“The Dagger’s Path” by Glenda Larke

daggers-path-coverI read The Dagger’s Path immediately after finishing the first book of this series, The Lascar’s Dagger. I enjoyed the first book, but this one really made me want to read other books by Glenda Larke.

I love fantasy books with non-traditional settings (Throne of the Crescent Moon, Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy), and this book includes a lot of that. The first book is set in a fairly standard European-inspired fantasy setting (albeit with a secondary character that’s most definitely not European), but in this book, the secondary character becomes one of the main protagonists, and we visit his home and see it through both foreign and native eyes. The Chendarwasi islands and the Spicerie are inspired by Indonesia and Malaysia, and there are quite a few literal references to their language and culture (I read in an interview that the author’s husband is Malay and his culture inspired this book).

I also liked the characters quite a bit. The three main protagonists are Saker, the rakish priest/spy who usually has the best of intentions but ends up in pickles regularly, Ardhi, the titular “lascar” who is atoning for the terrible consequences brought upon his people by his naivete, and Sorrel, the woman that accidentally murdered her abusive husband and is finding that she is an incredibly tough and resourceful person. The secondary characters also feel like people I’ve gotten to know pretty well, despite the shorter page time – Mathilda, the princess that will do anything to gain power in a world that refuses to recognise that women can be trusted to hold it, Ryce, the prince that struggles with feeling weak for doing the right thing, Gerelda, the unflappable lawyer and her charge Peregrine, who has a burden beyond his years, Fritillary Reeding, the tough religious head who is determined to keep darkness from claiming her lands, Lord Juster the flamboyant privateer who is pragmatic until someone threatens his beloved ship.

I was worried about some elements of the plot in The Lascar’s Dagger – the generic evil seemed a bit too derivative,  and some characters that we were supposed to like made some questionable decisions. After this book, though, I’m no longer worried – Larke uses the “generic evil” tropes rather cleverly, and the characters in question either realized that their decisions were suspect or fully committed to the dubious path. The book moved pretty quickly, and most of the outstanding questions from the first book were answered (something I always appreciate in a middle book of a trilogy), but of course, they raised a whole bunch of new ones.

The Dagger’s Path isn’t flawless – some of the characters flip-flop between attitudes too often (Sorrel’s emotions regarding Ardhi and Ardhi’s conviction regarding his ultimate fate, for example), everyone likes Saker way too much and too quickly, but it’s compelling and fun. This book isn’t even officially out, but I’d really like the third book now, please.

“The Lascar’s Dagger” by Glenda Larke

the_lascars_daggerAnother mini-review. The Lascar’s Dagger was my first book by Glenda Larke, and I liked it. A religious spy investigating the politics of the discovery of a new spice route realises that there’s a larger darkness brewing. This didn’t seem like a particularly innovative fantasy (see “larger darkness brewing”), but the characters are good, the intrigue is intriguing, and I started the second book despite having a new Brandon Sanderson book to read, so it’s pretty darn good.

I have more to say, but most of it applies to the second book too, so I’ll save it for my full-size review of the second book (I’ll update this post with a link when it’s ready).

Update: here’s my review of Book 2 with more about the setting and characters.

“Dark Currents” by Jacqueline Carey

darkcurrentsA mini-review – I don’t usually read urban fantasy, but I really like Jacqueline Carey, and I recently read and loved Santa Olivia and Saints Astray, so I decided to give Dark Currents a shot. (It’s not really urban fantasy anyway, it’s Midwest small town fantasy, and I love the small Ohio town I live in, plus it’s supposed to end after three books.) I was not disappointed – there are definitely some genre tropes (the umpteen hot guys, the female protagonist with unique powers that doesn’t quite think she’s capable yet) but it was much darker than I expected, while still having moments of levity. And Carey is a master at steaminess (although the book was surprisingly devoid of actual action). The hot guys were all actually decent not-quite-humans, too – usually I can’t stand the people that the heroine finds attractive.

