Not the Best Stormlight Book But That Doesn’t Say Much: Brandon Sanderson – Rhythm of War

I have to put this right at the beginning: When I say this wasn’t my favorite Stormlight book but, in fact, my least favorite volume so far, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good book in general. Brandon Sanderso has a gift and his very worst stories are still better than a lot of what else is out there. So now that that’s out, we can talk about why I wasn’t as into this book as I was into the other three.

RHYTHM OF WAR
by Brandon Sanderson

Published: Tor, 2020
Hardback:
1232 pages
Audiobook:
45 hours
Series:
The Stormlight Archive #4
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Of course the Parshendi wanted to play their drums.

After forming a coalition of human resistance against the enemy invasion, Dalinar Kholin and his Knights Radiant have spent a year fighting a protracted, brutal war. Neither side has gained an advantage, and the threat of a betrayal by Dalinar’s crafty ally Taravangian looms over every strategic move.

Now, as new technological discoveries by Navani Kholin’s scholars begin to change the face of the war, the enemy prepares a bold and dangerous operation. The arms race that follows will challenge the very core of the Radiant ideals, and potentially reveal the secrets of the ancient tower that was once the heart of their strength.

At the same time that Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with his changing role within the Knights Radiant, his Windrunners face their own problem: As more and more deadly enemy Fused awaken to wage war, no more honorspren are willing to bond with humans to increase the number of Radiants. Adolin and Shallan must lead the coalition’s envoy to the honorspren stronghold of Lasting Integrity and either convince the spren to join the cause against the evil god Odium, or personally face the storm of failure.

As with many sprawling epic fantasy series, it’s getting increasingly difficult to talk about the newest one without spiling events of the previous volumes. There will be no spoilers of Rhythm of War here, but there may very well be spoilers for the three books that came before.

There were a lot of things I loved about this book but there were also an unusually high number of elements I didn’t, and the trademark Sanderson twist and emotional gutpunch didn’t really have that much of an impact this time. I think this book’s biggest problem is its lack of focus. Every Stormlight book so far followed all the main characters but one of them was the central character of that particular book. First it was Kaladin, then Shallan, then Dalinar. This time it is supposedly Venli, so we get some flashback chapters from her perspective, but they didn’t feel like they painted as much of a cohesive picture as the flashbacks in previous books did for their respective charcters. I didn’t feel like I learned great new thing about the character or like she grew because we examined her past together. Venli was pretty much as we know her and her growth is triggered by the present, not the past.

But that’s not the only focus and pacing problem. Juggling this many characters spread all over the map(s) hasn’t been a problem for Sanderson before, but this time, he struggled. Kaladin is still my favorite so I don’t mind spending hundreds of pages with him, even if he is going through depression and thus, not exactly fun to read. But the jumps between storylines often felt too long apart, some characters barely get mentioned at all.
Shallan and Adolin go to Shadesmar to try and convince the Honorspren to continue bonding with human Radiants. This is a pretty cool idea that delivered one of the best moments of the entire book at the end, but most of the time I kept forgetting that this plot was even still going on. Like we were introduced to their side quest early on, then followed Navani, Kaladin, and Venli for a loooong time, then quickly checked up on Adolin and Shallan and it felt like they hadn’t progressed at all while we’ve been battling Fused, creating new inventions with Stormlight and fabrials and examining our relationship with our own people and the war that is raging over Roshar. This gets better later in the book, but spreading some characters’ story out so thin with this much space between chapters made it feel like the B plot despite it being actually a really good story in its own right with huge implications for the world at large.

Now what I did like was one thing that everyone loved and one thing many people liked the least (I guess I’m weird). First of all, the way Sanderson desrcibes and examines mental health, or rather mental illness. Because Kaladin – and many others – suffers from what they call battle shock. He wakes up screaming, his dreams are full of death and battles, he gets distracted during real battles, and doesn’t find much joy in living anymore. Bridge Four has evolved, some characers have left, ohers have been promoted, they’re not the found family they used to be and it’s hard on Kaladin. He’s also dealing with the rift between him and his father. So while Kaladin’s story line was tough to read and far from lighthearted, it was also the most rewarding. Not only does Kaladin become the first therapist of Roshar, but the way his feelings are talked about hit home deeply. We’re still in the middle of a panedmic and isolation is something many of us are dealing with in one way or another.

The part that most people found too long but I absolutely adored was the Navani chapters. I maybe should have mentioned that the entire A plot basically evolves around Urithiru being attacked and shit hitting the fan really hard. Our heroes and heroines have to be extra clever if they want to get out of there alive and take back the city from the Fused. Navani developes this intriguing… relationship with Raboniel, one of the Fused, that feels honest whenever a new scientific discovery is made, but is also rife with betrayal because those two are mortal enemies on different sides of this war. I loved both watching Navani’s mind come up with new and interesting ways to use natural resources for science (she’s the biggest nerd on Roshar!) and following the relationship between these two powerful women. You can never be sure whether you can trust the other. Sometimes working together benefits both, but who knows when the backstabbing will start up again? It was exciting and I quite liked how this plot line ended. Again, hugely impactful things are discovered that will definitely be important in the next book.

Dalinar and Jasnah’s plot was the one I found weakest, maybe because we also only check up on them every 500 pages (or at least that’s what it felt like). It’s not like important stuff doesn’t happen – it absolutely does – it just felt more like interludes than proper POV chapters. Speaking of interludes, there are a couple of great ones here, including two of the most interesting people, Taravangian and Szeth.
Normally, the ending offers this big, world-shattering revelation in all of Sanderson’s books but this time, that didn’t happen. There were rather a few smaller moments, no less impactful emotionally but not as climactic as we’ve gotten used to. Adolin’s story had a big glorious moment of awesome, Kaladin’s felt more like relief, Navani’s was predictable but still cool, and one moment that I can’t say much about, gave me total chills and made me fear for all of those characters and what will happen in the next book. Rhythm of War could be called a set-up book for that reason. Pieces have been moved into place but, sorry Mario, the epic showdown is in another castle.

At this point in the series, I am getting a little annoyed with the lore, history, and background konwledge I would need to keep fresh in my mind at all times to fully understand what’s going on. Let me say that I did catch a pretty big connection to the Mistborn series as well as one to Warbreaker (though the latter may have been first revealed in the previous book, I don’t remember) but reading other people’s thoughts showed me that there is a ton of stuff I completely missed, simply because I didn’t sit down for the Roshar history lesson you apparently need for that. You’d think that in a book 1200 pages long, everything I need for full enjoyment and understanding would already be included, but alas. And on the one hand, that’s okay. I still have some extra material for the Stormlight Archive on my TBR pile and I like getting these extra glimpses into this big world but even without that, I can tell you that by now it’s not just about finding Easter Eggs anymore. If you haven’t read Mistborn and Warbreaker, you may be accidentally catching spoilers for those books by reading Stormlight first…

So all things considered, this was my least favorite of the Stormlight books but as I said in the title, that’s not saying too much. Because a bad Sanderson book is still well written with deeply human characters, impeccable world building and a killer ending. It’s just not quite as good as the ones he did before is all. Oh and just because he can, Brando threw in an epilogue that gave me all sorts of goosebumps and raised my expectations for the fifth book – and the end of the first cycle – extremely high. My guess is the time we spent setting up stuff in this volume will pay off hundredfold in the next book. We’ll see…

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

A note about this book’s Graphic Audio version: Unfortunately, Graphic Audio, whose adaptations I have been enjoying for years, did a pretty bad job this time. Because of Covid-19, some actors couldn’t do their part (or not in the time frame the company wanted?) so they replaced the actress who plays Shallan with someone not Shallan-y at all. It’s not that I dislike the new voice actress (she was in Mistborn Era 2 and I adored her in that role) but if you do a full cast audio version of a story this big, you should try to avoid main character voice changes at all costs! The narrator also changed but while I prefer Dylan Lynch, the original Stormlight narrator, I thought the new one did a commendable job too.

