“The Screaming Staircase” by Jonathan Stroud

screamingstaircaseI was a big fan of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series when I was in (the Indian equivalent of) high school, so I’ve had his new Lockwood & Co. series on my wishlist for a while now. I’ve been reluctant to actually read it, though, because things I liked in school don’t always hold up when I read them now, and I didn’t want to tarnish my memories of Bartimaeus. My friend Sashank recently asked me to read and review the series on my blog, so I decided to take the plunge.

The world of The Screaming Staircase is very much like our own, except that for the past fifty years, dangerous ghosts have been haunting the world at an alarmingly high rate, and only children have the psychic sensitivity needed to sense and combat them effectively. We follow Lucy Carlyle, a fourteen year old Agent from the country that moves to London and joins the small Lockwood & Co. company. After one of their ghost investigations goes horribly wrong, they are forced to take on one of the country’s most haunted homes.

I read this book by flashlight at night during a power outage, and although it was fun in a terrifying kind of way, I don’t recommend it. I wouldn’t call the genre horror exactly – it’s supposed to be middle-grade, and it mostly focuses on the adventure, but there are some nail-bitingly creepy parts that Stroud really brings to life. I thought Lucy was a great protagonist, she’s earnest and vulnerable, she doesn’t take any crap from anyone but she’s not showy about it, either. Lockwood seems to be cut from similar cloth as Nathaniel in the Bartimaeus series, he’s self-possessed and precocious and you forget that he’s young until he does something ridiculous that makes you realize how young he is. I wanted to know more about George, but he seemed to get the short end of the stick (primarily because Lucy and Lockwood thrive on action, and George is the researcher they often ignore.)

I wasn’t that excited by the plot itself. There wasn’t anything notably bad about it, but I just wasn’t drawn into it that much. I was willing to forgive that because it’s clearly setting up a larger world and mysteries to explore. Overall, I’m glad to report that instead of tarnishing my memories of Stroud’s previous works, reading The Screaming Staircase just made me want to reread them.


The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Lockwood & Co., #1)
Disney-Hyperion, 2013 | Buy the book


“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu

TimeSalvagerI hadn’t read anything by Wesley Chu before, but I’ve heard extravagant praise for the Lives of Tao series, so I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I didn’t think Time Salvager was very good – it had a great premise, but the writing was clunky, the plot is riddled with clichés and the characters seemed more like archetypes than people.

It’s the 26th century, and humanity is in danger of extinction due to centuries of war and resource limitations. The only thing keeping humanity going are the chronmen, who take difficult excursions into the past and salvage material for present day rebuilding.  James Griffin-Mars is a chronman who gets a “golden ticket” job offer, accelerating his retirement considerably. However, on his way back, he breaks the cardinal Time Law, bringing a doomed scientist, Elise Kim back with him, and now they’re both fugitives.

Like I said, the premise of this book is interesting – time travel as a way to gather resources. What it actually ended up being was a mostly a lot of different action scenes with a clichéd evil corporation as the villain. There are a few forays into various historical periods, but they’re sparse on detail and atmosphere – in fact, the whole world it builds doesn’t seem compelling at all. Some of the lack of color makes sense with the whole “humanity is desperate” thing, but how desperate can humanity be with roving spaceship malls being commonplace?

None of the characters were engaging either, their decisions didn’t make any sense, and they seemed like a bunch of stereotypes thrown together – for example, the protagonist James is going somewhat crazy (complete with hallucinations of people whose lives he didn’t save), he likes Elise Kim, and I don’t know anything else about him. I can’t describe him as brave or determined or pretty much anything, he’s just someone who feels and thinks what the plot needs him to. Every other character has the same flaws, any attributes they have are just described by the text, not shown.

The book isn’t even self-contained – it’s clear setup for a trilogy, it raises a bunch of questions and answers none of them, and since the entire book has been fighting and running, the climactic fight doesn’t even seem much different from the rest of the book. I’m not sure how this book got so many glowing blurbs, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series.


