Tag: "fantasy"

Book Review: “Spectyr” by Philippa Ballantine

The following review contains spoilers for Geist, to which Spectyr is a sequel.

#

At the end of Philippa Ballantine’s Geist, Deacons Sorcha and Merrick, along with the aid of Raed the Young Pretender*, vanquished the geistlord Murashev (an exceedingly evil being), who had been brought into their world by the Arch Abbott — the leader of their Order. Raed escaped from an Imperial prison and returned to his pirate ship, Dominion, and Sorcha and Merrick returned to the Mother Abbey to help put back together the Order they serve.

To get to that point, Sorcha and Merrick joined up as partners, journeyed across many miles to a faraway outpost of the Empire, fought members of the Order turned to evil as well as several creatures from the Otherside — the Order exists to protect the Empire from these beings — flew on airships, fell in love, had sex… basically, everything that’s done in a fantasy/buddy-cop/hero’s-journey story of 300 or so pages.

In Spectyr, they do most of those things all over again.

Spectyr begins a few weeks after the end of Geist, with Sorcha Faris and Merrick Chambers being dispatched to rid the Imperial capital of Vermillion of various small-time geists, ghasts, shades, and spectyrs. This rankles them both, and what rankles Sorcha even more is that her husband, Kolya — a marriage in name only, at this point — is, for some reason, fighting to keep Sorcha around the Mother Abbey instead of letting her out into the world to fight the bigger creatures she’s capable of destroying.

Eventually, our Deacons are tasked with protecting an ambassador to the far-off desert land of Chioma. One of the daughters of the Prince of Chioma is to be wedded to the Emperor, and the ambassador is headed there to negotiate something or other**. But once they arrive in Chioma, Sorcha and Merrick uncover a series of murders as well as evidence that a very powerful geistlord — the ancestral enemy of the Rossin — has decided that now is the time to make a comeback.

As I said in my review of Geist, Ballantine’s writing is well-paced, not overly laden with exposition (a major flaw in several fantasy novels I’ve read), and tends to leave tropes for readers to trip over.

Cases in point:

  • Buddy cops relegated to crappy tasks because they’re so powerful no one knows what to do with them.
  • Kick-ass sibling of the Emperor who happens to be a True Believer in a religion to which no one gives credence***.
  • A long journey via airship.
  • A far-off land where the government is semi-autonomous from the Empire, and the Order are as well.
  • Good guys falling into a murder investigation.
  • Main characters get separated.
  • Long-lost relatives.
  • Treachery from out of nowhere.

It’s that last one that really bugged me. At least in Geist I had a fairly good idea who the most evil member of the Order was going to be, but in Spectyr there’s a heel turn that I felt had no real support within the story. It’s like, “oh, hey, here’s someone we haven’t seen in a while. Let’s have him/her be evil now.” I at least need some foreshadowing for that to be effective, and I got none. It would be like if, just before they face Riddler and Two-Face in Batman Forever, Robin suddenly sucker-punches Batman, steals the Bat-boat, and leaves Batman there to get his ass kicked.

There’s also a geist-powered journey to the past for one of the Deacons that provides an info-dump without sounding like one — Ballantine is particularly good at avoiding info-dumps, which is greatly appreciated — while also giving more information about the Native Order (the one that came before the one Merrick and Sorcha are in). This does lead to a fair bit of melodramatic behavior by the other (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers), and I felt somewhat irked because said behavior was out-of-character for the Deacon who didn’t go to the past.

My biggest problem with Spectyr, though, was that, with the exception of the bad guys having different names and the locales being deserts instead of mountains, I could swear I read the same story in Geist. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but I wanted something more. Something newer. And I really didn’t get it.

Fortunately, Ballantine is a good enough writer**** that it doesn’t matter that she’s used lots of well-known fantasy tropes. The characters are well-rounded and interesting; the action is on par with other fantasy novels (sometimes better); the worldbuilding is complete and comprehensible without requiring massive info-dumps; and the Boss Fight, if a little too much “stuff happens to our hero” than “our hero kicks the Final Boss’s ass”, has an ending that directly leads into the next novel — which Ballantine is writing right now. I’m truly curious to see what’s going to happen at the start of Wrayth, and how our heroes are going to get out of the jam the Boss Fight put them in.

I’d say the book gets really good toward the last 25 percent (similar to what I felt with Geist): we’ve got all the information we need, the pieces are in place, and if one of the Deacons has made some decisions that weren’t the strongest in terms of storytelling, what s/he does at the end of that plot thread is cool enough to make up for it.

