Note: This was written by Sholio, a friend of mine, and I was one of the betas. The sphinx ship was my suggestion.

A gecko shifter secret agent joins forces with a dragon shifter gambler to fight crime aboard a ship shaped like a giant sphinx, while also playing in an underground, I mean illegal, high-stakes poker match. Cue hijinks and every trope ever.

A charmingly over the top fantasy adventure with a bit of romance, but definitely action with romance rather than the reverse. Great action, great characters, utterly cracktastic, and really, really funny. Part of a series about shapeshifter secret agents, but the books are all standalones and you can easily start here. If you liked Marjorie Liu’s Dirk & Steele series, you will like this.

The heroine, Jen Cho, is an adrenaline junkie caffeine addict gecko shifter secret agent who enjoys rock climbing in her spare time and spends much of the book clambering over unlikely places in both human and gecko forms. Jen is hilarious and her unflappable POV is the best.

The hero, Lucky, unsurprisingly has the power to influence luck, which is one of my favorite mutant powers and is played out in consistently entertaining ways. (He can apply it with a purpose, but unless he’s trying for something vey specific, he doesn’t know how it will work. For instance, “Leave the window open” will make the window get left open. But “help me win this fight” could do just about anything.) He is also a dragon shifter, but the way this works is pretty original and clever, not to mention often quite funny.

I don’t want to ruin the hilarity of their meet-cute, but it is truly hilarious. I’ll put it behind a cut, but if you think you might want to read the book, don’t click.

Read more... )

Most of the book is set aboard a giant floating sphinx on which a secret, illegal, incredibly high-stakes poker game is being played. Despite the total ridiculousness of this, so much thought went into the details of how all of that might actually work that it feels weirdly credible.

The supporting cast all feel like real people with lives and motives of their own, down to ship workers who appear in one scene and have two lines.

During the climax, almost everyone aboard the ship is high as a kite for plot reasons, and while the heroes and villains are having their dramatic final battle, they keep having to dodge random people attempting to pet their hair or tell them all about the pretty pink bubbles.

Fluffy and delightful. Definitely a read-in-one-gulp type of book.

Dragon's Luck (Shifter Agents Book 3) is only 99 cents on Amazon!
A novelette set in the Chalion world, in which Gods and demons are real, though powerful and supernatural forces rather than representatives of the concepts of good and evil. (People do generally think that Gods are good and demons are bad, but it’s more complicated than that.) It’s set about a hundred years before The Curse of Chalion. (This isn’t obvious in the text, or at least it wasn’t obvious to me; I think I found it in the author’s afterword.) You can start the series here; it’s unrelated to the other books, and a complete story.

A young man on a mission finds both his task and his entire life unexpectedly diverted when he becomes possessed by a demon. In this case, demon possession means having another personality sharing your mind and talking to you, not having your own personality displaced. In the process of learning about his demon in the hope of divesting himself of it, he learns a lot about himself, his world, and what he really wants from life.

The characters and story are likable and engaging, and the magic system and cosmology, which I enjoyed in the other books in the series, continue to be interesting. It’s a pleasant story with a cozy feeling, but a little slight, especially compared to the novels set in the same world. I was unreasonably distracted by a major character having a name that I have previously only encountered in a Shakespeare play, in a world which seems to have no relationship to ours, but this may not bother anyone other than me.

But if you like small-scale fantasy about well-meaning people, in a world in which altruism is neither stupid nor the sign of an approaching cement truck, you will probably like this. It reminded me a bit of The Goblin Emperor, though with a much more down to earth and informal tone. Bujold's Sharing Knives books also have something of this cozy, domestic feel, though they are romances and this is not.

Penric's Demon
I read this ages ago, but never got around to writing it up. So I may be misrecalling some stuff. Luckily, however, I read it on my Kindle and made liberal use of the note function, mostly to write stuff like “YOU IDIOT” and “Did you consider asking her, dumbass?” and “WTF! Idiot.”

This is something like the tenth book in a series with sub-series and related series and so forth. I would definitely not start here.

I’m not sure where I would advise you to start, or if I would advise you to start. There are two trilogies (“Assassin’s Apprentice” and “Magic Ship”) in which I loved the first book, had mixed but generally positive feelings about the second, and disliked the third. But they’re not standalone at all, so you can’t just read the first books because they end on cliffhangers.

Also, be aware that part of what I disliked about the third books was that they either failed to resolve mysteries or plotlines set up in the first books, or resolved them in ways which I found anti-climactic or annoying, so reading the third book just to find out what the hell was up with [X plotline you care about] may not result in a happy experience.

Spoilers for Assassin books: Read more... )

And then there’s more books that resolve some things but not others, and are incredibly padded – in one book, Fitz spends something like 300 pages angsting over whether or not to leave his cottage. Every now and then he breaks up the monotony by making some tea.

I felt like a compulsive masochist just picking this book up, but I had managed to get invested in a certain relationship between two characters (Fitz and the Fool) in the very first book, and wanted to know what was up with it despite my near-certain knowledge, based on something like nine previous books, that the book would be incredibly slow, the characters’ refusal to talk to each other or pick up on incredibly obvious stuff going on would drive me batty, and it would probably end with their relationship not having progressed at all. Spoiler: I was absolutely right! Also, if you thought Fitz made some stupid decisions in previous books… you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Whump fans note: If you wondered if anything could top a character being tortured to death, the answer is yes.

Cut for detailed, irritated spoilers, mostly involving weapons-grade stupidity and also tragic yet somewhat hilariously OTT whump. Read more... )

Fool's Assassin: Book I of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy
This was one of my favorite books of last year, and I have no idea how to review it.

It's best read entirely unspoiled, but it contains some elements that 1) I would normally warn people about, 2) might not be dealbreakers for people for whom they normally are, due to spoilery reasons, 3) even saying what they are is going to be either spoilery or misleading, 4) but I actually do want to warn people because they really are disturbing, but then the book goes in a completely different direction after that.

Also, most of what I liked about the book is extremely spoilery, but a lot of what made it so enjoyable was that I wasn't expecting it. I can say what happens in the first fourth or so, but again, the first fourth is really different in both tone and content from the rest of the book. ARRGH.