The sound design also suffered. Jasnah’s voice sounded way too deep, Pattern’s vibrations were suddenly different, and everything sounded just a bit worse, a bit cheaper than it did before, whether it was voice and music volume, or sound effects. And what I really don’t understand – because you don’t need a specialist or sound technician for that – is the change in music! Why are there suddenly tracks that sound like 90s video game battle music? I swear I got childhood flashbacks of when I used to play Secret of Mana on the SNES.

I hope Graphic Audio finds its way back to the quality they used to provide, otherwise this was my last time listening to a Stormlight book via their adaptation. As a longtime fan of Graphic Audio, I would have preferred to wait another year for the adaptation to come out in good quality with the actors we’ve all come to know and love rather than this messy version. I also find it interesting that the (respectful but honest) three-star-review I posted on their site didn’t make it through moderation…

A Trilogy That Lost Its Way: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Shattersteel

My hopes were high for this final part in the Her Pitiless Command trilogy, Sriduangkaew’s take on the Snow Queen fairy tale, set in South East Asia, with queer characters started out really, really well. Sadly, the second book already lost momentum and direction. This conclusion to the series fared no better and felt to me like the author just wanted to get it over with.

SHATTERSTEEL
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published: Apex Publications, 2021
eBook:
160 pages
Series:
Her Pitiless Command #3
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: The prosthetic arm never seats quite right, despite countless adjustments.

For her entire life, Nuawa has made herself a weapon to assassinate the Winter Queen.

She failed. Her secrets are laid bare and she has lost everything.

The queen keeps Nuawa as a tool, and soon a sacrifice as she brings her ultimate goal to fruition: to harness the divine power of her makers that’ll make her lover General Lussadh immortal.

But Nuawa isn’t done fighting yet.

I could technically copy and paste my review of the second book in this trilogy, Mirrorstrike, because everything about that one still holds true with this final instalment. Except, this time, my patience was more tried, this one is the ending of the story so I had higher expectations, and it’s also just a little bit more chaotic and less coherent than its predecessor. But okay, I guess, let’s get into it.

Nuawa and Lussadh are getting married – hooray for the happy couple – so the first half of this 160 page novella is about them being lovey dovey and having lots of sex. Which, you know, is fine if that’s what you’re in the mood for and I actually found the sex scenes to be very well written. But the reason this book even exists – to tell the story of Nuawa fighting the Winter Queen – is completely ignored for almost half the book.
The romantic dialogue also makes me cringe every time because Sriduangkaew likes using big words and so her characters tend to make grand statements with polysyllabic vocabulary. It sounds over the top and overly dramatic to me but that’s a matter of taste and your mileage may vary.

One more thing that made reading this hard was the use of various different pronouns. It’s great to read about a world that includes all sorts of genders and relationship constellations, but using she/her, he/him, they/them, xe/xer, and ey/eir/em in a book this slim felt like overkill. Especially because sometimes, when we were in Nuawa’s point of view and she just met a character for the first time and couldn’t know what pronouns ey used, she was thinking about that person as ey/em, and that just felt strange. Like how do you see if someone goes by they/them, ey/em, or something else entirely?? So again, I love the inclusion but it didn’t feel organic.

Something that is a fact, though, rather than personal preference, is the lack of plot. Now that the trilogy is finished, I have come to the conclusion that the author had a great idea, wrote the first book, and then didn’t quite know where to go from there. Everything feels so up in the air, every scene on its own reads okay but there is very little connecting these scenes to each other. The whole Snow Queen theme got lost along the way and it reads like the author pantsed her way through it all and then just left the book as it was. I get it, writing a book is difficult and writing a trilogy even more so, but that’s what editing and drafting is for. Also, maybe spend at least half a page reminding your readers of what happened before? Yes, the book then might be 200 pages long but those would be pages well used.

The characters also never quite recovered after the first book. In Mirrorstrike they already felt like shadows of themselves, occupied mostly with swooning over each other rather than what they’ve been spending their entire lives doing up until then. Nuawa from Shattersteel is barely recognizable as Nuawa from Winterglass anymore. The same goes for Lussadh. I did enjoy some minor characters in this book but they don’t get enough time to shine because this is still a very short book.

The resolution to what was set up in the first book is relatively simple and had a deus ex machina feel to it. Nuawa originally set out to destroy the Winter Queen, avenge her people, and free her land and she went a good part of the way on her own strenght and intellicenge. Sadly, she lost her agency along the way as well, so it’s not really even her to battles the Winter Queen at the end but someone else. Any satisfaction I might have felt in finally achiving the big goal was dampened by the fact that Nuawa was, at best, a messenger rather than the saviour of the people.

All things considered, I’m mostly disappointed. I will forever love and adore Winterglass but I don’t see much of a reason to recommend books two or three. They add very little to the world building and characters. What little plot they offer is merely a convoluted vehicle to get to the ending (defeat the Queen and have a relationship with Lussadh, that’s all there is to it, really). I’ll give Sriduangkaew another chance and try her Machine Mandate series but as much as I enjoy beautiful language and deep characters, the books I read still need some kind of plot. And this one couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up so now it’s a jumbled mess of pretty words.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Poetry for Fans of Folklore: Catherynne M. Valente – A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

It’s been a great year for a Cat Valente fan. With two new novellas out (both of them fantastic!), I was more than happy. But I also had an itch for more so I picked up one of Valente’s older works, a collection of poetry and (very) short stories about one of my favorite topis: folktales.

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Curiosities, 2008
Hardcover:
166 pages
Poetry Collection
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: On your knees between moon-green shoots,
beside a sack of seed, a silver can, a white spade,
a ball is tucked into the bustle of your skirt:

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS by award-winning author and poet Catherynne M. Valente is a delightful collection of poetry, short fables, and fairy tales that explore myth and wonder, ancient and modern, with an introduction by Midori Snyder.

This is not going to be a proper review because I am simply not equipped to say anything qualified about this book. I don’t read a lot of poetry and there’s exactly three poets that I can say I love (Robert Frost, John Donne, and C.S.E. Cooney). I have no idea how to judge whether a poem is “good”, all I can go on is whether I liked it or not. And the reasons for that vary – mostly it’s just a feeling. But if a poem is inspired by a fairy tale, chances are I’ll enjoy it even if it doesn’t rhyme.

