book reviews by Althea

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A Crown for Cold Silver – Alex Marshall ***

Looking for the next big fat epic fantasy? ‘A Crown For Cold Silver’ just might fit the bill. It looks like ‘Alex Marshall’ is a pseudonym, so I’m not sure if this is actually a debut – if it is, it’s a very good one.

Twenty years ago, the revolutionary warrior Zosia, known as Cold Cobalt, with the help of her Five Villains, managed to engineer a coup and install herself as Queen of the Crimson Empire. However, Zosia was better at fighting than ruling. Her idealistic plans for social reform and justice failed, and her reign was short-lived.

In the two decades since, the state of the Empire has not improved. The current Queen shares power with the Black Pope, leader of the religion of the Burnished Chain – who have been gaining in influence. The citizenry have taken to graffiti proclaiming the heresy that ‘Zosia Lives’ – in their hearts, if not in truth.

However, the rumor that Zosia might be alive in truth, and gathering another army, is spreading – and these rumors attract the attention of the now-aging warriors who once were known as the Five Villains.

In many ways, this is a very traditional fantasy. It’s got sorcerers, barbarians, warriors, royalty, demons… it follows the collecting-of-an-ensemble of characters and progressing through intrigue to a rip-roaring climactic battle. However, it also has a good number of original details, and the characters are far from stock… they’re engaging and entertaining, and really shine as individuals, even though the large cast means this is more of a ‘tapestry’ than a character study.

One thing I enjoyed about the book was its presumption of total gender equality. Lately, there’s been a deal of criticism leveled against some fantasy authors for hewing too closely to the prejudices of the past. In a way, I think this book was an experiment to do traditional fantasy without any of that.

There are quite a few different cultures portrayed in the book. I feel that one of the weaknesses of the book may be that although there is no parallelism with our (Earth’s) history or geography, the author uses linguistic ‘short-cuts’ to evoke the cultures rather than actually describing them. For example, one society uses Korean-style names, while another sounds like India. I would have preferred more fully realized, original backgrounds for the characters.

The author may have been trying to show that you can be ‘India’-ish, for example, without including the prejudices of India’s history – but I’m not sure that aspect worked all that well. However, I did like the total mix-up of normally gender-associated character traits. Here, you won’t find any girls who wish to be pirates donning boys’ clothes and running away. You won’t find any women struggling to prove themselves in a man’s world. No tribes of Amazons. No gender-swapped kept house-husbands. The book is not ABOUT gender at all. It’s about individuals, in a world where gender (and sexual preference) just isn’t an issue (except, well, as it affects individuals on a personal level.) And at that, it’s wholly successful. I’m not saying that every fantasy book should do this – far from it. But it should be an option, and this one felt fresh and interesting.

My only other complaint would be that at times it did drag a little bit. It’s a long book, and there were a few spots where it *felt* long. But at no point did I consider stopping!

The book ends – not on a cliffhanger, but with plenty of more story to come. I’d definitely read any forthcoming sequels.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.


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At the Water’s Edge – Sara Gruen ***

Does this sound appealing to you?
‘The Great Gatsby’ meets ‘Outlander’?

It’s not precisely what this book is – it’s set during WWII, not the 1920’s, and the Romance With A ‘Highlander’ is in the ‘present’ day, no time travel involved… but if the concept sounds good, you’ll probably like this book.

Oh, and throw in the Loch Ness Monster.

Three filthy-rich American douchebags decide to go the Scotland in the middle of the war to search for the Loch Ness monster, get stinking drunk, and act like entitled asses.

For one of them, mixing with the ‘common people’ acts as a wake-up call, but for the others, life tips further into crisis.

I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as ‘Water for Elephants.’ It was entertaining, and carried me through… but when all’s said and done, this is a very wish-fulfillment-y romance, and doesn’t really transcend the genre. The villains end up villainous to the point of being cartoonish, and of course <spoiler>the love interest ends up secretly being landed gentry, and the heroes get huge inheritances all ’round! Money! Manors! Yay!</spoiler>.