Okay, so, the book contains creepy body horror and a really disturbing (non-sexual) scene of a parent attempting to harm their child. There is an in-book reason for both that may or may not mean that readers who normally wouldn't touch a book containing such things would actually be OK with them in-context. The child is not actually harmed (though scared and upset) and the rest of the book is not disturbing at all, or at least it wasn't for me. Effectively, there is a genre-switch about a fourth of the way in. It starts as a mystery, quickly goes to horror, and then goes somewhere else entirely that is definitely not horror (though it has elements of… um… spookiness, I guess.) Also, it is almost entirely about women and girls and their relationships; there are important male characters, but they're secondary.

Setting is 1920s, post-WWI; I don't recall if we get an exact date, but the time period, like basically everything else in the book, initially looks like a colorful detail but turns out to be crucially important. 11-year-old Triss falls into the river and gets sick. She's sickly in general, so this isn't new; what is new is that her sister acts really weird around her, alternately angry and frightened and generally strange. And Triss herself feels changed, different, with bizarre cravings. Not for blood or flesh, but for much stranger things. Rotten, fallen apples. Doll's heads. Pincushions. And then her parents start whispering about her behind closed doors.

Triss is sure something happened to her in the fall in the river, but she doesn't remember it. Her doctor says this is normal after a shock. But she's not so sure...

And everything on out is giant spoilers for the entire rest of the book. Read more... )

Highly recommended, even in you do need to hastily skim some horrific sections near the beginning. Very vivid and original, with great characters. Definitely not a downer, despite the cover and intro.

Cuckoo Song

I feel bad for the cover artist. They went with the "creepy horror" (very off-putting to me) cover, but a more representative cover would have been spoilery. Probably something that just signaled 1920s; unsettling/non-realistic/odd would have been better.
Ambitious, weird, metafictional horror-fantasy set in a magical city where all but three faeries have fled post-war. It’s now occupied by tightropers who spit out ropes and live in the air, and gnomes who live belowground. Faeries are immortal and every part of their body has its own sentience; they shed glitter constantly and each speck of glitter has its own awareness, which they tune out because otherwise they’d lose their minds. They are not considered dead until there is literally nothing of them left, so the heroine carries her father’s ear and eyeball in a jar; it presumably is still able to see and hear, though not speak. Pre-war, faeries had a wary co-existence with the gnomes, which eat faeries, usually bit by bit. Each eaten limb stays aware until digested. I think. It’s a little unclear what you have to do to a faerie part before it ceases to be aware.

And that is just one of the many, many, many things which are unclear in this odd, frustrating book. The ideas are intriguing, original, and horrific; the execution often uses that maddening trick of excusing its flaws by pointing them out and saying that they’re deliberate. The plot makes no sense? Well, real life often makes no sense. The emotions are weirdly distanced? The narrator is traumatized and emotionally numb. Key incidents are incredibly confusing or elided altogether? The narrator is traumatized and doesn’t want to think about them. Basic facts like how the body part sentience is actually experienced, how big faeries and gnomes are relative to each other (the gnomes can eat a faerie in one bite, but can also have normal-sounding sex with them), what the tightropers look like, the characterization and relationships of major characters, how any race survives when almost all females are killed by the act of giving birth to their first child, etc, are vague or confusing or contradictory or make no sense? It’s because the narrator is a traumatized teenager writing about experiences they don’t understand or can’t face, not a professional writer.

Here’s an example:

Once upon a time there was a writer who couldn't write a fucking book.

I don't know what comes next. That whole chapter's going to need to get thrown out anyway. You completely forgot halfway through that you'd said it was raining at the beginning.

Was it raining?

No one's ever going to know and it's all your fault.

Put a fucking map in the next draft.


The novel held my attention and is certainly plenty weird and ambitious, but using “in real life a traumatized teenager would write an incoherent mess of a book” as excuse to write an incoherent mess of a book did not work for me. The novel was too realistic to work as surrealism, too inconsistent to work as fantasy, and the whole “everything makes no sense because the narrator is a traumatized teenager” device didn’t work for me. These are the exact same problems I had with Moskowiz’s other novel I read, Break, so this is clearly her signature style and I’m just not her audience.

The worldbuilding is really interesting, which made it all the more frustrating that it had so little focus and what we did get didn’t make much sense. However, the novel also does some unusual (spoilery) things with narrative and metafiction, so if you like that sort of thing and don’t mind the issues I had with it, it’s worth a try. The horror is more conceptual than graphic, but dismemberment is crucial to the plot. (One of the things I found most frustrating was that I was really intrigued by the concept of having scattered awareness via shed glitter, eaten body parts, clipped hair, etc, but because the characters tune this out, you rarely get a sense of what that actually feels like.) Note that it contains underage (late teens, not children, but still) sex work (not graphic, but still).

A History of Glitter and Blood
Disclaimer: these are by Sholio (formerly Friendshipper), a friend of mine. If you like my Werewolf Marines series, you would probably like these.

This is going to be more about Guard Wolf, as I read that a lot more recently. It’s a sequel but can be read independently, in an urban fantasy series about an agency of shapeshifters that secretly investigates shifter-related crimes. I would call them urban fantasy with romance rather than paranormal romance with action; there is romance, but the emphasis is on action and ensemble. (The main characters of Handcuffed to the Bear spend most of the book naked and handcuffed to each other, but don’t have sex until the end, when they are no longer handcuffed or naked – well, they get naked, but only after putting clothes on.)

In Handcuffed to the Bear, Casey, a civilian lynx shifter, investigates her friend’s disappearance and ends up handcuffed to Jack, a bear shifter agent, naked and hunted through the wilderness in a “Most Dangerous Game” scenario. (Handwavey high-tech cuffs prevent them from getting loose by shapeshifting.) They bond and try to survive; meanwhile, Jack’s agency is trying to find him. There are some spectacular action sequences in this; my favorite involves a tin-roofed shack, a boat, and a seriously pissed off female orca shifter agent. In fact my favorite parts of this book were the shifter agency ensemble sections, which was good because book two has lots more of that.

Guard Wolf, which as I mentioned is a sequel but can be read independently, concerns one of my other favorite characters from the first book, werewolf and giant woobie Avery. He is a disabled veteran with a horrifically dysfunctional upbringing and a number of odd habits, and since werewolves are generally very clannish, he has no idea whether he’s weird because he’s a wolf without a pack or if he’s just massively fucked up. I adore him and he was my favorite thing about the book, which is saying a lot because I also really like the heroine, a koala shifter who is generally well-adjusted but takes meds for clinical depression, and also because it involves my favorite thing, an evil lab doing evil experiments. The portrayal of trauma and mental illness is extremely realistic, and also worked into the plot in clever ways – at one point the heroine has to do some very difficult and dangerous things while going cold turkey off meds, since she got kidnapped without them.

