Review: Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1), by Max Gladstone

Three Parts DeadThe city of Alt Coulumb runs off of the power of its resident deity, Kos the Everburning. Kos has sheltered his people through the God Wars, even when his lover left to fight, to die, and to leave the city bereft of justice. His death would be catastrophic — which is why he can’t be allowed to stay dead. The church hires a firm of necromantic Craftspeople to bring back as much of Kos as they can, the firm sends Elayne Kevarian, who participated in a similar venture for the city decades ago, and with her she brings her controversial new associate, Tara Abernathy, who was cast out of the airborne schools of the Craft to her presumed death. The case, in which Kos’s cause of death must be determined and his debts examined for the Craftswomen to know how much of him they can actually bring back, is a probation for Tara, who must prove to the senior partners that her worth exceeds her troublesome reputation.

Urban fantasies set in secondary worlds, especially worlds that aren’t a pastiche of European cultures, are something I really appreciate and would love to see more of, so Three Parts Dead was bound to be right up my alley. I’m therefore unsure whether it’s a triumph or a Pyrrhic victory that the book ended up so much more memorable to me for its characters than its setting, but given how much I enjoyed the end result, I’ll take it either way.

The setting is full of great ideas, but in this particular instance, it’s perhaps a little too full of great ideas that don’t get fleshed out enough. Alt Coulumb didn’t have nearly as much sense of place as I need from an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink weird fantasy setting, unlike, say, Miéville’s New Crobuzon. It became a series of set pieces rather than a living, breathing city. Some of those set pieces were really interesting in and of themselves, but the sense of immersion is still lacking.

But they could have been sitting in a blank room and some of these characters would still have leapt off the page. I really enjoyed following a strong, ambitious woman protagonist whose primary relationship is with her female mentor, and whose struggle is for her professional reputation. Elayne Kevarian is the embodiment of sprezzatura, and I was charmed enough by her that I didn’t even mind that she might ultimately be said to have manipulated the reader as much as her clients, colleagues, and adversaries. Abelard, the priest of Kos who was tending his flame when the deity died, and Cat, a servant of Justice with a vampire problem, were less memorable, but they did provide both a valuable perspective on the impact of the death of a deity beyond the pragmatic, and a backdrop of what probably passes for normalcy in Alt Coulumb against the gargoyles and vampire pirates.

I was also grateful that the author resisted the temptation to bring together any of the trite romances that looked to me for a while as though they might happen. The book is perhaps a little on the slight side, and I feel a slightly increased page count would have allowed the setting and history a bit more room to breathe, but the advantage is that the narrative stays focused with little meandering.

The plot had a little bit of the feel of a courtroom drama to it, which is a nice twist on the more street-level PI feel of much urban fantasy, and the whole concept of how gods work in this setting — the complex web of binding promises, contracts, and debts in which they entangle themselves to maintain power, and the flow of their grace according to those dictates — was really well executed. I also really like the background behind the Craft, that this is basically something that humans weren’t meant to have which they figured out how to steal, and the whole world changed its relationships with the gods accordingly, although I’d have preferred a much more in-depth look at how that works, but it feels like a forgivable omission for the first volume in a series.

The professor whose feud with Tara resulted in her abrupt and potentially fatal graduation is a wonderfully creepy adversary. There’s a little bit of a dig here at the exploitative relationships inherent to a capitalist system, although it’s subtler than Gladstone will get in the next volume of the series.

Overall, it’s really promising for a debut, even if I wish it had been a little meatier in the world-building. Having read the first three volumes in the series before I could bring myself to stop and write this review, I can confidently say that that promise is fulfilled, and the Craft Sequence goes from strength to strength.

4 stars

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Review: Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson

Furiously HappyI think my family are probably glad that I’m done reading Jenny Lawson’s books. They might be able to get more reading of their own done when I’m not interrupting them every five minutes to read out the latest side-splitting passage I can’t keep to myself.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s first memoir, was fascinating and hilarious, but I think Furiously Happy is in every way its superior. It’s just as funny, with fewer slow bits, but it’s also deeply raw and sometimes dark. Her first book was about her life in general, and since her life has been touched by mental illness then that was a topic she did cover to some degree, but at arm’s length; in this book it takes centre stage.

The title is a reference to a decision she made to be furiously, vehemently, defiantly happy in response to some painful losses and the triggering effect they had on her depression, a decision which started a movement on Twitter among many of her fans who also suffer from mental illness. It’s something that she’s realistic about, acknowledging that it doesn’t mean there aren’t days where it’s bad, too bad to get out of bed; that it’s not a cure, but it is a coping strategy.

It’s perhaps funny to say that in a book where she focuses far more on her mental health issues, she actually seems a lot more together, but I think for a reader who has personal experience with mental health problems then it makes a good deal of sense. Being open about the bad things frees you, somehow, to be more open about the good. I try to be aggressively honest with myself and others about my depression and anxiety disorders and the effects that they have on my experiences, and doing so has improved my communication in many other ways, and I think that’s probably what comes across so strongly in Lawson’s writing here. She doesn’t seem to be trying so hard and just reads as more authentic in her own quirky, hyperbolic way.

