It’s Romance Saturday at SBR! So what could be better than a little YA romance coupled with suspense and neo-Arthurian myth?
VICTORIES, the fourth and final book of the Shadow Grail series by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, again takes up where book three, SACRIFICES, left off. (Books one and two were reviewed here.) Muirin is dead, but her friends Spirit White (pictured on the cover), Spirit’s boyfriend Burke Hallows, and their BFFs Addie Lake and Lachlann “Loch” Spears are on the run from the evil Shadow Knights. They now know for certain that the head of Oakhurst Academy, Doctor Ambrosius, is not just evil, but is actually Mordred . . . and he’s been around since the fall of Camelot.
Why is this important? Well, Mordred was imprisoned in an oak tree for millenia, and only “woke up” as himself in the 1970s, only to then “borrow” a body from a biker for his own, personal use. Ever since, has been using his magic to recreate the conditions of Camelot — but on his terms.
And Ambrosius/Mordred knows very little about the modern world, despite the technology he and his school have been using throughout. Which is much more of a problem than it seems — but I’ll get back to that momentarily.
Anyway, Spirit and her friends end up being guided by the mysterious QUERCUS to a deserted missile silo out in the middle of nowhere. A strange woman, who seems to know them somehow, helps them get down into the silo, where food and rest awaits. Then, after they sleep the sleep of the truly exhausted (or maybe the just, I don’t know), they find out from this woman that QUERCUS wants to talk . . . via the very old computer equipment in the silo, which uses extremely old technology that has to warm up for quite some time to be used — but is still operational.
So far, so good. The story is told with breathless abandon, and the technology is explained enough that it passes and sounds logical, as it’s conceivable that this silo would be both abandoned and discounted by Mordred.
But QUERCUS gives Spirit some very bad news. He is the Merlin — yes, that Merlin — and he now exists solely as a computer program. Because of this, he’s been able to warn her and her friends . . . but because he no longer has corporeal form, nor any way to regain it (as he won’t do what Mordred did as it’s the blackest of black magic — possession), he cannot fight the Shadow Knights or Mordred directly. All he can do at this point is advise.
Making matters worse yet, Spirit finds out for certain that she and all of her friends — including the departed Muirin — are “Reincarnates” — that is, people who lived during the time of Camelot and have reincarnated at this time in place in order to fight Mordred one, last time.
In fact, Spirit was once Guinevere — the sword Spirit is carrying is actually Guin’s, in fact — and Burke was King Arthur. Addie was once the Lady of the Lake, famed for her healing abilities, and Loch — well, he was Lancelot. (I had hoped he’d be Sir Gawain, personally. Ah, well.)
And all of that is important, too, because these four must find something called “the Four Hallows” — four talismans of great power — in order to invoke their prior memories as these fabled people. Because they cannot beat Mordred if they stay the way they are, even with their magic . . . and they must beat Mordred, as Mordred’s idea of “winning” starts with all-out war and goes downhill from there.
Worst of all, because Mordred didn’t live through the Cold War (much; one assumes he wasn’t paying much attention after he “borrowed” the biker’s body he’s been using), Mordred has no fear of a nuclear holocaust. But his own Shadow Knights — those who fought on Mordred’s side back in the day, who have been reincarnated in our time and were awakened by Mordred — definitely do.
Which may give Spirit and the others an opening . . . (further reviewer sayeth about the plot — at least not yet).
There’s a lot to like about VICTORIES. It’s a rip-roaring action-adventure with some mild romance, a good amount of mystery and magic, and a believable fight against the darkest evil magician ever created for the highest of stakes — life itself. I loved the good characters, hated the evil ones, and wanted good to win out — all fine and dandy.
That said, because the book went by so fast, I missed some of the characterization I’d so adored in the previous three books. I like Spirit, Burke, Addie, and Loch, you see — but I wasn’t overly fond of Guinevere, King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake and Sir Lancelot. And while I liked how they faded in and out of focus — that is a very tough trick to pull off, having one soul with two full sets of memories in one body, and I give Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill full “props” for doing so — I mostly got annoyed whenever Guin, Arthur, etc., showed up to talk in “High Forsoothly” (what Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill called the more formal Renaissance-sounding English constructions, something that amused me very much).
Another thing that frustrated me a tad was the nature of Spirit and Burke”s romance. These two love each other in a somewhat chaste teenage way, which is sensible considering the context. (Who wants to make out in front of your two best friends in such close quarters?) But finding out these two had been married, and had many remembrances of being with each other as full adults, was a little tough for me to handle. I kept thinking that if I were Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, I’d want to steal away to some little grotto somewhere and just get it on — using proper safe-sex practices, of course — as these two supposedly had a legendary romance. And as Spirit and Burke were sometimes also Guin and Arthur, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why they didn’t do that.
Maybe it’s a good thing that this element didn’t come into play, mind. This is a series meant for tweens and teens. Too much sexual activity would’ve perhaps taken the focus away from all of that action-adventure. But finding out some information through pillow-talk between Guin and Arthur would’ve been extremely interesting; having Burke and Spirit have to deal with the aftermath of that also would’ve been quite riveting.