“The Providence of Fire” by Brian Staveley

providence-of-fireThe Providence of Fire is the sequel to Brian Staveley’s debut novel, The Emperor’s Blades, which came out last year to a lot of acclaim. I read The Emperor’s Blades when it came out, but didn’t review it – I liked it enough to want to read the sequel pretty much immediately when I got it, but I had forgotten who most of the characters were.

In The Providence of Fire, we’re following the three children of the murdered Emperor of Annur as they try to save their empire from forces that are trying to tear it apart. Adare is in the capital, still reeling from the shocks she has just received, and Kaden and Valyn have barely escaped with their lives, and are fleeing from the forces that continue to pursue them.

First, the good things: I enjoyed this book, I couldn’t wait to get back to it whenever I had to take breaks from it. The worldbuilding in this series is excellent – it has a long mythology/history, distinct cultures and empires, and the way magic and gods work is pretty cool. The plot moves along quickly, and revelations come in quick succession. There are some awesome action scenes too – I love the concept of the Kettral (which the author has described as a fantasy version of special forces strike teams).

However, I was irritated by a number of things, mostly to do with the characters. All three protagonists – Valyn, Adare, and Kaden – were incredibly reactionary and kept making major decisions about their future every time they were presented with new information, regardless of the source’s trustworthiness. I wasn’t ever sure what motivated them and what their ultimate goals were. To be fair, I think some of that was intentional – all three of them are very young and inexperienced, and think they have to save the world single-handedly, but it sometimes came off like an utter lack of conviction, which made it hard to root for or care about the outcome. Adare especially seemed like she just went with whichever way the wind was blowing, and felt vaguely guilty after it, but never grew from it.

I wasn’t too enthused about the gratuitous violence either – while I’m not the biggest fan of violence, it’s not a dealbreaker. The thing that bothered me was that all the protagonists killed innocent people, or allowed the murder of innocent people to be acceptable collateral in their plans. This is not inherently a bad thing, but all three siblings are convinced that they’re being nobler than the Csestriim they’re fighting, whose chief failing is that they do not value human life, and just see them as pawns.

I’m not sure if these are flaws, or intentional on the part of the author, though – the next book will tell me that. The series is otherwise pretty great, and I’m looking forward to the next book coming out.

“Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

DoomsdayBook(1stEd)I’ve heard a lot about Connie Willis, but my first exposure to her was her story in the Rogues anthology, which I absolutely loved. I bought this book, and To Say Nothing of the Dog immediately.

Doomsday Book is one of Willis’ shared universe books about a 2050-era Oxford University that sends historians back in time to study the past. Kivrin, an enthusiastic medieval scholar, is the first person to visit the Middle Ages (a few years before the Black Death), but her extensive research and carefully planned identity falls apart the moment she gets there. Meanwhile, back in 2048 Oxford, Kivrin’s professor is convinced that something is wrong with her time travel drop, but he can’t do much about it since an epidemic is breaking out.

Kivrin’s sections in the Middle Ages are definitely the most interesting part of the book – the people she meets are pretty ordinary, but they’re ordinary for their time, which still makes them a wealth of historical information. The portrayal of everyday life is fascinating, and the characters seem utterly real. The sections in 2048 are slightly less fun – the characters are the best part, but it got a bit repetitive and there were some overdone gags. (Plus, landline phones being common!)

Overall, this was a good book, just much more depressing than I had anticipated. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

“The Just City” by Jo Walton

thejustcityI’ve been wanting to read Jo Walton for a while – her books always get great reviews, and she loves the Vorkosigan Saga as much as I do! Tor sent me an advance copy of The Just City, and I dove right in.

This book has one of the most fascinating premises of any book I’ve read – the Greek goddess Athene gathers up people from all eras of history to recreate Plato’s Republic (with the aid of robots from the far future). Of course, the experiment doesn’t go exactly as planned, especially when Socrates shows up asking questions. And mixed into this is Athene’s brother Apollo, who has chosen to join the city as a mortal to learn more about humanity.

This is a pretty slow-burning book (it’s about a bunch of philosophers!) but it’s lovely. We follow three people, each with a unique perspective – Apollo, Simmea (one of the children), and Maia (one of the masters) through the founding of the city and all the logistics that happen as the initial batch of children grow up. The protagonists manage to keep their ideal of being their “best self” alive, even struggling through the dilemmas of being real people at odds with Plato’s understanding of humanity.

