The Iron Ship (The Gates of the World #1)

23492427Title: The Iron Ship
Author: K.M. McKinley
Series: The Gates of the World

The order of the world is in turmoil. An age of industry is beginning, an age of machines fuelled by magic. Sprawling cities rise, strange devices stalk the land. New money brings new power. The balance between the Hundred Kingdoms is upset. For the first time in generations the threat of war looms.

In these turbulent days, fortunes can be won. Magic runs strong in the Kressind family. Six siblings strive – one to triumph in a world of men, one to survive murderous intrigue, one to master forbidden sorcery, one to wash away his sins, one to contain the terrible energies of his soul.

And one will do the impossible, by marrying the might of magic and iron in the heart of a great ship, to cross an ocean that cannot be crossed.

Rating: C+

The Iron Ship captured me pretty quickly because of its fascinating world-building. Instead of the generic medieval-ish setting, so many fantasy novels go for. The setting reminds more of the industrialization. Just with added necromancy.
Talking of this: Magic takes an active role in the book. It’s not just a vague presence like in some high fantasy novels. Wizards exist in this world and they aren’t even that rare. Now I’m not saying that magic in fantasy always needs to manifest in the form of spell-casting. I’m just saying that I enjoy it if it does happen to manifest in the form of wizards who can raise people from the dead and ask them questions.

There are also amazing characters: the novel mainly revolves around five siblings who have all chosen different careers. A soldier, a playwright, an engineer, a businesswoman and a guider (a wizard who can guide the spirits of the dead into the afterlife…and also do necromancy). The playwright has OCD and depression. This is clearly stated in the text and even influences the plot, something I never saw in a fantasy novel.
Their sibling-relationships are also really well portrayed: they agree, they disagree but they do care about each other.

However, pretty soon there were a few buts that clouded my enjoyment. The world-building was great but it was again a world where women don’t count much. I am getting tired of worlds that have two moons, talking dogs and magic that can reanimate the dead but women being considered as important as men is apparently outside the realm of the possible.
Similarly: the main characters? Two women and almost a dozen men. It’s sad because those two women? They are amazing. (Towards the end a third one appears who will probably become important in the following books but that still doesn’t balance it out).

Then there’s the matter of the plot. For a long time, not that much happens. People move from one place to another. A big ship is built. A fraud is uncovered. A woman invites a man to visit her observatory (both, not a euphemism and very much a euphemism). Vague references to necromancy, magic in general and dead gods are made. I don’t think fantasy always needs to have huge things happening but all this is…well. Very little. And there weren’t even many hints about larger things to come. I kept reading and wondering what would happen eventually but couldn’t do more than make vague guesses. Something must happen with the ship. After arriving at point B something must happen to the character who went there.
And it stays like this for over 3/4 of the book. And then suddenly a lot of things happened. Most of them bad and most of them ended with lots of people dead.
But even then I still didn’t have a much clearer idea of where the plot will be going in the following books. Yes, some things are hinted at but overall it feels more like I read a prologue and the first few chapters of a book instead of all of it.

But despite this, I still enjoyed the book and plan to read the next one (hoping that the pacing will be better). I am unhappy with the treatment of the female characters but most other things are refreshingly different from many generic fantasy-novels. The author’s prose just flows and she manages to convey enough about the world without ever resorting to infodumps.

ARC received from NetGalley

 

The Silver Key (A Dance of Dragons #1.5)

25727975Title: The Silver Key
Author: Kaitlyn Davies
Series: A Dance of Dragons #1.5

Weeks have passed since King Razzaq discovered Princess Leena’s affair and banished her lover from the kingdom. So when Mikza suddenly appears in the golden palace, chained and bound, Leena is floored. Even more mysterious is the man he travels with—a redheaded prince of Whylkin.

Unable to control her curiosity, Leena follows the strange convoy, hiding in the shadows as they meet with her father. But what she witnesses will the change the course of her life, and the world, forever.

Taking place parallel to the events in THE SHADOW SOUL, read Leena’s side of the story as she teams up with Jinji to save Rhen’s life and seeks to escape her father’s hold once and for all.