That said, I found many things to enjoy in this book. The language wasn’t my favorite – which is weird, because I adore Valente’s prose especially because it is so lyrical and poetic! – but I think I’m just not the right audience for this kind of poetry. So I read the poems more for the “plot” and the emotions they evoked but didn’t fall into the language as much.

I am, simply put, more of a prose reader so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed the little stories between the poems more than most of the actual poetry. They are little snippets or pieces of folktales rather than proper stories, most of them barely two pages long, but they reminded me also exactly why I fell in love with Valente in the first place. She not only has a vast knowledge of fairy tales, mythology, and folklore from all over the world, but she’s also been questioning them in her writing since forever.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across a “feminist spin on fairytale XYZ” but Valente has been doing that since the beginning of her career. She questions why Cinderella’s sisters and Cinderella should work against each other, whether Bluebeard’s wife is maybe okay being complicit with what he does, how a girl feels when she’s finally married her prince (and if maybe that was a mistake)… There’s a lot of food for thought there, in both the poems and the little stories.

I loved how these poems and stories nudged my brain to look at these well-known tales from different angles, to rethink what I’ve been told, but there’s also another theme that runs through the book like a red thread. Unsurprising to anyone who has read their share of fairy tales, they are often about terrible things happening to women and children. But in Valente’s Guide to Folktales, this gets amplified through the claustrophobic feeling running through each poem. She writes about women getting trapped by men, literally or emotionally, or being unable to escape their situation so very often that this book, despite its frequent feminist spins, gets a little depressing. That’s not a critique because Valente manages to describe these feelings of being trapped and powerless really well, but it’s a warning that this isn’t exactly a feel-good collection either.

One of my favorite poems, if not the favorite, was the one about Cinderella and her stepsisters as you’ve never seen them before. Again, it’s not a particularly happy tale but it encompasses the questions I’ve had about the fairy tale in just a few perfectly-chosen words:

Please, we are sisters;
out of the same striped pelt
did our father scissor our hearts.
Do this thing for me
your sister is afraid of the man
who loves her so much
he cannot remember her face.

“Glass, Blood, and Ash” by Catherynne M. Valente

As for inspiration, it’s not only well-known Western fairy tales, but also folklore and myhts from other places in the world. Valente does love herself some Greek underworld but she never shies away from looking across borders and seeing the rich cultures other places have to offer. I’m sure with a bit of background knowlege this book could be a treasure trove of Easter eggs.

I have no idea how to rate a book of poetry properly, so I’ll just go by my own level of enjoyment. And while this is far from my favorite Valente book, I did quite like it. It was an interesting glimpse into Valente’s earlier writing but despite its relative age, the book read very modern. It’s still relevant today and I’m sure fans of poetry will find it even better than I did.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Let’s Call It Second Book Syndrome: Robert Jordan – The Great Hunt

My Wheel of Time project is already slowing down and we’re only two books in. It’s not all Robert Jordan’s fault though. It’s a combination of life stuff, other books that are simply more interesting to me at the moment (Poppy War series, I’m looking at you), and books that come with a deadline (ARCs, Hugo finalists). But it’s also a little bit due to the fact that I was never really gripped by The Great Hunt.

THE GREAT HUNT
by Robert Jordan

Published: Tor, 1990
eBook:
624 pages
Series:
The Wheel of Time #2
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: The man who called himself Bors, at least in this place, sneered at the low murmuring that rolled around the vaulted chamber like the soft gabble of geese.

The Wheel of Time turns and ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the age that gave it birth returns again.

For centuries, gleemen have told the tales of The Great Hunt of the Horn. So many tales about each of th Hunters, and so many Hunters to tell of…Now the Horn itself is found: the Horn of Valere long thought only legend, the Horn which will raise the dead heroes of the ages. And it is stolen.

It’s a little strange and a lot disheartening how much The Great Hunt felt like a middle book. After all, the Wheel of Time series has a whopping 12 “middle books” and if they’re all like this, I have a long and arduous journey ahead of me. The reason I’m still motivated is that these first two volumes do one thing really well and that’s setting things up, promising a huge and satisfying payoff. It also helps that Brandon Sanderson is a big fan and his books always have epic endings with great twists. But on its own, The Great Hunt, didn’t do much to push the larger story forward.

We start right where we left our group of unlikely heroes at the end of The Eye of the World. They are in Fal Dara with the Shienaran people, as well as Moiraine and Lan. Now that Rand has learned that he truly is the Dragon Reborn, that he can channel and will surely go mad from it sooner or later, his reaction is first of all to run away. He wants to protect the people he loves from his inevitable mental downfall. And secondly, he refuses to be a pawn in the Aes Sedai’s game of power. Rand has no idea just what they might plan – although being gentled is a very real possibility – but he’d much rather go somewhere isolated, away from their games, and defy the madness that is supposed to come over him.

What they formed was a disk the size of a man’s hand, half blacker than pitch and half whiter than snow, the colors meeting along a sinuous line, unfaded by age. The ancient symbol of Aes Sedai, before the world was broken, when men and women wielded the Power together. Half of it was now called the Flame of Tar Valon; the other half was scrawled on doors, the Dragon’s Fang, to accuse those within of evil.

What made this book immediately more interesting than its Lord of Rings rip-off predecessor was the glimpses we got into the workings of the other side. Right at the beginning of the book we see that some characters aren’t trustworthy at all and are, in fact, working for the Dark One in secret, spinning intrigues and setting events in motion that will harm our protagonists.
But then word gets out that the Horn of Valere – which hasn’t been mentioned in the first book, as far as I remember, and thus felt to me like a huge McGuffin – had been stolen by Trollocs and Darkfriends and must be found. For whoever sounds the Horn can call back armies of dead heroes. And they will fight for the blower of the Horn, no matter what side they are on…

So off they go on yet another journey because I guess Robert Jordan couldn’t quite let go of the Lord of the Rings traditions yet. Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Loial go with the Shienarans and their sniffer Hurin to hunt for the Horn. I loved the concept of sniffers, people who can smell when violence has been done, and so can follow the Darkfriends who have stolen the Horn. Meanwhile Nynaeve and Egwene leave for Tar Valon to begin their training as Aes Sedai. Now here’s where the pacing and POV problems truly start. Both those story lines have interesting things happeneing, they show us a bit more of the world, and they drop ever so many hints of epic stuff yet to come (just not, you know, in this book). But the balance between the storylines is less than optimal.
Egwene and Nynaeve’s life at Tar Valon was so intriguing to me, the way Aes Sedai work, how they are trained, what it means to use the One Power – I wanted to learn everything about that. After all, Jordan had spent about 1000 pages making a big fuss about the Aes Sedai, so I was hoping I’d finally learn ab it more about them. And sure, he does give us glimpses and an initiation ritual, but to me, that felt like we were only scratching the surface. It’s fine to keep some information for later books, but in this case, it just felt forced.