And there is good here, and it can be understatedly beautiful. One chapter that stays with me is when she’s having a panic attack and an arthritis flare-up in New York (a combination I can wholeheartedly sympathise with), and then it begins to snow, and she’s outside barefoot and bleeding in the snow, taking in this magical moment that wouldn’t have happened without her illness. I mean, the snow would have happened, because presumably she doesn’t have magical weather control abilities, but not her appreciating it the way that she does. I have my own memories of such moments, albeit with less snow and blood, and there’s a profound peace that comes with the realisation that while the illness is and will always be awful, it is a piece of you that gives you a perspective into things that most people just can’t see, and that’s a feeling that she does a really good job in putting onto the page.

I can also now understand why she and her husband are a good match. (Even if he is a Republican. Eww.) They have a yin-yang sort of relationship it seems, where they balance each other out but there’s a little piece of the other within each. I think sometimes it’s still a little hard to see what they share, but it also stands out less than it did in the first book both because this is less focused on her life story and more on her current-day emotional landscape, and because letting this be a more emotional book seems to have allowed her to capture on the page the underlying affection for Victor that I thought was awkwardly absent from Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

I do wonder how much this would have held together without any familiarity with her original memoir, especially for readers who aren’t familiar with her blog, so even though this is the better book I would suggest reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened first to get a feel for how her life up until now has shaped who she is as a person. And for anyone who’s already read that book, I think this is better written and less manic, but if her stream-of-consciousness style of writing bothered you there then it will probably still bother you here.

But I think Furiously Happy may very well deserve a place on my favourites shelf, and particularly for anyone who’s dealt with mental illness or the mental illnesses of loved ones, I think that under all the laughter this will be a poignant read. It’s incredibly cathartic when you come to understand that funny and awful aren’t mutually exclusive, and Lawson offers a charming, awkward, and extremely relatable object lesson in it.

5 stars

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Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedI’ve never read Jenny Lawson’s blog, and didn’t actually put two and two together and realise that she was ‘The Bloggess’ I’d heard mention of until a couple of months back, but her books have been on my TBR for a while because they are all over Goodreads. What attracted me to them was the mental illness angle. As a sufferer of depression (now quite well managed) and anxiety (sort of well managed except when I do adventurous things like leave the house or talk to people), I appreciate memoirs which have a raw but hilarious look at what it’s like to live with these and similar conditions.

It turns out that the mental illness angle is covered a lot more in her second book, Furiously Happy, but Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is definitely a success on the raw and hilarious fronts.

Lawson had a very strange childhood. I live in a city (actually, I live in a town that so desperately wants to be a city that it’s had City Centre on the buses for years despite being denied city status, but Americans would probably call it a city because it’s too big to be anything else), but my upbringing wasn’t pure yuppy. I was home educated and we had a caravan and no particular need to stay in one place, so a good portion of it was spent in forests and on farms and random bits of scenic coastline. I have tamed wild animals. So my reaction isn’t, you know, ‘Turkeys as pets, what strange country folk!’ But even by the standards of rural life, sticking your hand up a freshly deceased squirrel and then waking your young daughters in the middle of the night for some ghastly puppetry — one of Lawson’s memories of her father — is, shall we say, not recommended parenting. I do kind of approve testing the suitability of your child’s dates by seeing how they handle the bobcat that was just tossed onto them, though.

Not all of the wild animals they lived with were alive (or recently alive and now a hand puppet), either. Her father was very into taxidermy. You would think that childhood experiences like running into the warm open corpse of a deer, and then vomiting inside said deer, might turn someone off of the whole idea of corpses in general — can’t say I’m that fond of them myself and I’ve never been inside a dead anything, a record I’m sincerely hoping I can maintain until the dead thing is me — but adult Jenny goes on to be a collector of taxidermied animals herself, an example of which graces the cover of the American edition of this book but was sadly left off of the British one. Disappointing considering that both editions of Furiously Happy have a very enthusiastic taxidermied raccoon on the cover, and they’d make a nice matching set with which to creep out people on the train.

Once the narrative shifts to her adulthood, it’s a little more sedate and also a little more disjointed, but in terms of the former that’s still not setting a very high? low? bar, since adulthood also brings the effects of her mental illness to the fore. Although it’s something she delves into more deeply in the second book, which I’m reading at the moment, to the extent that she discusses it here she is very candid. It can make her writing seem very manic and unedited but as someone who suffers from similar-ish issues, I could see where she was going with that: It is exactly what it’s like to be in the head of someone who has anxiety, when your thoughts go so fast that they are physically dizzying, and I think giving these sections a more polished tone would also have reduced their honesty.