Guard Wolf is also notable for overcoming my aversion to kidfic. A box of abandoned werewolf pups sets off the plot, and plays a very large role in it. I liked the book anyway. This is impressive. It’s also pretty funny at times – the spectacularly useless jumping spider intern was hilarious – and, despite some dark subject matter, has an overall cozy/comforting feel. Avery needs ALL the cuddles, and actually gets them.

Guard Wolf: BBW Paranormal Wolf Shifter Romance (Shifter Agents Book 2) (Only 99 cents for a full-length novel.)

Handcuffed to the Bear: BBW Paranormal Bear Shifter Romance (Shifter Agents Book 1)
This book will make no sense if you have not read The Just City. Read that first. (I reviewed it; click on the author name tag.) Though the plot is completely different, I would say that if you liked the first book, you will like the second, and if you didn’t like the first, you won’t like the second. Though I did miss the robots. And also several of my favorite characters from the first book.

Since I read this six months ago, I am not going to recap the plot, which is incredibly spoilery anyway. However, feel free to put spoilers in comments.

Like The Just City, The Philosopher Kings is a novel of ideas populated by painfully human (and some endearingly or terrifyingly inhuman) characters. There was some discussion as to whether the first book made sense as something that human beings would do, even with Godly assistance. I thought that it absolutely rang true as a portrayal of a bunch of single-minded fanatics who get together to run things their way. In other words, a cult. Of course, that is an outsider’s insulting term. An insider would call it a planned community. A true believer would call it a utopia.

I grew up in one of those. The details were totally different, but in many ways the atmosphere was very much the same. I was Matthias, taken from my home at a young age and given a name and identity I never accepted. The moment I got the chance, I snatched another name, one that I felt was true, fled, and began doing what I felt was right, which was basically the opposite of everything I’d been indoctrinated into. Sounds good, right? After all, cults are bad, right?

Well… It worked out for me. I had my own values that I picked up elsewhere, and hung on to for dear life, fixing them more and more into the core of my self at every daily attempt to teach me to believe in something else. I like my values and they suit me, but they are odd values for an American civilian (and have caused quite a lot of conflict in my life when I forget that I am the only person in the room who has them.) “I cannot die until my king has safely reached the fort.” "Service before self." “Duty, honour, courage.”

(On that note, thank you very much, Shivaji, Tanaji, Jijabai, Baji Prabhu, Rani Lakshmibai, for inspiration that lived on hundreds of years beyond your deaths. And thank you even more to the Base Commander of the Ahmednagar Army Base and every single person I ever interacted with who was in or working for the Indian army at Ahmednagar. You were the only people who were consistently kind to me, often going well out of your way or bending rules to do so, and that was so consistent that "protect helpless children whether they're citizens or not" must have been knocked into your heads at boot camp. It is an excellent ideal and I am not surprised that I extrapolated it to "ALL these people's ideals are excellent." In fact, I still think they're excellent and had I been Indian myself, I might well have joined the Army. (To be clear: I think the ideals are excellent. No comment on specific military actions, many of which directly contradict the stated ideals.)

But that was me. If I had decided to take my values from the Catholic school I attended, or from Indira Gandhi, or from Georgette Heyer, or from Kurt Vonnegut, or from any of the other thousands of possible influences on me other than the ones I was actually there to learn, I would have done very different things with my life. Being wronged does not always teach you justice. Having a just cause does not necessarily make your actions just.

As I said in my review of the first novel, you cannot make any sense of this book without the idea that depiction does not equal advocacy. I do know Jo a bit, though not well, but certainly well enough to know that she is not an advocate of rape, slavery, infanticide, torture, colonialism, kidnapping, or any of the other absolutely horrifying things presented in the novel and advocated quite persuasively, or else excused and minimized, by otherwise sympathetic characters.

I expect that there are ideas in the book that Jo does agree with, because there are a lot of ideas in the book, but I don’t know what they are and hesitate to guess, with one exception. I think Jo probably really would like to go back into the past and rescue lost or destroyed works of art, if it could be done without creating some kind of catastrophic butterfly effect. I would too. I think anyone sensitive to art would, unless they are very, very devoted to mono no aware and evanescent art; ice sculptors, perhaps, or tenders of cherry trees.

But despite the patent impossibility of the book advocating everything it’s depicting, it does feel like a book that’s advocating something, partly because the characters are all very passionately advocating things (often completely opposed things), and partly because most thought experiment novels are indeed advocating something and in fact were written for that purpose. But if it’s advocating something, what in the world is it advocating?

I think it’s advocating that you think about the ideas presented and draw your own conclusions. Very consistently, characters who are otherwise good or worthy or admirable people have horrific ideas and do horrifying things. Characters with extremely justifiable grievances are not necessarily nice people; characters who deserve to have bad things happen to them meet fates so far beyond what they deserve that that the reader feels guilty for wishing anything ill on them at all; characters who are charming and talented yet not good at all are exalted for their skills rather than for their moral character; Gods have extraordinary powers, but they are no more moral or ethical or right than any given human.

This is all very deliberate. It makes it impossible for the reader to draw the easy conclusion that good people do good things, bad people do bad things, and the morality of an action is determined by who does it, not by the action itself. The latter is a very common cognitive error that is enormously destructive on both small and worldwide scales. “My country, right or wrong.” “Priests are good and holy, so anything a priest does is good and holy.” “That woman is a liar and a con artist; why should I believe anything she says?” “That man is a war hero; who better to hold public office?”

I don’t know if that’s what I was meant to take from the book, which seems to be written as a mirror distorted just enough to make you really examine what you already believe. But it’s what I do take from it.

When I sat down to think about the book, I came to the conclusion, which had not occurred to me before, that I probably would have enlisted in the Indian army had I had similar encounters with them if I'd been an Indian citizen. In other words: I don't, in fact, have an essential problem with belonging to a cult/planned community/very formalized in-group. I just didn't like the one I was actually in. I think this shows how The Philosopher Kings is a genuinely thought-provoking book.

Also: absolutely killer ending. It was perfect and logical, yet completely unexpected. I can’t wait to read the next book.
A completely adorable paranormal romance about the forbidden love between a werewolf boy and a weresheep girl.

