Monstress: Haven

September 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

havenMonstress: Haven by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

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It’s getting increasingly harder for me to follow what’s happening in Monstress. I’m willing to admit that it’s more me than the author, but I notice other reviewers are having the same issue with the title. What brings me back to the series, though, is the characters. Maika continues to be a complex, strong antihero, but Kippa and Zinn help temper out her abrasiveness, and they actually get some development this time around. Liu has set up some threads to resolve in future volumes; I just wish I knew which ones had been resolved in this one.

There’s so much to love about Monstress: the matriarchy; the characters; the mythology; and the artwork. The problem is the plots seem to take a back seat to all of that. I’m used to Monstress being a dense book that requires attention, but I wasn’t expecting to get so lost among the details that I couldn’t follow the plot.

Started: September 13, 2018
Finished: September 13, 2018

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Serafina and the Black Cloak

September 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

serafinaSerafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

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I lived in and around Asheville, NC for several years in my twenties, so when I first heard about Serafina and the Black Cloak, I figured it would be a matter of time before I read it. Set at the Biltmore Estate during the turn of the century and having a supernatural angle, the story seemed like it would hit all of my interests, and I was surprised it took me a few years to get to it. I think I could have waited a lot longer and it wouldn’t have bothered me.

The book isn’t bad, necessarily — it flows well, and has compelling characters — but it feels clunky. It’s clearly a juvenile book, since it lacks some subtlety in its storytelling. The characters and themes are drawn with broad strokes, and the plot feels more like it’s just loping along from one point to another instead of feeling developed and fleshed out. Plus, the big secret about Serafina becomes obvious at about the quarter-length point of the book, but Beatty doesn’t come out and tell us directly about it until near the end. I’ve heard “But it’s a kids’ book” as a defense, but it’s hard to claim that anymore, when the Harry Potter series raised the bar for how complex and subtle a juvenile book can be.

Beatty’s narrative is also a bit awkward in places, particularly in his similes. When he goes with the story and lets the plot unfold on its own, it’s fine, but then he throws in something like “Her corset felt like Satan’s bony hand…”, and the whole thing falls apart. I think authors are trying so hard not to write cliches that they come up with something so ridiculous that it doesn’t make sense, and pulls the reader right out of the story. Nick Cutter’s The Troop was another story that did that, though admittedly, Black Cloak isn’t that bad.

Serafina and the Black Cloak is the first in a trilogy, and while I enjoyed how Beatty wrapped up the characters in this story, I don’t feel the need to read the rest of the series. For one, now that Serafina’s secret (such as it is) has been revealed, that mystery won’t carry the story any more. For another, the story simply doesn’t wow me enough to make me want to continue. I’m somewhat curious to see how some of the relationships develop over the series, but I’d be satisfied just to read a summary of the next two books to see how they’re resolved.

Started: August 27, 2018
Finished: August 29, 2018

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I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land

August 31, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

travellerI Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis

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I’ll read anything Connie Willis publishes. In addition, she’s a writer who goes right to the top of my reading list when I get a new book of hers. That’s a small list of authors for me, but Willis has proven time and again she’s at the top of her game, and it looks like she’s going to be there for a long time.

I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, unfortunately, is not her strongest work. For an author who excels at characterization and complex plots, this novella feels oddly straightfoward, and is even rather heavy-handed. Our narrator, Jim, a professional blogger whose expertise is supporting obsolescence (?), stumbles across what he thinks is a bookstore while trying to escape the rain in New York City. The rest of the story is Jim discovering the secret behind the bookstore (which holds hundreds of thousands of books, which his guide continues to tell him aren’t for sale).