So when she says that it’s exhausting being her, it will probably sound narcissistic to many readers, but I get it. It’s not necessarily that the thoughts or the worries or the insecurities or any of it are unique to her or to anxiety sufferers as a whole, it’s the fact that they come so fast that they drown out everything else, that they strip away all of the mind’s usual self-defences, and that there’s never any time off for good behaviour.

Her marriage was a bit of a strange topic. Not that I’m particularly interested in judging other people’s relationships from the outside, but it’s a memoir and it is a thing she wrote about, so I have to go by what’s on the page. When she first married Victor I thought that, given she also mentions a present-day husband, she must have divorced and remarried, because she wrote about the marriage in a way that sounded regretful. I was genuinely surprised to find that she is still married to the same guy. Right at the very end I think you can sort of see why they work together, but her tone when writing about the marriage is a strange contrast to the rest of her life because when it comes to things like her decidedly odd father, or her life in the country both as a child and once she moves back there as an adult, or her fears about motherhood, you can really feel the love there even when she’s writing about the parts that are scary, difficult, or frustrating. I don’t get that when she talks about Victor.

On the whole I was just laughing so much that I was constantly stopping to read parts out to my family, sometimes struggling to get the words out past the giggles. Sometimes it does read like she’s trying too hard but people with anxiety are always trying too hard, even in the conversations we only have in our heads. See, I just started to write a sentence about this book reminding me of a wittier and weirder version of the inside of my own head before I self-censor all the parts that never make it to my mouth, and then I started to wonder if liking something because it reminds you of yourself is incredibly narcissistic, and now I’ve sat here in a stupor for five minutes trying to decide how much of this review I’ll have to throw out. And also that I should clarify that I don’t mean the ‘weirder’ part as an insult, just that you know, my dad is an engineer and has never had his hand up a dead squirrel, so I don’t have the same level of childhood emotional scarification.

I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes from the book, which should help you decide if its brand of humour and stream-of-consciousness style are for you:

I’d just run into my gynecologist at Starbucks and she totally looked right past me like she didn’t even know me. And so I stood there wondering whether that’s something she does on purpose to make her clients feel less uncomfortable, or whether she just genuinely didn’t recognize me without my vagina. Either way, it’s very disconcerting when people who’ve been inside your vagina don’t acknowledge your existence. Also, I just want to clarify that I don’t mean “without my vagina” like I didn’t have it with me at the time. I just meant that I wasn’t, you know… displaying it while I was at Starbucks. That’s probably understood, but I thought I should clarify, since it’s the first chapter and you don’t know that much about me. So just to clarify, I always have my vagina with me. It’s like my American Express card. (In that I don’t leave home without it. Not that I use it to buy stuff with.)

4 stars

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Review: Towers Fall (Towers Trilogy #3), by Karina Sumner-Smith

Towers FallThe Lower City is alive, and its people are reeling in the wake of Rown’s devastating attack. Its heart is a dark mirror of the living Towers above, and into it the Spire has poured its dark magic — and now pours its poison. As the wounded entity seethes, the Spire commands the evacuation of all of the earthbound residents, out into the walker-filled wastes with no shelter and no resources, or they will perish as it scourges the Lower City to put an end to the rival it has created. Right when her city needs her most, Xhea finds her magic bound, and she and Shai must find another way to save everyone and everything they know from the impending clash of titans.

Too often the third book in a trilogy tries to go high-concept, and the author doesn’t really know how to ramp things up to that scale, so it either falls kind of flat and just doesn’t feel anywhere near as colossal as its premise demands, or the pacing gives me whiplash as the author just seems to give up and wrap it in a messy bow as fast as possible. Karina Sumner-Smith once again subverts, if not my expectations — I know she’s damn talented at this point — then my concerns, and delivers a novel that I found to be the perfect balance between the epic and the intimate, with pacing that leaves no fat to be trimmed.

All of the loose threads are neatly woven in by the end, with nothing suffering short shrift. On the personal level, everything from Shai’s relationship with her mother and the way she lost her father, to the origins of Xhea’s abandonment complex, and even secondary characters such as Wen’s closure with his son, are given a fair resolution. Meanwhile the whole city, above and below, shakes itself apart and we get answers about what the dark magic really is and has meant for these people, the atrocities wrought by the Spire, and the true natures of the Towers’ hearts.

And of course, Xhea and Shai’s relationship. Because that’s the only word for it as the subtext of the second book builds into, well, text. There are no deep declarations of love — a quiet ‘Yours, then,’ a small joy amidst the desperation of their world ending around them, is the closest we’ll come — it’s chaste but gently romantic, and after the way they have grown as people, together, it feels very much earned. And it’s a sweetly melancholy thing, when you know there can be no living happily ever after for someone who is not alive.

Sumner-Smith’s prose is, as it has been throughout the trilogy, a clean and evocative experience you can sink into without becoming lost in flowery word choices that would detract from the often urgent tone. I haven’t read any of her short stories and I don’t know much about how prolific she is in that field, so she may well have been honing her skills on short fiction for years, but for a YA author bringing home her first trilogy, she stands out from the pack in technical ability.

