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.  

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Fantasy Review: ‘The Color of Magic’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 1 of the Complete Discworld Reread

“What is your name?”…
“My name is inconsequential.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
The Color of Magic– Terry Pratchett

Part one of a complete reread of Pratchett’s Discworld series.  As such the style will be a little different from other reviews.  The “review” portion will be shorter.  Following the short review will be my thoughts of the book from a rereading standpoint, on how it holds up to expectations, the evolution of the series, and other musings.

The Color of Magic is the first book of Discworld, a humor/parody series of fantasy books.  This book is set up in four parts, which act almost as four short stories all featuring Rincewind, the worlds most inept wizard.  Each section is a direct parody of specific fantasy tropes; the city of assassins and thieves, the barbarian adventure book, and a direct parody of the Pern series, and gods playing games with mortals.  Rincewind is stuck “protecting” a man named Twoflower (much against his nature, and abilities), the worlds first tourist, who wants to visit all the fantastic places he has heard of in his boring desk job.

Some may hear the book is a parody and cringe, as many works of parody these days take the easy joke and milk it for cash(I am thinking of a whole line of movies here).  If that describes your thoughts, do not worry.  Pratchett shows some skill in making a very interesting story on its own, that happens to gently mock some tropes(not beat you over the head with them, with the exception of some of the Pern references). While fantasy has moved in unique directions, it is interesting how many of the tropes Pratchett is working with are still in play.  Because of this the book has aged well, and the humor holds up.

If you like both fantasy and comedy, The Color of Magic is still a very fun, very short read.  It should be noted that it ends on a cliff hanger(the only book of the series that does), and The Light Fantastic is required if you want to know the end of the story.

3 stars, a good series start, but not a lot of depth.

*SPOILERS POSSIBLE BELOW *


To start with, I was reading Pratchett before i read fantasy in any volume, so I had no idea how much of this first book was a direct parody.  It almost reads like Rincewind travels through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  I see why so many fans tell people not to start with this book if reading the series.  It lacks the things that make Discworld, well, Discworld.  The silly asides are noticeably absent.  The depth of characters is no here yet, almost everyone is a caricature.  It is too short to be any more than a novelty parody, and while some work well, some were to obvious(putting a ! in the middle of a dragon writers name, for instance).

Huge chunks of lore will change from this book going on the series.  Death is almost sadistic, not the business-like entity we grow to love.  Wizardry changes dramatically, in The Color of Magic spells are one time use.  In later books almost any location can show up in another book, the world is tied together pretty tightly.  But almost none of the locations in TCoM are ever seen again.

Pratchett does a great job in later books with his female characters, I would rate Granny among the top characters in fantasy lit.  So it is a bit surprising that here he sticks with stock females from fantasy tropes.  Four females are present.  One is a goddess, two wear very little clothing, and all three mortals are out to do harm to the hero.

This book also starts the tradition of Rincewind being off the world, in another dimension, or just believed dead that continues through all the Rincewind books. 

All said, I still enjoyed this read, but it certainly lacks the strengths of later novels.

Notable Firsts, in no particular order: Rincewind, Twoflower, Luggage, Death,  and possible the Patrician(though it may be a different one.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Riddler’s Gift’ by Greg Hamerton

At first glance, this is a very traditional fantasy story about a magic ring which slips away from its evil owner at a critical moment, and finds its way into the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable. There’s a benign wizard acting as mentor and guide, there’s an evil wizard spreading darkness over the land, with the help of some evil minions, and there’s a collection of good guys uniting to defeat evil. You might think you’ve read something with a plot not a million miles from this one before. But not so fast; this book is proof of the theory that even the oldest and most overworked tale can be infused with new life in the hands of a good storyteller.

The plot isn’t really as unoriginal as I made out. Tabitha is the teenage girl who ends up with the magic ring, but she uses it to sing the Lifesong, the music that (somehow) triggers or even transcends the magic in this world. Ashley is an apprentice Lifegifter (or mage) who finds himself with the convenient ability to read thoughts. Garyll is the Swordmaster (chief warrior and law enforcer), and also love interest for Tabitha. The Riddler is the good wizard, there to help Tabitha. Kirjath Arkell is one of the minions. And although there are good guys and bad guys, things aren’t at all as clearcut as is usual in this type of fantasy.

The worldbuilding has been quite carefully done. The setting, Eyri, is rather small, being no more than two to three days riding from one side to the other, but there’s a reason behind that, and hopefully a later installment will see the story expand into the outside world. One grumble: there is a point where some of these external places are mentioned, with a string of incomprehensible names like Lûk and Jho-down and lots more, in the worst kind of infodump. Fortunately this is brief. The setting is the usual pre-industrial-revolution affair – a rather idyllic and twee collection of villages filled with more or less honest, upright citizens. The author has made efforts to avoid the standard generic fantasy template for his settlements, so each one has some distinguishing characteristic. Russel, for instance, is an artists’ colony, with houses built on stilts. While these distinctions seem a little artificial, it’s better than every place being the same as all the others.

