Ekaterina Sedia – The Alchemy of Stone

Reading books by new (to me) authors has been paying off big time. Ekaterina Sedia definitely made me curious and eager for her other books. But, as sometimes happens, I still don’t quite know how I feel about The Alchemy of Stone. I loved  most of it, I was indifferent at times, then I loved it again. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it and that alone made it worthwile.

alchemy-of-stoneTHE ALCHEMY OF STONE
by Ekaterina Sedia

Published by: Prime Books, 2008
Ebook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: We scale the rough bricks of the building’s facade.

Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets—secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. This doesn’t sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart—literally.

divider1
For a relatively short book, The Alchemy of Stone is crammed full of amazing ideas and characters. This is both a strength and a weakness. When I picked up the book (lying in bed with the stomach flu) I expected to get a little taste of what Sedia’s style was like. In no time at all, I had read more than half the book and didn’t plan on stopping there.

Mattie, an intelligent automaton, lives in the city of Ayona, a place that was so vibrant and alive that it reminded me – at first – of the little towns we sometimes see in Ghibli movies. Red-shingled roofs on pretty little stone houses, smoke coming out of fireplaces, the market filled with delicious smells and the voices of people… except here, steam-powered machines are omnipresent. They clear the streets,  the do hard labor, they are a means of transportation. This picturesque setting and the hard, metal bodies of steampunk automatons went surprisingly well together. Ekaterina Sedia particularly likes describing smells – a sense that is usually underrepresented in fiction – and I suspect that it aided in bringing the city to life so quickly. Ayona has a cute feel to it in the beginning, until you discover the underlying tension and political intrigues.

The story begins when the city’s gargoyles, silent but powerful creators of its magnificent stone buildings, come to Mattie’s workshop for help. They are slowly turning more and more to stone, losing their ability to move and think, and Mattie’s alchemy is their only hope. I have a soft spot for gargoyles anyway, and these were surrounded by myth and legend, which added to their strange distance to the people of Ayona. The gargoyles are a group but they seem to think and act as one. We never get a clear answer as to who or what they are and that suited me just fine. Not all secrets need to be revealed.

alchemy of stone italianBut it was the other characters that I was really interested in. Mattie herself has to deal with being an emancipated automaton but also identifying as a woman. Her maker, Loharri, built her to have feelings – pain, friendship, love, desire. She is fairly independet and lives her life happily, if it weren’t for the fact that the key to her clockwork heart still rests in the hands of Loharri. Until Mattie owns that key, she will never truly be free. Being ignored and seen only as a machine is almost secondary to that. Wanting to be able to love somebody is another matter yet. Following Mattie was a bittersweet experience, to say the least.

Loharri, Mattie’s maker, fascinated me to no end. I would have loved to see more of him, to find out more about his past, and about why he made Mattie the way she is. He is at the same time a father figure and a tyrant but the author never forgets to also paint him as a man with his own hopes and dreams. When Mattie befriends a dark-skinned alchemist named Niobe, I couldn’t get enough of those two together. They cautiously get to know each other, teaching the other what they know about alchemy, bonding over magical potions and homunculi. Niobe also gave the author a chance to explore the city’s racism through a more personal lens.

Now the Soul-Smoker is something else! Introduced very early in the story, I fell in love with this character immediately. A man who smokes the souls of the deceased in an opium pipe and keeps them contained within himself until he dies. This tortured man embraces Mattie’s friendship because Mattie – as an automaton – doesn’t have a soul and can safely come near him without fear. Although we do see quite a bit of him, I still wanted to find out more about him and the other brilliant characters. They all have a past, some of them harbor dark secrets, they each have a story to tell. One which I didn’t get to read because it wasn’t essential to the main plot. And this is where I wouldn’t have minded a few chapters that don’t advance the story but simply show some aspect of Niobe, Loharri, the Soul-Smoker or even Sebastian, the mechanic in hiding whom Mattie takes a fancy to.

The Alchemy of Stone shows many glimpses of great things. The problem I had was that most of them are explored only a little bit when I would have liked to delve in deeper. We learn of the political unrest and the class difference that caused it, but it all seems to happen on the sidelines. The same goes for the blatant racism of the enforcers, or for Mattie’s identity. There is one scene, when Mattie may or may not be in love, where her otherness becomes a true obstacle. After all, if you are made of smooth metal and wood, how could you ever have sex? What kind of cruel creature would give you the desire but not the abilty? Mattie has taste and smell sensors, but her face is a static mask. She can be kissed and feel it, but, needless to say, it’s not really the same. That scene was probably the most emotional of the entire book for me. As for the other issues, I would have liked if this had been a bigger book that spent more time building on the ideas and putting them in the center rather than just a throwaway sentence here or there.

alchemy of stoneI cannot find fault with the world-building or the writing style. It has been ages since I gobbled up a book in one day and it goes to show how much I loved Sedia’s voice. But when certain characters died, I felt more like a scientist looking into a microscope. Aah, now that’s interesting, rather than Oh my God, why did you have to die?! Emotionally, the characters remained at arm’s length and that took away from the impact the later events would have had. The ending was sad and wonderful and depressing and hopeful all at once but, again, strangely distant. I know intellectually that this is a good story. I just didn’t feel with the characters as much as I would have liked.

However, not every book has to rip your heart out and leave you in tears and in this case, it may have been a choice by the author – after all, we do see the events unfold through a robot’s eyes. An intelligent machine is nothing if not distant from what we are as humans. I was hooked enough to finish the book really quickly and still want more. The Alchemy of Stone was a strange little story that I would recommend in a heartbeat with the small reservation not to expect any Robin Hobb style scenes of heartbreak.

MY RATING: 7,5/10  –  Very good

divider1Second opinions:

Advertisements

Lavie Tidhar – The Bookman

Lavie Tidhar just won a World Fantasy Award for his novel Osama, but I felt more drawn to his steampunk trilogy about the mysterious Bookman. I started reading with high expectations but ended up having to plough through most of the novel due to its lack of depth, interesting language, and – most of all – character development. I am so disappointed I could cry.

bookmanTHE BOOKMAN
by Lavie Tidhar

Published by: Angry Robot, 2010
ISBN: 9780007346615
ebook: 416 pages
Series: The Bookman Histories #1

My rating: 3/10

First sentence: Orphan came down to see the old man by the Thames.