I am genuinely surprised that these books aren’t more hyped. They’re a tour de force of so many elements that I often see YA readers lamenting the relative dearth of. I love YA, but in a field currently drowning in love triangles and lazy wish fulfilment for characterisation, I rarely find a YA series I can be so uncritical of. I’d happily buy the author’s next works sight unseen. I can’t imagine a return to this world after its immensely satisfying and complete conclusion, although it might be fun to see how Daye and Torrence became what they are, but hopefully she will deliver on a new premise with the same richness of character.

5 stars

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Review: Defiant (Towers Trilogy #2), by Karina Sumner-Smith

DefiantStill recovering from the knee injury she suffered at the end of Radiant, Xhea has spent the last couple of months cooped up in Edren, frustrating those around her — especially Shai — with her lack of motivation in doing what she needs to do to heal. When a terrified senseless ghost appears to her with a vague warning, presaging an attack on Edren’s underground defences, Xhea finally gets some of her spark back, only to be snatched away by one of the other earthbound skyscrapers to play a role in a scheme that might change the face of the entire city. The nature of the attack severs her bond with Shai, leaving the bereft ghost convinced that her companion is dead, and without any way to communicate with the people of Edren who are all she has left… and Xhea isn’t the only thing Edren stands to lose.

I love these books. They are so tightly written, well-paced, and beautifully characterised. Defiant manages to take a plot that I usually dislike — that of characters being separated because one of them lacks information the reader is aware of, and of taking most of the book to catch up to what we already know — and makes me really appreciate its implementation. Xhea and Shai’s bond is undoubtedly the best thing about the trilogy, so it’s inevitable that it causes a little slump when they’re apart for so much of the novel, but the closeness of that bond is also why separating them for a bit works to its advantage: They genuinely grow in a way that makes the separation feel uncontrived and the coming back together earned.

Shai is, I think, the more dependent of the two and so being in a situation where she has to stand on her own and help those with whom she’s unable to communicate fosters a lot of growth, and also cements that she loves Xhea for Xhea and not just because Xhea was her avenue to freedom.

Xhea gets some much-needed answers both about the nature of her powers (though there’s still a lot left for the third book) and her family history, and it’s also quite good to see her placed in a moral conundrum without Shai to serve as her moral compass. The exploration of her power and the morality of some of its uses is excellent; the family history is, I think, the one thing I would call out as a weak aspect of the book. I simply don’t buy that they would have been unable to find her if they had put genuine effort into trying, considering that they were aware of her power and would’ve been able to track her down with the same ease as her clients (which, as we saw at the beginning of Radiant, was hardly difficult). We seem to be expected to believe that this was the case though, considering the earnestness of her interactions with her surviving relative and that Xhea does very little emotional wrestling with it before moving on. It doesn’t ring quite true for someone with such an intense abandonment complex and the whole issue feels a bit swept under the carpet, but it serves to tie up the loose thread acceptably enough.

Defiant does for the earthbound skyscrapers what Radiant did for the Towers, bringing alive their culture and rivalries without excessive exposition, and does an impressive job of walking the fine balance of introducing a lot more secondary characters to care about — or feel sorry for — without detracting from the focus on Xhea and Shai. I feel like in this respect it was a little more nuanced than Radiant, where it was largely Xhea and Shai against the world and their opponents weren’t worthy of much sympathy; here the bad guys, insofar as there are any, are more pathetic than consciously cruel even though what they are doing is genuinely horrifying if you think about it deeply. Ieren is just a tool, despite what he can do, but he shines a light on the fact that Xhea is more than just her power, she’s defined by what she chooses to do with it.

Middle entries in trilogies often struggle, the infamous sophomore slump, but this is just such a smooth and powerful transitional book that I remain sincerely impressed that this is Karina Sumner-Smith’s first trilogy, and Defiant only her second novel overall. An epic third book awaits.

4.5 stars

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Review: Radiant (Towers Trilogy #1), by Karina Sumner-Smith

RadiantIn the crumbling ruins of a destroyed or decayed high-tech city, plagued after dusk by the once-human night walkers, Xhea lives among the dregs of society in the Lower City, the dwelling of those without enough magic in their bones to claim a place among the prosperous floating Towers above. But even here, she is the lowest of the low, for Xhea seems to be a singular anomaly in that she has no magic at all. She sees the world in shades of grey, and without a magical signature of her own everything from locks to lifts fail to operate for her, unrecognising of her humanity, for bright magic is life. Fortunately, her strange lack does seem to have left her with one gift, the careful employment of which lets her scrounge out a living, and sometimes even a taste of that elusive magic which restores the colour to her vision: She can see and talk to ghosts.

