I remembered two more of the ones I’d forgotten to record from January. (Courtesy of ebooks, which make it easy to look and see what I’ve been reading recently.)
A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness. I met the author at SCIBA a few years ago, I think, and was interested in picking this book up because she and I spent our time chatting about alchemy. It says something about me that when I finally got around to reading it, I was disappointed to discover that in addition to alchemy, there were also vampires. I just . . . really don’t care about vampires anymore. Especially handsome rich vampire lovers being hunted by the Rulers of Vampirekind because they’re in love with the wrong kind of woman (in this case, a witch). It’s a reasonably well-done example of same, and there are some interesting bits of worldbuilding — starting with the fact that the Rulers of Vampirekind are actually a triumvirate of Rulers of Three Kinds of Supernatural Creature — but in the end: too much vampire, not enough alchemy.
Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon, Benjanun Sriduangkaew Novella retelling a Chinese myth, genderbending the archer god Houyi to be a woman. This is definitely my favorite thing of Sriduangkaew’s I’ve read thus far; a lot of her stories are too baroque for my taste, but this one is more restrained in that regard, and carries a fair bit of emotional weight.
Kingdom of Strangers, Zoe Ferraris. Ebooks are dangerous, yo. I read this one immediately after the other two at the end of February, having mainlined the whole series (what there is of it at present, anyway) in the space of a few days.
I enjoyed this one, and think Ferraris’ writing is continuing to get stronger, but I’m a little puzzled as to why it’s billed as a Katya Hijazi and Nayir Sharqi Mystery. It might better be called Katya Hijazi Mystery, Featuring Ibrahim Who I Don’t Really Care About and a Cameo Appearance from Nayir. Seriously, he’s barely in the book, and when he’s there, he doesn’t contribute much at all. Which is especially frustrating because of the situation between him and Katya: she spends a chunk of the book worrying about whether he can cope with her continuing in her job, whether he’ll freak out over her non-traditional behavior, etc, only she basically doesn’t talk to him about her fears — so all we get from Nayir is a rather pathetic scene where he thinks about how he’d put up with pretty much anything in order to keep Katya. And y’know, Nayir should not be pathetic. I almost found myself wanting Katya to drop that relationship and go find somebody else, except this is Saudi Arabia, so even a pathetic version of Nayir is a really good catch for somebody like her. Anyway, good story, but I would have very much liked it to show them continuing to build their partnership, rather than barely communicating.
Codex Born, Jim C. Hines. Second in the Magic ex Libris series, and you should definitely read Libriomancer first. That book establishes the conceit (libriomancy lets you pull things out of books and use them) and the framework (the Porters and Gutenberg’s role in setting them up); this one takes those things and starts breaking them in all kinds of fascinating directions. It asks “what if you did X?” and “what’s behind the official story?” and other fabulous questions, and it also brings in Bi Sheng, who is not someone I had heard of before and am delighted to know about now. If you are the sort of person for whom such things are selling points, go buy this.
The Alchemist of Souls, Anne Lyle. Acquired in my World Fantasy book bag. I am exceedingly picky about my historical English fantasy, so it was with relief that I realized, a few pages into this one, that Lyle knows what she’s doing. It’s an alternate Elizabethan history in which there are at least two major changes: first, Elizabeth married Robert Dudley (who recently passed away), and second, the New World is inhabited not only by humans but also by supernatural creatures called skraylings, who have established diplomatic relations with England. The book revolves around the politics of the skrayling embassy and the weird connection between the main protagonist and their people. I could wish certain things about the skraylings had been established more clearly earlier on — I was confused about several aspects for quite a while, and then felt the revelations were a bit infodumpy in ways that might have been avoidable — and also more female characters in significant roles besides just Coby, but it was still entertaining enough that I will probably pick up the next book in the series.
Broken Homes, Ben Aaronovitch. The series seems to be settling into its stride, having established enough stuff that now Aaronovitch can just get on with telling the story rather than needing to put pieces on the board to tell it with. This pleased me, because it meant the central plot here felt interesting the whole way through. I knew the big spoiler going into the book, though, and having kept an eye out as I read, I count myself firmly in the camp of people who think That Event was not set up well enough in advance. Not only do I question it on a character level, but logistically, I don’t know when and how the practical groundwork for it was supposed to have been laid. I was looking for signs, and didn’t see them. So I sincerely hope the next book reveals That Event to be not what it was initially billed as — though even then, I’ll feel Aaronovitch could have done a better job of setting it up.
