Thursday, February 22, 2018

Not as Good as the First: The Age of Swords

This is the second time in recent memory that I've thoroughly enjoyed the start of a fantasy series, only to be let down by the second book. Aren't later books supposed to be better, because they have a little less establishing work to do?

The Age of Myth was somewhat safe and tropish fantasy, but I liked the spin of the Fhrey being discredited as gods, and how the consequences of that discovery develop. Its sequel, Age of Swords, starts off strong with the Fhrey (the elven class) punishing the Runic dulls (the human class) for killing a couple of their own. It frightens Persephone into action, stirring all of the Runic tribes to unite and elect a single leader to confront the Fhrey. They have varying degrees of help from marginalized Fhreys and Dirgs (dwarven class), and this volume consists entirely of Persephone's struggle to get everyone on-board with going to war against the Fhrey before the Fhrey annihilate them. But it's an uphill climb. First, she must get all the chieftains to agree to meet. Then they have to agree to have a Koenig (a solitary leader). When all fingers point to Raithe, the only survivor of clan Direa, and he refuses because they don't have the manpower or the weapons, Persephone takes her merry band of Ren females off to Dirg-land to get metal swords. She becomes a stronger character than she was in the first book, if that's possible, and her coterie grows as well-particularly Moya, the warrioress-in-training.

Of course I'm summarizing and leaving out parts, but that's the main thrust of the tale. And yet, Age of Swords felt remarkably slow and drawn-out. Each step in Persephone's quest got stretched into more and more sub-steps, and it kept her separated from Dull Tyre, the scene of the action, for an inordinate amount of time. Raithe's stubborness is still tropish (he's not the first or the last reluctant hero), but it didn't grow him appreciably as a character, and in fact he had little to do with this book, which is a surprise, given how integral he was to the previous installment.  Other characters-I think of Arion in particular-felt like tag-alongs, hold-outs from the first book whose part in the story felt forced and arbitrary, rather than organic. For a good chunk of it she is metaphorically (if not physically) absent, so it really did beg the question as to why she was there at all. And I could do entirely without the catastrophic escapades of the Fhrey prince.

The biggest problem I had with this book was the dialogue-it dragged in multiple places, and people who I found witty and funny the first time around struck me as redundant and overly wordy here. The most egregious parts were, sadly, related to some of the things I found most interesting. I like that, despite the generally typical feel of this fantasy, that it is set in the beginning of the Iron Age, or its approximation, rather than something akin to the Middle Ages. But the constant and exhausting descriptions of the world's firsts-paper, arrows, chain-mail, they turned something intriguing into something boring and repetitive. Every exchange felt like a series of monologues spliced together. The length of some people speaking to each other-again, Arion is an offender-just defied nature. No  one would listen to a lecture as long as hers on the benefit of using the art, especially a disinterested, flighty, short-minded, teenage girl.

And without giving anything away, its ending was painfully similar to the first. The eye-brow raising comments between Nephron and Malcolm piqued by curiosity in the first book, but this time around just felt like more of the same-a cheap trick.

I still want to know what happens, but I'd like to see tighter writing focused on the main plot, rather than a story fattened up by adventures that, even in terms of character growth, will ultimately not matter.

**Please excuse any misspellings of character names and places in this post-this was an audio book**

K Rating: 3/5

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Russian Copycat: The Crown's Game

Months ago I reviewed a book I had read with great anticipation, only to find great disappointment. The Night Circus had a wonderful premise about romance blossoming in the heat of a magical competition, a duel to the death. As I was reading it, my writer's brain screamed for certain concepts or story threads to be told better. But never would I be so transparent with the borrowing of ideas as The Crown's Game was with this book. The Crown's Game pits a young man and woman against each other in a fatal struggle, where only one enchanter's magic will prevail, and allow that person to become the Imperial Enchanter, an advisor to the Russian Emperor. Having been trained separately, each competitor learns how to harness their magic differently. Vika's magic is flashy and impressive, while Nikolai's is more practical, more analytical. Their duel takes place in St. Petersburg to honor the crown prince's birthday, each taking turns to outdo the other. Eventually, they begin to collaborate. (Any of this sound familiar to Night Circus fans? Try....all of it). Even tiny, insignificant details like the fact that Nikolai is aware of the existence of another enchanter, while Vika is not, feels like they are ripped straight of the pages of another person's book.

