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Monthly Archives: January 2018

“The Prisoner of Limnos” by Lois McMaster Bujold

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The sixth installment of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series sees Penric setting out on a mission to rescue the mother of the woman he loves, who is currently being held as a political prisoner. This story significantly expands the cast of characters, most of whom are connected to Nikys rather than Penric. These characters are all interesting, and I’m hoping that some of them will appear in future stories.

The earlier novella Penric and the Shaman featured visions of the Father and Son, while Penric’s Demon gave us a direct glimpse of the Bastard. In this story, one character has an experience of the Daughter, which leaves the Mother as the only one of the five deities who hasn’t directly made her presence felt. We know that Penric spent some time with the Mother’s order and that this experience was not, to say the least, wholly positive. I’m wondering if some of his lingering distress over that episode will eventually be resolved by the Mother herself.

In addition to the tension of Penric trying to infiltrate a stronghold and rescue a prisoner, this installment gives us a different kind of drama with Nikys’s relationship to Penric. He’s clearly attracted to her, and she was starting to develop feelings for him as well, but the events of Mira’s Last Dance made her realize that a relationship with Penric is also inescapably a relationship with Desdemona. Aside from the fact of Desdemona being a demon, she’s also female, and Nikys appears to be straight. Naturally, she feels conflicted about all this, and one of the major themes of this story is her working through those feelings.

Although it’s not particularly long, this is a very full story, with some action sequences, great character interactions, and a well-developed romance arc. I’m looking forward to seeing where Penric and Desdemona go next.

“The Doors at Dusk and Dawn” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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I mentioned in my review of In the Village Where Brightwine Flows that Bradley P. Beaulieu has gradually been introducing his readers to the cultures that surround the city of Sharakhai. His novella The Doors at Dusk and Dawn continues this pattern, introducing the reader to the culture of the nomadic desert tribes who inhabit the Great Shangazi. The story centers on a traditional race held by three of the tribes, known as Annam’s Traverse. Each tribe offers up a prize to the winner, but in this case, one of the prizes offered is far greater than the tribe’s shaikh knows. The main character, Leorah, is desperate to win this prize, but she’ll have to best an emissary of one of Sharakhai’s kings to obtain it.

This novella is essentially a prequel to the main Song of the Shattered Sands novels. Beaulieu maintains a delicate balance between tying the novella into the larger plot and making it an interesting story in its own right. The tension between Leorah and her twin sister Devorah was well-written, and even the secondary characters had enough depth to make me care about them. The story’s conclusion was both poignant and thought-provoking, and I wonder whether it will have implications for the main storyline of the novels.

“Into the Drowning Deep” by Mira Grant

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The mermaid myth has always been a staple of fantastic storytelling, from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and the sirens of the Odyssey to the modern interpretations seen in such famous series as Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean. Author Mira Grant provides a sinister and compelling take on this classic legend in her novel Into the Drowning Deep.

The story follows a group of characters—mostly scientists—who’ve been recruited to investigate the possibility of mermaid-like creatures living in the Mariana Trench. Though the characters share a common goal, they’re remarkably diverse, which makes the story more interesting.

With regard to the mermaids themselves, Grant does an impressive job of giving them as much of a scientific foundation as possible. Their physiology and tactics are derived from their ecological niche and social structure, just as they would be in a real species.

One final note: Mira Grant is a pseudonym for Seanan McGuire. The works she’s written under the McGuire name are also great, especially her Wayward Children series.

“Last Song Before Night” by Ilana C. Myer

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Ilana C. Myers’s debut novel, Last Song Before Night, takes readers to a world where music used to hold magical power. That all changed during a great battle long ago, and now songs are just songs. But there may be a way to bring the lost magic of song back, if a young poet and a woman fleeing her sadistic family can uncover the secrets of a legendary musician.

I enjoyed the variety of characters Myers presents us with. From the earnest Darien and his jaded friend Marlen, to shy Ned and strong-willed Rianna, to fledgling poet Lin and her mentor Valanir, the setting is made richer by showing characters from different walks of life who react differently to the events of the plot. The characters also hold different pieces of the story’s puzzle, so despite such a large cast, everyone feels important to the plot.

