The Black God’s Drums

August 30, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

drumsThe Black God’s Drums by Djèlí P. Clark

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Set in a steampunk, post-Civil War, post-slavery New Orleans, and featuring a touch of African magic, The Black God’s Drums is the latest in the Tor.com novella series. Famous for featuring authors and characters that have often been overlooked in genre fiction, the imprint is something I’ve championed since I first discovered it, recommending them not just for their social awareness, but also because there are some fantastic stories there. I went into this novella with high expectations.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hit all the marks I hoped for. It’s definitely a compelling story, but it rushes through a lot of the plot, and hurries through the conclusion, enough so that the novella feels more like a first draft of a novel rather that a completed novella. I’ve said before that books have to be long enough to cover the stories therein, and here, it feels like Clark was working to fulfill a maximum (or in this case, minimum) number of words to qualify as a novella. Plus, being set in a steampunk New Orleans, the story reminded me too much of Ganymede by Cherie Priest, which was the advantage of being a fantastic book, as well as an appropriate length.

There’s a lot of potential here, but by the end of the story, I couldn’t get excited about the characters or the story. Clark is a talented writer, and has a strong narrative style, but the story lacks the elusive OOMPH to make it a classic. It just wasn’t my thing.

Started: August 24, 2018
Finished: August 25, 2018

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Fiddlehead

September 27, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

FiddleheadFiddlehead by Cherie Priest

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Though there’s one novella following Fiddlehead, this novel brings to a close the events that Priest began with Boneshaker. What began inauspiciously has far exceeded my expectations. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, I’m not a fan of steampunk, but if this series is what steampunk is, then maybe I’ve made a grave error. On the other hand, it just might be that Cherie Priest is an outstanding writer who could write about anything and make it entertaining. My money’s on the latter supposition.

Fiddlehead is probably the most expansive of the books in the series thus far. We see a reprise of characters we’ve seen before in the series, along with some new ones, but this time we even have Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant as characters. The story revolves around ending the Civil War (which has been going on for twenty years now in Priest’s alternate history), using a weapon of such destruction that it rivals that of the atomic bomb in World War II. The action surrounds the characters who believe that such a weapon is the only solution, and those who believe that it is no solution at all.

Priest’s characterization skills have improved remarkably since the first book, and it’s no surprise that here her protagonists are easily likable and sympathetic, while her antagonists are easily despised. There’s no questioning loyalties or intentions; her characters are drawn just right. I had predicted in my review of The Inexplicables that another character would feature in this novel, as he had been in the previous two, and while I was right, the character went in a different direction than I would have expected. Priest didn’t cheat the way she made that reveal, either; all the hints and foreshadowing she dropped in the other two books supported the way that character came clean in this novel.

In her foreword, Priest writes about how this is the end of her original series, but we already know that she has followed this up with another novella set in that universe. I’ll be disappointed when I finish that one (which I expect to start as soon as I finish writing this review), but it sounds like she isn’t averse to revisiting this world and its characters. This is a relief, since these stories have been a refreshing taste of what good, entertaining fiction is all about.

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The Inexplicables

September 26, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

The InexplicablesThe Inexplicables by Cherie Priest

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I can’t get over how good these books are. Priest has an ear for dialogue and a good understanding of human behavior; she builds up compelling, intriguing plots full of action and adventure; she creates vivid scenes and characters. On top of that, she creates a series that’s ostensibly steampunk, but is actually an alternate history series instead. There’s so much to like here, it’s no surprise that I’m tearing through these books like I’m addicted.

With The Inexplicables, Priest falters some. The entire story is told from the point of view of one character, Rector Sherman, who was the young orphan who sent Zeke into the walled city in Boneshaker. Now, he’s a full-on sap addict who’s far more interested in himself than anyone else. He’s not the most likable character, and his self-centeredness leaves him with little loyalty to anyone. He doesn’t strike me as an anti-hero, either (his successes have more to do with him being with other people than with anything he does himself), so it puzzles me why Priest chose to have him as our POV character, unless it was to further the point she appears to want to make about the Blight, the sap, and its effect on people. Being an addict, Rector can help her shine a more personal light onto what it means to be addicted to the substance. It doesn’t help make him any more sympathetic, though.