Rating: E

What do you think the men fighting these battles would want? To live, knowing they helped my father destroy thousands of lives? Or to die at the hands of something greater?

Well, I would guess they would want to make that choice for themselves instead of a sad, spoiled princess making it for them but what do I know? After all, they are just peasants. And non-noble characters are just there for the canon-fodder (and to make Leena feel a bit bad on occasions). Noble men are just there to remind us constantly that this society treats women horribly. As in ‘let’s take the worst of every really existing society and mix in some bad dystopias’-horribly. Which is a) annoying because come on. This is fantasy. You can make up everything and come up with women being utterly worthless? and b)

Because this society is clearly based on a middle-eastern/Arab one and in the previous book we saw the white guys treat their women better (still not equal but definitely better) and I’m just saying the author should have thought more about their world-building.

Now when it comes to noble women: we only see Leena. Who invented feminism. And who is still the only one who sees something wrong with this society. Other women are just too vapid and silly for that. At least that’s what I assume since no other women is even mentioned (except Tragically Dead Mom(TM)). Leena has no friends, isn’t close to her sisters…nothing.

Ugh.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Review of book 0.5 in the series
Review of book 1 in the series

Did They Really Do It?

27850354Title: Did They Really Do It? From Lizzie Borden to the 20th Hijacker
Author: Fred Rosen

Nine of the most controversial violent crimes in America’s history are reexamined in these compelling stories of true crime
 
Dr. Samuel Mudd set John Wilkes Booth’s broken ankle, but was he actually part of the larger conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln? Did Lizzie Borden brutally murder her own parents in Massachusetts? Was admitted jihadist Zacarias Moussaoui really involved in the terrorist plot to destroy the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? In a series of provocative and eye-opening true crime investigations, author Fred Rosen revisits some of the most shocking and notorious crimes in America over the past two centuries to determine once and for all . . . did they really do it?
 
Applying logic and techniques of modern criminology while reexamining the crime scenes, official police records, and the original courtroom testimonies of witnesses and the accused, Rosen explores nine infamous crimes that rocked the nation and the verdicts that were ultimately handed down. From Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s execution for treason to the kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh baby to the Ku Klux Klan slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi to 9/11, the alleged perpetrators get another day in court as Rosen calls into question the circumstantial evidence and cultural context that may have determined guilt or innocence in each case.

Rating: D

It feels a bit like the author picked out some true-crime cases that interested him and then tried think of something that could link them together and came up with ‘Did they really do it?’ even though in some cases that is not the most burning question. A more accurate link is probably that in most cases the circumstances and the time had huge influences on the trial and the verdict.

And if Rosen had just gone down that road, delved deeper into the Rosenbergs, Zacarias Moussaoui etc. and thrown out Lizzie Borden, the Boston Strangler and Bruno Hauptmann which all feel like badly done filler this might have been a much better book. Instead, we get a very mixed bag.
So, according to Rosen, Lizzie Borden did kill her father and step-mother. The proof? She never married.

Yes, you see Lizzie was abused. Physically by her step-mom and her father didn’t do anything about it or sexually by her father and the step-mom didn’t know/care/do anything. Or perhaps both. He isn’t quite clear on that. But that’s why she killed both. And then ha suddenly decides that she was sexually abused and that’s the reason she never married. Because as we all know that is the only reason why a woman would never marry. All others just have to throw herself at the first guy that comes along…

And that is actually all the “proof” we get for his conviction that Lizzie Borden was a killer which is…weak.

When it comes to Bruno Hauptmann he thinks that he was rightfully convicted of abducting and (accidentally) killing Charles Lindbergh Jr. He might have had a partner but that’s not what the chapter is about. The chapter is actually about Lindbergh Senior’s antisemitism and support for Hitler. Now I’m not saying these things should be ignored because of what Lindberg did and what happened to him but it has no relevance for the question of whether Hauptmann was innocent. The abduction happened in 1930. Lindbergh only declared his sympathy for Hitler and his views years after that. There is no connection between that and the death of his child and therefore no need to spent over a third of the chapter on it.