I also want to note for the record that, in a follow-up to some of my concerns voiced in my Geist review, Sorcha does not take on any more of Anita Blake’s features, and she does not have a power-of-the week. In fact, the story is written in such a way that it’s impossible for her to level up any further. And, anyway, the story’s not about Sorcha becoming more powerful or learning new battle techniques. Geist pretty much established that Sorcha is as powerful and talented as you can be, and I think that was an excellent choice on Ballantine’s part. It deftly sidesteps the whole training montage that many writers feel they have to include to justify their main character’s badassery, and I respect that storytelling choice. (However, there is a moment in Spectyr that really underlines why every Active, like Sorcha, absolutely must have a Sensitive, like Merrick, in order to function at his or her full potential.)

Overall, I’ll say this: if you loved Geist, you’ll love Spectyr for the same reasons. If you liked Geist, you’ll probably like Spectyr, although you’ll also probably see the same issues with it than I did. Still, Ballantine has created a rich world with a lot of stories to be told, and there’ll be at least two more (she’s contracted to write a fourth Order book after Wrayth). If you like fast-paced fantasy evocative of what you read in the 90s, then you’ll enjoy Spectyr.

And, as I said in my Geist review, that’s exactly the kind of book I like.

#

Special thanks to Ace, the novel’s publisher, for providing a review copy.

Note to Parents: Spectyr is a bit more graphic than Geist. If it was a film, I would rate it a “soft R” (with the exception of the sex scene in the first third). It contains enough violence to warrant that. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

#

* To the throne. The Emperor’s family ousted the Rossin family, to which Raed belongs, and now Raed is persona non grata throughout the Empire.

** I didn’t find it of that much import to the story, so I didn’t remember it. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the tale.

*** After you read the scenes in the beginning with Zofiya, tell me you weren’t thinking of Alia in the… third?… Dune novel. Or at the very least the scene where she goes all ninja-crazy on the practice robot in the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation Children of Dune.

**** As a writer and a former English teacher, I know there’s nothing technically wrong with it, but Ballantine has a habit of writing sentences with long dependent clauses followed by short action clauses. For example: As she sipped her tea and nibbled a scone while thinking about what to do this Sunday morning, Gina felt a chill. Completely legal from a grammatical perspective, but the author does it enough that I noticed it.

Book Review: “Geist” by Philippa Ballantine

The term “doorstop novel” applies to any book that is so large you could use it as a doorstop as well as reading material. They’re enormous, take forever to read, and often leave readers with more a sense of accomplishment (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”) than satisfaction*. In books like that, the author feels the need to explain every single detail, every relationship, every physical feature, every magic spell… everything.

Of course, you can go in the other direction, and explain too little. Books like that have their own problems.

But in Geist, by Philippa Ballantine, I think there’s just the right balance of explanation and action. Think late-90s genre novels — Mercedes Lackey, Melissa Scott, and their ilk. That’s the feeling I got while reading, at any rate, and for me, that’s a good thing.

In Geist, Deacons Sorcha Faris and Merrick Chambers — field agents of a religious order dedicated to protecting people from geists (creatures from the Otherside) — are sent to a faraway outpost to find out what’s causing geist attacks on the townspeople. When they get there, they find there’s — naturally — more to it than meets the eye, and their unexpectedly-strong Bond leads them to reveal a conspiracy that could destroy the home of the Order itself.

Geist is the first book I’ve read in dead-tree form in a while, and it was refreshing to actually turn pages for once. And the book is definitely a page-turner — after a slow beginning, the story moves along at a fair clip. It really heats up at the end, with a lot happening in a relatively-small number of pages. In that way, it really does follow the slow-build-to-frenetic-climax of many of the “early” fantasy novels I read. I definitely enjoyed the reading.

But that’s not to say the book is without its… well, I don’t want to call them flaws, because they’re really not, so I’m going to call them points of discussion instead.

Let’s start with the main characters — though they are unique in their own way, I felt as though they were a little too slavish to the Big Book of Fantasy Tropes. Sorcha, the main character, is a cross between Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, Hannibal Smith from The A-Team, and Anita Blake from the novels by Laurell K. Hamilton. She kicks ass, takes crap from no one, smokes cigars, and has a nagging internal voice that, sometimes, needs to shut up and let the story progress.

