Archive for category Book Review
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.
Romance Saturday is back at Shiny Book Review!
Elizabeth A. Lightfoot’s THE UGLY KNIGHT is about Korten, a not-so-handsome youngster out to make a name for himself. He’s resolute, steadfast, hard-working…you’d think you should hate the guy, except he’s so likeable, he wears you down.
Anyway, after apprenticing with a noted knight for many years, Korten rides off to seek his fortune. If he can defeat a dragon, he’ll become a knight and have the opportunity to marry a princess. So, of course, he’s on his way to the nearest castle that’s actually being threatened by a dragon.
While at the castle, Korten befriends an elderly servingwoman, and also becomes friends with a young and hard-working servant girl, Elzi. He feels much more comfortable with them than the princess, who’s rather snooty and looks down at Korten because Korten isn’t exactly a handsome lad.
But if you’re thinking “handsome is as handsome does,” you’re right. Korten has more to him than looks; he’s resourceful, honest, and has a bone-deep kindness to him. In some ways, he doesn’t like the idea of killing any dragons, even though it’s necessary to the plot that he do so…besides, dragons have a way to enthrall humans, and are big into manipulation and coercion. (In other words, they’re not nice critters.)
So Korten finds a way to kill the dragon. Which he must, or the story can’t progress.
The good thing about THE UGLY KNIGHT is that everything after this point is a little surprising.
Korten rejects the high-and-mighty princess and rejects his chance to rule immediately, partly because his heart has already been given elsewhere. Instead, he’s set his heart on Elzi.
But rather than settle down with her somewhere, he still wants to be a knight who does things that matter. So the two of them engage in some necessary action, all while trying to find out aspects of Elzi’s mysterious past…
Ultimately, Korten must forge his own, true path, while in the process figure out just exactly what being a knight is all about. Only then can he and Elzi have the future of their dreams.
THE UGLY KNIGHT is Ms. Lightfoot’s first novel, and is a welcome young adult fable. It has charm, a cute and age-appropriate romance, and there’s plenty of action.
The main problem I had with THE UGLY KNIGHT is that it’s only about 40,000 words — a very short novel, or perhaps a long novella in length. Because it’s so short, there are things I didn’t get to see that I wanted to see: namely, how did Korten and Elzi do as a couple, once Korten finally declares himself? And what happens to some of the other people introduced here, including the nasty princess, the handsome and somehow squicky squire Jelan, and the sprightly child Jelania?
In other words, THE UGLY KNIGHT is a good story. I enjoyed it, and I want to see more from the author.
But it should’ve been longer.
In addition, there are a few issues with the editing that concerned me. None interfered with the plot, thank goodness. But it was enough to take a book that probably was in the A-minus category as a debut effort and turn it into a B-plus instead.
Bottom line: THE UGLY KNIGHT is a fresh, fun, and enjoyable debut with a likeable protagonist and a sweet, old-fashioned romance, and is appropriate for anyone aged ten and up.
–reviewed by Barb
Superposition by David Walton did that to me this past weekend.
Jacob Kelley is a physics professor far away from the brilliant minds who he had worked with in recent memory and trying to make a difference with young, fertile minds at a local small college. His life is good, and everything is in order… until one night when an old friend showed up and turned his entire life upside down. Brian Vanderhall, who worked with Jacob on the New Jersey Super Collider (think CERN, but in New Jersey), is convinced that something is chasing him. Jacob is only mildly concerned (more for his old friend’s mental state than anything) until Brian pulls out a gun… and shoots Jacob’s wife.
Except that the bullet didn’t hit her. Instead, somehow it moved around her and struck the wall. Angry beyond belief, Jacob punches Brian and throws him out of the house. But then things get very, very weird, because then ext day Brian is found dead from a gunshot wound — the same gun that he used to shoot at Jacob’s wife.
And then Jacob’s family is brutally murdered in front of his eyes by some eyeless entity from within the quantum universe itself… and their bodies disappear seconds after, gone without a trace. Weird? Oh yeah, this book is going to hit you over the head with weird, and make it work.
