book reviews by Althea

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The Raven’s Banquet – Clifford Beal ***

This novel is apparently a companion piece to Beal’s ‘Gideon’s Angel’ which was published last year. I haven’t read it, but since this is a prequel, I felt it’d be fine to get started here.

Set in the 17th century, this tells the story of a wealthy young Englishman, Richard Treadwell, who volunteers in a foreign army to fight for his fortune and his Protestant faith.
Each chapter is predicated by a short segment set 20 years later, when Treadwell, as a seasoned soldier, has been arrested for treason, and awaits sentencing.

The first half is definitely one for the military buffs. It’s nearly all gritty fighting and battles. The second half takes an abrupt left turn, as a battle-weary Treadwell ends up in a rural settlement with a small coven of widowed pagan witches. The flavor that’s prevalent throughout the whole book is historical fiction – but it’s woven through with hauntings, charms and prophecies. Most of it is pretty ambivalent – real, or superstition? – but it adds a bit of an otherworldly taste.

I found the book to be convincingly researched and entertaining; and it moves along at a good pace. Treadwell’s not a terribly admirable or sympathetic character, but he’s believable for his time and place.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me be one of the first readers of this book!


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The Very Best of Tad Williams ***

Recommended for anyone seeking an overview of Tad Williams’ career. He may be better known for his epic and lengthy novels, but he’s also published quite a variety of short pieces over the years. The collection really shows the breadth of his work.

“The Old Scale Game”
A very light-hearted and humorous take on the old tale of the traveling dragon-slayer. As in some other similiar stories I’ve read, the dragon ends up making an agreement with the knight… but this one takes it one step further.

“The Storm Door”
A paranormal investigator goes to talk to his elderly godfather about some of the strange, possession-related phenomena he’s been seeing lately. He’s hoping for advice… what he gets is something else.

“The Stranger’s Hands”
A re-read – I’ve actually read this twice before, in the ‘Wizards’ anthology, edited by Jack Dann and in the ‘Stark and Wormy Knight’ collection. I do really love the story. A village takes in two wanderers – a man who seems to have lost his wits in an injury, and his caretaker. Soon, it is discovered that some who touch the disabled man’s hands have their heart’s desire magically granted. Soon, the needy flock to the town in hopes of having their wishes granted. But with greater exposure comes the revelation that the village’s miracle man is (or was) actually one of the most powerful, dangerous, and evil wizards around. Is there some trick here? A well-crafted and thought-provoking tale.

“Child of an Ancient City”
‘Dracula’ meets ‘The 1001 Nights’ in this tale of a trading caravan that meets a supernatural horror in some foreign woods. Nicely done – although the sad tales weren’t all that sad… but I guess that was part of the point…

“The Boy Detective of Oz” (An Otherland Story)
A murder mystery (?) set in a weird simulation of Oz, which will be familiar to readers of Williams’ ‘Otherland’ series. As a matter of fact, I’d suggest reading ‘Otherland’ first, because this story doesn’t give a lot of background. It’s quite fun (and refreshing), however, to see Williams playing with themes and characters from L. Frank Baum’s books, rather than the done-to-death film.

“Three Duets for Virgin and Nosehorn”
Previously read, this one in the anthology “Immortal Unicorn.” ‘A resentful priest of the Inquisition is charged with accompanying a mysterious box on a sea voyage.
A Dutch maid is asked to model for a visiting artist.
A young Thai princess encounters a handsome and arrogant warrior.
Interesting, and well-written.’

“Not with a Whimper, Either”
A fan in an Internet chatroom (it’s 2002) encounters an emergent AI. Feels a bit dated, today – but that’s kind of part of the charm.

“Some Thoughts Re: Dark Destroyer”
Written in a format of a formal editor’s memo to a professional writer of artist – except that the content is all about a teenage boy’s juvenile and less-than-tasteful hand-drawn comics. I feel like other people would find this funnier than I did.

“Z is for…”
A man wakes up in the midst of a party, dazed and confused. He can’t quite remember where he is, or who the people around him are – although they all seem familiar. Revealing more than that would be a spoiler… but I can say I really liked this one.

“Monsieur Vergalant’s Canard”
This weird vignette features the simulacrum of a duck, presented for the entertainment of the aristocracy.

