Tuesday, August 29, 2006


A collection of short stories by divers authors edited by Sharyn November.

There are about 16 stories in here (one of them is illustrated in comic form), each by a different author. They're all at least decent, but I'm not sure how many of them I would be tempted to reread later. "Hope Chest", a "Western" by Garth Nix, stands out and defies explanation. Read it.

"The Baby in the Night Deposit Box" was amusing, if a little cheesy; Poppy was endearing in "Flotsom"; "Byndley" is about what you would expect from Patricia McKillip (the ending wasn't much of a surprise, at least to me); and "Medusa" is noticeably short (only four pages or so) but somewhat sympathetic to the title character for a change. (After all, she couldn't have always been that ugly... everyone is some parent's child.)

Some of the other stories are probably also worth reading, though maybe not twice. "Hope Chest" definitely had the most emotional impact.

Worth checking out.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Prize in the Game

By Jo Walton.

Well-written but it becomes melancholy partway through, with practically inevitable doom resulting from a serious curse for what seemed like a wrong cause. There were some irksome typos ("how at" instead of "at how", "than" instead of "that", and so on) which suggested hasty publishing, though.

I have put off reading this book for at least a year, probably, since I read The King's Peace and The King's Name, because I knew at least some of what would happen to the characters in this book and didn't feel like getting to know them better. (This book concerns some events befalling certain characters before they appear in Sulien's books.)

This has much of the same flavor, but is perhaps narrower and less majestic. Sulien's story is hard to top.

The author's note at the beginning says that a candle casts a shadow both backwards and forwards, but I think I might recommend reading this before The King's Peace and The King's Name, although for the same reason you might arguably read them the other way around: certain events in those two books will change the way you look at Conal and Emer. I also have sympathy for Elenn; Maga is a horrible mother (and king) but forcing Elenn to marry four husbands in as many days is even more appalling than usual. It leads to some saying she bears a curse...

Worth reading if you read The King's Peace and The King's Name, too, either before or after. I don't think it would stand very well by itself; although The Prize in the Game is quite understandable on its own, I don't think it's worth reading without the greater context provided by the other two books.

Incidentally, the title refers to a kingship, but it seems to be almost a trivial matter, mentioned halfway through and not referred to directly again. I think the cost of winning the game is far more than the one who wins would ever have willingly paid, but the narrative never says that explicitly. The last (one-page) chapter is also somewhat ambiguous: is the last line casting judgment or only noting a simple truth?

Update: The other thing I wanted to mention was how every warrior knows charms to heals wounds, prevent "weapon rot" (blood poisoning), reattach limbs, etc.--as long as the weapon that dealt the wound is available. Consequently, they all tend to come through battles either alive and with very few consequences or permanently dead. Almost no one in these books dies slowly. They take fighting very glibly as well, and that's part of the reason these are melancholy; diplomacy is not much employed and often enough you end up fighting against the side your friends are on. I think the consequences of a system like that in the real world would be horrific.

I should also mention their suspect beliefs about fertility: women are not fertile before their wombs are opened by a priest when they get married, and not wanting a child can cause a miscarriage. (Admittedly the first one is proved wrong more than once in Sulien's books, so I guess not even they believe it entirely...)


By Emma Bull.

I only have a few things to say about this book. First: it feels somewhat stilted, and very much reminiscent of the Liavek story in Firebirds RIsing, making me wonder if all shared-universe stories tend to turn out this way. It does not seem as well written as War for the Oaks, somehow, with regard to its style and smoothness. Maybe it was just intended to be a grittier book.

Second: I think Tick-Tick is a much more interesting character than Orient (the finder of the title).

Third: Beware the Pamela Dean quote on the back of the book: "Watch out. This looks like a fast-paced mystery novel with lots of snappy dialogue, but it will sneak up on you and break your heart." That last clause is certainly true.

Finally: I'm not sure why people would prefer this over War for the Oaks, although I don't think I'll be reading either again any time soon. The emotional involvement in the events that break your heart is the only part that stands out as being better than War for the Oaks, but YMMV.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Door Into Ocean

By Joan Slonczewski.

Beautiful, tragic and perhaps frightening, all at the same time.

