I 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?
Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb(The Fitz and the Fool, #1)
Del Rey, 2014 | Buy the book
This 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.
Jumper by Steven Gould(Jumper, #1)
Tor Books, 1992 | Buy the book I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.
When I first saw the cover of A Natural History of Dragons, I knew I was going to love the book. (I know the adage about not judging a book by its cover, but come on, it’s gorgeous!) The book blurb only furthered that impression – a Victorian-style memoir by Lady Trent, who has defied convention to follow her passion and become the leading dragon naturalist of her day.
Isabella has been fascinated with the natural world (but especially the dragon family) ever since her cook taught her how to preserve sparklings in vinegar when she was seven. She knows that this hobby can only ever be a passing fancy for a lady of her station, but as luck would have it, she has the opportunity to travel to the mountains of Vystrana on a scientific expedition to study their fabled rock-wyrms. This journey, of course, turns out to be far more arduous than Isabella imagined it would be – involving not just inflamed dragons but complex politics, vengeful gods, and exhilarating discoveries.
Given this premise and that beautiful cover, I had really high expectations for the book, and they ended up being comfortably exceeded. Isabella is a fantastic protagonist – she tries very hard to reconcile her natural curiosity with what’s expected of her, and although she doesn’t always succeed, it’s still endearing. She’s no rebel with a twenty-first century sense of morals and propriety; she’s a woman of her time that is just very passionate about scientifically studying dragons.
A Natural History of Dragons also has a fascinating world. It is clearly based on 18th-19th century Earth, with Isabella’s homeland being analogous to England, and Vystrana similar to Eastern Europe. There are dragons, but they are just natural beasts – there is no “magic”; although the sense of wonder that Marie Brennan with new scientific discoveries is even better than magic. We learn a lot about the world through the political intrigue and the other mysteries in the book, like ancient ruins of a civilisation known as the Draconeans.
Other than that, the writing is great (I love Isabella’s forthright voice sprinkled with a copious amount of dry wit) and the plot is intriguing but this book really shines because it also packs quite the emotional punch – you really feel for Isabella through her disappointments, excitements, hopes, and sorrows. It’s a joy to see her come into her own over the course of this book. (Also, there’s one moment which you will instantly recognise when you encounter it where you just want to set something on fire.)
Okay, I’m also supposed to be writing about the sequel as well, so I’m going to stop talking about A Natural History of Dragons now.
In The Tropic of Serpents, it has been three years since the very eventful Vystrani expedition, and Isabella is far more confident in her abilities and far less concerned with what the world thinks of her. She jumps at the chance to go on an expedition to the continent of Eriga, home of many little-known varieties of dragons. However, Eriga makes her previous expedition look cushy – strange customs, warring countries (and more politics!), oppressive weather, hundreds of killer species, the list goes on.
All the elements that made the previous book such a success are still present in this one – Isabella continues to be awesome, the writing is beautiful, the worldbuilding is captivating. Eriga is an African analogue (except without as much rampant slavery/exploitation, I think), and there are many cool African-inspired things that this book explores, from stereotypical “big game” hunters to different views on gender and property ownership.
This is not just a series for light, fun reading – Isabella faces some heavy moral dilemmas. She has changed a lot from the first book (mostly as a result of the events of that book) and her character growth is very different. She is not quite as wide-eyed and eager, but her curiosity and competence still make her very compelling. She also takes more of a direct role in events this time; instigating rather than reacting, and you can definitely see her along the path to evolving into the somewhat cantankerous older woman that she is in the forewords.
I really enjoyed the supporting characters in this book; especially Natalie. It’s interesting to see Isabella’s choices already causing ripples in the freedom of other women, and Natalie had a great story arc from being the woman desperate to escape her expected place to society to becoming more mature and confident (all while inventing a glider!) I also loved the burgeoning respect and friendship between Isabella and Mr. Wilker.
I don’t have much to say about the plot except that I do like how the plot always ends up being relevant to major scientific discoveries that Isabella makes. I wish we still lived in a time when science was a new frontier and enthusiasts could make new scientific discoveries and/or invent things easily (okay, I don’t actually, because modernity has its benefits, but these books really make me wistful).