The Capshaw sheep shifters and the Wolfe werewolves have carried on a feud for generations in their small town. It’s less murder in the dark, and more avoiding each other, getting in fist fights, and bringing up thirty-year-old fender-benders at inopportune moments. But Julie Capshaw and Damon Wolfe secretly befriended each other as little kids, until it ended disastrously when their families found out.

Julie went off to college, while Damon stayed home. But her English literature degree was about as profitable as one might expect, so back she came to help out at the family farm. Her future stretched before her, long and dreary and full of potatoes.

Needless to say, Julie and Damon’s childhood friendship turns into a very adult romance. But can they overcome his abusive father who rules the pack with an iron fist, the asshole alpha of a neighboring pack angling for an arranged marriage with Damon’s sister, and millennia of bad blood between wolves and sheep?

Of course they can! It’s a romance! But a romance that takes some rather unpredictable turns in the middle, giving it excellent narrative drive. In other unconventional elements, it has a lot of focus on the families rather than just on the main couple, and not just on characters who can be paired up in later books. I especially enjoyed the rifle-toting sheep grandmother.

And, of course, there’s the sheep. The worldbuilding is sketched in lightly but convincingly and originally for both species, from the different ways that sheep eyes work to the different cultural attitudes toward romance. And all the descriptions of sheep running around being heroic and the heroine’s little sheep hooves clattering over the floor never failed to crack me up.

If you enjoyed my Mated to the Meerkat, you will enjoy this – it’s funny and sweet, instant comfort-reading. If you generally dislike romance, this is not the book to sell you on it.

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing was written under a pen name by Layla Wier, aka Sholio/Friendshipper. (This is not a secret.) She’s a friend of mine, but I promise you that I would have adored this book anyway.

Only 99 cents on Amazon. I’m sure you could get an epub copy upon request.
Apollo wants to understand why Daphne would rather be a tree than have sex with him. Athena wants to find out what would happen if she took everyone throughout time who has ever prayed to her to let them live in Plato’s Republic, gave them a doomed island, a bunch of robots, and children to raise as per Plato’s ideas, and told them to go for it. A young Victorian lady named Ethel renames herself Maia and devotes herself to the Just City. Two children, taken from the slave markets and given to the Just City, come to opposite conclusions about its worth.

Out of all of Jo Walton’s strange premises, this one takes the cake. Even more than “Framley Parsonage, but everyone’s a dragon.” But I love that she thinks of ideas like this, has the chops to carry them out, and is supported by a publisher who will publish whatever bizarre book she chooses to write. The Just City is a terrific book that I can’t imagine anyone else writing.

It’s a novel of ideas in the very best sense, full of complex and interesting questions with no easy answers, and populated by three-dimensional characters who care deeply about and are profoundly affected by the issues at play. (The issues include but aren’t limited to consent, free will, nature vs. nurture, whether the ends justify the means, and how idealistic movements and planned communities succeed and fail.) Since I grew up in a planned community, I found the book particularly interesting. It does not escape Walton that one of the most toxic issues in a planned community or progressive movement is the willingness to sacrifice vulnerable members for the supposed good of the whole, nor that the same community can be a utopia for one person and a dystopia for their neighbor.

This is the first of a trilogy, but comes to a conclusion that’s open-ended yet satisfying, shocking but inevitable in retrospect. I guessed where it was going in general, but was completely surprised by the details.

You don’t need to be familiar with or care about Plato’s Republic to read this. The book explains everything you need to know. It’s much more about larger issues of utopia/dystopia than about the Republic specifically, though the actual specifics are from the Republic. Note that it contains rape, slavery, child harm, and other disturbing things, and also characters endorsing all sorts of terrible opinions. This is not a book to read if you want the voice of the author interjecting to assure you that terrible things are terrible. It’s very much a book where many opinions are presented and it’s left to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

If you intend to read this, avoid reviews. There’s several plot twists that will be more satisfying if you don’t know about them in advance. Spoilers are fine in comments.

The sequel, The Philosopher Kings, is out now.

The Just City
Whether or not you will like this playful novel about Indian superheroes depends largely on how much you like its distinctive voice. Here’s the opening paragraphs:

#

In 1984, Group Captain Balwant Singh of the Indian Air Force’s Western Air Command had dangled his then three-year-old son Vir off the edge of the uppermost tier of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, nearly giving his gentle and hirsute wife, Santosh Kaur, a heart attack in the process. With the mixture of casual confidence and lunacy that is the hallmark of every true fighter pilot, Captain Singh had tossed his son up, caught him in midair and held him over the railing for a while, before setting him down safely.

His son’s future thus secured, Balwant had turned to shut off his wife’s uncanny impersonation of a police siren with the wise words, “Nonsense, foolish woman. See, my tiger is not afraid at all. He is born for the sky, just like me. Vir, say ‘Nabha Sparsham Deeptam’.”

Vir had not been in the mood for the Indian Air Force motto at that point, his exact words had been, “MAA!”

All these years later, Vir still remembers that first flight with astonishing clarity: the sudden weightlessness, the deafening sound of his own heart beating, the blur of the world tilting around him, the slow-motion appearance of first the white dome of Sacré Coeur and then a wispy white cloud shaped like Indira Gandhi’s hair behind his flailing red Bata Bubble-Gummers shoes. His father had said that moment had shaped his destiny, given him wings.

But his father isn’t here now. Flight Lieutenant Vir Singh is all alone in the sky.

#

Vir, like the other superheroes, got his powers on a commercial flight to Mumbai; why and how this occurred is never explained and doesn’t matter. The powers derive from the characters’ deepest desires, so Vir, an all-Indian hero, became Superman; Uzma, a British-Pakistani aspiring actress, is loved by everyone she meets; Tia, a discontented mom who wishes she’d made different life choices, gets the ability to generate copies of herself. (One guy gets the power to control weather based on the condition of his stomach, but exactly what this power means to him is not explored.)

The characters’ knowledge of superheroes and the fact that most of the superheroes they know of are not Indian provides a lot of the comedy and social commentary of the book, as they discover that all the good superhero names in English are taken, and the Hindi alternates are incomprehensible or unpronounceable to a global audience. (Vir’s suggestion, based on the highest Indian military decoration, is shot down due to no one who isn’t in the Indian Air Force having heard of it.) And is a giant superhero battle with lots of property destruction the inevitable climax of any superhero story?