The Sharers live on rafts on a moon covered by ocean; only the dead sink to touch the floor of their world. Their language is built around sharing: death alone cannot be shared, according to their beliefs. You cannot talk without listening, you cannot teach without learning, you cannot rule without being ruled, you cannot be a deceiver without being deceived, you cannot betray without being betrayed. All verbs cut two ways.

The trouble comes when Valans (from the planet the moon Shora orbits) try to subjugate Shora. There is a fundamental lack of understanding between the two peoples; though some, like Nisi and Spinel, come to be Sharers themselves, the learning is difficult. The Valans are afraid of these people who are not afraid, even of death, and who consider death-hastening evidence of a great sickness of the mind. The Sharers seem a lot like Gandhi with their methods of nonviolent protest, developed over the ten thousand years their civilization has lived to deal with each other. There are also definite echoes of Dune in the way they consider fear and pain. (One of Merwen's theories is that Valans are afraid because they do not understand how to control pain, instead of being controlled by it.)

Despite the above, don't let me fool you into thinking this book is impersonal; it deals very much with people: Nisi the Deceiver, Spinel, Usha, Merwen, Lystra and Realgar, centrally, and others who are still important even if less present in the narrative.

The Sharers science, lifeshaping, is beautiful, just as in The Children Star, or more so: this book gives a much clearer picture of it. The Sharers consider that they have a duty to their lesser "sisters" who share the ocean with them and object to, in part, the toxins the Valans dump in the water to get rid of short-term menaces in favor of long-term ones. They have clickflies which store libraries worth of data and communicate across the planet (though somewhat slowly, as they take time to breed and travel), they harness starworms to give transmit underwater subsonic pulses which communicate much more quickly, and they can regrow limbs and repair genes in living organisms, even if very little of the patient (e.g., the head and part of the chest) is left, if they get there before death.

On the other hand, they also share something called whitetrance, "the most vulnerable level of consciousness", which allows them to choose death at any time, a decision they cannot interfere with.

This book also casts light forward onto Sarai in The Children Star, revealing both much of the background she must have come from (though it isn't entirely clear whether this book takes place before or after, it seems likely to be several centuries or even a millenia or more before) and how unusual she is among her people. Sarai is, incidentally, a very appropriate name; she hopes in The Children Star that no one realizes how much of a compulsion she has to care for children, something which all Sharers seem to share to a greater or lesser degree.

I like this book a lot, but it lacks the real answer to sin and death, though there are parallels. Sharers consider the death-hasteners (soldiers) to be sick children who do not see that others are like themselves, and try to share healing with them, but it is a rather humanistic healing indeed, although there is some mention of souls and the planet itself guiding them. Of course, they also accept death as a natural part of life; Valedon threatens that all will die if they do not cooperate, which all Sharers admit is true, but only when Merwen tries to understand the Valans does she realize that they mean death will be hastened, something unthinkable to the Sharer philosophy.

Anyways--a very compelling read. I can definitely recommend it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Amulet of Samarkand

By Jonathan Stroud. Book one of the Bartimaeus trilogy.

This book does not live up to the hype. If you're expecting something wittily and drily humorous, well, I laughed at a few lines, but overall I'd say Pratchett does the job much better. Bartimaeus comes across as rather petty and mean at some points and unfortunately does not develop the sort of relationship I was expecting with Nathaniel.

The book does come to a definite conclusion even if there are a ton of loose ends left behind for the rest of the trilogy to weave together. However, there also seem to be some contradictions relating to the practice of magic. (Both characters seem to agree that all of a magician's power comes from summoning demons, so how then do they do other things like fire and lightning bolts, which don't seem to be directly related to summoning? And what about the prison spheres used on errant djinni?) Nathaniel's character also seems promising at first, due to his precocious magical ability, but by the end he too seemed somewhat petty and indisputably deluded.

I don't really want to read the rest of the trilogy, but I might just to see if it turns into anything better.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

War for the Oaks

By Emma Bull.

This is billed as a classic urban fantasy. I think it lives up to that for the most part, with a nice amount of spunk and large quantities of musical flavor mixed in. However, I did find the one or two sex scenes somewhat offensive and jarring to the overall mood of the book.