Highly recommended – I’ve already pre-ordered the follow up, The Philosopher Kings.

“Fool’s Assassin” by Robin Hobb

rhho2s1qbzbzymfhn3niI took entirely too long to read Fool’s Assassin. I originally won it on LibraryThing Early Reviewers, but the book never arrived – I finally broke down and bought my own copy about a week ago. And then I ended up rereading all the previous six Fitz/Fool books.

This is another one of those books I knew I would like before I even read it – I’ve read the previous twelve books set in this world, and I love Robin Hobb. I didn’t think that there would be another book about Fitz – I’d figured he’d gotten his (well deserved) happy ending. I should have known better (and after rereading the previous books, the clues are there).

I’m not going to do a real review, but here are a few things:

  • There’s a new narrator in the book, and that was pretty interesting.
  • Fitz is way younger than I thought he was, he’s been through so much. He can totally carry a few more trilogies.
  • As usual with Robin Hobb books, this book is heartbreaking.
  • I still miss Nighteyes.
  • I really hope two of the new characters introduced redeem themselves (like Malta from the Liveship books), because I really didn’t like them.
  • Fitz is really stupid sometimes. However, this isn’t new – he’s always been horrible at seeing the obvious.
  • I hate cliffhanger endings.
  • I guess I’m glad I read this book a few months late because I don’t have to wait a whole year for the next book. Only eight months. Why isn’t it August 2015 right now?

“Jumper” by Steven Gould

JUMPER_Steven_GouldThis is going to be a short review, since I’m catching up on reviews (as always).

I was recently sent a copy of Jumper by Tor as part of their promotion for the fourth book in the series, Exo. I’ve seen the movie, and although I thought the premise was interesting, the movie was terrible (although, Hayden Christensen does a much better job than he does as Anakin Skywalker). Luckily, the book is almost nothing like the movie, and was actually very good.

Davy Rice has a pretty horrible life – it’s a good day when his father doesn’t beat him senseless. One day, he discovers that he can teleport, and his life changes drastically. That’s the basic premise of Jumper.

The book mixes a few genres – the section where Davy explores his powers and builds a fancy new life for himself is kind of like the movie Catch Me If You Can (social engineering, heists, etc.) and there’s a lot of action towards the end. The major theme is self-discovery, though – Davy slowly comes to terms with his past, starts to take responsibility for himself, and becomes a well-adjusted person. And it’s all very well-written. All the characters are three-dimensional, and their relationships are believable. Davy is a great protagonist – even though he was pretty sympathetic in the beginning of the book, the person he turned into at the end was immensely satisfying.

I still haven’t read the next book, Reflex, but I’m pretty excited about it.

On rereading Harry Potter

harry-potter-montage

I recently reread the Harry Potter series, and it left me with a lot of conflicting and confusing feelings. I usually don’t like talking about myself much, but I’m going to do exactly that in this post, and try (and probably fail) to unravel my thoughts articulately.

First, some background: I grew up with Harry, I was pretty much the same age as him when each book came out, and I was obsessed with the series as a teenager. I would spend most of my internet time visiting Harry Potter fan sites and reading fanfiction, I was a fixture in the Mugglenet.com chatroom, and I constantly speculated on what would happen next with my friends. I even started a fan magazine in my hometown, and ended up becoming somewhat famous locally as the authority on Harry Potter stuff. I was pretty proud of this at first, but towards the end of school, I got kind of tired of it defining my identity so much.

Naturally, when I went to college (where everyone reinvents themselves), I didn’t really mention Harry Potter to anyone, and I certainly didn’t reread it. (I still ended up winning second place in a Harry Potter themed trivia tournament, but it wasn’t the main thing people knew about me.) I was a bit embarrassed about how much it had defined me previously, and although I was still fond of it, I mostly tried to forget about it.

Anyway, it had been seven years since I’d read a Harry Potter book, and I was finally ready to reread them without all the identity baggage (or so I thought).