The reason this is only a minor quibble, though, is because Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill clearly set it up that Guin and Arthur’s marriage was more one of state than one of love. (Which would be accurate for the times they lived in, granted. Damned few people married for love back then.) They were great friends, yes. And they cared about each other deeply. But there was actually more romance between Spirit and Burke in this time than there seems to have been between Guin and Arthur.
The other teensy issue I had with VICTORIES is that the ending goes by too fast. (Spoiler alert! Turn away now. You have been warned.) I wanted to see Mordred suffer, and I wanted to see our four heroes be able to luxuriate in the victory while thinking about how terrible it is that Muirin didn’t live to see the day — and while I got a little of the latter, I just didn’t get anywhere near enough of the former to suit me.
Bottom line? This is a nice evocation of the Arthurian mythos for the 21st Century Millenial crowd, and I enjoyed it very much. But it doesn’t stand alone — please read LEGACIES, CONSPIRACIES, and SACRIFICES first.
VICTORIES — B-plus.
Shadow Grail series — A-minus.
–reviewed by Barb
Typically I don’t review two books on the same day by two separate authors, primarily because the voices are too dissimilar and the subject matter at hand varies drastically, but today I decided to make an exception after reading both The Chaplain’s War by Brad Torgerson and City Beyond Time by John C. Wright. Both are extraordinary works, bordering on instant classic status, and have compelling voices, arguments, and stories abounding within.
First up is Wright’s City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, a collection of stories which begins with the story of a private investigator turned Time Warden. Jake Fontino is a down on his luck private investigator who, through the course of his investigation, is offered the position of becoming a Time Warden — while being recruited by their arch nemesis, Anachronists, who believe that all time travel (except for sight seeing) is immoral. A visceral tale with a deftly-woven plot, City Beyond Time stamps the “Writer to Watch” label on John C. Wright.
The best part — the absolutely best part — of this first novella is the fact that it is written out of order, and yet it works. I have no idea how the author managed to pull it off, but somewhere along the line the disjointed story of a time traveler works better when it is told out of order. I tried reading it both way– once in numerical order, and once as it was presented by the author. In numerical order, the story is a quaint piece on time travel and a man with a good enough moral compass to question both the ethical realities of time travel and the strength to do what was needed. In the order presented by the author, however, it’s an amazing tale of discovery, loyalty, inner strength and how a man must face the consequences of the decision he makes. A splendid start, in other words.
The rest of the stories follow the typical short story collection format, though the storytelling level never falls off. The final story of the collection, The Plural of Helen of Troy, is another small masterpiece in the making, with Jake Fontino fighting against time, paradoxes, and destiny all as Metachronopolis begins its fall. A masterful collection of stories, one that I am absolutely thrilled to have read. I should note, however, that while I talked about Jake Fontino the most, the character Owen Penthane, from the short story within titled Choosers of the Slain, is quite possibly the best written character in the entire collection.
Overall, this is a solid collection of works, and much like Frank Miller’s Sin City, it’s a story that you will not be able to put down. A definite A+, must buy book.
Next up is Torgerson’s The Chaplain’s War, which is the story of the reluctant Chaplain’s Assistant as he struggles through war, peace, uncertainty, and questions of his own faith as humanity fights against an implacable enemy. Received as an electronic Advance Reader Copy back in May, I gobbled this one up in one sitting, and Torgerson joined my list of “Writers to Watch.”
Harrison Barlow is a trapped POW on a planet with other humans who survived a disastrous assault upon the planet by an alien race who seem to resemble mantis cyborgs. Humans, because of how we are, call them Mantis. As Barlow is tending to his flock — he continues to profess a lack of certainty involving any particular deity or religion, which endears him to his fellow prisoners of war — in his handmade chapel (while keeping his promise to the Chaplain, who died trying to protect the others), he is visited by a Mantis who calls himself Professor. He is both a researcher and a teacher, and he is very curious to learn about humanity’s faith in religion. Barlow, not sure what he can offer the Professor, tries to teach the teacher that there can be more to humanity than at first glance. Standing against the Chaplain’s Assistant is the very nature of humanity itself, as well as preconceived biases against humanity on the part of the Mantis.
Part of the allure in this story is that, unlike most SF novels with war against the aliens in it, this one is more about the search for peace, not victory. It’s a fine distinction to be had, for if victory is achieved, a certain peace could be had. However, the strategic importance in which the author lays on the “true peace” methodology over “true victory” profoundly impacts the story, and Barlow as a character. Take note: while this has action and military in it, this is less of a military science fiction novel and more of a classic Heinlein novel (Stranger In A Strange Land comes to mind). The author’s work is tremendous here, and shows the skill and prose of a writer far more mature in his years than Torgerson is.
This is also the first time I instantly messaged a writer after completing their debut novel and thanked them for writing the book. Yes, I’ll admit, I had a fanboy moment.
Another must-buy book here.
City Beyond Time — A+
The Chaplain’s War — A
Aaron Paul Lazar’s latest mystery in his long-running Gus LeGarde mystery series is SPIRIT ME AWAY. The time is 1969, the place is (mostly) Boston, Gus and his newlywed wife Elsbeth are college music students, and they encounter a strange, yet hauntingly beautiful young woman named Valerie — just Valerie — who’s lost her memory and most of her belongings, and is in need of a family, stat.
