Archive for February, 2012


Yes, I was won by two different people. Good thing Shiny Book Review had two copies.

Over at our Facebook page (like us, oh please like us…) we had a competition for a free hardcover of Ari Marmell’s Thief’s Covenant. It went over so well that we chose two winners: Mystik W. and Jessica P. Both winners have been notified and their books will arrive within the next week or so.

Thanks to all who participated.

Stay tuned, as our next giveaway is going to be a copy of Ken Lacleod’s The Night Sessions.

Win me next!

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Crawlspace — Flint and Freer Launch Another Fun… Tail?

From the utterly demented minds of Dave Freer and Eric Flint comes the short novella Crawlspace, set in their Rats, Vats & Bats universe (originally published by Baen, buy the first two here and here). And by twisted, I mean that in the most positive way imaginable.

Captain Rebecca Wuollet has just received the most hideous of jobs: chief of security on a rock about the be invaded by the alien Korozhet. Again. While the impending invasion is occurring in the background of the story, Captain Wuollet has an even tougher job: she must find whoever is murdering “joy” girls who work at the local dive. This is the real story of here.

Followed by the loyal Holmes (no, really… I can’t make this up. That’s why the authors are the demented ones and we readers are merely… twisted), a fellow HAR Marine sergeant, an artificially intelligent rat with a penchant for stealing, well, anything… and a bat who seeks to revolutionize and free the women who work as prostitutes, Captain Wuollet must race against time to prevent a lynch mob from killing every single Marine on that rock in order to find a murderer.

I loved Rats, Bats and Vats, and found the sequel to be just as funny. This novella is almost as fun, and with new rats and bats running amok, features a newer element to the universe. Crawlspace should be (needs to be) longer, as every story set in this universe is a guilty pleasure of mine to read.

A short review, true, but it’s a short story. And free. Yeah, you heard that right. Right now it is free up on Amazon Kindle.  So this is a must-buy, since you get it for — wait for it — free.

Go buy (take?). You’ll like it. The rats sayeth you shall because sometimes, the rats are the heroes…

Reviewed by Jason

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Sam Sommers Proves that Situations do, Indeed, Matter

Sam Sommers’ SITUATIONS MATTER: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World is an exciting and witty book about one of the potentially driest subjects imaginable: situational ethics.  Yet Sommers’ effort — a first book by a new writer, no less — is outstanding, funny, and extremely readable.

Sommers is a psychology professor at Tufts University; while he’s new at writing long-form nonfiction, his research has been discussed in many venues before, including at NPR, during ABC’s Good Morning America, in the Washington Post, and others.   This is because Sommers is brilliant in how he proves that how you see a situation depends on how you expect to see a situation; how you react to that situation depends on how well you understand what you’re supposed to do.  Those insights into human behavior go a long way toward explaining the previously inexplicable, and cast doubt on many things that seem like incontrovertible facts (like the whole conundrum of why most women believe they can’t do math).

Sommers writes in an engaging style that can’t help but draw you in.  He talks about all sorts of things, from the most mundane — why people get antsy while making copies, especially if someone cuts in without a good reason — to the far more esoteric nature of behavioral psychology.  Sommers discusses these things in a relaxed sort of way; you might not even realize how much you’re learning along the way, considering how easy this is to read. 

Sommers’ conclusion is that we as human beings often do what is expected of us, and nothing more.  This is why if you take women out of their traditional environments and have them play violent video games, they’ll be every bit as bloodthirsty as the men providing they believe no one is looking — but if they believe they are being observed, then they suddenly don’t want to play or believe that they should not behave in such a bloodthirsty manner, so they don’t.  And it’s why at least a few people have died while screaming in a big crowd, where there were many witnesses to the fact that something really bad was happening; the problem is, no one feels responsible in a crowd because most people believe someone else will help that person, so they don’t have to do it.

Sommers’ book is so interesting that I read it three times, with pleasure, and got more out of it each time I read it.  But be warned: much of who we think we are from day to day can vary depending on the situation (thus what I said before about situational ethics), and once you realize that Sommers’ explanations about why this happens, much less his examples about famous things that illuminate this or that principle, you may be a bit startled.  Because situations do, indeed, matter, and the way you view those situations also matters; simply put, the more information you have, the better informed you’re likely to be, and the more likely you’re going to be able to handle the situation should it ever again arise.

A book that can inform, make you laugh, make you think, and make you believe that there’s more to the world than what you initially thought was present is a book you need in your library.  SITUATIONS MATTER should be read by everyone, without reservation; this is one of the best books I’ve ever read on psychology or situational ethics in my life and deserves to find as wide an audience as it possibly can.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab this book right now!  (You’ll be glad you did.)

