Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent-ish Reading: Light in the Darkness, a Noblebright Bundle

Obviously I didn’t read this whole thing, twelve books, all that recently. I’ve been poking at it for some time now. Naturally not all the books proved to suit my taste – a mixed collection of twelve books, that’d be asking a lot. But I turned out to like several of them quite a bit, and since I would probably never have read them without picking up the bundle, it was worthwhile overall.

The bundle started off strong, thus:

The King’s Sword, by CJ Brightley. I liked it a lot.
The Emperor’s Edge, by Lindsay Buroker. I read this some time ago. I liked it a lot.
The Last Mage Guardian, by Sabrina Chase. I liked it a whole bunch.
Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest. Gets my vote for best writing. I loved parts of it.

Alas, after this, the bundle took a turn for the worse, at least with regard to my personal taste. Thus:

Beneath the Canyons, by Kyra Halland. This one did not work very well for me.
Into the Storm, by Angela Holder. Ditto.
On the Shores of Irradan, by Ronald Long. Ditto.
Six Celestial Swords, by T A Miles. Ditto, alas, because I was prepared to love the setting.
Rise of the Storm, by Christina Ochs. Ditto, unfortunately, and I was starting to give up hope.
Hope and the Patient Man, by Mike Reeves-McMillan. It was okay.
Lhind the Thief, by Sherwood Smith. Alas, not for me.

And the the last title included in the bundle:

The Keeper and the Rulership, by Emily Martha Sorensen. A contender for best setting, I liked this one a lot.

Okay, so that’s the list. Below, brief (very brief) reviews.

1) The King’s Sword. I liked it a lot, despite the description, which starts: A disillusioned soldier. A spoiled, untried prince. …

Nice cover. The horse could do with a better croup, but basically that’s an attractive, eye-catching cover.

I’m not so very keen on bitter disillusionment and I hate spoiled brat protagonists, but in fact neither character entirely fits those descriptions. I suppose Kemen, the soldier, is a bit bitter about being medically discharged without any kind of severance pay, but I wouldn’t say he is exactly disillusioned. He’s experienced, competent, practical, and honorable. The prince, Hakan, is indeed untried, but not really spoiled. He’s intelligent, willing to learn, naturally kind, and honorable. They are both quite likable, especially as Hakan grows up a bit, though as I say, he’s not such a child as all that even at the beginning. Plotting was not entirely a strength: as far as I’m concerned, the bad guy was possibly a little over the top for badness, plus not very competent, so the central conflict was resolved rather easily. Nevertheless, this was a good, enjoyable story, easily carried by characterization and solid writing. I believe it’s the first of a series and I just picked up the sequel.

2) The Last Mage Guardian.

I liked it even more than the one above. I liked both protagonists – a young man who’s decided to give it a go as a writer and a young woman who’s the heir of a mage guardian, even though everyone knows women can’t be mages. She’s awkward, shy, and tentative about stepping into the role her uncle left for her. He’s a nice guy who’s a bit more experienced, and though he’s not a mage, he’s got skills of his own. They make a quite appealing team, and the writing was good. Again, I’ve picked up the sequel.

3) Pen Pal.

This one is quite a lot harder to comment about. The writing is very good indeed, in my opinion the clear standout in this bundle. The setting is contemporary-ish but quite unusual and appealing. The format is epistolary, which I’m always ready to enjoy. The girl who throws the message-in-a-bottle into the sea in the first place – Em – is a totally charming protagonist. She’s about twelve, contemporary American but from a tiny subculture. Forrest definitely captures her voice. I just loved her, and I also loved her complicated family.

The recipient of the message, Kaya, is a political prisoner in a tiny island nation somewhere tropical. She belongs to a peaceful minority culture that is being oppressed for absolutely no reason by the Evil Repressive Government. The Repressive Government and all its agents are Blatantly Evil. The minority culture and everyone in it are Good. I simplify a little, yes, but honestly, only a little.

Kaya’s voice is very well done and in fact I kind of liked her, but you know what? I already agree that it’s wrong for a repressive government to crush a peaceful minority culture for no reason except that they think it’d be fun to commit cultural genocide. China crushing Tibet’s culture is the closest analogous situation I can think of to what’s going on in this story, and hello, yes, I totally hate what China did to Tibet. But I really do not care to be urged to hate this kind of cultural genocide in a fictional setting. I could barely stand to read Kaya’s sections, especially toward the end.

I did read most of Kaya’s sections, though, because the writing was so good. Nice plotting, too, with threads of supernatural influence weaving back and forth between the two widely separated cultures, drawing Em and Kaya toward the ultimate conclusion. I have to recommend this novel, especially if you enjoy epistolary stories – as long as you can stand to be bludgeoned over the head with a Cultural Genocide Is Bad message.