A masked terrorist has brought London to its knees – there are bombs inside books, and nobody knows which ones. On the day of the launch of the first expedition to Mars, by giant cannon, he outdoes himself with an audacious attack. For young poet Orphan, trapped in the screaming audience, it seems his destiny is entwined with that of the shadowy terrorist, but how? Like a steam-powered take on V for Vendetta, rich with satire and slashed through with automatons, giant lizards, pirates, airships and wild adventure, The Bookman is the first of a series.

dividerSometimes I wonder if my expectations are too high or if, by covers alone, I hope to find something in a book that simply isn’t there. In the case of The Bookman, I was disappointed on pretty much every level. The story starts out interesting enough. Alternate London, a young man called Orphan, his friend Gilgamesh, a police inspector called Irene Adler, Prime Minister Moriarty, and the mysterious Bookman. I loved the initial whacky mix of classic literature that seems to have permeated this version of England. But what Jasper Fforde does brilliantly, Lavie Tidhar fails in a rather embarrassing way. It soon becomes apparent that no real world-building has been done. Names are thrown around, mostly so the readers will feel they already know a character and the author doesn’t have to bother actually giving them personality.

Nobody has personality! Orphan is the blandest, most passive, most painfully boring character I’ve read in a long time. The initial plot device – his girlfriend Lucy dying in a terrorist attack staged by the Bookman – is the starting point for his “adventures”. On these adventures, which take him to the mysterious Caliban’s Island, Oxford, the London underworld, a pub, a museum, and tons of other places, Orphan never does anything by himself. He is told to do things, threatened if he doesn’t do things, other people explain why it would be a neat idea to do yet another thing, you get the idea. Most of the time, things happen to him. And the worst thing is: There are certain mysteries (painfully obvious, might I add) that Orphan finds out is told and although they pretty much change every aspect of his life, he just stores them away, never to be mentioned again.

The wonderful Lucy, dead from the beginning, is mentioned a lot in Orphan’s thoughts, but we never get to see why he loves her so much. She is a damsel-in-distress kind of stand-in, so he has something to do  be told to do. As for side characters, don’t even get me started. The handful I remember were there for exposition, info-dumps, and to nudge Orphan along when – again – he’s standing around passively and completely useless.

There is a fair amount of stuff happening, considering this is not an extremely large book. But stuff happening is still not plot, no matter how hard some people try to make us believe that. In fact, everything that happens to Orphan was so disconnected and so badly anchored in this strange, unfinished world, that it is nearly impossible for me to pick out the red thread of what this story was actually about. It’s not about the Bookman, despite its title. It’s not about the world – which would have had so much potention to be something great, what with lizard royalty and conspiracies and Jules Verne saving Orphan in a hot air balloon… none of it was realised.

Whenever there is the chance of a scene becoming thrilling, Orphan being in danger or something being at stake, the scene is cut or ended abruptly by “and then he got out”. Thanks for building up to nothing. To make things worse, the writing in general wasn’t stellar, either. Sentences are mostly short, when there is description, it is unoriginal, and the story and its setting lacked atmosphere.

He crashed into the warm water with a huge explosion. His lungs burned. He had the sense of dark, heavy shapes moving below him. He kicked out and broke back to the surface. He looked at where he was. He was in a large pool of water.

You see, writing like this is okay if it happens only occasionally and to emphasize how quickly something happens. But every school kid learns you don’t start every single sentence with “He”. Sadly, this happens a lot throughout the novel, much to my disappointment. This also shows nicely how Orphan’s “dangerous” adventures don’t really get a chance to become interesting.

The Bookman is crammed full of Stuff – we never get to fully enjoy any one thing, because there have to be Lizards and pirates and a ship voyage, and airships, and bombs and a shuttle to Mars and a secret island and the underworld and automata and Orphan’s secret history and characters that show up so they can tell him something, never to be seen again, and millions of references to other books. I was quite pleased that Princess Irulan’s book In My Father’s House was a real thing in this world. But that’s about it.

It felt like the author had a number of great ideas, threw them all into a pot, stirred lightly and dumped it on a plate, for me to enjoy. Unfortunately, I enjoy good characters, a story that makes sense, set in a world that at least adheres to its own rules. This was such a strange reading experience with only a few fun bits that aren’t enough to be called a silver lining on this drab, colorless, endlessly boring sky of a “story”.

THE GOOD: Some great ideas, incorporating fictional characters into this story’s reality. Great potential for world-building.
THE BAD: Potential completely wasted. Terribly bland, cardboard characters, the plot is all over the place, mediocre writing and, ultimately, nothing in this story makes sense.
THE VERDICT: What a vast disappointment! I won’t be reading the rest of this series (which, btw, is not really steampunk) but I may give Osama a chance. I can’t believe everybody else loves Tidhar so much. This book was in bad need of editing, world-building, tightening of plot, and – most of all! – characters who feel like they are people, not puppets.

RATING: 3/10  – Bad

divider

The Bookman Histories:

  1. The Bookman
  2. Camera Obscura
  3. The Great Gamebookman histories

Martha Wells – Emilie and the Hollow World

I planned to make the Books of the Raksura my first Martha Wells books because so many people have raved about them. But, as these things go, Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot’s YA imprint) offered e-ARCs of Wells’ young adult novel on NetGalley and I couldn’t resist.

emilie and the hollow worldEMILIE & THE HOLLOW WORLD
by Martha Wells

Published by: Strange Chemistry, April 2013
ISBN: 1908844507
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Emilie #1

My rating: 4,5/10

First sentence: Creeping along the docks in the dark, looking for the steamship Merry Bell, Emilie was starting to wonder if it might be better to just walk to Silk Harbor.

While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure.
Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father.
With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange race of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.

dividerIt is rare that I can’t make up my mind whether I liked or disliked a book. I suppose one emotion always outweighs the other and if you pinned me down I’d have to go with “rather disliked it”. Emilie and the Hollow World is a nod toward the wonderful Jules Verne adventures, discovering new worlds hidden within our own, meeting strange peoples and making new friends. The idea is wonderful and adding magic to it seems like a nice bonus. But there were many little things wrong with this book that add up to a rather unengaging reading experience.