Now the chapter on the Boston Strangler really does take the cake for ‘useless filler-chapter’. Yes, Albert DeSalvo did commit some of the murders but not all of them. (He reaches that conclusion, not by a meticulous study of the sources but because by now there has been DNA-testing was done that exonerates him in one case). So the Boston Stranger were most likely Stranglers. How many were there? Which murders were most likely to be DeSalvo’s doing? Who knows or cares? But apparently, the author has a minimum page-count he needs to reach…

And that is a shame because the chapters that are more about how time and circumstances like the Red Glare, racism and antisemitism or the post 9/11 chaos influenced the courts: they’re pretty good. Though to come back to one of my initial complaints: One of the chapters is about three murdered civil rights activists in 1960s Mississippi and from the way the case is presented I didn’t get the impression that there was ever the question ‘did they really do it?’ The problem was rather that due to racism, the way the justice system worked back then, more racism and even more racism it wasn’t possible to get convictions for everybody that was involved in the murders. At least that’s how I (who had never heard of this case before this book) understood it. So either there were more doubts than the author let on which means he did a bad job at presenting the case, or the case was pretty clear-cut. In that case, he did a bad job when he decided to include it in a book that’s supposed to be about cases where there’s doubt about the true guilty party.

If that book was a paper that got handed in for grading it would come back with ‘missed the topic’…

Tears of Pearl (Lady Emily #4)

8124190Title: Tears of Pearl
Author: Tasha Alexander
Series: Lady Emily #4

Even before Emily steps off the Orient Express in beautiful and decadent Constantinople, she’s embroiled in intrigue and treachery. The brutal death of a concubine in the sultan’s palace allows her first foray into investigating a crime as an official agent of the British Empire–because only a woman can be given access to the forbidden world of the harem. There, she quickly discovers that its mysterious, sheltered walls offer no protection from a ruthless murderer.

RatingD-

“I don’t think I could survive if anything happened to her. She’s been beside me my whole life.”
“You would. I’d make you.”
“I’m not sure I’d thank you for it.”
“You forget how persuasive I can be.”

In which Emily is worried about her best friend dying and Colin is slightly creepy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure he means well…but couldn’t he have said how he’d help her through it instead of ‘I will make you survive’? Also, two lines later they are talking about their sex-life again in that cutesy Victorian wink-wink-nudge-nudge way that did have me grin the first two or three times they did it but once every private conversation they had led to the same I wanted to yell ‘Can you screw each other without constantly talking about it?’.
The mystery was just ridiculous. It involved so many coincidences that I just couldn’t stretch my suspension of disbelief that far. And yes, cozy mysteries are books in which the main characters just keep stumbling over dead bodies or met people who just have but even for that genre the coincidences were over-the-top.

I did like that death in childbirth was a topic since I can’t remember many novels that are set in an era where that is an issue that talk about it. (No matter if they were written in that era or in the present day). But the way it was discussed left me mostly unmoved. Emily’s fear of it was told rather than shown. The only results were some long internal monologues and her not telling Colin about the fact that she thinks she might be pregnant. (And even that can just as easily be attributed to the fact that she fears Colin would stop her from doing more dangerous things once he knows).
Ivy’s storyline again did nothing for me. This book makes it painfully obvious that Ivy is just the foil to Emily. Ivy is the ‘good Victorian woman’ in the eyes of her contemporaries, while Emily is the one with too many strange ideas for her pretty little head. Ivy will always do what she is told and she’d never dream of demanding answers. Even if the answers concern her and even if she’s scared.
Ivy is there to tell the reader how Victorian women were expected to behave and how much the good old days sucked. Ivy is there so that Emily can worry about her. Ivy is not in any way a character in her own right with interests, hopes or anything. She’s a symbol, somebody Emily can angst over and occasionally a plot device.