4) Beneath the Canyons. In (3) above, we see that great writing can encourage me to go on with a book when I am not super-keen on other aspects of the story. Here in (4), the opposite situation obtained. I wasn’t all that keen on the writing style, which involved a fair bit of infodumping near the beginning. Plus the dialogue did not particularly appeal to me. You might recall that I found some of the writing in The Emperor’s Edge series clunky, but the dialogue so vivid and sparkling that it compensated? This one seemed more the other way around, with nice descriptive passages but dialogue that seemed a bit obvious and boring. Plus the author was clearly setting up a swoony type of romance that did not seem likely to appeal to me. Right up front the female lead seemed indecisive, passive, maybe incompetent. This is not the kind of protagonist that appeals to me, so I did not get very far in this book. The setting – weird western – was interesting, though. If you happen to like fantasy western settings, you should by all means give this one a try; I can see it appealing to readers with slightly different tastes and inclinations.

5) Into the Storm. I skimmed this one, out of a mild desire to see how the overall plot came out. The thing is, it’s a total soap opera kind of story, with the protagonist falling in love with a completely unsuitable guy and then clinging to that marriage for years when it is clearly not working. Meanwhile the guy she’s really in love with also marries a totally unsuitable and quite unpleasant woman and goes on clinging to that marriage for that whole period. Honestly, watching protagonists stumble through their day-to-day lives for years, screwing up their personal relationships and incidentally their children, does not make for a very enjoyable reading experience.

Worse, for me, were the fantasy elements of the story. Mages have these animal familiars, see, except each animal familiar – whether it’s a horse, dog, pig, falcon, hedgehog, lizard, you name it – is exactly like a human person, with generally no attributes of the animal species to which it supposedly belongs. The falcon is a little human person with feather. The dog is a cheerful human person with fur. This is just . . . words fail me. These animals are endowed by the Mother, a beneficent goddess, with human-level intelligence. Apparently with human personalities as well, I guess. Why make them animals at all if they’re going to just be furry, weirdly shaped people? There actually is a plot-driven reason for this, but I don’t care. I detested the animal familiars too much to care. I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the magic system, I hated the animal familiars, I was underwhelmed by the beneficent goddess, I didn’t like the plot – you’re going to have who captain the ship at the end? And you actually think this guy can be trusted?

So, yeah. basically not for me.

On the Shores of Irradan, by Ronald Long. So not in the mood for a bear companion after the above. More importantly, I was unimpressed by the history lesson in the prologue and not very keen on the overall writing style.

Six Celestial Swords, by T A Miles. I was prepared to love the alternate China setting, if not super excited by the Two. Distinct. Prologues. The first prologue explains the history of the world, something I generally dislike in prologues. It’s a creation myth type of thing though, which isn’t so bad. The second introduces a protagonist, Song Da-Xiao, Empress of Sheng Fan who seems unusually good-hearted for an Empress but is in dire trouble for some totally unexplained reason. There are hints in these prologues of occasional clunky writing, but I was willing to go on with the story until Chapter One opened this way:

At the edge of the civilized world, Xu Liang opened his eyes. For an instant, the orbs glistened an almost pearlescent shade of blue behind the sheen of unshed tears viewable in the reflective surface of a nearby box.

I’m afraid that was it. “Glistening orbs” does not work at all for me as a descriptor for eyes; I stuttered to a complete halt when I hit that phrase. The whole sentence seems clunky and just unappealing, so at this point I went on to the next book in the bundle.

Rise of the Storm, by Christina Ochs. Here we have a young prince who seems pretty ineffectual when faced with his uncle, a duke who seems to be determined to overstep his authority. The prince, Kendryk, struggles with vague unease, a sense that events are getting out of control – there’s this religious stuff, heresy and whatever, and he’s not sure what to do about it. Right now Kendryk therefore seems indecisive and hesitant, qualities that, as I mentioned above, I seriously dislike in a protagonist. His hesitance is expressed in sentences like this:

And yet, something niggled at him, egging him on. He told himself he was content with his life as it was, but failed to quash a vague unease, a strong sense he had yet so much to learn and do. Perhaps the gods had sent this priest to show him what he still needed to know and light the way to some great understanding. The part of him that always held back, that always took care to consider the consequences was defeated, at least for the moment.

This writing seems vague; also clunky. It’s fine with me if Kendryk is an introvert, but he seems to be thinking about himself in ways that real people aren’t likely to. Language choices seem awkward, jamming phrases together that, first, don’t seem to fit together – niggled at him, egging him on – and, second, use slangy phrases like “egging him on” that seem out of place in a secondary world.

Then we switch point of view. Then we quickly switch pov again. None of the various pov protagonists really grabbed me. I don’t usually care for fast shifts between points of view, and with a writing style that didn’t much appeal to me anyway, I went on to the next book.