But the biggest weakness of the book was that I wasn’t really feeling the romance. I wasn’t sure why the two were even attracted to each other, and the author didn’t make me feel it. I also didn’t think that doing a bit of tidying up and pulling a few pints for the locals was NEARLY enough in the way of redemptive behavior on the part of a thoroughly awful and unlikable person. Just becoming a victim isn’t enough to make me cheer for someone…

However, although I thought there was room for improvement, this was still a pretty good book. If you’re in the mood for a bit of romance with a hint of the supernatural, you could do far, far worse than ‘At the Water’s Edge.’

Many thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Bone Knife – Intisar Khanani ****

Nice short story, which puts an interesting twist on some familiar fantasy themes, and leaves the reader with some food for thought.

In a family with three sisters, there’s the magical one, the pretty one… and Rae is the one who’s plain, and club-footed, to boot.

When a faerie lord comes to do business with her father, a mob of intolerant villagers threatens them all (fear and prejudice against magic is rife, in this land).

Rae is the one who steps up to risk herself for everyone else’s safety. The faerie lord’s response leads Rae to examine and challenge many of the assumptions she’s made about both herself and others.

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Black Dove, White Raven – Elizabeth Wein ****

The previous books I’ve read by Elizabeth Wein featured a fascinating mix of Arthurian legend and Ethiopian history, with a level of complexity and maturity unusual for the YA marketing label they were stuck with.

Therefore, I was immediately interested in her newest, ‘Black Dove, White Raven,’ which also has an Ethiopian setting, but takes place over the years following 1930 (the time of Haile Selassie’s coronation.)

The book is in the format of an assemblage of writings by our two young protagonists, Emilia and Teodros, which we immediately learn is to be sent to Haile Selassie by Emilia as an appeal on behalf of Teo. Why is this appeal necessary and what is at stake? That’s why we have to read the book…

The story starts with not Em and Teo, but Rhoda and Delia, their mothers. The two women, each with a young child, had a notorious daredevil barnstorming act; flying a biplane around the United States and doing daring feats of wingwalking. However, life as a ‘mixed-race’ performing act is tough in 1920’s America. The two women form a dream of taking their show further afield – to Ethiopia, where the father of Delia’s child hailed from.

When Delia is killed in a tragic accident, Rhoda adopts her son, and raises Teo and Em as siblings. After an interlude at her Quaker parents’ farm, in the hope of escaping racism for Teo, she decides to follow Delia’s dream and relocate to Ethiopia.

However, once there, not all is as dreamlike as hoped. A combination of a social and legal system ‘out of the sixteenth century’ and the threatened invasion by Italian forces mean the family’s troubles have only started.

The book, although fictionalized, is a great look at a part of WWII (or, technically, the lead-up to WWII) that is often neglected (Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia). It’s also full of amazing details about the early days of flight and the strong and eccentric characters that many of the pilots of that time were.

As a matter of fact, I loved the barnstorming details so much that I left this book really wanting to read an ‘adult’ novel about the original ‘Black Dove, White Raven’ – Rhoda and Delia, their relationship, and how they formed their act and took it on the road. A prequel would be more than welcome!

Instead, this book focuses on the children. It’s really well done. The book succeeds marvelously at depicting true familial love which endures even through suffering, and even though each person in the book is truly their own character, each with a different perspective on life and different goals and dreams.

Many thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book – as always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Harrison Squared – Daryl Gregory ****

I very much enjoyed Daryl Gregory’s ‘We Are All Completely Fine.’ ( Seeing that this was billed as a prequel to that one, of course I picked it up!

In ‘We Are All Completely Fine,’ we meet Harrison Harrison, who’s part of a ‘survivors’ therapy group, and learn that he was once known as the Boy Hero of Dunnsmouth. Here, we go back to Dunnsmouth, and find out exactly what happened, ten years ago.

Now, either there’s going to be another chapter in the story of Harrison and Dunnsmouth (I think there might be), or some details don’t quite match up between the two books. I’m not going to worry about that too much, though. Each book stands on its own merits – but they’re very, very disparate books. The style and feel of each is totally different. (I also don’t really feel that the Harrison we see at the end of this book quite ‘matches up’ with the Harrison we meet a decade later.)

