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“The Relic Master” by Christopher Buckley

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Christopher Buckley’s humorous historical fiction novel The Relic Master is set in turbulent political times: shortly after Martin Luther has pinned his 95 Theses to the cathedral door. The main character, Dismas, is a “relic master” for Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz. He procures holy relics for the cardinal’s collection, and unlike many in his profession, accepts only those he believes have a reasonable chance of being genuine. The one time he breaches this sense of professional integrity, it has catastrophic consequences, and Dismas finds himself being sent on a mission to steal the burial shroud of Christ (which will later become known as the Shroud of Turin) from its current owner, the Duke of Savoy.

Much of the book is light-hearted, as Dismas banters with his companions and they have to come up with one half-baked scheme after another to keep their plan on track. But serious themes are treated too. Genuine camaraderie develops between Dismas and the three German soldiers who are meant to be his guards, and he falls in love with a woman they meet along the way. He wrestles with the question of whether the shroud is the real thing or not, and he and Dürer debate Luther’s provocative writings.

Buckley is known for his satire, and his talents in that regard are on full display here. The constant parade of hypocritical politicians makes the story eminently relatable for anyone living in the modern age. On top of that, the heist-story nature of the tale makes it a fun page-turner.

“The Outsider” by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s latest novel, The Outsider, blends elements of a police procedural with King’s trademark horror. Detective Ralph Anderson is in charge of investigating a horrific crime, and he’s sure he’s got the right man. But the alleged perpetrator has an ironclad alibi, and contradictions in the evidence keep piling up that range from “really strange” to “flat-out impossible.”

The novel has a fairly large cast of characters: Anderson, an ambitious DA, a Mexican-American state police officer who gets pulled into the investigation, the alleged perpetrator and his wife, the accused’s defense attorney and a private investigator working for him, and so on. But King differentiates the characters well enough to keep them from getting mixed up in the reader’s mind. He also does a good job of portraying characters on both sides of the emerging criminal case as reasonable.

Many of King’s works make brief references to other stories of his, but the crossover is much more prominent here. Readers of the Bill Hodges trilogy will recognize a character who shows up about halfway through the book and plays a major role in how the plot plays out. However, you don’t need to have read the Bill Hodges novels to understand and enjoy The Outsider.

The mystery aspect of the story is engaging and kept me turning pages. My theory for what was really going on didn’t turn out to be right, but the truth was an imaginative (and, true to King’s form, creepy) idea. The pacing is also quite good: it’s a slow-burn story, but one that never gets boring.

“Horizon” by Fran Wilde

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Horizon concludes Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe trilogy. After sparking a revolution and learning a momentous secret about the city they’ve lived in their whole lives, Kirit and Nat must lead their people to a new home.

The new book dramatically expands the scope of the setting. Updraft and Cloudbound didn’t feel claustrophobic, despite the action being limited to the interlinked towers of one city, but whole new vistas open up for the characters here. Almost as remarkable for Kirit is the revelation that there are other people in her world, with their own customs and traditions—and their own answers to the problems of survival.

My one gripe is that we never learn why the city’s ancestors climbed the towers to begin with. The ground has its dangers, but so did the towers, and the ground certainly isn’t uninhabitable. And the series has always portrayed The Rise as something that happened out of necessity rather than choice.

Updraft was Fran Wilde’s first novel, and she created a breathtakingly original setting. I’m eager to see what kind of worlds she’ll explore in her future work.

“Provenance” by Ann Leckie

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Ann Leckie burst onto the sci-fi scene in 2013 with her novel Ancillary Justice, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Provenance is set in the same universe as the Ancillary trilogy but focuses on a different society.

The main character, Ingray, has a daring plan to bring a convicted criminal back from exile, in the hopes that information he has will prove beneficial to her foster mother’s political career. Needless to say, complications arise. As Ingray tries to keep everything on track, she gets embroiled in a murder investigation that could have serious repercussions for interstellar politics, possibly to the point of starting a war.

When I read the blurb for this book, I assumed that most of the novel would be concerned with Ingray’s attempted prison break. That does not turn out to be the case, and initially I was disappointed. But then I was drawn into the story by the intricate worldbuilding, interesting characters, and steadily mounting tension. Several plot threads are followed throughout most of the book, and they dovetail nicely at the end.

Provenance could be seen as an indirect sequel to the Ancillary books—not only does it take place in the same setting, but some of the plot points depend on a treaty that was established in the earlier series. Despite this, reading the trilogy isn’t necessary to enjoy Provenance. For those who have read it, the new book serves to explore another culture in that universe, adding depth and variety to the setting. For both new and old Leckie fans, Provenance is well worth reading.

“A Natural History of Dragons” by Marie Brennan

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Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series follows Isabella, a woman who defies the gender roles of her society to become the setting’s premier dragon naturalist. The first book in the series, A Natural History of Dragons, chronicles her youth, her marriage, and her first expedition to study dragons in their natural habitat.

