Archive for March, 2013

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s “The Fires of Nuala” — Complex, Engrossing SF with Romance

It’s Saturday, which for all long-term readers of Shiny Book Review means one and only one thing — it’s time for a romance.

Some weeks are better than others in this regard.  I’ve reviewed romances of all descriptions, plus some books that have romance encapsulated in them but are not predominantly romances.  Tonight I have one of the latter in Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s THE FIRES OF NUALA, surely one of the best books I’ve read all year.  (Note: if you’d rather buy this through Amazon, here’s that link.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The main characters here are Sheel, who will soon be Atare (the ruler of his clan) despite being a Healer gifted with both empathy and the ability to diagnose by touch-telepathy, and Darame, an off-world woman and “free trader” who’s really a combination spy and criminal, but with one caveat: she only cheats other spies and criminals.  The two share one night of passion, then wake up to disaster.  The four or five people who’d been heirs before Sheel are all either dead or dying, and no one’s certain as to anyone’s underlying motivations.  Darame is immediately a suspect despite having an undeniable alibi — she was with Sheel, and in a mightily compromising position, to boot — but Sheel knows that Darame could not possibly be involved.

The plot thickens when it’s discovered that the guaard around Sheel’s kin when they were murdered had been changed at the last minute in a way that’s extremely suspicious.  This suspicion is contrary to everything the guaard stands for, as these complex people — more than security guards, they take an oath to the various noble families (such as Sheel’s) in a quasi-feudalistic rite — have been thought incorruptible.  But when Sheel’s own guaard commander Mailan concurs with Darame’s assessment that at least some of the guaard have been compromised, this forces Sheel to start thinking outside the box immediately in order to assure his kin’s safety.

Of course, Darame immediately suspects another off-worlder in this conspiracy to subvert the guaard and kill Sheel’s kin, as the man who brought her to Nuala in the first place, an enigmatic career criminal named Brant, is definitely hiding something.  That Brant has also made it very difficult for Darame to find out what’s happened to her mentor Halsey, who’s stood as a father figure to her for years, just adds fuel to the fire.

But there’s deeper waters ahead, things that have to do with Nuala’s unusual way of inheritance (half goes through a female offshoot of the family line, this leader being called the “ragäree,” with the other half going through the male) and the fact that the current ragäree-presumptive, Leah — Sheel’s eldest sister — is barren and is trying to cover it up.

Nuala, you see, has had major difficulties with radiation sickness over the centuries.  Eighty percent of its population is either outright sterile or is “borderline,” meaning they may or may not ever be able to have children.  And some — the Sinis and “mock-Sinis” — are so radioactive that people either can’t be around them at all (the former) or for not very long (the latter).  And it’s because of the radiation sickness that this particular way of inheritance became common in the larger families where money and influence was at stake.

So there’s murder.  Conspiracy.  Greed.  The conflict between what’s always been done and new, unexpected methods.  A political economy that’s based on fertile Nualans going off-world regularly in order to bring back healthy genes and/or healthy people who wish to settle there, lest Nuala die out.  A hereditary line of inheritance that’s different, but makes sense according to everything I’ve ever read, sociologically.  And an excellent romance that’s based on competence, mutual regard, and shared values as much as it is about two healthy people in their prime being sexually aware of each other and acting on it.

Ms. Kimbriel has developed a rich, well-developed world to play in, and she does so with great flair.  The characterization is outstanding from beginning to end.  The world building is first-rate.  The romance between Sheel, who needs an off-world bride but has given up on finding one, and Darame, the off-worlder who’d never thought she’d find someone she wanted to settle down with due to her chosen profession, is one of the best I’ve ever read in the science fiction and/or romance categories.  Even the dialogue reads well and easily, which is no mean feat considering all the Nualan loan words.

THE FIRES OF NUALA, written in 1988 and reissued** in 2010, is a book that should be in every science fiction library as it is complex, engrossing, interesting, compelling, and outstanding.  This is the first book in a trilogy and sets up Nuala, its conflicts, its vital people, and its unique and special problems as a world that you will want to revisit again and again.

Why THE FIRES OF NUALA isn’t already known as an outstanding epic science fiction novel of the best kind — complete with romance — is beyond me.   Some novels do not find their entire audience the first time around, and perhaps that was the case here.

However, considering THE FIRES OF NUALA has been reissued by Book View Cafe, you owe it to yourself to read this outstanding novel.  Especially if you love epics, complex plots with spots of humor, cultural clashes, well-drawn generational battles, or simply enjoy a good yarn that’s extremely well told.

Bottom line?  Technically, THE FIRES OF NUALA is a combination of space opera, romance and mystery.  Book View Cafe’s own description calls it “perfect for fans of Darkover and Pern,” and I can’t say they’re wrong.

