Archive for category Book Review
It’s Romance Saturday at SBR!
Sorry about the long delay between reviews, folks…life has intervened. (To make a long story shorter: I’m struggling with my third novel, CHANGING FACES, which is due out in a few months via Twilight Times Books. And Jason recently finished a new novel, KRAKEN MARE, with co-writer Chris Smith…can’t wait to see that one come out.) But I do have an interesting book to review today…let’s get to it.
Sherry Thomas‘s third book in her Elemental Trilogy is THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS. (Book one, THE BURNING SKY, was reviewed here; book two, THE PERILOUS SEA, was reviewed here.) All three books feature young elemental mages Iolanthe Seabourne (also known as Archer Fairfax) and Titus, Prince of Elberon — otherwise known as the Domain. (The Domain is a magical realm that both interacts with the known world of late 19th Century England and is separate from it.) They’re running from a horrible despot known as the Bane, Master of Atlantis (yes, Atlantis is real in Ms. Thomas’s conception, but is another magical, separate place that’s known to us only via legend). Book two ended with Prince Titus and Iolanthe allied with a number of would-be sorcerers, many of them Indian (including a possible analogue for Mohandas Gandhi called Kashkari, seen here as a young man who firmly believes in sorcery and is deeply in love with his brother’s wife), committed to fighting the Bane in full. They’ve even come up with a rallying cry: “Fortune favors the brave. And the brave make their own fortune!”
So, Iolanthe and Prince Titus might be young, and still somewhat inexperienced, but they are powerful. (Iolanthe in particular is the most powerful magician anyone’s ever seen, as she has command over all four elements — Air, Fire, Earth, and Water.) But the Bane is a coercive sorcerer who’s been stealing other people’s bodies for years, in order to keep himself alive and keep his reign of terror going. How are these two naïfs going to beat the Bane?
Ah, but I promised you a romance, didn’t I?
Trust me, there’s plenty of that. Prince Titus must lean on Iolanthe quite heavily, and they are in danger throughout as the Bane is wily, skilled, and has learned much during his unnaturally long life. Yet there’s plenty of time for quieter moments, too…it’s obvious these two are deeply in love, and that love is based on friendship and shared experiences.
I loved that.
But that’s only one part of THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS. There were many other questions to be answered here, including, “Who were Iolanthe’s parents, really? What happened to Prince Titus’s father? What will happen to Kashkari, his brother, and his sister-in-law during the epic battle?” Ms. Thomas answered these questions carefully, with great skill, and yet with an odd sort of reserve that I tend to view as particularly British…so it’s historically as accurate as a writer of our times can get, while still being a rip-roaring action-adventure novel.
As for Kashkari, I enjoyed the additional glimpses into his life and career. (In the previous two novels, Kashkari was a fellow teenage student at Eton with Prince Titus and “Archer Fairfax,” Iolanthe’s masculine alter-ego.) He was a useful presence, and while he, himself, did not have magic, he respected those who did. He could and did make plans, and aided Prince Titus and Iolanthe/Archer quite a bit, which I appreciated. Still, I wanted a lot more from him, as I sensed quite a story there, and I didn’t get it.
(Mind, maybe Ms. Thomas plans another novel in this series centered around Kashkari. If so, good, because I’d love to see him as a romantic hero in his own right. But I digress.)
Bottom line: I enjoyed THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS quite a bit. It’s a fun book with excellent historicity, a great age-appropriate romance, and it wrapped up all the loose ends nicely (with the exception of Kashkari). But I was left wanting more from the minor characters, and didn’t get it.
–reviewed by Barb
It’s Romance Saturday at SBR!
And as everyone here knows, that means it’s time for a romance. So what could be better than the latest novel by Lois McMaster Bujold, featuring one of my favorite heroines ever, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan? (For those new to her, Cordelia was featured in SHARDS OF HONOR and BARRAYAR — later collected as CORDELIA’S HONOR — and had much to say in several other novels in Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan series, including MIRROR DANCE, MEMORY, and A CIVIL CAMPAIGN.)
GENTLEMAN JOLE AND THE RED QUEEN starts three years after Cordelia’s famous husband Aral Vorkosigan’s death. She is now the sole Vicereine of Sergyar, a colony planet of the Barrayaran Imperium, and while incredibly busy with a variety of issues — scientific, political, and economic, she finds herself at loose ends, romantically.
This was not a place she ever expected to be. She’s in her mid-to-late seventies, which for a Galactic is closer to mid-forties in health, so she has plenty of life left to her. Yet her husband, to whom she was devoted, has died…and there are additional complications for her in finding a romantic partner, as both she and her husband are/were powerful personalities with difficult and time-consuming jobs.