Talking about characters that aren’t really characters: Every single woman from the harem. They were there so that Emily could have discussions with them about whether women in the West are better or worse of than their counterparts in the ottoman empire.
And while I think that that it’s not intentional, it has some unfortunate implications that the only woman who is unhappy in the harem is the one who is secretly Christian. Because only if your religion tells you it’s wrong, you’d be unhappy in such a place. Now that brings me to my biggest gripe with the book.
Spoiler alert. It’s not directly about the mystery part but it is intertwined with it and it concerns events at the very end of the book so read at your own risk.

Continue reading “Tears of Pearl (Lady Emily #4)”

The Shadow Soul (A Dance of Dragons #1)

20903363Title: The Shadow Soul
Author: Kaitlyn Davies
Series: A Dance of Dragons #1

When Jinji’s home is destroyed, she is left with nowhere to run and no one to run to–until she meets Rhen, a prince chasing rumors that foreign enemies have landed on his shores. Masquerading as a boy, Jinji joins Rhen with vengeance in her heart. But traveling together doesn’t mean trusting one another, and both are keeping a deep secret–magic. Jinji can weave the elements to create master illusions and Rhen can pull burning flames into his flesh.

But while they struggle to hide the truth, a shadow lurks in the night. An ancient evil has reawakened, and unbeknownst to them, these two unlikely companions hold the key to its defeat. Because their meeting was not coincidence–it was fate. And their story has played out before, in a long forgotten time, an age of myth that is about to be reborn…

Rating: D

The world building in this was just very confusing. Jinji and her people are clearly inspired by Native Americans. Including that one day the white men – Rhen’s ancestors – came, took their land and suppressed them. But…they suppressed them…only sometimes a bit…or something. The only thing Jinji talks about is that they are not allowed to speak their language anymore. To make sure of that a guy visits them once a year and checks on them…And Jinji still speaks the language (though it is not clear if she is fluent or if she just knows some words that can’t be translated in the language of the ‘Newworlders’).
I just got the impression that the author had realized how problematic Pocahontas is but enjoyed it nevertheless and wanted to rewrite it with less evil oppressors but still wanted to keep the oppression at least a bit. Just like in the prequel novella I read, it seems that there didn’t go that much thought in the worldbuilding.
I also couldn’t make out how many ‘Oldworlders’ there roughly are. We don’t get any number for Jinji’s tribe but I had the impression they were roughly 100, rather less than that. Are there any other natives in this world? Perhaps but probably not. At least, I think so. Jinji repeatedly says that she is the only one left after her tribe was slaughtered in the beginning of the book. She could mean that she is the last of her tribe (the Arapapajo) but other tribes are never mentioned. Were there ever others? Were there ever more Arapapajo? Who knows?

Sometimes the book does things well. For example, when Jinji thinks about how she will continue disguising herself as a boy as long as she is in the city because being a Native among white people sucks but being a Native girl would suck even more. But at the same time, the bad guys in the books are a) Ye Olde Fantasy equivalent of Arabs and b) as cliché-evil as you can get.
Seriously, I was surprised that their king wasn’t introduced stroking a black cat. He’s evil because he’s evil and enjoys laughing diabolically.

The rest of the book is also not more than average. The plot just…happens. I rarely had time to worry too much about the characters because they are never in danger for very long. Chapters frequently ended in cliff-hangers, which were then resolved in the course of the next chapter. Often with the help of plot-convenient magic but nobody really wanted to talk about that magic because reasons.
So, yes I liked this more than the prequel novella but it still wasn’t that good.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Review of book 0.5 in the series

 

 

Flesh and Spirit (Lighthouse #1)

437790Title: Flesh and Spirit
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Lighthouse #1

The rebellious son of a long line of pureblood cartographers and diviners, Valen has spent most of his life trying to escape what society — and his family — have ordained for him. His own mother has predicted that he will meet his doom in water, blood, and ice. Her divination seems fulfilled when a comrade abandons Valen in a rainy wilderness half-dead, addicted to an enchantment that converts pain to pleasure, and possessing only a stolen book of maps.