Now, before you worry that Sorcha’s going to start sleeping with everything that moves (and changes shape), or gaining a new power every week, I will clarify my Anita Blake comment and say that what I saw in Sorcha was more “early Anita”. But I also think that the author is so connected to her audience via social networks and conventions that, if she started doing power-of-the-week books or making Sorcha into a Mary Sue, the audience would be able to talk her down. Although if Sorcha starts saying “alright” or “me, either” (both sic), you might want to start to worry**.

The rest of the cast includes Sorcha’s partner, a young, just-minted deacon named Merrick Chambers, and he is powerful, humble, unafraid of Sorcha’s prickliness, and prone to a white knight complex. And then there’s Raed Rossin, Pretender to the throne of Vermillion, who is everything a prince-turned-pirate-captain should be… and a werelion.

Oh, and if anyone reading the book didn’t look at Nynnia and say “well, now, her appearance certainly is significant and convenient,” then they weren’t reading very carefully. Another thing right out of the 90s, right there with the long journey, the remote outpost, the three-good-guys-against-the-other-good-guys, the secret passageways, and the evil plot that felt a little too “stock” to me.

There’s also sex — because, hey, it’s Philippa Ballantine, and if you don’t know she runs a very successful erotica podcast, you’ll find out when you get to that chapter that she’s great at writing sex. That too felt like the sex scenes of 90s genre novels — and given that I was in my late teens and early 20s around that time, you can imagine that I enjoyed the nostalgia it brought on.

Without spoiling the ending, I will say that I felt like too much happened too quickly, and I had issues with the Boss Fight. But outside of that, the rest of the issues I mentioned above, I can pretty much ignore. See, I’m not reading this book because I want it to be the next great Kiwi*** novel. I’m reading it because I think it’ll be an enjoyable book. And it is. It has action, humor, sex, and intrigue; the characters are fully-developed and well-rounded****, and they change as the book progresses. The world is built enough for me to know what’s going on and to understand the story without being overwritten, and the same with the magic system.

In short, Geist combines the best of what I like in 1990s fantasy fiction with the scope of a doorstop novel… and then pares out all the extraneous crap that makes a fantasy novel into a doorstop. What’s left is 300 pages that make up an enjoyable book to read, even if it’s got a few too many tropes that we’ve all read before.

And if you really, really need to keep a door open, I guess you could wedge it in there. But then Sorcha might call up pyet and burn your door to ash, so… you know… your choice.

#

Special thanks to Ace, the novel’s publisher, for providing a review copy.

Note to Parents: With the exception of one scene of semi-explicit sex, nothing in the novel should be unpalatable to anyone who can watch a PG-13 action film and not have nightmares. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

#

* Neal Stephenson excepted. And I know some people really like Wheel of Time but I never got into it.

** As you can see, I have issues with the Anita Blake novels. I’m reading Hit List right now, and when I do the review of that, you’ll see exactly why I’ve made some of these points.

*** Though she now lives in the U.S., Ballantine is from New Zealand.

**** Seriously, Sorcha’s hair being red/copper is mentioned so often that, if this was a movie, it would get a mention in the ending credits.

Book Review: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Every now and then, you hear about a book by an author you’ve heard of. The book has a great title, gets good reviews, and is generally well-received. You see it on Amazon, but the price is a little higher than you’re willing to pay. So you decide to wait until it goes on sale.

Then it goes on sale. You buy it. You start reading it. And you wish you’d just kept on waiting.

That was my experience with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.

Kingdoms takes place on an alternate Earth, where… well… 100,000 kingdoms are led by the Arameri family, who lives within a Space-Needle-like palace called Sky. The current leader of the Arameri, Dekarta, is getting on in years and wants to pass the mantle of leadership to one of his full-blooded Arameri heirs, Scimina and Relad.

But there’s a third Arameri heir, Yeine, warrior-princess of the far-off land of Darr — and the main character of Kingdoms. Brought to Sky by Dekarta, her grandfather, she finds herself embroiled in a power struggle for the leadership of the Arameri — and the entire world — as she becomes increasingly aware of exactly why she was ordered to Sky in the first place: the Arameri want her to die.

I think my main problems with Kingdoms stemmed from the tropes used and the storytelling style. The tropes included:

  • Young woman comes to town and is suddenly the most important person there.
  • Supernatural creatures try to recruit young woman to their side.
  • Young woman turns out to have some sort of connection to the supernatural creatures.

In this case, the creatures in question are the gods of the planet — Itempas, Nahadoth, and Enefa, roughly corresponding to God, Satan, and Eve/Lilith. Nahadoth lives among the Arameri; Itempas appears when the Arameri passes leadership on to the next heir. Unlike the real world, these gods actually provably exist, and can do godlike things. There are others, including the childlike Sieh, but it’s really all about Nahadoth.