I’m terrible at endings, but I’m really excited to see what Isabella does next.
I’ve been wanting to read Mercedes Lackey for a long time, but she’s so prolific that I had no idea where to start! But then I received Arrows of the Queen as one of my SantaThing (LibraryThing’s Secret Santa type event) books for Christmas, which is apparently Lackey’s first published book, so it seemed like a great place to start.
Arrows of the Queen is set in the country of Valdemar, which is protected by the noble Heralds and their horse-like Companions. Talia is a young girl from a remote homesteading culture that is selected by a Companion and taken to become a Herald – something she has dreamed of all her life, but never actually dreamed would happen. Her task is to be the advisor to the Queen, which means she has to learn a lot in very little time.
There is not much of a plot to this book; it focuses mainly on Talia settling in and feeling at home with her destiny to be a Herald and training in the Collegium. She solves some problems, learns to cope with bullying, loss and rejection, and grows up. The Heralds are all ridiculously honourable, which makes for little conflict, and the few conflicts that occur are usually resolved off-screen. The characters all have their own distinct personality, but Lackey does a lot of telling, not showing – I don’t know if that was just a stylistic choice or because it was her first book.
Despite the simplicity of the story, the book never felt boring – the character interactions were charming, the events flew by quickly, and Talia dealt with some pretty complex issues. I expected the narrative style to grate on me after a while, but it never did.
I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of Talia’s adventures and more Valdemar tales afterwards!
Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey(The Heralds of Valdemar, #1)
DAW Books, 1987 | Buy the book
The Quiet War is set in the 23rd century in a fully colonised solar system. War is brewing between conservative Earth and the solar system colonists called Outers, who push the envelope on what it means to be human constantly. The protagonists of the book are very different, but they are caught in this building momentum – an ambitious geneticist whose star is rising, a genetically-engineered clone soldier, a junior scientist whose curiosity makes her a liability, a pilot who volunteers to test a dangerous new technology, and a power-hungry diplomat.
I expected The Quiet War to be focused on the military, but instead it’s a slow burning political book that portrays the inevitability of conflict, despite almost nobody actually wanting one. It does this rather well, hampered only by the frequent and long passages on the technical details of ecosystem building (which are fascinating, but don’t add much to the story – atmosphere can be overdone).
McAuley’s descriptive abilities are put to good use when he describes the colonised solar system, though – the Outers’ colonies are vividly beautiful and inspire awe. It seems like a doable near-future vision of space colonisation, which is something I would love to see happen in my lifetime.
The protagonists are not terribly sympathetic, but they do a good job of illustrating how people from pretty much every walk of life are drawn into the war. Some of the protagonists’ quirks (Sri’s odd relationship with her son, for example) seemed like attempts to make the character multidimensional, but instead ended up feeling pointlessly uncomfortable. I think one particular viewpoint (Cash) could’ve been totally cut – I didn’t really get what he added to the story, since Dave 8 had had the whole “engineered soldier PoV” covered.
The Quiet War is fairly standalone, but I think it could use a little closure on the war, so I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, Gardens of the Sun.
The Quiet War by Paul McAuley(The Quiet War, #1)
Pyr, 2008 | Buy the book I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.
I’ve been hearing rave reviews of Ancillary Justice everywhere, so when I finally got my copy, I pounced on it and finished it that very night. Despite the sky-high expectations, I was not disappointed – it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is Breq, the sole remnant of the sentient starship Justice of Toren of the Radch Empire. She (it?) has been seeking vengeance after the rest of her was destroyed, and on a remote, icy planet, she’s getting close to the end of her quest. I don’t want to say any more about the premise because anything I say would focus on only a small part of what this book encompasses, and I think that would be doing it a disservice.
Breq’s viewpoint is fascinating – she is someone who is accustomed to perceiving and processing millions of things in many different locations and ways – sometimes through pieces of mechanical equipment, sometimes through human bodies (called ancillaries). She looks human but has never been human, so the things she pays attention to and the thoughts she has are very different. The story alternates between Breq’s present quest, and the events that led to it (when Breq had her full capabilities as Justice of Toren), so we see her character evolve (devolve?).