Fortunately, there is one man who understands that. His name is Oliver Jole. He’s an Admiral in the Barrayaran Naval Fleet stationed in Sergyar orbit, and he’s well acquainted with both Cordelia and her husband, Aral. (For long-term readers of the Vorkosigan Saga, Jole was a Lieutenant we barely saw in THE VOR GAME; Cordelia and Aral’s son, Miles, comments that Lieutenant Jole is blond and almost too good-looking to be borne — my best paraphrase, as I don’t have the book in front of me.) Oliver is nearly fifty, he has a similar background to both Cordelia and Cordelia’s late husband, is intelligent and funny, and hasn’t dated anyone in many years. And he’s fallen for Cordelia…but he doesn’t know how to get past her formidable reserve.
And on Cordelia’s part, she sees Oliver as attractive, but doesn’t realize he could be a possibility for her. They’ve been friends a long time, but Aral knew Oliver far better — and besides, Cordelia thinks Oliver is gay.
But Oliver isn’t. He’s bisexual.
This shouldn’t throw Cordelia half as much as it does, mind, as her husband was bisexual as well. But because she’s older than Oliver, and because of the history she has with Oliver, it takes her a considerable amount of time to realize that Oliver is indeed a match for her.
Complicating things markedly is the whole issue of biology. You see, Cordelia and Aral were only able to have one son, Miles, during Aral’s lifetime. (Their other son, Mark, was cloned from Miles illegally by an intergalactic criminal; once the family realized Mark was alive, they welcomed him with open arms, but Mark was not raised with Miles or by Cordelia.) However, Aral’s sperm and Cordelia’s eggs were frozen, and now Cordelia has to decide if she wants to bring more children — daughters, she’s decided — into this world.
(Minor spoilers ahead. You have been warned.)
How does Oliver come into this issue? Well, Oliver also had a close relationship with Aral, that Cordelia condoned. (You can see why Cordelia never expected to find something with Oliver now, yes?) This is why Cordelia offers Oliver some genetic material from both herself and Aral, so Oliver might be able to have children as well. (Sons, he thinks.)
Anyway, just as Oliver and Cordelia attempt to make a match of it, Cordelia’s son Miles shows up with his family. Along with all of the expected complications (it’s not that easy to explain to your fully grown son that you’ve taken up with a new, much younger man), Cordelia also has to explain her decision to have more children…and the material she’s donated to Oliver as well, so he, too, can have children of his own.
How will Miles take all this?
(Further reviewer sayeth not.)
This is a phenomenal novel that has it all. Growth. Loss. Grief. New love, all unlooked for. Romance — dear Gods, yes, romance.
I loved GENTLEMAN JOLE AND THE RED QUEEN, and think it is one of Bujold’s best novels — right up there with BARRAYAR, MIRROR DANCE, and A CIVIL CAMPAIGN.
Bottom line: What are you waiting for? It’s Lois McMaster Bujold at top form, and it’s excellent.
–reviewed by Barb
As promised, here’s my first new review in months…though there will be more in the New Year from me, Jason Cordova, and a few guest reviewers.
Rysa Walker’s dynamic trilogy The Chronos Files wraps up heroine Kate Pierce-Keller’s story in TIME’S DIVIDE, but there are other stories in her universe nearly as compelling. And because the related novella, “Time’s Mirror,” had a number of interesting tidbits that helped to better understand what was going on in TIME’S DIVIDE, I’m going to start with that.
(Note that book one of the Chronos Files, TIMEBOUND, was reviewed here, book two of the Chronos Files, TIME’S EDGE, was reviewed here, and a related novella featuring Kate’s friend Kiernan, “Time’s Echo,” was reviewed here.)
“Time’s Mirror” features Prudence Pierce, Kate’s maternal aunt. Prudence is a teen in the prime of life growing up in the 1980s when she accidentally activates a Chronos key, vaulting her hundreds of years into the future — and under a pile of rubble.
Prudence, you see, has a gene that allows her to time-travel, similar to her yet-unborn niece, Kate Pierce-Keller. (Kate’s mother, Deborah, apparently only carried this gene and couldn’t have activated the Chronos key, but that’s another story entirely.) And Prudence had no idea that her mother, Katherine, was from the far future and marooned in our time — much less that her real father, Saul Rand, was a murderous psychopath bent on reshaping the world in his own, demented image.
Anyway, Prudence is rescued from the pile of rubble and given rehabilitation. But along with her favorite foods not existing any more, there being almost no animals left (including cats and dogs) and other, various changes, she finds out that her physical therapist was literally born to be what she is; there is now next to no choice in what you do or how you do it. Worse yet, everyone is now genetically predisposed to enjoy to the fullest whatever it is they’ve been programmed to do. And as a teenage girl from our time, she obviously can’t abide this at all — nor should she.