Similarly, Rand’s journey went from exciting to frustrating, to eyeroll-inducing to quite thrilling again. What I disliked the most about the boys’ story line was how incredibly obvious the “bad guys” were. The evil characters behave so over the top manipulative that it not only isn’t fun for me as a reader but it also makes Rand and the other characters look all the more stupid for not seeing through them as well.
That said, Rand’s trip led to some highly interesting stops and added a layer to the world I had not seen coming. Fast travel via Waygate is one thing but in The Great Hunt, we learn about another mode of travel, if you can call it that. I’m trying not to spoil this for other Wheel of Time newbies like me. But this piece of world building truly puts everything upside down and offers so many possibilities for the future.

Another thing I found rather silly, just like in The Eye of the World was the lack of clear conflict for most of the book’s 600 pages. Just like last time, a last minute enemy is conjured up in the final few chapters of the book, so our heroes can have an epic showdown or a big battle. But most of the book before that ending was about other things. In this case, the focus on the Horn of Valere doesn’t end up being completely useless but the final battle still felt a bit like it came out of nowhere.
Again, there were aspects of it that I liked. What with all the travelling, we got to see new places on the map, meet other cultures (Aiel, Seanchan, Ogier!) and I even really enjoyed the time Rand and Loial spent in Cairhien, a City that apparently runs solely on political intrigue and power-hungry machinations. Their little stint there took a lot of pages, had no bearing on the overall plot (so far, at least) but it was a lot of fun!

And that sums up my overall feelings about this book. There were many chapters that were fun to read, but once I looked back on them, they felt almost useless for the larger story. We’ve known since the end of the last book that Rand is the Dragon Reborn. There are many prophecies about him (which, just saying, it would be really nice to get to read) and we know the Dark One is stirring, his agents are hiding everywhere, and the world is supposed to break again. That’s all I’ve been told about the plot of the series and, not knowing what I still have ahead of me, it didn’t feel like this particular volume got me any closer to this grand battle between Good and Evil at all. The one event that felt truly important is the ending. It’s Rand accepting who and what he is – and now we have to see where we go from there.

So how do I rate this? I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. I mostly kind of liked it even though many parts felt predictable yet again. But for the world building bits that hit me off guard and because, for no reason I can explain, I just like the characters, I’m going to rate this a bit higher than The Eye of the World. And yes, I will continue reading the series. Slowly, and without pressure. I just hope that this mind-blowing conclusion I’m hoping for is really going to come.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good

These Mexican Vampires Lack Fangs: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Certain Dark Things

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, overhyped as she is in SFF circles, is rather hit or miss for me. Her YA novel Gods of Jade and Shadow was nice enough, but overly simplistic compared to the way it was sold (which may be more marketing’s fault than the author’s) and then Mexican Gothic was so much fun and a really great horror novel that had a lot more to say than just “oh look, creepy house”. Maybe I just like Moreno-Garcia’s newer books more than her backlist because while this vampire novel of hers was perfectly alright, I didn’t find anything special about it whatsoever.

CERTAIN DARK THINGS
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: Tor Nightfire, 2016
eBook:
352 pages
Audiobook:
8 hours 46 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: Collecting garbage sharpens the senses.

Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.

Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.

Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?

Oh what a cool book this could have been if the many cool ideas it contains had been spun a little further, if there had been a little more plot and substance, a little more depth to the characters. The way it stands, this is a vampire novel that stands out only through its use of mythology and the Latinx cast of characters.

Atl is a vampire, belonging to one of several vampire sub-species/tribes, and she is on the run from the evil vampires (from a different tribe) who killed her family. In Mexico City, which is supposed to be vampire-free as opposed to the rest of the country and maybe even the world, she meets Domingo, a teenage boy who lives on the streets and makes a little money collecting garbage and doing odd jobs here or there. As Domingo loves to read comic books about vampires, he becomes obsessedw ith Atl, the first real one he’s met, and wants to become her servant/errand boy/lover/friend.

Meanwhile, we follow Nick Godoy, son of the vampire who had Atl’s family killed. He is a villain who’s easy to hate because he’s just evil. Unfortunately we don’t get to learn a lot about him as a person, or about his past. All we know is he hates Atl and wants to capture and torture her. Because he that’s his idea of fun. Not a very well-written villain, as stories go, but at least you don’t have to examine the blurry lines between good and evil while reading this book.
Lastly, there are a few human characters in addition to Domingo whose perspective made this book a lot more interesting. Ana Aguirre is a cop who has fought her fair share of vampires in her day. Rodrigo, on the other hand, works tighly with Nick and is more familiar with the criminal underbelly of Mexico City. Not only do these two provide some much-needed fleshing out of the world, but it was almost refreshing to follow a character who doesen’t revere vampires but rather fears them.

I was entertained enough while reading this book but in almost every single chapter, there were instances where I thought to myself “This has so much potential! Why not do something with it?”. First of all, the setting of Mexico City. I have never been there so I would have appreciated at least some description of the characters’ surroundings. And even if I grant you that this book wasn’t written for me specifically, and you don’t have to describe every tree or building that your characters pass in the story, there’s no argument against creating atmosphere. Which was sadly lacking here.

The world building is very basic and by that I don’t just mean the actual physical world our characters inhabit. The interesting aspect of this vampire novel is that it doesn’t offer the same old tired tropes we know from all those European vampire stories we know. Atl isn’t plae, she has no problem going out into the sun, and she doesn’t have fangs. But Atl’s type of vampire isn’t the only one! While we get glimpses or one-liners about what others there are, I would have loved to eplore them more and to see this bit of world bulding incorporated into the actual story, rather than just be exposition. The world didn’t feel lived-in or real, is what it comes down to.

The characters are similarly pale with the protagonist Domingo remaining one-dimensional throughout the entire book. Domingo isn’t even a person except in his relation to Atl, the vampire he meets and gets immediately obsessed with, only to immediately fall in eternal love with her. All he wants is be near her, help her, kiss her. Any agency he does have comes from his want to serve Atl. The only thing that makes him endearing is his naivete and his unquenchable optimism. So brownie points for that.
Atl has a backstory, of which we learn a little, but you guessed it, I would have liked a bit more.

This isn’t a big book at 350 pages and I don’t often say this but an extra 100 pages really would have done it a world of good. Then again, the beginning of the book was almost only exposition, mostly Atl explaining the world of vampires to Domingo, and the plot itself is super thin as it is. Girl comes to town, finds herself a willing little helper, girl wants to leave town. She meets with a few people, there is one confrontation, decisions are made. The end.

I still think Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a writer to watch,but I am also becoming more and more convinced that her earlier books weren’t quite ready yet. Or, to say it differently, if she wrote a book about Mexican vampires now, after having written something as fantastic as Mexican Gothic, it would be a much stronger book. I still want to read some of her backlist, but for the next book I’ll choose her latest, Velvet was the Night.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish

Confusing But Still Good: Linden A. Lewis – The Second Rebel

Linden A. Lewis’ debut The First Sister didn’t make quite the splash I expected it to, judging from the marketing. But I, for my part, really liked it and wanted to learn more about this world and these characters. Things you can get away with in a debut should improve in the second novel, so I was more than excited to dive into this world again. I picked up the audiobook version again because I loved the multiple narrators, and this time, we even got an extra one. SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST SISTER BELOW!!!