It starts with a minor qualm – the protagonist’s age. Emilie is supposed to be 16 but from the get go, I though of her much more as a 12-year-old, maximum. She acts and speaks like a much younger person and if her age hadn’t been mentioned, I would have happily continued imagining a little girl. But the fact that we are told how old she is, bothered me. Emilie runs away from home, intending to buy passage on a ship. Instead, she realises she’s spent too much of her money on food, has to run away from people who suspect her of being a thief, and ends up as a stowaway on the Sovereign.

Of course, that much fancier ship has its own crew but just when they disocver Emilie, chaos ensues. I assumed the issues of her being a runaway and hiding on their ship would be talked about when the characters were out of immediate danger. But no, people just seem to take things the way they come without asking questions. The author seems to expect a bit too much suspension of desbelief here and while I am willing to believe pretty much anything for the sake of a good story, it needs to work within that story. This tale is set in a world that seems to believe in reason and science and rules. So it should strike somebody as odd that a young girl has run away from home, and even though Emilie explains her reasons, there were still two points that annoyed me. First of all, her reasons sound very good but unfortunately we are told them, never shown them. If the book had opened with Emilie suffering from her uncle and aunt’s treatment, her entire character would have been much stronger. Secondly, even if I accept that the ship’s crew feels empathy for Emilie and there’s not much to be done about her (now that she’s on the ship) it strikes me as very unlikely they would involve her so quickly and deeply into their venture and lay open all their plans. If anything, it would have been believable for her to become a kitchen maid on the ship to pay her passage and cleverly overhear these plans.

emilie and the hollow worldOnce they arrive in the Hollow World – via aetheric engine (read: magic) – a lot of stuff happens but nothing of real consequence. Of course, there are things afoot that will have consequences for the people of the hollow world, but since they aren’t the main characters of this story, there was not much for me to engage with. At that point, the focus of the story shifts from Emlie to the politics of the Hollow World – since we don’t get enough time with any of the parties involved, I had a lot of trouble working up enough interest to keep reading. This not very thick novel took me a good two months to finish. It just lacked drive, after the initial action-packed moments with Emilie running away from home.

The characters, including Emilie, were flat and underdeveloped. There would have been so much potential for this young girl to realise she can take things into her own hands, that she doesn’t have to depend on other people. But Emilie comes out of this story pretty much the way she entered. The only exception to this was Kenar, the most interesting character in the entire book. Unfortunately, we get see very little of him in the second half, which made it even more tedious to read. Another problem I had with the characters was that there was no real bonding between them, despite being through quite a lot of adventures together. If the protagonist doesn’t seem to truly care about her companions, why should I? Again, we were told that they were sad to say goodbye, but we’re not shown why.

The bottom line for me is: Reading this book felt more like a job, something I had to do, instead of a story I couldn’t wait to get back to. Whenever I put it aside after half a chapter, it took a lot of willpower to pick it up again. A novel, especially a novel aimed at children, should at least get the entertainment factor right.

THE GOOD: A good premise and a nice tip of the hat to Jules Verne.
THE BAD: Emilie came over much too young, despite non-stop action, there is very little development or emotionally engaging moments.
THE VERDICT: It’s a gamble. Maybe if I were 10 years old I would have liked this book more. This way, it was neither horrible nor good. The few elements I enjoyed didn’t get enough screen time and most of the time, I didn’t care enough to pick the book up and continue reading. And I certainly won’t be back for more of this series. Wells’ other books though… probably.

RATING: 4,5/10 – Bad but not terrible

divider

Other reviews:

Review: Gail Carriger – Etiquette & Espionage

Gail Carriger gives the YA genre a try in her new Finishing School series. Despite my misgivings about the later Parasol Protectorate books, I was as excited about this as anyone. Some of my hopes were met and we do get a new lovable cast of characters but we also get a lot of things we’ve already read in her previous books. All things considered, however, this book offers fun on every single page and I’ll happily continue reading this new series.

etiquette and espionageETIQUETTE & ESPIONAGE
by Gail Carriger

Published by: Little, Brown, 2013
ISBN: 031621521X
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Finishing School #1

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.
Sophronia Temminnick at 14 is a great trial more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners — and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Her poor mother, desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady, enrolls the lively tomboy in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. But young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage — in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.

divider

I love books about schools. Even before Harry Potter, there was something about fictional characters going through the same ordeals I had to, only they get to do it in awesome fantasy worlds and learn magic – or in this case, the fine art of finishing. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School, Sophronia not only learns how to curtsy properly or the language a fan can speak, she is also instructed in obtaining secret information, killing silently, and sneaking about. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded reading more about the actual lessons, but Sophronia manages to teach herself enough sneaking about and investigating to make up for an entire school year.

What I liked about this was that the writing is clearly recognizable as Gail Carriger, yet it has its own distinct voice. It is set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate, some 20 years earlier, but because we get a new protagonist, an entirely new setting, and a few new steampunk inventions, Etiquette & Espionage has a freshness to it that I’ve been missing in Gail Carriger’s latest books. The only thing that classifies this as young adult fiction is the lack of sex and the protagonists’ age. Other than that, it pretty much feels like coming home into a hilarious universe of werewolves, vampires, high tea, and the art of eyelash fluttering.

etiquette and espionageMy misgivings are few and negligible. I felt a little cheated that the author borrows so heavily from already established ideas and that some others felt almost anachronicstic. In this alternate universe we’ve got to know in the Parasol Protectorate, we are travelling into the past. To find out there were robots everywhere? If people had invented mechanical household servants, then why does nobody in Alexia Tarabotti’s time seem to have them? A useful thing like that wouldn’t just go out of fashion, would it? Like I said, it took me a little out of the flow but it wasn’t a big deal, overall. The mechanicals are handled in such a fun way that I’ll suspend my disbelief a little more.