This is the story of Eddi McCandry, a rhythm guitarist who should be a lead singer in her own band, but is instead stuck with losers. Well... until she quits the band and ends up practically kidnapped by the mystical side of town, recruited to help the Seelie Court wage war against the Unseelie. The premise is rather more interesting than usual: the fairies need her because without her mortality tainting the field, they can't kill each other. Fortunately for her (and them), she turns out to be less of a quiet, compliant victim than they might have hoped.

A reasonably good book. There's a nice appendix in the paperback I checked out that has some exposition about and excerpts from the screenplay she (and her husband, I think) wrote based on the book. Unfortunately, it's rather easy for me to imagine a bad movie being made out of it, and less easy to imagine a truly excellent one. For that matter, I don't think this book is truly superb, which is how some people seem to react to it. It is a sweet story but doesn't seem very well resolved--it's more like all the loose threads are shoved under the carpet at the end. (How's that for mixing metaphors?)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Paladin of Souls

By Lois McMaster Bujold. Sequel of sorts to The Curse of Chalion.

For some reason The Curse of Chalion reminded me of Juliet Marillier's books, although I was later not sure whether it was the contents or the cover art of the two sequels which did it.

If the content is responsible, doubtlessly one aspect that reminded me of Marillier is the clear presence of the supernatural. Unlike other books with artificial and false religions, the gods in this world (in both Curse and Paladin of Souls) show up very clearly and have a well-defined relationship with the material world: they can do nothing to affect it without a willing embodied accomplice, in fact. Usually. The seductiveness of their appearance is one of the dangers of reading this book.

However, I was laughing most of the way through (or chuckling or giggling or snorting, at least) because of the dry and often black humour. Ista was introduced in The Curse of Chalion but played only a secondary part, as part of a royal family hobbled by a curse going back a few generations. (SPOILER for The Curse of Chalion): As of Paladin of Souls, she has been freed of the curse, but scarcely knows what to do with herself. So, she goes on a pilgrimage and finds rather more of the gods than she wanted, especially considering she wanted to get away from them. The results are often, perhaps unintentionally, hilarious. Maybe it's just me.

I found this a fairly quick read, in parts because Ista is an interesting character, sympathetic, having lost about half her life to the curse (she married into it at age 18 or so), and drily humorous. It's especially funny how everyone touched by the gods tries to tell everyone who wants to be but hasn't been that they are much better off the way they are, and none of them ever listens.

I don't think I found The Curse of Chalion quite as entertaining; although it was somehow still an unreasonably attractive and interesting story, it didn't have as much levity as Paladin of Souls. But like I said, it could just be me and my exhaustion speaking. (It's the second book I read today, the first being War for the Oaks, which probably deserves its reputation as a classic. If I had to rank them, I'd say War for the Oaks is more worth checking out, but I don't think I'll write a post about it until tomorrow.)

The Riddle-Master Trilogy

By Patricia McKillip.

This originally consisted of three volumes: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind, but it was republished as a three-in-one paperback with a brief but interesting introduction by the author.

The story is complex and somewhat difficult to get into. New facts pop up like mushrooms, where you least expect them: I found myself having to refer back to chapter 1 while reading chapter 2, thinking "Wait a minute--he has stars on his forehead? How did I miss that?" Well, I don't think I did miss it. The author neglects to mention some things at first. The relationship between Morgon and Deth seems also to sprout up like magic; it seems to appear rather quickly, although the fault is mine for reading too quickly. The astute reader (or one who's read a book like Apropos of Nothing) may guess the answers to some of the many questions raised rather far before the end.

The story seems to me much darker than most of her later novels (the ones I've read), and lacking some of her beautiful charm and descriptions, although that might be fitting for the nature of the book. As her introduction says, this is the story that was closest to her childhood's heart, and certain parts of it seem somewhat unformed as a result.

