Naomi Novik – Black Powder War

91989Title: Black Powder War
Author: Naomi Novik
Series: Temeraire #3

With the Chinese threat neatly dissolved, Temeraire is free to return to Britain and continue to help his friends defend their country. But before they board the ship, Laurence — now a member of the Chinese Imperial family by adoption — receives orders from the British Air Corps that he and Temeraire are not to sail with the British forces. Instead, they must take the land route and stop in Istanbul to collect three dragon eggs which the government has purchased at great expense from the Turkish. But the overland flight is fraught with danger. They will have to scale mountains and cross deserts, evade Napoleon’s aggressive infantry and hide from unpredictable feral dragons. And even before they leave, they discover that Lien has left China before them, intent upon revenge.

She wants to destroy Temeraire by stripping him of all that he holds dear and being a celestial dragon, she has the power and intelligence to carry out her terrible threat.

RatingB-

“It seems very peculiar to me that it should make any difference how one says words, and it must be a great deal of trouble to learn how to say them all over again. Can one hire a translator to say things properly?”

“Yes; they are called lawyers.”

I enjoyed the first two Temeraire books but also had some problems with them. Mainly their lack of plot. It was understandable that the first book in a fantasy-series is heavy on worldbuilding (and that the first book in any series spends a lot of time introducing the characters) but the second also was more ‘things are happening near the characters’ than a more conventional ‘the characters have to get from A to B and on the way they discover that they need to go via Z’ type of plot. As a result, it dragged quite a bit.

Black Powder War finally has a plot. Or at least the first half has. Laurence and his crew have to get the dragon eggs. Things go not as planned. They have to improvise. Once that is done the plot starts to disintegrate again. Laurence and Temeraire just happen to end up in the thick of the war again and there is again a lot of fighting. And I did have the same problems with the fight-scenes as the last time: they are awesomely written but I don’t care enough about the gazillion side-characters to worry about them much. Still, it didn’t feel quite aimless this time around. There might be no typical fantasy-novel goal (kill the evil wizard/retrieve powerful artifact…) but the general aim of defeating Napoleon is much more present than it was during Throne of Jade. And you can’t expect much more from a book about a military force in the Napoleonic wars.

Also: the dragons are cute.


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:

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Book themes for St. Martin’s Day: Read a book set before the age of electricity.

The Five Daughters of the Moon (The Waning Moon #1)

33099589 Title: The Five Daughters of the Moon
Author: Leena Likitalo
Series: The Waning Moon #1

The Crescent Empire teeters on the edge of a revolution, and the Five Daughters of the Moon are the ones to determine its future.

Alina, six, fears Gagargi Prataslav and his Great Thinking Machine. The gagargi claims that the machine can predict the future, but at a cost that no one seems to want to know.

Merile, eleven, cares only for her dogs, but she smells that something is afoul with the gagargi. By chance, she learns that the machine devours human souls for fuel, and yet no one believes her claim.

Sibilia, fifteen, has fallen in love for the first time in her life. She couldn’t care less about the unrests spreading through the countryside. Or the rumors about the gagargi and his machine.

Elise, sixteen, follows the captain of her heart to orphanages and workhouses. But soon she realizes that the unhappiness amongst her people runs much deeper that anyone could have ever predicted.

And Celestia, twenty-two, who will be the empress one day. Lately, she’s been drawn to the gagargi. But which one of them was the first to mention the idea of a coup?

Rating: C

I rarely say this, especially about fantasy novels but: This book would have been better if it had been longer. Especially the chapters featuring the oldest sister, Elise and Celestia, just throw important information at us at lightning speed. By the time of their first POV-chapters, many important parts of their story have already happened and all we get are flashbacks to those events. In addition to the things that are currently happening of course. In Celestia’s first chapter I almost laughed because it was so crammed with dramatic reveals, surprising twists and shocking events at a speed that made it hard to take it seriously (other authors would get a whole book out of what happened there, if not a trilogy).

