Review: The Veil of Gold

The Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins was good, but I can’t quite give it great.  It grabbed me pretty quickly, I didn’t hit 100 pages before I was carrying it around so I could read anywhere I found myself with a few moments.

The characters were interesting.  I wouldn’t give them all kudos on being well-rounded but they were definitely interesting and I really liked that the main male in the novel was in a lot of ways very anti-trope.  He was nervous and uncertain and very kind.  And yet I never would call him “whiny” (ok, not without really good cause– ’cause he had one!) and I would never think he wasn’t a man.

Ok, so let me get straight to my biggest beef.  The ending.  It was abrupt.  There was all this lead up and build and then in like 20 pages tried to tie everything into a bow that ended up being very messy instead of amazing.  The story kind of desperately needed a denouement.  It felt like the author knew she hit her 50k in NaNoWriMo and just tried to wrap it up ASAP instead of giving it the same depth and attention she had given the first 50,000 words.

It wasn’t a “bad” ending per say, just very, very abrupt and jarring in that abruptness.  So much of the rest of the novel had been more of a slow burn to have that sudden explosion and then nothing beyond it…. was jarring.  It’s the best description I have.

The plot was fabulous through 95% of the book.  REALLY compelling and awesome use of Russian folklore and history.  I loved the intertwining of the magical and real worlds.  The way the characters wove worked wonders.  Pun might be intended because of the wondrous nature of the plot….

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fairy tales but not to just anyone.  I would definitely say it’s more of 15+ age as there is some graphic language, descriptions of violence (Russian fairy tales are NOT generally nice), and sex – although it isn’t erotic or “sexy” but the topic comes up in enough ways I’d bring the age up a little more than I might otherwise.  If not for the sex & language, I’d probably put this at 13+ and then only because of the complexity of the journey itself.  But anyone who’s read Lord of the Rings (read it, not watched the movie) could definitely get through this book – except for the age-potentially-inappropriate content.

I think overall, I’d give this 3.5 out of 5.  Good, recommended to people who I think would enjoy it – but not a “if you don’t read this you are denying yourself pleasure in this life you should regret” level.

Review: Hugo Winner Stone Sky!

N.K. Jemisin’s series The Broken Earth won the Hugo Best Novel for ALL THREE NOVELS.  And having just finished it – damn, I’m not surprised.

Jemisin throws you into the world and uses three voices to explore it so you see it from several viewpoints in the first book.  In the second book she narrows into just a pair of views and for books two and three she generally sticks with Essun and Nassun; but takes a side-line to explore how everything got here in the first place.

Ok, so Jemisin is amazing at two things in this series: her world-building and her magic system.

Let me start with the world.  The “complaint” I might have is she calls it “Earth” but I would find it much easier to have wrapped my mind around it if she had called it anything else.  I kept trying to put her “Earth” onto the layout of planet & continents I know – and I will go ahead and “spoil” and tell you not to do this.  Once I wrapped my brain around “oh, this isn’t MY Earth, they just CALL it Earth” I was able to accept the world much better.

So I like her magic and I struggle with it at the same time.  She semi-makes 2 systems, but they are intertwined.  Or one is a deeper level than the other.  I’m not sure which.  But I think she knows.  It’s a fascinating system as it develops through the series.

Personally, I think if Jemisin has a true weakness in the series it’s her characters.  The reader gets to know Essun exceptionally well, and glimpse other characters through Essun’s interpretation of their actions.  Nassun is less well fleshed out (hell she’s like 10, this isn’t the worst) but considering how important she is – I just wish there was more in Nassun’s head.

Ok – so now I’m going to get into something that broke every rule of writing I’ve ever heard.

All three books are written in second person.

“You.”

At first I was confused, by the end of the first book; I hardly noticed and by the end of the third book I was surprised when she wrapped it up with a pretty bow – and hit me with the sledgehammer of WHY.  Brilliant.  Without spoilers, I’ll just say that it’s worth getting used to the voice (it distracted me occasionally and kept me curious all the time).  I kind of want to go listen to the first book again knowing what I know now.