The riddles referred to in the title are more along the lines of instructive catechism. "Who was such-and-such, and why did he die?" There is a proper answer to be memorized (or discovered) for each, and a moral lesson or stricture to be learned as a result, although the author leaves it to the reader to determine the lessons from most of the riddles actually unraveled in the book, rather than the past ones merely referred to. This is not a book to be read with your brain turned off. It is a plot that requires thought and careful attention to details. Some things are left implied and unexplained. Familiarity with Welsh or Celtic mythology may help with your understanding; the most obvious reference (to me) is the presence of landlaw, a mystical binding between ruler and realm, which also appears (in somewhat stronger form) in Jo Walton's The King's Peace and The King's Name (which I recommend as interesting and somehow more tangible than the usual fantasies: they are set in a very solid, well-defined world, even if being close to death might mean being a lingering spirit... the joke is funnier in the book).

Not quite as beautiful as McKillip's later works, Riddle-Master is a darker and more challenging read, with some rough edges, but it might well be worth checking out.

Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen

Both by Tamora Pierce.

Oh boy. Here come a bunch of posts.

Aly seems at first to be the consumnate spy; only sixteen years old, she stubbornly runs away, supposedly to give her parents some time alone, and she ends up captured by pirates and conscripted by Kyprioth, the one-time god of the Copper Isles, to protect and serve the descendants of the native royal family. How's that for a run-on sentence?

She still seems, maybe, a little too perfect, but her flaws were more apparent on a second reading: she has all of the emotional maturity you might expect of a 16-year-old... which is to say, not as much as might be hoped. She rushes into all sorts of things without thinking much and faces blades at her throat with calm advice about the fastest way to kill her. Well, one blade, anyway.

In short, this is a fairly light-hearted story set in the world of Tortall. The characters don't really change or grow all that much; Aly manages to confront and overcome her own misconceptions but otherwise remains much the same throughout. Her playacting with Taybur ("I'm only a maid, sir! Please, sir, I don't know what you're talking about!") and his responses ("Let's pretend you've already given the 'I don't know what you're talking about' speech and proceed from there") are possibly the most amusing part of either book.

In fact, Taybur is perhaps a little too perfect himself. Faultlessly loyal and vigilant; what more could a king ask of his guard? Well... read the story and find out.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Green Rider

By Kristen Britain.

This was my second reading, and somehow I had let what other people said about the book get in the way of what I thought about it. (I'm sure I've mentioned before how gullible I am.) This book is quite enjoyable, despite some rough spots. The printing I have contains several irritating typos, but the story is interesting regardless.

Karigan, despite being our heroine, has several notable character flaws, not the least of which is pigheadedness. She doesn't think twice about jumping into danger. She also seems somewhat careless about hurting others, although she may be encouraged in this by third parties: witness how the Berry sisters dodge her query about the ship-in-a-bottle near the beginning. I put the book down several times because I couldn't stand how she was embarassing herself.

The story seems somewhat disjointed, with various episodes (the Berry sisters, the town of North, the monster, Somial) being only loosely part of the plot by having only weak justification for their presence. Sometimes, I guess, stories are like that, but it seems as though some things, such as the appearance of the eagle, were tossed in only to satisfy tropes.

In the end, I might have to call this book cute and entertaining, but it falls short of being epic. There is a sequel, First Rider's Call, (which I have also previously read, but not recently) and the author is working on a third book.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Hunger: An Unnatural History

By Sharman Apt Russell.

I decided this looked interesting when I saw it mentioned on The Fanatic Cook (a blog) and got it out of the library.

This is a fascinating book, covering the physical and psychological effects of hunger, but it also takes a dark turn about halfway through, covering starvation and malnutrition, and what's being done (or possibly more often not done) about them. The descriptions of what went on in the midst of World War II are heartbreaking.

What this book doesn't really cover much is the political and social aspects that cause famine. They're mentioned as being the real problem in several cases (e.g., Somalia), as opposed to a simple lack of food, but it doesn't really explain what they are. It does, however, point out our bias towards children in advertising and treating the problem, and asks why we aren't (really) treating the adults who could be growing and distributing more food.

