So I haven’t reviewed books here in forever. So, a smattering of sentences on a shit ton of books:
nancy collins: paint it black & in the blood. i’ll call it horromance … there were some nice ideas buried between the tired tropes, but this was at its heart still deeply problematic urban fantasy. rougher than that genre’s usual fare though.
george r. r. martin: the armageddon rag. yeah i couldn’t even read this. eminently put-downable. presumably it aged poorly?
patricia a mckillip: riddle-master. this book does indeed have a grand scope and a poetic tongue to it, that brings to mind tolkien and le guin. it was less well realized for me than my previous experience with mckillip, the alphabet of thorn, and some of the characters’ motivations seem driven more by the plot than any discernable reason. but still worth a read if you enjoy lyrical, sprawling epic fantasy.
tanith lee: black unicorn. i hadn’t read this since i was a kid. still a great YA read, although there were plenty of times i was annoyed at the lack of agency of the protag. great imagery, memorable characters.
octavia butler: kindred. run, don’t walk, to buy/borrow/steal this book. i had turned my nose up at it before because i’d heard it was the least science fictional of her books, but its really one of the most thought-provoking, gripping and horrifying books i’ve read.
david foster wallace: infinite jest. i’ll confess, i couldn’t read more than a hundred pages of this. it was clever i guess? i didn’t think it was very engaging.
lois mcmaster bujold: paladin of souls. so this was an unexpectedly great fantasy with an older woman protagonist, interesting magic and great worldbuilding. my previous experience with bujold had been ethan of athos, which i didn’t love, so this was a very pleasant surprise.
lois mcmaster bujold: the sharing knife (book 1). this was less good for me. more original world, but sort of colonialist in some ways? and the gender roles were boring/tired.
david marusek: counting heads. this book was mad good. fast and futuristic, fun tech, strong women, interesting clones (i usuallly find clones really boring), really interesting AIs. one really interesting character who goes from fame/ascendance to something like untouchable status. i’m looking forward to the sequel.
octavia butler: the parable of the sower. not as good as the lilith’s brood series for me, but this was a strong, hardy story of a future that seemed startlingly close to now. worth reading. haunting and inspiring in turns, although the “religion” angle didn’t work perfectly for me.
susan palwick: the necessary beggar. this was an odd little book, of a peculiar kind of fantasy, that i wanted to turn my nose up to but couldn’t and instead found myself completely caught up in. the “ghost” parts worked the least for me, but the conceit as a whole (that a family from another dimension with other cultures/rules could be exiled to non-magical earth with very little bleed through from the other world) ended up functioning so well that i didn’t care. read it.
c. e. murphy: the queen’s bastard and the pretender’s crown. these should have have been my favorite books ever … tough woman assassin protag with Hidden! Magic!, a tough old broad queen, and SPOILERS ………… all the magical stuff is really from aliens? i mean, that sounds amazing. but its trite and sexual assault-y for no reason in a bunch of places and the protag has barely any autonomy and the other “strong female character” peer decides her life is over because of a dude and its just a mess. i only got a few pages into the sequel before i put it down.
catherynne valente: habitation of the blessed. after a slow and i would say almost inpenetrable intro, the book was pretty bloody amazing. just, lush and beautiful and fascinating. its a story told in quarters that grows exponentially more inter-related as you read … so good. the beginning was a little too dense with too little reward for me initially, but once you push past that its worth it.
salman rushdie: midnight’s children. this is another one i gave up on. first chapter had way too much going on, the second one was great and i was starting to get into it, but then the third became inexplicable to me. there were just too many places and names and events for me and i got overwhelmed.
Another first novel, Kristin Cashore’s book was billed in one of the blurbs as a spiritual successor to Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, which doesn’t seem inaccurate (I’m just noticing now that, while the cover depicted here is blurbless, the paperback version on amazon has Tamora Pierce declaring this “a WOW of a book” — I much prefer the text on mine from Junot Diaz declaring it “spellbinding”). Her heroine Katsa is a complex, fully rendered protagonist who engages with ideas of sexism, the necessity of marriage and the consequences of misrule. The pacing is pretty well done, and while the countries are rendered with somewhat broad strokes, the way the main relationship is handled with maturity, negotiation of needs and evenness of strengths, really seems to make up for that.