Now, Gus and Elsbeth may be young, but they have strong familial instincts. Because of them, they can’t leave her at a hospital and forget about her, as many would . . . besides, Gus has a talent for solving mysteries, and the mystery of just who Valerie is won’t let him go.
So Gus and Elsbeth bring Valerie into their lives, and into their apartment. They feed her, nurture her, and try to figure out who she is and where she came from. They want her to find her family, if she has one; until then, they will be her family.
Besides, it’s not as if they don’t already have a family of sorts around them already. There’s Byron, a black British tenor from the music school, a love ’em and leave ’em type; Lana, a sexy young Latina whose job as a “waitress” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; and Porter, a young Vietnam vet Elspeth works with. The first two are Gus and Elsbeth’s roommates, while Porter seems to be a frequent visitor.
All five of them take a solid interest in Valerie, because she truly needs the help. And over time, they find out about just enough of Valerie’s past to sincerely upset them. Valerie herself is good, but the people who’ve been in her life in the not-so-distant past definitely aren’t. And white slavers have targeted her for an acquisition due to her ethereal beauty, too . . . how will they keep Valerie away from such dangerous people, especially considering the fact that Gus is decidedly nonviolent?
All of this is a great deal of plot to handle. But it doesn’t feel unwieldy thanks to how thoroughly Lazar grounds SPIRIT ME AWAY in reality. First, Gus and Elsbeth’s romance is realistic and earthy — hey, they’re newlyweds! — and gives a very solid sense of who they are. Second, because they’re both “foodies,” the need for comfort food comes into play often. (Never underestimate the power of this, not in books, not in real life.) Third, there truly was a problem with white slavery in the late 1960s in many big cities, Boston among them, partly due to the nature of the times. And fourth, because Gus and Elsbeth already have many friends around them, it truly doesn’t seem like a hardship for them to add one more in Valerie.
So will Valerie find out where she comes from and who she is? Will her nascent romance with Porter bear fruit? And what does Woodstock (yes, that Woodstock) have to do with it all?
I enjoyed SPIRIT ME AWAY quite a bit. There’s a lot of plot here, some wonderfully realized characters, a goodly amount of romance, a whole lot of suspense, and it’s not quite as cozy a mystery as most of the others in the LeGarde mystery series (a mystery with white slavery as one of its components probably couldn’t qualify as a cozy anyway, methinks). But it’s a fast, fun, and furious read with some really good characterization and a number of excellent musical references.
Bottom line? Whether you’ve read any of the Gus LeGarde series before or not, you should enjoy SPIRIT ME AWAY if you love mysteries — particularly mysteries mixed with a dash or two of romantic suspense.
— reviewed by Barb
Aaron Paul Lazar’s LADY BLUES is the tenth novel in his ongoing series of mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth and music professor Gus LeGarde. These are warm, comforting books full of food and atmosphere, where Gus solves mysteries partly through deduction, partly through his own friendly nature and partly because he knows everyone else in his community. (Note: an earlier book of Lazar’s that did not feature LeGarde, THE SEACREST, was reviewed here.)
The biggest part of the plot of LADY BLUES has to do with a musical mystery. Who is “John Smith,” a man with no past in a local nursing home? Why does he remember a singer named Bella (also nicknamed “Lady Blues”) when nearly all his other memories have flown? And what do his half-remembered snippets of musical knowledge have to do with anything?
The octogenarian man without a past is eventually revealed to be Kip Sterling, a musician who went missing in 1944 during World War II. Sterling is a standout character you can’t help but root for, especially when you realize he’s taking a new drug to combat his memory loss (perhaps due to Alzheimer’s disease) . . . and the drug, Memorphyl, has actually worked.
But then, a new formulation of the drug makes every patient in the nursing home ill, and all the patients — including Sterling — start to lose their memories again. Then a friendly nurse goes missing after giving Gus samples of both the “old pills” (the older formulation, that worked) and the “new pills” (that don’t). And then, as if that weren’t enough, Sterling himself goes missing, too . . . just after Bella has been found, still alive, and wishes to reunite with him. (Further reviewer sayeth not.)
So there’s plenty of plot and drama, though it’s not the in-your-face type . . . and as if that central mystery isn’t enough, there are plenty of other, smaller mysteries for Gus to solve during LADY BLUES as well.
For example, one of the biggest subplots is about a mysterious Korean seamstress named Lily. She worked in her brother’s shop for years, but he watched her like a hawk and she never learned much English. Now, the shop has burned down and her brother is gravely ill, she doesn’t even know where her legal paperwork is, and is at some risk of being deported (before the papers are found).
Why is Lily in America at all? Why didn’t her brother let her mix with other people? And finally, is her attraction to Gus’s friend Siegfried — who’s also the brother of Gus’s deceased first wife — legitimate, or not?
Mind, all of the mysteries will eventually be solved in a way reminiscent of the gentler episodes of the old TV show “Murder, She Wrote.” But plot is not the only reason to read LADY BLUES . . . oh, no. The story itself was fast-paced, well-researched, and interesting. And I appreciated all of the atmospheric touches, including the various dishes Gus makes along the way and the descriptions of a rambunctious, loving extended family.