When Xhea strikes a bargain with a client to take the ghost of his daughter from him for a two-day reprieve, transplanting the ghost’s tether from him to herself, she brings an unexpected new friend into her life. Shai, the ghost, is Xhea’s opposite in almost every way, sprung from a wealthy life amidst the Towers, overflowing with bright magic — which is a problem, as ghosts, like Xhea, have no magic. Xhea has seen such a thing only once before, under horrific circumstances. Are the people of the Towers trying to bring back the dead? Or are they trying to do something even worse with these bright ghosts?

I signed up for a buddy read of Radiant months ago, and by the time I got to it, I’d pretty much forgotten what it was meant to be about. I didn’t even reread the blurb before starting, so I went in blind. Given I was a total blank slate, the setting cohered for me so fast, especially given the factors (magical floating towers) that sound like they should be hokey, but in practice really aren’t. Sumner-Smith quickly impresses with her ability to build the world in rich strokes without the crutch of heavy exposition. This feels very different from your average post-apocalyptic YA, not only in being more of a fantasy blend but in, surprisingly given those magical elements, feeling more real. I can believe in this place as a society more readily than many of the dystopias that stick to hard sci-fi.

I’m honestly surprised how this trilogy seems to have flown under the radar when so many readers are looking for YA books that are less focused on love triangles and more on friendship and family, because the female friendship here is the biggest thing to celebrate about Radiant. Xhea and Shai are such fabulous characters. They’re completely different from each other, yet they’re great expressions of two different ways in which to be brave. Xhea has a big, justifiable abandonment complex, and the walls she’s put up around herself have probably been a factor in what’s kept her alive so long in such desperate circumstances, but Shai’s influence shows her that some people are worth hurting for. Shai has been indoctrinated to live a life of agonising self-sacrifice that even death can’t free her from, and Xhea’s refusal to lie down and take it on both their behalves might be just what she needs to learn that it isn’t cowardly to refuse to be others’ tool any longer.

The story is divided into three parts that hold together excellently, never dropping the pace. I’m genuinely surprised to find that Sumner-Smith is a debut novelist whose focus until now has been short stories, because pacing is often one of my complaints when short story writers transition to novel-length fiction, but beginning, middle, and end are woven together perfectly, neither getting short shrift nor overstaying their welcome. I also find it immensely refreshing to read a story of this type in which no one acts stupid for the sake of the plot. Xhea and Shai are put into genuinely hard-pressed situations and they make sensible decisions, the decisions that I’d like to believe I’d make in such a situation rather than ones that leave me all-too-frequently yelling ‘But why wouldn’t you just try this?’ at the page. I also went to some lengths in my buddy read to praise the fact that the author went to some pains to really think through what the physical effects of the things she was putting Xhea through would be, and not to pull punches or resolve them with a convenient deus ex machina, whether it’s the fact that someone who isn’t eating properly does not have an endless supply of energy or the fact that a severe knee injury cannot be powered through with adrenaline and pluck, it needs an actual brace or it’s simply going to collapse. Having suffered a similar knee injury in the not-too-distant past, this level of realism made me almost irrationally happy. (I expect this is the feeling my horse-owning friends get when authors treat horses like actual animals and not slow, stubborn cars.)

And not a drop of romance in sight, much less a love triangle. This is just so solid all-around that I’m genuinely surprised it’s not a Hunger Games-level phenomenon, although I suppose quality has never been the determining point for those. I think this will also have a lot of crossover appeal to readers who don’t typically enjoy YA, because aside from a brief mention of her past which makes her current age explicit, I could’ve easily believed that Xhea was in her twenties.

My first five-star of the year. I can’t wait to see where the Towers trilogy goes next.

5 stars

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Review: The Weight of the World (Amaranthine Spectrum #2), by Tom Toner

The Weight of the WorldAs Sotiris ascends to the Firmamental throne, he places himself fully under the thumb of Aaron the Long-Life, but one of his last free acts is to send Lycaste off into the guardianship of his old friend Hugo Maneker, with whom, accompanied by the Vulgar Huerepo, he might be able to unlock the key to the undoing of the Long-Life’s plans — the spirit that was once Perception, the Amaranthine’s perfect AI. Meanwhile, with the disappearance of their commander, Elatine, the Jalan assault on the Lyonothamnine throne has drawn to a stalemate, but the Prism races — the Skylings, to the Old World’s native Melius — take advantage of the openings left by the conflict to bring chaos deeper into Firmamental territory. Through these troubled lands, Pentas and Eranthis follow the ancient immortal Jatropha to the home of Callistemon’s family, with the most precious of cargoes. Their arrival could change the balance of power in the Old World, if they can avoid those out to thwart it.

The Weight of the World expands on the scale of the first book in every possible way. We have more characters to follow, with the story divided into five main threads — Lycaste, travelling with Maneker and Huerepo; Jatropha, Pentas, and Eranthis; Maril and his crew, stranded on one of the moons of Zeliolopos; Ghaldezuel, accompanying the Long-Life; and poor, fading Sotiris, lost in the desperate search for his sister. But we occasionally flick away not only to other POVs, but to other times, stretching from far back into history when the Old World was still our Earth, to shortly before the events that opened The Promise of the Child. We get introduced to more species, further reaches of the galaxy, and more metaphysical oddities (that title is more literal than you might think).

