Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalThis book frequently gets described as Jane Austen if she had lived in a fantasy world where magic were real.

I suppose that’s a fair statement because the plot seems to be lifted straight out of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, down to the main character’s name and the younger sister’s misguided dalliance, the father’s practicality and the mother’s dramatic pretensions and political pandering.

The original part of this story is the use of glamour which is apparently some sort of manipulations of the electromagnetic spectrum only using the hands instead of lenses and other optics. Glamor is practiced mostly by women and artists who use it to make their houses look just a tad more beautiful or to breathe a little life into a painting or drawing.

Mary Robinnete Kowal is a brilliant writer and a master storyteller and it is very possible that anybody with less chameleon-like writing skills would have sounded like a cheap parody of Jane Austen. However Kowal has mastered the art of sounding like other writers and she employs it to good effect.

I still remember the first time I heard Mary Robinette Kowal speak. She was a guest on the Writing Excuses podcast and she talked about what she had learned about story telling from puppetry (she is a professional puppeteer). It was perhaps the most brilliant episode I had ever heard and the most useful writing advice I have ever heard to date. She was brilliant.

I have read many of her short works and each one blows me away. Few authors are capable of evoking emotions so strongly and in so few words. Kowal has perfected her ability to tell a story in a very short space and I can not speak too highly of her work.

This book is no exception. It lacks some of the depth of Austen but it flows much more quickly and never feels drawn out. Despite it’s predictable nature (if you have read a Jane Austen book you know how this one is going to turn out), it was a fun book to read and one I fully recommend.

Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughan

Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie VaughanI wish that this book did not have such an unfortunate cover on it.

Carrie Vaughan has been on my radar for quite some time. She attends the Albuquerque science fiction and fantasy convention every year and always has very smart and interesting things to say. I have also read a small number of her short stories and found them to be imaginative and very well written.

I have to admit that the covers for her books held me back for a long time, though. The protagonist, Kitty Norville, is a werewolf that works at a radio station as the late-night DJ. One night she starts talking about vampires and werewolves and other paranormal things as something to pass the time between rock songs. It becomes so popular that her show gets syndicated and suddenly paranormal creatures from all over the country are calling her at night to ask for advice.

The book is short and shows Kitty growing from a young werewolf who is subservient to her pack to one that is strong and confident and willing to fight for what she feels she deserves. The beginnings of the book are a little hard to read as Kitty is mistreated by her pack leaders (the alphas) and she simply cowers and takes it. She quickly starts to stick up for herself, though, which gets her into trouble.

I feel like this is a good start to a series. If the story ended here it would be disappointing. Knowing that more books are already written means this is a good first chapter for a character who still has lots of growth and mystery to solve.

Kitty is interesting as a character and her sections about taking phone calls on her radio show are probably the most exciting and interesting parts of the book. I am excited to read the second book and see where the character goes.

Howliday Inn by James Howe

Howliday Inn by James HoweThis remains my favorite in the series of stories about Harold, the quiet and friendly dog, and Chester, the cat with the overactive imagination.

In this story they are sent to a boarding house for pets while their owners go on vacation. Chateau Bow-wow is every bit as creepy as the name and the overcast sky indicate. With all the mysterious howling and the unusual animals being boarded there.

Then there’s a murder and a kidnapping and somebody finds an empty bottle of poison and suddenly Chester’s imagination is alight and he’s ready to accuse everybody of nefarious deeds.

This book takes the premise of the first book and steps away from it in an interesting way. Bunnicula — titular character that started it all — is nowhere to be seen. This works because Bunnicula is not really a character but a McGuffin, an object for Chester to get upset about and for Harold to be indifferent about. Now they are placed in a position where they know nobody, there are several strange and unusual characters around and suddenly Chester’s suspicions mean that everybody is a possible murderer.

When I was little I found this book intense. I could not wait to find out what was going on. I don’t remember actually believing any of Chester’s theories. He’s always so off the wall that I never took him seriously. However the book is good at convincing the reader that Chester’s theories are at least the most reasonable with the information given.

The fun of the story is to see how wrong Chester is with the given facts.

With that, it’s still a fun book. The jokes are still funny (to me) and the mystery is interesting enough that my six-year-old found it very intense, but not too scary.

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

Firefight by Brandon SandersonI feel like this is like one of those Marvel superhero movies. Not because it’s about superheroes because it really kind of isn’t. Not because it’s about super powers, or defeating powerful being, or phenomenal cosmic energy, or comic book logic, though it has all those things in it.

It feels like a Marvel movie because it is as predictable as having tacos on Taco Tuesday.