Once Yeine gets situated in Sky, the story turns into a fantastical soap opera, with plots and counterplots, and in the middle of it all a single character who things just seem to happen to. Yeine does act upon her environment, but usually not until the environment has acted upon her.

To go back to my comment on storytelling style — the best way to explain it is that I felt like I was reading Anita Blake: God Hunter. The same problems I have with Laurell K. Hamilton’s storytelling, I had with Kingdoms (although this book was well-edited, whereas some of Hamilton’s novels unfortunately contain grammatical errors and spelling inconsistencies). I also didn’t really care for the digressions into Yeine’s dreams about what the gods were doing, or had done. They didn’t hold my interest.

There is an unexpected twist at the end — I’ll give it that — but unfortunately I felt as though the amount of talking and exposition that came right after, to support the twist, lessened its effect.

Despite my problems with the tropes and the style, I did find the main characters to be well-rounded and interesting. Even though I didn’t really like Yeine, I was on her side throughout the whole story. In the afterword of the digital copy of the novel that I read, an interview with the author indicated that Yeine was a version of herself taken “to the extreme”. I’ve never met or spoken to the author, but I’ve written enough stories with “a version of myself” as the main character that I saw the hallmarks of it, and they drew me out of the story a little. But despite that, I still wanted her, maybe if not to win, then to at least not lose. Some of the villains felt a little flat — and one of the characters who betrays our heroes, I don’t think I really had enough clues to appreciate the level of betrayal — but I was pleased with the sheer level of detail and attention paid to the main players. Especially Nahadoth and T’vril. I found T’vril to be the most relatable character in the story, and Nahadoth the most interesting. In fact, Nahadoth is really the character I think most people will be rooting for — bound by the Arameri, he nonetheless finds ways to rebel. I watched Watchmen last night, and I found myself drawing parallels to Dr. Manhattan’s immense power and his battle to control it for the people he cared about.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first book in the “Inheritance” trilogy, according to the cover. I’m not sure I’m going to read the second book anytime soon, but I think the first one was well-received enough that the sequels will be enjoyed by those who liked Kingdoms. Unfortunately, I didn’t really care for the book that much. Despite the author’s clear talent and ability for worldbuilding and characterization, the story didn’t hold my interest — possibly because, at least in my mind, it didn’t bring anything new to an oft-told tale of a young warrior-trained woman upon whom rests the fate of the entire world.

Maybe next time.

Note to Parents: This novel contains violence and a couple of sexual situations, one explicit. Mature teens will be able to handle it; younger ones may become distracted by the imagery. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

EP291: Shannon’s Law

By Cory Doctorow
Read by: Mur Lafferty
Originally appearing in Welcome to Bordertown (Available May 24!) Read it at Tor.com.
Discuss on our forums.
All stories by Cory Doctorow
All stories read by Mur Lafferty
Rated PG: language

[Update- HUGE apologies for former editing issues on this file. It’s fixed now!]

When the Way to Bordertown closed, I was only four years old, and I was more interested in peeling the skin off my Tickle Me Elmo to expose the robot lurking inside his furry pelt than I was in networking or even plumbing the unknowable mysteries of Elfland. But a lot can change in thirteen years.

When the Way opened again, the day I turned seventeen, I didn’t hesitate. I packed everything I could carry—every scratched phone, every half-assembled laptop, every stick of memory, and every Game Boy I could fit in a duffel bag. I hit the bank with my passport and my ATM card and demanded that they turn over my savings to me, without calling my parents or any other ridiculous delay. They didn’t like it, but “It’s my money, now hand it over” is like a spell for bending bankers to your will.

Land rushes. Know about ’em? There’s some piece of land that was off-limits, and the government announces that it’s going to open it up—all you need to do is rush over to it when the cannon goes off, and whatever you can stake out is yours. Used to be that land rushes came along any time the United States decided to break a promise to some Indians and take away their land, and a hundred thousand white men would wait at the starting line to stampede into the “empty lands” and take it over. But more recently, the land rushes have been virtual: The Internet opens up, and whoever gets there first gets to grab all the good stuff. The land rushers in the early days of the Net had the dumbest ideas: online pet food, virtual-reality helmets, Internet-enabled candy delivery services. But they got some major money while the rush was on, before Joe Investor figured out how to tell a good idea from a redonkulous one.