The thing is, Willis makes it obvious what that secret is, so we’re along for the ride while his guide goes on a rant about how libraries get rid of books that don’t get used, or how people throw out old books because they don’t see any value in them, or how books just waste away over time. As a reader, I understand where Willis comes from in that argument; as a librarian, though, I don’t understand what she expects libraries to do. She delivers a passionate argument, but she doesn’t offer any alternatives to weeding a library collection, other than to create a fantasy library that solves the problem she sees. I was never hesitant to discard materials from the library when they no longer served a purpose (seriously, who needs a book on DOS 3.0 in the 21st century, or a book about professional frisbee players from the 1970s?), so the point of this novella didn’t hit the mark with me.

Despite that, this novella is exactly what Willis fans would expect from her. It contains books, has a lovestruck character, and a large part of the story centers on a comedy of errors. It’s just not her best work. Compared with the brilliance of Doomsday Book or Bellwether or Lincoln’s Dreams, Traveller falls flat because it doesn’t contain those elements that best define her books. Existing fans will devour the story, and enjoy it, but I can’t help but feel like they’ll finish the book wanting to re-read one of her earlier, better works. This novella is like hearing the cover of a favorite song on the radio and wishing you could hear the original instead.

Started: August 26, 2018
Finished: August 26, 2018

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The Prestige

August 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

prestigeThe Prestige by Christopher Priest

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I’m always a little nervous when I read a novel that was the basis for a movie, when I’ve already seen the movie. I’m afraid I’ll pull too much of the movie into the book, and I won’t be able to pick up on the subtlety of the original story. Luckily, the book starts completely differently than the movie does, so I was able to at least start the story fresh.

On the bright side, I think it helped a lot to have seen the movie before reading the book. The Prestige is one of those novels that, by itself, requires a couple of reads to understand the full story. Knowing the twist, and knowing how the ending will play out, helps in some of the more difficult sections of the narrative. Not to give anything away, but the structure of the first section of the book would have been a lot more difficult to understand without already knowing the ending.

One thing I noticed while reading the book is how unbelievable parts of it are. They don’t seem as crazy in the movie for some reason. While watching the movie, I could acknowledge that the science was questionable, but I was so caught up in the events and trying to figure out where the Nolans were leading us, it didn’t affect me as much. In the book, they were somehow much more unbelievable. Part of it is the major differences in the ending; in the end, how the Nolans concluded their story sat more easily with me than how Priest concluded his.

The bulk of the story and its intricacies, though, are all Priest’s. He deserves the credit for how engaging, twisty, and unexpected the plot is, in the same way that Robert Bloch deserves that same credit for Psycho. He also structures the story differently, telling it in an epistolary style through journals of the two magicians. Interestingly, Priest chooses not to intertwine the stories; instead, he tells all of Borden’s story, and then shifts to Angier’s. By itself, it works very well; having watched the movie first, it’s a little jarring in how we get almost to the end of the movie before we shift gears and go back to the beginning.

Like the tricks themselves, the story is one of prestidigitation, making it one that rewards careful, attentive readers. Much of what we need to know about the plot and its twists are made clear in the beginning, if only we know what to identify as the keys. I’m not saying I’m one of those attentive readers (there’s a good chance I would have missed a lot of them had I not seen the movie), but those who like a good mystery would enjoy this book. I highly recommend it.

Started: August 12, 2018
Finished: August 22, 2018

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The Descent of Monsters

August 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

decentThe Descent of Monsters by JY Yang

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My first thought on starting this book (you know, after “Yay! Another book by Yang!”) was “UGH, another epistolary story!” It’s not that I feel the structure is overdone, and it’s not even like I’ve read so many of them lately that I’m sick of them; no, I just have issues with the technique overall. I think it’s because my own memory is terrible, and I have to believe that someone can remember conversations so well that they can jot them down, verbatim, long after they’ve taken place. Unless the author is trying to present an unreliable narrator, I have a hard time accepting it.

Yang takes it a step further by having one of their characters jot things down in a journal as things are happening. At one point, the narrator is writing things down in the back of a cart on the way to a confrontation, and even comments on how bumpy the ride is and how horrible the writing must be. They even have the character stop in the middle of a sentence. It felt unnatural and forced, which took me right out of the story.