Offered sanctuary in a nearby monastery, Valen discovers that his book — rumored to lead men into the realm of angels — gains him entry into a world of secret societies, doomsayers, monks, princes, and madmen, all seeking to unlock the mystery of a coming dark age. To his dismay, Valen must face what he fled so long ago, for the key to Navronne’s doom is buried in half-forgotten myth and the secrets of his own past…

RatingC+

I finished this book and immediately went to get the second book so obviously, the author did something right. But I need to make clear that here that means ‘she gave me an interesting character I care about and promised me that some really interesting things will happen in the next book‘.
Valen is somewhat of a typical tortured (white, male) hero but a well done one. He does have some very good reasons for being tortured (really) and he doesn’t use it as an excuse to be a jerk. And it does result in some quite adorable ‘Help! I am suddenly having feelings again and I care! Make it stop!’ late in the book. But if you’re looking for something that inverts this trope of puts a totally fresh new spin on it this isn’t the book for you.
It’s also not like nothing interesting happens in this book. There’s a civil war going on in which three brothers are fighting for the throne. The harvests are bad and a doomsday sect is wreaking havoc and ‘cleansing’ people (by which they mean: killing them). Oh and for some reason the fair folk Danae are really angry about something the humans did to them but nobody quite knows what it was. (They do know that pissed of Danae are bad news, though).
So that’s quite a bit going on, isn’t it? Well, yes, but Valen is usually nowhere near these things happening and only learns about them afterwards. Or he is very much involved in things but he doesn’t have enough information to know what exactly is going on. Or he is in a situation where he can’t do anything about what is happening. Or he doesn’t care because he’s busy with his magic pleasure drug addiction problem (or any of his numerous other problems…).
So it’s all going very slowly and for a large part of the book, I had no clue where all of this was going. And only at the very end, it became clear what Valen’s goal is going to be in book two. Because for most of Flesh and Spirit he was, well not passive but reactive. He does things to get away from his family, he does things to make his life more comfortable and yes, with time also because he cares about the people he meets or because he wants to know what is going on.
But even with the advantage of knowing that I am reading a novel and that most of the things that are happening around/near/with Valen have to be related somehow, I still had a hard time figuring out the bigger picture. And when I began to see something the book was over. Perhaps one should rather see this less as a duet and more as one book split into two. Because as a mid-point for a book it’s good. Some things are beginning to make sense, the hero now knows what to do, the sides are getting clearer. As a complete book, even one that is the beginning of a series, it had an awful lot of setting up and loose threads and very little actually happening.

 

The Golden Cage (A Dance of Dragons #0.5)

21892106Title: The Golden Cage
Author: Kaitlyn Davies
Series: A Dance of Dragons #0.5

In the land of Ourthuro, cruelty is a way of life. The king rules with an iron fist and no one dare defy him–no one except his daughter. Princess Leena is keeping a dangerous secret, she has fallen in love with a soldier and it would mean both of their lives if her father ever discovered their affair.

But Leena will risk it all to be with the man she loves–her heart, her life, her freedom. And when her brother’s birthday celebration takes a dangerous turn, Leena is forced to make a decision that will change the fate of her nation and eventually the world.

Rating: F

This is the story of Princess Speeciaal Snoowflaake in the country of Eveerything Is Hoorrible Aand We Like Voowels A Lot. Which isn’t really an improvement over Every’thing is Horryble And We L’yke Apostrophes and Ys a lot since the naming conventions are not the problem I have with so many fantasy novels.
So Ourthuri is a Horrible Place. It is so horrible that the Queens get killed if their first child isn’t a boy.

Would you like me to go into why this is an extremely stupid thing to do and an incredibly cheap plot device to show that this place is horrible?
No? I don’t care. I’m going to do it anyway.

First: noblewomen worthy of a king don’t grow on trees. Noblewomen, in general, don’t grow on trees but the fact that usually not every noble family is considered high-ranking enough to provide a future Queen/the mother of the future ruler (just as Franz Ferdinand. Not the band. The Arch Duke. Even if he hadn’t met a very unfortunate end, his children wouldn’t have succeeded him on the throne because their mother wasn’t noble enough…she wasn’t even noble enough to get a space in the family-crypt which is why Franz Ferdinand and her rest somewhere else…and that was a short excursion to the house Habsburg). Killing them off, just because they didn’t manage to produce an heir immediately is cliche-villain-evil and stupid.

