book reviews by Althea

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Jacaranda – Cherie Priest ****

This is categorized as ‘Clockwork Century #6’ – so far, other than this, I’ve only read the first two, so was afraid that ‘skipping ahead’ might be an issue.

However, I needn’t have worried. This story is only tenuously connected to what I’ve read so far, and fully works as a stand-alone. It’s a classic-feeling haunted-hotel story, perfect for fans of The Shining or anything in what Stephen Kings calls the “Ghostly Room at the Inn” subgenre.

As this is a ‘Clockwork Century’ novel, the setting is an alternate 19th century. (But really, the ‘alternate’ part here isn’t significant.)

In response to rumors that an untoward number of guests have been dying at the Jacaranda Hotel, and for some reason this in being ignored by local authorities, two paranormal investigators check in to the hotel to try to set things right.

Padre Rios is a gangster-turned-priest, and he’s been summoned by an Irish nun with hidden strengths. But will their toughness be enough to combat the dark forces swirling beneath the Jacaranda and to save the remaining guests? Or will all be swept into a dark whirlpool of malevolence?

My only complaint is that I felt that some of the supporting characters could’ve been fleshed out a bit more… and we’re left with some mysteries (to be explained in other books?)

But overall, this is an excellent and entertaining horror tale.


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The Last Quarrel – Duncan Lay ***

I have to say, I’ve got a bit of a problem with this collection of 5 ‘episodes’ of this fantasy story being called a ‘Complete Edition,’ because this is not a completed story. It ends on a huge cliffhanger, with none of the story’s various dilemmas resolved. I have to assume more episodes are on the way…

That aside, I would recommend the story to those looking for light, action-oriented ‘popcorn entertainment’ fantasy. It’s fun, I didn’t really have any complaints about it, and it moves along at a fast clip.

My thoughts on the various episodes follow:

This first ‘episode’ sets the stage for what looks to be shaping up to be a very standard but quite entertaining fantasy novel.

First, we’re introduced to Fallon. A staff-wielding local law-enforcer, he’s always hungered for the change to be a hero. However, as a middle-aged family man with a son in ill-health and a wife suffering from depression and anxiety, he seems unlikely to get his chance. However, when the Duke’s ship runs aground outside his village, mysteriously abandoned, he sees a chance to prove himself by investigating the disappearance.

Meanwhile, in the city, rumors of abductions and disappearances have led to literal witch hunts. The populace is in fear. Prince Cavan is well-meaning and good-hearted, but finds himself with little power. However, he develops a suspicion that his debaucherous brother might be behind the missing persons cases. He also resolves to investigate.

2. (possible minor spoilers for those who haven’t yet read the previous episodes follow)
<spoiler>Fallon the village Sergeant and Cavan the Crown Prince continue to investigate the mysterious disappearances that have been plaguing Gaelland.

Fallon is convinced that the culprits are men. Cavan suspects his brother. The King and the Archbishop of Aroaril seem to be convinced that it’s the work of evil witches who sacrifice to the dark god Zorva. Or possibly malevolent selkies out of folklore are to blame.

Is it possible that the heads of both religion and state are actually part of a conspiracy to manipulate events for their financial gain, and the fate of innocents be damned?

Evidence seems to be pointing that way, but we’ll have to wait for further episodes to unveil further revelations…</spoiler>

3. <spoiler>      Here, the mysterious disappearances that have been plaguing Gaelland get personal. The reader discovers a bit more of what’s actually going on, but the depths of the depravity and the extent of the betrayals are not yet fully clear…

Anxiety-ridden Bridgit gets a chance to rise to the occasion (and does, perhaps a bit too easily.)

‘Ninjas’ are spotted…

Nautical action abounds…

Swordplay, too…

Not to mention evil magic…

This is shaping up to be less ‘deep’ than I hoped, but it’s still good fun, and I haven’t had any problems with it at all.

This ‘episode’ ends on a cliffhanger, so I’ll be moving right along to the next.</spoiler>

4. <spoiler>     The story continues…

I found the Kottermani prince Kemal’s reaction to Bridgit’s defiant bravery to strain belief…

And while we’re at it, while I’ll accept that a dog might recognize a person or clothes of a different country & culture than that dog was raised with, I have my doubts about it recognizing furniture…

That said, the tale continued to be entertaining, as Fallon and Cavan work together with the aim of uncovering dastardly plots, rescuing kidnapped innocents, and hopefully, eventually, cleaning up the corruption at the heart of the kingdom.