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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“The Settlers of Catan:” More than Just a Board Game

bookcover - The Settlers of CatanUp until now, if you’ve ever heard of THE SETTLERS OF CATAN, you probably were thinking about the board game invented by Klaus Teuber.  It’s a very popular board game, to the point that it was eventually turned into a novel written by Rebecca Gable.  This novelization of THE SETTLERS OF CATAN was originally published in Germany in 2003; the updated, 2011 version has been translated first by Lee Chadeayne, then again by Ingrid S. Lansford.  Note that the entirety of this novel is based upon the board game, but the characters within it are Gable’s own invention.

It is 850 AD, and we start out in the fictional village of Elasund, which is located somewhere in Northern Europe.  Elasund has just been raided; most of its women were carried off, most of its livestock and other foodstuffs have been taken, and a great deal of Elasund has been put to the torch.  But it’s late autumn; the people of Elasund, though they have ships, cannot leave because it’s too late in the year to do so.  That’s why most of them decide to leave in the spring, providing they survive the harsh winter to come.

Our main heroes are the friends and foster brothers Candamir and Osmund.  Candamir is a carpenter, while Osmund is a farmer; both are in their late teens at the start of THE SETTLERS OF CATAN.  Candamir has a foreign slave called Austin as his name is otherwise unpronounceable; Austin is a Roman Catholic priest and healer, but not everyone likes having him around due to his religious beliefs.  Both Candamir and Osmund are under the thumb of the richest man in the village, Olaf, who is a sadistic creep bent on tormenting anyone under his thumb, including his own family members; that Osmund is some sort of cousin to Olaf doesn’t really help matters.

Anyway, the villagers barely survive the winter; once it’s safe to leave, almost all of them do, even though their destination is the mythical Catan.  Most people haven’t a clue where Catan is; it’s viewed almost as “the land of milk and honey,” because life is supposed to be so much easier there.  It also is said to be a favorite spot of Odin’s, to the point that Odin has made it very difficult for mortal men to find it; the only way, supposedly, is to wait for the world’s worst storm to appear — then hope that your ships are stout enough to survive it long enough to finally find the island.

Fortunately for our settlers, they do just that; unfortunately for Candamir, though, his ship is one of those that breaks up before it gets into the island’s harbor and virtually everything he owns is destroyed.  This means that he’s starting out his new adventure on Catan behind the eight ball; others, including Osmund, are much better off because everything they owned is still intact.  Candamir survives because of his carpentry skills, which end up being in great demand among the settlers. 

Along the way, he grows attracted to Siglind, who had once been a Queen but renounced that in order to go along with the settlers to Catan; Siglind is a proto-feminist, and believes that men and women should be equal.  She works hard, and Candamir respects this; unfortunately for him, Osmund is one of the rivals for her affection.  But Osmund, unlike Candamir, is not able to be anything other than what he is — a pagan man who believes he should be able to sleep with whomever he likes — which is why Siglind rejects Osmund out of hand, and everyone else, too.

Still, Siglind likes Candamir, and that’s more than she’s willing to give anyone else.  So he believes he has a chance with her.  But as she’s one of Austin’s first converts to Christianity, and she’s open about it, this creates some problems for Candamir.

So what we have here in THE SETTLERS OF CATAN (the novel) is this: a coming of age story for Candamir and Osmund and an excellent historical novel.  It deals with the Vikings (who never called themselves that), pagan lore and ritual, early Christianity, the Althing, a free assembly where all the men (and a very few women) go to judge their biggest problem (Gable just calls it “the Thing”), and much, much more.  Gable capitalizes on the clash of cultures, religions, and the fact that these two young men must come of age during some rather difficult circumstances; more to the point, she shows just how difficult things could be with regards to religion even when Christianity wasn’t yet forcibly converting people, as Osmund eventually weds the pagan priestess while Candamir has every reason in the world to embrace Christianity, or at least be tolerant of it, due to his friendship with Austin (who is eventually manumitted) and his hopeful romance with Siglind.

There’s a great deal to like about THE SETTLERS OF CATAN, and for the most part I truly enjoyed it.  However, the character of Olaf was extremely distasteful; Olaf is a man who, if given an inch, takes a mile, and then dares everyone else to do anything about it, but that’s not the worst thing about him.  Nope; this is a man who believes he should brutalize anyone he can — family, friends, slaves, it makes no nevermind, because Olaf believes he’s above it all.  