A wonderful bonus for old fans is that we get to meet two well-known character’s younger selves and that’s all I’m going to say about it. It was a pleasant surprise and said characters grew on me even more than in the Parasol Protectorate. As characters go, Sophronia was a likable, flawed heroine who is far too blunt for her own good, but all the more endearing for it. Her friends – excepting the two mentioned above – felt more like charicatures than real people. Dimity was clearly a rip-off of Carriger’s own Ivy Hisslepenny, with a tendency toward the ridiculous, but her constant fainting fits made for some truly funny scenes. I was also thrilled to find a dark-skinned character who, because Sophronia just isn’t a society lady, is treated just the same as everybody else – at least by her. The issues are not ignored, it’s just that the protagonist doesn’t see any issues with having a friend who’s skin is a different color than her own.

At the center of the plot are several mysteries that Sophronia and her friends are trying to solve. But there are also classes, supernaturals to be dealt with, the usual school girl enmities and rumors floating about the school. Being a lady and an intelligencer at the same time proves to be harder than expected. But for us, who get to read about the insanity that is the Finishing School, it is first and foremost great fun. And I do have to mention that Sophronia is by far the coolest name the author has come up with so far. Frowbritcher, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, and Lord Dingleproops were tough contenders, but Sophronia is still my favorite name.

This may not be a groundbreaking book for Gail Carriger, but it was insane fun to read. Her sense of humor, although we’ve all heard it before, doesn’t fail to amuse and I actually preferred some of the ridiculous lessons Sophronia has to take to Alexia’s investigations. I don’t expect to be blown away by any of Carriger’s books anymore but if I have a couple of spare hours, they are wonderfully silly fun and well worth the read.

THE GOOD: Gail Carriger’s hilarious voice is back. The Finishing School and its classes are wonderful, Sophronia a great protagonist and I loved the “reunion” with characters we’ve previously met as adults.
THE BAD: Some rehashing of old ideas and gimmicks.
BONUS: Bumbersnoot the mechanimal. Oh, and flywaymen.
THE VERDICT: A hilarious and charming story set in a very steampunk-y world. The endearing characters and the sense of humor make up for any problems with the plot I may have had. Rcommended for fans of Gail Carrigers or those completely new to her writing.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

dividerThe Finishing School Series:

  1. Etiquette & Espionagecourtsies and conspiracies
  2. Curtsies & Conspiracies
  3. ?

A word on the covers:
I hated the Parasol Protectorate covers. Not because I disliked the design. The black and white background with a lady in a colorful dress was actually a brilliant idea. It’s just that I personally found the cover model to look neither like Alexia nor in any way pretty.

This time, the designers flipped it around and we get a colorful background with a (very pretty) young lady in black and white. I love the design and the different patterns on the wallpaper. The dresses are wonderful and the scissors/knife are a nice touch that give you a feeling of what you may find inside these books. Well done, Little, Brown!

Review: China Miéville – Perdido Street Station

HOW did I wait this long to discover China Miéville? Can anybody tell me why of all the recommendations I’ve been given, none ever enticed me enough to pick up this book? Well, I found my way in the end, and I have a lot more Miéville to discover.  This was an odyssey of a book and I admit, I dragged it out a lot, simply because I wasn’t quite ready to leave that world yet.

China Miéville - Perdido Street Station

PERDIDO STREET STATION
by China Miéville

Published by: Pan Macmillan, 2011 (2000)
ISBN: 9780330534239
Paperback: 880
Series: New Crobuzon #1

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth.

The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of its own bewildering world. Humans and mutants and arcane races throng the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the rivers are sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years, the parliament and its brutal militia have ruled over a vast array of workers and artists, spies, magicians, junkies and whores.

Now a stranger has come, with a pocketful of gold and an impossible demand, and inadvertently something unthinkable is released. As the city becomes gripped by an alien terror, the fate of millions depends on a clutch of outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crimelords alike. The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground. Battles rage in the shadows of bizarre buildings. And a reckoning is due at the city’s heart, under the vast chaotic vaults of Perdido Street Station.

divider

I find myself in an exceedingly difficult situation. Trying to review this book without giving too much away but still being able to mention all the awesome things and ideas, seems unfeasible. Perdido Street Station is a trip into the teeming, filthy city of New Crobuzon. A place full of drugs and crime and slums and starving artists and even starving scientists. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is one such and the project of his life – building a Crisis engine – is going nowhere. When a stranger turns up with a seemingly impossible request, Isaac finds a new project to persue. But then, as things do in fiction, everything goes wrong and shit just won’t stop hitting the fan.

perdido 2

When China Miéville eases his readers into this word. the plot moves slowly, and he takes his time showing us around the city of New Crobuzon. But don’t worry. This is not just a tour around the city where we’re told that on our right hand side, we can see this species and on the left we see that species. But honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if that’s all it was. There are so many things to discover in New Crobuzon and while I think I got a general feel for the city, I haven’t seen nearly enough. We get some great insight into the khepri – people with human bodies but a bug as a head – as well as the garuda – winged humanoids with a bird’s head. But there is so much more. I could gush and gush about the many ideas but that would take away the fun of discovering them for yourself. And you should.

One idea in particular that caught my interest was the Remade, criminals who have metal or animal body parts attached to them to represent their crimes. How awesome is that! I also loved that every idea gets its proper time to be explored. As weird as it sounds, having just finished a book of 900 pages, I could have read about the Remade or the khepri, the vodyanoi, the currupt politicians, the drug lords and the criminal masterminds, for another 1000 pages.

The longer I read, the more I got the feeling that the author just put a whole lot of ideas into a pot, stirred, and out came an incredible city, densely populated by wonders upon wonders. As if that weren’t enough, Miéville also tells a gripping and terrifying story. The path of this 900-page-book is littered with plot-twists, ideas upon ideas, and not least, great writing. He had me fooled more than once and until it was over, I wasn’t sure how exactly this story would end.

China Miéville has his narrative down to perfection. And to add the cherry on top, I loved the writing style. It is flowery and (I think that goes without saying) vivid in detail but never, ever, boring. He switches perspectives frequently, showing us different sides of the same story, letting us enter the minds of several characters.