The characters are lightly but vividly sketched. They’re types rather than well-rounded characters, but they’re fun types. My favorites were Uzma, who just wants to be famous, Tia, whose power is more badass than it sounds, and the super-baby, or rather the hilariously bonkers cult following attracted by the super-baby. But the wry narration was my favorite part of the book, tossing off quips and references like a never-ending shower of brightly colored confetti.

There is a sequel, which I will definitely read, but this book ends conclusively. I think the sequel takes place several years later and mostly involves different characters.

Turbulence
In Dresediel Lex, an alternate Los Angeles once ruled by Aztec Gods but now taken over and colonized by undead corporate wizards, Caleb, a gambler and risk management expert embarks on a risky love affair with Mal, a reckless parkour player… and discovers a deadly threat to the city.

This book is set in the same world as Three Parts Dead, but in a different part of it and involving different characters. They can be read independently.

I didn’t like this quite as much as Three Parts Dead, because it had less of the charming dark humor of the latter and I didn’t like the main characters or their relationships quite as much. It’s still an excellent book, the funny moments are really funny, and it’s perhaps the only book I’ve ever read that actually has something interesting to say about human sacrifice.

Caleb is the son of Temoc, once a priest to the old Gods, now an outlaw and terrorist/rebel against the new corporate overlords his son works for. One of my favorite parts of the book was their fraught relationship, consisting almost entirely of Temoc unexpectedly materializing, Temoc and Caleb squabbling and guilt-tripping each other, and then Temoc de-materializing when he either gets too frustrated or the people chasing him getting too close. Temoc is a terrible person and worse father, but he has his good side and was probably my favorite character. He was also responsible for my single favorite line in the entire book. It’s at the climax and involves a ghastly eldritch horror, and you’ll know it when you get to it.

The ideological divide between father and son involves human sacrifice. Temoc makes the very valid point that Caleb’s corporate bosses are also sacrificing people, just minus the altars and knives: they oppress the poor for the benefit of the rich, they steal water from outlying areas to quench the thirst of their desert city, and they enslave the old Gods. So rather than the simple (and dull) point that human sacrifice is bad, the book raises a much more interesting and relevant set of questions: how much human life and pain is worthwhile to keep a society functioning? Is there any moral difference if the people being sacrificed are consenting to some degree or another? Is it possible for a society to exist without oppressing someone? Are there options beyond walking away from Omelas?

These questions are woven into an excellent, atmospheric novel, full of cool bits. Though I wasn’t that into the main romance, I loved Caleb’s non-romantic relationships. In addition to the father-son one, he also had a lovely friendship with Teo, his co-worker, who in turn had a fun romance with an artist named Sam. (Since I realize the names are ambiguous, that’s a lesbian romance.) The structure is good, and the climax is excellent. I especially liked how even the bit characters had agency and individuality.

Max Gladstone reminds me a bit of China Mieville in the inventiveness of his worldbuilding, exuberance of his prose, and concern with injustice and inequality, but with a more optimistic and humane perspective. His characters may be hurt, physically or emotionally, but they are never punished or shamed for trying to do the right thing. They fight against heavy odds in an unjust world, but even the worst of them have moments of human kindness and concern. That includes not only Temoc, but also the evil overlord skeleton sorcerer.

Spoilers below! Read more... )

Two Serpents Rise (Craft Sequence)
I’ll quote the cover copy, so you’ll see why I was interested in this.

"A masterful tale of ambition, jealousy, desire, and superpowers.

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates--brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find--aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge--but who will be left alive at the end?"

The blurbs talked a lot about moral depth, complexity, and ambiguity. Between the blurbs and the plot, I thought I’d get The Secret History with superpowers, starring Professor X and Magneto.

The first fourth or so of Vicious is exactly that. The rest, not so much. I had very mixed feelings about the book as a whole, and not just because the actual book matches the plot but not the implications of the blurb. The first fourth is a stunning work of storytelling. I was absolutely glued to it. The compulsive readability wanes as the book goes on, but maintains reasonably well throughout its length. Throughout, the structure is cool, the prose is good, and many of the ideas are interesting.

Here’s what’s not so good: the characters. The two main guys seem interesting when they’re at school together – morally dark, sure, but Schwab does a great job there of suggesting complexity, hidden depth, potential for great good or great evil, etc. Then they become superheroes, and turn into one-note sociopaths.

Eli, who suddenly becomes a religious maniac serial killer, is more like a half-note. His POV sections are really boring. He’s on a delusional mission from God. He kills people because he’s on a delusional mission from God. That’s literally it. When he thinks of Victor, it’s just as someone he needs to kill because he’s on a delusional mission from God.

Victor either also becomes a sociopath, or was always one; it’s hard to tell. His POV is more interesting because he does think about things other than hurting or using people, but basically, he hates Eli (no complexity there) and wants to kill him, and will torture, kill, and use people without hesitation or qualms to bring Eli down.

I expected a fraught, love-hate relationship between them. Nope! They just want to kill each other. I expected moral ambiguity. Nope! They’re both sociopaths. Pitting one sociopathic murderer against another is not moral ambiguity, nor does it bring up interesting moral questions. “If a bad guy kills a worse bad guy, does that make him a good guy?” is not an interesting question. (Answer: No.)

There are three other POV characters who get much more limited page time. One is also a sociopathic murderer. Another is a collection of potentially interesting traits that don’t cohere into a real-feeling character, but at least is not a sociopath. The last is an actual, believable, three-dimensional, mostly coherent character who is not a sociopath. The book would have been more interesting if it had been entirely about her.

There may or may not be something about the process of becoming a superhero that turns people into sociopaths, or turns certain people into sociopaths. This is discussed but never really explored or resolved. Of the four superheroes who get significant page time, three are sociopaths but it’s unclear if they were before they got powers.

I recommend this if you’re OK with sociopathic POV characters and want to read a cat-and-mouse game between two sociopathic villains. On that level, it’s pretty good. If you’re looking for more human characters, I can’t recommend it. Which is too bad, because if the whole book was more in the vein of the beginning, when it seems like the characters might have actual depth and complexity, it would be stunning.

Vicious
The character is a lawyer entering a nightclub:

As she swished toward the spiral staircase, she cut a wake through demons and skeletal Craftsmen, vampires and priests and technomancers and a deep purple, multi-tentacled horror it took her a moment to place as a client from a decade back.