Definitely, for a fantasy book I give this a 5/5 across the series.  The second book might only be a 4/5 – there were a few times I wanted to yell at characters.  But I was definitely glued throughout the series and it’s worth any annoyance when a particular character (usually Essun) is being an idiot.

The series won Hugo Best Novel every year – go read it.

Review: Freedom

So I gave up 39.8% of the way through Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. One of few books I can say I’ve given up on.  It might help if I could skip ahead, but that’s really hard to do well in an audio book.  Especially since I generally listen while on my commute and I’m driving.

The characters are flat.  And there is a part of me that detests them because I’m afraid someone out there is like that.  The first third of the book focuses on Patty – through her college & married life.  She struggles with anxiety, depression, and alcoholism – and at 40% of the way through you have a hit (since it’s written like her autobiography) that she is aware of it “now” – whenever now is.  But then, a chapter or two before I stopped she stopped being the narrator (I think).  It switched to her husband’s best friend Richard.

Thus far both of them are looking at the third character,Walter – Patty’s husband & Richard’s best friend – with this weird lens of him being a supportive character but somehow also the glue that holds the three of them together and frankly the only pseudo-mentally-stable of the three.  This switch is where I really just fell off the bandwagon (pun intended) and had to go find something else.  I looked at my app and it said 38-something % and I went “shit.  I thought Patty was the character and I feel like her arc is so close to done. I can’t sit through another arc or whatever this dude is doing.  I have no idea what the plot is and no interest in these characters.”

Now, I will say that I had to read Prince of Tides in highschool and this books reminds me a lot of that.  and I will say, I don’t tend to enjoy books that try to rip me up emotionally – I have enough stress in my life, I like my books to be more escapist. Freedom reminds me a little of Prince of Tides.  Not like 100%, but that idea of exploring what made someone do something really messed up and emotionally manipulative and stupid… yeah, I think if Freedom is going anywhere it’s along those lines.

And the writing style was good.  The semi-autobiographical tone of Patty’s story was interesting, with those flares of exposition into her own growth since the moment.  The opening was my favorite part – it was a bunch of snippets of the gossip of the neighborhood about Patty and Walter and their son Joey.  And Patty’s little breakdown and her evolution from “perfect mom” to “crazy neighbor” was well done in that format.

Overall, I have to give this a 2/5 for me – but I could see someone else really getting sucked in and enjoying it more than I did.  I don’t want a story that makes me cry…

Writing: damnit!

The downside, as I’ve said before, to writing “the story I want to read” is when I notice an old file, open it – have an inkling of what I intended and go “damnit. I wanna know what happens!”

I totally did that with a ~1 pg document.  There is a teaser.  A tiny, itsy-bitsy teaser that is driving me crazy.  I don’t remember who the villain was going to be, I have just enough to be curious.  I guess it wasn’t my worst beginning…. You tell me.

Prologue

It is so small and weak. The voice was quiet, pleading.

Their species is not weak. It is almost a bark, with an angry edge to it.

Our younglings are just as helpless. They are not as loud. A third tone, almost a soft musical chime to the worlds.

Do as you wish your highness. Keep it as a pet if you so choose, but if it ever looks the least harmful, then we will kill it on sight. A final, fourth voice said.

The pink mewling creature was lifted up and carried off the hulk of the ship.  As they left they passed the crews that were dismantling the pieces of the ship.

You must admit, came the fourth voice¸ they are good with machines.

They have already integrated too much of our technology the harsh and angry voice said all we can do is win by attrition.

Not all the quiet voice said, Please give me a chance. I am sure there is a way to make it work.

The plan has merit the sing-song voice added.  What can it hurt?