The series has been fascinating so far, with each book being a different adventure featuring a different character, but the adventure here is less compelling. This time, the conflict surrounds protecting the walled in city from new invaders, and protecting the surrounding city from the rotters inside. It’s all self-contained, with the action compressed into the final hundred-or-so pages, and less time is spent on the antagonists than in previous books, making them caricatures instead of characters. In addition, Priest chooses to include a new supernatural element to the story here, which doesn’t really fit in with the overall tone of the previous four books. I’m not going to spoil it, but it wound up being laughable. The story features a lot of rolling-of-the-eyes, not just in the characters, but also in the reader.

I mentioned in my review of Ganymede that there was a character featured in that novel who was intimated as being untrustworthy, and he showed up here in The Inexplicables, too. Priest again suggested that there was something about him not to be trusted, but again, it didn’t go anywhere within the story itself. Given that she’s been pretty good at foreshadowing in the individual stories, my money’s on Priest featuring him in Fiddlehead, the final volume in the series proper. If not, then she’s been running a red herring through two books now.

Each book in the series has been a singular adventure featuring (mostly) new characters, and that’s true with The Inexplicables, as well, but to me it seems like Priest is building up the series to talk about the Blight. She’s also writing about the Civil War, protracted here into a 20-year fight, and while each story stands on its own, overall there’s a bigger fight going on, with much larger stakes. I think Fiddlehead will address those issues, and bring them all together into a final conclusion. I’m eager to see how she wraps up the overall story.

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Ganymede

September 24, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

GanymedeGanymede by Cherie Priest

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With Ganymede, Cherie Priest continues to tell the stories of her 19th Century alternate United States, complete with extended Civil War, airships, and the undead. This time, she takes us to New Orleans, where we meet Josephine, the ex-lover of Andan Cly, who has asked him to come to her city to help her transport a ship. Also in New Orleans is an outbreak of the animated dead, with which Cly is familiar, though why they’re suddenly showing up there is a bit of a puzzle. I could tell you a bit more about the story and what it’s about, but I feel like it would spoil a bit of the surprise, even though the summary on the back of the book will tell you about events that don’t happen until about the halfway point of the story.

Ganymede is just as exciting and readable as the previous books in the series, and is another standout, thanks to the improved characterization. After the improvements seen in Clementine and Dreadnought, I wasn’t surprised, but I was glad to see that Priest could keep things on the same level as what she had done with those two books. Not all of her characters resonated here, but enough of them did to make the story as entertaining as I would have expected.

There was one weird moment in the story where Priest seemed to be suggesting that one character wasn’t as trustworthy as he seemed, but then didn’t take it anywhere. The character wasn’t as realized as the others, which was enough to make me think that there was going to be something to it. It was like a red herring that was forced too much, and in the end, it felt a little cheap.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book. A lot. I’m impressed with Priest’s chops here, and once I finish this series, I won’t be hesitant to add her Borden Dispatches series to my list. She’s definitely an author to add to my insta-buy list.

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Dreadnought

September 18, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

DreadnoughtDreadnought by Cherie Priest

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This series is getting better. Part of it could be that Priest doesn’t make this a sequel to Boneshaker so much as it’s another story set in the same world. The main character is the daughter to one of the secondary characters in the first book, but otherwise this is a story about her, and about war, and about her journey across a divided country.

The other reason the series is getting better is because Priest took the time to develop her main characters this time around. In Boneshaker, Briar and Zeke were important, but so crudely drawn that they came across as caricatures that characters. With Mercy Lynch, Priest created a more realized character, someone you could relate to much more easily than those in Boneshaker. Given that Clementine also showed an improvement in character development, I wasn’t surprised (though it does raise the bar for the next four books in the series).