And Olaf, because he is who he is, cannot handle being one among many; instead, he must go his own way — and while that would not be a bad thing most of the time, the way he goes about getting his own way is extremely distressing.   Olaf, you see, believes that any slaves — male or female — are his to command, and he doesn’t care what he does with them in public or away from prying eyes; that he eventually is cast out of the new settlement doesn’t even slow him down very much, because he then decides he’s going to pillage the settlement out of spite.

While there is historical precedent for Olaf, I really wish Ms. Gable would’ve chosen a slightly less terrible characterization for him.  Because I didn’t need to graphically see what Olaf was doing to torment his slaves; I especially didn’t need to see it through the eyes of a Roman Catholic priest.

That said, this is an interesting historical novel that I enjoyed quite a bit and believe anyone who enjoys history, comparative religions, the board game version of THE SETTLERS OF CATAN, the Vikings, or historical potboilers in particular will enjoy this novel.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Edward VI — The Lost King of England

To many, the shadows of King Henry VIII and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, blotted out everything else regarding England’s Tudor Dynasty. Curtis Skidmore, author of Edward VI: The Lost King of England, sheds light onto one of the more mysterious rulers in English history.

When his mother, Jane Seymour, died two weeks after giving birth to him, the young Prince Edward was practically locked away to prevent him from getting sick and dying, as he was the only male heir King Henry had. Since Henry had already cast aside one wife (Catherine of Aragorn) and beheaded another (Anne Boleyn), it made the young prince’s health and well-being the utmost priority in the kingdom. Henry wanted to consolidate the Tudor power, which meant an heir. A living, breathing, reproducing heir.

However, Henry VIII died before Prince Edward had fully matured, leaving the young King in charge of a nation balanced precariously on religious civil war. The Protestants had made massive inroads to banishing Catholicism throughout England, and King Edward was a huge fan and believer of the Reformation, which put him at odds with his older sister Mary (only child from Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragorn). It was unknown at the time which way his other sister, Elizabeth, followed, though later it would appear that she was a mild Reformer as well.

Kind Edward did more for the Protestant Reformation in England than even his own father had accomplished, despite having only a few short years before the young king’s untimely death. Edward believed in the Reformation, whereas his father believed in a reformed Catholic church. Much of his Reformation dreams went unfinished, though, when his sister Mary became the queen. She reinstituted the strict Catholic laws she followed, which caused more violence and turbulence in the kingdom. “Peace”, as it were, would not be seen in England again until Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne after Mary’s death.

The author’s portrayal of Edward and the court that seemed to dominate him (his uncle, Edward Seymour, named himself Lord Protector of England and guided the young king in the majority of his decisions) is spot-on. Court intrigue had grown very powerful since the days of Anne Boleyn, and Edward (kept away from court for the majority of his young life) seems to have been unprepared for it when he became king. The young king was a means to an end for many power brokers of England, and not a king to be followed and loved.

One of the pieces I enjoyed was how Edward seemed to be coming into his own shortly after his fourteenth birthday. He began to stand up to his “handlers” and began to have more day to day dealings within the court and with ruling his kingdom. His tragic death before he could have a child of his own brought about the end of the Tudor’s, though it wouldn’t be fully realized until Elizabeth’s death fifty years later. As Henry VIII believed, much rested on his only son.

The journals that Edward kept, first as prince and later, as king, are mentioned and used throughout. They helped the author paint a very intriguing picture of England’s lost Tudor king, one that has yet to be seen by the general public.

Highly recommended for anyone studying the Tudor Dynasty, or who has a love of English history.

–Reviewed by Jason


Darlene Craviotto’s “An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood: How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House” is Insightful, Moving, and Honest

 Darlene Craviotto’s non-fiction book AN AGORAPHOBIC’S GUIDE TO HOLLYWOOD: How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House is an interesting, instructive tale of how to get along in Hollywood.  It also is the story of how Craviotto, an actress and screenwriter, met Michael Jackson in 1990, how and why she worked with him on a screenplay adaptation of “Peter Pan,” and about how she somehow had to circumvent her long-time case of agoraphobia in order to better fulfill her contract with Disney Films (who’d hired her to write the screenplay in the first place).

AN AGORAPHOBIC’S GUIDE TO HOLLYWOOD may sound highfalutin’, but it’s actually written in a down-to-earth manner that adds insight to the overall drama going on.  And there was a great deal of drama, though only some of it can be grasped right away.

You see, Jackson was a very shy man, something Craviotto figured out right away, yet as a superstar he was often treated as an object, not as a person.  To get past that, Jackson met Craviotto for the first time at a secluded apartment where he stayed “to get away from it all.”  At this apartment, he had no servants, no entourage, and was much more low-key than most people would ever believe Jackson could be.