Talk about "hit the ground running" - this fantasy begins with Tara, a young wizard-lawyer, literally crashing to earth after getting flung out of floating magical law school. After attempt to live a quiet life in her home village ends catastrophically due to a darkly hilarious culture clash involving ordinary people's lack of appreciation for having their dead loved ones raised as mindless zombies, however helpful that might be in terms of fighting off an invasion, she heads for the big city, where she is hired as legal representation and wizard for a temple hoping to resurrect their dead God.

The year is still young, but this is my favorite fantasy that I've read so far this year. It reminded me a little of Terry Pratchett and a little of P. C. Hodgell - the wry tone, the bizarre and bustling city, the sense that even the walk-ons have their own motivations, the multiple plotlines that come together into a satisfying whole, and the sheer exuberant inventiveness. It's written in omniscient, with a narrator who periodically comments (usually hilariously) on the action. The law-based magic system is one of the most interesting and original I've encountered. And embedded in a whole lot of action, legal maneuvering, and magic is a thoughtful look at consent, free will, and whether the ends justify the means.

Even the worst characters have comprehensible motives, and while there's some gruesome violence and acts of highly dubious morality, it's not a grimdark world. Some characters learn empathy, some hit bottom and rise from there, and others have more everyday epiphanies, like getting better at their jobs or making new friends. The heroine is ruthless and terrible at human interactions, but not malicious; "What do you mean, you're running me out of town with pitchforks because I resurrected your dead loved ones as zombies to fight off the enemy? They died fighting to protect you all; I'm sure it's what they'd have wanted!" is typical of how she starts out. It's not where she ends. But my favorite character is the bewildered young priest who chain-smokes to stay in touch with the memory of his beloved fire God.

Highly recommended. I can't wait to read the next books.

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence)
The continued adventures of Lady Isabella Trent, Victorian explorer and DRAGON NATURALIST. In this volume, Isabella sails around the world on the appropriately named Basilisk, accompanied by her young son Jake, an underwater archaeologist named Suhail, and other companions.

I enjoyed this the most of the series so far. It strikes a perfect balance between action and exploration. Isabella has matured enough to be interesting in a different way from the monomaniac of the first book: still obsessive and headstrong, but more introspective, thoughtful, and interested in people in addition to dragons.

The dragons are great, and there are lots of them. I thoroughly enjoyed the interconnected mysteries of taxonomy, biology, and history. Some mysteries are solved, but others are deepened. I feel confident that the final explanation will be satisfying. (I’m assuming it’s not going to be Isabella discovering evolution, because that seems to already have been discovered – she mentions the concept of different species having a common ancestor as if that’s an ordinary idea to consider.)

The supporting characters in are more vivid and interesting than in the previous installments. Jake comes to life as a personality, both like and unlike his mother, obsessive but on a different topic. Their relationship neatly steers between the obvious clichés of “I hate you for loving dragons more than me” and “Who cares about dragons now that I’m a mommy.” Suhail is a satisfying possible love interest, both sexy and geeky. To Isabella, he’s mostly sexy because he’s geeky, though she does appreciate the multiple occasions when his underwater explorations require him to remove his shirt. I also liked the adrenaline junkie ship’s captain, Aekinitos.

But my favorite supporting character was Heali’i. And that leads neatly into spoilers. Read more... )

A tremendously fun and unexpectedly thought-provoking installment of the series, with all the dragons one could desire.

I read an ARC that was missing the illustrations, but based on the stellar quality of the illustrations in the first two books and the extremely tempting captions, I will have to buy the actual book to get them. I would also pay for a book of more illustrations plus Isabella’s field notes on dragons, and I bet I’m not the only one.

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)
In which Lady Isabella Trent, alt-Victorian dragon naturalist and explorer, goes to Africa.

Needless to say, she learns about dragons, but also about herself. She’s already grown up quite a bit at the start of the book, and grows more during it, becoming less blinkered, reckless, and self-centered. This allows for a wider and more complex view of both the individual people and the cultures she encounters, but loses some of the humor of the first book, which largely came from Isabella being monomaniacal.

The first half of the book is largely taken up with Isabella traveling and meeting people and learning about the region’s culture and politics— but not, alas, its dragons. That part was interesting on a worldbuilding level, but slow. I also really, really wanted more dragons.

About halfway through, the plot gains a lot of suspense, some dragons appear, and I got more involved with Isabella’s character growth. The second half read very quickly, and had some fun surprises. But while the dragons were satisfyingly different from the ones in the first book, they play a surprisingly small role— more quest object than actual presence. Given how fascinating they were in the first book, I definitely could have used more dragons in this one.

While a solid story in its own right, the book does feel like a lot of it is there to set up later events. I’m looking forward to Voyage of the Basilisk, which I suspect and hope will have more dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)
This short paranormal romance sounded right up my alley: two characters snowed into a cabin while battling hell-hounds and a curse! But it didn’t make much use of these delicious elements, other than the curse. Instead, it focused on the consent issues inherent in the old sex pollen trope. (Outside forces compel the characters to have sex.) Unfortunately, that didn’t work either, due to a combination of bringing up the issues without actually delving into them, plus a truly astounding amount of “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Olivia once shared a sizzling kiss with her co-worker Erik. He then shoved her away and proceeded to freeze her out for the next six months. Then she has to bring some documents to his woodsy cabin in the dead of winter. Next thing she knows, her car is wrecked, Erik has revealed himself to be part frost giant, and they’re both snowed in with a lot of poorly explained supernatural baddies banging down the door.

But it gets worse! Erik is under a curse, the nature of which he won’t explain except to repeatedly, and I do mean repeatedly, demand that she shoot him in the head before he hurts her. After a lot of repetitive arguing, he finally tells her that the curse means he will be compelled to have sex with her in his part frost giant form, which is extremely well-hung.

She’s totally fine with this, since he’s now acting nicer, she’s had a crush on him all along, and she thinks he and his giant frost dick are super-hot. She does attempt to explain this, but gives up due to getting convinced that the reason he’s so dead-set against having sex with her is that he doesn’t want to have sex with her. Meanwhile, Erik is convinced that she doesn’t want to have sex with him, so any curse-driven sex they have will be rape. The “you need to kill me” argument repeats about five more times.