“The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of”
Noir-style detective fiction. An attractive young woman comes to one of her recently-deceased father’s old colleagues with what she believes may be a clue shedding light on his untimely death: a photograph with a cryptic message, and the faces of several of his other former schoolmates – at a program for stage magicians – circled. Magic and mystery mix, as the two investigate whether the supposed suicide or accident may actually have been murder.

“Fish Between Friends”
This may be one of the most entertaining takes on a story of three wishes that I’ve ever heard. Told in the format of a traditional fable, the familiar elements get an original twist that gave me a good chuckle.

“Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air”
Sofia (wisdom) in the form of a little girl, shows up while the angels Gabriel and Metatron are doing the work of creating the Earth – and gives them some suggestions. Irreverent and fun.

“A Stark and Wormy Knight”
A re-read – from the collection of the same title: ‘A humorous dragon story, full of playful language.’ Goes very well with ‘The Old Scale Game.’

“Omnitron, What Ho!”
Another humorous piece playing on tropes from both space opera and 19th-century fiction. A disfavored nephew is sent by a domineering relative to make sure his cousin doesn’t marry a woman that isn’t wanted in their aristocratic family. Along with the nephew is sent a robotic butler, to make sure he does as he’s told, and to keep him out of trouble. The butler does, indeed, keep him out of trouble – to a larger degree than anticipated.

“Black Sunshine”
Another re-read (from A Stark and Wormy Knight): “This is a screenplay for what would be a really-not-very-good (and rather short) B-movie based on our social paranoia about drugs.

“And Ministers of Grace”
Another one from ‘A Stark And Wormy Knight.’ I do really like this story. “Really well done. From the point of view of a future religious terrorist/assassin who sees the ubiquitous advertising of the future as evidence of our sinful ways. As Williams notes, it could work well as the opener to an epic story. I especially like that the Christians and Muslims are working together against the science/technology-based society – makes sense.”

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Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin *

I cannot stand this book.

I read it back in the late 80s, and remembered disliking it. I’m re-reading for book club. I’m at 16% and am wondering if I’m going to bother plowing all the way through… my mind has already been fully refreshed as to WHY I disliked it so very much.

I think I’m going to downgrade from two stars to one star… I have a feeling that my dislike softened over the years along with my memory of the details.

Incidentally, this dislike is actually unrelated, so far, to Helprin’s politics. I just don’t appreciate the way he writes. The author clearly thinks he is oh so witty, and that his cartoonish fable version of New York is just so amazing… and reading it, I feel like I’m listening to fingernails grating on a chalkboard.

Update… I tried to read a bit more of this today, and subjected myself to yet more verbose, pseudo-profound whimsy. I dearly love my book club, and if I hadn’t read this before, I would slog through. But I have already read it, and know it’s not going to get any better.

In closing, I will borrow a Shakespeare reference, and one far more apropos than Helprin’s (it’s a true stretch to compare this book to the play of the same title): “It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

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Mythophidia – Storm Constantine ****

Kiss Booties Night-Night
In a near-future science fiction setting, an isolated heiress is stalked by her gardener, who has developed a fetish-y obsession with her. Not a very strong opener to the collection.

An Old Passion
A couple of old friends re-connect with an acquaintance from school, who’s recently married a wealthy man and returned to their English village, having bought the local mansion. Their mixed feelings about her are complicated when she develops an obsession with the ghost of an unknown 19th-century poet.

Just His Type
A paranormal investigator/lecturer is approached by a fannish goth girl – and gets more than he bargained for.

Remedy of the Bane
A palace guard’s coveted job turns sour when a cruel and thoughtless princess goes out of her way to torment him. This one’s quite nice. I think Constantine does better with the fantasy settings than contemporary pieces, and the emotional complexity here is a pleasure.

Sweet Bruising Skin
A fairytale told from the perspective of a truly evil dowager queen. Forced to seek a bride for her son, the heir, she resorts to alchemical magic – with unpleasant and unexpected results. Perhaps a bit overdone – but definitely fun.

Curse of the Snake
Fleeing from his fallen city, a spoiled, cowardly prince seeks refuge in a desert ruin he stumbles across. A lone young man succors him – and tells him about the horrible curse he brought down upon the abandoned city. Unexpectedly romantic.

Nocturne: The Twilight Community
Carmia is part of a clubgoing clique who see themselves as femmes fatales. But in reality, they’re a bunch of shallow, gossipy, immature women. Carmia sees herself as better than all that – but a brush with the supernatural will reveal her true nature.