THE SECOND REBEL
by Linden A. Lewis

Published: Skybound Books, 2021
eBook: 516 pages
Audiobook: 19 hours 45 minutes
Series: The First Sister # 2
My rating: 6.75/10

Opening line: I can’t move in my coffin.

Linden A. Lewis returns with this next installment of The First Sister Trilogy, perfect for fans of Red RisingThe Handmaid’s Tale, and The Expanse.

Astrid has reclaimed her name and her voice, and now seeks to bring down the Sisterhood from within. Throwing herself into the lioness’ den, Astrid must confront and challenge the Aunts who run the Gean religious institution, but she quickly discovers that the business of politics is far deadlier than she ever expected.

Meanwhile, on an outlaw colony station deep in space, Hiro val Akira seeks to bring a dangerous ally into the rebellion. Whispers of a digital woman fuel Hiro’s search, but they are not the only person looking for this link to the mysterious race of Synthetics.

Lito sol Lucious continues to grow into his role as a lead revolutionary and is tasked with rescuing an Aster operative from deep within an Icarii prison. With danger around every corner, Lito, his partner Ofiera, and the newly freed operative must flee in order to keep dangerous secrets out of enemy hands.

Back on Venus, Lito’s sister Lucinia must carry on after her brother’s disappearance and accusation of treason by Icarii authorities. Despite being under the thumb of Souji val Akira, Lucinia manages to keep her nose clean…that is until an Aster revolutionary shows up with news about her brother’s fate, and an opportunity to join the fight.

This captivating, spellbinding second installment to The First Sister series picks up right where The First Sister left off and is a must-read for science fiction fans everywhere

Having read The First Sister last year, I thought my memory would still be fresh enough to at least remember all the biggest story beats and plot twists from that book. However, as soon as I started The Second Rebel I realized just how much I had forgotten and how confusing certain terms and even character names are. I read some reviews to remind me of the characters and plot but I want you to know that this review might look very different had I read both books back to back.

So to recap here as well (I may need my own review as a memory crutch when I pick up the third book, after all), in this universe, there are three major opposing factions. The Icarii, who are all about tech and gene-assisting their bodies to perfection and who also train pairs of duelists that are connected via neural implant. These implants can also regulate their emotions, hormones, etc. The Icarii live on Mercury and Venus.
Then there are the Gaeans (on Earth, Mars, and more recently Ceres) who are much more tech-averse than the Icarii and who are run by a religious order whose head is the Agora. The Sisters of this order have their ability to speak removed and serve as comfort women (read: prostitutes) and confessionals on space ships. In the first book we learned that their voices are taken away via neural implant and could technically be restored, as happened for Astrid, current First Sister of Ceres with ambitions to become the next Mother and change the entire system from within. How exactly this all works politically, I’m not sure.
Thirdly, the faction we as readers sympathise with the most, are the Asters. These people have been created by genetic experimentation and are treated like non-humans by both Icarii and Gaeans. Val Akira labs is using Asters for their experiments, testing geneassists on them, leaving them dead or broken and not much caring either way. So yeah, we’re rooting for the Asters!
What’s new in this volume are the Synthetics, and I’m not sure if they were added just now or if I just missed a mention of them in the first book. Either way, these are A.I.s who left our solar system a long time ago and who also make sure humans don’t travel past a certain point (mostly because we can’t behave and insist on killing each other through war after war…).

The Second Rebel also adds a new POV protagonist. There’s still Astrid, who is trying to navigate the crazy (and of course corrupt) politics of the Sisterhood and has to scheme her way to becoming the next Mother without losing sight of the people she’s trying to save. There’s Lito, whose plan is breaking out his partner Ofiera’s Aster husband from the facility where he is being held. We still follow Hiro (in Saito Ren’s body) who goes to Autarkeia to investigate a Synthetic. And now we also meet Lito’s sister Luce, who joins the Aster rebels and becomes a sort of spy.

As if there weren’t already enough plot lines to keep straight, cities and planets and terms to keep apart, Linden A. Lewis’ naming conventions make everything even more confusing.
Luce’s full name is Lucinia sol Lucius… you’d think a family whose surname is sol Lucius would come up with a given name for their daughter that sounds at least a little different. Don’t get me wrong, I think Lucinia and the nickname Luce are very pretty names, it’s just more challenging to keep things apart while reading.
Lito and Hiro are also pretty similar looking names and I was very glad that the audiobook narrators have such different voices. But even so, it sometimes took me a few seconds to realize whose chapter I was currently in. That may well be my own shortcoming. I have a lot going on in my life and my concentration wasn’t always the best while reading this book.

Plot-wise, this was so cool! Things are always moving forward, there are big battles and smaller battles, new revelations, complex politics, finally some (small) answers to burning questions I’ve had since the first book, and even some beautiful relationship developments – not necessarily romantic, mind you – between characters. All of that made listening to this book something I looked forward to every night. I do think juggling four separate story lines was maybe a bit too much because each of them could have used just a bit more backstory, more fleshed-out characters, more detailed world building. But my overall impression was still very good and I definitely can’t remember a single boring chapter in this book.

This being the middle book of a trilogy, I had hoped to learn more about the world that has already been set up. Like how exactly does the Sisterhood work, how did the Icarii hierarchy and its naming conventions come to be (sol vs. val), what do the planets and cities look like, what exactly is Astrid’s motivation other than “doing the right thing”? We get tidbits about all of these but I never felt like any aspect of this world was satisfactorily explained. It is of course possible that I was an inattentive listener, but I don’t have similar problems with other books, so I think The Second Rebel gave me too many things to juggle in my mind at the same time and therefore didn’t have any time left to flesh out the world and make it feel alive.

My feelings about this book are so strange, because on the one hand, it has all those problems I mentioned above. Like the feeling that none of the characters existed before this story started, like they don’t have a proper backstory or lives that were disrupted by the events of The First Sister. But then again, in the story that is happening during the book, they do feel like real people and I cared about all of them.
I also really loved the plot and the world building, confusing as it is. In terms of ambition, Lewis may have bitten off more than she can chew, but I can’t deny that I had a blast reading this. Sure, I was confused about the setting and characters at the beginning of many chapters, but that didn’t change the fact that the whole spy stuff, the battles, the heisty bits, and the political scheming weren’t exciting.

I also still adore the themes and ideas Lewis is exploring. Gender, identity, a sense of purpose, family ties, betrayal, honor, and corruption are just a few of them. Some are done better than others, sure, but whichever topic came up, it got me to think about things I wouldn’t in an older sci-fi novel (looking at you, Foundation Trilogy). Even if it feels rushed at times, the book offers a lot of food for thought and especially in Astrid’s storyline, it doesn’t simply tell you what’s wrong or right – it lets you make up your own mind and sometimes, that’s really not an easy distinction to make.