Superposition is half-SF novel, half-murder mystery, and is perfectly done. There was some initial confusion early on, due to the two concurrent storylines being told from a singular POV (broken down by “Up-Spin” and “Down Spin”). Once the reader figures out the pattern, however, the true brilliance of the story emerges and it truly takes off.
Imagine that in quantum entanglements there is a “mirror-verse”, for lack of a better term. Not a copy of you, but a reflection. Now imagine if that reflection came to life and had your memories, your thoughts, your feelings. Almost like a clone, but better. A mirror image, where the moles on your cheek are on the other side of your reflection’s face (hey, give me a break, this is hard to explain in mundane terms). That version of you is temporary, however, because the wave which separated you two must collapse at some point (typically when the reflection and the original are in the same situation).
That’s… not a very good explanation. David Walton does a much better job of explaining it in the novel.
The story is fantastic, and the plot is fresh and original. I’ve read books on quantum theory and a Higgs boson before (Travis S. Taylor’s Warp Speed series comes to mind first and foremost), but this is the first time where it was explained to me in terms that I could completely grok. The hell which Jacob must endure before the end of the novel makes the payoff worth it, and leaves you with a good feeling.
The pacing starts slow, but soon enough is racing along so fast that the reader can barely keep up. Some of the characters blend together, but the main characters are strong enough in their differences and opinions to make each one special and memorable in their own right.
This book is a definite read for any science geek or a murder-mystery fan, but especially for both. This one is a solid “A” for me. You should definitely check it out.
–Reviewed by Jason
Please welcome guest reviewer Noah Hill to Shiny Book Review…we’re glad to have him here, and hope to see him again soon!
When Barb asked me to write a guest review for Shiny Book Review, I knew instantly which book I would select. I had just finished reading Saint Odd, the final book in the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz, and was chomping at the bit to share my experience.
I will preface by saying that Saint Odd has some big shoes to fill. The Odd Thomas series has spanned six books, two graphic novels, two novellas, a movie, and a web series. We have traveled with Koontz from a sleepy little city in California and through the deserts of Nevada, as he used his special gifts to selflessly commit one heroic act after another. He has introduced us to fantastic characters both living and dead, and taken us along for one hectic ride. Koontz has spun wonderful tales and foreshadowed grand spectacles yet to come. As I said, big shoes to fill. There are many things that Koontz did right with this finale, and a few things that went wrong.
I’m going to talk about the ending first, as it is my favorite part of the book. Koontz fulfilled the promise he has made throughout the series, giving me the satisfaction of ending exactly how I expected. In most novels, I would possibly consider this a problem, but in this case the inevitable ending was the right ending. Had it ended any other way, I would have found myself angry and disappointed.
One thing that has always drawn me into the Odd Thomas books is the protagonist. He is witty, fun, and humble. He has flaws, but also a great self-awareness and the admirable ability to laugh at those flaws. He is a character I can relate to, and that alone can be enough to keep me turning pages. As I read Saint Odd, I found myself with a strong desire to be more like Odd. I can picture myself having deep, interesting conversations with him. He is written in such a way that he really came alive for me.
While Koontz wrote Odd perfectly, it is my opinion that he missed the mark with many of his secondary characters. I felt like some key characters didn’t have enough of a character arc throughout the series, or that their arcs were not completed with this finale. I understand this can be tough with a book written in the first-person perspective, but there were promises made about characters in previous books that were never fully realized in Saint Odd.
The other criticism I have for Saint Odd is the pacing. I understand that with any thriller, it is nice to give the reader a short breather. Dean Koontz attempted to do this with chapters devoted to exposition that were masked as flashback sequences. The problem I have is that I was completely disconnected from the story during these chapters. I would be flying through pages, tension rising, nearly peaking, and then a flashback chapter would reset the tension to zero. I found myself putting the book down and doing something else for a while. Most of the time I tend to read thrillers straight through from beginning to end in one or two sittings. It took me five or six to complete Saint Odd.
Overall, I would say I was happy with Saint Odd. The vibrant protagonist and the satisfying ending more than made up for the flaws. I got the ending I wanted, I saw the fulfillment of the main promise of the series, and I got to spend a few more hours with one of my favorite characters. If you haven’t read the Odd Thomas series, I suggest you remedy that quickly.
— Reviewed by Noah Hill