However, there were some things that bothered me about LADY BLUES, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point them out.
First, at least two of the mysteries were very easily solved. I would’ve preferred a few more red herrings to throw me off the scent a bit.
Second, I also would’ve preferred a bit more obvious frustration in a few spots, such as when Sterling goes missing. Considering Gus has taken to Sterling in a big way, it didn’t make much sense that Gus was able to be so serene about the poor old gentleman being missing after the drugs that had brought back his memory were switched.
Third, I had a hard time believing that no one in Gus’s family — save his put-upon housekeeper, that is — ever gets angry or says cross words to another. (Even the housekeeper immediately apologized, the one time she snapped.) That is not realistic, even in a cozy mystery, and it snapped me out of the reader’s trance on more than one occasion.
Bottom line? LADY BLUES is an intelligent, warm cozy mystery with atmosphere galore and a hero to root for in Gus LeGarde. It’s a fun, fast read and I enjoyed it immensely. But the lack of even the most minor family arguments in a big, boisterous family did not seem plausible.
— reviewed by Barb
Cedar Sanderson’s TRICKSTER NOIR is a sequel to PIXIE NOIR (reviewed here by Jason), and features the same main characters — Bella, the human/fairy hybrid with amazing powers she can barely control, and Lom, her pixie detective love interest. Lom is shorter than Bella, and recently sustained a major injury that’s drained him near to death.
All of that is relevant because up until now, Lom has, for lack of a better term, been used as an enforcer by his King. He takes on the jobs no one else wants to deal with, and handles them efficiently. But now that Lom is on the shelf while he heals (providing he can, of course), Bella has to take those jobs instead. While she lacks experience, she has so much power, she’s the most logical choice to take Lom’s place.
And everybody knows it. Including the bad guys.
Of course, Bella also is the newest Consort for the King, which isn’t at all the same as being romantically entangled (in an arranged marriage or otherwise). Which is a good thing, or her nascent relationship with Lom would never be able to get off the ground. But that also adds in many more complications.
And Lom has his own problems, as he’s been named a Duke, yet is still weak both physically and magically. He’s a self-sufficient guy, so healing up and rehabilitating would be very difficult for him even if he didn’t have to watch as Bella goes off to do the jobs he used to do.
Worse yet, he’s denigrated at every turn due to his current magical weakness by nearly everyone save Ellie (his housekeeper), his own mother, and Bella. Which imperils not only his Dukedom, but Bella as well…so what’s a pixie detective to do?
And there’s a great deal going on that Bella and Lom — both separately and together — need to deal with, too. There’s the evil Baba Yaga, who’s cropped up at the most unexpected time and in the most unexpected place, for a reason which may surprise. There are some sasquatch, kitsune, dragons, and of course the great Trickster God himself, Raven, and they all make their various marks on the narrative (as you might expect).
While the adventures cannot be faulted, to my mind the romance between Bella and Lom is the main attraction. They are both well-drawn characters with strengths and weaknesses, and seem like the perfect complement to one another. I liked watching them get to know each other through “sickness and in health,” and believed in them as a couple.
Bottom line? The romance is solid and enjoyable, the magic system is workable, and the adventures were sensible in context. I’d buy it as an e-book, read it, and then decide if you want the “dead-tree edition” down the line.
— reviewed by Barb
A solid first entry into the world of international spy thrillers, Martin Lessem’s debut novel, A Cloud in the Desert, is the first entrant into the Steven Frisk series and offers twists, turns and international espionage to sate the reader’s thirst.
The book opens up with a clandestine meeting in Washington, D.C., regarding an ongoing mission currently taking place along the contested Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Pakistan appears to be ready to move into Afghanistan, and there are few assets “on the ground” in the region that the CIA can rely on, Fortunately for them, one of their best and brightest, Officer Steven Frisk, is on location. But there are other elements at play as well, including some shady individuals who are letting a live nuke “go into play”, as it were.
Frisk, however, is not alone in his attempts at stopping what could turn into a nuclear event in Afghanistan. His junior agent in the field, Ali Hassan Ashwari, code-named “Desert Fox”, is also a CIA operative and working deep undercover in Afghanistan. Together they must work to stop a deep, dark attack which could plunge the region — and possibly, the entire world — into a nuclear war.
Part of the strengths of this book is the author’s intimate familiarity with the streets of London (flashback scenes) and Foggy Bottom, home to the CIA. He paints the scenes here with detailed strokes, masterfully bringing you to the actual location without taking the reader out of the book. His characterization of Frisk as a more action-oriented Jack Ryan (of Tom Clancy fame) is fairly solid, though parts of him are too good, as it were. Frisk, while struggling to complete his mission, does not seem to have any normal flaws that people have. Overall, though Frisk is believable hero, even if he is somewhat overshadowed (in this reviewer’s opinion), presence-wise, by his junior agent, Ali Hassan Ashwari. There is also a noted hat-tip to David Weber and his Honor Harrington series in the book as well, which caused me to chuckle a bit.