Hope and the Patient Man, by Mike Reeves-McMillan. Okay, whew, I was glad to hit a story that worked somewhat better for me. I dislike the names – Hope is one thing, but Dignified? Industry? This is not a naming convention that will ever sound okay to my ear. The story was okay, though it turned out to be a soap opera about the characters’ day-to-day lives as they sorted out their various relationships. There wasn’t really much story in this story; it was kind of a slice-of-life fantasy in which nothing very important happened. Detailed lessons about relationship counseling did not make for especially compelling reading. Still, I did read this one all the way through, though not with a lot of attention.

Lhind the Thief, by Sherwood Smith. I read this some time ago and actually it did not work very well for me. I should add that I listened to it as an audiobook and by now it’s clear to me that anything at all that bothers me in a book will bother me ten times worse in audio format. However, I just did not much care for Lhind as the protagonist and was not too keen on the secondary characters either. Also, it drives me absolutely crazy when Yet. Another. Superpower. just turns up from nowhere when you happen to need it. Even worse, I detest the superpower where animals obey you – but just because they want to! Not because you force them to! Only they unanimously choose to do everything you want because your desires are just so important to them! – sorry, but ugh. I have hated that particular superpower for a long time and sure enough, I hated it in this story as well. So even though I’ve really enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Sherwood Smith, this one, not so much.

The Keeper and the Rulership, by Emily Martha Sorensen.

Okay, this is a first person narrative, the narrator is a teenage girl, and I practically threw my Kindle across the room when I hit this line at the bottom of the first page: I honestly didn’t know which boy I preferred. Wow, a love triangle! Gosh, look here, the young female protagonist is trying to choose between the Nice Guy and the Bad Boy. Could anything in the world be less interesting?

Well, it turns out the setting is so creative and unusual that even this utterly clichéd situation is tolerable. Magic is grown – literally grow, in the form of plants. Everything depends on gardening; flower arrangements are strictly codified and very important. Landowners have a lot of wealth and power and vassals work for landowners, except the vassals aren’t tied to the land and can leave if they like, so that’s not so bad, maybe? Especially as it starts to seem likely, not too far into the story, that the protagonist, Raneh, is going to ditch both the Nice Guy and the Bad Boy.

People pay for things with status. They also gain status if others admire them, lose it if others scorn them – status flows from one person to another somehow, as though it’s being emitted and absorbed, like some sort of energy. It’s not clear if this entire flow of status is included under the umbrella of what people mean when they say “magic,” but this might turn out to be an issue considering all the magic in the Realm is rapidly fading away. Raneh suspects she might be able to guess at one or two vital connections between the fading of magic and her own totally illegal gift for magic. For a landowner to have access to magic is an automatic death sentence, so Raneh is a touch reluctant to mention her own observations to anyone else . . . and then the Ruler of the whole realm drops by for a visit and all of a sudden everything becomes more complicated.

Okay, in this one, the characters do not seem very interesting at first, but some become more complex as the story moves ahead. The plotting does not offer particularly astonishing twists and turns; the experienced fantasy reader is likely to see most plot twists coming. On the other hand, the setting and worldbuilding are snazzy and the writing is good. Also, this is definitely a YA story. I can see younger readers really getting into the story because they may not tend to notice clichéd characters and plot elements as much as older readers. I’d recommend this particularly to anybody who enjoy inventive worldbuilding and especially to those of you with younger teen readers who are into fantasy.

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5 Comments Recent-ish Reading: Light in the Darkness, a Noblebright Bundle

  1. Elaine T

    I think the King’s Sword was the first Brightley I read and I went on to others. They’re enjoyable.

    I bounced hard off the Buroker’s sample and will look up the Sabrina Chase and Forrest.

    Yeah, the Kyra Halland is somewhat clunky but I found the magic interesting. The woman is competent, once she gets a clue.

    Another weird western I read about the same time I was trying Halland’s work was Bloodrush by .. um.. Ben Galley. It was interesting, but I didn’t care for any of the characters. It may work better for others. The magic and setting were definitely original in my experience.

  2. Rachel

    I also took a look at Bloodrush. Unfortunately I agree with you about the characters and so I didn’t make it all that far into the book before moving on to something else.

  3. Evelyn M. Hill

    Hmmn…. I might look at some of these. Thanks for writing your impressions of them!
    I am impressed that you read through two prologues. You’re a more patient reader than I am.
    The Ochs book sounds like it might be a takeoff on Hamlet?

  4. Pete Mack

    Last Mage Guardian is indeed a fine book. It’s sequel is good too, but not quite up to the level of the first. (Chase’s SF trilogy isn’t as good–a sprawling space Opera.)

    Your assessment of Buroker having somewhat clunky prose but excellent dialogue is spot on. For me the balance fell the other way, unfortunately. The prose kept getting in the way of the story.

    Haven’t read any of the others, though only a few sound really interesting.

  5. Rachel

    Good know know about Chase’s space opera. I often like space opera and so does my Dad, so I may try it.

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