I think with some editing and maybe an additional 50 pages or so, this could have been an excellent book. I still loved it because the whole idea is just my jam and I like the way Lewis reveals twists at the end, but I also know, deep down inside, that the book is far from perfect. Will I still read the third one? Of course I will, I’d pick it up right now if I could! Does it go on my award-worthy list? Probably not so much.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Pretty good

A Satisfying Ending: S. A. Chakraborty – The Empire of Gold

The Daevabad Trilogy is a finalist for the Best Series Hugo Award this year, so I finally picked up the second and third book to see if they could keep up with the first. After a slow start, this book delivered pretty much everything I had hoped for and managed to stick the ending. It’s going to be very hard choosing favorites this year! SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS BELOW!

THE EMPIRE OF GOLD
by S. A. Chakraborty

Published: Harper Voyager, 2020
eBook:
766 pages
Audiobook:
28 hours 37 minutes
Series:
The Daevabad Trilogy #3
My rating:
7.25/10

Opening line: Behind the battlements of the palace that had always been hers, Banu Manizheh e-Nahid gazed at her family’s city.

The final chapter in the bestselling, critically acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy, in which a con-woman and an idealistic djinn prince join forces to save a magical kingdom from a devastating civil war.

Daevabad has fallen.

After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people.

But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies.

Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith.

As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

After the shocking events and the evil cliffhanger of The Kingdom of Copper, S. A. Chakraborty takes her sweet time getting the story going again. We meet our characters exactly where we left them in the last book and, just like us readers, they have to pick up the pieces of their lives, understand what has just happened and figure out where to go from here first. On the one hand, it’s nice to be reminded of prior events, to ease one’s way back into this world of djinn and politics and strange magic, on the other hand, it makes for somewhat slow reading during the first ahlf of this book.

Nahri and Ali find themselves in Cairo where they spend quite a bit of time before they decide to get back into the whole saving the djinn business again. Afte rall, Nahri’s mother has taken Daevabad, Ali is trying to get over his brother’s death, and Nahri still can’t believe what Menizah and Dara have done… As understandable as this quieter period in their lives is, as eager was I for the story to pick up again. I needn’t have worried, however, because when things do get going, they go crazy.

Chakraborty uses her time wisely because while the bigger plot may not be moving forward, the characters are growing quite a bit. Nahri and Ali finally open up to each other, tell the whole truth, and – who’d have thought – it turns out they make a really good team. I really enjoyed their story line, both in terms of actiony bits, new revelations about both their pasts, and in terms of their evolving feelings. I still think the love triangle is used way too much in fiction and should be put to rest, but I was okay with how things went in Empire of Gold.

There comes a point in the middle of this book when the wait is over. I remember one particular scene that made me absolutely not want to go to bed before I knew everyone was okay and it kept me reading for hours and hours. You know that childish excitement you feel when you’re reading a really good book that you are super invested in? That’s how I felt and that’s why I forgive the 350 merely “okay” pages that came before. Because from that point onwards, everything happened at once.

S. A. Chakraborty has built up many plot strings, posed a lot of questions, and set up certain situations that all wanted to be resolved. The question was whether she could do it, and do it well. Let me tell you that – while everyone probably has a different opinion on how that love triangle should have been resolved or whether it needed to be there ein the first place – I was more than happy with the ending.
It had revelations that I had expected but it also had twists that I hadn’t seen coming at all. It manages incredibly difficult moral situations in a deft manner, without taking the easy way out. No spoilers here, so I can’t go into detail, but if you’ve read this book you know several characters have done tings they’re not proud of, some of them worse than others. Whether it’s reexamining your own prejudice, being open for other people’s point of view, trying to repay a debt, or doing what’s right simply because you know you should – the character arcs in this series all reach what I would call a satisfying ending.

I really enjoyed Empire of Gold, especially its more action-packed scenes that make you fear for the characters. Chakraborty is damn great at getting my heart racing, whether it’s because a protagonist is facing their own death or holding the hand of a person they secretly love… I’d say the romance, family relationships, and action scenes were the strongest parts of this book. Now that the trilogy is finished, I am curious to see what Chakraborty comes up with next. I’m totally up for more djinn!

MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Very good

A Lord of the Rings Knock-Off With Potential: Robert Jordan – The Eye of the World

It’s true. This is my very first time reading The Wheel of Time and I am a bit surprised myself that I have lived to the ripe age of 35 without catching any spoilers. With the TV show coming up in a few months’ time, I thought it would be nice to get a head start on the books and see if this beloved epic fantasy series is for me. Or if it holds up to the test of time. My impressions are pretty much as expected, although the positives outweigh the negatives. 🙂

THE EYE OF THE WORLD
by Robert Jordan

Published: Tor, 1990
eBook:
751 pages
Series:
The Wheel of Time #1
My rating:
6.25/10

Opening line: The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and pass. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

When The Two Rivers is attacked by Trollocs-a savage tribe of half-men, half-beasts- five villagers flee that night into a world they barely imagined, with new dangers waiting in the shadows and in the light. 

So this is it, the beginning of a 14-book saga, planned and plotted and mostly written by one man, finished by another. I pushed this series ahead of me for so many years. The page count is intimidating to say the least, there are many mixed opinions about whether it’s just too damn long, and it’s not like I needed another fantasy series to be in the middle of. But it turns out, there’s no motivator quite like an upcoming TV adaptation to get me reading books that I should have read ages ago.
Thanks to this handy guide posted by Sensei2006 on Reddit, I knew a little of what to expect and I was prepared for the heavy Lord of the Rings influences. This made a huge difference to me, because knowing a little about the background (publishers wanting to publish nothing but LOTR copy cats because that shit sold) as well as getting an idea of what to expect in future books, those things really help me adjust my expectations. I still rolled my eyes at all the moments where I could pinpoint “Oh, so this is their Aragorn” or “Mat is just Pippin and Gollum rolled into one” or “I guess the Mountains of Dhoom are the natural barrier to the evil land” and “this place is Jordan’s version of Moria”. The parallels are really quite ridiculous but throughout the book, there is a sense of original ideas that want to come through and simply didn’t get the chance yet.

The story begins in Emond’s Field, a small village in the Two Rivers area, where Rand al’Thor and his father are going to town to prepare for a big feast. A mysterious dark, hooded rider seems to be following Rand, giving him the creeps. If you’re thinking “Bilbo’s birthday” and “nâzgul”, I don’t think anyone can fault you. And indeed, the village is attacked by monstrous Trollocs, and Rand and his companions leave on a perilous journey to Tar Volon. I’m not going to give you all the murky details here. The magic woman – an Aes Sedai named Moiraine – said the boys should go, so they go. So it’s Rand, Mat, and Perrin, Rand’s kind of love interest Egwene, Moiraine herself as well as her warder Lan, plus a travelling bard who start out on the journey. Not long after, Nynaeve, the village wisdom joins them and the fellowship is complete. Thre is a nice mi of people who already know and like each other – the boys are friends and Rand and Egwene have some unspoken love thingy going – and newcomers who can’t be trusted. Nynaeve is the most sceptical of Moiraine, not least because Egwene (who’s supposed to follow in Nynaeve’s footsteps) seems very taken with the poised and powerful woman.