The thing is, the rest of the story flowed so well that I didn’t even pay much attention to the epistolary structure. Yang alternates between sources, so we get two different perspectives on one event, and it helps keep the tension high and the story moving. It reminded me of the best pieces of the first two novellas in the series. Unlike the first two books, which supposedly can be read in either order, Descent should be read after those two, since it builds off of events presented in the earlier books.

Folks who read the first two books should definitely read this one, but if they did, then they probably already have. For anyone else, if you’re interested in Eastern fantasy stories with genderfluid characters, you should make your way back to the first book and get reading.

Started: August 11, 2018
Finished: August 11, 2018

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Good Deeds Gone Unpunished

August 21, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

deedsGood Deeds Gone Unpunished by Rich Burlew

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As I was reading this book, I realized that the reasons I like Usagi Yojimbo so much are the reasons I like The Order of the Stick so much. Aside from the honorable characters and the deep-seeded evil of both stories, there’s a general positivity to their works that you don’t see much in modern fantasy. Sure, people die, and sometimes they’re our favorite characters, but Burlew appears to write toward a general feel-good, heroes-win kind of fantasy. It still has an epic feel, and I know it hasn’t been concluded yet, but it feels like that’s where Burlew is going with his story.

Good Deeds Gone Unpunished is a collection of five short-stories, told in reverse chronological order, about the citizens of Azure City, featured in the collection War and XPs. We get glimpses into the lives of some of the major characters there, some seemingly innocuous, others profound and life-changing. There’s a good balance of exposition and revelation here, which is about all most of the stories have. The first four are very short, and hardly have time to get anything going, but the final story takes up about half of the book and feels like a novel of its own.

Burlew is a talented writer. This isn’t news to anyone who follows the online comic, but he’s a writer who deserves more attention. His stories are geared more toward readers who have a familiarity with Dungeons and Dragons (the early strips more so), but anyone who enjoys epic stories with complex plots and a strong sense of humor would find a lot to like in this series. One of these days I’ll get around to re-reading the story in the collected trade paperback.

Started: August 6, 2018
Finished: August 10, 2018

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Worlds Apart

August 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

apartWorlds Apart by James Riley

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With Worlds Apart, Riley brings his Story Thieves series to an end. As expected, he takes the threads from the previous books and winds them back together into a single strand. Most of the characters from the previous books find their way into the story, and they interact in ways both expected and not. The book feels familiar in style and tone, but it isn’t as compelling as the other books, which surprises me, since this is the culmination of the series, and the stakes are high.

At the end of Pick the Plot, the fictional and nonfictional worlds had been separated, and Worlds Apart shows what happens when they no longer interact. In the nonfictional world, imagination is stifled, and people are boring. When Owen finds himself drawn back into fictional events, everything starts to come together as he risks everything — quite literally — to defeat Nobody and rejoin the two worlds.

The book brings the series to a satisfying close, but it wasn’t the BOO-YAH ending I expected. It didn’t help that Pick the Plot was creative and exciting, both in structure and story, and Worlds Apart seemed to plod along in parts. I found myself having to force myself to return to the book, when the previous book had been one I hadn’t been able to put down.

Obviously, anyone who’s come this far with the series will want to see how it concludes, and I can’t say that I didn’t like the book, but it wasn’t as fun as the previous books in the series. I’d still recommend the series to younger readers, and to older readers who enjoy the cleverness of books like the Thursday Next series. It falters a bit near the end (which is exacerbated by the Return of the King syndrome, where we get two endings too many), but the rest of the journey is a lot of fun, and it would be a shame to pass up the whole thing for that reason alone.

Started: July 17, 2018
Finished: July 25, 2018

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Pick the Plot

August 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

plotPick the Plot by James Riley

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The whole Story Thieves series has been pretty clever so far, but Riley raises that cleverness a notch by turning the fourth novel into a choose-your-own-adventure story. Since the series frequently breaks the fourth wall for Owen and Bethany’s adventures, Riley brings the reader in as an important character in the story, which makes sense, since most of the CYOA books were written in the second person. Pick the Plot, though, is not.