At this point, she makes contact with a guy named Tate. Tate is a stranded time-traveler, too, but is stranded in his own era so you’d think he’d have fewer problems than Prudence is having. However, Saul’s made so many changes to the timeline that his parents no longer exist and he’s in danger of winking out of existence as well. He and Prudence fall in love, which isn’t as icky as it sounds because Tate is still quite young also — in his early twenties. (Most of the actual sex stays off-screen.)
Prudence decides she’s going to try to return to her own time, and Tate decides to help her. But rather than landing back in the 1980s, she ends up somewhere else — somewhere her real father, Saul Rand, can take advantage of her youth and inexperience. Saul tries to befriend Prudence, but Prudence is wary, mostly because she knows Tate was one of Saul’s best friends yet Saul doesn’t seem to care whatsoever what happened to Tate and indeed never asks about him.
Why is Saul pretending to be nice? Well, he needs her for his new religion, called the Cyrists. He is Brother Saul, and she is Sister Prudence, and between the two they manage to give “prophecies” (actual information based on historical events); however, sometimes a personal touch is needed, and Saul can no longer time-travel as he’s in the same boat Prudence’s mother Katharine is in. So Prudence must do that instead.
Overall, “Time’s Mirror” explains just why Prudence Pierce (also known as Prudence K. Rand) is not only important, but is actually a tragic figure. The way she’s used by Saul is despicable; the way her own, future self tries to help her only adds to Prudence’s struggles.
Now, why did I need to explain all this? It’s because Prudence has a much bigger role in TIME’S DIVIDE than in previous novels. (But I’ll get to that.)
Back to Kate, Prudence’s niece, who remains in big trouble. She and the two men she loves — Kiernan and Trey — are both in the cross-hairs of Saul and his minions. Kiernan is more of a friend, while Trey is the young man Kate yearns to be with…yet both have been harmed already by Saul and his Cyrists, with worse to come unless Kate can avert Armageddon.
And this time, Brother Saul has prophesied that Armageddon is coming, and has only given the faithful Cyrists the needed vaccinations against a terrible disease.
Prudence does not want Saul to do this, but by this time, she’s been so used and abused by Saul (much less all the time-traveling she’s done) that she doesn’t have much of a sense of self left. Prudence is assumed by Kate to be psychotic, but that isn’t correct, as Kate finds out during the course of TIME’S DIVIDE…Prudence is mentally damaged, yes, but she still loves her sister Deborah and to this day has never forgotten Tate, the one man she’s ever loved.
Kate and Prudence must make common cause, but their alliance is uneasy to begin with and is made worse by various iterations of the younger Prudence popping into and out of time to cause trouble. And to add even more fuel to the fire, there’s another version of Kate running around — a heavily pregnant one — that’s been captured by Saul and is being forced to do Saul’s bidding in the name of his new religion, the Cyrists.
So, there’s multiple versions of Prudence, and there are two versions of Kate. And there’s a nasty biological virus that Saul is about to unleash, but has been canny enough to plant among a terrorist cell featuring yet another crazy time-traveler stranded from the same far-future era as Saul and Kate’s grandmother Katherine.
How can Kate, Prudence, Trey, Kiernan, and the few good Cyrists about avert tragedy? And will everyone live happily ever after (even Prudence)?
Trust me on this — if you have read any of the previous Chronos Files novels, you will want to know how this book ends. You may not agree with all of it (goodness knows, I didn’t), but you will be caught up in a splendid, action-packed thriller that you don’t want to end.
Bottom line? Read the novella “Time’s Mirror” first, to completely understand why Prudence Pierce (AKA Prudence K. Rand) is so important. But then do read TIME’S DIVIDE, and ask yourself — if you were in Prudence’s shoes, would you be able to do as much?
“Time’s Mirror” — A-minus
TIME’S DIVIDE — A
–reviewed by Barb
Folks, please forgive the rather unenticing title of this review. As I’ve been working hard at turning in my third novel, CHANGING FACES, I haven’t been able to review for a few weeks.
A few months ago, I asked Noah Hill if he’d like to do another review for SBR, and he said, “Sure!” So this is his second review, with more to come in the weeks that follow.
Now, on to the review!
Schooled in Magic is a familiar story, told in an interesting way. Emily, our unlikely protagonist, is transported to a magical world against her will, where she must learn magic, try to make friends, and fight against the forces of evil. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, no! Not another Harry Potter rip off!” Have faith, and keep reading; I thought the same thing at first.