What follows is a mixture of boring repetitive stuff, exciting action, hints of original world building, and a whole lot of other Lord of the Rings-esque places and people. At one point the fellowship parts ways and we get to follow the separate groups on their little side adventures, hoping they can reunite and get to where they need to go. Some of those side adventures were better than others. I really enjoyed Perrin’s story line, for example, maybe because it was the least reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. But we get a bit of everything here, including a boat voyage.
Mat and Rand’s endless series of inns dragged quite a bit, even though there’s a lot of cool stuff going on in the background. Because, let me tell you, those boys’ dreams are not normal. And Mat, being the Golpin of this group and alternating between completely idiotic Pippin behaviour and Gollum-like paranoia, is definitely nothing like Sam Gamgee…

As I read along, I got more and more into the story. Of course there are many silly tropes, certain things were super predictable, and Robert Jordan apparently only knows how to write one type of woman, but the further along I got, the more I got to see of what this world has to offer that’s not LotR-like. The magic system, although not really explained in any depth, is interesting in that it uses a gender binary and only allows women to use the One Power without danger of going insane. When men wielded that Power, they broke the world. And also went insane. It makes for interesting power dynamics despite the lack of varied female characters.
I was also quite taken with the race of the Ogier and I hope to learn much more about them in later books. Ooh, and the Waygates! And I’m super curious about the long-term outcome of Perrin’s adventure, which is all I can say without spoiling anything.

Despite its pacing issues, the blatant parallels to Tolkien, and the weak characterization, I did enjoy this book. It has been my companion for about a month and it had its ups and downs. Sometimes the plot slowed to an almost-standstill, but we got a bit of character development. Then the plot would come up with a cool revelation and I’d be hooked again for a while. I guess the best way to sum up my feelings is that I never had to force myself to read this. I was always looking forward to the book, even though I felt I knew 90% of what was going to happen. The last-minute Treebeard was just an added bonus that I admit I didn’t foresee. And the very end, although also partly predictable, left enough questions open for me to remain curious. Also, I somehow started to really like Rand and I want to make sure that boy is okay. I’m very much expecting him to not be okay, but a lot can happen in thirteen books.

What The Eye of the World does, most of all, is set things up. It lets us travel a nice chunk of the world, we get to know the major characters and even catch glimpses of what might be the big bad. We are given a very basic idea of the magic system, although I like that there are no clear instructions about “good” or “bad”. Some people fear the Aes Sedai and curse their magic, others revere them for their powers and ask their counsel. I like the fact that I don’t know exactly what to think about Moiraine, and I like it even more that there are factions among the Aes Sedai who don’t always agree. I smell politics brewing and poor innocent (although without a doubt super important prophecied hero and maybe lost prince or whatever) Rand caught in the middle. There is lore here and history, cultures, songs, royalty, and the feeling of a much bigger story than we got to see so far. I have no idea if it’s a story that should really be fourteen books long, but I’m going to at least read the next one to see what Robert Jordan does when he’s not trying to be the next Tolkien.

MY RATING: 6.25/10 – Good

Magic, Egypt, and Bowler Hats: P. Djèlí Clark – A Master of Djinn

P. Djèlí Clark is one of the most exciting authors in SFF right now who stole our hearts with his stories set in an alternate historical version of Cairo where djinn live among humans and the supernatural needs its own police. My personal favorite of his works is the amazing Ring Shout (which is going to win all the awards this year, I’m sure of it!), but I was nonetheless excited to read Clark’s first full-length novel. Someone who builds entire worlds in a novella can only do great stuff with a novel.

A MASTER OF DJINN
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom/Orbit, 2021
eBook:
401 pages
Audiobook:
15 hours 37 minutes
Series:
Dead Djinn Universe #3
My rating:
6.75/10

Opening line: Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs.

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

It isn’t often that I discover an author through a work of short fiction, but with P. Djèlí Clark, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his novellas and then continue to read some short stories as well. The world he has set up for the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series is this really cool blend of alternate history, steampunk Egypt with djinn and magic and a supernatural police. I mean, what’s not to love? A full-length novel set in this world was exactly what us SFF readers were hoping for.

As much as I was looking forward to this book, as difficult do I now find it to talk about it. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun to read. On the other hand, it has many problems, some of which bothered me more than others but the overall feeling is a mix of disappointment (because there was so much potential) and indifference. This was fun to read and I enjoyed myself but it’s nothing like Ring Shout, a story that still sticks in my head and gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

This starts as a really cool murder mystery. When an entire cult gets burned alive (only their bodies though, their clothes stay intact), it’s clear that this is a case for Fatma el-Sha’arawi. She’s right on the case when a partner is thrust upon her. Fatma prefers to work alone so the fact that this new partner is a woman doesn’t help to say her. Who neeeds a rookie trailing along when there’s supernatural murderers to catch and an impostor al-Jahiz to uncover? But as anyone would notice, it’s the perfect recipe for a buddy cop story. I was actually looking forward to the Hadia and Fatma dynamics and watching them grow closer over the course of the police procedural. But that just goes to show that expectations are a dangerous thing and most of them weren’t fulfilled in this case.

First of all, Fatma and Hadia don’t actually do all that much policing and that made them both appear more passive than they should be. The whole police procedural is them showing up somewhere, either being told straight up where to go next or being given a clue by somebody else and then moving on to the next place or person where, in turn, somebody will give them vital information and send them on their merry way. This repeats until things become so obvious even I figured them out. Okay, maybe this book’s focus isn’t supposed to be the actual mystery or the police work. That’s fine. The world has much more to offer of course. Cool and diverse characters, for example.
Except Clark departs from his usual way of writing characters and turns certain things up to eleven. Fatma’s bowler hats and English suits are a nice gimmick but, let’s face it, they aren’t really important to the plot, especially at the time this story takes place. She has already gained a lot of respect from fellow police (a fact I didn’t quite understand judging from the previous story but okay) and her choice of wardrobe is there mainly just for fun. We get a lot of wardrobe changes in A Master of Djinn and most of them have no impact on the plot or characters at all.

What I found the most interesting – a plot string that got sidelined very quickly in favor of blowing up the murder mystery into a let’s-save-the-world kind of problem – was the relationship between Fatma and her new partner Hadia as well as Fatma and her sort of girlfriend Siti. Fatma is… let’s say reluctant to accept a partner at all, so when she is told she has to work with the super eager hijab-wearing Hadia, she is less than thrilled. The clash between the two was to be expected and I was looking forward to reading about how they learn to work together nonetheless, how they bond over time, how they solve this mystery together. There is some of that, but for large chunks of the book, this part of the plot seems to be completely forgotten. The fresh partners spend a lot of time apart.

I did adore Fatma and Siti’s relationship (even if the audiobook narrator gave Siti an overly seductive voice all the time) and how they deal with the challenges dand dangers they encounter along the way. And I’m not even talking about the fact that they are two women who love each other but life-threateneing danger and life-shatttering revelations. It felt like they have a history that happened prior to this book, they felt comfortable enough in their ways, but they were still a fresh enough couple that they can learn new things about each other. This was probably my favorite part of the entire book.