Along the way, Craviotto and Jackson formed a good partnership.  (Note that Craviotto, solo, wrote the screenplay, but a major project as it had been conceived by Disney Films — originally, Steven Spielberg was set to direct — must have the input of its superstar, too.  That’s one reason why Craviotto listened so hard to Jackson’s input.)  His meeting her initially at his private residence was a stroke of genius, as that took some of the pressure off and allowed them both to get down to business.

Later meetings, though, took place at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.  (Neverland was named that because Jackson was a huge fan of J.M. Barrie, the man who wrote the various stories about Peter Pan in the first place.)  This necessitated longer trips and lengthier stays, all of which tested Craviotto’s mettle.

Along the way, Craviotto rented an office and furnished it (as prior to this, she’d been writing at home; thing is, with little kids growing up, that wasn’t so easy any more), she started taking longer walking trips by herself (starting with a few steps, graduating to a block, then longer as she went), and eventually started driving her car again.  Note that while her office was only one block away from her home, this was still a significant step as at first she wasn’t able to walk or drive there by herself; later on, she could do either one. 

Eventually, she wrote a dynamite screenplay for “Peter Pan” that was mysterious, spooky, and realistic.  This relied upon a more powerful version of Peter than ever previously realized; she’d obtained that insight due to her work with Jackson. 

However, by that time, Spielberg has been presented with a different script — one that was more fanciful, one that made Captain Hook into more of a good guy than most “Peter Pan” adaptations — and thus her version of “Peter Pan” never got made.

As a screenwriter, Craviotto points out that this is something she’s had to deal with before.  But it had never hurt this much before; that she, personally, had enjoyed Barrie’s work to begin with, then grew to love it even more due to all her work on the screenplay with and without Jackson, made the fact that her screenplay never saw the light of day sting all the more.  Craviotto doesn’t flinch from explaining how she felt, either, for which I give her great credit.

The upshot of AN AGORAPHOBIC’S GUIDE TO HOLLYWOOD is that it’s an honest piece of non-fiction.  It’s wry, insightful prose helps the reader understand a great deal about screenwriting, Hollywood, and Jackson.  But it also is a moving rendition of how a professional woman took back her life and career, and juxtaposing the two is far from easy.

The only drawback, and it is quite minor, is that due to Craviotto’s screenwriting background, there are unusual formatting throughout — mostly having to do with underlines and capital letters.  These are not wrong, mind you, but they are the more old-fashioned way of doing things when it comes to actual books.  Never fear, though; readers should have no trouble understanding just what Craviotto is getting at.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Thief’s Covenant — Fast, Great Fun

Once she was Adrienne Satti, an orphan with a rags-to-riches story.

Now she is Widdershins, a thief with a sharp blade, a sharper wit and help from a secret god living in her head.

Ari Marmell’s Thief’s Covenant starts off with the most brutal of murders. A small group of “party goers” have been slain, and  Sergeant Chappelle of the city’s guard is working the case. Hiding in the shadows above the scene of the murder is Adrienne, who is trying to remain hidden as her mind adjusts to the fact that everyone she knows and loves has been murdered before her very eyes.

Fast forward ten years and the renown thief Widdershins is about the hit another home of the famous and wealthy. In her head is a small voice who helps her, watches her back and grants her boosts of power. She has a god in her head, and he’s a bit like her in some regards. Nonetheless, Widdershins pulls off a perfect heist, which draws the attention of the Finder’s Guild (whom she works for, kind of) and the menacing figure of Brock.

Brock threatens Widdershins and demands that she pays more to the guild, to which the young female thief clearly objects. A fight breaks out between them and Widdershins, with the help of the god in her head, beats the group of thieves and makes her escape.

There is a dark undertone going on behind the scenes here, as a high ranking church official (churches?) is coming to the city – something that hasn’t happened in a long time. Widdershins, annoyed at the Finder’s Guild for daring to tell her what she can or cannot do (she has a slight problem with authority), decides that she is going to rob the holy man.

Then everything from her past catches up with her…

I loved this book. It was a lot of fun, and watching the relationship between Widdershins and the god in her head is pure delight. Everything about this book screams “Fun!” while tension continues to build up around our intrepid star. The variety of cast members who touch Widdershins’ life is varied, and the man who loves her is more than he appears (which I had my suspicions about early on, and were confirmed later).