Overall, I found Schooled in Magic to be quite enjoyable. The characters were fun, the evildoers were properly evil, and there were several twists and turns that left my head spinning. Mr. Nuttall was able to capture the darker side of fantasy, while keeping the story fun and lighthearted. It made me smile, it sent chills down my spine, and it made me laugh, all within the space of a few pages. This ability to rapidly shift mood is something that many authors lack.
The one flaw that I saw in Schooled in Magic was voice, or a lack thereof. There were several places in the book where I thought that voice was missing. More specifically, I felt that our protagonist wasn’t given the voice that she deserves. A part of the problem is that at times I felt as if the author were using Emily’s internal monologue as a vehicle for his own beliefs about our world. I could very well be wrong, but I think that there were times when she was thinking and acting in a way that was very strange for a young girl, without a solid explanation in her character background. Despite this, Schooled in Magic is a story that was able to grip me fairly early and pull me through those spots.
If you love a good fish-out-of-water story, a fun look into another world, and a quick read that pulls you along by your collar, then Schooled in Magic is a good, solid read that you will probably devour in one or two sittings, as I did.
Reviewer’s note: Keep an eye out, as I’ll be reading and reviewing more of this series in the weeks to come!
–reviewed by Noah Hill; posted by Barb Caffrey
Rysa Walker’s Chronos Files have quickly become one of the best-known young adult (YA) sagas around, and it’s easy to see why. With crisp dialogue, excellent characterization and an intriguing premise, the story of Kate Pierce-Keller and the people who surround her is engrossing and thought-provoking. I reviewed the first book of the Chronos Files, TIMEBOUND, here. (If you haven’t read that review, go do so now, or what I’m about to say will make little sense.)
Chronologically, TIME’S ECHO is a novella that explains just who Kiernan is — the mysterious, dark-haired stranger who seemingly popped up every time Kate was in trouble during TIMEBOUND has an interesting backstory of his own. Kiernan, you see, is from the early 20th Century, and like Kate, is able to use a Chronos device in order to travel through time. Not being limited to the world he grew up in, Kiernan has been to the 21st Century, 22nd Century, even the 23rd Century…but his heart belongs to Kate.
However, the Kate he knew — a nineteen-year-old, rather feisty Kate who’d entered into something akin to a common-law marriage with him — is not the Kate we got to know in TIMEBOUND. You see, the same bad actors who were causing trouble in TIMEBOUND have already caused trouble for Kiernan and Kate…and the history and life experiences that created his version of Kate Pierce-Keller are so altered that the Kate who now stands is not only younger than the one he knew, but no longer recognizes him.
See, this is where I have to describe some of the doings of the bad actors (stuff I decided to gloss over in my previous review). They are known as Cyrists, and they’ve created a new religion that dates back to roughly the 15th Century. The founder of this religion, Saul, is actually Kate’s grandfather — and like Katherine, Kate’s grandmother, is from the 23rd Century. Saul and Katherine had a huge blow-up, because Katherine believed that timelines should be preserved — what she’d been taught all her life — while Saul believed that time-traveling historians (like himself and Katherine) should be able to alter time any way they wanted. (You can see where this would be a huge problem, yes?)
Anyway, Katherine didn’t know it, but she was already pregnant by Saul when she became marooned in the 20th Century. She married, had twins — one being Kate’s mother, the other being Kate’s long-missing and presumed dead aunt, Prudence — and settled into a new life as a historian and teacher. She no longer can time-travel due to the actions of Saul, and Saul cannot time-travel either — but their descendants can, at least some of them. (Prudence can, for example, while Kate’s mother cannot. And those who can’t time-travel mostly disbelieve those who can. Keep that in mind.)
So in TIME’S ECHO, we actually get to see a little bit of nineteen-year-old Kate. She’s deeply in love with Kiernan. They have built a life that’s unconventional in that they both time-travel at will, but it works for them. And so long as they both maintain their Chronos devices (an amulet that glows a different color for each time-traveler, but looks like a dull metal to non-time-travelers), they will continue to be in the same timeline and be able to stay together.
Then disaster strikes. The Cyrists decide that nineteen-year-old Kate is too meddlesome, so they figure out a way to remove her as a threat to them by some adroit shifting of the timeline. This also takes nineteen-year-old Kate away from Kiernan, who pretends he doesn’t know who she is when asked by Prudence, Kate’s aunt. But in reality, he is steamed, and vows to find out just what happened to Kate.
That’s why Kiernan shows up to protect Kate so often in TIMEBOUND. She’s not the Kate he knew, no. She’s younger, more innocent, hasn’t had the same experiences, and is in love with another young man, Trey. But she’s still Kate, and he still loves her.
TIME’S EDGE goes back to the Kate we know. She’s working with Kiernan and her aunt, Katherine, to retrieve as many Chronos devices as she can in order to keep them out of the hands of Saul and his Cyrists. Working with a man who’s in love with you when you’re in love with someone else is not easy…but Kiernan has vowed to help bring down the Cyrists, and Kate needs his help, so they’re doing the best they can.