Some plot happens! They have sex! It’s a bit exhausting and rough but otherwise delightful! (His ice junk isn’t that big. It sounded a bit bigger than Liam Neeson’s.) Regarding consensuality, Olivia enthusiastically consents. Due to the curse, Erik doesn’t have a choice, but he would like to have sex with her under better circumstances and the reason he doesn’t want to have sex is that he can’t bring himself to believe that Olivia is actually consenting.

But due to Olivia again not being quite as direct as she probably could have been (by which I mean that she didn’t repeatedly bellow into his ear “YES I WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU I AM CONSENTING I AM CONSENTING THIS IS TOTALLY CONSENSUAL I LOVE FROST COCK YES I SAID YES I WILL YES”) and Erik again leaping to the worst possible conclusion, he decides that the curse-driven sex was rape and she hates him. She decides that he hates her and hated having sex with her. Then they finally manage to have an actual conversation and clear all that up. The end!

A very smooth, conversational, easy-reading style doesn’t save this paranormal romance from the Scylla of Stupid Decisions and the Charybdis of Communication Failures. Olivia was interesting but underdeveloped; Erik had very little characterization at all. As for exploring consent within the sex pollen trope, it probably it needed to be either much darker or to dig into the issues much more. “Murder/suicide or mildly rough but awesome sex that both parties would like to have with each other anyway” is right up there with “Cake or death” in terms of non-dilemmas.

The purpose of the sex pollen trope is typically guilt-free enjoyment of dubcon fantasies. You get all the trappings— “I know I shouldn’t but I just can’t help myself,” roughness, neediness, sex with someone who’s otherwise unavailable, swept away by passion, animal urges, spontaneity— without anyone being a rapist.

I have seen sex pollen fanfic that does explore consent issues, but it tends to go very dark. Typically, the characters really didn’t want to have sex and feel terrible afterward, or even if they did want to, they think the circumstances made it rape and feel terrible afterward. Neither scenario makes for a happily-ever-after without a whole lot of post-climax work.

Meljean Brook is a writer people keep reccing to me on the strength of good/unusual worldbuilding, lots of action, interesting characters, and cracktasticness. I will definitely try some of her other books! I think this was a bad one to start with. Other reviewers who didn’t like it mention that it’s very atypical of her usual style.

Frozen
I read this when it first came out; please correct and forgive inaccuracies of memory. (Appropriate to the story!)

Patricia, an Alzheimer's patient, is in a nursing home. The nurses think that she recalls living two completely different lives (and is slipping between realities now) because she has dementia; we, the readers, know that she's recalling alternate timelines.

In 1949, she agreed to a marriage proposal, or not. The woman who agreed became Trish, trapped in a miserably abusive marriage... but also living in the best possible world as far as the general good is concerned, with peace, prosperity, and a moon base. The woman who declined became Pat, who falls in love with a woman, travels, and has a life full of love and self-fulfillment... in a world that slides into nightmarish total war, and seems to headed straight for Armageddon.

Though there are plenty of full scenes with dialogue and so forth, there's also a lot of summary narration. This works surprisingly well; my interest only flagged in the last fifth or so, when I started losing track of the multiplicity of alternate children and grandchildren and their significant others. It's a book about two largely mundane lives that inexplicably has the narrative grip of a thriller. I credit Walton's writing skill for this, and I'm still not sure how she did it. Between the depressingness and the summarizing, by all rights I should have bounced off this book rather than reading it in a day.

I didn't write about the book till now because I had such mixed feelings about it. Artistically, it's very well-done - an unusual use of tell-not-show that succeeds in (mostly) being compelling reading. However, I also found it excruciatingly depressing. It deals centrally with five of my top ten most depressing subjects: Alzheimer's disease, agonizing death by cancer, nuclear war, domestic violence and emotional abuse, and being consigned in a nursing home where you're helpless and mistreated and cut off from everything that makes life bearable.

Regarding the alternate timelines, the ending strongly implied that it was Patricia's choice of who to marry that led to sweeping changes between the timelines. I assume it was a "butterfly effect" in which she made one small change that led to several other small changes that ended up having a gigantic domino effect, but I would have liked to be able to see some of how that happened. I couldn't figure out what it was she did that was important. If I recall correctly, history started changing in big ways right after she either got married or didn't. Trish did get involved in political volunteering, but if I recall correctly, history had already changed at that point. Am I misremembering when history started to change, and it was the volunteering after all? Or was there some other crucial action that I missed?
I have read quite a few memoirs by British Victorian travelers, including some by women. They make good reading, if you like that sort of thing: evocative, intriguing, infuriating, sometimes ahead of their time, sometimes very much a part of it. The glimpse into a different mindset is a large part of what makes them interesting, in the sense of "the past was a different country."

And, of course, they would be even better reading with DRAGONS.

A Natural History of Dragons is the first volume of the memoirs of Isabella, Lady Trent, famous explorer and dragon naturalist. They include lovely pencil illustrations of her obsession: dragons.

Possibly inspired by Isabella Bird (A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Sketches In The Malay Peninsula), Isabella is not exactly an unreliable narrator, but she is a product of her fictional culture— a woman with some liberal views (though still within her context) and some distinctly not. The attitudes of the characters are not necessarily critiqued within the book; that is left to the reader. Similarly, Isabella can be self-centered, obsessive, privileged, and reckless. She’s not always likable, but her flaws are what make her interesting.

Personally, I was fine with being allowed to come to my own conclusions without being presented with an obligatory “voice of the correct point of view” opinion within the text itself. I found Isabella’s flaws and blinkered point of view refreshing. It made the book read much more like its premise— the memoir of a Victorian lady explorer WITH DRAGONS— than it would have if she had been given all the attitudes of the modern reader.

On that note, be aware that the book contains animal harm in the form of the hunting and dissection of dragons. Also a hilariously indignant defense of such by the now-elderly Isabella, ostensibly to her younger readers of more delicate dispositions, but also, on a meta level, to outraged readers of the novel by Marie Brennan, pointing out that many naturalists of earlier eras did indeed hunt as well as observe.

The dragons are meticulously detailed, yet pleasingly mysterious. Isabella is obsessed with dragons largely because they’re poorly understood, so we learn with her. By the end, we have a handful of answers and a whole lot of new questions.