The ‘big reveal’ at the end of this episode wasn’t a huge surprise, though…</spoiler>

5. Well, that was aggravating.

I thought this was supposed to be the ‘last’ episode in the ‘Last Quarrel’ BUT it ends on a huge cliffhanger.
I have no objection to leaving things open for sequels, but this is in another category altogether. Nothing at all is resolved.

I also decided that the book as a whole would’ve been better as a pure fantasy, without the obvious historical basis: the Ottoman Empire kidnapping slaves from the British Isles. (I read Jane Johnson’s ‘Tenth Gift’;, based on the same sort of incident, not so long ago… I didn’t love that book either, but I did like it a little better…)

I’d still recommend this series for those looking for some light fantasy ‘popcorn entertainment,’ but I’m not going to be holding my breath until the further sequels are released.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Momentum Books (Pan Macmillan) for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Against A Darkening Sky – Lauren B. Davis ****

Egan is a devout young priest – perhaps a bit too devout. Wilona is apprentice to the seithkona (a priestess/medicine woman) of her village, and utterly committed to her people’s indigenous religion.

In this vision of 7th-century Northumbria, events will lead these two lives to intersect. Through this collision, Davis explores questions of belief & humanity.

Historical fiction purists will likely be annoyed by some of the ahistoricity of the book. Davis is not attempting to create a wholly accurate depiction of 7th century life on the British Isles. Rather, she uses our current popular concepts of what the time of religious transition was like to explore her fictional characters’ lives and emotions.

Although it’s not explicitly ‘fantastic’ (I’d say, it’s about as ‘fantastic’ as some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books), I’d recommend this for fans of thoughtful, character-driven fantasy. It’s somewhere between Kay and ‘The Mists of Avalon.’ Pagans will likely enjoy the story as well, with its vivid, sympathetic depictions of pre-Christian religion (although Christianity is portrayed in a way which could be interpreted as a compatible spirituality.) As a non-religious person, I still enjoyed the exploration of why & how people cling to things, and how two seemingly mortal opponents could actually have more in common with each other than not.

This is not a fast-paced, action-oriented book, although it’s not ‘gentle’ either. Dire events are treated with realism and sensitivity. The writing is lovely.

Many thanks to HarperCollins and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy for this very worthwhile book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Desert Spear – Peter Brett **

The second lengthy entry into the Demon Cycle series…

There are 4 distinct sections to the book.

If you came into this one directly from ‘The Warded Man,’ you’ll have to change gears rather abruptly. In the first section, we switch to the viewpoint of a minor character from ‘The Warded Man,’ the Krasian merchant Abban. We follow him from childhood up through the events we saw from Arlen’s perspective in the first book.

In principle, this sounds like a good idea. I complained that in the first book, Krasia was too much of a two-dimensional place based solely on stereotypes about the Middle East. You would think that getting inside their culture would help. Unfortunately, it’s more of the same. It continues to feel stereotypical, and becomes even more tedious when it’s just a retread through events we already know about… at length.

The second section starts 1/3 of the way through the book, and finally returns us to where we expected to be at the end of The Warded Man, following Leesha and Rojer. The third section concentrates more on Renna, and the last section brings us back more to Arlen (Mr. Warded Man himself) and demon fighting.

The latter three sections are an improvement over the first, but they still haven’t won me over. After some consideration as to the reasons – I know this is a widely acclaimed series – I think the main thing, for me, is that the book tries to address some serious issues for its characters, and creates some complex, difficult situations (including some involving rape, incest, abuse, murder, etc…) But – the way it handles those situations just feels to me rather shallow and awkward. It’s earnest, but not wholly convincing.

However, there is definitely a compelling aspect to this saga. I can understand why many fans of huge, sprawling fantasy tales endorse the series.

Some of the sections, on their own, would have gotten three stars, but the parts set in Krasia, and the those involving Renna’s family, bring this down to two for me.

I’m not totally writing off continuing with this series, but I think I’ll give it a break for a while and try a different epic fantasy next…

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The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro ***

OK, but not as good as I hoped.
This is the sixth of Ishiguro’s novels that I’ve read, and my expectations were set very high. My expectations were also just very different from what I got – this is a radical departure from previous books.

Here, Ishiguro plays with elements of Anglo-Saxon history and British culture. ‘Beowulf’ meets Arthurian legend in a strange, mythic fantasy.

Axl and Beatrice are a devoted elderly couple in a primitive rural community. At first, the reader thinks that their confusion and issues with recalling details are a result of naturally-failing faculties, but soon it becomes clear that it’s not just the two old people – the entire land is under some kind of plague of forgetfulness.

The couple keep having a vague feeling that they ought to go see their son, in a neighboring village. Eventually, they motivate themselves to pack up and go, hoping that the way will come to them as they travel.