But in my view, that’s only part of the appeal here, as I’d classify THE FIRES OF NUALA as closer to DUNE on an epic scale (more understandable, and far more fun, but lots of history and interest that reminded me of Frank Herbert) far more than it did any of the Darkover or Pern novels, even the most complex (such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s THE SHATTERED CHAIN or SHARRA’S EXILE).

If you haven’t read THE FIRES OF NUALA already — and I’m betting most of you haven’t — you need to pick it up, pronto.  Or you will be missing out on something extraordinary.

Grade:  A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb 

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** Upon further review, I’ve been reliably informed by Ms. Kimbriel that THE FIRES OF NUALA that I just read is the very same, exact version put out in 1988.  Which makes me wonder, again, what was in the water that year that the awards committees for the various high-profile ceremonies didn’t even consider this amazing novel.  (Shame on them.)

So if you bought a copy back in 1988, and read it and loved it, you do not need to worry about anything having changed.  (But if you want an e-book copy to augment your hard copy, you still might want to look at Book View Cafe’s reissue as $4.99 for an e-book of this size is an absolute steal.)

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Lackey and Mallory’s “Crown of Vengeance” — One Compelling Epic Fantasy

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s newest novel is CROWN OF VENGEANCE, book one of a new trilogy about the great Elven Queen Vieliessar Farcarinon.  Previous readers of Lackey and Mallory’s work will recognize Vieliessar from a short snippet in a previous novel, WHEN DARKNESS FALLS (book three of the “Obsidian Mountain” trilogy).  She was described as the best queen the Elves ever had.  She was also the best mage, the wisest ruler, skilled with both sword and magery alike.  And of course the legends about her mostly speak of her benevolence, as she’s the one who drove the nasty, vicious Endarkened out of Jer-a-Kaliel.

(A quick note about the Endarkened: They do not see themselves as evil.  They are servants of a God known as He Who Is.  They also are blood mages who enjoy causing pain and death to maximize their own power, and especially enjoy killing Elves.  But the Elves, at first, do not know about the Endarkened.  Thus ends the history lesson.)

If you’ve read the other six books Lackey and Mallory have written about this world, you already know that Vieliessar’s story isn’t going to go exactly the way history has remembered it.  Because of this, you can safely assume that Vieliessar is both more and less than what history gives her credit for.

So yes, she will turn out to be a triumphant Queen.  And a brilliant military tactician.  And a great mage, oh yes.

But she’s also a flawed person, someone the reader can empathize with.  Because her power sets her apart.  And it’s hard for her to find anyone who can relate to her, due to her own amazingly strong abilities.

Having a sympathetic heroine is absolutely essential in a book where most of the character names are at least four syllables in length.  And when a character has hundreds of years to become what she needs to be, for that matter — because Vieliessar isn’t human.  She’s an Elf.  And at this time in Jer-a-Kaliel’s history, because we’re so far back in the past, humans aren’t even in the picture because they haven’t yet evolved enough to matter.

We pick up Vieliessar’s story literally at birth.  Her noble mother, Nataranweiya, has fled to the Sanctuary of the Star — clerics and mages, the equivalent of a nunnery or monastery — as her husband has been slain, along with nearly all of her retainers.  (Those few she had left were the reason she was able to reach the Sanctuary at all.)  Nataranweiya gets there, gives birth, and promptly dies . . . but because Vieliessar’s birth was seen centuries ago by an ancient and possibly mad King, and because Vieliessar is, after all, in a holy Sanctuary, the enemies that brought down the House of Farcarinon are not able to kill Vieliessar outright.

Instead, she’s fostered out.

We pick up the story again when Vieliessar is twelve.  Renamed “Varuthir,” all she wants to do is to become an Elven knight.  She knows nothing of being the last of Farcarinon; she knows nothing of her birth, her mother, her status as “Child of the Prophecy” or anything else.  So when she’s shipped off to the Sanctuary of the Star to become a perpetual servant, she is outraged.

That one of the nobles cruelly tells Vieliessar exactly who she’s supposed to be (minus the Child of the Prophecy part, as the Sanctuary didn’t let on about any of that) before she leaves just adds salt to the wound.

So, Vieliessar goes to the Sanctuary, and becomes a servant.  She’s there for perhaps as many as ten years, learning that servants are people like any other — that the “Landbonds,” who’ve been held as serfs, tied to the land, are perhaps more noble than anyone who’s inherited a title — and that magic has its limits.

Then, one day, she calls fire.

A wise servant tells Vieliessar to hide her new abilities, as if she’s chosen to become a Lightsister (mage and cleric, both), she’ll lose her protected status.  (Only if she stays in the Sanctuary or on its grounds is she safe.  And perhaps not on the grounds, depending on how the other noble houses feel about it.)  But of course Vieliessar isn’t able to do that.