Given how the first book was quite difficult to follow at times, especially in its first quarter, and that was operating on a smaller scale, it probably sounds like this one should be utterly overwhelming. But it’s so skillfully executed that it’s really not. It unfolds at a near-perfect pace, and I was able to get immersed in it to a degree that I couldn’t quite manage with The Promise of the Child as I was too busy trying to keep a mental map of where, what, and who everything was, and how it all intertwined. In The Weight of the World it’s seamless, and it’s nice to be able to bask in its cleverness without having to scramble for the glossary.

What I really love about this setting is how lived-in it feels. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief if a place feels authentic, and I really take that away from these books with the feeling that the Firmament is almost a place I’ve been to, like the different characters of each of the Old World’s Provinces rise off the page unspoken. It’s an immersion that’s definitely aided by the polished prose and rich environmental detail. A lot of science fiction is a compromise — the authors who are good at intricate tangles of plot aren’t always capable of bringing the depth of characterisation and the lush setting detail, or vice versa. Tom Toner has all three gifts.

One of the most compelling characters this time around is, without a doubt, Perception. There are tones of Banks’s wonderfully snarky, idiosyncratic AI here, but Perception also has a hauntingly childlike quality to it at times which makes a lot of sense as its background unfurls. And there’s something about that childlike element and the darkness of its background that never quite lets the reader sit at ease with it; children are, after all, capricious.

I also appreciated the deeper look into the Amaranthine mindset which explains why, beyond the simple attrition of age, their golden age is ending and they are so vulnerable to Aaron’s opportunism.

Essentially my only complaint is that Jatropha and the Melius sisters’ storyline progressed very slowly, and it felt like they were in a bit of a holding pattern to keep them in line with the rest of the threads being juggled. It’s nothing as egregious as Daenerys in the desert, though; there’s progress, it just felt a little jarring sometimes transitioning from the paciness of the rest of the book to their long journey.

I’ve seen comparisons of Toner’s work to Steven Erikson’s, and in The Weight of the World in particular I’d say they’re justified. They definitely share a knack for juggling an immense amount of plates and making long stretches of setting history feel inhabited. Much as I love Malazan, I’d also argue that there’s better characterisation here than in its first few books, at least.

Any doubts I carried over from The Promise of the Child were dissolved by this second book, and if the first one dissuaded you with its overwhelming first quarter, I’d say that The Weight of the World is well worth your persistence. This is some of the finest space opera I’ve read since Banks.

4.5 stars

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Review: The Promise of the Child (Amaranthine Spectrum #1), by Tom Toner

The Promise of the ChildIt’s more than 12,000 years in the future, and humanity’s children among the stars are a collective of engineered species divided into the Amaranthine Firmament, ruled by the exceptionally long-lived but fading Amaranthine, and the Prism Investiture of lesser, shorter-lived races at its fringes. The Amaranthine were created by a process that rendered humans effectively immortal, but still vulnerable to accident or injury; the eldest among them are more than 10,000 years old, but at that point they begin to lose their minds, and live out their days in sanctuaries with the other insane elder members of their race. Given this tendency, it’s a little odd that their form of government is selecting the eldest among them to rule, but politics and logic rarely go hand in hand in the present, so there’s no particular reason why they should in the future. Their current Emperor is seemingly walking the path to insanity now, and another, Aaron the Long-Life, has risen to oust him with the claim to be older still. There’s just something not quite right about Aaron, from his appearance in the dreams of other Amaranthine to the nature of his shadow…

Against this backdrop, we follow three primary POVs: Lycaste, one of the giantlike Melius dwelling on the Old World (Earth), who lives an isolated existence in one of its remotest Provinces until the wider world comes knocking on his door; Sotiris, an aged and well-respected Amaranthine being courted by Aaron and his followers, and with a journey to make in memory of his sister; and Corphuso, a Vulgar inventor whose creation, the Soul Engine, could change the nature of mortality and warfare, and vastly alter the balance of power in the galaxy.

Definitely the most developed of these POVs is Lycaste’s, and it’s also the most compelling. When the book first opens, the reader is tossed into a confusing tumult of names, species, places, and events that don’t really mean anything; there’s very little in the way of context at this stage and no sign that things will slow down to let you orientate yourself. It’s when the narrative switches to Lycaste that you get a chance to breathe and look around, because he doesn’t really know all that much more than the reader. His life in the Tenth Province has been a quiet one, and when he’s forced out of it and into contact with the wider world, it’s just as disorientating an experience for him too. Sometimes Lycaste is a frustrating character to share headspace with, because he’s socially graceless and has a discouragingly proprietary attitude towards the woman he loves, but rarely for this type of character, it works well, as not only are we not pushed to view him as anything else, but it’s made quite clear in his interactions with others that he isn’t neurotypical and that they are viewing events in quite a different light from our view through his eyes. I thought the author did a good job capturing his differences in perception and how frustrating an experience that can be from both sides.