This book is interesting, starting with a description of the biological processes that occur during hunger, and going on to the big picture, but it also offers a challenge. The author confesses:

While in Guatemala, I also went to a few tourist sites, [...] where I easily spent seventy-five dollars many times over. That was my epiphany. I will give money to the woman in Tejar and to organizations like Concern Worldwide. I will help--but only so much, only so far. It is not that I believe these children are less than my own. It is not that I believe I do not have a responsibility for them. It is just that in a world of haves and have-nots, I do not want to give up too much of what I have. I do not want to diminish the complexity and diversity of my life. Instead, I will choose to spend another seventy-five dollars on myself rather than send another child to school, and I will choose to do this over and over again. I no longer think of myself as a good person. I have adjusted to that. (emphasis added)

The Cottagers

By Marshall N. Klimasewiski.

When two families decide to share a cottage on Vancouver Island in Canada, they have no idea their relationships and lives will be changed forever.

This is a sort of spooky book, but well within the realm of possibility. (ie, not fantasy) It's kind of heavy reading even though it's only a little over 300 pages. It seems to be about relationships and how they change, and the little accidents that can result in a happy marriage or a catastrophic loss. I'm left wondering whether the change in their lives was already inevitable or due only to the events that happened on the island.

There are also enough things left unsaid that you wonder what other surprises might be implied below the surface.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


By Brandon Sanderson.

A cute (I can tell you're hearing the death knell when I use that word), light fantasy with some fresher ideas than just a ring of power. It's not that it doesn't have death and carnage in it, it's that for some reason it didn't capture me emotionally. Hence the "light" feel. Possibly it's caused by Raoden's unending optimism. There are no sex scenes in here, making it a pretty clean book. It also deals with one or two religious issues but while they may have been challenging to the characters they didn't seem very interesting to me.

On the super-duper upside, there are tons of extras on the author's website, including notes on each chapter. It's interesting seeing the author's thought process about some of the issues and the way he handled certain scenes. It's also interesting having him point out details that I completely missed. (Sarene sees Raoden being escorted to Elantris in chapter 2; it's only one or two sentences so maybe I can be excused for missing it or not comprehending. One is led to wonder if she later remembers that and realizes that she saw him.) There are also little details that I did notice, like the aons before each chapter, and wondered at the significance of. Apparently they were intentional.

On the downside, the book just didn't grab me emotionally. I don't know if it's me or the book, which otherwise seems fairly well written.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


By Michael A. Stackpole. Second book in the Age of Discovery trilogy.

This is another book where the characters are more rounded than usual, but in this case everyone is larger than life. And they all have secrets. Qiro Anturasi is frightening, but shows a hint of sanity.

For once, turning to the last page yields a pleasant spoiler. Try it (if you like spoilers); you will likely start thinking "That explains so much..." or "I should have seen that coming."

Other mysteries are revealed. The dead girl accomplishes very little, leaving us to wonder why she has a place in this trilogy. Surely it isn't just to be tortured and killed in the first book?

The story, if you aren't familiar with it, centers around the Anturasi family, a map-making dynasty ruled by Qiro Anturasi, an old tyrant whose maps are considered almost magical. Sail without them and you are likely to be lost; sail with them and make a fortune. He and his family are considered national treasures and as a result are locked up (most of the time) in a gilded tower, but the times are changing and old enemies seem to be coming back to life. It's a good idea to read A Secret Atlas first; this book is not kind to readers who haven't picked up the first in a while. I wanted to check whether many of the surprises were foreshadowed in the first book or not, but I didn't have it on hand.

This book and A Secret Atlas are hard to read because there are so many characters to keep track of, but it gets a little easier in this book as the threads continue weaving together and the characters take their places in the big picture. As usual, I find it interesting that Qiro figures very little in the narration, but ultimately is behind almost everything that happens. Perhaps we'll find out his method and motivation in the third book, but it may always be a mystery.

This is a fascinating story with lots to think about until the third volume comes out, even if I had trouble sitting still while I was reading it. Junel is an offensive character but you trust that he will get what's coming to him. However, this book reminds me of The Swans' War: I'm afraid that not everything may be resolved quite so neatly as a reader could hope. The fates of many are up in the air, and it ends with a sharp (if implied) "To be continued!"

Monday, August 07, 2006


By Paula Volsky. There is a torture scene near the end.