Priest’s other talent is in telling a good, rip-roaring tale. Lots of stuff happens in this novel, from start to finish, and the pacing was just right. Nothing was resolved too quickly or too easily, but neither did it take too long for those scenes. For the Sad Puppies who bemoan the lack of adventure tales in science fiction, they would serve themselves well to read this series.

My one complaint was that there was a disconnect between Mercy’s narrative and her dialogue. She’s portrayed as being uneducated, but smart, and in the narrative (nearly all of which is told from her point of view), it’s clear that she’s very intelligent. Most of her dialogue portrays that, as well, but there are times when she starts talking like a country bumpkin, which was a bit jarring. Her voice didn’t fit her in those moments, and whenever I would stumble across them (which I’m guessing was to further portray her as a Southerner), I would think that someone else was talking.

It’s possible to read this book without having read Boneshaker and still get all you need to know about the story and the world in which it exists, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Boneshaker still reads quickly, and sets the stage well for this one. I’m eager to see what the next book in the series will bring.

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Tanglefoot

September 15, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

TanglefootTanglefoot by Cherie Priest

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I was all set to start on Dreadnought, the next book in the Clockwork Century series, and saw that this short story actually came next, according to Goodreads. I downloaded it and sped through it in about a half an hour.

The story features two characters who appeared in Clementine, but the story takes place before the events in that book (and in fact even foreshadows some of those events). I’m not sure why this story falls after Clementine in the chronology of the series, especially when this story was also written before Boneshaker. I prefer to read stories in the order they were written, not based on the internal chronology of the series, since there can usually be subtle references to upcoming events if you read them out of order ( see: the Foundation series).

Dr. Smeeks, the senile inventor in the sanatorium, and his assistant Edwin are the main characters here, but this time Edwin is the inventor. He creates a clockwork friend, since as an orphan he has a hard time making friends, but what he assumed would be a machine under his control slowly begins to take on a life of its own. It’s ostensibly a horror story, but its setting and feel fit right in with the series so far.

As a horror story, it’s not all that satisfying. There’s no real sense of why things are happening, as there’s no explanation for why events happen the way they do. Not all horror requires it, but here, aside from a spooky prophecy from an inmate at the sanatorium, there’s no other hint that the supernatural should happen here. In fact, the way the series has progressed, the supernatural feels out of place all together. Also, the threat felt mild, and I never felt like either of the characters in the story were in dire straits. There certainly was a threat, but it didn’t feel severe enough for me to be concerned.

Fans of the series would probably enjoy the story, but it doesn’t really add anything to the world of the Clockwork Century. I don’t feel like it was a waste of time to read it, but I also feel like I could have skipped it and not suffered for it.

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Clementine

September 14, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

ClementineClementine by Cherie Priest

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I cheated a little with this book. Once I was drawn in to Boneshaker, I had a feeling I was going to continue reading the series, so I requested this volume from the library before I went out of town on a trip so I could continue reading it without interruption. I saw the Clementine mentioned in the pages of Boneshaker and paid attention to them, since I knew the next book would feature the ship and its crew.

Clementine follows the events of Boneshaker, and is about two stories that converge together about midway through the novel. In the first story, Croggon Beauregard Hainey is the captain of the Free Crow, a dirigible he stole from the Confederacy during the Civil War, is chasing down his own craft, stolen from him by another pirate. In the second story, Maria Isabella Boyd is an ex-Union spy, ex-actress, now hired hand at a private investigation firm, and her first assignment is to help ensure that a secret load of military supplies arrives at its destination in Kentucky. The convergence begins when it becomes clear that the ship carrying those supplies is the Free Crow … now renamed the Clementine.