I call foul.
The fact that it takes place in Imperial Russia rather than a circus then shows itself for what it is-window-dressing. That's not to say that the descriptions weren't good, but none of it was integral to the story. It could have been set anywhere, as The Night Circus demonstrates. So even though this book was slightly better than The Night Circus, in its enchantments and in the romantic tension between the characters, I can't say that I respect the effort. And in some ways, the advantages of this book are neutralized by certain elements that were saccharine, even when trying to be dark, while in The Night Circus the consequences for all the players becomes more pronounced the deeper into the novel you go. Imperial Russia on the eve of revolution is a very hard and sinister place, or, at least, has the potential to be depicted that way, and I don't think that angle was exploited as much as it could have been to set a more dramatic and compelling tone.

If I read the sequel, The Crown's Fate, I'll be hoping for some originality. It's not that I'm naive or unaware of the degree to which most works today are derivative or otherwise influenced by those that have come before us, but the level to which Evelyn Skye copied another author's plot structure and characterization is, to me, disingenuous. For that reason alone, it's entirely possible that I'll stay away.

Rating: 2/5
**New author goal: 30** - Yay!! (Finished in December 2017, I swear! Check my goodreads page!)

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Friday, February 9, 2018

Cute Little Story: Vermeer to Eternity

Vermeer to Eternity (Kindle Single) by [Horowitz, Anthony]I have quite a few Anthony Horrowitz titles on my "to-read" list, mostly because I am in desperate need of contemporary mystery fiction that lives up to my great love of Sir Doyle's work. I started with a Kindle Single, a short story called Vermeer to Eternity. I'm a sucker for stories involving the art world, and the fine art of old masters in particular.

It was an interesting little premise, the idea that a recently widowed woman might have an unacknowledged Vermeer in her collection, and the foremost Vermeer expert is serendipitously asked to examine it as a favor for a friend. Add a ghost or two into the mix, and you've got a recipe for a great mystery.

I regret that such a cool concept was used on such a short story. I really felt like the setup was sufficient for a full-length work, and my mind was already churning to life guessing all the motives and possibilities. That's always a good sign, and that alone made me happy. I also was really drawn to the writing style. It was clean, succinct prose that had an older sophistication and at the same time managed a contemporary wit-not an easy feat at all.

To sum up, even if I wish this story had gone farther, ultimately I still got what I wanted. A mystery author I can be excited about. Stay tuned for more.

K Rating: 4/5
**New author goal: 29 out of 30**

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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Transparently Inspired: The Night of the Moths

There's not much to lose with Kindle First, a Prime benefit to get advanced copies of new books in certain categories once a month. But with an Italian title that claimed to draw on the weird tenor of Twin Peaks as new details surface about an old murder in a small town, I thought I had everything to gain.

The Night of the Moths by [Bruni, Riccardo]Overall, I came away from The Night of the Moths feeling it was underdeveloped. The story of the murdered young girl, Alice, and the boyfriend left behind, was fairly good as different people's stories and motivations unraveled, but there were lots of missing pieces that made this very obviously derivative piece feel quite shallow next to its inspiration.

First was the lackluster attempt at weirdness - this concept of moths and their proximity to death was way too slight to be cohesive, appearing briefly at the beginning of the text and at the end, but with no unifying, brooding presence throughout, as the title would suggest.

Second was the writing style itself. The story jumps back and forth between multiple third-person and first-person perspectives, and usually without any clear markings that the change has taken place. Nothing at the beginning of chapters to indicate who's speaking/acting, and insufficient context in some cases for two or three pages into a new chapter. It made it very hard for me to figure out on my own whose story was being told. It left me feeling confused and frustrated a majority of the time, and having to re-read passages to understand their meaning. In addition to that, the sentence structure was halting, and did not provide a smooth, tension-filled experience. Single thoughts or scene-setting descriptions were broken up into multiple fragments of sentences, so I kept tripping over the words. It felt crude, not poetic.

And lastly, the homages to Twin Peaks were too on the nose. Multiple explicit references to how Enrico thinks of himself as "Laura Palmer's boyfriend." But worse than that, by omitting some of the structural elements that, together, make Twin Peaks what it is - the covert FBI investigations, the inexplicable phenomena and parallel dimensions that are integral to Laura Palmer's life and death - this story felt like an empty shell, and made me think that maybe the author doesn't appreciate the complexity of his muse, and therefore was blind to how poorly this measured up in comparison. But by referencing the show the way he did, Bruni invited that sort of comparison, which was perhaps his first and most fatal mistake.