As for Trey, he’s learning to love Kate all over again, but their relationship isn’t quite the same as before. (This is because the original relationship Kate built with Trey was wiped out by a time-shift. Note the parallels here between what happened to Kiernan’s Kate, and Kate’s Trey.) But they’re working at it, and Trey still does feel something for Kate…Kate has hopes that eventually, their love relationship will be as strong as it was before.
There are more time-traveling adventures, this time to the 1930s, the 1960s, and of course a bit back to the early 1900s (Kiernan’s original time). These are all well-written and engrossing, and show the problems of several other stranded time-travelers, including an interracial married couple who unfortunately got stranded in the Southern U.S. of the 1930s. (It was still illegal for white women and black men to be together, much less sleep with one another, at that time.)
Throughout TIME’S EDGE, there is a palpable sense of danger. Kate has already been targeted by the Cyrists before, and they’ve missed twice. How long can she keep going before they kill her and wipe away all memory of her from the timeline? And what will happen to the other time-traveling historians in the wake of the Cyrists’ new religion?
All of these questions will be answered, but in turn will raise even more questions — which is the main reason why I can’t wait to read TIME’S DIVIDE (book three in the Chronos Files)…but I digress.
These are excellent stories, full of action, great characterization, witty dialogue, and fine romance. Despite the apocalyptic nature of the Cyrists and all of their menacing power, there’s somehow a sense that Kate, Trey, Kiernan, and Katherine can prevail. This hopefulness suffuses the entirety of the Chronos Files series, and is the main reason I find these stories to be so addictive.
Bottom line: Read Rysa Walker’s Chronos Files, or you’re missing something extraordinary.
Grades: TIME’S ECHO — A
TIME’S EDGE — A-plus
–reviewed by Barb
It’s Nonfiction Friday at SBR! So I thought I’d take a look at the most recent biography of Ty Cobb by author and baseball historian Charles Leerhsen.
Why does Cobb continue to fascinate me so? Well, for decades, Ty Cobb has been drawn as a foul-mouthed, brawling racist. This is largely because of Al Stump’s now-controversial “autobiography” of Cobb (Stump ghost-wrote it), and partly because of the movie Cobb featuring Tommy Lee Jones as the virulently racist title character.
Yet Leerhsen, in TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty, has drawn a picture of a much different man. Someone difficult to know, but interesting to read about — a man of his times, but also a man of learning, and quite possibly baseball’s first superstar.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was not always an easy man to get along with. He appears at this remove to have been somewhat thin-skinned, someone who, as Leerhsen says, names “could always harm.” He played a tough brand of baseball during a tough era, where guys often had fistfights to settle bets, then shook hands and became friends again.
Cobb wasn’t always a gentleman on the field, no. But Leerhsen’s exhaustive scholarship proves that Cobb was not a racist.
Instead, Cobb is famous for saying that “The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly.” And Cobb put it on the record that he enjoyed watching Roy Campanella and Willie Mays play, among other black baseball greats, something I’d never read before I’d picked up Leerhsen’s new biography (but was able to independently verify afterward).
How in the world did Cobb’s legacy get so distorted?
Leerhsen believes Stump needed money, and portraits of monsters sell better than balanced portraits of tough-but-fair baseball players. And since there’s almost no film of Cobb’s play — very few still pictures exist, and most of Cobb’s efforts predate radio broadcasts as well — Leerhsen seems to think Stump must’ve figured it would be easy to make up anything Stump liked and call it “history.”
Yet it wasn’t the truth, and Leerhsen explains why.
You see, just because there isn’t much in the way of radio coverage or pictures or film, there were valid accounts of Cobb’s play to be had in various newspaper archives. Stump apparently couldn’t be bothered to study them, as that would’ve likely messed up his narrative framing something fierce, but Leerhsen made a comprehensive study of them. And what he found led him to the belief that Cobb had been badly maligned by both Al Stump and the movie Cobb, all because Cobb played during that twilight “dead ball” early-1900s era.
Leerhsen viewed Ty Cobb as the perfect ballplayer for that time. Cobb had a take-no-prisoners, hard-nosed attitude, and desperately wanted to win. But he did not sharpen his spikes; he did not set out to intentionally hurt anyone; he did not go out of his way to cause trouble.
All of those latter things were either made up or distorted out of proportion to the actual events by previous biographers, most notoriously Al Stump.
Granted, for modern readers, it can be challenging to read about Cobb’s encounters with a disabled heckler. This particular heckler was causing trouble for Cobb and several other players, by the newspaper accounts Leerhsen dug up. But most of his fingers were missing, so the contemporary reader has to wonder why Cobb just didn’t leave the guy alone after hitting him once.