I understand why every single of his books is nominated for numerous awards and why people are so impressed with him. A word of caution is necessary, however, because I believe the style can very much be hit and miss. Before you buy this, read the first chapter to make sure you like it. If you do, you’re in for an epic adventure. China Miéville proves that fantasy does not have to be tropes and traditions only, that his imagination is endless and his skill phenomenal.

THE GOOD: If I start here, I’ll never stop. Characters, plot, style, monsters, world building…
THE BAD: It’s hard to find fault with this. If I have to pick something, I’d say the last third could have been shortened. Maybe.
THE VERDICT: An excellent book full of original ideas, great writing, and a well thought-out, fascinating city.

RATING: 9/10 Nearly perfect

divider

The Bas Lag Cycle:

  1. Perdido Street Station
  2. The Scar
  3. The Iron Council

Review: Cherie Priest – Boneshaker

Thanks to Becky from Pan Macmillan for my first ever paper review copy. Yay! And such a beautiful book, too. The hype had kept me from picking it up even though the cover art and design are amazing. And I love steampunk – when done well. So all you Clockwork Century fans out there, brace yourselves and get the tomatoes ready. You’re not going to like me very much for this one…

BONESHAKER
by Cherie Priest

Published by: Tor, 2012 (2009)
ISBN: 9781447225089
Pages: 416
Copy: review paperback from the publisher
Series: The Clockwork Century #1

My rating: 4,5/10

First sentence: Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nations coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crosed strings and crossed fingers.

Cherie Priest’s much-anticipated steampunk debut has finally arrived in the form of a paperback original. Its plot features the sort of calibrated suspense that readers of her Four and Twenty Blackbirds would expect. Boneshaker derives its title from the Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, a device designed to give Russian prospectors a leg up in the race for Klondike gold. Unfortunately, there was one hitch: On its trial run, the Boneshaker went haywire and, long story short, turned much of Seattle into a city of the dead. Now, 16 years later, a teenage boy decides to find out what is behind that mysterious wall. Can his mother save him in time? Zombie lit of the first order.

Oh dear… So this novel is marketed and sold as a steampunk civil war story with zombies. What’s not to like, right? But there are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to begin. First of all, the civil war aspect doesn’t come through at all during the entire narration. We are told once or twice that there is a war going on and that, once it’s over, Briar would like to move east. That’s it. We’re not shown the poverty or the suffering or any repercussions of the actual war. I expected something more epic, but this is a very small-scale story. Seeing as the setting is fairly closed and the novel takes place in and around the city of Seattle, I can live with that. I am also under the impression that it is supposed to be an adult novel – not that there’s any great amounts of sex or violence in here – but adult nonetheless. However, the writing reads very much like a YA book. The language is simple, the story straight-forward, there are very few characters, and I didn’t like the style at all, to be honest.  What gave me this YA impression was the difference between the playful, funny first chapter, and everything that followed. I adored that intro chapter that sets up the entire book with Leviticus Blue’s invention of the Boneshaker. After that, the style became simpler, the dialogue was very convoluted. I got the feeling that these things may have sounded much better when said out loud than they did on the page. The many mid-sentence stops, the constant use of “look…” before someone starts explaining something. It got on my nerves fairly quickly.

Another negative for me: the time period does not come to life at all. Women wear men’s clothes, there doesn’t seem to be any prejudice towards what is a woman’s job and what’s a man’s job – it all felt way too modern. What bothered me more, though, was that the city of Seattle didn’t get any character either. In interviews Cherie Priest said that she was fascinated with this underworld-like system of tunnels existing under the city. While we do spend a considerable (and very boring) time in these tunnels, the descriptions of them didn’t bring them to life for me. Pretty much the same thing goes for the steampunk element. It’s peripheral at best and, again, not well described. People have to wear masks in order not to turn into Rotters, and there are airships. How these operate, we aren’t told. Sure, there are a lot of levers everywhere but, again, we don’t really get to see the inner workings of any machinery.

My biggest pet peeve, as I’ve mentioned in the first paragraph, was the writing style. There are so many things wrong with it that I should really just make a list. But I’ll be a good reviewer and explain to you why it bothered me so much. First of all, the dialogue was atrocious. Nobody talks like that, in no period of time. It felt unnatural and took me out of the flow of the story. Whenever somebody points into a direction or points at something our characters are supposed to look at – we don’t get a description of that particular thing. Instead, we get strange, mid-sentence-stop dialogue.

“Where’s the fort?” the captain demanded. For the first time he sounded flustered, maybe even on the edge of afraid. “Six o’clock.” “From which…? From where…?” “Over there.” “I see it,” he said suddenly, and yanked at the lever above his head.

There were also some pieces of dialogue that made me wonder if my grasp of the English language is simply not firm enough to understand them or if there are logical mistakes (I am still learning English after all, so if it’s me, please tell me).

Parks leaned over the slumping form of Mr. Guise and pulled a lever, then stretched his foot over the slouching body to push a pedal. It was the wrong pedal, or maybe the right one.

Well, which one is it? Shouldn’t the effect of pushing the pedal make it very clear whether it was the right or the wrong one? Aren’t you expecting something to happen when you push the right pedal – and if that effect does not come to pass, can’t you logically conclude that it was the wrong one? Seriously, this bit just had me lost.

You know how important characters are for me. If all of these things were still as bad as they are but if I cared about the characters, I could have forgiven them. BUT. We only get two protagonists who, while decently introduced, remain extremely bland and pale. As for other characters, they are basically just cardboard cut-outs with names attached to them.

Varney and Willard stayed  close on either side of Lucy, and Swakhammer led the way with Briar beside him. The rest of them – Frank, Ed, Allen, David, Squiddy, Joe, Mackie, and Tim – brought up the rear. They marched together in silence, except for Frank and Ed, who were grousing about Hank.

Cherie Priest throws names at us, without any attributes. Not even a hair color (which, granted, doesn’t make a character, but at least gives you something to hold on to). No no, except for a random few characters who we’re told have only one arm or a strange voice or are particularly tall, we don’t get anything at all. So why should I care if one of them gets killed? All I know is their name and, by deduction, their gender.