The creature suddenly opened its mouth and let out the most horrendous noise.  All four stopped moving and stared at it.  Then they looked to one another and the chiming voice said, It is hungry.

She is hungry the voice which had been angry no longer was, instead sounding shocked.

So be it, the fourth voice, As king I decree that we shall no longer seek them out.  Princess Risha’lla will raise the thing.  It is not deaf and her plan will be given the time needed to see possible success.

I will not fail you father the soft voice, Princess Risha’lla said.

Chapter 1

“Sir, the orgalla have entered the system,” the helmsman said.  “Shall we meet to escort them?”

“No, wait for them to reach us,” the captain said and moved from his seat on the bridge to the view port at the gunner’s station.

The ship he saw was massive with three smaller ships around it.  His own vessel ran a crew almost a thousand men and women with space to spare for recreation, a dome garden and three sets of quarters which could be used to expand for families if the ship ever was placed on local patrols instead of being on the border patrols.  The ship approaching was at least three times the size of his vessel.

“The price of being good at my job…” the captain muttered as he looked at the ship.  He then went to his chair and sat back down, “Lieutenant, please let the ambassadors know that the orgalla have arrived and we will be meeting them in approximately an hour.”

“Yes sir,” the communications officers quickly turned and began to relay the message to the ambassadorial team on board.

“Captain Chou, the orgalla are requesting to link to our nav comms,” the communications officer reported.

“Link them in so they can follow us into the port,” Captain Chou said firmly.  The young man took a deep breath and sent the signal.  The orgalla were still the monsters parents told children about to scare them.  Some of the colonies still had massive damage from the orgalla almost twenty years before.

“Commander Lorant, you have command until I return,” Captain Chou said.  “Lieutentant, please make sure the ambassadorial team isn’t running late this time.”

The captain did not have to rush to get to the docking bay which would allow them to access the orbital planet access point, but he did not pause to think or talk to anyone either.  The collar of his dress uniform was a little loose, but he didn’t try to figure out a way to tighten it now.  When he arrived two of the attachés were waiting, but none of the ambassadors had arrived.

“Was an hour not enough to time for the ambassadors to be able to dress and assemble?” he asked the attachés with a frown.

“I apologize sir, I know that Ambassador Irvine is on the way,” one of the two said.  As he spoke, a woman swept into the room.  She had chosen to wear a formal gown instead of a suit.  It was appropriate that she had chosen the historical garb of her people, but the long sweeping sleeves trailing across the floor behind must be heavy and hot.

“Am I truly first to arrive?” she asked.  “This is a disgrace!  Ashley, call Poul and you should get Yewoul too.  It is not like any kikital to be late.  I’m sure he’s been detained by Poul.  Oliver I want you to call Etcorm, Deneph and Risyk.  Find out where they are.  I apologize Captain, I thought an hour was more than enough time.  Especially because Deneph doesn’t need to put on clothes or brush fur in anyway.”

“Thank you Ambassador, it is appreciated to know that it is not a lack of protocol,” Captain Chou said with a smile.

“No, I agree with you that we need this peace,” Ambassador Irvine said.  “If my ancestors hadn’t gone to Mars then we would have been destroyed by the Chinese, I understand better than most that we need to expand safely.  The orgalla are too powerful not to make sure they are on our side.  I just wish Earth had sent someone other than Poul.”

“It doesn’t help that the North Aligned States never really saw much of the fighting in the last war,” Captain Chou said.  “Hence they had the power to have Poul selected.”

“Well, he is here now, so we’ll have to make it work,” the woman said firmly.

It was only a few minutes before the other ambassadors arrived.  Ambassador Poul Westmire represented Earth itself, while Ambassador Johanna Irvine represented the human-colonized planets everywhere else.  Poul was wearing a white tuxedo with a white turban around his head.  His thick beard had been combed and greased into a pair of points down his chest.  Johanna was wearing the long blue and silver kimono she had brought which had once been worn by the last royal princess of Japan as she fled to Mars, the ships built and piloted by Australians and then flying to help Australia and Japan escape the Chinese invasions which turned half of Earth into a single empire almost three hundred years ago.  The princess had died on the trip to Mars because of a terrible pregnancy combined with seven months in space.