I was pleasantly surprised by the first book (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) – it was whimsical, engaging, and witty, and that also meant I wasn’t just delusional as a kid for liking it so much. It’s written in a somewhat different style from the other books; for example, I think it’s the only book that features scenes where Harry is present, but the scene is not told from his point of view (Ron and Hermione dealing with his broomstick trying to buck him off during a Quidditch match).

It took me a few weeks to read the second book (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), since it was always my least favourite of the first few. To my continuing surprise, I found it a pretty great read as well. The sense of whimsy isn’t as prevalent anymore, sure, there are flying cars and giant spiders and such, but people are actually in danger throughout the book and the whole school is paranoid. This makes the book’s atmosphere much more uncomfortable. Sorcerer’s Stone‘s plot is mostly driven by Harry and his friends’ curiosity – there’s no real sense of urgency except at the very end. It’s driven by a sense of discovery, not paranoia. In Chamber of Secrets,People in the wizarding world are consistently mean to Harry for the first time.

After this, I read the remaining five books pretty quickly. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book, was always my favourite when I was younger, possibly because it introduced us to the wider wizarding world beyond Hogwarts – Hogsmeade, Azkaban, and expanded the mythology and history significantly with werewolves, Animagi, and a lot of new wizarding classes. I was also fascinating by the Marauders (they seemed so much more fun than Harry and his friends). I’m not sure if it remains my favourite after the reread – I certainly enjoyed it for all those reasons, but it continued the “paranoia” trend (Harry and everyone else around him is constantly afraid of Sirius, and that drives most things in the story).

I’ve been focusing on the paranoia so much because that was one of the things that bothered me about the series during this reread. There seems to be a severe lack of regular, decent, friendly people in the wizarding world – people are far too easily swayed by public opinion and peer pressure, and everyone seems far too proactive about doing the wrong thing. This is sort of addressed in the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Cedric Diggory is all of those things, and of course, he ends up dead for it.

I actually enjoyed Goblet of Fire much more than I remembered, despite the continuing darkness (and starting the tradition of ending each book with the death of someone we like a lot). This is probably the book that Harry seems happiest in; he has a godfather that he can correspond with, he’s having a lot of mostly harmless adventures (even if they are scary in the moment), and puberty opens up a whole new world to him (although that feeling is only fun in retrospect). I also liked the further expansion of the world – more wizarding schools, learning more about house elves, merfolk, veela, and other non-human magical creatures.

Book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was my other favourite when I was younger, and I had pretty mixed feelings about this one. I used to like it primarily because it focused a lot more on the Marauders, I think. Most of it was much more relaxed than the previous books (Voldemort is back, but other than that, there’s not a huge obvious threat hanging over Harry). It’s the first book since Sorcerer’s Stone to be driven by Harry’s own initiative – he leads Dumbledore’s Army, he researches what Voldemort’s looking for.

This is where Harry starts growing up enough to both be pretty unpleasant himself, and to notice all the adults around him being inconsistent and making mistakes. Sirius is too caught up in his own feelings about his house and his plight to actually do what he wants to do and help the Order, Dumbledore ignores Harry without considering what impact it would have on him, Umbridge continues the tradition of the wizarding world filled with pretty unpleasant people, even if they are not Death Eaters. Harry doesn’t ask enough questions, starts yelling at people when he’s mad, and generally is much less trusting than usual. I found it hard to be sympathetic to anyone in this book – my favourite characters were Fred and George Weasley.

Book six – I wasn’t very happy with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when I first read it, because I thought the concept of Horcruxes came out of nowhere, and all the focus on romance seemed misplaced, and how could Dumbledore die? None of these seemed to matter on the reread – Horcruxes made perfect sense with all the information we knew about Voldemort so far, hormonal teenagers are pretty realistic/amusing, and I wasn’t all that attached to Dumbledore anymore. I rather enjoyed the titular “Half Blood Prince” (Snape is easily the most compelling character in the series), and Malfoy’s humanisation was a welcome relief.