If she had been, it would’ve been a much shorter, and far less interesting, book.  But I digress.

The remainder of the novel deals with how Vieliessar first becomes a mage, then an Elven knight, and finally reclaims her birthright as a noble.  In so doing, she realizes she must unite the Hundred Houses behind her banner, as she firmly believes that evil is approaching, just as that mad King said centuries ago.

But her quest is not an easy one.  Before she’s done, she may alienate every friend she has, all to keep at least some semblance of Elven society alive.  And because she knows this — and knows how rare it is to find a true meeting of the minds, besides — her fate and fame become that much more compelling.

There’s some really good characterization here.  The problems of the Landbonds and servants are well-drawn.  The nobles — Higher and Lesser — are also well-drawn, though their petty politicking grows tiring even to those Highborns willing to partake in such.  And despite her immense powers in a wide variety of spheres, Vieliessar is a likable, winning heroine that most readers will be willing to cheer for — even as they wish the Endarkened would just go away and leave her alone already.

Because this is book one of a new trilogy, you may safely assume that the scenes with the Endarkened are more like an appetizer than an actual main course.  This is fine, as far as it goes, especially if you’ve read the previous six books.

But even if you haven’t, there’s more than enough here to show that the Endarkened are nasty pieces of work that you definitely wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.  (Or anywhere else, either.  Because they’d probably have you as the main course, and smile while they killed you, as slowly and painfully as they possibly could.)

Bottom line?  This is a fine epic fantasy, a quest story with heart, and a compelling read from beginning to end.

If you love epic fantasy, loved any of Lackey and Mallory’s previous six books in this world, or have enjoyed any of the two authors’ solo efforts, you will enjoy this book.

And if you love all of the above, plus appreciate seeing that legends aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be (they might be more, might be less, but are assuredly different), you will adore CROWN OF VENGEANCE.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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A Few Good Men — Thoughtful and Provoking Fiction

A Few God MenOne part political discourse, one part romantic adventure, and one part… something else entirely, Sarah Hoyt’s A Few Good Men is a continuation novel set in her Darkship universe that is the first in a series all its own.

Lucius Dante Maximilian Keeva was a monster, kept hidden away in the Good Men’s undersea prison of Never-Never, forever being punished in his mind for murdering his best friend. Locked away and forgotten, it seemed, until one day when is he broken out of prison. But instead of being the monster he believed himself to be, however, Lucius listens to the voice in his head — his long-dead friend Ben — and sets about helping the poor bastards on the lower levels out of the prison before Never-Never flooded.

Lucius manages to help the others escape and fights his way out of Never-Never, flies off away from his old home (the Olympus seacity) and finds himself in one of the other massive seacities of the world, the Liberte seacity. Unfortunately for Lucius, he has not really seen, talked to or even been touched by another human being in fourteen years, and the sudden sensory onslaught of freedom in Liberte almost causes him to curl up in a ball and quit. Fortunately, the voice in his head (Ben) is as stubborn as he, and forces him to go into the city and try to find a way to survive.

Once he overcomes his fears, he catches up on the news of the day — and discovers that his father is dead and his younger brother, who had become the next Good Man, had just been found in his home, brutally murdered. Lucius, knowing that Ben’s family would be subjugated to horrors of a hereditary system and would not have the same security if a new Good Man took over the Keeva’s seacity of Olympus, decides to claim his inheritance.

The first half of the book is splendidly told, with the prodigal son/convicted murderer returning home to claim his family’s fortune and the secrets and lies that he had been fed throughout his entire life being laid bare before. He realizes that Ben’s younger brother, Nat, is in the same peculiar position that Ben had been in many years before with his dead brother Max and that his own story about what has happened in the Keeva household — indeed, with all of the Good Men across the globe — is almost unbelievable. The author teases the reader with the big secret, the big reveal that the reader already knows about if they had read Darkship Thieves (reviewed here) or Darkship Renegades (reviewed here), a slow and almost torturous tease that goes on for almost too long. Once the big reveal is made, though, the book drastically slows down.

Part of the problem is Lucius’ inner dialogue. Since the book is told in a first person POV, this is okay in the beginning, with the narration being fairly thorough and fast-paced. As the book goes on, however, Lucius’ dialogue seems to be replaced more with his growing ideology and less with the actual telling of the story, including points of purposeful “But that’s not my story to tell” comments interspersed. There is a lot less “show” here than the first half of the book, and it does detract from points that could have been especially telling with the characterization of Lucius. It also does a number on the bond between reader and character, since a large part of the second half is political discourse (which is fine, mostly… I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if it is for everyone).