Time Salvager by Wesley Chu (Time Salvager, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Too Like The Lightning” by Ada Palmer

Too Like The LightningI knew absolutely nothing about Too Like The Lightning when I picked it up to read it (well, other than the fact that Tor had sent it to me, so it was presumably sci-fi or fantasy.) It’s not often that I encounter books I know nothing about, and ever rarer that I end up really loving them, so it was a very pleasant surprise.

It’s the twenty fifth century, and Earth has evolved into a kind of utopia where really fast flying cars have made the whole globe accessible, and nations are based on membership rather than geographical location. Our protagonist (as much as he likes to swear that he isn’t the protagonist) is Mycroft Canner, a convict sentenced to spend his life being of use to people, and Too Like The Lightning is presented as an in-universe account of events written (mostly) from his point of view. He’s also the protector of Bridger, a young boy who can seemingly make all his wishes come true and bring inanimate objects to life. When the house sheltering Bridger becomes the focus of a high-profile theft investigation, it kicks world-changing events into motion, and Mycroft is at the center of it all.

I’m not sure where to start – reading this book was like being drawn into a whole new world and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after I had finished. I don’t think I’ve encountered any future utopias that still involve humanity living primarily on Earth – there’s Star Trek, but it involves spaceships and aliens. It seems ambitious because it fills in so many details of the world and how we got there from here. It’s not entirely a utopia either, all writing is censored and labeled, the practice of religion is outlawed (it’s instead been replaced by an order known as the sensayers, who are kind of like psychologists, philosophers, and priests combined, and talk to people about the existential questions that you can’t outlaw), and distinctions between genders are not encouraged. And the people populating the world are different too, as you would expect from a world where scarcity wasn’t much of an issue – still very much human, but with unfamiliar values and assumptions. I don’t think I’ve encountered such a cohesive and fascinating world in a long time.

I found the writing somewhat pretentious at first. Mycroft is deliberately borrowing heavily from the style of eighteenth century French philosophy, and it seems somewhat incongruous. Plus, he has an irritating habit of occasionally pretending to be the reader reacting to the text. It probably doesn’t help that he has a particularly sensational way of looking at the world sometimes – it’s pretty clear that it’s Mycroft’s point of view and not the world itself, though. I got used to it though, in part because the people in the world do seem like real characters (probably because they have the time to be, not having to work all the time.) I’m sure many of the references to Voltaire and Diderot and the Marquis de Sade and Robespierre and the rest went straight over my head, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.

There’s a pretty large cast of characters, the sensayer Carlyle Foster is probably the most prominent of them, but they’re all very memorable. The book itself takes place over only three days, but a lot happens in those days – much of it talking (Too Like The Lightning is classified as political science fiction, so of course there’s a lot of politics, which I always love), but none of it is boring. It helps that Mycroft has known most of these people for years and can give us comprehensive introductions to them. The author really takes advantage of the fact that it’s presented as an in-universe book to give us information in a natural way. I can’t say much else about the plot, it seems to move slowly at first, but there are major payoffs. Also, the book doesn’t quite end in a cliffhanger, but you’ll be glad that the next book in the duology, Seven Surrenders comes out this year as well.

A couple of minor annoyances – like I said, the writing style bothered me for the while, and some things never stopped bothering me, like bringing up the national heritage of characters all the time as descriptors – for example both Thisbe Saneer and Bryar Kosala’s hair was described as “thick Indian hair”, I wish my Indian hair was thick! It just seemed like a shortcut to describing the characters, as well as tying the world to present Earth. Also, I guess it matches the eighteenth century France theme, but it seemed like everyone had weird sexual proclivities.


Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota, #1)
Tor Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“City of Blades” by Robert Jackson Bennett

City_of_Blades_coverI know this blog has been inundated with movie reviews lately, but I’m still reading books too!

Retired war hero General Turyin Mulaghesh is sent to the city of Voortyashtan on a sort of tour to count down the days until she earns her pension. That’s the official story, anyway – actually, she’s there to covertly investigate a new metal that just might be related to the supposedly dead gods of the Continent, and figure out why the last person sent to investigate the issue ended up missing. Voortyashtan is complicated, though, and there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

I enjoyed City of Stairs when I read it last year, but not as much as a lot of other people. Mulaghesh was one of my favourite characters in the book, though, so I was pretty thrilled that she was going to be the protagonist of City of Blades. She does not disappoint – she’s a curmudgeonly one-armed war hero that’s unabashedly competent and won’t take any nonsense from anybody. She starts off the book pretty tired and lost, but once she enters problem solving mode, there’s no one I’d rather have on the case. She’s got a unique perspective and it never gets tiring to look through it. I would read a whole series of books about Mulaghesh.