Despite that, the novel does have some serious flaws. Two of the major characters get a lot of the information they need through dreams. I would have preferred for them to earn these vital clues through their own efforts, rather than having the knowledge handed to them. Also, Ned goes through some major character changes as a result of a journey he undertakes, but we don’t actually see the journey. This leads to a feeling of the character having “informed attributes,” and makes it hard for the reader to accept the changes in him.

The other major problem in the book is one of character motivation, and it involves major spoilers for the plot, so beware:

Lin eventually discovers that a great poet of the past had the opportunity to bring the enchantments back but chose not to do so. Given that he had been questing for that specific purpose, such a sudden change of heart requires some explanation to be believable, but we aren’t given that. We do learn at the climax of the book that restoring the enchantments requires a person to sacrifice their life, which would ordinarily be a major deterrent. But Edrien is presented as someone in a state of deep depression, who didn’t feel he had much to live for. As such, it seems odd that he would balk at the price of completing his quest. This disconnect between character and motivation threw me out of the story.

“The Ghost Line” by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison

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Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison’s The Ghost Line is built around an intriguing premise: a derelict interplanetary cruise ship needs to be moved so that another company can use its route. Meanwhile, an urban explorer wishes to record a video of the deserted ship’s interior. But when the explorer, Saga, her husband Michel, and corporate representative Wei arrive on the ship, odd things start to occur. A living twig grows from a wooden door panel, holographic playbacks start up, and so on.

I really enjoyed the world portrayed in this novella. It’s not a sprawling interstellar civilization where travel between star systems is as easy as driving from one town to another, but neither is humanity confined to Earth. The asteroid belt is mined for resources, and Mars is a tourist destination. I also liked Saga’s profession as an urban explorer who creates interactive holograms of the places she visits. It felt like a logical extrapolation of earning money by creating Youtube videos, and I always love seeing sci-fi take elements of the real world and show how they might persist or evolve in the future.

The Ghost Line is a fusion of a sci-fi tale and a ghost story, and the beginning gave me hope that it would feature the slow build I love to see in supernatural tales. How can a twig grow from a door? Why is Wei acting so oddly? Why does one of the ship’s holograms seem to be talking directly to Saga? But the story moves on very quickly, and the pace of the middle and end sections was faster than I would have liked.

I had one other major nitpick with the story, but that concerns the climax, so spoilers ahead:

One of the most poignant moments in the story is Michel’s decision to eat some of the ship’s food so that he can remain with Saga. But Saga prevents him from fully transforming, and I wasn’t clear on the reasoning behind her decision. She seems to make it much more quickly and easily than is plausible, without any real soul-searching, and this deflates the emotional resonance of Michel’s choice somewhat.

Reading Summary, 2017

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I read 59 books this year, which is a bit more than double last year’s total of 27. (Admittedly, quite a few of these were novellas.) Genre breakdown:

Fantasy: 25

Science Fiction: 5

Horror: 22

Historical Fiction: 3

General Fiction: 1

Nonfiction: 1

Mixed Genres: 2

Last year, my reading was heavily skewed towards fantasy. This year’s distribution was bimodal, with a pretty even split between fantasy and horror. I read more science fiction than last year, but no mystery. I finished N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, which I started last year, and continue to be an avid follower of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona novellas. I also started Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands series, which has rapidly become one of my favorites.

Favorite Book: Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by Bradley P. Beaulieu. Last year, my favorite book was a fantasy based on Eastern European folklore (Naomi Novik’s Uprooted), and I really enjoyed a similar book this year, Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. But Twelve Kings is full of compelling characters, acting in an interesting setting, and it began what has become one of my favorite fantasy series. I’ve read all of the companion novellas and have already pre-ordered the next book, A Veil of Spears.

Least Favorite Book: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich. As with last year, this isn’t a case of the book in question being bad. But it did leave me feeling a bit “bait-and-switched,” since a character who was billed as being the focus of the book faded into the background for most of it.