Along with them goes a bold Saxon warrior. He has lately rescued a local child from being kidnapped by monsters, but rather than showing gratitude for this heroic act, the villagers are suspicious that the child has been infected with some supernatural evil, due to a bite wound on his body. When he leaves, the warrior is asked to take the child with him, and the two join the old couple.

Along the way, they encounter a knight (names might be shared, but not the particulars, with characters from the Round Table), and in addition to Axl and Beatrice’s quest to find their son, a quest to find (and, perhaps, slay) a dragon is added.

In a slow, rambling journey, a number of familiar elements are worked in: a holy man in a monastery, malevolent pixies or spirits, the boatman that rows people to a mythic island…

The boatman worked. Very well. The references to Charon and Avalon fit, and the thread weaves effectively throughout the novel, further hints being slowly added until the final scene. That part was done beautifully.

However, too many of the other elements felt… just kinda squished in there. “Well, this is an Important Symbol, so if I add it in and then write about it as if it is Highly Significant, my book will feel Very Meaningful.” A lot of the book felt like an allegory… but an allegory of what? It felt Symbolist – but what are the ‘truths’ to be revealed?

At the end of the book, the conclusion left me with a tear in my eye – but I simultaneously felt frustrated and dissatisfied.

Oh, and if I had to ‘hear’ Axl call Beatrice ‘Princess’ one more time, I was gonna reach right through the page to strangle him.

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A Blink of the Screen: Collected Short Fiction – Terry Pratchett ****

In Memoriam, Terry Pratchett, 28 April 1948 – 12 March 2015.

Foreword by A. S. Byatt

Non-Discworld Shorter Writings

“The Hades Business” (1963)
According to Pratchett’s introduction, he wrote this when he was 13. He decries it as ‘juvenile- but it’s really not. Not many 13-years-olds write like this. Hell isn’t too popular lately, and the Devil needs some good PR. Hell-arious!

“Solution” (1964)
An inspector badly botches a smuggling investigation. Funny, but the ‘punchline’ wasn’t quite as strong as I felt like it should’ve been.

“The Picture” (1965)
A man in an institution is obsessed with the disturbing picture on his wall. I saw the ‘twist’ ending coming, but still liked this piece – a bit of a Golden Age sci-fi feel to it.

“The Prince and the Partridge” (1968)
Ever wondered about the ‘story’ behind the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ song? Well, wonder no more, after reading this holiday-themed story.

“Rincemangle, The Gnome of Even Moor” (1973)
A Borrowers-like tale of the country gnome and the city gnomes, with an instance of vehicular theft.

“Kindly Breathe in Short, Thick Pants” (1976)
An unfortunately still-timely satire concerning the rights (or lack thereof) of citizens to natural resources.

“The Glastonbury Tales” (1977)
A poem based on Pratchett’s one-time experience of picking up hippie hitchhikers on the way to Glastonbury Festival.

“There’s No Fool Like an Old Fool Found in an English Queue” (1978)
Ever been annoyed at the people in front of you in a line? Terry Pratchett had the same feelings. But he probably vented about it in a more clever and entertaining way than you did.

“Coo, They’ve Given Me the Bird” (1978)
Strange little piece about working with pigeons. Literally. In Russia.

“And Mind the Monoliths” (1978)
The secret lives of employees at historical-reenactment villages.

“The High Meggas” (1986)
This one’s a bit of a change! A straight (non-humorous) science-fiction story involving parallel Earths, and the murderous plots of agents jumping between universes. Apparently, the series Pratchett wrote with Stephen Baxter was expanded from this idea – I can’t compare them, as I haven’t read the Baxter novels.

“Twenty Pence, with Envelope and Seasonal Greeting” (1987)
Another Christmas-themed piece – this one mixing up a Dickensian style with the surprisingly horrific concept of getting stuck inside a variety of Christmas cards.

“Incubust” (1988)
Super-short joke piece about a magical spell… with limitations.

“Final Reward” (1988)
An author kills off his most popular character – and, is shocked when said character shows up at his doorstep – to ‘meet his maker.’ The fact that said character is a 7-foot-tall barbarian with a soul-drinking sword doesn’t make things easier. But there may be a solution…

“Turntables of the Night” (1989)
Record collecting nerd meets Death (also a keen collector):
– Have you got the complete Beatles?

“#ifdefDEBUG + `world/enough’ + `time'” (1990)
Not what I’d expect from Pratchett, but an excellent cyberpunk story concerning virtual reality, viruses, and possibly, a murder. The ideas aren’t going to feel totally groundbreaking to any well-read cyberpunk fan – but the story and its presentation were wholly enjoyable.
Inspired by:…

“Hollywood Chickens” (1990)
Maybe the question isn’t ‘WHY did the chicken cross the road’ – but HOW.

