have every had, every male character of note in the book had a name that started with either A, I, or G(mostly G).  Gardier, Giliead, Gerard, and Gervas.  I am not sure if anyone else reads the way I do, but this caused me to backtrack and figure out which character is which several times.

2 stars.  I can see it being of interest for fans who want something different, but for me it tried too many things, and did very few of them very well.