I am of two minds about this book. On one hand, it obviously owes a lot to A Tale of Two Cities for the overall plot and flavor of the setting, but on the other hand the characters are original, distinct and interesting. Eliste is a spoiled privileged child of the upper classes of her country, but she is also a naive and sympathetic character, even though by page 10 it's obvious she'll have to grow up. Her grandmother is stern and proud, but stands by her convictions; her "uncle" (really a great-great uncle or something along those lines) is kind, but solitary and a bit fanciful. Aurelie is flighty and lacks any concept of personal honor, but is hard to call bad; I suppose she serves as the grandmother's foil with regards to convictions.

The plot, as mentioned, is inspired by the events of the French Revolution. Eliste departs her father's home near the beginning to visit the capital, and is eventually engulfed in the reign of terror caused by the growing civil unrest. In addition to her personal struggle, we get a picture of the other people involved in the revolution, including two of the revolutionary leaders, opposed to each other's ideologies.

Eliste is a surprisingly vulnerable character, for all of her supposed Exalted status; magic is not only rare and difficult in this world, but it affects her drastically, there being little she can do to fight it, back cover notwithstanding.

A pretty good book with interesting characters (it's hard to know what to make of Aurelie), with a plot reminiscent of A Tale of Two Cities. Whether that's a good or bad thing is for you to decide, I guess.

When Darkness Falls

By Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. Third book in the Obsidian Trilogy; the first two are The Outstretched Shadow and To Light a Candle.

I don't think this book is really worth reading unless you've already read the first two and want to know what happens. Actually, I read the first two and I still don't think this was really worth finishing. It is a little dense at times and not very compelling. The climax proceeds with rather terrible inevitability which results in a lack of suspense: you've been told what's going to happen since book one and (spoiler) it finally happens.

The ending is "happy" enough, but I don't think it's enough of a reward for slogging through this. The author cheats. Also, it seems like a lot that could go wrong doesn't, something I haven't noticed happening quite so obviously in other books. Others have a lot of threads and anguish tying up the third part of the trilogy, but this one seems to proceed rather smoothly, even if a lot of people die.

And now for a large, spoilerific whine about the ending: It's stated several times that the Wild Magic doesn't care about individuals. Therefore, one of the only reasons for it to, uh, "help" Idalia is because it plans to use her again in the future. The other reason I can think of is because others who hear her story in the future might not be so willing to serve if they saw how little she was rewarded. Since Idalia should no longer be able to use magic, the first reason doesn't really seem plausible to me, and even if it is true it means the Wild Magic is cheating more than death, but in addition the great covenants that it's suggested allow it to exist. The second reasoning is not so plausible since it seems like everyone in this book is terribly willing to sacrifice themselves without expecting personal reward at all. So, we are left with possibility #3: the author wanted a happy ending and didn't mind breaking rules to get it. Bleh.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Outlaws of Sherwood

By Robin McKinley.

Well-crafted, as you would expect from McKinley, but my heart wasn't in it. Even so, there were several pleasantly surprising plot twists.

While reading it the story seemed even more familiar to me than the Beauty and the Beast, perhaps since I remember reading other versions of it as a child or perhaps because this retelling is not so original as, for example, Rose Daughter was.

You'll probably like it if you like Robin Hood, or ancient English politics. This telling certainly adds more of a political element (between the Saxons and Normans) than I remember from my childhood, and which certainly isn't in the Disney version.

Update (8/7): As Martin LaBar mentions in the comments, this book also features women more prominently than other versions of the Robin Hood myth, and more women than just Marian, too. This is certainly a prominent detail for those of you considering reading it.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Firefly Cloak

By Sheri Reynolds, who according to the jacket is also the author of The Rapture of Canaan. Just thought you'd like to know that.

The cover flap bills this as a coming-of-age novel, but you pretty quickly start wondering whether it's the mother, the daughter, or the grandmother who needs to come of age... by the end of the book, it seems like all three needed it.

This book seems like a slice-of-life (a cliche?)--it could easily have happened to real people and probably has. The descriptions feel very authentic (although I've never been in a Southern city on the boardwalk so I can't say for certain, but they convinced me) and it's easy to imagine that the author went through many of the experiences described herself.

It feels a little bit like light reading, but that might just be my bias. Families are important too, and there are definitely emotional moments, even if it isn't about an epic quest to save the world (tee em). So listen up AMBER: you might like it.