I was a little flustered by the direction the plot took in general. Like I said, it starts out one way – as a simple enough, albeit supernatural and quite disturbing – murder mystery. But the more stations Fatma checks out on her way to the solution, the more people, organizations, religions, and historical artifacts get intertwined into it all. Normally, that’s something I love about books. Tales that seem small at first but then grow larger and larger and only show the whole picture at the very end. For some reason that I can’t quite define, I didn’t enjoy it here. I felt let down, betrayed even because my expectations weren’t fulfilled at all. There was just too much of everything crammed into too few pages – and yes, I’m aware I’m talking about a 400 page book. But I didn’t get the buddy cop tale, I didn’t get two clever policewomen actually working their way toward the truth, and I didn’t get the cool “and here’s how the murderer did it” at the end, at least not in the way I had hoped because the murderer had all sorts of other plans.

But as negative as that sounds, I can’t say that there was a moment while reading (or rather listening to) this book that I didn’t enjoy at least to some degree. Suheyla El-Attar does a great job with voices and accents, her reading is engaging and with the exception of Siti’s constant sexy voice, I adored the audiobook version. I’ve been writing/deleting/rewriting this review for a few weeks now because I just don’t know how to feel about this book. I liked it but I also wanted more. But don’t think for a second that this will keep me from pouncing on whatever P. Djèlí Clark publisheds next.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Good to very good… I guess.

Brilliant or Boring? John Crowley – Little, Big

This is my favorite author’s favorite book, so to say I had high expectations is a bit of an understatement. It is also one of the most acclaimed fantasy novels ever, having won the World Fantasy Award and having been nominated for several other awards. It’s a Fantasy Masterworks title, it keeps coming up on Best Of lists and is generally one of the most beloved books out there. So, the pressure was high and maybe that’s why the story lost steam for me around the half-way point. And now, after finally having finished reading it, I honestly can’t say whether I found it brilliant or boring.

LITTLE, BIG
by John Crowley

Published: Harper Perennial, 1981
eBook: 564 pages
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkawater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.

This is the story of the Drinkwater family, following them through several generations and watching, alongside them, the Tale unfold. It all begins (at least for us readers) with an anomymous and almost invisible young man named Smoky Barnable who falls in love with the slightly mysterious Daily Alice Drinkwater and goes to her even more mysterious house to marry her. Both the time and setting are kept vague, although it becomes clear that “the City” is New York and that Edgewood, the Drinkwater house, is not too far from it. So Smoky goes to marry his Alice and becomes part of a decidedly strange family. Great Aunt Cloud reads tarot cards as if they told her actual truths, Auberon’s old photographs of Alice and her sister as girls seem to show strange beings alongside them, the house itself is a crazy mixture of architectural styles, and the Drinkwaters seem to be in on a grand secret.

As an astute fantasy reader (and you don’t even need to be all that attentive), it is very clear that the Drinkwater secret has something to do with fairies. The word “fairy” isn’t mentioned until about halfway through the book, but all the descriptions and hints point in that direction. The family members also keep mentioning being part of the Tale and thus each having to play their part, although nobody seems to know quite what Tale it is, which part they’re playing, whether they will be there to witness its end, or even what the point of it all is. But it does give the book and the Drinkwater family in particular, an air of mystery, a feeling of aloofness, of being in on something us regular mortals will never understand. I quite like this Pan’s Labyrinth-esque juxtaposition of regular life with something magical. Except eventually, I’d like to actually see the fairies or at least know that they exist and the Drinkwaters aren’t just a family who’s collectively gone coocoo.

So what’s this big book actually about, you ask. Well… it starts out with something resembling a plot, with Smoky and Alice getting together, getting married and having children of their own. We get to know them and their family members, we learn about Smoky’s past, about Alice and Sophie as children and their strange connection to Edgewood and its surroundings (plus the fairies nobody calls by name). Then we go back further in time and find out how Edgewood came to be and why, exactly, the Drinkwater family seems to be the only one who knows about fairies and is somehow connected to them. I loved these bits very much, even though I can’t say that they had a lot of plot.
But then comes a sort of time jump and we focus on Smoky and Alice’s son and his adventures in the big City and those, while interesting, just dragged on too long without leading anywhere. A side plot was also introduced sometime mid-book which felt jarring to me. It’s not that the side plot doesn’t fit into the overall story (although I think it would have worked just as well without it) but throwing it in so late in the book made it feel like a lazy afterthought. This part, the third quarter of the book, took me a ridiculous amount of time to read because I was annoyed by that time at still not having received any sort of information about what the hell all of this is supposed to be about and then about having to read about a guy becoming a drunk because his girlfriend left him… It was just not my jam. Not that Crowley didn’t describe these things really well, I was just hoping for a tiny bit of fantasy in my fantasy novel. After 300 pages of realism and weirdness, it’s okay to give me more than half a chapter of magic.

So the book became work rather than fun, I put it aside for a longer period of time and when I picked it up, reading was slow going. Until I got closer and closer to the end and my hopes rose up again. You see, as the end drew near, I was hoping for this bombastic, epic, maybe twisty ending. That didn’t happen. And I am well aware that this probably just isn’t the kind of book that wants to deliver a super epic, twisty, surprising, or even particularly emotional ending. Just because you don’t mention fairies doesn’t mean they’re not obvious. And just because nobody outright says where the Tale is leading doesn’t mean you can’t have hopes for it. After all, for a plan that was several generations in the making, expecting something big isn’t too much to ask, is it? But just like this book isn’t about plot or fantasy or even relationships so much, the ending didn’t do much more for me than let me know the story is over. The Tale is done, everyone has played their part, for better or worse, and now it’s over. I think I even said out loud: This is it? That’s really all there is?

That sounds rather disappointing, so why am I so undecided about whether to love or hate this book? Well, you see, John Crowley can really write! I mean, keeping me entertained for hundreds of pages in which barely anything happens, when those fairies I was desperately waiting for refused to show up, and most characters are kept at arm’s lenght, that’s already a feat. Doing it with language that flows beautifully, that paints pictures in your mind and creates atmosphere, that’s something else. I admit, during the Auberon parts even that wasn’t enough to keep me really hooked, but there is no denying that Crowley has a gift with words.
And it’s not just that the language sounds good on a sentence level. He also manages to conjure up believable (if strange) characters seemingly without effort. I may not be particularly fond of some of the characters in this book, but I do care about them in a way. The Drinkwater family is rather large and we don’t get to know all of its members closely, but the ones we do all feel like real people. People that don’t let us, as the reader, get too close to them, but interesting specimens to watch from afar.

I am no closer to knowing how to feel about this book than I was just after I finished it. I do feel a bit disappointed at reading so many pages for this little outcome. No matter how nice the language, I feel that the author had promised certain things, certain fantasy elements, that weren’t delivered. As a work of literary fiction, this is probably a brilliant novel. As a fantasy, I don’t know. My rating isn’t particularly meaningful, it’s what I think the book deservers at this moment in time. Maybe someday I’ll re-read it, find something new to love about it, and adjust my rating accordingly. Or maybe I’ll never feel the urge to pick this book up again and change the rating to something lower? Maybe I was just not smart enough to get this book. I loved the first half, didn’t like the second, and the ending was a let-down.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish