book reviews by Althea

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Double Feature – Emma Bull and Will Shetterly ****

This is an excellent book, it’s just not a necessary book. That is, it contains some excellent writing. I consider myself to be a fan of both authors, and have read most of their work. That meant, I’d read everything in the book with the exception of an essay on writing fantasy by Emma Bull,  and a previously unpublished early work by Will Shetterly. I actually really loved the new/old Shetterly story, even though it came with a disclaimer about how it’s a rough, unoriginal, juvenile work. Stop apologizing, man! It’s good! (It posits the invention of a device that stops time… but only within a finite bubble. The gadget is useful for preserving food, mementos, creating artwork… and possibly more sinister purposes.)
The bulk of the stories are from the Liavek shared-world series – and they worked better within the context of the original series. Go read them!
The book also includes the excellent novella Danceland, from the Bordertown, series, which I can’t praise highly enough. Again, go read them!
Other than that, there’s a story set in the world of Bull’s “War for the Oaks,” which appeared in the Diana Wynne Jones-edited ‘Hidden Turnings,’ and a Shetterly story which appeared in the Jane Yolen-edited ‘Xanadu.’


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Red Seas Under Red Skies – Scott Lynch ****

(Gentleman Bastard, #2)

I went to see Scott Lynch read live-and-in-person right before reading his second novel. He’s a good reader. A good writer, too! Hearing him made me kind of realize that his books are funnier than I thought they were!

I was a bit excited because I’d heard that the follow-up to his ‘Lies of Locke Lamora’ has PIRATES. Yay pirates! However, they take a while to show up. Not till around page 250, if I recall correctly, does it start getting nautical. One could actually think of this book as two or three whole, separate novels jammed into one. (At 760 pages, it very well could have been, if not for the vagaries of Trends in Publishing.)

Anyway, as one might guess, this book relates the continuing adventures of Locke Lamora and his sidekick Jean, as they concoct towering schemes for outrageous cons and thievery. However, the pirate captain Drakasha steals the show, whenever she shows up. I love her!

Issues? Well, I thought the “prologue” was annoyingly gimmicky. It relates a vignette that you know is going to happen at some point during the course of the book… so you keep waiting for it, and when it finally happens, there’s no payoff. It should have been cut. And there were some slow points, where the action dragged a bit. But overall, this book is good fun. I’ll be reading more by Lynch.

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Not Flesh Nor Feathers – Cherie Priest ****

(Eden Moore #3)

This is the third, and as-of-this-writing, last book in Cherie Priest’s Eden Moore series. I really like these, and hope that Priest comes back to revisit Eden one of these days!

Eden’s a regular young Southern woman who just happens to be able to see ghosts – and has a bit of a voodoo legacy from her evil great-grandfather. As this story opens, Eden’s trying to get her life together a bit and act like an adult – she’s just agreed to buy a condo at the new development they’re building down by the river.

But then people start warning her: strange thing are going on down by the water’s edge. Homeless people and punk kids have been disappearing. The cops don’t care about a bunch of transients who probably just picked up and left town… but something sinister seems to be going on.

And gradually, absolutely no one can ignore what’s going on, as things escalate into a FEMA-level disaster, with insane flooding, evacuations, and ZOMBIES!

Eden has to figure out what historical event caused this plague of the undead, and to try to lay their souls (and paranormally animated bodies) to rest.

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Wings to the Kingdom – Cherie Priest ****

(Eden Moore, #2)

This is a sequel to “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” but I thought it worked as a stand-alone.
In the first book, we were introduced to Eden Moore, a young woman in the American South whose life is considerably complicated by her ability to see ghosts.
In this installment, the ghosts of the Civil War dead start appearing to her, seeming to want something. Rumors, centering around an urban legend about some kind of monster that haunts the battlefield, start flying. It’s strange enough that a slick TV crew from a paranormal investigation reality show are soon on the scene, much to Eden’s disgust.
Eden would rather ignore ghosts and just live a normal life – but she begins to realize that whether she wants to or not, she and her friends are going to have to do something.

A fun, well-crafted ghost story.

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Prisoner of the Iron Tower & Children of the Serpent Gate – Sarah Ash ****

(Tears of Artamon #2 & #3)

Reviewing “Prisoner of the Iron Tower” and “Children of the Serpent Gate” together.
These are #2 and #3 in the trilogy, and I feel much the same way about them as I did about the first book: I really liked them.

Thee aren’t books I would recommend to a non-fantasy fan in order to win them over to fantasy – but if you’re a fan of long, complex fantasies with lots of plotting and politics as well as action and magic and just a little romance – well, these deliver.

