Recent Reading: a potpourri

Okay, I’m so behind with reviews, it’s just ridiculous. So I’m going to try to catch up all at once, which means I’m going to take a stab at writing a handful of reviews that are actually, you know, short. Let’s see how that goes! No promises!

1. House of Secrets by Stephanie Burgis

My father’s house is full of secrets. They cling to the thick, dusty curtains that he keeps tightly drawn all day and night, muffling the sound of his friends’ low, intent whispers and blocking out the sunlight. I can hear the dull echoes of carriages outside, rattling past at all hours, but I never see them.

Okay, so that’s a nice opening, isn’t it? Goes well with the “chilling first lines” thing in yesterday’s post. I mean, the very first sentence could go either way, because secrets don’t have to be creepy, but the second sentence makes it clear that in this case, we’re definitely talking creepy secrets.

This is a novella, which is a form that usually works for me. Short stories, not so much; but novellas work so much like novels in terms of character development and worldbuilding. “House of Secrets” is a Gothic fantasy, with a close focus on the protagonist and plenty of atmosphere. If the story gives the protagonist’s first name, I’ve forgotten it. The story is first person, which suits the Gothic style but means we never see the protagonist’s first name. She is generally addressed as Miss Norton, so that’s how I think of her. Anyway, Miss Norton was raised in an extremely isolated cottage in the country and now that she’s of age, she has just been brought to town, on her father’s orders, by his servant Achilles. Exactly why her father had her raised in this peculiar fashion is not clear. Nor why he’s nailed shut the window in her room, not to mention the heavy curtains so that his daughter can’t even look out . . .

The reader is going to catch on pretty quickly to what is actually going on, in broad outline. Miss Norton is so naïve that of course she has no idea. That makes her an ideal protagonist for a Gothic story. While Achilles is a good male lead and does his best to rescue Miss Norton in the face of significant obstacles, I particularly appreciated how Miss Norton saves herself in the end. That’s something you don’t always see in Gothics, but I personally want both – the hero to strive to save the girl, and the girl to take effective action to save herself. I really enjoyed how everything worked out in this story.

The writing is lovely and the setting highly atmospheric. If you like Gothics but sometimes find them rather slow, this novella may be just the ticket: the whole package tucked into a shorter length.

2. Lost Things, Steel Blues, and Silver Bullet by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham.

These three books are the first three of a five-book series. The second book, Steel Blues was actually included in the noblebright fantasy bundle I picked up semi-recently, so I read it first. I’m glad to say that it stands perfectly well alone, and then I liked it enough to pick up the omnibus of the first three ebooks – that was more cost effective than buying the first and third separately. So I read them in this order: Book II, Book III, Book 1. That worked fine. Actually, I believe I wound up liking the second book the best of the three, though they were all good. A series gives the authors room to stretch out, but Scott and Graham handle the four (five) protagonists well. I didn’t generally feel too impatient to get back to one protagonist when the pov shifted, which is really quite an accomplishment when there are so many pov characters.

Let me see. I did say I would keep this short. Let’s see if I can manage that:

Okay, so these are historical fantasy. WWI has recently ended and WWII has not yet begun, so that adds a poignant note as characters think about their recent lived experience of the Great War and hope nothing like that ever happens again.

Alma was an ambulance driver in the war. Now she is a pilot and owner of a small company that flies freight and passengers around the country. She is possibly a little too good to be true, but only strained credulity a little bit. Oh, and for those of you who, like me, appreciate older female protagonists: Alma is forty-two.

Those of you who know more than I do about the airplane technology of the time will surely appreciate all the details about the planes and flying, which as far as I can tell are meticulously researched. I enjoyed all that very much even though I know almost nothing about the subject.

The other three main characters are Louis Segura, another pilot, who in the second book had recently married Alma; Mitch, an wartime ace who is also a pilot though still dealing with the aftermath of wartime injuries; and Jerry, a historian and archeologist who is missing part of his leg because of ditto. Oh, and the deceased Gil, Alma’s first husband, who is practically a character himself even though he died before the first book opens. I don’t mean he’s a ghost. It’s just his memory exerts a big influence on all the actual characters.

Oh, plus they all belong to a small group of magicians dedicated, in their own small way, to helping save the world. Definitely a good choice for a noblebright collection. Also, well written and fun to read.

The first book involves a little problem with an ancient demonic type of entity that was recently freed; also a pretty snazzy airship. In it, we pull the group together, establish the world, and totally wreck the airship. I was sorry about that last.

The second book involves a coast-to-coast airplane race, and as I say, was probably my favorite. I particularly enjoy a new character who was added to the permanent cast during this story. She’s a con artist and a thief and a medium who can call up the dead and she’s just a lot of fun. I’m sure she’s one big reason I liked the second book better than the first.