So let’s move on to the plot. After that brilliant prologue and the first few chapters, the situation is set up. We – the readers – know about it and we want to follow our two protagonists along and see how the plan works out for them. On her way, Briar meets some people, tells them her plan in its entirety. Then she meets new people, so hey, let’s rehash the plan again. And of course how she got to be here. The same things got repeated over and over, by different characters in different situations and it took out soooo much pace. Cherie Priest said in this interview (click to go to Youtube – the part I mean is at about 4:50) that she always knows the beginning and the end of her books and kind of muddles around the middle. Well, I can tell. Because the beginning was not only good, that very first chapter was even wonderful. It was quirky and funny and I loved the narrative voice. That changes when we meet Briar and Zeke – but even their first chapters were still fine and interesting. The middle part, though, was an entirely different story. Boy oh boy, I would have edited the shit out of those parts. All the time spent  repeating things the reader already knows could have been used for character development or for plot twists or for new ideas. Or some world building.

The world building has one fundamental flaw. Apart from a lack of atmosphere (maybe that’s just my taste), the question that remained open for me and makes the entire story completely unbelievable was: How the fuck do these people get food? They live inside the walled city of Seattle, they mostly live underground. Air gets filtered, they even built machines to distill water so they have something to drink. But what do they eat??? There are no animals (maybe zombie-animals), no plants grow there, the Blight destroys everything. Sure, some of them trade sap (a drug made from the Blight) and I’m assuming they get some food in return. But how does the majority of the population live? All those Chinese people? From what we learn of airships going to the city, they don’t come often and there’s not many of them. So tell me, HOW THE FUCK DO THESE PEOPLE EAT? Zeke only eats once that we know of and Briar doesn’t eat at all while in Seattle. They also don’t seem to suffer a lot of hunger. Wow… last time I didn’t eat for half a day, I was cranky and ravenous.

After that huge rant, let me say that I will give Cherie Priest another shot. Why? Because of that first chapter. It leads me me to believe that she can write, that she has good ideas. This may be a small hope to hang on to, but it’s the only one I have.

THE GOOD: A wonderful prologue and some interesting ideas.
THE BAD: Could have benefited greatly from some more editing and a course of Writing 101.
THE VERDICT: A good idea. It felt like the author was too lazy to do any of the hard bits – world building, good dialoge, suspense, and good prose.

MY RATING: 4,5/10  Really not that good.

The Clockwork Century:

  1. BoneshakerCherie Priest - Clockwork Century New Covers
  2. Clementine
  3. Dreadnought
  4. Ganymede
  5. The Inexplicables

Second opinions:

Scott Westerfeld – Leviathan

My holidays are over and I’ve got some reviews to catch up on. Since the theme of the month over at Literaturschock was “books with extras”, I picked this steampunk young adult book with loads of gorgeous illustrations. There’s a small taste below. I wasn’t totally convinced and I definitely don’t understand the hype, but I did have fun reading this book.

LEVIATHAN
by Scott Westerfeld

illustrated by: Keith Thompson
published:
Simon Pulse, 2009
ISBN:1416987061
pages: 246
copy: ebook
series: Leviathan #1

my rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet. Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

Genetically modified animals that are used as airships and giant war machines? Yes, please! With my head spinning happily from the wealth of ideas I expected in this book, I dove into the adventure. And was mostly disppointed. Aleksandar, called Alek, was happily playing at war in his room when count Volger and master Klopp get him and flee across the country in a Stormwalker, a rather large machine, whose steampunky-ness was just to my liking. Since they stay in this machine and nothing much happens for about 100 pages, I got bored pretty soon.

But Alek is not the only protagonist. We also follow Deryn Sharp who disguises herself as a boy, Dylan, to enter the Royal Army and become a member on an airship. The author’s plotting, some luck, and a whole lot of suspension of desbelief, lead her to the Leviathan, a whale that is also a ship – and pretty much the coolest thing in this book. Westerfeld’s ideas may not hold up to closer looks and use of logic but they sure are fun to read about. An entire floating eco-system of a whale (inside of which you can wakl around, by the way), bees fléchette bats and dog-like sniffers. That’s what I was looking for.

The characters stay incredibly shallow though and beyond the basic information of who they are and how they got into this particular situation, we don’t learn anything about them, they don’t grow as characters and they don’t show any depth. Side characters are pretty much the same but for some reason, I didn’t mind so much with them. A big minus for characters, though, because you know me… if I don’t care about the characters, the book has already lost a chance at brilliance.

I was surprised to find out how thin the plot was. In a slim novel like this with some great ideas, I was expecting action to follow action. But for a reason. Being randomly attacked while trying to get out of the country may be accurate but doesn’t make for a very interesting story. The plot actually only starts kicking off in the middle of the book, when our two protagonists meet. That’s when I got the Leviathan fever and couldn’t put the book down. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half and the ending of the story. However, if books 2 and 3 offer equally thin plotlines, Scott Westerfeld could have just put them into one novel. Just sayin…

THE GOOD: Great and fresh ideas, a new spin on steampunk. Beautiful illustrations make it a vivid adventure that will leave you wanting more.
THE BAD: Flat characters, surprisingly little plot and a very open ending (you kind of want to read on).
THE VERDICT: Maybe I really am too old for YA books. I think if I had read this 15 years ago, I would have loved it. If you don’t mind lacking character growth so much and if you like steampunk, go straight ahead. This ended up being quite some fun after all.

RATING: 5,5/10  Not great but with some potential.

The Leviathan Trilogy:

  1. Leviathan
  2. Behemoth
  3. Goliath

Gail Carriger – Timeless

I have to say this right away: I loved how this series started, but every book has been a little less great than its predecessor. As we constantly rehash the same ideas and make the same jokes, I got tired of Alexia (formerly) Tarabotti and her entourage of whimsical friends. But I can’t leave a series like this unfinished (especially if I got this far) and dove nose-first into Timeless to see if, maybe, I just got an overdose of Parasol Protectorate the first time around…

TIMELESS
by Gail Carriger

published: Orbit, March 2012
ISBN: 0316127183
pages: 386
copy: paperback
series: The Parasol Protectorate #5

my rating: 5,5/10

first sentence: “I said no such thing,” grumbled Lord Maccon, allowing himself, begrudgingly, to be trussed in a new evening jacket.