The book is marketed as YA, the 14+ crowd, which seems about right.
Thoughts on the cover: I love it. Pleasing to look at, allows for someone to really see themselves in it. Or really, to picture themselves as being about to pick up that sword. (As I look at it, maybe easier for me because I’m white? Likely less accessible for kids of colour to see themselves in those light-skinned cheeks and blue eyes). Note that the blade is done in an embossed metallic that really draws attention to it. The designer is Cathy Riggs, but I haven’t been able to find any of her work on the interwebs.
Helen Oyeyemi’s first novel is a small, likable yarn that is at the same time exceptionally spooky and cinematic. If I had the right clout I’d be optioning the film rights to this book mad quick, because it’d create an entire schema of Anglo-Nigerian horror to rival all those knock offs of The Ring. Her mixed race protagonist Jess Harrison tells it like it is without giving in to tragic mulatto stereotypes. Other reviewers have noted Oyeyemi’s ability to tap into a child’s perspective for the point of view, but not only that I enjoyed how deeply she rendered each of the characters, especially Jess’s friend Shiv. Oyeyemi’s light touch for matters of gender was also appreciated — she painted strong female characters without exaggeration, wrote of everyday women who handle things with understated competence.
Thoughts on the cover: I enjoy the cover’s depiction of a young girl, although I wonder if they opted to draw her with as ethnically ambiguous as they could. It is not difficult to read the girl as mixed race, but it happens so often that I just wonder. Another thing I’m only just now realizing is that I’m not really sure why the book is titled The Icarus Girl. The cover imagery works with the title, but I wonder if I missed a telling phrase somewhere that would have made that more clear to me. The cover photograph by Kamil Vojnar is indeed compelling on its own.
This book actually began an accidental romance with police/detective fiction for me a couple months ago, and since then I’ve stumbled into procedural-style novels in the most unusual of genres. In any case, this still hardcover text by China Mieville fully immerses itself in the tropes of noir — at least to the best of my understanding. His attention to detail is still fully evident, but expect less of savant-like attention to the weird and instead a masterfully clean yet still evocative style of prose. The book is so well paced that I found myself tearing around logical corners at just the speed of the protagonist. One potential criticism might be that rather than the identity of the murderer I was much more possessed with pinning down the mysteries of Mieville’s two cities — my need to know the shape and substance of Breach took on near fever pitch as the book began to close.
Although there seemed to be more men than women in this book, I really enjoyed the understated and dependable competence of the protagonist’s female partner. The un-noteworthiness of her strength was really appealing to me.
Thoughts on the cover: The jacket design by FWIS certainly lent an emotional coolness to the tome when you held it in your hand. I adore the mirrored text of the second iteration of “The City.” I also quite liked that while the architecture of the graffiti-esque cityscapes might not be true to the skylines of Beszel & Ul Quoma they still evoke distinctly different places. The cover was also very much so not a “fantasy” cover, which I think facilitated, for me, reading it using a different mindset than I might otherwise have when diving into a China Mieville novel. All in all, very pleased with the cover.
These books by Jo Walton are just exquisite little town & country horrors. I find it hard to separate myself from them to describe them properly, but perhaps they’re best said to be set piece novels nestled in an alternate history in which America had little to do with World War II and Hitler took over much of Europe bar England.
Farthing plays like a tragedy of manners, while Ha’penny is more rightly an historical thriller. A Scotland Yard Inspector by the name of Carmichael provides a narrative bridge to both books, while each book also offers up a first person narrator with some form of disaffected gentry. The frame works well, and allows readers to work themselves into the web of English society from the inside and the out. The third and final book, Half a Crown, is out since 2008 but not yet in my greedy paws.
Thoughts about the covers: The series design by Howard Grossman is, to my mind, impeccable. Regal gilts, formal estates & columns are overshadowed by a swastika so prominently featured that you don’t even see it until after looking at the image set below it. The text both “classic” and bold. Exceptionally elegant.
Pat Murphy’s 1996 novel Nadya was, for me, a slow burner, but worth taking the time for. The disparate elements she pulls together are pretty hit-or-miss for me on their own, but put together they made me think thoughtfully on love and struggle. At first, it seemed as though Murphy had simply dashed a number of things together — Polish history, werewolves and the Oregon Trail. While this is not the case, I must admit that the DOS game is still really my best source of comparative information about that piece of our colonist history here in the States and I broken axles, river crossing & typhoid fever can all be found in Nadya just like you remember them.