City of Blades starts off with a pretty similar premise to the first book – a Saypuri is sent to a hostile Continental city to investigate possible Divine intervention – but it quickly evolves into its own thing. It helps that it doesn’t have to do all the worldbuilding that City of Stairs had to; the world of these books is complicated, and it was good to be familiar with how it all worked. The world does get extended, but in a very natural way. The martial Voortya is a pretty interesting god to explore, and Mulaghesh is the perfect person to understand her.

The new characters introduced in this book are pretty cool, especially Sigrud’s engineer daughter Signe. Sigrud is back as well, and he seems much more like a real person, which was great. I was a little bit frustrated with the character arcs of the villains – I can’t say more without spoilers, but I wished that they were less stereotypical. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise terrific book, though.

I’m looking forward to the third book, City of Miracles – I think that’s going to be the last book. Sigrud is going to be the protagonist, which I’m more excited about thanks to his development in City of Blades.


City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (The Divine Cities, #2)
Broadway Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


A few mini-reviews, January 2016 edition

I’ve read more than 30 books since the last book I reviewed, so I’m just going to do a few 1-paragraph reviews in an attempt to catch up.

The Philospher Kings by Jo Walton

thephilosopherkingsSequel to The Just City, which I loved. This was one of my most anticipated reads this year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a pretty different book from The Just City, and starts off with the very unpromising note of the death of one of my favorite characters from the last book. But it goes on to explore the nature of grief, and what it means to be your best self regardless of circumstances in an incredibly thoughtful way. The new characters are compelling, and it’s fun to see more of the world. And the ending is a doozy, I really cannot wait for the next book, which is going to be entirely different from the last book again.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

themechanicalThis book had been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I was introduced to the world by Tregillis’ short story in the anthology Human for a Day about a clockwork android seeking his freedom from the compulsion that drives him to be a slave. Tregillis later developed the short story into The Mechanical (I’m only linking to that Reddit AMA because I asked the question.) The series is set in an alternate history where the Dutch empire has conquered the world through its invention of mechanical servitors called Clakkers, and New France is the primary opposition, although it is on the brink of defeat. We follow, among others, Jax, a Clakker that longs for his freedom, and Berenice, the spymaster of New France as they fight against the empire. The world and politics are fascinating, I found the characters a little flat at times. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is out next month.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

theendofallthingsI really enjoy the Old Man’s War universe, so this was a no-brainer pre-order for me. Just like The Human Division, this is a series of loosely connected stories that tells a larger tale. Scalzi’s trademark wit is in full evidence, and the political shenanigans his characters get up to are always fun to read about. I was surprised that the ongoing CDF/Earth/Conclave story arc was actually wrapped up pretty neatly, since there are more books scheduled to be written in the universe. I’m looking forward to see where Scalzi takes the story next.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

shadowsofselfThis is the sequel to The Alloy of Law, set 300 years after the original Mistborn trilogy. Pretty much everything you expect from Brandon Sanderson and Mistborn – fun characters, amazing magic-system innovations and worldbuilding, a very, very effective plot twist and terrible puns. I was a little disappointed that there seemed to be a lot of banter/action, and not enough character moments, but I’m excited that the next book comes out in January – only three months after this book.


Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Adventures, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Old Man's War, #6)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (The Alchemy Wars, #1)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (Thessaly, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Luna: New Moon” by Ian McDonald

lunanewmoonAs always, I’m behind on my reviews, so I’m keeping this one short.

Luna: New Moon was marketed as “Game of Thrones set on the moon”, and that seemed pretty accurate to me. The Moon has finally been colonized, primarily by the Five Dragons, five powerful industrial families that are constantly battling for supremacy. We’re following the upstart Cortas, led by matriarch Adriana Corta, who’ve made a fortune mining Helium-3, but are finding that their ascension to Dragon stature comes with a whole bunch of complications.