Alexia Tarabotti, Lady Maccon, has settled into domestic bliss. Of course, being Alexia, such bliss involves integrating werewolves into London High society, living in a vampire’s second best closet, and coping with a precocious toddler who is prone to turning supernatural willy-nilly. Even Ivy Tunstell’s acting troupe’s latest play, disastrous to say the least, cannot put a damper on Alexia’s enjoyment of her new London lifestyle. Until, that is, she receives a summons from Alexandria that cannot be ignored. With husband, child, and Tunstells in tow, Alexia boards a steamer to cross the Mediterranean. But Egypt may hold more mysteries than even the indomitable Lady Maccon can handle. What does the vampire Queen of the Alexandria Hive really want from her? Why is the God-Breaker Plague suddenly expanding? And how has Ivy Tunstell suddenly become the most popular actress in all the British Empire?

I don’t know what it is exactly but I get the feeling, Gail Carriger (who is super-nice, btw) created a nice little cozy world with her Parasol Protectorate series, but doesn’t seem to want to explore or expand it too much. Which is a shame because I would just love to learn more about airships, octomatons, supernaturals, preternaturals and, especially, metanaturals. The author does come up with one little tidbit of new information in every book, but mostly, the explanations aren’t worth the pages it takes getting there.

Maybe I shouldn’t have started on such a negative note. Dear readers, know that I absolutely adore Alexia Tarabotti and her bluestocking ways. Soulless was a surprise literary crush for me and I devoured the first three books in the series in one go. Gail Carriger has a way with whimsy. Be it Alexia’s shock at the taste of coffee (what a ghastly beverage, really! Why doesn’t the entire world simply drink tea?), the silly hats of Ivy Tunstell, or even the expressions used by the author to describe her heroes and heroines. These books have one thing, above all others, and that is flair. Diving into a Parasol Protectorate novel is switching off the real world for a while in the most pleasant ways.

But. I’ve said it in my opening to this post. While Soulless was a perfect little novel for me, Changeless was already a tiny bit less good, with every sequel being still a tiny bit less good. The first half of Timeless was actually rather tedious to read. It takes almost exactly that half to get interesting, for the plot to pick up. I enjoy Alexia’s antics and Lord Akeldama’s ridiculous nicknames for everybody. But we’ve all seen it before. We’ve been told the same jokes and were supposed to smile about the same silly things (such as Ivy’s hats) for four entire books. And the first chapter or so, I enjoyed being back in that world of vampires, werewolves, and parasols. But, simply stated, then it just got boring.

At the 50% mark, the plot picks up with surprising speed, though, and I was intruigued yet again. I wanted to learn, as much as Alexia, what was going on, and finally get a satisfying answer to questions that have been around for several books in the series. While the payoff wasn’t really that great (again, nothing new to be learned, really), there were some great action scenes and a handful of new, interesting character developments that kept me well entertained. I always enjoy when authors get out of the safe zone and write about gay love.  And while I’m not sure if this particular couple wouldn’t have deserved a more in-depth exploration of their characters and budding love, I enjoyed reading about it.

In conclusion, I highly recommend the first novel in the series, the rest not so much. But I do look forward to Etiquette and Espionage and hope that we’ll get to see a lot more of the charming world this charming author has created.

THE GOOD: This last instalment in the series delivers exactly what you expect. Silliness, tea, airtravel, vampires and werewolves.
THE BAD: Takes a long time to pick up the pace, then we get the same things we got from previous instalments.
THE VERDICT: A fun, light story that you’ll probably want to read if you liked the rest of the series. A lot of potential was left unfulfilled, though.

RATING: 5,5/10 A little better than meh.

The Parasol Protectorate:

  1. Soulless
  2. Changeless
  3. Blameless
  4. Heartless
  5. Timeless

Jay Kristoff – Stormdancer

I was super excited to get an e-ARC of this book. It has lived through some considerable pre-publication hype and, I admit yet again to be a influenced by covers, the art on the US edition is stunning. I also want to say how nice and friendly the publisher is. My e-book copy was a PDF-file with tiny print, so I wrote them an e-mail asking for an epub copy. Not only did they reply within a few hours but I also got an epub copy right away. I haven’t had much experience with publishers and ARCs, so I was surprised and very happy how friendly they were. Big thumbs up for being nice to reviewers! And yes, little things like this will make me more inclined to purchase other books from St. Martin’s Press and keep an eye on their catalogue. Also, this book happens to be really good.

STORMDANCER
by Jay Kristoff

published: St. Martin’s Press, 2012
ISBN: 1250017912
pages: 337
copy: ebook via NetGalley
series: The Lotus War #1

my rating: 5,5/10

first sentence: As the iron war club scythed toward her head, Yukiko couldn’t help wishing she’d listened to her father.

A DYING LAND
The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.
AN IMPOSSIBLE QUEST
The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.
A HIDDEN GIFT
Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her.

But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.

The lotus must bloom.

I was tempted to give this book an 8 out of 10 for a while. It starts out really, really good. We are thrown into a convincing steampunk world that isn’t just gears on corsets and blimps flying around for no good reason. There is one great idea – the use of the lotus plant for pretty much everything – that defines an entire nation and culture. Lotus is used for fuelling machinery, it’s used as weed for smoking, the reddish smoke it produces pullutes the sky and gives the entire book a feel of its own. The cover – I’m going to rave about it some more later – captures all of this brilliantly. It’s not only black and red because that looks cool, but because it is really part of the story. Another compliment to the publishers.
As great as the idea may be, I would have loved to get into a little more depth when it comes to world-building. What we know so far sounds plausible and, like I said, makes for a fantastic and original world. But it’s simply left at that and we don’t get to find out (yet!) the intricacies of how this came to pass and how it all fits into the society that was created. My hopes lie in the next instalment…

The writing style is very descriptive, sometimes to the point where it gets a little too much. Then again, this is a lush world that never lets us forget how much lotus has taken over everyday life. Personally, I’d rather have too much description than too little so I’m totally fine with this. If descriptions make the character development suffer though, that’s a different thing. Characters – as readers of this blog will know by now – are the most important thing for me. In the beginning of the story, we had a cast of characters and I noticed that Yukiko’s father actually stole the show from her. He was interesting. He was obviously fighting some internal dilemma, some demons of the past, and I cared for him immediately.