It’s not quite as extreme in Elise’s case. Partly because not quite as much happens directly in the chapters and partly because we met Elise before her POV-chapter through her sisters (either directly or via her sisters thinking about her) while Celestia is barely mentioned by her sisters as being an actual person. (She’s only ever the future Empress). But there is still so much that happened to Elise before the book started that her chapters also feel like missing half the story.

And there is so much else that is done rather half-heartedly: One of the sisters cares deeply about another person but that person falls under a spell so that they don’t even remember that they once knew her. What the reader sees is one chapter where the two are still together, then in the sister’s next chapter, she has already figured out that the person is under a spell so there is no emotional fallout from the situation. It felt more like reading an early draft that needed more depths.

The world building also leaves some questions: The Crescent Empire can only ever have an empress. She doesn’t even marry (not a human man at least, symbolically she marries the moon…it’s complicated), just takes lovers to conceive children. Yet, for the ordinary people, life is still sexist: the men alone go to war and without a man to earn money, families will starve. (And also for the empress and her family there are various rules about when they are allowed to lose their virginity).

I already bought the second book anyway. Because the story is still good even though it could have used a lot more polishing. But also because the book stopped mid-scene. Of course, the first book in a series is supposed to set everything up but I also expect a closure of something. The heroes solving one problem, only to discover that they caused another/now see the much bigger problem that was hiding behind the smaller one. At the very least I expect them to have a plan about how to solve the big problem. But The Five Daughters of the Moon just…stopped. Nothing is resolved. Nobody has any idea what to do. Things just got a lot worse and then it was over.


This is also part of the Reading for 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:

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Book themes for Calan Gaeaf: Read any of your planned Halloween Bingo books that you didn’t end up reading after all, involving witches, hags, or various types of witchcraft.

A ‘proper’ witch appears at one point in the book to help the sisters (or perhaps not…) and some of the sisters have supernatural powers (though mostly passive ones)

Revelation (Rai-Kirah #2)

618197Title: Revelation
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Rai-Kirah #2

The former slave Seyonne, is busy fighting demons in the mental landscapes where they possess the living, just as his people always have–until the day when he meets a demon who is not a ravening beast, but an urbane charming being who knows altogether too much about Seyonne. To the pursuit of an explanation, and a new justice based on that knowledge, Seyonne is prepared to sacrifice everything he has–including his friendship with the Imperial Prince Aleksander and his marriage to his own queen Ysanne. 

Rating: C+

As had happened each time I thought I had discovered the true depth of despair, I turned another corner and found the way still pointed downwards.

It’s rare that a single quote encapsulates a book so perfectly but this one tells you everything you need to know about Seyonne. He quickly reaches a point that makes the events of the first book look harmless – already an achievement – and then things still continue to get worse. As a result, the book slides quite close to the Dark, Edgy and Miserable(TM) territory (something Berg managed to avoid in her other books, despite their protagonists always being really unlucky). So especially during the middle part, it dragged a lot and I managed only one or two chapters per day. It wasn’t because it was boring; I just couldn’t cope with that much misery at once. Seyonne just couldn’t catch a break.

At the same time, the overarching plot is fascinating. It goes in a completely different direction than I would have expected after the first book. While Transformation had a pretty standard (but incredibly well done) fantasy plot of ‘We have to fight the demons’, Revelation now asks ‘Why do we have to fight the demons?’ and the answers to that are hard to stomach. And these parts remind me again why I love Carol Berg’s books so much. It starts off with typical fantasy tropes and then digs really deep into it. She doesn’t subvert them in some high-and-mighty ‘actually fantasy is crap and if this was reality everything would be horrible so I’ll write about how horrible everybody is’-way. It’s rather about ‘We’ve always done it like this and we can’t suddenly change our ways is a really bad reason for doing something’. Especially, if, like in this case, you really don’t know anymore why you’re doing something.