And somehow it’s still really awesome.

Every Marvel movie has basically the same bad guy. (Loki gets a pass on this one because he’s awesome.) All the other ones are just some feller who wants to be the worst thing to happen to the world since the last funny-colored guy to want that. Their villains are generic. That’s not why we watch them. We watch them because Tony Stark says funny things while he’s getting beat up, and Steve Rogers gives all the extras lots of opportunities for jokes and Bruce Banner always has something clever to say and Loki’s going to show up soon so we might as well watch Thor until then.

Firefight is like that. You know what’s going to happen. There are some Epics, in this case several, that David doesn’t know how to kill. Then he figures it out and he kills them. What makes it work is David. His constant optimism and fear of water and of other things that are kind of irrational fears for somebody who is willing to go head to head with demi-gods in a hope that he will figure out their one weakness in time to not die. David is the reason this works.

David spouts his metaphors (which are actually similes) that somehow are terrible and don’t make sense except they kind of do, once you see his thought process behind it. That, plus his recent discovery that there are ways, possibly, for Epics to stop being evil and a mystery is slammed into the heart of a more-of-the-same episode.

David meets new characters, makes new friends, finds new enemies and does it all while in the midst of an existential crisis of what he has spent his entire life teaching himself.

It’s all very teenager.

There’s a new setting this time that is fascinating and new Epics with exciting new powers. There are bits and hints of the story coming in the final book that are tasty morsels and there is lots and lots of action.

Which is awesome. It’s just, I’ve seen it before.

(Am I the only one that can’t stop seeing a flaming Texas falling on New York City when I look at that cover?)

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerJeff Vandermeer is known for writing what is referred to as the New Weird. He writes weird stuff.

For some reason that description has never appealed to me so I tended to shy away from his books. However, lately I have been hearing a lot of good things about his writing and decided to give it a try.

Annihilation is like one of those nineteenth century exploration novels where a party explores a mysterious island and terrible things happen to them. Only this is a modern novel and the terrible things are based on fungi and mushrooms and hypnosis and something very very strange that is going on.

The entire book is told as the journal entries of a woman who is identified only as The Anthropologist. She is accompanied in her exploration of Area X by The Surveyor, The Biologist and The Psychologist.

They discover a buried tower and an erect lighthouse with mysteries that pile on top of mysteries. Madness and fungus inspired horror ensue.

This is the first book of a trilogy that sets up a mystery that offers intrigue and compelling reason to read the rest of the series. If the exploration of hidden mysteries and the discoveries of seemingly otherworldly locales sounds fascinating then this is the book for you. Jeff Vandermeer sprinkles mysteries around with wild abandon, all of them feeling connected and solid enough that the answer must be just one more piece away.

It isn’t. This is the first book of a trilogy but watching The Anthropologist (none of the characters are ever named) stumble through the discovery of deeper and deeper layers of mystery is fascinating and compelling.

I found myself hoping that this expedition (the twelfth) will get home alive, will discover the mystery and make it out.

This is a compelling first book in a trilogy that promises to have some fascinating conclusions.

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon WilliamsIn science fiction there is an expected anomaly that is referred to by a phrase coined by Vernor Vinge. It is called the Technological Singularity, or Singularity for short. The idea is that at some point in the future our technology is going to advance to the point where we — as we are now — will not be able to understand it.

There have been many singularities throughout history. If we were to somehow show people of two hundred years past the internet and streaming videos and Skype and smart phones it would appear as magic to them. Thus the Singularity is just an extrapolation of the Arthur C. Clarke dictum about any sufficiently advanced technology.

Implied Spaces is about a post-singularity universe in which many universes, available via wormholes, have been created. These universes can be created with custom physics and following different laws and rules than our own universe. The worlds, born out of the minds of video game players, have evolved into a variety of places where people can choose to live. Death is no longer truly possible because of technological resurrections and Aristide travels around the universes with his wormhole edged sword and his AI avatar cat studying the implied spaces.

The implied spaces are the ones that exist, not by design but by implication. When people create universes they create certain things they are looking for. The implied spaces are the areas or things in the universe that exist, not because they were part of the design, but because the design implies they exist.

With that as a premise it seems hard to imagine how this book could not be excellent. The ideas involved are fascinating and have a certain symmetry to them that feels very well planned.

However, this is another book that I just didn’t love. Part of it is the post singularity setting. Much like the post singularity setting of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief I found my inability to understand what was going on too much of a hurdle to cross. The advanced technology of the post-singularity universe feels like an excuse for the author to not bother explaining. Descriptions lack detail, characters lack substance, and the universe at large lacks any sense of reality. The whole feels like the outline of a poorly conceived video game that is badly in need of a concept artist to give some flesh and color to some of the concepts.