There’s no one protagonist, as is the case with many of McDonald’s novels. We follow pretty much all of the Cortas, and some others, like Marina Calzaghe, a “Jo Moonbeam” (a recent arrival from Earth) who gets thoroughly tangled in the Cortas’ affairs. There doesn’t seem to be plot at first, we dive head first into the Cortas’ lives, what they do, who they love, their struggles with each other, but it’s all extremely compelling. We also learn more about the early days of the moon and its colonization through Adriana’s memoirs, which adds a lot of context to the story and is a lot of fun. There is plot though, and it all makes sense when it comes to fruition.

Some of the other highlights were the evolution of world/national culture (something McDonald specializes in), the development of  interesting AI, and the brutal economics of living on the moon. My only complaint was that I didn’t realize that this was a duology until I reached the end and realized there was no way this story had ended. I’m looking forward to the sequel, though. CBS is also developing a TV show based on the books, which I really hope goes to series.


Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Luna: New Moon, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant coverI was intrigued by the evocative title of The Traitor Baru Cormorant ever since I first heard of it. Then I found out that it was about a woman who wants to take down a ruthless empire by rising within its civil service – as an accountant! Political intrigue and worldbuilding are two of my very favourite things in fantasy, and you can’t really have a story about manipulating the economy to bring down a country without either of those things. And I figured that someone with the audacity to base their debut novel’s premise on fantasy economics has to be good enough to do it well. So yes, I had really high expectations for this book, and I was still blown away.

Baru Cormorant is from the island of Taranoke, which has caught the eye of the Empire of Masks (or the Masquerade as it is called derogatorily). The Masquerade doesn’t do anything as overt as actually invading, though – their strategy is much more subtle, starting with getting the Taranoki dependent on their trade, “helping” with Taranoki defense, and opening schools, and before you know it, half of Taranoke is dead from a plague and most of the customs Baru grew up with are declared anathema. Baru recognizes how helpless she and her people are, and resolves to help her people the only way she can think of – by destroying the Masquerade from the inside. She knows her first assignment is a test, though – to subdue the harsh and rebellious country of Aurdwynn, which has always destroyed those who have tried to rule it.

There are so many ways this book could have been done wrong – the trope of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has been done a lot, and it is hard to sympathize with anything that helps an Evil Empire (and the Empire is definitely Evil – eugenics, cultural superiority, no regard for human life, strict laws on sexual preferences). But Baru is a tremendously compelling character,; she haunted me for weeks after I finished this book. She really wants to be ruthless in her quest for vengeance, and she usually succeeds, but no matter how many atrocities she causes, you can’t help but rejoice at her successes. You see how much she suffers with every betrayal and watch her pull herself back together through sheer force of will, and it’s as beautiful as it is terrible. The Masquerade has shaped Baru for longer than her family of “a huntress and a blacksmith and a shield-bearer” has, and even if it kills her, she must work for it to eventually be able to work against it.

Everything else about the book is extraordinary too – the supporting characters (especially the enigmatic Duchess Tain Hu), the settings (complex and organic cultures, but no stereotypes), the plot (the loans and futures trading are fascinating, but there’s a lot more to it too) – but Baru steals the show, as is apropos of book’s title. I absolutely cannot wait for the next book.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Ancillary Mercy” by Ann Leckie

ancillarymercySpoilers warning: Spoilers for Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword.

Ancillary Mercy starts right where Ancillary Sword ended, with everyone at and near Athoek Station recovering from the fallout of the events of the previous book. However, Breq knows that her actions will not end up unnoticed for long, and sure enough, Anaander Mianaai shows up in the system in a very bad mood. Meanwhile, there’s still the issue of the ghost system and the missing ancillaries, the intervention with the Presger, and the fate of various people from Ancillary Sword to deal with.