The Atrocity Archive, Charles Stross. First of the Laundry Files series, which I had previously encountered in the giant ebook of Tor.com’s first five years. I think I’m glad I read the Tor.com stories first, because while this novel was enjoyable enough, I wasn’t hugely impressed; I found it less amusing than the shorter stories, and it also suffered from the problem that all of the bosses and colleagues who get along with Bob and help him out are male, while all the paper-pushing annoying bureaucrats are women. (The one significant female character who was at all sympathetic was too much of a damsel in distress overall for me to really like her.) This book isn’t bad, but I probably wouldn’t keep reading if it were all I knew of the series.
The Concrete Jungle, Charles Stross. This was bound together with The Atrocity Archive, but it’s a sequel novella, and as it constitutes something like a third of the word-count of the other book, I think it’s fair to count them separately. 🙂 It has the virtue of including a more useful and likeable female character; on the other hand, the “problematic female boss” thing stomped on the accelerator and drove off a cliff, so. Mixed bag, really. I will, however, read more.
The House on Durrow Street, Galen Beckett. It’s been long enough since I read the first book in this series (The Magicians and Mrs. Quent) that I had forgotten a great deal, and I’m sure this one suffered a bit from my memory lapses, but it was still quite enjoyable. The setting is a secondary-ish version of our world and the story is sort of Austen meets Lovecraft — except not at all the gimmicky thing you probably thought of as soon as I said that. I like watching Rafferdy mature despite his best efforts to the contrary, and I really like watching Ivy come into her own. Unfortunately, I did not like Eldyn’s part of the story much at all. I can’t remember if I found him this tedious in the previous book, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t like his sister much back then; she has since swapped out “annoying naivete” and replaced it with “insufferable piety.” But my speculation with Eldyn is that Beckett felt obliged to give him equal page time alongside the other two protagonists, and the problem with that is, Eldyn’s portion of the narrative really didn’t have enough meat to support that many chapters. The whole book could have used some tightening up, I think, but Eldyn’s plotline had few enough developments that Beckett had to find ways to fill it out — and the filling often consisted of Eldyn being so incredibly stupid, I wanted to drop-kick him out of the book. He is blind to freaking everything around him and engages in some of the most profoundly idiotic reasoning I have seen in ages. I strongly suspect that giving him less page time would have allowed him to avoid most of that crap and have a more interesting role in the story. (Having said all that, I will be reading the third book eventually: Eldyn is not enough to put me off the other two.)
The Spymaster’s Lady, Joanna Bourne. Somebody recommended this to me ages ago, and I can’t remember whom; I think it was in the context of me talking about why most romance novels don’t work for me, i.e. I want there to be something else of substance going on that the hero and the heroine both care about, rather than them only caring about each other. Well, whoever you were: you were right, and this is much more my speed than most romance. It’s set in Napoleonic France and England, and both the hero and the heroine are spies, on opposing sides. I was still somewhat put off by the zero-to-sixty nature of their attraction to one another, but a) I know that’s part of how the genre operates and b) in this case I think it was kind of necessary; Annique spends much of the book as Grey’s prisoner, so if their attraction didn’t form in the first few pages, it would do so during her imprisonment, and that would be problematic. Which is a thing she points out later on, when they’ve both admitted they have Feels but she’s still a prisoner, and I appreciate Bourne acknowledging that. In fact, Bourne did a pretty good job overall of navigating several issues of that sort; she puts Annique in a genuine bind when it comes to the political plot, and comes up with a fairly good solution that doesn’t involve either destroying the romance (by staying loyal to France) or throwing over her own country for love (by betraying France). I think the depiction of the British intelligence network may be a little anachronistic, but I’m not positive — and even if it is, I don’t much mind. It’s just great to read a romance novel in which the heroine is competent and confident in her skills and the male characters admire her competence and the hero and the heroine care about something significant outside themselves.