The magic system is very nice. There are three ‘axes’ of magic: the axis of darkness and light, that of energy and matter, and that of order and chaos. I liked the way that it’s necessary to keep the opposing forces in balance, which leads to some very elegant methods of keeping the heroine and the villain apart until the right moment. The Lightgifters (mages who use the magic of light to heal and uplift the spirits) call upon sprites to power their spells, which are charged each morning by a communal song. There are also Darkcasters, who control a dark equivalent to sprites, known as motes, and spread gloom and despair. This all works rather nicely.

The characters fall neatly onto the good or bad side of the equation, and although sometimes it’s not immediately clear which side a character is on, ultimately it’s a black or white distinction, there really aren’t too many shades of grey here. What’s even more depressing is that so many of the characters are quite passive. Tabitha and Ashley, the two youngest, are essentially pushed around by circumstance and the machinations of other characters, and when it appears as if they might drift into the wrong place or make a mistake, someone more competent comes along to rescue them. If that fails, then they just happen to realise what they ought to do – Tabitha by way of her magic ring, and Ashley by virtue of his oh-so-convenient ability to hear thoughts, although not all thoughts, you understand, just certain key thoughts. Even Garyll the Swordmaster with his named sword (Felltang, since you ask) who strides around fearlessly as the epitome of well-honed manly virtue, imparts backbone into his weaker subordinates, and accosts the bad guys in stern brook-no-nonsense tones, is pushed here and there by the schemes and devices of others. Meanwhile Kirjath the evil minion and his boss the Big Bad are running rings round everyone, and the Riddler – well, OK, the Riddler is actually interesting. He has a certain complexity, for a start, and isn’t a straightforwardly good or bad character, although he does tend to turn up at crucial moments to rescue poor Tabitha from yet another tricky situation.

The romance – no, on second thoughts, don’t get me started on the romance. Putting Garyll of the Manly Virtues together with Tabitha the Meek and throwing in a few burning glances and shivering touches does not a romance make. I’d rather an author skip that part of the story altogether than make such a ham-fisted effort, especially since a large part of it is just about motivation. Tabitha’s in danger, so Garyll must ride heroically to her rescue or Sacrifice All for her sake. But there is one interesting aspect in the apparent equating of sex with the dark side. The good guys go for romantic dinners and in moments of excitement hold hands or exchange chaste kisses. Even thinking about sex pushes them over to the dark side (apparently). Then they make very questionable decisions because they’re in love. The bad guys, on the other hand, indulge in wildly passionate sex while casting spells of extraordinary power (which sounds like a lot more fun, actually). But maybe I’m just overthinking this.

I liked the writing style, and although there are a lot of point of view characters, the author uses them to good effect to drive the story forward. I enjoyed the little ‘riddle’ at the start of every chapter, too. But this is a huge book. I’m a fast reader but it took me forever to get through it. In a sense, this is a strong point, because the story is detailed enough to sustain it, and there’s very little filler. There are a few places where scenes dragged on a bit too long, and some questionable motivations, where the plot was pushing characters along, but most of it felt necessary. Nevertheless, I found myself tiring of it more than once, especially during the more horrifically graphic torture scenes or the multitude of depressing oh-no-the-bad-guys-are-too-powerful moments.

There was one major irritant to me and that was Tabitha’s complete inability to work out what she needed to do. I wouldn’t say she was stupid, exactly, just very, very slow on the uptake. Even when the Riddler led her step by step, she never seemed to make the necessary jump until it was blindingly obvious. It was quite painful sometimes. I enjoy a story where the author drops enough clues for the reader to work things out a moment or two before the protagonist does, but not when it happens ten chapters before and I find myself muttering: ‘Come on, it’s so obvious!’. I wanted to slap her upside the head sometimes.

The ending was suitably dramatic, and the last few chapters flew by with all the usual swings and reversals, one or two not terribly surprising reveals, and a satisfying, if slightly overwrought, conclusion at both the overarching plot level and the human level. For those who like a straightforward traditional fantasy, with clearcut heroes and villains, a battle between good and evil, and a young innocent discovering amazing powers, this is an excellent example. It’s very well written, with a large cast of characters who are well drawn and memorable, and a clever and elegant magic system (and bonus points for the very ingenious use of mathematical principles; any author combining magic with möbius bands has my vote). I found it just a little too predictable for my taste, and I look for a bit more complexity in my characters, but that’s personal preference, and the solid ending and neat magic system make it a good four stars.