Ancillary Justice examines humanity in an incredibly compelling way – by omission. Breq pays absolutely no attention to the fact that her ancillaries were once fully human, or to other characters’ dismay over that fact. There is one disturbing scene where a new ancillary is connected to the ship, and the only thing the ship comments on as it squelches the human’s memories is that it is irritated that the host doesn’t know any new songs that it could learn. The way supporting characters feel is also clear through Breq’s narration – some are in love, some are scared, but much of the time, Breq has no awareness of what their actions mean, or even of her own feelings.
Many of the other concepts in this novel are also explored via omission – individuality and gender are two examples. Justice of Toren‘s individuality is murky – each ancillary unit has its own personality (or maybe just Breq’s origin – One Esk?), but they’re part of the ship. The Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, further adds to this murkiness – supposedly she is a single entity with thousands of genetically identical bodies – but is she? Gender is similar – The Radch Empire is a post-gender society, and Breq has a really hard time identifying people’s gender in other societies. I tried really hard to keep track of people’s “real” genders for the first few chapters, but then came to realise it didn’t matter at all.
Despite all the hard science-fictional concepts, Ancillary Justice never gets lost in its own ideas – it is well-paced and extremely readable all the way through. I could go on and on about pretty much everything in this book – the worldbuilding, its exploration of another half a dozen concepts, the characters, and much more, but instead I’ll just tell you that this is one of the most original and ambitious books I’ve read, and exhort you to read it as soon as possible!
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie(Imperial Radch, #1)
Orbit Books, 2013 | Buy the book I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.
Another short review so I can catch up with reviews faster. Warning: mild spoilers.
Fortune’s Pawn follows Devi Morris, an armoured mercenary who is impatient about the pace that her career is progressing at. She takes a security job with the Glorious Fool, a ship where a one year assignment equals five years anywhere else. However, there’s a reason for this, and even Devi might be way in over her head.
This book was a lot of fun to read. The worldbuilding is immersive, the pacing is breakneck, and Devi is a great protagonist – smart, loyal, and sometimes so impatient/impulsive that you want to yell at her.
The one major thing I didn’t like about the book was the romantic interest – I generally don’t care for love-at-first-sight (lust is fine!), and the whole “I’m too dangerous; stay away from me” thing felt cliched and terrible. Plus, Devi has to be rescued by him a couple of times, and it makes her look bad – everyone (including her) is always talking about what a good mercenary she is, but she seems to fail at everything just so she can be rescued by Rupert.
I’m looking forward to the next book – Honor’s Knight – hopefully there will be more Devi being badass and less mysterious/dangerous love interest cliches!
Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach(Paradox, #1)
Orbit Books, 2013 | Buy the book I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.
I’m very behind on reviews, so I’m going to make this one short. I got this book for Christmas, and as a huge Scalzi fan, I was excited to read it.
The Android’s Dream is a science-fiction comedy (like Scalzi’s previous Agent to the Stars). There has been a diplomatic incident with the Nidu, a race of not-that-powerful-but-still-more-powerful-than-Earth aliens, and war looms on the horizon – unless a specimen of a rare variety of sheep can be found. Harry Creek, a mid-level State department bureaucrat and war veteran, is tasked with getting to the bottom of the events.
The best word to describe this book is a “romp”. There are layered conspiracies, refreshingly practical religious zealots, artificial intelligences, and a lot more. The tone of the book reminded me of a (revived) Doctor Who episode – lots of witty banter and ridiculousness, some heart and a deus ex machina resolution that you don’t really want to look at closely.
I liked this book fairly well, but I prefer Scalzi’s more serious books – the Old Man’s War books, Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts. I hear that The God Engines is his least comedic work, so I’m pretty excited about reading that one someday too.
The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2006 | Buy the book
I’ve been wary of reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I’d heard a lot of great things about the book, but I don’t usually like fantasy stories where the protagonists are older teens/adults from our world who discover a fantasy world; it tends to dampen the sense of wonder and discovery that usually accompanies the exploration of a new world. However, the Lev Grossman’s short story set in the Magicians universe in Shawn Speakman’s Unfettered anthology (which I still need to review at some point) persuaded me to finally buy myself a copy, and I’m glad I did!