There are some weaknesses in the book as well. Part of it is an inconsistency towards technical details, such as “Her Majesties” instead of “Her Majesty’s” (he meant possessive, and used plural). His imaging of the Middle East is not as rich and refined as his scenes of London and Foggy Bottom were (which is understandable). There was a bit too much “I’m going to slap Frisk upside the head because he doesn’t see this coming from a mile away!” moments throughout (if the reader can pick up on a few subtle hints about things that are going down, then a seasoned CIA FSO should be able to spot it as well).
Reviews like this are difficult, because one can’t give too much into detail without revealing massive plot points. However, I can say that, given time and patience, the Steven Frisk novels can be a worthy contender to carrying on the Jack Ryan spy thriller genre. I’d read it again, and pick it up on Kindle.
Grade: B —
Reviewed by Jason
When Veronica Roth’s third book in her Divergent series, ALLEGIANT, came out, there were spoilers galore. And due to the Divergent trilogy’s crossover into pop culture, most people know that at least one character came to a shocking end.
That makes writing a review for ALLEGIANT nearly impossible without giving away the entirety of the plot. So this is your one and only warning — if you do not want your reading spoiled, and you have yet to read ALLEGIANT, look away now.
The end of INSURGENT left Tris (née Beatrice) Prior and her boyfriend, Tobias (also known as Four), in a terrible spot. (Both DIVERGENT and INSURGENT were reviewed at SBR here.) Their near-future Chicago has been rent asunder. The former leader of Erudite, who’d tried to take over everything, has been slain…and Tobias’s own mother, Evelyn Johnson, has come back from a long exile and has taken over. But there are people from the former five-faction system upset over this — the Allegiant — and they are continuing to fight against Evelyn’s rule.
Because Tris’s Chicago was built on the five-faction system (Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Abnegation, and Amity), being without factions (or “factionless”) is a challenge. The city is unsettled and quite frankly, on edge. And Tris, because her brother was high up in the Erudite hierarchy despite his youth, is right in the thick of things even though she was all for the downfall of Erudite and the demise of the former five-faction system.
Well, her brother, Caleb Prior, is being tried as a traitor. And even though Tris has solid reasons to be angry with Caleb and never talk with him again for the rest of his life, Tris does not believe her brother deserves the death penalty. So she’s going to try to save his life, even though he doesn’t deserve it.
While this is only one of the threads of the story, this is the one that resonated the most with me.
The second-best thread was the ongoing romance between Tris and Tobias. They truly care for one another, yet do not agree all the time, which of course is healthy but must feel awful when you’re in a war zone with all of those heightened emotions. And because Tris must somehow save her brother while doing her best to help institute a truly factionless system that doesn’t have all the sturm und drang of the Evelyn Johnson-led version, that adds depth and complexity to the romance.
And the third-best thread was Tobias having to deal with both of his complicated, difficult parents. Evelyn, his mother, was damaged due to Tobias’s father, the former leader of the Abnegation faction — she was beaten, Tobias himself was beaten, and it’s a miracle either one of them survived.
I fully believed in all three of these plot-threads, and wish that the book had concentrated more on them…but, as always, I digress.
The rest of ALLEGIANT deals with stuff like memory serums (which erase memories rather than restore them), death serums (which cause instantaneous deaths, naturally), whether or not you can have “pure genes” (supposedly there was a Purity War long ago, and the people with the most-damaged genes fled to Chicago and other enclaves in order to rehabilitate them), and if being Divergent means you must have pure genes.
The last in particular is vexing because Tobias is Divergent, just like Tris. But he supposedly has damaged genes, while Tris’s are pure. So he starts thinking of himself as a low-class citizen, partly because of some intrigue with the people who’ve been watching the people of Chicago all along — a bunch of scientists and latter-day nogoodniks who watch the goings-on of the factions as if it’s contemporary reality TV — and partly because Tris is going around kicking butt and taking names while he’s been forced into more of a diplomatic role due to his mother’s uneasy ascension to being the unofficial ruler of Chicago.
Eventually, Tobias figures out that his genes being damaged matters a whole lot less than the type of person he is. But by this time, the biggest plot-wrinkle of them all has occurred…
(Big spoiler alert!)
You see, Tris sacrifices herself. She does it to save her brother, because he’s volunteered to keep the memory serum from being distributed to everyone in Chicago in order to reinstitute the five-faction system due to the nogoodniks I mentioned before by infiltrating a lab. Tris has a partial immunity to some of the serums, which is why she and only she can do what she does. And of course, she dies a heroine.
Because of this, Roth had absolutely no way to keep telling the story unless she added a second point-of-view character. (The first two novels were told only in Tris’s POV.) Which is one reason we get so very much of Tobias’s thoughts, mind you, as only he can talk about what happens after Tris is dead and the world goes on without her.
Eventually, Chicago comes to a new beginning. Tobias eschews violence, becomes of all things a political aide, and keeps in good contact with all of those who helped him in those last, desperate hours. He is sad, and frustrated that Tris is dead, but his life has gone on and perhaps someday, he will date again.
Now, what do I think about all of this? Mostly, I’m befuddled. There was a good amount of plot, but much of it revolved around Tris and Tobias because of what the other people around them were doing rather than what they were doing.