‘Harrison Squared’ is much more clearly an homage to Lovecraft, through-and-through. It’s also much more a YA novel, and not just because the main character is a teenager. It’s also, much, much funnier. That’s not to say that there aren’t some truly some spine-tingling and eerie moments of bleakness – but it’s also a pretty humorous book, especially for fans of Lovecraft.

Harrison Harrison, a regular teen from San Diego, comes with his mother, a scientist, on a research trip to San Diego. The trip is expected to last a couple of months, so he enrolls in school while his mother gets started on oceanography stuff.

The school is a dark and weird place, the students oddly silent, and the classes seem to cover bizarre subjects. (Can I just say how very, very much I love the school in this book? It’s done amazingly well. Especially the pool… that just raises the mundane and universal suckiness of P.E. to a whole new level.) However, Harrison buckles down, gamely, to make the best of it… until, abruptly, his mother goes missing (and is presumed dead).

In her absence, Harrison’s cosmopolitan Aunt Sel swoops into Dunnsmouth, and Harrison learns some disturbing things about his family history – including the accident that killed his father and caused him to lose his leg at the age of three. It was no coincidence that his mother came to Dunnsmouth… and Harrison is impelled to try to find out why his mother disappeared. He might be able to get some information about what’s going on from his strange and unusual classmate, Lydia (think a combination of Lydia from Beetlejuice and Wednesday Addams), who hints that his mother is far from the first person to disappear from this town.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Tor Books for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Sunbolt – Intisar Khanani *****

I’ve been hearing good things about Intisar Khanani’s writing and now, I can confirm that they’re justified.

I loved this book. It’s a pure and timeless fantasy. It mixes classic tropes with fresh and original ideas seamlessly. I especially liked how the many supernatural elements are introduced without fanfare, as they’re known and accepted parts of this world.

The narrator, Hitomi, is a young woman, a foreigner on her own in a country that’s recently been invaded. She’s also a rather junior member of a resistance movement led by an intriguing young man called ‘Ghost.’

When an operation to rescue the intended targets of a political assassination goes bad, our heroine finds herself captured and in serious trouble. Suddenly, her priorities are forced to shift in the face of unexpected personal revelations and the realization that she’s in far more danger than she knew…

The plot is a YA theme: coming-of-age, with magic… However, this is well-enough done to attract readers of all ages. The setting is vivid; the characters appealing… and we end desperately wanting to know where Hitomi will go from here.

And… that’s my only complaint. This book is too short; I wanted to spend much longer with it! However, since a sequel is on the way, no points deducted for that.

Until the sequel comes out, there’s one more novel by Khanani, ‘Thorn’ – I’ll be reading that one soon!

Many thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book – as always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Witch of Painted Sorrows – M.J. Rose ***

The cover and the description of this book lured me in like a witch’s spell of compulsion…

I have to admit that I’d previously read one other book by this author, and I really didn’t like it very much. This one is silly and melodramatic to the extreme – but I enjoyed it.

Sandrine Salome Verlaine (the name right there tells you a lot about what this book is like) arrives in Paris, fleeing personal tragedy and a bad marriage. Arriving unexpectedly upon the doorstep of the grandmother she hasn’t seen since she was fifteen, she expects a loving welcome.

However, her grandmother, a famed though aging courtesan, seems oddly trepidatious about Sandrine being in Paris. And when Sandrine starts pursuing a newfound love of art, she becomes even more apprehensive.
Little does she know that, against her directives, Sandrine is secretly snooping around her childhood home and associating with the handsome young architect she’s hired for a renovation.

Soon, Sandrine is caught in a swirl of secrets and sex; mixed with occult rituals and the legends of her family concerning a long-dead courtesan and (it is rumored) witch, known as La Lune…

Will Sandrine’s grandmother save her from the arcane influences that are sweeping her away? Does she even want to be saved?

As I said, the melodrama is on full display. There are plot events that happen for no reason at all other than the drama. We’re not aiming for a realistic depiction of France or the time period, here. However, I have to award extra points for Gustave Moreau as an art professor!

Recommended for those in the mood for a sexy, fun read with a dark occult element.

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Many thanks to NetGalley and Atria books for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are my own.