This novel moves at a brisk pace, similar to that of Boneshaker, but this time the main characters feel more realized. Hainey is an escaped slave, along with his crew of two, and there’s more to him than just being a gruff captain, and Maria’s background is so diverse that she stands out as a character all her own. While Hainey has some similarities, character-wise, to Cly, the main captain from Boneshaker, Maria is a different character from those who featured in the first novel. The closest character to her is Lucy, but even then, the backgrounds and personalities are distinct enough to make them separate characters.

Like BoneshakerClementine is mostly an adventure novel, with the cargo of the Clementine being the Macguffin that leads the characters forward. For Hainey, the ship is his Macguffin, but without the cargo, the ship wouldn’t have been stolen at all, and besides, once the action gets underway, it’s hard to care what is drawing the characters on their adventure, so long as they’re drawn into it.

I’m pleased with the series so far. Judging on how Priest created Hainey and Maria in this novel, I expect that the characterization will improve with the subsequent books in the series. Maybe we’ll get a better picture of Briar and Zeke in Dreadnought.

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Boneshaker

September 11, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

BoneshakerBoneshaker by Cherie Priest

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I’m not a fan of steampunk. In fact, if you want me to lose interest in something, just tell me that it’s steampunk. The idea of it doesn’t bother me as much as the people who treat it like a religion, but I tend to avoid it as much as I can. It just doesn’t hold much interest for me. As to how I came to have Boneshaker in my collection is as much a surprise to me as it would be to anyone else who knows this about me. I heard about the book a few years ago and picked it up based on word-of-mouth and some short reviews, but the fact that it was a steampunk novel somehow escaped me.

The good news is that the steampunk element of the novel was pretty understated. Things run on steam, and there are airships, and people wear fancy goggles, but the story winds up being about as steampunk as the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. The heart of the story is Briar Wilkes and her son, Zeke. Their relationship is somewhat strained due to their living conditions, and the fact that the absent father is responsible for the Blight, which is a gas that comes from underground, turns people into zombies, and is why a large part of Seattle has been walled off from the rest of the city. Zeke wants to convince the rest of the city that his father wasn’t the man the rest of the city makes him out to be, and escapes into the walled-off part of the city to find answers. Briar follows him into the city to rescue him.

I have a habit of judging the time I will spend with a book based on its length and type size, and when I first glanced at Boneshaker — 416 pages in trade paperback, with smallish type — I figured I would be working on this novel for a couple of weeks at best. Instead, I found myself tearing through the story at the rate of about 100 pages a day, even when I had other things to do. It moves quickly, thanks to it being primarily an adventure novel, but it also moves along at a great clip because of Priest’s pacing. The narrative jumps back and forth between Briar and Zeke’s perspectives, usually flipping right at the moment when you want to know what’s going to happen next to the character you’re leaving. It’s a cheap way to build suspense, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.

I’ve seen some reviews that were critical of the development of Briar and Zeke, and I don’t disagree with them. The secondary characters get more interesting backgrounds, while Briar and Zeke seem more to be defined by their relationship to Leviticus, the absent father. The only thing we really know about Zeke is that he’s there to learn more about his father, and the only thing we really know about Briar is that she’s going in to rescue her son. That’s all we get as far as their development goes. This book is the start to a larger series, so maybe they’re developed further in later books, but what’s done with them in Boneshaker is minimal, at best. On the plus side, the weak characterization doesn’t affect its readability; I just wish it had been a bit more developed.

This book is covered in blurbs, some from authors I know and like (Scott Westerfeld, Garth Ennis, Wil Wheaton), others from authors I know and don’t like (Cory Doctorow, though his recommendations are usually in line with what I like), and a whole bunch from authors I’ve never heard of. There was a lot of hype heading into it, though, and sometimes that can set me up for disappointment. Luckily, the book is readable and enjoyable, despite its few foibles, and I think anyone who enjoys adventure, urban fantasy, or, yes, even steampunk, would enjoy it.

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