Or, put bluntly, in DIVERGENT, Tris and Tobias/Four act. In INSURGENT, while they are unsettled and are clearly scrambling and are in panic mode due to being in a war zone, they again act.
But here, they react. I didn’t like that.
I didn’t like that at all.
Bottom line? The trilogy has a nice, narrative arch, but I don’t truly buy why Chicago’s in this terrible spot to begin with. The five-faction system seems like something that could never work in the real world, but I do believe that it would break up and there would be strife.
While I liked Tris as a character and believe that, as a heroine, she did what was right for her (the action flowed out of her characterization, and thus were authentic), I felt many of the things that led up to her authentic ending were a bit off.
And as for Tobias and his grief? I think his grief was real, but I honestly do not believe it would only take him two and a half years to put Tris and her memory behind him. I think it would take much, much longer than that — something like what’s going on with Katniss Everdeen and her husband, Peeta, during the very end of MOCKINGJAY is much more likely (Katniss does have the love of her life, thank goodness, but she’s still incredibly sorrowful over everything else — and that is realistic).
So I have a real problem here when it comes to grading. I like the writing; I like it a lot. I like the characterization, too. But the actual plotting needed some smoothing out.
Thus, we have some split grades to follow, as well as a grade for the overall series:
Writing: A. Characterization: A. Plotting: C-minus (and that’s being generous)
Grade for trilogy: B
— reviewed by Barb
Stephen R. Donaldson’s THE LAST DARK is the tenth and final book of the Thomas Covenant series, which started way back in 1977 with LORD FOUL’S BANE. As such, it’s both the ending of a long-running epic series and the end of the third and final miniseries, “The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.”
And because of that, I’m going to review this in its entirety. There will be spoilers, so if you do not want your reading spoiled, please walk away right now — this is your final warning.
(Ready? Set? Go!)
At the end of AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING (reviewed here), Thomas Covenant and his lover Linden Avery realized the Worm of the World’s End was on the move. The stars were blinking out, and the Sun did not rise due to the actions of the Worm. (That is one big, impressive Worm.) And Linden had to take full responsibility for causing the Worm to reawaken and escape from underneath the One Tree, because if she’d not resurrected Thomas Covenant, the Worm would’ve stayed where it was.
Now, though, the Land is in desperate peril. Without the sun, nothing can grow. Aliantha, the “treasure berries” of the Land that will restore your health-sense along with filling your belly, are extremely scarce. Without the krill (a magical weapon), no one could see anything (as the fire Linden Avery raises from her Staff of Law is “fuligin,” or the darkest, densest black anyone’s ever seen; Donaldson is fond of obscure words, as I’ve said before), as no one wants to waste the wild magic raised from the white gold as a flashlight.
Well, the magic raised from white gold can “save or damn” as it pleases, meaning it’s capricious. Maybe you’ll get what you want, but you’ll abhor the way you do it — which perhaps is a mystical reason for why so much of THE LAST DARK and indeed all of the final four books in the “Last Chronicles” needs to travel by caesures, a hole in time that will take you somewhere else, but rips up the Land and forest and everything else in the process.
So yes, the white gold combined with the krill can raise a caesure. But you probably won’t like what you’ll have to do once you come out of it…which both Linden and Thomas Covenant find out over and over again.
In the midst of all of their suffering is Linden’s fifteen-year-old adopted son, Jeremiah. He was and is autistic, and until recently was locked inside his mind in a dissociative state. The only way he could impose any part of himself on reality was to build things, whether it was with Legos, Lincoln Logs, or anything else. And now, his building talents are needed because someone has to keep the stars from winking out . . . and as the stars are the physical manifestations of the Elohim, a deeply magical and also deeply alien race, he has to persuade them that it’s in their best interests to go into this structure he’s creating before they all die and the world cannot be saved. (Because surely, one of the Elohim must be the Sun that shines upon the Land, even though it’s never stated.)
So we have Giants, both Swordmainnir and cooks, along for the ride. We have a few Ramen. We have a last conversation with the toughest and meanest Forestal of them all, Caerroil Wildwood. We see Stave the Haruchai, probably the best-loved character from the “Last Chronicles,” admit that he truly is Linden’s friend after all this time, and unbend enough to show that he has a sense of humor. (Yay!) We have many, many loose ends wrapped up, we get a last, desperate confrontation with the cavewights (who defend Lord Foul’s demense, otherwise known as Kiril Threndor), we get an uneasy alliance with the Lurker (a strange, serpentine creature who seems to dwell in every available swamp in the Land) and the small beings who serve it, the Feroce, we see a Raver unmade (Double yay!), we see death and dismemberment and destruction aplenty…
But the best moment of THE LAST DARK is the quietest.
Finally, finally, finally we see Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery get married. After all this time, and all this travail, with the world about to end and seemingly no way out, they feel it’s about time to “put a ring on it.”
And because they do this one act of love, that makes Linden a rightful white-gold wielder and she’s suddenly even more powerful than before. (Trust me, she was more than powerful enough prior to this despite her self-distrust.) It also helps recharge Thomas Covenant on a primal level, and reminds him that he’s still a man with a man’s needs.
This is by far the best part of THE LAST DARK because it’s tremendously human. It shows the best part of humanity in full: our will to survive and to believe in love despite everything that’s gone against us.