I’ve heard The Magicians described as Harry Potter meets Narnia, and that’s not a bad description. We follow Quentin, a fairly nerdy and very smart teenager who’s obsessed with the Narnia-like magical land of Fillory. He’s close to graduating from high school when he has a “you’re a wizard, Harry!” moment and gets the opportunity to go to a magical college and soon has more exciting things to worry about than Fillory. But Fillory is not as imaginary as Quentin thinks…
I enjoyed this book tremendously because it works excellently in two very different genres – high fantasy, and contemporary coming of age. Fantasy often comes with a coming of age story, but it’s generally of the type where the protagonist needs to accept his destiny and become the hero he was meant to be. The Magicians has none of this – most of it is the story of Quentin growing up, making real friends, realising the unimportance of high school priorities, coping with the real world after college… all very familiar. Magic is almost secondary until the last quarter of the book where they find Fillory. And even then, Quentin and his friends act exactly how you’d expect regular twenty somethings to act, but Grossman spins it into a great fantasy story, managing to make the same situations both mesmerisingly wondrous and infuriatingly realistic.
On the surface, this seems like a ridiculous book. The protagonist is generally unlikeable, the settings are very similar to books you’ve probably read, and nothing really happens for more than half of the book. Don’t be scared, though, because all of this enables Lev Grossman to tell an entirely new type of fantasy story that’s very much grounded in reality. Read it!
The Magicians by Lev Grossman(The Magicians, #1)
Viking, 2009 | Buy the book
Tell me about yourself, and how you got into writing.
I’m a father, a geek, and a former game designer. After leaving the game industry I needed a hobby to fill the creative void in my life, and decided to try writing because it seemed like something I could do entirely on my own. This of course turned out to be untrue, there’s a huge team of people involved, but at least at the beginning I was able to scratch my creative itch and work at my own pace.
I love the backstory behind The Darwin Elevator – aliens leave us both a space elevator and a plague. How did you come up with it?
The core of the idea came from my reaction to the standard argument against building a space elevator: it would be too hard to construct. I thought, “who says we’re the ones to build it?” That’s the moment that everything started to click into place.
The sequels to The Darwin Elevator come out in the next few months, so I assume you’re done writing them. What are you working on now?
Most of my time right now is going into interviews like this, plus guest blog posts and that sort of thing. I’m also working on some pitches for new books, which will hopefully turn into a contract soon. I’m anxious to get started on another novel!
This is my standard question for all genre authors – how do you come up with a plausible and interesting world?
All the usual answers probably apply, but one I thing I did that I came up with on my own is this: For each character I wrote up an activity log of what they did the day before the book starts. This helped me flesh out the characters, but also had a surprising bounty of ideas for the world as well. Mundane things like what people wear, how/when/where they shower or eat, these things really help answer basic questions about the world, and having those kinds of details to sprinkle into the story go a long way toward making it interesting.
Which writers are you most influenced by?
Some of my favorites, in no particular order: Guy Gavriel Kay, Richard K. Morgan, Stephen King, Ian Fleming, John Scalzi, George R. R. Martin.
What is your daily writing process like? What are the easiest and hardest parts?
I usually get up early (before 6) and find a coffee shop. This is mostly to get away from the distractions of home, where I have two young boys who want nothing but to constantly play with Papa. While there I’ll write for an hour, then take a break and do my authorly business: tweet, do interviews like this, read science news, etc.
The easiest part for me is writing action sequences. They flow like nothing else! Hardest part? When a small change is having a ripple effect throughout the story, and each fix is causing it’s own ripple. It makes me wish I had an AI I could assign the problem to.
If Skyler could have a sidekick from any other fictional universe, who would it be and why?
That’s a tough one! I’ll go with John “Black Jack” Geary from Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, for good leadership advice.
What books are you reading right now?
I just finished Nexus by Ramez Naam, which was fantastic. Now I’m reading The Thousand Names by Django Wexler.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Since you asked, I’d love to also recommend a few other books: The Daedelus Incident by Michael J. Martinez, and Bad Glass by Richard Gropp.