I wasn’t sure how Leckie would end up wrapping up this series, given that the second book was so much more scaled down than the first (only involving one system), and this book seemed to be set in the Athoek system as well. I’m very happy with the ending, though – it was well set up in the rest of the series, and thoroughly satisfying. The characters continue to be a delight to read about as they discover things in them they didn’t know they had – especially Breq, but also Tisarwat, Seivarden, and Mercy of Kalr. There is still plenty of tea and personal drama, but there are also some really cool action scenes in space.

Ancillary Mercy was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it did not disappoint! This series is sadly over, but there’s going to be a new book set in this universe in 2017, and I’m really, really excited about that.


Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch, #3)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Fool’s Quest” by Robin Hobb

foolsquestAs expected, I loved this book. It’s hard to talk about all the things Robin Hobb does right, especially because at this point, I expect her to do them right, so this is going to be a pretty short review.

Spoilers for Fool’s Assassin ensue.

We pick up right where we ended things in Fool’s Assassin, and the pacing of the first half of the book is really slow. This was a bit irritating from the plot perspective considering the cliffhanger at the end of the last book, but Hobb doesn’t waste a single word. Fitz’s usual stubbornness is tempered by a little bit of wisdom, but he’s still very much himself. The Fool’s is not really himself, which is very unpleasant to read about, but makes sense. Bee is not as much of a presence in this book, but she’s a welcome one when she does show up. There are great new characters like Ash, great old characters that I never thought I’d see again, and welcome character development for characters from the first book.

There are a few moments involving Fitz in this book that I never really expected to happen, and some loose ends from the original Farseer trilogy are wrapped up. The last few chapters of the book are especially exciting for those of us who love the whole Realm of the Elderlings universe. All these good things make me scared for Fitz’s fate in the third book (especially as the book is called Asssassin’s Fate, and Robin Hobb doesn’t have a history of leaving her characters happy) but otherwise, I was thrilled.

I really don’t want to wait until this time next year to find out what happens next.


Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (The Fitz and the Fool, #2)
Del Rey, 2015 | Buy the book


“Updraft” by Fran Wilde

updraftKirit Densira is only a couple of days away from earning her wings and starting her apprenticeship as a trader. But when she breaks one of her city’s laws by attracting the attention of a monstrous predator, her life changes irrevocably, and she finds herself neck-deep in the city’s secrets.

The real star of Updraft is the setting. A city of living bone towers rising above the clouds, where people live within the hollowed out bone and flight is the only way to get around. It’s one of the most unique worlds that I’ve encountered so far, and the author has thought through a million little details that make it feel real – the availability of resources, the different occupations that people have, the way people eat and sleep, how farming would work – to name a few. The description of the world is what made me pick this book to read, and it was as cool as I was hoping it would be.

The rest of the book has quite a few rough edges. Kirit is a pretty typical teenager – takes everything that happens far too seriously, utterly convinced that she knows what she wants from life, and incredibly stubborn when the world doesn’t meet her expectations. This works to her advantage for the plot because the people she’s dealing with often aren’t acting with good faith, but it makes her an annoying protagonist, especially because the book is written in first person. It’s hard to empathize with her because we don’t know much about her and what she likes; we just know a lot about what she wants.

The writing style and tone of this book reminded me a lot of Red Rising – lots of short sentences, first person, very determined and serious protagonist with no apparent sense of humour (or at least not one shown in the book). That isn’t bad, but it doesn’t work for me as well because I prefer some fun in my books, especially books where everyone’s flying! I mean, it’s really interesting how the author manages to make flying an everyday, unremarkable part of life, and there are some cool flying scenes, but I wanted a lot more.

One other thing I was disappointed about was that a lot of what happens towards the end is figured out by Kirit’s associates (kind of like the end of Catching Fire and most of Mockingjay, where Katniss has no idea what is going on and people are just telling her to do things) and it’s a bit boring to see events play out from Kirit’s perspective. For instance, most of the plot surrounding the wingbeaters was just hearsay (they think this, now they think that) but was really important to the plot.

I don’t want to imply that this was a bad book, it just didn’t work for me as well I had hoped. I really did enjoy the world, and the characterization was excellent – Kirit’s relationships with her mother and Sellis were particularly well written.


Updraft by Fran Wilde (The Bone Universe, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.