Also, if you’ve read the previous nine books of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, you know full well that Thomas Covenant did not start out as a sympathetic character at all. He was originally a full-on anti-hero. He actually raped a teenage girl, Lena, during LORD FOUL’S BANE, when he thought everything was a dream and nothing he did could hold any consequence. (Why his dreams were so dark and depressing is another story entirely.)
And that rape produced a young and damaged child, High Lord Elena, who Thomas Covenant meets during THE ILL-EARTH WAR. Elena is beautiful, brilliant, and determined, but she’s also heavily damaged and may be insane due to being raised by Lena, who definitely is insane. What Elena does causes both her and the Land great harm, even though she intended only good, and for a time her spirit is captured by Lord Foul (the personification of darkness and despair).
Then — and this was not an improvement — High Lord Elena ended up in the grasp of the ravenous She Who Must Not Be Named, who could be said to be a personification of the Goddess Kali in the worst possible mood. She Who Must Not Be Named believes no man is good, no man could ever be good, and that the women who believed in men are as bad as the men…in short, this particular being is doing much harm in the name of feminism.
(What you want to see in this, symbolically, is up to you of course. Me, I saw it as both interesting and irrelevant. Because again, She Who Must Not Be Named is insane.)
Here, Linden must confront She Who Must Not Be Named as a newly-married woman when the Land and everyone who lives upon it is about to go under, eaten by the Worm. Somehow, she must release High Lord Elena from an undeserved Hell. And somehow, Linden must prevail on her own, as Thomas Covenant has gone to fight Lord Foul while her son, Jeremiah, must discover his own talents.
As always with any work of Stephen R. Donaldson, the writing is stellar. There are a ton of words, but they have emotional power and resonance. The storytelling is first-rate. The characters are people you can love and hate, believe in fully, and want to succeed despite — or perhaps because of — their severe and unremitting flaws.
However — and this is a huge however — the book does not properly end.
Here I was, reading THE LAST DARK and enjoying my experience immensely. Then, all of a sudden, it’s time to defeat the Worm and re-establish the Arch of Time and allow all the Elohim to go back to what they truly are, which will allow the denizens of the Land to see the Sun again…
And we don’t see it.
Nope. Instead, we get a hastily scribbled epilogue that tells, but doesn’t show, that the Sun is about to rise again. The Land is saved, Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery are happy, and Jeremiah is the typical self-obsessed fifteen-year-old as he is quite uneasy with his parents’ public displays of affection (as Covenant has indeed become his adoptive father).
This is nicely anticlimactic. And it would’ve been fine, if we had just seen any of the battle to put the Worm back under the One Tree where it belongs, saw how Covenant, who was once known as the “Timewarden” as he helped hold up the Arch of Time after his death, rebuilt the Arch, or seen anything else of the labor it must’ve taken to allow the Sun to rise after the Land was almost destroyed.
But we don’t.
Up until the final fifty pages, this was an A-plus read. Everything I expected from a Donaldson novel was there. The copy-editing was stellar. The references to all of the previous nine books were there. The characters were as redeemed as they were ever going to be (not that they think of it as redemption, but I do). We saw love and hate and despair and disgust and achievements beyond all measure…
And then, we skipped to “The End.”
I’m sorry. That’s not acceptable. Most particularly in a novelist the caliber of Stephen R. Donaldson.
So instead of the A-plus I was about to give THE LAST DARK, I am going to give it an Incomplete, something I’ve never before done in the history of SBR. This book needed a proper ending. And it did not get it.
And when you’re completing a long-running series (see the very end of the Wheel of Time epic, started by Robert Jordan and completed by Brandon Sanderson), you have to show the end. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense.
Bottom line: This book did not end properly. I am not pleased with that. But everything until the final fifty pages was stellar.
Grade for THE LAST DARK: Incomplete (I).
— reviewed by Barb
If you were the son of a traitor and sent out into the border regions of your empire to languish and (hopefully to some) die, how much loyalty would you have if you found out that suddenly those who banished you desperately needed your help when the entire universe is on the line?
This question is just among the many confronted by Baron Lucius Giovanni, commander of the War Shrike in Kal Spriggs’ science fiction novel The Fallen Race. The alien Chxor have completely decimated the Roma Nova Empire and, with his back against the wall, Baron Giovanni is struggling to keep the remnants of its citizens — as well as his make-shift fleet — alive. Assuming his political masters back home allow him to even retain command of his ship, that is.
After keeping his ship alive just long enough to help a convoy escape an ambush of Chxor vessels, the War Shrike stumbled onto a barely-alive Ghornath dreadnought. Surprised, Baron Giovanni discovers that the alien captain is the same one who spared his life many years before. He rescues him and a few of his crew and bring them on board the War Shrike. It is then that Baron Giovanni finds out that there is a human world in the system, one that nobody had known was there. A small world, still loyal to the Imperium, called Faraday.