Book Review: “Dancing with Bears” by Michael Swanwick

The law-breaking but good-hearted character is one that most of us have come across in our consumption of media. From smuggler Han Solo to counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, we’ve time and again rooted for men and women who break the rules in pursuit of a greater good — often reluctantly.

And then there’s Darger and Surplus, who have absolutely no desire to be a force for good. They’re in Russia to make money via a complicated con involving seven beautiful women and an ambassadorship. This is the general plot of Dancing With Bears, the new novel by Michael Swanwick.

The principle characters of Dancing With Bears are Aubrey Darger, a debonair Englishman, and “Surplus” — that is, Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux — who is a dog. Well, a dog genetically engineered to have the intelligence and bearing of a man, but a dog just the same. Together, Darger and Surplus use their not-inconsiderable intelligence to try and make a buck, or a ruble, or whatever the local currency might be. These gentlemen are dropped into a futuristic Russia, but not a future you might expect. At first, when reading the novel, I thought we were in an alternate past, but as Swanwick takes us through the story, it becomes clear that the technological utopia came and went. There’s still touches of technology here and there, but on the whole the Russia through which Darger and Surplus travel is quite non-technical. Think New Crobuzon with less machinery.

Our story begins with Darger and Surplus in the service of a Byzantine prince and ambassador to Moscow, who is conveying the Pearls of Byzantium — seven physically-flawless women genetically engineered for maximum pleasure, but who can only touch their intended husband — to that great city. Early on they rescue a man from a cybernetic wolf and have a small layover at his home, during which the man’s son, Arkady, is exiled for attempting to profess his love to one of the Pearls. Later, when the group arrives in Moscow, Surplus is forced to take on the mantle of ambassadorship while Darger begins searching for their true prize: the lost library of Ivan the Great. These two missions bring our heroes in contact with a huge cast of characters and a broad series of machinations to bring about a revolution in Moscow.

What sets Darger and Surplus apart, I think, is their complete disinterest in anything that doesn’t directly benefit them. I mean, Han Solo came back to save Luke; Mal Reynolds never committed a crime that harmed the common people; and John Glasken, despite being a lout and a womanizer, played a large part in improving Australica for all its citizens. But Darger has no desire to give the library to the Russian people, and Surplus certainly isn’t being an ambassador for his health (although if, as has been said in the news, having sex keeps you healthy, Surplus certainly will live a long life). No, the two of them are running a very large con* with the goal of getting rich.

Darger and Surplus, though, aren’t the only interesting characters in Dancing With Bears. We also meet:

  • The Three Stranniks, who have their own goals for Arkady and Muscovy.
  • Zoesophia, the leader of the Pearls, whose depths are… well… deeper than Surplus (or anyone else) expected.
  • Anya Pepsicolova, Darger’s guide to the undercity of Moscow.
  • Chortenko, an advisor to the Duke, whose eyes see everything and who has a thing for kennels.
  • The Duke of Muscovy, who spends a lot of time lying down on the job.
  • Kyril, a foul-mouthed boy who becomes a companion of Darger’s.

…as well as a collection of minor characters that includes genetically-engineered nine-foot-tall bears — presumably the ones with whom the dancing is done that the title alludes to.

Dancing With Bears introduces strong characters, a future world that will appeal even to the steampunk and urban-fantasy crowds, and enough plot twists to close a grocery store’s worth of bread inventory*. While I found the immense amount of intrigue a little too tangled for my liking, I was able to set that aside because the book was so rich in character- and world-building, two things which I personally really enjoy. The pacing is a bit slow at first, and there are a couple of “as you know, Bob” moments, but once the characters arrived in Moscow I found myself quite interested in what would happen next.

My only previous exposure to the author, Michael Swanwick, was in his novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. I definitely liked Dancing With Bears more than Daughter, perhaps because — at least, in my opinion — the ending was more satisfying and there were more characters to root for.

You’ll be rooting for Darger and Surplus as you read this book. Check it out.

Note to parents: This novel contains explicit material, including sex, violence, and language, as well as scenes of torture and drug use. I personally would not recommend this for anyone under the age of 15 — and even then, only to mature teens — although you should of course make your own judgment regarding your children.

* In addition to the novel itself, you may also be interested in a series of flash fiction running on the Starship Sofa podcast, “How to Run a Con”. In it, Michael Swanwick is joined by Gregory Frost to portray Darger and Surplus as they explain to the average listener the ins and outs of being con men. It begins in Episode 176.

** Did I stretch that metaphor so far? Sorry about that. But it sounded good in my head.