Brennan deftly balances character development, setting details, and plot advancement. As Isabella matures and expands her researches, the reader learns more about the world of the books and the place of dragons in that world. Nor is the book devoid of action: a near-fatal dragon attack, a kidnapping, and a confrontation with a murderer all feature in the narrative.

While there are hints of future events throughout the book, the ending provides a satisfying resolution. The engaging story is likely to draw readers into the rest of the series, but Brennan doesn’t rely on a cheap cliffhanger to make people buy Book #2.

One feature that might make readers inclined to pick up a hard copy rather than an electronic edition is the excellent artwork. Drawings of dragons, locations, and characters are scattered through the book. The art style may be familiar to Dungeons and Dragons players, since the artist, Todd Lockwood, did some of the illustrations for the 3.5 Edition Monster Manual.

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

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Sujata Massey has won a number of awards for her Rei Shimura mystery series, which is set in Japan. In The Widows of Malabar Hill, she starts a new series taking place in 1920s Bombay. The main character, Perveen Mistry, is based on a real person: Cornelia Surabji, who became one of India’s first female lawyers. Like her real-world counterpart, Perveen is a pioneer in a historically male-dominated profession. While her gender presents some obstacles to advancement in her chosen profession, it also gives her an advantage in dealing with some clients. Some of Bombay’s conservative Muslim women refuse to interact with men from outside their families, but as a woman, Perveen can speak to them and obtain testimony. This takes on a great deal of importance when a local man is murdered and the only witnesses are three widows who observe a custom of religious seclusion, or purdah.

Massey does an excellent job portraying the complex cultural divisions of India at the time. Perveen is Parsi, a Zoroastrian born in India. Her clients are Muslim, many of her fellow Bombay citizens are Hindu, and her best friend is the daughter of an official in the British colonial government. Political undercurrents run through the story: Perveen’s law firm defends a man accused of fomenting “unrest” by advocating for better working conditions, her friend advocates for women’s suffrage, and there are mentions of a movement for Indian self-rule.

The central part of the story, of course, is the mystery, and this is well-written. Most of the people connected to the victim have secrets and potential motives. Each of the three widows who figures most prominently in the story has a distinct personality and past. Perveen’s attempts to find the truth show her to be intelligent and determined, but Massey doesn’t let things become too easy for her. And the reader is kept guessing about who the murderer is and what’s really going on. It’s not clear whether Massey is intending to write more stories about this character, but I hope she does.

“The Cloud Roads” by Martha Wells

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Martha Wells has received a lot of attention lately for her Murderbot sci-fi series but has also written some notable works of fantasy. The Cloud Roads, written in 2011, is the first in a five-book series focusing on the Raksura, a reptilian species in a world inhabited by a wide variety of sapients.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Books of the Raksura series is the complete absence of humans. Some species look reasonably human-like. For example, the islanders from whom the Raksura seek to hire an airship are hominids with gold-tinted skin and eyes (I imagined them looking a bit like the Sovereign from Guardians of the Galaxy). But we also see an insectoid species and are told of merfolk-like peoples living in the ocean. And then there are the Raksura themselves—shapeshifting beings with scales and prehensile tails, some of whom are capable of flight.

There’s also a lot of gorgeous imagery in the book: islands that float in midair, a city built atop a giant revolving wheel, sprawling landscapes. The vivid descriptions help to make the setting feel more like a living, complete world.

When the story first begins, the main character, Moon, doesn’t even know what species he is. He remembers his mother and siblings but doesn’t know why they lived apart from a community of people like themselves. The mystery of his origins is only partly solved in The Cloud Roads, and while he helps his newfound friends to defeat a powerful enemy, a larger threat still looms. I’m interested to explore the setting and these plot threads further in the rest of the series.

“A Veil of Spears” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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The fantasy saga that Bradley P. Beaulieu started with Twelve Kings in Sharakhai continues in A Veil of Spears, the third book in the series. As the conflict between the Kings and the Moonless Host heats up, the united façade of the Kings begins to crack, and Ҫeda seeks a way to free the enslaved asirim.

As in the previous novels, Beaulieu deftly provides the reader with a mix of action and intrigue. There’s also a hefty dose of magic, as the gods play a more active role than they did in the previous books. Sometimes, the middle books in a series have a tendency to slump, but that’s not a problem here.

In addition to giving Davud a larger role, A Veil of Spears introduces a new viewpoint character: Brama, a former thief who now treats those addicted to an opium-like substance. He gets drawn into the battle for Sharakhai when Meryam and Ramahd plot to steal the magical gem he’s been using in his treatments. The expanded cast does force Beaulieu to give some of them shorter shrift than I would have liked—Davud’s plotline gets dropped about two-thirds of the way through the novel—but overall, I enjoyed the new dimension Brama’s involvement brought to the story.