Review: Villains by Necessity

Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward has been on my reading list for years.  I read Animist when I was in HS and am still disappointed there hasn’t been a sequel. But to be honest, VbN is the better book.  Ironic that her debut novel is better than her second book – but it’s true.  I am sad she hasn’t written more novels because I really like her writing.

So, let’s start with VbN being a book where the “heroes” are all villains – assassin, dark sorceress, thief.  But in a world be subsumed by “goodness” those who want to live outside the lines ARE heroes.  Those who stand up against someone’s vision of “good” to demand they should be allowed to make their own choices to be good or evil as they wish.

The irony that this book comes into my life at a time where I am struggling with ideas of “free speech” isn’t lost on me.  It also makes me chuckle that this damn lens on my face colors EVERYTHING.  But the message is pretty blunt – villains shouldn’t be forced to be good people; it should be a choice people are allowed to make.  And make again tomorrow. And motives matter.  Someone who kills to protect is different than someone who kills for “pleasure” (ew).

The characters ARE tropes – but it’s part of the story to say that Forward explores the fact that every “villain” in the trope might have a reason or a past that makes it make more sense.  Heroes might be villainous to the villains and villains might be heroes when they do something “good” even if they do it for “evil” (usually selfish) reasons.  By playing UP the tropes, she explores them beautifully. Especially to anyone who has played RPGs like Skyrim or D&D they will recognize the classes used.  I can’t say it will make as much sense to someone unfamiliar with the genre, but I think almost anyone can follow the story and enjoy the adventure.

The plot is clear and crisp and even when I thought it was a little predictable, Forward pulled it together by doing a few different tricks – like flipping to the “heroes” and exploring some of their motivation.  She also plays into the story itself everyone understanding the way stories are “supposed to” happen – good guys win and bad guys lose. Right?

Overall, this book took me a bit to get into – probably the full 100 pages I give a book.  It was a book I actually kept in my bathroom for close to six months and managed to pick-up-for-a-page and come back the next day for the next page.  Because of the strength of the tropes, this worked really well.  It isn’t like some “bathroom” books I’ve tried where I have to constantly go back three pages because I’m always “lost” – the plot holds throughout.  It’s simple and yet the twists and turns keep it fascinating.

Seriously, find a copy of this book – it’s out of print or I would absolutely put links up.  Eve Forward deserves every dollar for this book!

Review: Symphony of Ages

So there are good books and there are enjoyable books and there are books that are both.  RhapsodyProphecy, and Destiny by Elizabeth Hayden are enjoyable but I’m not sure they are good.  Their tone is something of a harlequin romance/adventure/mystery with all the flat characters and stereotypical character choices therein.  However, that doesn’t make them bad books.

Let’s put it this way, I’ve read these about once a decade since I was ~16 and this last time I devoured them as happily as I have in past consumptions.

The Bad:

These books are cheesy.  They are rife with outlandish “BEST” and “WORST” to describe things. If it’s big, it’s ginormous and if it’s small it’s the most minuscule ever. EVER. Reactions are strong enough for a mime to be making them. I get over this (usually) because apparently this world just lives in the extremes and they just get jerked around by magical MOSTESTS all the time and developed coping mechanisms.  Though it adds an interesting layer on “divine right” of rule…

Rhapsody (the titular character and protagonist) is blind when she needs to be obtuse and makes a bazillion assumptions because of course she must have all the facts – even when she knows she’s dealing with the most deceitful people in the world (literally).  She is deep when she needs to be and brilliant in music (apparently) and has special-shiny-powers we see no one else having any depth in.  We hear about her teacher, but it seems like pretty much everyone knows about this power but no one else ever uses it – much less with the blase power-level Rhapsody has.