(That is, if the guy even needed to be hit.)
Perhaps it needs to be said just why Cobb did this (according to Leerhsen). At the time, players were not protected at all from unruly fans. Fans had actually hurt players and umpires before, after, and sometimes even during games, and no one was doing anything about it.
You have to realize this before you can understand just what might’ve been going through Cobb’s mind as he methodically beat up this disabled fan.
The picture I gained of Cobb after reading TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty was that of a difficult, prickly man who could be quick to anger. But he had depth, and quite probably charm. He loved to read, particularly biographies of Napoleon and Les Miserables. As you’d expect from one of baseball’s all-time best hitters, Cobb had exhaustive baseball knowledge. And he loved making the other team nervous.
Ultimately, Cobb was someone fans loved to see. They never quite knew what they were going to get from Cobb — but they knew it might be something great.
Ty Cobb the man was a far different person than the monster Al Stump drew him to be. While hardly a saint, Cobb was a brilliant ballplayer and a smart, well-read man.
Bottom line? Prepare to have your assumptions challenged, because Charles Leerhsen conclusively proves that Ty Cobb the man was far different from Cobb, the movie, or Al Stump’s writing made Cobb out to be.
–reviewed by Barb
Sorry about the delay in reviewing, folks. Life hath interrupted again…but I promise to make up for that in the coming days and weeks.
Deborah J. Ross’s THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is an interesting epic fantasy about a strong, scholarly woman, Tsorreh, and her royal son, Zevaron. But to say just that is like saying chocolate-dipped strawberries are just a fruit…it’s not half as appetizing as it should be.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
Tsorreh is the Te-Ravah of Meklavar, a small but prosperous mountain city. This may not sound like much, but Meklavar has a long and illustrious heritage as defenders against evil, and because she is much more scholarly than your average queenly co-ruler, she well knows it. She’s also the second wife of the much-older Te-Ravot Maharrad, and the stepmother to Shorrenon, the heir (Ravot) to Meklavar, as well as mother to Zevaron.
Why does all this matter? Because there’s an army — a huge one — on its way to obliterate Meklavar unless Meklavar will bow its head in tribute. This army is from the large and sprawling country of Gelon, a place which has gobbled up many other smaller principalities. But because Gelon is headed by a particularly hard-headed and evil-spirited King, Meklavar wants no part of them.
However, the army of Gelon is so big, there’s no way for Meklavar to stand against them. Tsorreh realizes this early on, though she doesn’t exactly put this into words; still, it’s so clearly in subtext that any observant reader can figure it out (almost from the first page). And because Tsorreh knows this, she decides to do her part to keep the true treasure of Meklavar — holy books — well-hidden.
No one can help her do this, except her aged attendant and her even more aged grandfather, a particularly well-known scholar-priest. So she mostly uses her own foot-power, while she continues to offer sparing and thoughtful advice to her husband Maharrad.
Then he dies, and the city falls.
When Meklavar falls, the catastrophe is worsened by one thing: Ravot Shorrenon’s impetuous action. (No, I won’t tell you what it is.) Because of this, Tsorreh must get away fast, and only barely extricates herself and her son Zevaron from the mess. But her grandfather gives her a gift just before he dies that she not only hadn’t expected, but hadn’t even realized existed — the fabled Seven-Petaled Shield, which is tangibly felt but not, strictly speaking, corporeal.
You see, Tsorreh has to take the Seven-Petaled Shield, because if Gelon somehow gained access to it, all would be lost. There’s a legendary evil that Meklavar helped to keep at bay, you see, but time has eroded the how and why of it except for a few scholars like Tsorreh and her late grandfather. And even they know more legend than fact.
But now, she must get used to the idea of being the holder of the Shield. (She’s not the wielder, mind. She’s more of a caretaker, as I read it. Still a very important and vital position.) And she can’t give away to the Gelonese that she has it.
As she flees with her son, they become separated. Zevaron, being younger and even more impetuous in some ways than his half-brother Shorrenon, vows revenge on Gelon for their actions thus far. But he’s captive, for a time, and only breaks free with the help of a very unlikely source.
And when Tsorreh ends up taking refuge in Gelon, of all places, she realizes that not every person in Gelon is her enemy. That realization gives her more strength, even as her body starts to fail her. (Carrying that Shield around is very taxing, especially if you aren’t destined to wield it. Again, this is much more subtextual than not, but if you’re a careful and thorough reader, you should pick this up.)
This episode ends with one question — what will happen when Zevaron and his mother Tsorreh meet up again? (Further reviewer sayeth not…at least, not about this.)