Part of the charm of this novel is the obvious homage to the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber. This book has it all — aliens, telepaths, pirates, staff meetings… all in direct correlation to a Weber novel. Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a straight “filing off the ISBN numbers” book, far from it. The fall of the Roma Nova Empire is something that is fresh and different, and the turning of the main character from ostracized ship commander to military warlord (of sorts) is very reminiscent of a Mad Max in Space vibe (I don’t know why, that was just the feel I had while reading this book). It’s a fun joyride through space.
However, there are some major issues in the first half of the book, enough so that I had a heck of a time just getting through it. There are some minor issues like the changing of the Roma Nova Empire (it goes from Nova Roma to Nova Roman to Roma Nova in about three pages), as well as a very tedious “staff meeting” where the author hits us with an info dump that is oddly placed and ill-timed. There is also mention of the main character’s father being a traitor, but without any context outside of the title “Baron” that the main character has, you really don’t get a feel for just how deep the word really goes (until about midway through the book, when suddenly everything has a much deeper feel to it, and just how poorly the word “traitor” has been used throughout thus far). There is also nothing really setting anything up as the author tries to counter world-building with random action, which unfortunately doesn’t work well initially because there hasn’t been enough time to create any sort of relationship with the main character.
All that said, this is not a bad book, not in any sense. Because while the first half of the book is problematic, the second half of it is simply stellar, and that can be laid at the feet of Kandergain, the psychic pirate captain (yeah, that combination is just as awesome as it sounds). The book, quite frankly, could have been written from her perspective and been an amazing novel. The author handles her much better than he does the main character, and she is a likable, mysterious individual who dominates every single scene that she’s in. It’s almost as if the entire first half was added just to delay her arrival, because once she does, the pacing and action flow smoothly, the dialogue is crisp and fits the characters well, and it changes from being a run-of-the-mill SF novel to being something special.
I’ll give this one 4 stars. I can forgive some of the editing mistakes (as this is an indie novel), and when you have such an amazing character as Kandergain, that can cover and hide a lot of other, smaller mistakes that would normally derail you. Solid story here. I’d definitely buy this one on Kindle.
—Reviewed by Jason
It’s Romance Saturday at Shiny Book Review! So what could be better than another romantic science fiction/mystery offering from Stephanie Osborn?
Tonight’s subject is book 5 in her long-running, popular Displaced Detective series featuring Sherlock Holmes and his wife, Skye Chadwick-Holmes, A CASE OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION. (Books one and two of the series were reviewed here; book three was reviewed here; and book four was reviewed here.) This time, Sherlock Holmes is summoned to merry old England without his wife, Skye, to consult on a perplexing case: the village of Stonegrange has died all at once, apparently of spontaneous combustion, and no one knows how or why. And for reasons of national security, Sherlock isn’t even allowed to wake her up to tell her what’s going on.
This is a problem, as Sherlock and Skye haven’t been married all that long (maybe a year, tops), and have just had a huge fight (as newlyweds the world over tend to do). The fight was over something minor, and if Sherlock had been able to tell Skye that he’d been summoned to England, it’s possible the two would’ve made up right then and there — but he wasn’t, and they’re both about to be in a world of hurt.
While Sherlock tries desperately to figure out what’s happened that’s caused Stonegrange to spontaneously combust, Skye is left at home in Colorado. Both are miserable, both try to write each other letters, but as their letters are considered classified on both ends, there are intermediaries between them and their letters to one another.
And their letters are not getting through, which adds immensely to their overall “frustration factor.”
Making matters even more dicey, the mystery of Stonegrange has a strong scientific component, so Sherlock needs Skye. And she’s not there, so solving the mystery is made that much slower and more complex, too.
Mind, Sherlock doesn’t know why Skye wasn’t sent for along with him. Neither do the people who guard Sherlock and Skye on a regular basis. And as the National Security Act has been invoked, it’s keeping them from talking with their counterparts as they normally would.
So that, too, is a mystery that both need to solve . . . but as they’re both extremely upset (Skye has fallen into a severe depression), it takes a bit more time than usual to get to the bottom of this problem.
Regarding Stonegrange, Sherlock goes undercover to find out who did this and why. He uncovers a few leads, but again realizes he needs Skye’s scientific expertise.
After quite some time, romantic and domestic matters are resolved and Skye’s back where she belonged. (So for romance readers, there is a “happily ever after” ending.) And a good thing, too, as Skye’s knowledge of physics is absolutely essential to the solving of this particular mystery.
As always with the work of Stephanie Osborn, her command of language is strong, while her knowledge of physics, England, and Sherlock Holmes trivia is excellent. Her pacing is good, the romance is outstanding, and the hard SF component (the physics involved) is explained well enough that I had no trouble figuring out what was going on.
The one quibble I had here is that the ending was a bit too gentle for my tastes. After all the sturm und drang Sherlock and Skye went through to get back into contact with one another, and then back to each other, I would’ve liked to see some retribution handed out to the person who kept them apart.
But everything else worked quite well.
Bottom line? It’s not everyone who can make cutting-edge physics comprehensible to the intelligent layman and write a kick-butt romance along with an absorbing mystery all at the same time, but Stephanie Osborn did just that in A CASE OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.
One, final thought: If you love Sherlock Holmes as brought to the modern-day and haven’t tried Stephanie Osborn’s Displaced Detective novels yet, what’s stopping you?
–reviewed by Barb