Marmell has a winner here. The pacing, plot and story are all excellent. The only downside of the book was that it was far too short. Buy this book, you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

–Reviewed by Jason

Editor’s note: if you’d like to win a free hardcover copy of “Thief’s Covenant” by Ari Marmell, feel free to follow us on Facebook and let us know (here or there) just why you think you deserve the free copy. Contest closes Friday, Feb 24 at noon EST.

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Theresa Meyers’ “The Hunter:” Good Steampunk, Iffy Romance

The HunterTheresa MeyersTHE HUNTER is book one of “The Legend Chronicles,” and is a steampunk Western fantasy romance.  (Say that five times fast.)  Here we meet Colt Jackson, a Hunter of the Darkin (demons, vampires, shapeshifters, etc.), and succubus Lilly Arliss.  Lilly is a kind and gentle-hearted succubus, which she does her best to conceal (supposedly, she’s a demon like any other), while Colt is your average clueless workaholic guy, albeit one transported to 1883 and with the looks and musculature of a young Adonis.  As this is both a Western and a steampunk fantasy romance, Colt’s horse is mechanical and powered by steam, and much of the action happens in the Arizona Territory.

The plot mostly revolves around Colt and his two brothers, Remington (“Remy”) and Winchester (“Winn”), finding the three far-flung copies of “the Book,” which if reunited should prevent Hell from taking over the Earth.  There’s some urgency here because of how many Hellish creatures have managed to cross over in recent months.

One of the first things Colt does in THE HUNTER is to summon a demon from Hell to aid him in trying to recover part of “the Book.” This is because his brother Winn believes that a demon is required even to find where their father’s copy of his part of “the Book” is.  Colt expects to summon a monstrosity, but instead gets Lilly, and of course is immediately and carnally attracted to her.

Lilly and Colt have adventures, most of which reminded me of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” more than anything resembling most steampunk novels; they also try to keep their hands off each other because Lilly is a succubus and once she sleeps with Colt, she’ll have to take his soul.  Both of them know this, but they’re still irresistibly attracted to one another.  This proves nearly impossible, which keeps the sexual tension — and awareness of one another — high.

There’s a worse danger than Colt losing his soul to Lilly, though; it’s losing his soul to Lilly’s demonic overlord, an Archdemon named Rathe.  (Nice re-spelling of the word “wrath” there.)  Lilly’s doing this job mostly because she wants to once again be a human being, as she only became a demon to keep her sister from having to become a prostitute.  But part of why she’s the one Colt ended up summoning is because Rathe wanted it that way; Rathe believes Lilly is the one to bring Colt, one of “the Chosen” Jackson brothers, down.

Colt, of course, wants Lilly to become human again for a very different reason: he wants to sleep with her.  He romanticizes this by saying that Lilly is the one woman (er, female creature) he’s ever wanted to be with more than once; because of his romantic notions, he vows to Lilly that he’ll help her do anything she can to regain her humanity, or die in the attempt.

So, will Rathe get his way and get “the Book?”  Or will Colt and Lilly not only foil Rathe, but find a way to stay together?  (Hint, hint: it wouldn’t be a good paranormal romance if they didn’t.)

The steampunk here is well-conceived; even the more far-out bits, such as Lilly and Colt’s adventures on the way to get “the Book” (where they go through a sequence of caverns where they have to avoid being shot, having acid flung on them, or being decapitated), are plausible within the steampunk genre.  There also is a rather nifty scientist fellow named Marley Turlock, who created all sorts of futuristic things that Colt uses to destroy the worst of the Darkin, and I really enjoyed and appreciated his character no end.

That said, the romance here was lacking for many, many reasons.  Here are just a few.

1) Lilly and Colt are both described as drop-dead gorgeous (well, Colt’s described as “man candy,” which seems pretty similar to me), so it’s hard to root for either one of them.

2) Lilly is a succubus, so no matter how tender-hearted she is, if she sleeps with Colt, she’s going to have to take his soul.  This is why for the first three-quarters of this book, they do not sleep together.  The point is made over and over again by Meyers that Lilly doesn’t have a choice in the matter; if you sleep with a succubus, you’re going to lose your soul.  The end.

Yet when the “big moment” finally arrives, guess what?  Colt’s soul is still intact! 

This is a major plothole, because either Lilly can choose to take Colt’s soul, or she can’t

3)  Still on that subject, consider this: up until they actually “do the dirty deed,” Lilly believes it’s not a choice.  Then, because the plot demanded it, Lilly suddenly could choose not to take Colt’s soul if she slept with him.

This is what is called a “deus ex machina” plot device.  It cheats the reader.  It weakens the story.  And it was completely unnecessary, as the next part of the book demanded that Colt go to Hell anyway in order for him to try to help Lilly.