Now, this sounds much less meaty and interesting than it is. (Remember what I said before about chocolate-dipped strawberries being more than a fruit?) So even though it sounds like any other epic fantasy out there, it isn’t.
Instead, THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is spiritually deep in a way I rarely see in fantasy. Ms. Ross did an outstanding job in rendering a strong and quiet woman who takes comfort in books, and shows just how relevant such a heroine can be. (I could live without Zevaron, quite frankly, but I know he’s needed for the sequels.)
Bottom line? THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is an exceptional epic fantasy, one that’s deep and broad in ways that I’ve rarely seen. More epic fantasy should be like this. Highly recommended!
–reviewed by Barb
It’s Romance Saturday at SBR! And today, I have a special treat for you…and a question: Can robotic intelligence really feel love? And if it does, what form would that love take?
While Brenda Cooper’s EDGE OF DARK is about many things, perhaps it’s mostly about just that: love, and its various forms.
But describing how EDGE OF DARK gets there is somewhat convoluted.
Within the first few chapters, we meet Nona — scion of a powerful family from an area of space known as the Glittering Edge, her soon-to-be-love-interest, Charlie (a ranger and conservationist from the planet Lym), and Nona’s best friend Chrystal and her family (Chrystal’s wife Katherine, husband Yi, and husband Jason). We also meet a race called the Next.
Now, the Next are hard to describe. They’re a form of artificial intelligence that’s gone way beyond AIs and robots; they’ve actually found a way to digitize human experiences and put them into inanimate objects. How and why they did this in the first place is unclear, but one thing’s for sure: The Next don’t particularly like humans, and they doubly don’t like the humans who reside in the Glittering Edge.
Anyway, Nona and Charlie’s story arc is easier to follow. They meet on the planet Lym, which is a type of natural paradise — one the people of Lym have worked hard to restore over time, as technology once nearly wrecked their world. Charlie, as a ranger, believes in conserving nature. But sometimes he has to “do the pretty” and meet up with important dignitaries, then show them around as Lym depends on tourism for a good amount of its income in order to continue staying as pristine as it is. Nona is one of those dignitaries, a visitor from the Glittering Edge (a bunch of space stations and artificial planetoids, roughly); she was asked by her now-deceased parents to please visit Lym, as it’s the closest planet around.
And of course, this being Romance Saturday and all, Charlie and Nona eventually pair off.
But that’s not the end of the story by a mile. (Especially as I promised robots in love. Trust me, I’m getting there.)
Chrystal and her family are by far the more important storyline. They originally reside on a space station called High Sweet Home, and are scientists who create genetically engineered animals. They live and work together, and are a totally self-sufficient unit.
Then the Next comes to High Sweet Home. They gather various humans, purposes unknown; they only take the healthiest, the strongest, those in their physical prime. Babies, the elderly, the crippled, and the injured are all killed out of hand.
The remaining humans of High Sweet Home are offered a choice. They can become part of the Next — become artificial intelligences. Or they can die.
Chrystal and her family definitely do not want to die. So they decide to go along with the Next.
But becoming an artificial intelligence isn’t easy. Even though the Next have a way to make their new bodies look and feel much like their old ones, Chrystal and her family will no longer be able to have sex; they also do not eat or breathe. And while they can and do move, talk, and think, it’s not exactly the same.
Yet their love for one another survives this horrible displacement. (Hold that thought.)
Now, why did the Next do this? They needed someone in between the humans and the full-blown, ancient Next. These newly-made Next — Chrystal and her family, among others — are meant to become ambassadors, so the humans will be able to understand what the Next wants.
And one of those things the Next wants, inexplicably, is the planet Lym. Which is why Charlie is so important. (But I digress.)
Of course, Chrystal and Nona are best friends, which means Chrystal in particular is well-placed to begin negotiations. (Thus why Nona is important.) But Chrystal is ambivalent; she is still angry at the Next for doing this to her and her family.
The rest of the story is for you to read. But I have a few more thoughts for you before you do.
First, the stronger human element is obviously Chrystal and her family. Their love matters whether they’re in human bodies or robot bodies. Their personalities do not change when they become digitized.
Second, Nona is a very weak protagonist. She is smart, but she is not driven; the first thing she has ever cared much about — Chrystal becoming a robot through no fault of Chrystal’s — is not really strong enough to do much with.
Third, Charlie is stronger, but somehow isn’t as strong as he should be, either.
I don’t know why Nona and Charlie weren’t stronger as a couple. I liked them both, even though Nona is nowhere near strong enough to compete with Chrystal and Chrystal’s family. I believed that Charlie and Nona would have a dalliance. And I believed they would both become better people for it — which is what a good romance is all about.