Among the more subtle worldbuilding touches is that Judaism takes the place of Christianity in terms of being the religion that caught on. Because the names are different, I wasn’t sure of this until something religious finally got mentioned without a terminology shift, when some characters sit shiva for the dead. I leave it to the alternate history buffs to debate whether the British Victorian age would have stayed otherwise similar to the actual one in that event. (Not to mention in the event of DRAGONS.)

Leisurely but engrossing, the novel immerses you in a familiar-but-alien world and a familiar-but-alien narrator. I am a sucker for the scientific exploration of a fantasy phenomenon, and this book very much satisfies on that basis. And while one mysterious dragon-related issue (the burned-in footprints) turns out to have the obvious explanation, the motivation of the villain was unexpected, creepy, convincing, and probably fodder for more story to come. I enjoyed the hell out of this book, and will be getting the sequel shortly. I could read an unlimited number of volumes of Isabella wandering around, studying dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
An odd, beautifully written re-telling of "The Snow Queen" as a children's book.

Hazel is a little girl who's peculiar and alienated in the way that a lot of people who grow up to be writers were: engrossed in unpopular books and interests, pre-emptively disdaining most people her age so she won't be as hurt when they reject her. She was adopted from India by a white family, and is not only the only Indian girl in her school, but knows nearly nothing about India; this isn't a huge part of the story, but certainly adds to her feeling of being different.

Her one friend is Jack, a boy whose father is gone and mother is depressed. Everyone tells them they shouldn't be friends, because boys and girls aren't at that age (eleven) and because Hazel is weird. Then one day, Jack suddenly dumps Hazel and starts hanging out with the popular boys. Everyone tells Hazel that this is natural and she needs to find girl friends. Her mother warns her that you can't make someone love you again when they've stopped; she knows because Hazel's father left her. And then Jack disappears - moved away, supposedly.

But Hazel is certain that Jack didn't just naturally stop loving her. She thinks he was enchanted and kidnapped by the Snow Queen. So Hazel follows the rules of fairy-tales... and finds herself in a creepy fairyland, questing to bring back her best friend.

This a well-written, melancholy book with striking images and a strange subtext. Though the fairyland is real, and Jack's enchantment is real, everyone in the real world but Hazel believes that the enchantment is a metaphor. They tell her that childhood friendships often break up naturally, that people often fall out of love, and that no amount of wanting and persistence can make someone love you when they don't. This creates an odd tension to Hazel's quest: is it real? Even if fairyland is real, is the enchantment really imposed from outside, or just the externalization of the truth that Jack no longer loves her. If he really doesn't love her, is it heroic or self-destructive and stalkery for her to keep trying to get him back?

Then again, he really did disappear. And the Snow Queen really does have him. There is no metaphor supplied for that scenario: that is reality. But it's a reality that sits oddly with the "he really doesn't love you" metaphor.

This is a book where I really did wonder what the author's intent was. Were readers meant to take the "You can't make anyone love you" admonitions as the truth, and believe that while she saves Jack's life, he will never love her again? Or were those statements merely obstacles Hazel faces, and she really did see through them to the truth that he did love her, that his enchantment was metaphoric for depression and peer pressure, and that if she kept standing by him, eventually he'd remember that he cared for her all along? I may be taking all sorts of unintended subtext from this book, but it's very metafictional to begin with.

Hazel's quest is like an illusion-picture that flashes back and forth between being a young woman and an old woman every time you blink. Heroic affirmation of persistence and friendship. Blink. Unsettling story of an emotionally immature girl desperately pursuing a boy who naturally grew apart from her.

Breadcrumbs
This unusual and lovely fantasy makes use of some genre concepts, like elves and goblins and a young man who unexpectedly ascends the throne, to tell a completely different story than the one you might expect.

Maia is the half-goblin son of the Emperor of the Elves and a wife he never wanted. Since he was never expected to rule, he was relegated to the middle of nowhere and raised by an emotionally and physically abusive courtier who didn’t want to be there. Then an airship carrying the emperor and all his immediate heirs blows up. Maia is whisked off to the capital to ascend the throne.

This is a slow-paced book, meditative and thoughtful. Almost the entire story is about Maia adjusting to rule and to culture shock, learning how to relate to people, and trying to use his power wisely and well. Maia is a genuinely good person who wants to do right; reading the novel, I realized how rare that is as a central motivation for a protagonist of fantasy. I found it extremely refreshing.

Though not a secret garden book, it has many of the traits of that genre: the focus on place, the meticulous attention to detail, and the inner blossoming of the protagonist as they negotiate that new thing, friendship. I should mention that this is one of my very favorite genres. Not all stories have to have things exploding every few pages. Sometimes the planting of a seed, or the selecting of a signet ring, is more compelling than any amount of sword fights.

It’s not a flawless novel, but its flaws are not the sort that spoil the book. The food seemed somewhat random; I kept trying and failing to piece together a coherent cuisine from eel casserole, egg-drop soup, chamomile tea, and curry. That’s not remotely a major issue, but I would have enjoyed a more inventive look at elven food.

Slightly more seriously, the villains are sometimes hilariously inept, making the heroes’ victories over them seem less triumphant than they should. There’s one exchange that goes more-or-less like this:

Good guy: “You’re conspiring to murder the emperor! Admit it!”

Captured villain: “I don’t know anything about any conspiracy!”

Good guy: “Okay, maybe you’re not involved, but your buddy John definitely is!”

Captured villain: “Huh, what? John’s not the conspirator, Peter is. …oops”

Maia is also awfully lucky in that the majority of the people who he either gets assigned or semi-randomly selects to be in his inner circle are absolutely exceptional people, intelligent, kind, ethical, likable, compassionate, and bent on doing their best for the young emperor.

But those flaws show what sort of book it is: it’s one in which sorrow and injustice exist, but good people also exist, and appreciate goodness in others. Kindness is not the domain of chumps, nor does it get characters squashed under the bootheel of the author. Doing the right thing tends to be appreciated and bring about good results. For a book whose hero is frequently tormented by loneliness and grief and social anxiety, it's strangely comforting.

If you’re looking for fast-paced excitement, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a well-written, engrossing novel that will make you feel good, you’ve come to the right place.

This novel was written by Sarah Monette under a pen name, but it’s not much like her books about Felix and Mildmay, and only a little more like her short stories; liking or not liking those won’t indicate how you’ll like this novel. But if you’re a fan of Pamela Dean or Jo Walton or Ursula LeGuin, you are very likely to also enjoy The Goblin Emperor.

The Goblin Emperor
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