And, finally . . . 4) Colt goes from hating all the Darkin, even the well-intended ones like the shapeshifters (who are not demons and do not have to do evil) and vampires (who need humans because humans are the vamps’ main food source), to appreciating them far too quickly and easily because of his liaison with Lilly.  While romance can and often does change a person’s point of view, Colt’s mostly thinking with his nether regions during this novel and surely isn’t doing any of the work on himself (the introspection needed) which would promote such a change.

So here’s the deal with THE HUNTER, folks; it’s a good steampunk paranormal in many ways.  It’s inventive.  It’s fast-paced.  It has moments of humor.  And it held my interest until the very end.

But the drawbacks are fairly significant because this book includes that dreaded deus ex machina plot device, something that was not only unnecessary, but pointless.  The romance is just too easy between these two; worse yet, I didn’t like Colt overmuch because I felt him too impulsive on the one hand while lacking brains on the other.  And while I did like Lilly, and wanted her to regain her humanity, I kept wishing that someone other than Colt was the putative hero of the story because I kept thinking she was worth a lot more than Colt Jackson.

This makes grading this novel extraordinarily difficult; while this is an inventive book filled with heroic deeds, the fact that this is supposed to be a romance really doesn’t sit well with me due to all the reasons listed above.

That said, it’s worth buying in paperback if you really enjoy steampunk or if you don’t expect much out of your male romantic leads other than a whole lot of testosterone — and nothing else.

Grade: a very generous B-, mostly because the invention should be praised even though the romantic male lead is sorely lacking. 

— reviewed by Barb

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Jim C. Hines “Princess” Series, Books One and Two: Intriguing, Funny, and Different

Jim C. Hines’ newest series is the “Princess” series, which retells the stories of Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty in an entirely new way.  These are novels that add intrigue, drama, romance and passion to stories that we all think we know, but perhaps don’t; they also are often wildly funny in a macabre sort of way, which is tough to pull off.

The first novel in the “Princess” series is THE STEPSISTER SCHEME, where we meet Princess Danielle Whiteshore (neé de Glas), whom most of us know as Cinderella.  Danielle married Prince Armand of Lorindar, has been accepted by Armand’s family, and all seems to be going well at the beginning of this novel.

However, all is not as it seems; while Danielle and Armand are deeply in love, Danielle’s stepsisters Stacia and Charlotte remain incensed that Danielle has married into royalty.  Worse yet, due to an incident at Danielle’s wedding (where Danielle’s stepmother acted badly, so some pigeons pecked her to death), the stepsisters blame Danielle for their mother’s death as well.

This appears to be the main reason why Charlotte attempts to kill Danielle in the first chapter with unusually strong magic.  Danielle knows that Charlotte didn’t have this magic before, or she’d have used it to snare Armand (as Charlotte was infatuated with him); she manages to foil Charlotte’s assassination attempt with the help of a strange servant, Talia, who has unusually strong skill with weapons, and the help of some loyal birds.  But because of this new magic, Charlotte gets away to points unknown.

Quickly, we find out that Danielle has a rather unusual magic talent in that she can speak to animals (unlike Mercedes Lackey’s version, Animal Mindspeech, the animals cannot speak directly back), which is why the birds helped foil the assassination attempt (one was killed and another seriously wounded); that Talia isn’t what she seems, either, as she’s Sleeping Beauty, albeit a Sleeping Beauty who’s skilled with weapons (her fairy “birth gifts” gave her uncommon grace and balance); and that there’s a third Princess, Snow White (otherwise known as Ermillina Curtana, though she hates her name and prefers to be called “Snow”), who has major magical talent of her own.

But Charlotte’s attempt on Danielle’s life was only a feint, we find out, as Prince Armand has been kidnapped and taken prisoner.  (Mind you, Charlotte would’ve been glad to kill Danielle, had it worked.)  Queen Beatrice (“Bea” for short, Armand’s mother), Lorindar’s spymaster, initially decides to send Talia and Snow to rescue Armand, but Danielle argues her way onto the team. 

This is a good thing, because all three princesses’ talents will be needed to first find out where Armand is (as there’s been no demand for ransom), then to rescue him.  During the series of adventures that follow, the three princesses bond and become friends; they also all turn out to have very odd senses of humor (Snow in particular is a punster), which enlivens their adventures and turns them, at times, into farce.

So while the rescue of Prince Armand is never in doubt, what it takes to get him back is extremely sad, funny, enjoyable, and intriguing (in both senses of the word) by turns.  That’s because THE STEPSISTER SCHEME is really good fun.  It is eminently readable, has good emotional depth, and seems quite plausible due to the “story distortion” effect (where the more people talk about something, the more a story changes).