Even so, I just didn’t care that much about them. And I don’t know why.
That’s why the real romance that I cared about here was between Chrystal and her family. How they adjusted to becoming Next was well worth reading, even though in some spots it’s incredibly disturbing.
That said, I have to believe Ms. Cooper wanted it this way. She must’ve wanted to show that love is more important than the nature of the form. I get that.
However, I don’t understand why Nona is even in this book (much less Charlie and the whole issue of Lym’s fate as a planet). She’s not strong enough to compete with Crystal and her story.
And I really don’t understand why Lym is so important to the Next. They’re artificial intelligences. Why do they need anything at all? (The whole bit about the Next needing raw materials that only Lym can provide is very flimsy, to my mind. If you have all of space to get your raw materials from, as it appears the Next does, why would you be so hot on trying to get a foothold on Lym?)
Bottom line: EDGE OF DARK is compelling and disturbing, and I appreciated reading about Chrystal and her family. But somehow, I felt disconnected from most of the book, even though I liked the characters.
That said, I do want to find out what happens to Chrystal and her family next (pardon the pun), so I do intend to read the second book in the Glittering Edge duology. But I hope that somehow I will be able to become more invested, emotionally, in what happens with all involved.
–reviewed by Barb
Sorry about the long hiatus, folks. I was getting one of my books to bed, and that took some time…now, since A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE has been turned in, I can get back to reviewing.
VALOUR AND VANITY is the fourth book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories featuring Lady Jane and David, Lord Vincent — a married pair of glamourists (read: magicians) living and working in the Regency era. (Please see SBR’s previous reviews for SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, GLAMOUR IN GLASS, and WITHOUT A SUMMER for further details.)
VALOUR AND VANITY starts off with Jane and Vincent being on a trip with Jane’s family — particularly Jane’s newlywed sister and brother-in-law. They’ve been enjoying themselves on a family mini-tour of Europe, but Jane and Vincent need to go take care of some glamourist business…as they’re nobles, and as Vincent knows Lord Byron (yes, that Byron), they’ve decided to go to the island of Murano (in Italy, now considered part of Venice) as he’s staying there. But their real purpose in Murano is to consult with the legendary glassmakers of that island.
Note that Jane is a full partner in this marriage. It’s viewed as a loving eccentricity by most, as Vincent does not like to be away from Jane for very long. But Jane’s gifts are just as strong as Vincent’s…and that’s going to be needed.
Let’s put it this way. The trip to Murano does not go off without a hitch. Instead, Jane and Vincent are robbed. Lord Byron isn’t around and his “housekeeper” (actually his mistress) doesn’t know when he’ll be back. And the man who “restores” their belongings and puts them up in style isn’t all that he seems.
So they’ve been robbed. Some of their wealth has been temporarily restored, which they take at face value. And they find a glassmaker — one “recommended” by the same shady figure who “rescued” them– and start in with the work they need to do. And they create some glamour in glass, something that may aid soldiers and others during daylight in hiding themselves rather than something for art’s sake.
Then the shady character disappears, with their belongings…most especially the enchanted glass Vincent and Jane just spent so much time creating. And the law shows up.
You’d think this would be a good thing, but it isn’t. While the law does say this shady figure was not the nobleman he was pretending to be, the law doesn’t seem to believe Jane and Vincent. Further, the shady guy managed to get the “replacement funds” Jane and Vincent had written for…which means their bank account is empty. They’re left impoverished, without resources, and have no allies.
So what’s to do?
If you’ve read the previous three books in this series, you know Jane and Vincent will not go down without a fight. Of course they’re going to find a way out of this mess. They will find allies — some quite unexpected, some expected (as Byron eventually shows and wants in on the action) — and they will do whatever they must to set the record straight.
(Note that I would not normally give away so much of the plot in a review, but Ms. Kowal’s site (and the book’s own front matter) says that VALOUR AND VANITY is much like what would happen “if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.”)
Anyway, while there’s plenty of plot — it’s a heist novel, after all! — the main things I adored about VALOUR AND VANITY were the quieter touches. Jane and Vincent get along very well in all circumstances, both personally and professionally, and that’s great to see. I admired their indomitable spirits, and believed that together they truly are stronger than apart.
Of course, Jane and Vincent cannot see themselves from the outside. But we can. And we know they are heroes…even though they, themselves, definitely don’t.
Bottom line? VALOUR AND VANITY couples realistic romance with genuine action, excellent historicity, entirely believable magic and genuine pathos for a perfect read.
–reviewed by Barb
**For readers of romance: I’ve been asked to give “heat levels,” and I’m going to try to remember to do that. The “heat level” here is very mild…they’re married, and we know they enjoy marital relations. But those relations, beyond a kiss or two, are not shown.