Walter Jon Williams’ writing is a bit spartan and feels undeveloped, almost choppy in places. This surprised me because previous Williams books have been long-winded enough that they begged to be shortened. Alas even when writing a shorter work with shorter sentences and smaller paragraphs he still comes across as telling too much.

I had a really hard time getting into this book, which might be setting, or it might just be me, unable to grasp the confusion that is a post-singularity universe. Your mileage may vary.

Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Quest by Robin HobbI will start by saying that if you are looking for a book to lift your spirits and give you hope for happy times and lightness then you probably don’t want to read this book. However, if you don’t mind seeing a master storyteller show you how a character’s life can go horribly, horribly wrong then this is the book for you.

Robin Hobb tells the story of young Fitz with all the emotion that the character deserves. He is young and his passions are high and he vows, in his naïveté to avenge himself on King Regal. Fitz sees a man who has murdered and destroyed lives out of a simple child-like fear or naked ambition. Regal killed his own father to claim the throne but more personally he tortured and killed Fitz, who only survived because of the Wit magic that his mother’s lineage gave him.

The problem is that Wit magic is outlawed and an abomination and Regal hunts down all who possess it. Fitz’s death was also rather public so any who recognize him know him for the abomination that he is.

Unable to see his friends, his family or his loved ones again Fitz nourishes his friendship with Nighteyes, his wolf companion.

Fitz is an interesting character. He’s trained as an assassin but he isn’t very good at it. He fails at it many times, especially at the critical moment when he tries to avenge his own death. He is the son of a charismatic leader and soldier yet when he fights he turns into a berserker, wild and thoughtless. He is riddled with flaws both emotional and physical. His body has been poisoned and beaten enough times that he is frequently paralyzed by fear of being beaten again.

Verity is more heroic, Kettricken is more capable, Chade and Burrich are both more skilled. Even Nighteyes possesses a contentment with his lot that escapes the young bastard son of a deceased prince.

But Hobb chose Fitzchivalry as the hero of her books because he is the catalyst. His is the touch that sparks the flames in others. When Fitz is around then things start to happen. It was because of Fitz that Verity journeyed across the mountains to the Rainwilds, searching aid from the Elderlings. It is also because of Fitz that Kettricken fled Buckkeep to save her unborn child, and the Fool fled with her. Now it is Fitz, looking for Verity, that triggers a search from Queen Kettricken and the Fool that will take them across the mountains to discover not only what Verity sought but the bones of an ancient civilization buried deep in the heart of the mountains.

I loved this book like I loved the two before it in the trilogy. Amidst all the brutal punishment that Hobb deals out to Fitz across the course of this series there is a bit of bittersweetness to this ending. His choices could not have ended any other way.

This book also pushes a lot of my other buttons. I have always been a bit of a pushover for exploring abandoned or lost civilizations. Finding ghost towns is still exciting. Visiting archeological sites fascinates me. To have large portions of this book filled with Fitz and his party exploring abandoned roads and buildings, discovering the mysteries of a long lost people that no longer exist, was just the right thing to push the story over the top.

It is that hint of a deeper, richer history and a people that have vanished that intrigues me so deeply. It is that richness that drew me into Tolkien’s work when I first read it. It is that same depth that I look for and love in most fantasy books. It is the feeling that people lived here long ago and all we have is relics of their past that brings to me that sense of wonder that fantasy literature is so well known for.

I would have read it anyway. I would probably have loved it no matter what. Robin Hobb has convinced me at this point that she knows characters and what to do with them well enough that I trust her.

Assassin’s Quest is brutal. Fitz gets even more battered and beaten, both mentally and physically. But it is also beautiful. It is a story about how much Fitz is willing to sacrifice for his King, his people, for what he sees as right. It is also a story about devotion, about prophecy and about loss and what that means.

Fitz is surrounded by a cast of characters who bring their own powerful resonances to the story. Kettle, the exiled old woman who refuses to leave his side on his search for his King. Ketricken, the Queen of both the Mountain Kingdom and of the Six Duchies, in hiding from Regal until Verity returns. Starling, the minstrel that sees Fitz as a catalyst that will inspire in her an epic that will ensure her future. And last, but not least is the Fool, a pale, fey prophet who is Fitz’s best friend and probably the most fascinating and mysterious character in the series.

This is a satisfying, if bitter, ending to the Farseer trilogy. I couldn’t ask for anything else.

Books I read, Pictures I take.


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