But, let’s get to the meat of it. This book is probably the only chance you’ll ever have to read a Polish Western bisexual cross-dressing rifle-touting werewolf and of her epic trip across America. The sections with native peoples seem to be written respectfully. And thankfully written without that overly wry & sarcastic tone that characterizes all of the recent paranormal romances that have been glutting the market.
Thoughts on the cover: I didn’t particularly enjoy the cover by Michael Koelsch. Arguably well executed, the depiction of Nadya seemed heavily uninformed by the text. Nadya rarely wears dresses and typically has shorn hair. The greys and muted natural tones worked for me though. I just think this is some other girl, not Nadya.
Within this duology comprised of “The Lion’s Eye” and “The Stone Golem,” Mary Gentle takes on an unusual protagonist by the name of Ilario. Ilario was born a “true hermaphrodite” from mythology, rather than with any set of entirely possible characteristics that we today might use the word intersex for. As such and irregardless, he adopts male pronouns when in a nominally masculine role and she uses female pronouns when in skirts; when doing both, he never seems to choose either and the other characters in the book seem to go back and forth on what to call her. This exploration of gender in a setting without the outrage of those forced to adopt “political correctness” (i.e. human dignity) leads to a number of elegant thoughts and refreshing scenarios, like the loving term “daughter-son” coined by one of Ilario’s parents. What is perhaps not refreshing is the uneven pacing and the ongoing brattiness of Ilario. Rarely has a protagonist’s oblivious whims and fits of pique seen me so annoyed as a reader. Luckily the vaguely magic-infused alternate historical setting has merit (in a similar vein to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series) and the supporting cast is well written. Note, that despite the insipid cover blurb (I stole the word “insipid” from one of the Amazon reviewers, I haven’t been able to think of it as anything else since I read it), there is, unlike Carey’s works, hardly any “polymorphous sexual action” as that moronic quote might imply.
Thoughts on the cover: These are the first books reviewed here that actually use cover illustrations, done by the capable Cliff Nielsen. The somewhat photographic look to the buildings seemed to work for me to a point, especially the smoky diffused effects. I was somewhat amused that he sidestepped attempting Ilario’s features by depicting our protagonist cowled in that cloak.
I thought I was done with vampires, werewolves & love, or at least those books that without hesitation throw all three into the first chapter. However, Gail Carriger’s first book (both in general and in the charmingly named “Parasol Protectorate” series) has somehow made its way into my heart. The premise is not dissimilar from that of Anita Blake or Charlaine Harris’s True Blood, in that the story is told within a version of our world in which the supernatural is acknowledged, often hated and always regulated. But Soulless takes places in a Victorian England, utlizing all the twee language, pomp and circumstance that such a setting offers. Combined with a wry heroine, her fey vampire best friend & clumsily masculine werewolf beau, we have a paranormal romance that manages to work its way into my affections. It doesn’t revolutionize the genre, but it does have a charming little tea party in the corner of it.
Thoughts on the cover: I bought this because of the cover’s impeccable design by Lauren Panepinto. The steampunk aesthetic is sharp and clear. The pinks, greys and textures of our protagonist’s clothes all come together and avoid some (some) of the more gauche steampunk elements that tend to be thrown together on book covers. The upcoming sequel appears to decline the same taste level in lieu of well, that awful hat. But I was pleased to see that they’d opted to include a quote from a review found over at my beloved io9.
Clocking in at a slim 209 pages, this novel by Sarah Hall is a crisp, well-realized piece of near future dystopia. The narrative voice is strong, and Hall pulls you around milestones in the plot with an ease that is sometimes belied by the gritty realities of the setting. She explores a number of themes utliized by Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale as they might have pertained to a woman more willing to take the patriarchal police state by the horns, and all in all, gets it right. The novel’s spareness lend an almost mythical tone to some of its figures. A dark and too possible future in the form of a lean meditation.
Thoughts on the cover: Nice use of a tight focus, but it struck me as unusual that a book about such strong women should have such a soft cover. The warm tones “work,” the cover itself is pleasingly designed, but there still seems to be a disconnect between the cover and the content. Other covers designed by Mary Schuck seem to look somewhat similar.