I had never reread Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, since it came out just before I went to college, so I was most interested in my reaction to it. I remembered nothing but a vague feeling of disappointment. Unlike most of the other books, which I got a lot more from this time around, I ended up actually disliking this book. The Deathly Hallows did come out of nowhere and seemed mostly irrelevant to the story, the constant focus on Dumbledore was really annoying and also seemed mostly irrelevant (yes, he’s not perfect, let’s move on), the Hermione-Ron romance should have never happened (even J.K. Rowling admits that!), and the lack of Hogwarts changed the tone of the book significantly, and not in a good way. The ending where Harry has to die but he gets to live because of love seemed really Doctor Who-ish (what’s with British media and the power of love trumping everything?) and terrible. The plot was also pretty implausible, even by Harry Potter standards – Harry and his friends escape from three of the most heavily guarded places in the wizarding world (Gringotts, the Ministry of Magic, Death Eater headquarters) through pure luck. The only thing I actually liked was Snape’s story (although I wish it wasn’t fueled by everlasting love).

One of the other main things that irritated me about the series as a whole was the house system and the treatment of Slytherin. First of all, sorting people by personality seems like a terrible idea – giving young, impressionable people less of a chance to deal with and learn from people with differing ideals. Slytherin in particular is treated as “evil”; almost everyone in it is cowardly and horrible (even the ones with redeeming qualities like Snape, Slughorn and Malfoy are all pretty unpleasant). If Gryffindor can have smart people (Hermione) and ambitious people (Percy) and even cowardly people (Peter Pettigrew), why can’t Slytherin have a few decent people? What’s the point of sorting? No wonder the wizarding world seems so prejudiced.

Okay this is long enough, but one last thing: I don’t want to give off the impression that I didn’t enjoy my reread – I did. Well, I was a bit annoyed by the last book, but I still like the series a lot, and I probably wouldn’t be so hard on it if I wasn’t so prone to over-analysing it and I could view it as just another book series – but I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet.

Reread: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

secret gardenI’ve been in a big reading slump lately, but I recently went to see a stage production of The Secret Garden, and it inspired me to reread the book. I used to read this book a lot as a kid; I bought it a library sale at my school. I had never heard of it before, but the title immediately intrigued me. I hadn’t read it for about ten years though, so I was wondering how it would hold up.

Before I talk about the book, a quick review of the play. The Oberlin Summer Theater Festival produced it, and as usual, the sets, direction and acting were all top-notch (although adult actors playing ten year old characters was a bit jarring). I thought the adaptation into a play could have been better though; it was vastly simplified (the characters were all one-dimensional) and some of the events didn’t quite follow. I didn’t remember it being that way in the book, so that’s partly what prompted the reread.

I ended up enjoying the book a lot. Burnett has an engaging writing style, and even though her exposition can be a bit preachy, it rings true enough to be entertaining. The characters are (mostly) pretty complex, except for Dickon who’s basically magical, but that’s okay. Mary and Colin’s friendship made me smile – they’re both lonely, selfish and spoiled, but paradoxically they’re the only people that can help each other become a better person. Everyone else is just too normal.

I definitely picked up on a lot more of the subtle characterisation now that I’m older. The characters are all products of their experiences – Mrs. Medlock seems unsympathetic at first, but she’s just used to minding her own business, Dr. Craven is not terribly invested in his patient’s recovery, but he still holds to his Hippocratic Oath pretty strongly. I’d forgotten about the wonderful character of Mrs. Sowerby, who is responsible for everything sensible that happens in the book (the play omitted her entirely!)

The book is not without its flaws, some due to its time (I winced at the description of native Indians as “not real people”, although Mary was being particularly bratty at the time). Sometimes Burnett is pretty moralistic, and the serendipitous Magic that everything good is blamed on seems a bit hokey to me (but these days, everyone is taught to take charge of their own life and make stuff happen themselves, not depend on the universe’s goodwill – another sign of the cultural shift since the book was written). It is a book with ten year old protagonists, though, and I can distinctly remember being in awe of the wonders of the world then, so maybe I shouldn’t fault it.

My favourite Burnett book when I was younger was Little Lord Fauntleroy; I think I’m going to reread that next.