This time around, Owen is trapped in a time prison back in prehistoric times, and the prison is set up so that it resets at the end of each day, putting the prisoners back on their first day there, with no memories of what happened in the previous day. Since the story sometimes sends the readers back to the beginning of the story to pick the next choice in a situation, the conceit works well, even if it means the story is pretty much on rails. As I was reading, I cheated with some choices so I could make sure I read the whole book, but it turns out that Riley will still steer you in the direction he wants you to go. There is a divergence in the story that alters part of the plot, but it reconnects with the ending so there’s still only one complete plot. For a book in a series, though, this is to be expected; if there were different endings, it would affect the next book.

Speaking of which, it looks like Story Thieves is coming to an end with the next book. While I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories set in this universe, I’m glad that Riley is working toward a known ending, instead of carrying the series out through too many books. It’s been a fun ride, thanks in part to how clever it’s been, but it feels like it will be going out on a good note. I’ll be starting the final book immediately after this one, so I’ll let y’all know.

Started: July 15, 2018
Finished: July 17, 2018

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Messenger’s Legacy

July 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

legacyMessenger’s Legacy by Peter V. Brett

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Right as I was starting to read The Core, I discovered that Brett had another novella that fell between books three and four of his Demon Cycle. Since I was finishing out the series, I figured I needed to read it, too, but since I had already started The Core, I decided to wait to read this one. That was both a good idea and a bad idea.

It was a good idea, because I didn’t remember Briar from the previous books, and The Core helped jog my memory and let me know who he was. It was a bad idea, though, because by the time I finished this book, I knew what had happened to him when he was younger, albeit just in the broad sense. Messenger’s Legacy feels superfluous afterward, since all it does is flesh out the details. Had I read the book in its right place, it might have had a different effect on me, and it’s certainly not fair to judge the novella on my own failure to stick to the timeline, but it definitely makes a difference.

I don’t think the book is necessary to read if you’ve already finished the series, but if you’re reading the series fresh, make sure you drop this volume into its right place. It will be new to you there, and will set the ground for the character when he enters the story as a key player. Not having read it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Core, but it would have made a difference had I read it in its proper place in the chronology.

Started: July 14, 2018
Finished: July 14, 2018

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The Core

July 25, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

coreThe Core by Peter V. Brett

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It’s weird to think I’ve only been reading The Demon Cycle since 2013. It feels like it’s only been three years, tops, but by the time I got into it, The Daylight War had only just come out in paperback, and I had to wait for the last two books to come out along with everyone else. I hate waiting, but I also hate losing track of details from one book to the next.

The good news is that Brett does such an extraordinary job of building his world that it only took about 100 pages to be completely familiar with what had come before. Characters came back to me quickly, and as they did, so did their stories. The biggest struggle I had was remembering which events went with which book, but that didn’t affect the story, since that wasn’t relevant to the plot itself.

The book seems to polarize people, namely in how Brett brings the series to a close. More to the point, it’s in how long it takes to get there. Brett populated his saga with a ton of characters (not GRRM levels, but still one that might require a spreadsheet), and it seems like he was wanting to make sure each one got their own conclusion, so it takes well over half the book to get to the journey to the final confrontation, and then well over three quarters (maybe even seven-eighths) of the book to get to that confrontation. It then takes almost no time to get through it, which surprises me, for all the build-up Brett put into that moment.

So I’m at odds with the book, because it’s well written, strongly compelling, and vivid, but at the same time it’s a little rambling, and doesn’t bring a level of epic heroism to the conclusion that I expected after all this time. The series has such a strong start, and even as the story loses its focus in the last two books, it’s still readable. I mean, this is the longest book I’ve read this year, and it only took me two weeks to finish it. I feel like this is a three-star book, tops, but for all that Brett brought to the entire series, and how well he built this world, I’ll bump it up to four.

Started: July 1, 2018
Finished: July 14, 2018

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