Second: even if we assume that every noble is equal and everybody can marry the king: shouldn’t a lot of noble families go ‘You know what? We have this nice marriage proposal from a different noble family which is a lot less risky. We really prefer them.’
I mean there is no mention of any superstition connected to what influences the gender of children. (Along the lines of ‘if she is pure enough and never has improper thoughts the child will be a boy’). They should know that if they marry their daughter to the king there is a 50% chance of her dying. So the have the choice between ‘marry her to a random noble, forge some connections, perhaps gain a bit wider influence’ or ‘marry her to the king, possibility of gaining a lot of influence but just as likely to go back to square 0 (or even further since presumably having a daughter who ‘failed’ would cause a loss of prestige)’.
Yeah. There’s always going to be people who try but the king in this story needed 13 wives to get a son.
Thirteen.
Henry VIII is laughing about him.
And how big is that bloody country that they have 13 noble families with daughters that are the right age to marry/not yet promised to somebody else/noble enough for a king/willing to marry their daughter to him (especially after he went through…the first 6 wives or so).

Having voiced my minor misgivings about some details of the world-building let me come to the plot.
Now, this is a 50-page prequel-novella which means it doesn’t have terribly much plot (I also need to point out that I seem to have a problem with prequel novellas in general. They might be set chronologically before the main books but they tend to be written more for the people who have already read the main books…so bear that in mind).

The story revolves around Princess Leena, one of the middle of the king’s 12 daughters. She can breathe underwater, is unhappily in love with a palace guard (to clarify: not unhappily because he doesn’t love her back, unhappily because the love to a mere palace guard is forbidden) named Mikzahooq (bless you), and is special because she is the only one who can see how horrible everything is.
Out of all these things, I would have been really fascinated by the ‘magically being able to breathe underwater’-bit but that’s the one we learn least about. In fact, we only learn that she can do that and she wonders if she got it from her mother but doesn’t even go into details about whether magic is common in this world or not.

What we do learn over and over again is that Leena’s and bless-you’s love is pure and sad and that Leena is special because everybody else is stupid.

[After a description of how she and her half-sisters are all sitting on thrones, dressed in fine clothes]

Like statuesque decorations in flowing dresses and jingling jewelery, their faces were hidden behind veils. A backdrop. Pieces of art to be admired. Leena Sighed. Of the twelve princesses, she seemed the only one uncomfortable with the whole display.

Of course. Leena quickly invents feminism. Nobody else had misgivings about that before. It can’t possibly have to do the fact that nobody else has voiced those misgivings to her because the king is a tyrannical psychopath and trusting the wrong person could be fatal. Move on. Oh by the way: the veils are not made of fabric but of tiny golden chains. Oh symbolism. So subtle. Much wow.

000fd4eh

A cage invisible to everybody it seemed except her. But it was there.

Or don’t move on and keep going on about this.

A princess. But it was not how she saw herself. This girl was weak, demure, meant for nothing other than a life of birthing sons. Leena wanted so much more for herself.

Yes and you are the first one to think like that, my dear. When Leena is not moping about not being like the other princesses she has weird ideas about property:

Her clothes belonged to the maids that dressed her. It was their job to rifle through her drawers. And the topside of the bed belonged to the servants who snuck in every morning to carefully pull her sheets back into place and fluff the pillows. Even in her room, nothing truly belonged just to her.

Yeah. Sure.

What she actually bemoans here is that she doesn’t have any private place to hide things. Which is a valid concern but so different from ‘Strictly speaking, my pretty dresses, belong to my maids’, that I do not know where to start with all the wrongness.

So…yeah. Plot. Leena and bless-you-guard want to escape because true love. Will they succeed? You have to read this novella to find out!

I have the whole series as ARC-bundle so this is going to be fun. But then the author’s prose is rather nice and perhaps this just suffers from crap-prequel-syndrome.
I hope.

ARC provided by NetGalley.