After reading the successful start to the “Princess” series, I couldn’t wait to read book two, THE MERMAID’S MADNESS.   Queen Bea needs to meet with the merfolk due to treaty concerns; the reason she must do so rather than her husband the King is because the merfolk are matriarchal.  Princess Danielle is along because she has to be presented to the merfolk as Prince Armand’s new wife.

Of course, things do not proceed as planned.  Danielle has seasickness, but that’s not the worst of her troubles; Queen Bea and Danielle find out at the same time that the King of the merfolk is dead and his unstable daughter, Lirea, has taken the throne.  Lirea won’t honor the treaty between the humans of Lorindar and her people; about the only thing she does right is tell Bea and Danielle to their faces that the treaty is now null and void.

As this is a novel that turns well-known fairy tales on their collective heads, we quickly find out that Lirea is otherwise known as “the Little Mermaid.”  She fell in love with a human man, wanted to stay with him, but was rebuffed.  However, this has brought out her war-like nature, and that’s why she called off the treaty with Lorindar (even though her man was from another place entirely).

Lirea’s sister, Lannadae, knows there’s something wrong, so she comes on board Queen Bea’s ship, the Glass Slipper.  But Lannadae is a complete innocent, even though she’s only a year or so younger than Lirea; she is easily manipulated by other merfolk, is timid and shy, and while she’s possibly the only other person who can take the throne of the merfolk and do well with it, she refuses to intrigue against her sister — Lannadae will only attempt to heal Lirea, nothing more.

Lannadae ends up in Lorindar for a time, while Danielle, Talia, and Snow all plan to get to Lirea and find out what’s going on there and stop it, if at all possible.  But because the merfolk have ended the treaty, the waters surrounding Lorindar are no longer safe; this is why when they do go out to sea again, they board dryad Captain Hephyra’s ship, the Phillipa.  Hephyra’s ship, you see, was made from her original tree, and thus should be stouter and stronger despite it being smaller than the Glass Slipper as Hephyra should be able to counter most magic without half-trying, being of magical origin herself.

There seems to be only one person who might be able to heal Lirea, the merfolk’s exiled Queen Mother, Morveren.  She’s hidden on an island for what turns out to be good reason; she is a magic user, and can do serious harm to people of all races whenever she feels like it.  But she swears that all she wants to do is help to heal Lirea, and Lannadae concurs; that’s why, despite some inner misgivings, Morveren is taken on to Hephyra’s ship and they all proceed to attempt to heal Lirea.

So, will they heal Lirea?  Will Lannadae lose her naïveté, or at least become slightly less clueless?  What will Morveren do, and when will she do it?  And why, oh why, can’t any “Little Mermaids” other than the Disney cartoon version ever seem to find a happy ending?

Hines’ writing is crisp and clean, the story is plausible, and once again, the emotional depth is there along with the wit and satire that so enlivened THE STEPSISTER SCHEME.  Yet something here wasn’t quite as interesting, something I can’t quite put my finger on; all I know is, while this is a good story that held my interest, it didn’t measure up to the first novel in the series.  And as this is the second time this has happened in a Hines’ series, if I were his editor, I’d be working with him to strengthen the second book in any given series as this seems to be a pattern he must learn to break.

That said, both novels are a lot of fun to read; they are fast-paced, energetic, with a goodly amount of intrigue and strife along with the humor, and that is really tough to pull off.

My recommendation is to buy these novels in paperback.  They’re fun and funny, and are well worth your time to read. 




— reviewed by Barb


Note:  Books three and four of this series will be reviewed in coming days.

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Ellen Renner’s “Castle of Shadows:” Solid Pre-Teen Fantasy Adventure

Ellen Renner’s pre-teen fantasy adventure novel CASTLE OF SHADOWS is a solid tale about a young girl of eleven, Princess Charlotte Augusta Joanna Hortense of Quale (called “Charlie”), and her struggles to grow up in a time of revolution, intrigue, and strife.  Complicating matters  for Charlie is that her father, the King, is ill and has turned over all active ruling functions to his Prime Minister, Alastair Windlass, while her scientist and physicist mother, the Queen, left five years ago, reasons unknown.

Now, you’d think with Charlie being a princess that she’d have an easy life, but that’s just not the case.  Charlie has mostly been neglected since her mother left, and has been “raised” mostly by the deposed butler, Mr. Moleglass, while the housekeeper, Mrs. O’Dair, clothes Charlie in the cheapest fabrics imaginable and feeds her scraps.  Charlie hasn’t been to anything approximating a school in years; worse yet, no one seems to care what’s happening to her as her father’s too ill to take an interest.