Night’s Damozel
Samuel is an anti-social, solitary man. His passions have been spent on his botanical collection of poisonous and narcotic plants, carefully tended in his gardens. But when he proposes marriage to an exotic woman that he barely knows, his bachelor life will be turned upside-down. Some nice twists in how it all falls out…

The Heart of Fairen De’ath
Bored of his dissolute life in town, the young man Filerion finds and abandoned house in the forest, and embraces the life of a rural hermit. In his abrupt lifestyle change, he finds inner peace. But when an old friend arrives for a visit, accompanied by an attractive young man who claims that their meeting was fated, that fragile peace is shattered.

Poisoning the Sea
Almost more an essay than a story, this piece gives insight into Constantine’s feelings regarding the femmes fatales who inhabit so much of her work. Circe, on her island, is visited by a poet, Aertes, who is making a study of legendary dangerous women. He’s eager to interview Circe – and to debunk the claims of her magic.

Such a Nice Girl
A young secretary is found dead – apparently brutally murdered. All her neighbors, her employer, her family – none can believe such a horrible thing would happen to such a nice, normal girl. But police investigators find a hidden room in her flat filled with paraphernalia pointing to an involvement in dark occultism.

The Oracle Lips
A plain young woman with low self-esteem has a chance encounter with a confident, beautiful woman in a public restroom. Through a strange impulse and her psychic abilities, this seemingly-random moment will change how she sees herself. Nicely done.

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Hellboy in Hell Vol 1: The Descent ***

This volume is a pretty good place to jump into ‘Hellboy,’ seeing as it begins right after his death.
I haven’t really read any of these in years and years, but this really reminded me why I liked them so much. The story is moody and interesting, with plenty of references to history, mythology and literature (a la ‘Sandman’). The graphics are just beautiful – a wonderful sense of composition and the dark color scheme is rich and gorgeous.
Hellboy’s matter-of-fact, bad-ass attitude when faced with high drama is played well.
My one complaint is one I have with most comics: I want more content! More story… it’s over too fast. Still, I really enjoyed this – would recommend.

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The Alchemist – Paolo Bacigalupi *****

An alchemist has been working desperately to discover a solution to the fast-growing bramble that is engulfing his nation. He’s bankrupted his family in pursuit of his research – but finally, he may be on the verge of a breakthrough.

The poisonous bramble is fed by magic – every time someone casts a spell, the dangerous plant grows a bit more. And everyone uses magic, even though it’s illegal. Even the alchemist uses spells – without them, his beloved young daughter would die of her tubercular illness.

Like most (all?) of Bacigalupi’s work, this story is a cautionary tale. The metaphor is clear: this is about environmentalism, and the seductiveness of doing the small, easy things that in conglomeration are destroying the planet. It’s also about politics, and the reluctance to take any action out of altruism, even when the benefits to all are starkly obvious.

While it’s got a pessimistic view of human nature as a whole; many of the individuals involved, while they may not be admirable, are treated with understanding and empathy.

Apparently, there’s a companion piece to this, ‘The Executioness’ by Buckell. I haven’t read that one yet, but I may – this world is fascinating. However, I’m really just hugely a fan of Bacigalupi’s writing.

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The Forbidden Library – Django Wexler ****

I read Wexler’s previous book (The Thousand Names), and liked it well enough that I picked this up even though I saw that it was aimed at a younger audience. I didn’t expect to like it *quite* as much, due to that fact.

I needn’t have worried. I loved this book. It may seem like an exaggeration, but with ‘The Forbidden Library’ Wexler slips under Diana Wynne Jones’ mantle – and is fully worthy of it. (Now, if only Miyazaki would option this story, as he did Wynne Jones’ ‘Howl’s Moving Castle,’ and animate the Swarm. The ultimate cuteness would be complete!)

Just on the face of it, I have to admit, it would be difficult to see how I could dislike this book. It’s got all the good stuff – I could not conceivably say no to a secret library full of eerie dangers, books that are portals to other worlds, and magical cats (with attitude). Plus it’s got an ingenious heroine, a roguishly handsome wizards’ apprentice, nasty fairies, and a dragon. Not enough? There’s more too…

And there is clearly going to be even more, because although there are plenty of adventures here, the main mystery remains unsolved, pending publication of a sequel… which I’ll be reading.

Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this book!