Yukiko, our protagonist, stays in the background for quite a while and when she does become the main focus of the story, I found her too passive. Except for the defining moment when she takes matters into her own hands, starting this whole adventure, she usually just listens to what people say, executes plans and reacts. She was likable enough but too vague a character for my taste and definitely not active enough.

Now to the story. It starts our really, really good. Original ideas paired with a compelling world make for a nice adventure. You want to discover this place, you want to learn what makes it tick and how this society works. And of course, you want to learn how to train your arashitora. The thunder tiger was my personal hero of this story. He starts out as a beast, a wild creature that needs freedom and flight and despises humanity for having ruined their environment. When he bonds with Yukiko, things happened a little too fast for my taste. “Taming” (if you can call it that) an animal, mythological or not, should take more time. I didn’t really believe the creation of their bond but I absolutely loved how it grew over time. Once they’re friends, their emotions get tangible and I cared whether they were together or not. This makes for some great scenes later on in the book (and that’s all I’m going to say, so as not to spoil).

I do have one big pet peeve with this book. The plot, while starting out great, becomes predictable and kind of lazy later on. It would be possible to describe the entire plot of the book in one simple sentence. And condensed to such a level, it’s not very original. Girl bonds with mythological creature. Tries to save empire from evil. My problem with this was that it was clear what the quest was too early on and there weren’t realy any twists to keep me guessing. The climax was partly over-dramatic and partly even boring. We knew what was going to happen.

As for the love story, it was also extremely predictable, but I still enjoyed reading about it. I like that it doesn’t take up a lot of the book, it’s sort of a sub-plot in the background. Again, I would have liked more information on the romantic interest’s background and daily life but I suppose I can’t have it all. There are  more books coming, after all. And I am waiting for them eagerly.

Here’s the cover rant and rave:

It is perfect! Down to the nine-tailed fox tattoo on Yukiko’s right arm. The arashitora looks just like it’s described in the story and it’s so refreshing to have a cover depict the actual main character. I remember some incident where a book featured a dark-skinned protagonist and the cover showed the whitest girl possible. Here, you can tell a lot of thought went into the cover art. I found some work-in-progress and alternate covers for this book but ultimately, they went with the best one. (Alternate covers found on in this great Jason Chan interview about the cover evolution)

On a side note, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has noticed that Jay Kristoff looks a lot like the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. Yummy is all I say. (Not that this has any impact on the review at all…)

THE GOOD: Interesting world, descriptive writing and a lot of potential for the next book.
THE BAD: Some things are left unexplored, the main plot was a bit predictable.
THE VERDICT: Recommended. If you like steampunk or Japan or flying mythological creatures bonding with young girls, you will enjoy this a lot. And it makes you want more!

RATING: 5,5/10 A quite good read.

The Lotus War:

  1. Stormdancer
  2. untitled

Other reviews:

Also, check out this awesome alternative cover – the Thunder Tiger edition – as found on Jay Kristoff’s blog:

Chris Wooding – Retribution Falls

Ever since Firefly ended (yep, I’m still mourning), I’ve been wanting another story with a crew on a ship that makes me feel right at home. The very first page gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling and makes you excited for things to come. You are ready for adventure and fun and danger – and the author simply delivers. This may be no Firefly, but it sure is a lot of fun.

RETRIBUTION FALLS
by Chris Wooding

published: Gollancz ,2009
ISBN: 0575085169
pages: 444
copy: paperback
series: Tales of the Ketty Jay #1

my rating: 7/10

first sentence: The smuggler held the bullet between thumb and forefinger, studying it in the weak light of the store room.

Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. Crake is a daemonist in hiding, traveling with an armored golem and burdened by guilt. Jez is the new navigator, desperate to keep her secret from the rest of the crew. Malvery is a disgraced doctor, drinking himself to death. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man. But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That’s if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky.

The adventure starts right away, on the very first page. I can’t say that there was a single boring moment in this book. I did feel a bit overwhelmed with the characters in the beginning. We are introduced to them all quickly within one chapter. Even with a good memory for names, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who and what distinguishes them. But worry not. Chris Wooding may throw them all onto us poor readers in the beginning, but he gives each of them depth later on in the story. While I found especially Darian Frey’s character development predictable and a bit cheesy, I can’t say I truly disliked any of the crew. They are a nice bunch and their quippy banter won’t fail to amuse.

Once that inital confusion subsided, the plot was pretty much straight-forward. Frey and his crew are trying to find out who framed them and, more importantly, why. Adventure lurks around every corner, fistfights and gunshots are frequent, and Frey’s talent for spinning lies and convincing women of his honor (which really doesn’t exist) made him both likable and realistic. He may have a heart of gold but it’s quite deeply hidden. At least when it comes to women he’s slept with…

As far as world building goes, I wasn’t too convinced. I do suspect that we only scratched the surface of a much bigger universe and we’ll probably get to learn more about it in the follow-up novels. In Retribution Falls, however, the steampunk element was both wonderfully done – daemonists, golems, gadgets made with daemons – and hard to imagine – the speed at which the airships fly, using aerium. But that may just be my own fault for not having read enough steampunk literature. I think there’s a lot of promise in this world, though, and I especially liked the explanation on how to play Rake as a sort of epilogue.

You can’t really help but fall in love with the characters. Sure, they could be more three-dimensional but I liked them all the same. This story is just a fast adventure with everything a good pirate story needs. Airships, explosions, guns, monsters, intrigue, evil guys, a secret hide-out, a great crew, and a ship that – despite not being able to talk – is a character all on her own.

THE GOOD: Fun, fast-paced adventure story with cool characters and not a boring moment in sight.
THE BAD: Characters could be deeper, world-building has potential for more.
THE VERDICT: A fun romp on the Ketty Jay that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who likes steampunk, Firefly, or adventure (pirate) stories.

RATING: 7/10  Very good

Tales of the Ketty Jay:

  1. Retribution Falls
  2. The Black Lung Captain
  3. The Iron Jackal