Nonetheless, the initially opaque world-building that gives the other story threads their steep learning curve does gradually unfold before the reader in a way that, by the end of the book, makes it feel as intimate and familiar as a well-fitting glove. I suspect that the level of trust in the author required to get through the first quarter of the book may lose some readers, but it’s a trust that I found to be rewarded, as the end result was to build one of the few extremely advanced societies I’ve read about that felt lived-in and authentic.

The extremely layered world-building is balanced out by the relative simplicity of plot at its heart. The majority of Lycaste’s story is a bildungsroman, albeit one in a more creative and nuanced setting than most, and it takes the lion’s share of the page count. Sotiris is the most interesting as a person, but his path in this book is fairly clear from the outset, and the most compelling aspects of his story are setup for the next book. While he is the most minor of the three primary POVs, it’s Corphuso’s story that requires the most attention to detail from the reader, because there are political shenanigans that take careful reading to appreciate. Not unlike Sotiris, however, his destination is unsurprising, but it’s the route he takes to get there that fascinates.

Toner’s descriptive prose is quite lovely, rendering the environments of these exotic worlds in lush detail without getting bogged down in minutiae. It’s more matter-of-fact than a Kay or McKillip work, so those with a dislike for poetic ramblings won’t get lost in the prose, but for a debut author it is notably accomplished.

I have only one substantial criticism, which is that I believe the level of trust required to get through the total lack of context in the beginning of the book is going to alienate a lot of readers, and I think that that could have been addressed without substantially altering the story with a bit of restructuring, perhaps opening with Lycaste and gradually expanding from there once some trust has been established. I got through that section because I finish books regardless for review, and I’m glad I did since my persistence was so richly paid off, but I’ve already had to encourage one friend who was (quite fairly) discouraged by the difficulty of following the initial events to persist. It’s not unfair for a book to require a certain level of faith that things will come to make sense when it starts in medias res, but The Promise of the Child asks for more of it than most.

But with that caution in mind, I otherwise unreservedly recommend this to the patient space opera fan. This is a rich and creative debut, with a baroque and fantastical feel to it, and I think Tom Toner could be a talent to watch out for.

4 stars

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Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Complete Sherlock HolmesMy first entry of the year in the ‘I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet’ column. I’m usually fairly adamant about reading source material before seeing adaptations of it, but with Sherlock Holmes, the many adaptations are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to avoid. Holmes and Watson have been on my screen in many forms since I was a child, through to the modern sensation that is Benadryl Cabbagepatch’s take on Sherlock on the BBC, so it’s going to be impossible to talk about my experience of this book without taking into account how that experience has been shaped by films and TV.

One of the first surprises for me was that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is really charming. It seems to be popular to go with a much more abrasive and socially dysfunctional take on the character in modern adaptations. Bumblebee Crimpysnitch’s Sherlock, and Hugh Laurie’s House (a thinly disguised Holmes), have probably cemented this version of the character in many viewers’ minds, but less contemporary and famous iterations of the character have been pretty rough around the edges as well. I can see the seeds of that personality in the original stories, where Holmes certainly has his snippier moments, but for the most part his social graces are fine, and he can be quite deeply tender. I really like this charming and erudite Holmes, and although I enjoy the BBC show, I find myself wanting to peek into the alternate reality where Bumberstump Crispycream gets to play the gracious original flavour Sherlock.

The other surprise is that the relationship between Holmes and Watson really isn’t all that turbulent. There’s a simple brotherly love here that waxes and wanes as they are separated and brought back together by life events, but never fades, and the occasions they have to be mildly put out at each other (well, usually Watson being mildly put out at Holmes) never seem to erode the easy trust they place in one another. It’s a fine bromance, and honestly, I kind of prefer it to the angst that many adaptations have felt the need to inject.

I thought that reading this many similarly-formatted stories back to back might reduce my enjoyment due to the repetitiveness, but that ended up not being an issue at all. Some of the mysteries are clever, and some are obvious, but few of them are the primary focus of my enjoyment; instead, it’s Doyle’s incredible way with characterisation that made this such a page-turner. Some of my favourite stories were the ones where he wandered entirely off course into an extended interlude on the backgrounds of characters we’d never see again, such as the family that saw the founding of Salt Lake City or the Pinkerton who went undercover in a corrupted Masonic lodge.

While I preferred the original Holmes and Watson to many of their cinematic and literary successors, I was a little disappointed to find that many of the secondary characters who seem so iconic are actually little more than footnotes in the original tales, such as Moriarty, Mycroft, and Irene Adler. Moriarty in particular has developed a legend way beyond anything justified in the book, where he is only even mentioned a couple of times outside of the Reichenbach Falls. It’s hardly the fault of the author that the people who have added to his canvas have left me wanting more from the original work, but nonetheless, I do.