Then the third book involves a little experimental device Nikola Tesla put together a few years ago, now causing unanticipated problems, so our protagonists have to fight off the bad guys while Tesla himself arranges to shut the device down.

I enjoyed the first three books enough that I expect I will be picking up the fourth and fifth books pretty soon.

3. The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

Charlotte is the one who put this book on my radar and I’ve been looking forward to it for a while. I did enjoy it very much, though not quite as much as I’d hoped.

The best thing about it is Daleina, who provides a wonderful twist on The Chosen One trope because she is soooo not the chosen one. She has to just do her best anyway. And does, with sheer hard work and grit.

This world is filled with spirits – of earth, air, fire, water, ice (different from water) and trees. They are all, or nearly all, intrinsically malicious and inimical to people. They want two things: to build and to kill. People harness them to build villages and grow crops and so on; they also fear them (rightfully) and do their best to ward against them. Only girls are born with the ability to sense and control spirits, and the girls with the strongest talent in that area train to become queen. The queen doesn’t do much actual ruling, as far as I could tell. She mostly controls the spirits.

Daleina has a rather weak affinity for spirits and a fairly limited ability to command them, but she is very stubborn. I loved her to pieces. Lots of the supporting characters were also pretty snazzy, especially Merecot. I was not the least bit surprised to find Merecot reappearing in the distance at the end of the book.

The worldbuilding was interesting and visually beautiful, but . . . kind of . . . I guess I would start by saying many details seem implausible and then add that the world seems to lack a truly solid foundation. Why can women control spirits, but not men? No idea. Why do the spirits have to obey humans at all? No idea. That command that pauses the destructiveness of the spirits when the queen dies so an heir can be chosen, wow, that sure is convenient. It all suggests Authorial Whim rather than Coherent World to me.

The broader political landscape is puzzling. Apparently there are different regions with different queens, some of whom are “ambitious.” What in the world can we mean by “ambitious” in this context? There is no indication whatsoever that territory is something people fight over in this world. You wring useable territory out of, apparently, wastelands, by controlling spirits. It’s not clear why different human populations would go to war. Yet the potential for war seems implied.

On a more mundane level: the wire roads, really? Gosh, how nice that those wires apparently never turn out to be broken at inconvenient moments. That sure is unexpected given that wires in the real world are kind of fragile. Who puts those wires in place so you can apparently get anywhere via that means? Who maintains them? … No idea.

Why exactly do people live in trees anyway? I mean, the trees are great! Giant trees with villages in them have enormous visual appeal. But there are only references to dangers like wolves on the forest floor. Believe me, wolves are not nearly dangerous enough to make people risk their toddlers falling out of trees. I mean, seriously, wolves?

… which leads me to just mention the particular wolf in this story. Which is not a wolf. This goes well beyond the typical wolf-that-is-really-a-dog trope that I personally really dislike. This particular creature is a wolf-that-is-really-a-furry-person, which is a trope I *hate even more.* It bears no resemblance at all to any wolf (or dog) you have ever or will ever meet. It might as well be Lassie, only more so. *Rolls eyes.*

But! I have to re-emphasize, I did truly enjoy this book a lot and I will be interested in the sequel, which is coming out in July. But for me, it’s the characterization that makes it worth reading. Daleina is just so wonderful, and the unusual spin on The Chosen One is fabulous. Also, I wonder whether some of these questions are going to be answered in the sequel. I mean, not the thing about the wire roads; I think that’s just a detail to accept without trying too hard to explain how it can possibly work. But I am holding out hope for some faintly reasonable explanations for at least some of the other worldbuilding details that made me pause in this book.

Incidentally, Charlotte says that though marketed as adult, she could see this as a MG story. I wholeheartedly second that opinion. I think there’s a lot here to appeal to a younger reader who loves fantasy and saving-the-world plots, isn’t keen on too much romance, and may perhaps not tend to notice any implausibilities with the worldbuilding.

4. The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima

I am sorry to say that for me this was a DNF at about page 40. It’s got zillions of reviews and a great rating on Goodreads, but I just could not get interested and I am not sure why not.

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2 thoughts on “Recent Reading: a potpourri”

  1. I, too, loved Queen of Blood for the protagonist, not the world-building. So nice to see people using their brains instead of ‘protagonist power’ to achieve. (I’ve had a run of the latter in my recent reading. gaah.)

    I remember reading that the author wrote #2 first, and then was asked for something to tell the tale of what went before, which is QoB. So I do hope the upcoming one does flesh out the world, since it was actually where the world was laid out by the writer.

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