“Fade to Black” by Francis Knight

fade to blackI’ve had Fade to Black sitting around for a while, and I jumped straight to reading it after I finished Aurora (which was great, but somewhat bleak) because I wanted to read something fun.

Rojan Dizon is a bounty hunter in the city-state of Mahala living a quiet life in the shadows and trying to stay out of trouble as much as possible. He’s also a pain mage, and his magic has been outlawed by the Ministry that controls the city. His life is going great when his long-lost brother asks him to find his missing daughter, and he can’t bring himself to refuse, despite knowing that he’s messing with the Ministry. And of course, he ends up finding much more than a missing girl.

I enjoyed Fade to Black a lot. Rojan Dizon is pretty much your standard Mat Cauthon template – roguish, out for himself, ultimately moral. He does become more heroic over the course of the book, but it’s believable – it’s because he cares for specific people (his niece, the people that help him find her) and because he’s a fairly nice guy, which is established early on. Also, his blatant womanizing  was pretty funny, and just like Mat, when he actually likes someone, he’s clueless.

The relationships (I don’t mean romance) in this book are complex and made the characters seem realistic. Rojan and his brother Perak are estranged, but they still respect and love each other. Rojan worries about his business partner Dendal’s use of magic, and it’s clear that they have a solid friendship. And I enjoyed the complicated relationship that he develops with his contacts in the Pit, Jake and Pasha – there’s a little bit of a love triangle, but it’s mostly just messy.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I really enjoy city-states in fantasy; I’m not really sure why – maybe because books set in city-states tend to make them more atmospheric, and also focus on the economy and structure of how everything works. Anyway, Mahala was a great setting, nestled in a mountain pass, with no choice but to build up to expand, and with only precarious walkways to navigate. I’m not sure about how that would work in practice, but I assume that since this world has magic, that would help somehow. It certainly makes for a very picturesque image. I also enjoyed the somewhat industrial setting, although electricity is just being discovered and magic powers the factories. I’d like to read more about how that works; luckily there are two more books. The magic system is neat, too – the author takes the general rule of “magic has to have a cost” almost literally, since magic is fuelled by pain.

I was a little bit confused by the writing style of the book – it’s first person, and I think it’s supposed to indicate that Rojan is writing this long after the events have happened, but that took a while to get used to, and in the beginning, I thought there were just a bunch of inconsistencies. One example is when Rojan reunites with Perak (not really spoilers, it happens in the first couple of chapters), before meeting him that it was no surprise that of course he’d end up in Alchemical Research (which is part of his overall narration), but then when Perak explains his job, he’s truly shocked (but that was his reaction in that moment). There are more things like that, but once I figured the style out, everything made sense.

My other complaint is that things wrapped up a little too neatly at the end. I was hoping that the case that Rojan is working on at the beginning of the book was just a look at his everyday life before he got sucked into something crazy – just establishing his character – but it turned out to be plot-relevant. I also did not like the identity of the main antagonist, he ended up conveniently wrapping up not one but two other major threads in the story, although given Rojan’s character of avoiding responsibility, there would’ve been no other way to set him up for the next two books without those threads being resolved.

There’s more stuff I haven’t talked about, like the way Fade to Black approaches religion (both organized religion and belief), but words are deserting me today. I’ll just say – I’m pretty excited to read the next two books and see what happens to Mahala. Maybe we’ll even see Outside!

Fade to Black by Francis Knight (Rojan Dizon, #1)
Orbit Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“A Darker Shade of Magic” by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade final for IreneI found a preview of A Darker Shade of Magic at the end of my copy of Vicious, and I was instantly captivated. Luckily, I had a copy already, so I was able to dive straight into it.

Kell is an Antari, one of the last humans with the ability to travel between parallel Londons. A long time ago, traffic between the four Londons flowed freely, but that was before Black London was overcome by magic, and the other three sealed themselves off, with nothing permitted to cross their borders. Kell doesn’t really take these restrictions seriously, though, and has a healthy trade smuggling items between the worlds. But when someone gives him a letter to take across, he finds himself in a whole bunch of unanticipated trouble.. and stuck with Lila, an incorrigible thief who seems to expect him to take her on an adventure.

First, the worldbuilding. I liked the idea of the four parallel Londons, each with varying levels of magic, and they were well executed – there’s our “Grey” London, with hardly any magic, Kell’s native Red London, where people and magic are balanced, and White London, where magic is seen as something to be conquered. And Black London, which was devoured by its magic, and no one talks about anymore. The universes are all very different, aside from having a city named London at the same spot, and it was interesting to see how that worked. I also enjoyed the near-sentience of the magic itself.

Just like Vicious, the book was pretty fast-paced, and the bulk of the action took place over a short period of time. While I enjoyed that things moved quickly, I really wanted to spend more time getting to know the world and characters. We get a little information via exposition (there’s a particularly clunky bit of that in the first chapter where Black London is explained) and characters musing about their past, but there’s pretty clearly an Urgent Problem To Be Solved. I guess it’s somewhat like urban fantasy – two partners trying to fix something magical (with romantic tension), but that’s not my favourite genre, especially when there’s a secondary world to explore!

The characters also weren’t that great – Kell was okay, although a bit too naive and entitled sometimes. Lila was pretty irritating, though – she’s a thief who has had a rough life, and who’s been forced to murder people to survive (which is treated very casually), but she also has childlike dreams of being an adventurer and a pirate. She’s also entitled in her own way, and it was hard to sympathise with her, or understand why anyone liked her. There wasn’t a lot of character growth, either, because the book takes place across such a short period of time, so Lila at the end of the book was still as irritating. The most interesting character was the other Antari, Holland, but he wasn’t exactly a good guy, and we don’t know very much about him.

This wasn’t a bad book, though, it just wasn’t the kind of book I was looking for. This is a great action-packed adventure with solid worldbuilding – I just like my fantasy to err on the side of excruciating detail, not action. :)

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (A Darker Shade of Magic, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

auroraI’ve been meaning to get around to reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s work for a while (I’m woefully underread in the sci-fi classics), so I was delighted to get an unexpected copy of Aurora, his latest book. One of Earth’s first generation ships sent to colonize beyond our solar system is almost at its target, Aurora, a moon of the Tau Ceti system. They’re prepared for some difficulties but even then, the reality of colonization turns out to be much more complicated than anyone anticipated.

Generation ships are a pretty common idea in science-fiction, and they always seem so cool – people taking great personal risks and braving the unknown for the sake of exploration. Aurora takes a long, hard look at the reality of this concept and the morality of subjecting your descendants to living in a tin can decades away from anyone who can help them if something goes wrong. The residents of the ship make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt, but they’re fundamentally in a life they would have never have chosen – they’re heading to a place that may not even be habitable, but constantly see news feeds from an Earth that they could have flourished on. They have very few personal liberties (reproduction and choice of work have to be regulated to maintain the ship), but have access to literature and media that shows them exactly how controlled their life is compared to the norm.

The narrative voice of this book is interesting – the story is told to us mostly from the point of view of the ship, who started out as an AI that relied entirely on its programming, but is slowly gaining consciousness with the help of Devi, the ship’s de facto chief engineer. The text is presented as a chronicle that Devi asks the ship to write, except the first and last chapters. The ship mostly chronicles the journey via Devi’s daughter Freya, who grows from being a teenager in the beginning of the book to become a leader of her people. The style evolves subtly as the ship learns and observes more, and there are occasional meditations on the nature of self and consciousness, and the process of narrative itself, which are just as fascinating as the colonists’ story.

Ship was easily my favourite character in the story – we are somewhat detached from pretty much all the other characters, but I don’t mind that in hard science fiction stories like this one. Except for Freya and those close to her, most of the other humans are just seen as representatives of the factions and ideas they represent. Even Freya dulls in comparison to her mother Devi, who helped the ship grow and reason in unprecedented ways. She’s not actually present in a large portion of the book, but her furious drive leaves a lasting influence that is felt through the actions of both the ship and Freya, and she’s the character that we can empathize with the most.

Also, the science in this book was fantastic. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the physics or the biology/ecology, but it seemed as well-researched and accurate as the computer science algorithms and problems that the ship uses in its narrative. It wasn’t as riveting as the science in The Martian, but it was still a lot of fun to read. I’m fascinated by maintaining sustainable ecosystems in a closed environment – The Quiet War did a lot of that too.

I was expecting that this would be a triumphant tale of humanity overcoming adversity and making their mark on the stars, but Aurora is not constrained by that trite idealism. The portrait of humanity that it paints is not pretty – humans want to see themselves as pioneers, but are often petty, confused, violent, and all too happy to deprive others of safety to achieve something abstract. It was more depressing than I had hoped it would be, but there’s comfort in examining the consequences of an idea thoroughly, and it ends on a note of hope – not for humanity’s grand dreams, but the knowledge that humans can always learn and adapt.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Galaxy Game” by Karen Lord

thegalaxygameI was really excited to get a review copy of The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord; I absolutely loved both of Lord’s prior novels – I reviewed Redemption in Indigo pretty recently, and The Best of All Possible Worlds is one of my favourite books of the last few years (and shares a world and some characters with The Galaxy Game). Unfortunately, I ended up being pretty disappointed with the book.

The main protagonist is Rafi, the nephew of The Best of All Possible Worlds, Grace Delarua, who has been forced to attend an oppressive school for the psionically gifted. He escapes with the help of one of his friends, and is thrown unprepared into a galaxy that is undergoing considerable turmoil. We also follow his two friends, Ntenman and Serendipity as they find their own way.

So, there were a bunch of problems with this book:

  • Rafi: Rafi should have been interesting – he’s scared of his psionic abilities because of the way his father abused his own, and he has a difficult relationship with his mother who’s scared of being manipulated by him. He’s doing exciting things – he’s exploring a new planet, and training for a galaxy-famous sport. Unfortunately, he just comes off as a child who’s mostly passive but occasionally reactionary (he even admits as much in the book) – the only thing he does actively is run away from his school. In the end, when he finds a place in society, it seems to be mainly because everyone else told him what to do.
  • The other viewpoint characters: I’m not really sure why Ntenman and Serendipity were protagonists – sure, we did watch them “grow up” a bit too, but their arcs were as dissatisfying as Rafi’s. This book was only 320 pages, and it didn’t have enough room for us to get to know these characters and invest in them. Ntenman’s voice was pretty charming, and I at least looked forward to his dry humour, but Serendipity seemed completely flat. Also, we get viewpoints from Delarua, Dllenahkh and the headmaster of the Lyceum (there might be more that I’m forgetting), and there’s even a framing story that takes place fifteen or so years later. This makes the book seem pretty fragmented, especially given…
  • The plot, or lack thereof: Okay, there is nominally a plot – the protagonists come of age in a time of great galactic turmoil, which they are marginally involved in. Emphasis on the “marginally”. As I said earlier, a lot of the stuff that happens is just Rafi reacting to what other people tell him to do, and most of the time, he just does it. So yes, a lot of stuff happens, but we’re just left with burning curiosity about what’s actually going on. For example, a planet gets attacked by a rival faction, but we have very little context for it, so it’s not very impactful, except for a generic “war is bad” way. And there are many factions, each with their own agenda, but we know very little. But the plot isn’t even about the galactic conflict, per se, but about developing a new transportation technique… that somehow involves a sport that Rafi is uniquely qualified to play, but it’s actually about Rafi and his friends growing up, but there’s also the plot of the framing story…
  • Characters from the previous books: Okay, I loved Delarua and Dllenahkh and the assorted supporting characters in The Best of All Possible Worlds, but they should not have been in this book this much unless it was at least twice the size. Pretty much everyone shows up, and we learn all about their problems, and how they’re resolved (Freyda and Lanuri’s marriage, Lian’s worry over the missing Queturah), and they add to the mess of plots already in the book.

If I were to describe the flaws of The Galaxy Game in one word, it would be “unfocused”. Both of Lord’s previous books were pretty intimate – they were mostly focused on one or two people and the consequences to their own life, and she’s very good at that type of narrative. She seems to be trying to do that in this book, focusing somewhat on Rafi and his friends’ coming of age, but it doesn’t really work that well because there’s so much going on in the grander scale. There was a lot going on in the grander scale in The Best of All Possible Worlds too, with the destruction of Sadira, but that was much more personal because of Dllenahkh.

I know that it seems like I hated this book, but I didn’t; I just had really high expectations from Lord’s previous work. The Galaxy Game has beautiful prose and fascinating ideas. It would have been great as either a 600 page book or a novella with a lot of the subplots cut out. I’m still anticipating Lord’s next book eagerly, though – I hope it is a return to her previous form.

The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord
Del Rey, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Vicious” by V.E. Schwab

viciousVicious follows Victor and Eli, who were best friends in college until their experiments to gain superpowers went horribly right. With Victor no longer in prison, neither of them will rest until the other has been utterly destroyed.

This is one of those books that’s almost a screenplay – I could see the movie playing in my head. It has short chapters (sometimes only a couple of pages) and is fast-paced, but it still focuses a lot on character by alternating flashbacks with the present-day story. The build-up to the final confrontation is extremely well-done – it almost gets too excruciating to wait any longer, and then everything happens very quickly.

Victor and Eli are fascinating characters, they both have something missing inside them, and that’s what drew them to each other in the first place. They learn to cope with that hole inside them in very different ways, although both are definitely supervillain material. Their sidekicks – Serena, Sydney, and Mitch, are complex in their own right – Serena’s crippling isolation with her power of persuasion is particularly poignant.

There was a lot of talk of gaining superpowers leaving people with a moral/spiritual hole inside themselves.  It reminded me a little of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart universe, where superpowers also make you entirely selfish, so there are no superheroes – only supervillains. But most of this was perpetuated by Victor, Eli, and Serena, who all seemed to be pretty screwed up people even before they gained powers. Sydney certainly didn’t seem to have anything missing (and Serena even remarks on that at one point), and neither did any of the other superpowered people we met. I guess the ambiguity might make what Eli’s doing a bit more sympathetic, except he’s acting without any evidence, so it doesn’t.

I did like the fact that Victor wasn’t exactly a good person, but I wished that the book had pushed the envelope a bit farther – by the end, we know exactly who we’re rooting for – Victor might be a sociopath, but he’s remarkably well-attuned to society. It’s still a great book, though, in the Watchmen style of “who we think of as superheroes are usually badly-adjusted and obsessive people”. Someone please go make a movie out of it now.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Mini-review: “Redemption in Indigo” by Karen Lord

redemptioninindigoRedemption in Indigo is a short novel inspired by African folklore. Paama has left her foolish and gluttonous husband, Ansige, and refuses to return to him. When he tries to win her back and instead makes a complete fool of himself, the djombi (spirits/gods) are so impressed with the way she handles the situation that they give her a gift of great power. But the djombi that it was taken from, the Indigo Lord wants it back, and badly.

I love the narrative style of this book – it takes the folktale inspiration and runs with it, it’s just like a storyteller was sitting in the room with you and telling you a story. We meander back and forth in time and point of view, and the narrator is quite opinionated at times. Paama is a terrific heroine, she’s calm, kind, and intuitively knows that the best thing to do with power is not use it. She’s also pragmatic – when the djombi threatens her family and asks her to give him the stick, she immediately hands it over. Of course, things aren’t that simple, since she actually has to believe that he’s the better person to wield it, and that’s the titular “redemption” of the story.

On the surface this story seems really simple, but there are a lot of layers and side plots – Anansi’s troubles with tricking people (yes, Anansi’s in this book!), Paama’s self-centered sister and her search for an eligible husband, the extremely competent House of Sisters that help Paama out. There’s not a lot of time spent of these, but they’re full of heart and the author’s deft characterization makes the characters seem like people you know pretty well.

Redemption in Indigo is very different from the other Karen Lord book I’ve read, The Best of All Possible Worlds, but it’s just as warm and well-told.

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Small Beer Press, 2010 | Buy the book

The Belgariad by David Eddings


The Belgariad is a five book series, and one of the classics of fantasy. I’ve had a copy of the first book, Pawn of Prophecy sitting around for a couple of years after I found it for really cheap at a Half-Price Books, but I just got around to reading it last month, and quickly tore through the rest of the series.

The plot of the Belgariad is pretty stereotypical – an oblivious farmboy is actually the Chosen One of a prophecy and has to go on a quest with a band of flawed heroes and a wise and greying old wizard to retrieve a magical item. The characters and self-awareness really make it a great read, though. I found out afterwards that the series is so entrenched in fantasy tropes on purpose, and the whole thing stemmed from a challenge to write a really cliched series that was also engaging. Here’s Eddings talking about it:

The story itself is fairly elemental – Good vs. Evil, Nice Guys vs. Nasty Guys (or Them vs. Us). It has the usual Quest, the Magic (or Holy) Thingamajig, the Mighty Sorcerer, the Innocent Hero, and the Not Quite So Innocent Heroine — along with a widely varied group of Mighty Warriors with assorted character faults. It wanders around for five books until it finally climaxes with the traditional duel between “Our Hero” and the “Bad Guy.” (Would it spoil anything for you if I tell you that our side wins?)

There are certainly some flaws with the series – the dialogue is very blithe, and everyone just gets straight to the heart of the matter. It’s refreshing in a way, but it sometimes makes it hard to engage with the characters. Also, I wasn’t really a fan of the racial stereotyping – everyone from a particular race acts exactly according to the characteristics of their race – Thulls are stupid, Sendars are practical, Drasnians are sneaky, Tolnedrans are avaricious, Arends are dense. It’s still a good series, though, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel series, the Mallorean and the companion books, Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on each of the books individually – SPOILERS ENSUE.

Pawn of Prophecy

This is pretty much what you’d expect – sinister figures come looking for farmboy Garion just as the all-powerful Orb of Aldur is stolen, and he must go on a quest to retrieve it with his protector, Aunt Pol (who is not-so-secretly Polgara the Sorceress), her father (the aforementioned Wise Wizard) Belgarath, Silk and Barak, nobles of their respective empires, and the regular guy, Durnik. We go through a couple of different countries, where it’s revealed that the long-awaited prophecy is coming to fruition, and Garion is (obliviously) the center of it all. This novel is mainly setup and worldbuilding, the quest gets started and we start to get to know the characters.

Queen of Sorcery

Our Heroes are still on their quest to retrieve the Orb of Aldur – they’re not in any terrible hurry since they keep stopping by the center of government in every country they pass to warn them to muster their armies up for the coming fulfillment of prophecy. The quest also picks up Ce’Nedra, Garion’s intended bride (although neither of them know it) and there’s some awful snake queen with insatiable sexual appetite stuff that’s a cliche I would have been happy to do without. Also, Garion goes through two of the more important Hero phases – whining/sulking/fighting against his destiny, and the development of his obligatory magical powers.

Ce’Nedra is pretty intolerable in this book – she’s very spoilt, I couldn’t believe that she was actually supposed to be the main love interest.

Magician’s Gambit

The first half of the book is pretty similar to the rest of the first two – we tour more countries and pick up more quest members. The story is entirely driven by prophecy, and the series’ self-awareness is taken to a whole new level as we discover that the prophecy is sentient and controls Garion’s actions sometimes. In the second half of the book we finally enter enemy territory and the Orb is recovered. It’s a bit frustrating that Garion still thinks that he’s some unimportant ward of Polgara’s, and everything’s going to go back to the way it was, but Polgara and Silk are awesome characters, so that’s okay. Ce’Nedra continues to be whiny and awful, though.

Castle of Wizardry

The fellowship escapes with the Orb of Aldur, and Garion is finally told that he is the long-lost descendant of the Rivan King, although not until he’s actually in Riva. There’s a nice scene where Polgara, Garion and Ce’Nedra go back to the farm where Garion grew up, and he realizes that he really doesn’t belong there anymore. Of course, then he’s made the Rivan King, and he is thrust straight back into confusion as he becomes the ruler of a place he knows absolutely nothing about, and he does the only sensible thing – runs away (with Silk and Belgarath). Unfortunately, he’s not actually escaping his responsibilities, though – he’s hastening the fated meeting between himself and the evil god Torak, so that he can save as many innocent lives as possible.

One good thing about Garion’s departure is that Ce’Nedra grows up a bit. She’s pretty hilarious when she realizes that she has to marry him, but just as she’s coming to terms with it, he’s gone to an uncertain future. She pulls together and maneuvers herself into a position of authority and rallies the kingdoms together.

Enchanters’ End Game

This also goes pretty much as you’d predict from the last book of the series – Garion and Torak meet and fight, but really its a duel of Prophecies taking over their bodies. The two opposing hordes meet in several battles, and lives are lost and people are irreparably injured on both sides. Everything ends happily, though, and almost everyone gets paired up – even Polgara, in one of the more touching / hilarious sequences. Silk just gets paired up with a business venture though, which is great.

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #1)
Del Rey, 1982 | Buy the book

Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #2)
Del Rey, 1982 | Buy the book

Magician’s Gambit by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #3)
Del Rey, 1983 | Buy the book

Castle of Wizardry by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #4)
Del Rey, 1984 | Buy the book

Enchanters’ End Game by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #5)
Del Rey, 1984 | Buy the book

“Karen Memory” by Elizabeth Bear

KarenMemoryI was excited to get a copy of Karen Memory because I enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy – it had an epic scope, a great unconventional setting and subverted a whole bunch of stereotypes of women in fantasy. Karen Memory is pretty different in both setting and tone (steampunk adventure featuring a lesbian prostitute protagonist), but it was still superb.

Karen Memery is a “seamstress” at Madam Damnable’s upscale brothel Hôtel Mon Cherie in the burgeoning Rapid City. When Madam Damnable offers sanctuary to a girl escaping from the harsh conditions of Peter Bantle’s rather lower-scale establishment, he swears retribution and Karen gets swept up into the adventure of her life, involving a legendary lawman, a serial killer, a plot against the United States and more.

Karen’s first-person narration really sells this book – she’s down to earth, but has a sharp wit, plain-spoken but charismatic, and most importantly, is full of heart.  She’s had a tough life, and she doesn’t run away from that, but neither does she doesn’t let that stop her from being optimistic. It’s apparent that she’s no lady, but she’s definitely someone you’d want as a friend.

All the supporting characters feel like people you’d want to know too. Of course there’s Priya, the indentured girl rescued from Bantle and Karen’s love interest – she’s whip-smart and has a core of steel, despite being abused. She’s a full, three-dimensional person that is treated as such and isn’t really exoticized at all despite being from India, which is pretty amazing (I’ve met people in real life who have the best intentions but feel like they have to treat me differently because I’m from India, so I really mean that it’s amazing). There’s the kind but determined U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, who was a real person, and Tomoatooah, his badass Numu posseman, and Merry Lee the also-badass woman that rescued indentured slaves. And all the other girls at the Hôtel Mon Cherie have their own distinct personalities without any reference to what they do for a living (something that is carried over from the Eternal Sky trilogy and sorely missing from fantasy – a cast of mainly women that all defy stereotypes) – in fact, there’s very little sex in this book, and none actually described. Here’s Elizabeth Bear talking about how she sees that:

And the thing is, for Karen and her colleagues, prostitution is a job. It’s how they make a living, not how they identify themselves. The protagonists of most urban fantasy novels seem to work waiting tables or as private investigators, if they’re not starving artists. Either their job is the adventure, or it’s something that provides a gateway to the adventure, but we’re never supposed to care too much about the job qua job itself!

So Karen’s job gives her an entry into her adventure—but it certainly doesn’t define her. And to me, the adventure is the interesting thing. She’s not having adventures or being a good person in spite of being a prostitute. She’s a prostitute, and she also gets to have adventures.

The protagonist and the characters are the most charming things about Karen Memory, but it’s also a damn good adventure story. The pacing is excellent, and the stakes keep getting higher – what starts off as a simple mission to rescue Priya’s sister turns into helping Marshal Reeves find his killer, which turns into an attempt to stop Peter Bantle’s political ambition, and that leads into even more trouble. Karen grows as a character, learning to move on from her father’s death, discovering talents she didn’t know she had, and falling in love.

I’m not super well-read in the steampunk genre, but I’ve learned to be wary of stories that are all about the gadgets. The steampunk elements in this book, though prevalent and integral to the plot, are just everyday items in the world Karen lives in. Gadget fans won’t be disappointed either – there’s the mandatory airship trip and a cool submersible, as well as some very useful household and medical devices – but they are just supplements to the plot and characters.

I really need to go back and read Elizabeth Bear’s earlier work – between this and Eternal Sky, she’s shown she has incredible range.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsCity of Stairs was the other fantasy from 2014 that I’ve been hearing universal praise for (the first was The Goblin Emperor, which I loved), so I was pretty excited to read it too. Some reviews described it as “epic fantasy” (it’s not what I think of as epic), so I was expecting a wholly different style of book, but once I was able to get into it, I ended up liking it.

The book is set in Bulikov, the titular City of Stairs, which was once the seat of a great empire with the active help of its gods. Now the gods are dead, and Bulikov has been colonized by its former Saypuri slaves, who remember every detail of their slavery all too well. When one of Saypur’s foremost scholars is murdered in Bulikov, Shara, a highly skilled spy steps in to investigate, and finds that the gods may not be as dead as everyone thinks they are.

In some aspects, this book reminded me of The City & The City by China Miéville – but that’s probably just the surface level similarities of the plot being propelled by a murder investigation in a weird/unique city. Bulikov is certainly weird; there are miracles in evidence everywhere, such as the sunrise showing through the impossibly high city walls; the city is covered with ruins and half-structures (and stairs!) from when the laws of physics reasserted themselves over the reality the gods shaped; the people that live there aren’t allowed to know anything about their past or their erstwhile Divinities, but their colonial overlords can study them all they want.

The worldbuilding in this book is excellent, it’s just as atmospheric as the book’s title suggests. I liked that the cultures of the Continent and Saypur seemed to be inspired by Russia and India, since we don’t see a lot of that with fantasy. Colonialism and oppression are strong themes, and they’re not treated simplistically; we get realistic foreign policy and consequences thereof. The Divinities are masterfully crafted – they’re just unfathomable enough to be awe-inspiring, but are still relatable. I particularly liked the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, which were usually only obliquely related to the plot, but really developed the world.

The main thing that knocked City of Stairs down a couple of notches was that some of the characters weren’t that great. Shara wasn’t a very compelling protagonist (although, she is the first protagonist I’ve encountered that actually looks like me – she’s described as a small brown woman with enormously thick eyeglasses) because she doesn’t have enough to lose. She cares about some things – history, for example, but I never got a sense of who she was and why she does what what does. There are terrific stories about people that are stuck in a rut regaining purpose (Paladin of Souls, for one), but I didn’t really care about Shara enough to root for her and her course of action at the very end seemed to come out of the blue. Her flashbacks were a lot more interesting because it shows her at a time when she’s more vibrant and someone I’d actually invest in.

Also, Sigrud, Shara’s sidekick, seemed to have no personality, and his arc over the book just fell totally flat for me. I know the author can write better characters (unlike China Miéville, for example, whose characters are always cold, and his books are all about the worlds/ideas), because there are some in this book – Shara’s irrepressible and conflicted college boyfriend and current Bulikov businessman/politician, Vohannes, and the tough-as-nails ex-military city governor, Mulaghesh.