Rating: 2/5
**New Author Goal: 28 out of 30**

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Now my blog has more moths in it than this book

Friday, February 2, 2018

Podcast Interview about Indian Ghosts

This week I had the chance to talk in-depth about my new nonfiction book, The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender, and Ghosts in American Seances, 1848-1890. I had a great discussion with Dr. James Mackay, an Assistant Professor of British and American Literatures at the European University Cyprus. The interview was for the New Books Network series on New Native American Studies. I am happy to share our conversation with you here!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

I've been on the hunt for great contemporary mysteries in between long stretches of Conan Doyle and watching television renditions of Christie and G.K. Chesterton. I was hoping for the best with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a mystery told through the eyes of a precocious child.

Flavia de Luce is the youngest girl in a family with a deceased mother, a distant father, and vicious sisters. She is left mostly to her own devices as the travels about her small English village, piecing together clues about the strange red-headed man found dead in her garden only hours after his argument with her father behind closed doors the night before.

The plot and unfolding of the mystery was decent, but some intangible quality in the writing itself kept me from feeling compelled to turn pages. Some of it was definitely Flavia herself. She did not strike me as a particularly authentic youngster - she made literary references like one who has read for a full lifetime, certainly not what I would expect of a barely teenage girl. The breadth, let alone the titles referenced, go far beyond what I would believe to be within a girl's intellectual orbit. In many ways, having the story told from her perspective held the story back, rather than enhancing it with a child-like whimsy.

The developments in the plot toward the latter end of the book, regarding the stamp pierced by a bird's beak and left mysteriously on the doorstep, were intriguing but rushed, and left the majority of the story focused on stamp-collecting, which is not what I would call riveting stuff.

A disappointment to be sure, but there's nothing for it but to keep trying.

Rating: 2/5
**New author goal: 27 out of 30**

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Slowed Momentum: The Glass Magician and The Master Magician

After thoroughly enjoying The Paper Magician, I didn't wait as long as I normally would to pick up the second volume, The Glass Magician. It being a brief listen and still leaving me hanging, I tuned in to The Master Magician without pause, and so will review both of those books in tandem here.

Overall, I felt the series declined slowly in quality from the first book, which intrigued me with a unique, whimsical take on magic that focuses on man-made materials as its source: paper, of course, and glass, metal alloys, rubber, and plastic. I was also taken in the first book with the characters, and the start of romantic chemistry between Ceony, a new paper apprentice, and her guardian, Emery Thane. The very hint of romance as a possibility at the very end of the first book, after Ceony travels through Emery's heart to save him from Lyra, his blood-magic-wielding ex-wife, is what made me pick up the rest of the series so quickly.

The romance progressed sure enough in the second and third books, but the tone of that romance was off-putting: it was so chaste, it was barely there. I'm not saying it needs to be erotica-far from it-but even the emotional elements of their romance were very sparse, to the point where I often questioned whether there was romantic tension at all, or if they were just close friends. The passion itself, the aching and yearning, was too cold and proper for me most of the time, and left me confused as to the power of that chemistry.  The same is true of the third book, where a two-year-old relationship has been established in the gap between books, but again, there's even less passion to speak of in this third volume.

The plot of the later books suffered as well: the idea of fighting excisioners, or blood magicians, was interesting in the first book, but it became quickly formulaic. The saving grace of those plots were the interesting and unique ways that Ceony, a humble folding apprentice, uses something innocuous like paper to overcome a trio of extremely dangerous individuals. The characterization, which at first I admired, became stale as the characters didn't grow. In Ceony's case, she makes the same stupid mistakes, and takes the same stupid risks over and over again. For Emery, he never truly expresses his feelings for Ceony the way she does for him, so he comes off as perpetually distant. He had plenty of near-death opportunities to realize his error, and correct it before something bad happened to the woman he loves, but no. In the end, even though the ending is "happy," I was ultimately frustrated by it, because the warm fuzzy feeling was stifled. Ultimately, both of these halves felt rushed. I rushed through them because I wanted more, and I was left unsatisfied.

There is a fourth volume on the horizon, which I'm not sure I'll listen to, since it seems to have nothing to do with anyone I am familiar with. I am disappointed that Holmberg didn't take her strong characters, and strong concept, to their utmost potential. It's a real shame.

K Rating: 2.5/5