Brama’s introduction is related to a larger development: the incorporation of material from the Shattered Sands novellas. Brama and “his” ehrekh Rümayesh featured in The Tattered Prince and the Demon Veiled and Of Sand and Malice Made, while Leorah’s backstory was given in The Doors at Dusk and Dawn. The narrative summarizes the major events of those stories, so reading them isn’t necessary to understand A Veil of Spears, but familiarity with those works will make the main story richer. Weaving those elements into the main plot creates the impression that the tale is becoming grander, drawing everyone in Sharakhai and the desert into its orbit, whether they want to be there or not.

I pre-ordered A Veil of Spears as soon as it was available, and it has me eagerly looking forward to the next installment. The one minor disappointment I had involves a major revelation at the end of the book, so beware spoilers below:

 

I was happy to see Sümeya joining Ҫeda, because I liked her in the earlier books. I especially liked that she and Ҫeda had feelings for each other and was hoping that this relationship might be rekindled now that they’re on the same side. Love triangles are a dime a dozen in literature, but they almost always assume heterosexuality on the part of all participants. Such a triangle between Emre, Ҫeda, and Sümeya would have been a refreshing change. (And there was also a possibility of Sümeya feeling torn between two women she loves when she inevitably discovers that Nayyan’s still alive.) But with Ҫeda’s discovery that they’re half-sisters, that seems unlikely to happen. Though I do wonder whether Ihsan was being truthful about Ҫeda’s parentage…

“Black Light” by Elizabeth Hand

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After thoroughly enjoying Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, I jumped at the chance to buy a paperback copy of one of her older books, Black Light, when I came across it in the dealers’ room at a convention. The story takes place in a fictional upstate New York town dominated by the manor of a reclusive, controversial filmmaker. The main character’s father is an old friend of the filmmaker, and when he hosts an elaborate party at his mansion, she finds herself being drawn into a battle whose origins are as old as humanity itself.

Hand does a masterful job of gradually revealing the arcane goings-on in the town of Kamensic. Charlotte (known as Lit) is portrayed as an intelligent but bored teenager who, when she discovers that she’s at the center of something much bigger and stranger than she could ever have imagined, goes from confused and frightened to determined. The author’s note at the end of the book indicates that Hand did a great deal of research for this novel, and it shows in the elaborate mythology she builds for her world. My one stylistic complaint is that the sequence in which Lit wanders through the party, talking to various people, went on for too long.

One thing I found very interesting is the thematic connection between Black Light and Wylding Hall. In both cases, the arts serve as an initiation into arcane secrets, and artistic virtuosos can (intentionally or not) draw the attention of something beyond the human. The filmmaker in this book and the lead singer of the band in Wylding Hall both tap into forces through their work which they can’t entirely control, and which draw in the people around them.

Another intriguing aspect of the story involves some major spoilers, so beware of reading farther…

 

During the scene where Balthazar explains the conflict between the Benandanti and Malandanti to Lit, she notes that a woman who closely resembles her appears over and over in history and art. She asks him if this means she’s different from the consorts Dionysos has chosen in his previous incarnations, and Balthazar doesn’t answer. Her question made me wonder whether Lit might be an avatar of Cybele/Diana/The Mother in the same way that Axel Kern is of Dionysos/The Hunted God. Based on the Amazon blurb, Hand’s Waking the Moon appears to be set in the same universe, and I’m curious to see whether that book will give a solid answer to this question.

“Cloudbound” by Fran Wilde

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I was amazed by Fran Wilde’s novel Updraft when I read it a few months ago. The sequel, Cloudbound, explores the aftermath of what happened in that book and how Kirit’s society moved forward. Because so much of what happens in Cloudbound hinges on the events of the first book, this review will necessarily contain spoilers.

Like Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, Cloudbound depicts a society that has just undergone a revolutionary change. While the good guys have triumphed over great odds, they aren’t being allowed to rest on their laurels. Nat is now one of the city’s leaders, and he has to decide which faction to align himself with and how to deal with the Singers who survived. He and the other main characters are faced with weighty questions: Which of the old laws should be done away with and which kept? Should the members of the different Singer factions be treated differently? Should the practice of Conclave continue—and if not, how should the city be appeased when it roars? For the most part, Wilde presents these dilemmas in an interesting, thought-provoking way, though there are some passages where Nat’s thoughts and feelings are summarized in narration immediately after being shown.

I also enjoyed how Cloudbound expanded the setting introduced in the first book. An unsettling discovery forces Nat and his friends to climb down into the clouds. They encounter ancient ruins, terrible monsters, and a nefarious plot along the way. At the end of Updraft, I had a theory about the nature of the city, and I was pleased to be proven right. I also absolutely loved the concept of reverse altitude sickness.

Cloudbound ends with more of a cliffhanger than Updraft did. The third and final book in the trilogy, Horizon, is already out, and I’m looking forward to reading it.