The Book of Apex: Volume 4, ed. Lynne M. Thomas. A collection of year four of Apex Magazine, including my story “Waiting for Beauty.” Rachel Swirsky’s “Decomposition” was deeply creepy, but I liked the ending; ditto for Adam-Troy Castro’s “During the Pause.” I particularly enjoyed Genevieve Valentine’s “Armless Maidens of the American West” (what can I say, I’m a folklorist) and Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Weaving Dreams” (ditto).
My Lord and Spymaster, Joanna Bourne. I mentioned ebooks were dangerous, right? I mainlined all four installments of this series in quick succession because it was so easy to just keep buying the next one. 😀
And I did so despite the fact that I think this, the second volume, is vastly inferior to the first. For starters, the whole “ownership” motif really didn’t work for me. I appreciate that Bourne tried to redeem it toward the end, with Jess offering Sebastian the shilling, but it had already been rubbing me the wrong way for most of the book by then, so too little, too late. Furthermore, the non-romance plot here was not nearly so well developed as in the last book. The stuff with Cinq was left rather vague, and the revelation as to his identity was no surprise at all, since there were perishingly few characters Cinq could be. The romantic tension largely came from Jess and Sebastian both suspecting each other of involvement — but since their Feels meant neither ever really suspected it, the tension came across as rather false. The main virtue of this book is that it establishes some interesting background stuff for Hawker, one of the secondary characters, which pays off when he gets his own book.
The Forbidden Rose, Joanna Bourne. Winner of the “most generic and least relevant title” award for this series. The heroine’s network of agents uses a passphrase that talks about how it’s forbidden to pick the roses in the garden, but in the grand scheme of things, the title makes this sound completely interchangeable with any other romance novel out there.
Which is a pity, because it isn’t. This one returns to the strengths I liked from the first book, and furthermore it starts to break some of the conventions you see in a lot of romance novels. The hero, for example, is not at all domineering toward the heroine (though to be fair, Grey in the first book had valid reason to be domineering, what with Annique being an enemy spy he suspected of carrying plans vital to the safety of his nation). Nor is their first time in bed treated as the culmination of the romance; it happens early on, and what keeps them apart is not denial of their feelings but rather entirely valid concerns regarding politics. I expected there to be a point in the story where Marguerite got herself into a sticky spot and had to be rescued by Doyle, and not only did that not happen, it got replaced with something better! So all in all, quite satisfying.
The Black Hawk, Joanna Bourne. It’s always dangerous, reading a book like this one. Adrian Hawker is the only secondary character to appear in all three of the previous novels, and he was my favorite character in the series, period; I was worried that getting into his head would make him much less interesting. Furthermore, when you get attached to a character, you want him to be paired with somebody you think is worthy — it sucks when his match is boring or annoying. So when I finished The Spymaster’s Lady, went looking to see if Hawker got his own book, and saw it was the fourth in the series, I really really hoped it would live up to my expectations.
Which it did. This is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever read that was published as genre romance.
In part, I admit, because of the ways in which it breaks with many genre romance conventions. As in the previous book, sex is not treated as the Proof of Love; the hero and heroine get into bed with each other nearly twenty years before they have their Happily Ever After. (Also, props to Bourne of doing a much more reasonable job with Justine’s trauma in that regard than I normally see in fiction.) The story is not told in a linear fashion; it starts in 1818, when somebody has tried to murder Justine and frame Hawker for it, and then flashes back to their earlier interactions — which helps a lot with that “zero to sixty” thing, since when you get Hawker’s feelings for her in the early pages, it’s clear that they are the product of long acquaintance. Their first encounter isn’t even in their book; it’s a subplot of The Forbidden Rose, which gets picked up from a different angle in the flashbacks. And the feelings of both characters, thank god, avoid the most common motifs of romance-genre language love (e.g. she feels saaaaaaaaaafe in his arms — Justine doesn’t feel safe pretty much anywhere, which is appropriate for a career spy). It would have been wildly out of character for them to fall into those molds; instead their emotions manifest in ways that fit them. There’s even a fairly major subplot which didn’t really have anything to do with the romance, but did tie into the main plot, and set up the fifth book in the series compellingly enough that I was exceedingly vexed to discover it won’t be out until November. 😀 (Paxton: used to be boring to me; now I want his book yesterday.)