But also, after having enjoyed the great relationship between Seyonne and Aleksander in the first book, none of those in this one could match it. Aleksander himself is absent for most parts and while there are other interesting characters they all only stay with him for a short while and so the relationships with them lack the depths and simply weren’t as fun to read.


Review of Book 1


This is also part of my 16 Tasks of the Festive Season reading:

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Book themes for Las Posadas: Read a book where the main character is stranded without a place to stay, or find themselves in a ‘no room at the Inn’ situation.

Seyonne is very much stranded. His own people exile him and then he does find a place to stay in the sense of a room with a bed but he isn’t really welcome there.

Ash and Silver (Sanctuary #2)

25176096Title: Ash and Silver
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Sanctuary #2

Ever since the Order of the EquitesCineré stole his memory, his name, and his heart, thinking about the past makes Greenshank’s head ache. After two years of rigorous training, he is almost ready to embrace the mission of the Order—to use selfless magic to heal the troubles of Navronne. But on his first assignment alone, the past comes racing back, threatening to drown him in conspiracy, grief, and murder.

He is Lucian de Remeni—a sorcerer whose magical bents for portraiture and history threaten the safety of the earth and the future of the war-riven kingdom of Navronne. He just can’t remember how or why.

Fighting to unravel the mysteries of his power, Lucian must trace threads of corruption that reach from the Pureblood Registry into the Order itself, the truth hidden two centuries in the past and beyond the boundaries of the world…

RatingC-

I stand by my opinion that people who are not me might enjoy the Sanctuary Duet a lot. Unfortunately, I am me and I still don’t enjoy conspiracy thrillers. And while Dust and Light had at least a very entertaining murder mystery B-plot, Ash and Silver is all about the conspiracy. Well, and Lucian’s lost memories. I like the amnesia trope about as much as conspiracy plots. Still, like for the first book, I have to say that I might dislike the trope in general but it’s still well written. The complete confusion before Lucian’s memories come partly back isn’t drawn out too much and there are enough other things to keep him (and the reader) busy. Very busy in fact. And that’s where I’m again back to a complaint I already had about the first book: there is only so much of a character being constantly on the run and almost getting killed or seriously injured I can take before I refuse to believe that a single person could get through this. At some point, I just crossed the line where I felt for Lucian because yet another thing went wrong and just rolled my eyes and thought ‘seriously?’

Besides, one of the things I always enjoy about Carol Berg novels are the friendships. Her characters might start off as lone wolves but over the course of the story, they meet somebody with whom they form a strong bond. And all of these friendships feel so well-developed and go far beyond what you usually find in fantasy novels. In Dust and Light Lucian had Bastien but while he still appears in the second book his screen-time is much shorter. And, with the conspiracy plot getting turned up to 11, there really isn’t anybody else he can form such a friendship with. He can trust nobody and everybody at least quadruple-crosses him because that’s what happens in conspiracy thrillers…

Last but not least: I wasn’t a fan of the ending. I am used to endings that don’t rule out another book completely from Berg’s other novels. But this one felt a lot like a very strange sequel hook.


Review of book 1

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (The Risen Kingdoms #1)

31702733Title: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors
Author: Curtis Craddock
Series:  The Risen Kingdoms #1

A polymath princess and her faithful musketeer must unravel the plot of a thousand-year-old madman in order to save an a foreign kingdom from a disastrous civil war.

Caelum is an uninhabitable gas giant like Jupiter. High above it are the Risen Kingdoms, occupying flying continents called cratons. Remnants of a shattered world, these vast disks of soaring stone may be a thousand miles across. Suspended by magic, they float in the upper layers of Caelum’s clouds. 

Born with a deformed hand and utter lack of the family’s blood magic, Isabelle is despised by her cruel father. She is happy to be neglected so she can secretly pursue her illicit passion for math and science. Then, a surprising offer of an arranged royal marriage blows her life wide open and launches her and Jean-Claude on an adventure that will take them from the Isle des Zephyrs in l’Empire Céleste to the very different Kingdom of Aragoth, where magic deals not with blood, but with mirrors.