There is only one question I had that the book never answered and it doesn’t impact the plot, but it kind of bothers me.  Supposedly, these people come to an uninhabited land (maybe? sort of?) but they “intermingle with the people already there.”  Wait – which one is it?  Is it people weren’t there and the refugees comprise the first population ever or is there a population there they intermingle with. Since it’s supposed to be semi-history/lore of the world I can’t decide if the author was being sloppy or purposefully messing with lore because that’s what happens to history (I am a little inclined to lean towards the former for once, but I try to convince myself it’s the latter).

The Good:

The plot is actually pretty tight.  I mean, I don’t think most adults would be shocked as things unfurl, there aren’t a lot of massive twists – but the plot is consistent and tight within itself.  The villains are evil and some of them are even evil for understandable reasons (even the villain who kind of is “evil to be evil” has a REASON – maybe not a brilliant one, but a real reason).

The description and world-building is fun if exaggerated.  There is some decent variety of locations and you can see where the different cultures might have veered. We get very select lore, so there are elements I would have liked more on, but overall the cultures feel “real” and consistent.

Magic is also pretty clear, consistent and tight.  It doesn’t 100% follow strict rules, but there is rare-to-never when characters do something that made me think they broke the rules of magic in this world.  Even the strangest character makes sense by the end of the third book because we had explanations to help understand his “uber powerfulness” that made me nod and go, “Ahhh, ok that’s a stretch but plausible. I get it.”

I love the musical references the author uses.  Not being musical myself, I have no idea of her accuracy or just how cheesy it might be to a musically minded person – I enjoyed the references she used.  I won’t try to sound smart about whether she actually made the series the “acts” of an opera, but there is an “overture” and “intermezzo” instead of books or sections.  I think it’s more like an opera (especially with the over-dramatic characters) and in that light even the over-dramatic doesn’t feel out of place.  I have no idea if Hayden intended that – but if she didn’t double-good-job ’cause it still ended up feeling musically-based to the non-musical.

Overall:

I enjoy this series despite imperfections.  It’s a jaunt in an interesting lore and although I don’t love the characters, if I pretend I’m watching the operatic interpretation of history – I enjoy it.  I doubt it will challenge anything in your world except your faith in deep writing, but it’s fantasy that was 1990’s-2000’s fantasy.  I can’t remember much that came out during that time that “challenged” people.  There are things I could gripe about in a modern context, but like I said I put on that operatic interpretation and a lot of those go out the window anyway.  It would be like asking why Rent doesn’t have cell phones (in my opinion).  If you need something that won’t challenge you and just entertains – this isn’t a bad 3 books to take on a long flight.

Writing: Writer vs. Reader Opinions

I didn’t have a good title for this post, but I’ve tried 3 times to write something similar and it hasn’t worked yet, so we’re going with this title for the time being and maybe someday I can come up with something better (I’m open to ideas!)

The thing is, I’ve been reading books lately by male authors and I’m surprised by how much I am liking the female characters.  I’m reading a Brandon Sanderson book right now and damn if he doesn’t write females that I like.  And variety.  They aren’t all simpering male-hunters or just background or evil hags or… pick any of the stereotypes that plague female characters.

I also can’t help but see elements of discussions of race and equality in books lately.  I’m seeing political discussions that I’m not sure whether the author meant them or not.  Authoritarianism vs. independence, responsibilities of leaders to those they lead – I can’t tell if the art is reflecting my own thoughts or if the authors I’m reading are also picking up on the political climate of our world.

They say “art reflects life” but could my life be reflecting in art?  I don’t know.  But sometimes when I get hit by something that makes me go “did they reference Kapernick kneeling or am I imposing my own experience there?”  There have been multiple times in reading books that have come out in the last year or two I feel that way and it’s getting freaky.  I can’t decide if my brain is twisting or if society is filtering into these authors’ words.