Charlie mostly isn’t listened to, except by Moleglass, who can’t do very much as he’s been banished to the basement.  So when she finds an unfinished letter from her missing and presumed dead mother to a mysterious woman known only as “Bettina,” she becomes extremely anxious, especially as this letter indicates that Charlie’s mother’s research had found something so dreadful that she actually burned all her notes about it.  Charlie realizes that the only clues she may have to her mother’s disappearance are in her mother’s long-disused and now-padlocked library; that’s why Charlie extracts a promise from Moleglass that he’ll get her someone who’s good with locks in order for her to see if there’s anything in that lab that might help.  But Charlie never expected Moleglass’s “locksmith help” to be in the form of the twelve-year-old boy who’s been blackmailing her for books, Tobias (“Toby”) Petch, though Moleglass swears Toby is reliable, dependable, and very good at picking locks.

Over the course of days, Charlie realizes that many things she’s taken for granted are flat wrong.  Her father’s condition, for example, is worsened by a “medicine” that he’s been given by O’Dair; this is why he’s always so distracted and uncaring whenever she goes to see him.  Charlie’s mother, who definitely did care about Charlie and her husband the King, may have fled for her life due to something she found out as a scientist — Charlie doesn’t really understand this, mind you, but what seems to be the case is that her mother discovered nuclear power in a world that doesn’t have any — and Charlie’s mother’s fate is all tied up with Windlass in an odd, confusing way that adds layers of complexity and intrigue to the overall story.

Speaking of Windlass, initially he’s seen by Charlie to be a “good guy” as he’s been watching over Quale due to the King’s illness.  But over time, Charlie realizes that Windlass is a highly dangerous man with secrets of his own that he’s not exactly willing to reveal. 

Other questions raised by CASTLE OF SHADOWS are:  why does O’Dair hates Charlie so much?  Why does Moleglass live in the basement?  How does the threat of revolution come into it?  And why, oh why, is it that Charlie has only two people she can depend on through the majority of this book, neither of which is a blood family relation of any sort?

All of these questions are answered, but every question that’s answered of course leads to another question.  Because when a mother goes missing — especially a royal, scientist mother like Charlie’s — there’s usually a good reason for it.  Unraveling the mystery of Charlie’s mother’s disappearance goes along with the main mystery for the reader — why has Charlie been neglected, and why doesn’t anyone care about this kid? — might be the main reason why Charlie becomes involved, but it’s assuredly not the only reason.  (Especially after she realizes, dimly, the concept usually expressed as “noblesse oblige.”)

This story is told for the most part through Charlie’s POV and at the level where a typical eleven year old would be able to understand it.  This is probably why Charlie, to show affection for the one age-appropriate friend she has, Toby, hits him and isn’t gentle about it.  It’s why Charlie is hot-headed, yet has a heart of gold that she can’t really show (except with Moleglass, and later, a bit with Toby).  And this is why Charlie’s own struggles are told in a breathless, fast-paced manner that matches the nature of the action-adventure, once that truly gets going in the latter half of CASTLE OF SHADOWS.

As for minuses, I would’ve liked to see a bit more about Toby’s situation, as understanding why it took him a while to warm to Charlie and go from blackmailing her over books to true friend and confidante would’ve strengthened things a mite.  I would’ve also liked to have had a bit of actual strife earlier on — as it stands, Charlie finds out the country’s in real trouble about halfway in, and we don’t really see any armed action until nearly 7/8ths of the book has been read — as that, too, would’ve strengthened things a bit.  And I never did get a good handle on why “the O’Dair” hated Charlie, except that O’Dair was a generally hateful person anyway — this may be enough for pre-teenage readers, but it wasn’t enough for me, the adult reviewer.

That said, this is a good, solid book about a child’s search for her mother amidst a whole boatload of confusion.  The subplots dealing with the restless peasantry and the erosion of the middle class are clever ways to keep adult readers interested, yet aren’t so heavy as to overburden a younger reader’s understanding of the way the world works.  And the female-male friendship makes sense, isn’t cloying, and adds depth and richness to Charlie’s character and the story as a whole.

I enjoyed CASTLE OF SHADOWS because it moved fast, it’s enjoyable to read, and Charlie’s struggles seem like something that could actually happen, even if the country of Quale is entirely fictional.  This is a good book for pre-teens, teens who might otherwise be “reluctant readers,” and adults (within limits), as it will keep you wondering who did what to whom, and why, because the storytelling here is absolutely first-rate.

Grade: B.

— reviewed by Barb

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