Towards the end, there is a dip in the quality of the tales — after the Hound of the Baskervilles, worth every second of its fame, nothing is quite as compelling because Sherlock seems to become an increasingly erratic character, as though Doyle lost touch with his voice. I closed the book feeling like it was a good time for it to be over before it overstayed its welcome. It will be a while before I can turn to any of the other authors who have continued in his footsteps and furthered Holmes’s story, though, because that voice, while he had it, was inimitable.

4.5 stars

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Review: The Glass God (Magicals Anonymous #2), by Kate Griffin

The Glass GodShaman and community support officer to the supernaturally inclined Sharon Li has her hands full enough running London’s first magical support group, Magicals Anonymous, when the Midnight Mayor unhelpfully disappears and leaves her in charge of figuring out why. The clues he leaves behind are challengingly cryptic, too: An umbrella with a missing point and a dose of mystical whammy that only a shaman like Sharon can sense, and a map marking the locations of dozens of recent disappearances connected only by what they leave behind — their shoes. Sharon has the assistance of both the Aldermen and her ragtag group of druids, necromancers, banshees, vampires, and gourmet trolls to call upon in solving the intertwined mysteries, but she’s slamming up against quite the deadline — not only is Matthew Swift running out of time to be rescued, but the disappeared belong to Old Man Bone, and if he doesn’t get what he’s owed, the plague pits of London will open and black death will once more roll through the streets.

I really want to like these books more than I do, because the Matthew Swift series that preceded them was awesome, and Griffin captures her love and knowledge of London on the page so beautifully. Unfortunately, I have a difficult time getting past the awfully flat characterisation. None of our protagonists have grown at all since the first Magicals Anonymous book, Stray Souls — if anything, they’ve doubled down on the annoyingness and the shallowness. Sharon continues to be a vapid, self-absorbed bundle of self-help cliches and management strategies that read like they were pruned from spambots on Twitter, and Rhys continues to have exactly one personality trait, that of ‘kicked puppy’. The other members of Magicals Anonymous barely exist as more than an excuse for punchlines, ones which were made plenty of times in the first book and weren’t that funny to begin with.

This time around, we can add unforgivably stupid to Sharon’s list of oh so endearing qualities, though. She’s a shaman, right, seer of the truth that lies beneath the everyday? Or so several secondary characters will keep on (and on and on) telling us. You would have thought, then, she might possess enough insight to notice things like a highly visible identical detail in every one of several crime scenes she and Rhys visit and photograph without having to have it belatedly pointed out to her by an exposition fairy banshee. Perhaps that it might also have occurred to her that if the Aldermen have the resources to produce military-grade weapons on demand, they might be useful people to ask to put a tail on the extremely suspiciously-acting person they already know is at least peripherally connected to one of their cases, or to trace the numbers on a dead woman’s cell phone. These tasks all seem to be beyond her, though.

The main story thread involving the disappearances and Old Man Bone is genuinely quite compelling, except for the fact that if it had been pursued by characters acting intelligently, it would have taken about half the time to solve. It was what kept me turning the pages quite avidly despite the level to which Sharon was getting on my nerves, though, and I imagine I’d have enjoyed it a lot if it had been pursued by Matthew or Penny or anyone who felt like a real, intellectually engaged person. The thing is that Matthew’s powers have reached the point where the story would need a lot more meat on the bones to actually keep him from bulldozing his way to the denouement so fast, which is why I initially looked forward to the change in protagonist in moving from the Swift novels to the Magicals Anonymous ones, but that was when I imagined that his successor would be as finely characterised as he had been. At this point, I’d love to abandon Sharon and crew entirely and go back to his story, although if Stray Souls was anything to judge by, Griffin has lost a feel for his voice and can’t really write him in-character anymore.

That makes it something of a saving grace, I guess, that in The Glass God he’s a driving force behind the story but not much of an actual presence in it. This was one of the aspects of the novel I did think was well-handled: Swift and the blue electric angels as a force that looms over the story and reminds us of its rapidly ticking clock. Because those blue electric angels remain as terrifying when unleashed as they are beautiful.

It sounds like I hated the book. I didn’t, as my rating will reflect. It’s more that I am profoundly disappointed in it because Kate Griffin was at the pinnacle of her field in books like The Midnight Mayor and The Neon Court, and I don’t really know how we got from that to this. I turned the pages fast enough, even chuckled a few times at the less desperate attempts at humour, and if this were a book by a new urban fantasy author, I wouldn’t be recommending it to anyone, but I’d be keeping an eye on their future releases because of the elegant prose, the beautiful take on London, and the seeds of promise in the story. But Griffin is not a debut author, and given the downward trajectory of the last few books, I’m hoping this is where she lays Magicals Anonymous to rest and moves on to something that brings back the spark she lost after The Neon Court.

2.5 stars

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