The ante is upped here, as more of the drakhaoul are released, and enter humans – giving their hosts the ability to shapeshift into a dragon of terrifying power. But such power comes with a price – and the dragons may have their own motivations and agenda.

I felt that both books maintained the pacing set by the first in the series, and that the story was drawn to a satisfying conclusion. Enjoyable light reading – I’ll be reading more from Ash in the future.

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Flesh and Gold – Phyllis Gotlieb *****

This was a re-read.
I recommended it to my book club, and then couldn’t make the meeting due to a family commitment, so I felt a little apprehensive about that. What if I didn’t like it as much on a second reading? How would I justify myself?
Well, I should have trusted myself. I LOVE this book. If anyone else doesn’t – well, then they don’t, and we will have to disagree.

All I have to say is, I don’t think Ursula LeGuin has ever steered me wrong. (She blurbed this book, and while many authors’ praise is for sale, I don’t believe that LeGuin’s is.)

Primarily, this book is a mystery. But it’s a mystery set in a vibrant, multi-species, semi-near future setting (500 years from now?) slightly reminiscent of ST:TNG. The main character is Skerow, a legal judge on a regular circuit. She’s working on a rather backwater planet when her partner is murdered, and, simultaneously, she discovers a mysterious mermaid-woman enslaved in a brothel.
She embarks on a mission to bring justice to the enslaved and solve the mystery of the murder – but staying alive herself may turn out to be more difficult than anticipated.
The different races portrayed in the story are unique, believable, and finely drawn. The politics are seedy, cutthroat, and fun. There’s human trafficking, gladiatorial combat, prostitution – and of course, everything comes down to money in the end.

The book really shines in the characterization, though. No one in this story is a stereotype… and even when they’re a 7-foot-tall reptile, they’re completely well-rounded, “human” beings with various interests and believable thought processes.

But what I truly love about it it how it presents a realistic world, where horrible things happen, and people are as nasty to each other as they can possibly be – without actually having a bleak world view at all. The existence of awful things does not negate the beauty to be found in life, or the possibility of making a change for the better.

Plus, it’s just a great story.

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Nobody’s Princess – Esther M. Friesner *

An historical novel about Helen of Sparta (before she grew up and became Helen of Troy)? Sounded compelling to me! Especially because Sparta is such a fascinating, complex and often-problematic culture.

Unfortunately, I got the impression from this book that it was written as a generic Western-princess-fairytale, the publisher thought it was too bland, and encouraged the author to put a Grecian gloss over the thing. It’s still generic and bland – and at no point does it feel like it takes place in Sparta.

Helen is a spoiled brat who reads like a modern pre-teen. She spends most of the book whining.

Helen’s big thing is that she wants to train with her brothers, doing physical exercise instead of sitting in the house spinning and weaving with her mother and sisters. Later, she meets an oh-so-unusual horsewoman and has to sneak around to learn to ride, secretly.

Here’s in thing: in Sparta, spinning and weaving was done ONLY BY SLAVES. No upper-class Spartan woman did that sort of work, let alone a “princess.” And – could we POSSIBLY call the garments worn by Spartan women ‘chitons’ not ‘dresses’? Speaking of clothing, Spartan women frequently did not wear clothing – when they were doing the strenuous exercise and physical training that ALL young Spartans, male and female, participated in. A young Spartan woman would have had a time of it getting OUT of having to exercise, not getting TO exercise. Not only that, but upper-class Spartan women frequently rode horses, bred horses, and owned horses.

OK, I don’t mind having preconceptions challenged by a novel. Perhaps the past wasn’t like our concepts about it. Open my horizons. Challenge me. But – nothing about this book’s setting felt ‘Spartan’ – or even ‘foreign’ at all. It was more Ren-Faire Medieval than anything. I have no problem at all with stories that show young women struggling against the sexist expectations of their society.

The problem here, though, is that this ISN’T a Spartan society. It’s Our society, with a pseudo-Medieval, pseudo-Greek gloss on it.
The end result was that I felt that this book ends up being the opposite of empowering, because by showing a culture far removed from our own being sexist in so exactly the same ways as our own, instead of showing that sexist stereotypes can be overcome and defeated, it actually reinforces the message that these ideas about women are universal throughout the world and history and therefore are likely true.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t demand that every book have an ’empowering’ message. But I felt like this one meant to, and it backfired.The reason I like to read historical novels is to feel like I have been transported into another culture, another way of living, another way of seeing the world. Based on those criteria, this book was a complete failure.

It went to the top of my to-read list because I saw the sequel at the discount store, and I was wondering if I should buy it. The answer is “no.”