Rating: B

“I still think I should-”
“No!” Isabelle rallied against the automatic male assumption that anything she might do, they could do better, even if they had no experience whatsoever.

After the awesome-sounding blurb and the advance praise, I expected a lot from this book and was slightly disappointed in the first few chapters. It infodumps a lot on the world and there is too much magical technobabble for my taste. It also doesn’t need long till my fantasy pet peeve appears: the brutal execution method (described in detail) that shows us just how horrible the world the protagonists live in is. It is pointed out that that method isn’t the norm in the whole country, only the duke that rules over the Isle des Zephyrs is a psychopath but that doesn’t make it much better. I’m very tired of books that begin that way.

I wasn’t grumpy for long, though because the book soon made up for its mediocre start. (And the mustache-twirling villain that is the heroine’s father…who also made sense in context later). We get a math-loving heroine whose life is turned on its head when she is married off to the son of a neighboring country’s king. He’s only the second son but there is pressure on his father to disinherit his firstborn because he refuses to divorce his barren wife.

Isabelle is now thrown into a cesspool of intrigue. Her husband-to-be’s older half-brother and his wife are unsurprisingly not pleased by her. But she also isn’t sure what her groom’s mother wants. Her own son on the throne instead of the son of her husband’s first wife, so much is obvious, but what role does Isabelle play in her schemes? And what about the priest who arranged the marriage? The prince and Isabelle come from different magical bloodlines and the church says those should never mix. Add a few more people with uncertain loyalties and I wished I’d made some notes during reading to keep things straight. (Seriously. Especially during the very grand, very epic and very awesome finale it almost got a bit much).

And what does Isabelle want?
Peace.
That’s right. She knows that any uncertainty about the succession will throw the country into a bloody civil war and she wants to avoid that. And she has only one certain ally in that endeavor: Jean-Claude, a Musketeer that has been more of a father than her actual father and who has now accompanied her to the foreign court.
Of course, Jean-Claude is a King’s Musketeer. And the king of Céleste also has plans for his neighboring country. He and Jean-Claude have some disagreements about the importance of Isabelle for these plans. That leads to some…intense discussions between the two.

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Pictured: How I imagined Jean-Claude and King Leon

Now this book isn’t only about court-intrigue. There is also action (a couple of princes have to be saved after all) but if you don’t think that a scene in which Isabelle has to figure out what’s the right thing to say to her future mother-in-law can be just as tense and exciting as a swordfight you won’t enjoy that book as much as I did. (I enjoyed it a lot, in case that wasn’t obvious…now how long do I have to wait for the next book?)

Dust and Light (Sanctuary #1)

18683282Title: Dust and Light
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Sanctuary #1

How much must one pay for an hour of youthful folly? The Pureblood Registry accused Lucian de Remeni-Masson of “unseemly involvement with ordinaries,” which meant only that he spoke with a young woman not of his own kind, allowed her to see his face unmasked, worked a bit of magic for her….After that one mistake, Lucian’s grandsire excised half his magic and savage Harrowers massacred his family. Now the Registry has contracted his art to a common coroner. His extraordinary gift for portraiture is restricted to dead ordinaries—beggars or starvelings hauled from the streets.

But sketching the truth of dead men’s souls brings unforeseen consequences. Sensations not his own. Truths he cannot possibly know and dares not believe. The coroner calls him a cheat and says he is trying to weasel out of a humiliating contract. The Registry will call him mad—and mad sorcerers are very dangerous….

RatingC

One part of Dust and Light is a buddy cop movie. No, seriously. There’s the new guy who is a posh bloke, arrogant, privileged and obsessed with obeying rules to the letter. And there’s a working class guy who has been doing this job for a long time who is very aware that justice sometimes clashes with what is legal. Of course, they can’t stand each other at first. But then a murdered child turns up and they realize that both want the person behind this to pay for their crime. There is also some mutual life-saving involved and soon they’re willing to do everything for each other.
The other part of the book is a conspiracy thriller. Lucian discovers that he has some very powerful enemies. He has no idea why they are after him but he soon learns that he can trust nobody. Now he somehow has to find out what’s so special about him that the whole magical government is after him while also avoiding being captured by said magical government. (And catch a child-killer. Because the constant threat of imprisonment and worse is no excuse to neglect your strong moral compass).