Plot-wise, I was a bit skeptical of the whole “murder investigation” thing (I’m not a big fan of police procedurals), but luckily, the other mysteries of Bulikov soon overshadow it. There’s plenty of action, and everything comes to a satisfying conclusion. City of Stairs is a good book overall, and it’s certainly a fresh perspective on fantasy.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Broadway Books, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison

thegoblinemperorI’ve been hearing nothing but praise for The Goblin Emperor since it came out last year – most reviews used the words “optimistic” and “endearing”. I like well-done grimdark (like the First Law series) but I love both court-intrigue and hero-driven fantasy, so I really had to read this.

We follow Maia, the youngest son of the recently deceased emperor, from the moment that he receives the news that his father and brothers are dead and he is now the emperor of the Elflands. Maia is the half-goblin son of the emperor’s least favoured wife, and has grown up in isolation, with no resources and no knowledge of the court and its politics. He’s surrounded by people that either want to take advantage of his naivete or don’t want him around at all, and he has to figure things out very quickly, or he’s going to either end up dead or a puppet.

Maia is one of the best protagonists that I’ve encountered in a while – he’s smart (even if he isn’t knowledgeable), kind, and determined to do the best job he can – I know that sounds like a lot of generic fantasy protagonists, but Maia seems more like a real person, you can actually observe his mind at work. For example, in The Wheel of Time, Rand is ostensibly smart because he ends up making a bunch of decisions about how people should run their kingdoms and they’re good ones – don’t tax the people too much, encourage science, etc. – but you never see the process by which he makes them, and so you just have to take for granted that he’s smart. But in The Goblin Emperor, you observe the process by which Maia figures out when he needs to make a decision and when he needs more information (and when he’s just completely overwhelmed and asks for help) and you come to the conclusion that he’s pretty smart. His kindness is simlar – Maia is kind in a lot of subtle ways and he’s always empathetic towards people, even those that try to kill him. His determination to do a good job is endearing – he doesn’t do it for some noble ideals of serving his country, he just doesn’t think of himself and his wishes as important, so of course he does a good job. There’s a particularly funny scene where someone suggests that he abdicate and join a monastery, and he actually wants to do it because it would be so much easier.

I was worried that Maia would be plunged into a implausible world where he couldn’t trust anyone and everyone would be out to get what they could from him, but most of the characters just wanted to do their job and do it well. There are plenty of people that liked the old emperor and don’t really appreciate the fact that he’s in power now, but very few of them want to do something about it. That’s not to say that there aren’t plots to be foiled,  but they’re less prevalent that I had feared. The Goblin Emperor is a much subtler book than than that.

I don’t want to give off the impression that this book is all rainbows and sunshine with no complexity, though – there are a whole variety of people and situations. One of the more notable ones is Maia’s relationship with his cousin and abusive guardian Setheris – it is fraught with terror, even after their power dynamic changes drastically. The experience of growing up abused and ignored informs his decisions heavily, though, he is able to recognize the people that just seem to want power and attention and deal with them appropriately. There are a bunch of other situations where there’s a lot more than meets the eye (the whole arc with Min Vechin, the friendship between Maia and his personal guards, his grandfather’s visit) and it all comes together beautifully because of the author’s superb characterization.

The only (very minor) complaint I have with this book is that the names / places / people have a lot of similar sounding names and it was really hard to get them straight – I’m usually really good at that, so it was doubly frustrating. It helped me empathize with Maia’s predicament since I was also somewhat overwhelmed, so maybe that’s why? There’s a guide at the end of the book that explains the naming scheme (no spoilers), and that was very helpful – I only wish I had found it earlier.

I’m sure this will be one of the best books I read this year, and I read it in February! I’m looking forward to reading some of the author’s other works (Katherine Addison is a psueodonym for Sarah Monette).

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Tor Books, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.