“The Secret Book of the Dead” (1991)
A poem about the disturbing trauma of childhood pet ownership.

“Once and Future” (1995)
Arthurian legend meets something oddly reminiscent of Connie Willis’ time travel novels? Yep, I think that sums it up.

“FTB” (1996)
Yet another Christmas piece. A computer writes a letter to Santa. Kids these days might be too savvy to believe, but perhaps a computer has no choice. Rather sweet.

“Sir Joshua Easement: A Biographical Note” (2010)
Written to accompany a ‘Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman,’ this brief bio certainly doesn’t flatter the anonymous sitter – but it might have given him a good laugh.

Discworld Shorter Writings

“Troll Bridge” (1992)
Written for an anthology which was an homage to Tolkien. I probably would not have appreciated it in that context, as it really isn’t Tolkien-esque in any way. However, on its own, I appreciated its take on fairy tales of trolls under bridges, and its sly commentary on nostalgia.

“Theatre of Cruelty” (1993)
The humor of Punch and Judy shows isn’t always ‘nice.’ But have you ever considered how the ‘puppets’ might feel, forced to act out such nasty and dehumanizing roles? (This one takes place in Ankh-Morpork).

“The Sea and Little Fishes” (1998)
By far, the longest piece in the book. A Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax tale. Asked not to compete in an annual witchery contest [which she always wins], Granny Weatherwax decides to ‘be nice about’ the hurtful slight. The problem is, her neighbors aren’t used to her being nice.

“The Ankh-Morpork National Anthem” (1999)
As the title states. Apparently, a recorded version exists, somewhere.

“Medical Notes” (2002)
A few satirical entries on medical ailments commonly found in Ankh-Morpork.

“Thud: A Historical Perspective” (2002)
The ‘history’ of a popular game in Discworld, played between dwarves and trolls. (Written to accompany such a game, of course.)

“A Few Words from Lord Havelock Vetinari” (2002)
A speech written upon an occasion naming a British town a ‘sister-city’ to Ankh-Morpork.

“Death and What Comes Next” (2004)
Philosophers apparently frequently think they can argue with Death. However, Death can apply some philosophical logic, too.

“A Collegiate Casting-Out of Devilish Devices” (2005)
Brilliantly skewers academic bureaucracy.

“Minutes of the Meeting to Form the Proposed Ankh-Morpork Federation of Scouts” (2007)
As the title indicates… the is, exactly, the minutes from a meeting where an Ankh-Morpork committee decides to form Boy and Girl Scout troops.

“The Ankh-Morpork Football Association Hall of Fame playing cards” (2009)
Baseball-card-style bios of a variety of Pratchett’s Discworld characters. Honestly, I found myself kind of skimming through this one.


Deleted extract from “The Sea and Little Fishes” (1998)
This excised chapter has Granny Weather wax being rather introspective, thinking of the past, and philosophizing on the topic of ‘being nice.’


Weirdly, as I was finishing this book on the subway, I noticed that I was sitting directly across from a man that strangely resembled the recently-deceased Mr. Pratchett… fedora, beard, and all….

Many thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for the opportunity for me to read this book. As always, my opinions are my own…

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The Shattered Court – M.J. Scott ***

(A Novel of the Four Arts #1)

‘The Shattered Court’ is a fantasy romance which manages to nicely balance the ‘romance’ content with the other elements of the plot.

Lady Sophie is handmaiden to Princess Eloisa. Soon, on her 21st birthday, Sophie will find out if she has inherited the Earth Magic that will give her a place as a Royal Witch, with the strict duties in Temple and marriage that the position entails.

However, when Eloisa sends Sophie out on a shopping trip with her bodyguard (and lover) Cameron Mackenzie, disaster strikes. A terrorist attack destroys half the castle, and Lieutenant Mackenzie, concerned for Sophie’s safety, flees with her.

This means that when her fateful birthday falls, Sophie will be far from the constraints of temple rituals…

It took me a little while to get into this story for one reason… sentence fragments. I have no problem with occasionally using non-standard grammar for dramatic emphasis, but here, the ‘fragments’ are non-stop.  It’s very distracting. However, after a while I managed to skim over them and pay attention to what was going on.

My other complaint is that this book is quite short, and ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the reader with the impression that this book was more of an prologue to a story than a complete novel.

However, I eventually found it entertaining enough that if I’d had a sequel, I would’ve gone right ahead and read it…

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