I love buddy cop shows. I hate conspiracy thrillers. And the thriller is the main plot. Now despite my dislike for that particular genre: it’s a very well done one. The more Lucian finds out about the why the less he knows whom he can trust. And the more he has to deal with what this why means for him and his convictions. Carol Berg once said that she likes to put her heroes in situations where they have to go against their most valued beliefs and that is very true for Lucian. I really felt for him that on top of everything he also has to come to terms with something that major.

And all that made me often almost forget that all the conspiracy thriller tropes actually exhaust me. But then came yet another scene that made me wonder why Lucian hasn’t collapsed from exhaustion at an inopportune moment because he spent the last three days mostly without sleep, constantly running and getting beaten up at least once. Or he got attacked and my first thought was ‘Well, there’s about 8 possible choices for who did this’. So I was annoyed and at the same time really wanted to know how it all continues. (I still do and so I will read book two). Somebody who is less bothered by these tropes will probably enjoy this book more than I did. But for me, it’s a book I liked but one that won’t get a space on my favorite shelf.

Song of the Beast

11338966Title: Song of the Beast
Author: Carol Berg

Brutal imprisonment has broken Aidan McAllister. Once the most famous musician of his generation, celebrated as a man beloved of the gods, his voice is now silent, his hands ruined, his music that offered beauty and hope to war-torn Elyria destroyed. Even the god who nurtured his talent since boyhood has abandoned him. But no one ever told him his crime. To discover the truth, he must risk his hard-bought freedom to unlock the mind of his god and the heart of his enemy.

RatingB

 

I did not know how to offer love or how to recognize it when it was offered to me, though I was fairly certain it did not come from those who told you in the same breath that they wanted to slit your throat.

One thing I really enjoyed about the Carol Berg books I’d read so far was that romance didn’t play a huge part in them. I don’t mind romance but I get annoyed when people who should be busy saving the world just talk about their heartache. So I was not too happy when both Aiden and Lara spent a lot of time in their POV-chapters talking about their own feelings and how sure they were that the other one could never reciprocate them.
But then both of them had very good reasons to think so, it wasn’t some ridiculous melodrama blown out of proportion. And while especially Lara’s chapters are sometimes really dripping with self-hatred and her ‘I’m sure he can’t stand me’ gets somewhat repetitive I can easily see why she is like that.
Oh well, and the romance has some of my favourite tropes. They have to pretend to be a couple twice. There’s dancing and live-saving and Aidan has to keep calming Lara down because really she just wants to kill people. Exactly my kind of couple. If you have romance in your fantasy, please do it like that.

And then there’s the villains. Or rather the lack of typical fantasy villains. Nobody wants to destroy the world for the evilulz. Nobody wants to kill the king. No foreign power threatens to conquer the country and enslave the people.
The closest thing we get to villains are the dragonriders (and yes, they admittedly don’t have that much depth) but even they don’t want more power than they already have. They just want to keep the power they have. And when that status quo is threatened they are Not Happy. But they are not the main reason for the bad things that happen in this book. The main reason is bad decision making. Some were made by the characters in this book. Some by their ancestors and they are now stuck with them. Admitting that those decisions were bad would lead to disaster. And now they all hope that they can just carry on as before, even if that means making some more bad decisions.

Now there are some things that show it’s the author’s first book. There are some info-dumps early on about the character’s past and the worldbuilding. Through the changing POVs we also get some pieces of information twice and the final battle is somewhat anticlimactic but those are just minor things in an otherwise great book. (And a single-volume fantasy no less! I can’t remember the last time an author managed to fit a whole epic fantasy in a single book).