However, the portrayal of Lucius’ guilt about surviving (and murdering his best friend) is excellently done, with the pangs and remorse any survivor has painted beautifully and tragically on the page. The author does a tremendous job and forcing the reader to not only see that pain, but experience it as well, which is something not many try to do these days. An amazing venture here, with the author almost daring the reader to keep going, to see what the hero sees, to feel the pain and anguish of life… not just to use the book as an escape from reality, but as a window in to a reality that is potentially on our doorstep.

A pretty good book from Ms Hoyt, and the promise of a solid series all around. If you liked Darkship Renegades, you will definitely enjoy A Few Good Men.

Reviewed by Jason

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Lenore Applehans’ “Level Two” is Intriguing, Different

Lenore Applehans’ debut novel LEVEL 2 is an intriguing and different type of dystopian young adult romance.  Applehans, a noted blogger and reviewer of dystopian fiction, has created a world that’s reminiscent of a high-tech version of the Catholic Purgatory — except it’s one that no one can escape, because those charged with running it have decided to play their own game for their own ends.  (Human sinners be damned.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The main character is the deceased seventeen-year-old Felicia Ward.  She’s a noted pianist with a composer for a father and a diplomat for a mother.  She’s traveled all over the world, and has one good female friend — Autumn — whose family is also caught up in the diplomatic world.  Felicia’s life seems to be idyllic, but she’s had a few bad scares overseas (including a mugging in Nairobi when she was only thirteen), and her parents are more like friends she sees every great once in a while than real, hands-on parents.

Felicia and Autumn end up falling in love with the same young man, the enigmatic Julian, while in Germany due to their parents’ workloads.  Felicia doesn’t tell Autumn that Julian has been around to see her quite a number of times alone, though Felicia knows that Julian has been to see Autumn.  (Julian, of course, tells both girls that each is the only one for him.)

Finally, the truth comes out — and nothing is the same ever again.  (I’m dancing lightly around this to avoid giving too much of the plot away.)

Felicia  ends up in the United States, away from both parents, and falls in love with a good, kind, studious and respectful young man — Neil.  But Felicia doesn’t think she’s good enough for him due to what’s happened in her past.

Mind you, all of this comes out in memories — flashbacks — rather than directly, because Felicia is dead.  She died the day before her eighteenth birthday, and it’s because her life wasn’t particularly resolved that she’s in Level 2 — Purgatory — reliving everything in order to somehow come to terms with it.

Yet the angels who run the place — the Morati — have decided that they’re unhappy with their lot.  They wish instead to use the deceased humans as a source of energy (as Felicia says flat out, “Shades of the Matrix!”) as a way to somehow storm Heaven proper and speak with God Himself — or at least with some higher level angels, so they can do some work that’s better suited to their overly grandiose views of themselves.

That’s why Level 2, rather than being truly like Purgatory where souls come to terms with all they’ve done (good and bad alike), has become segregated by gender and age.  Has become a sort of “memory storehouse” where memories are played back by a type of computer, and other “users” are able to rate your memories, the same way users online rate various things right now.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, Julian, too, is dead, and still has plans for Felicia . . . .

Ultimately, Felicia has to decide what she’d rather have: her addiction to her good memories (because yes, the Morati have gone there, too, being bad angels), or reliving everything, the good and bad alike?  Because only by doing the latter may she eventually find Neil — and get off Level 2 for good.

This is an intriguing take on the afterlife, and Ms. Applehans does it well.  The “love triangle” between Julian, the bad boy, and Neil, the obvious good boy, is well done.  (Julian has a number of secrets of his own, so he’s not as stereotypical as all that.)  Felicia’s devotion to her female friends (Autumn in real life, Virginia and Beckah in the afterlife) is well-drawn.  And her lack of connection with her mother, along with her stronger but still not quite strong enough connection to her father due to their joint love of music, also makes sense.

Mind you, I wanted to shake Felicia’s parents.  Especially her mother, who really was not admirable in any way, shape or form despite her high-powered career.  At least Felicia’s father gave a damn about Felicia and tried to help her, whereas Felicia’s mother was just . . . well, a waste of space.

The only drawback here (aside from Felicia’s useless mother, who at least serves as a plot point) is that Felicia never quite figures out that Julian ended up being the catalyst for everything that followed in her life — good and bad alike.  (Julian definitely realizes this, but seems to enjoy keeping Felicia in the dark.)  As Felicia is intelligent, albeit inexperienced, this was a bit puzzling.

Bottom line?  I enjoyed LEVEL 2, and believe that if you enjoy young adult novels, dystopian fiction, sweet romance or a new take on the afterlife — or better yet, all at once — you will also enjoy Ms. Applehans’ debut novel.

Grade: A-minus.

— reviewed by Barb

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