book reviews by Althea

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Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) ****

Career of Evil
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third Cormoran Strike mystery moves into serial killer territory – and brings the danger closer to ‘home.’ Cormoran’s assistant Robin receives an anonymous package at the office containing a woman’s severed leg, accompanied by a Blue Oyster Cult lyric that has particular significance to Cormoran.

Now, most people don’t know anyone that they’d think might be killing people and sending their body parts around in courier packages – but off the top of his head, Cormoran can think of no fewer than four men who might have both the inclination to commit horrific acts of violence, and who might hold a grudge against him.

Of course, body parts exceed the purview of a private investigator, and the police are immediately called in to the matter. Unfortunately, due to their strained relationship with the detective, they’re reluctant to follow up on Cormoran’s leads. It may fall to his skills to protect both Robin and himself from the killer’s threat.

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The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories – Ambrose Bierce ****

The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories
The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories by Ambrose Bierce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

***** The Eyes of the Panther
“See these eyes so green / I can stare for a thousand years
Colder than the moon… you wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.”
A young woman refuses to marry her suitor, although she professes to love him. Her reason? She believes she is insane, she claims. Of course, there has to be more to her story than that… and this is that story, which starts one dark night in a poor woodsman’s cottage on the wild frontier.

**** The Moonlit Road
Heavily ironic, ‘The Moonlit Road’ is an excellent example of Bierce’s “mordant wit.” Three different perspectives on a brutal death unpeel layers of truth – and reveal a none-too-flattering outlook on humanity.

*** The Boarded Window
Is this one supposed to be a tie-in to ‘Eyes of the Panther,’ or is it just similar in theme? I’m not sure. I felt that it was a less-successful variation of the story, as there’s no explanation or seeming meaning behind why the ‘creepy’ events occur.
An old hunter-trapper, out on the frontier, has lived alone in his modest cabin for years. His one window has remained boarded shut for as long as anyone can remember. This is the story of why he boarded that window for good.

*** The Man and the Snake
Staying over at a friend’s house, a man picks up some bedtime reading – which happens to be an outdated scientific book mentioning the purported mesmeric abilities of snakes. It just so happens that the house belongs to a herpetologist, so the visitor is not that surprised when he finds a snake in his room. But although he skeptically scoffed at the phenomena attributed to serpents, perhaps the power of suggestion is not something he’s immune to. Or perhaps, some true supernatural power is as work…

*** The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch
A hunter caught far from home at sundown decides to camp out in an abandoned and dilapidated house. However, he doesn’t pass a restful night – he’s plagued by vague fears and strange dreams. Only much later does he learn the bloody history of Macarger’s Gulch and discovers how close to the truth his dreams came.

*** The Middle Toe of the Right Foot
What? You don’t think a reputedly haunted house is the ideal location for a duel to the death?
A group of obnoxious and arrogant young men accept a stranger’s challenge – but the contest doesn’t end up quite how any of the parties expected. It does end in death, however.
And the event is, of course, linked to the brutal murders that took place in the house years before.
It’s a good ghost story, but I thought it would’ve been better with a bit more explication – some of the elements just didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me.

**** A Psychological Shipwreck
While on board a ship, a man takes ill and has all manner of hallucinations – hallucinations which turn out to be eerily true – of another ship. Really well-crafted, and quite spooky.

**** A Holy Terror
There are a couple of bloody brilliant things about this story. First, it’s just terribly funny. Bierce just keep edging in these horribly astute little witty observations. It’s great. Second, it’s a historically wonderful depiction of the gold rush era (and its fallout.)
It’s also a horror story, and that part of it isn’t quite as strong. It relies too heavily (and twice) on “The experience was just so awful that they dropped dead.” If you’re going to pull that one, it has to be a truly, truly awful experience… and I didn’t think the ones here managed it. I’ll forgive that though, because reading this was just wholly a pleasure.

**** John Bartine’s Watch
A psychologist notices that his friend seems to have a peculiar obsession with his watch, and decided to do a little ad hoc experiment. But all doesn’t end well… The watch was inherited from a great-grandfather who was never seen again, after being arrested by ‘that damned traitor, Washington, and his ragamuffin rebels!’ – and some evil taint clings to it.

*** Beyond the Wall
Upon visiting an old friend, the narrator finds him much, and distressingly changed. Sick and alone, in an eerie house that seems haunted, he tells a cautionary tale…
The moral here may be, ‘carpe diem,’ but Bierce also gets in a bit about the foolishness of the ‘upper class’ giving themselves airs.

*** A Watcher by the Dead
This is another Bierce story where the simple reality of ‘dead bodies’ is presumed to be a lot more fear-inducing than it is. Here, a group of doctors make a bet that basically, anyone who’s not a doctor or a soldier, who spends the night alone with a corpse will be unable to take it, and will go insane. So, the guy who takes the bet sets himself up to stand vigil… and well, the ‘prank’ goes horribly wrong
I dunno, the story seems to ignore the long-standing and respectful (and non-horrific) of standing vigil over the dead…

**** Moxon’s Master
It’s an early sci-fi robot story! Adding an extra star just for that. A machinist has seemed unduly preoccupied with the philosophy of life, of late. He’s been bringing up topics such as whether machines might be sentient to his friends. Little do they know these questions are not just academic – they have something to do with the invention he’s kept concealed in his workroom.
It all ends in grand Frankenstein/paranoid fashion.

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

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Sword of Destiny – Andrzej Sapkowski ****

Sword of Destiny
Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bounds of Reason
Rumor has quickly spread of a dragon on the loose, and an assorted group of warriors, wizards and scoundrels have assembled. Many are clearly there to slay the dragon and gain reward and treasure – but Geralt the witcher is also there, and he says he doesn’t kill dragons. As the story unfolds, we discovers that others’ motivations are also more varied than we might’ve guessed.

A Shard of Ice
In a dingy midden heap of a town, Geralt must compete with a powerful wizard for the affections of the beautiful sorceress Yennefer. The angstiness here is worthy of the Elric saga.

Eternal Flame
Geralt and his minstrel friend Dandelion run into each other in the city of Novigrad (thirty thousand inhabitants!) Here they meet the halfling merchant Dainty Biebervelt – which, is soon becomes clear, is having an issue. He’s being impersonated by a rare being known as a doppel or mimic – who is interfering with his business in a most disturbing manner. The story becomes a delightful farce, with a most satisfying resolution.

A Little Sacrifice
An arrogant duke has requested the Witcher’s services as translator – he wants to speak with the mermaid he’s in love with. The initial conversation doesn’t go so well.. but while Geralt is still there, a boat of pearl divers vanishes – and a second request (or order) is issued: discover what monster might have slaughtered the divers so that commerce can resume.

The Sword of Destiny
While on a dangerous mission as envoy to the Lady of the forest of Brokilon, Geralt stumbles across a badly-wounded acquaintance. The besieged dryads of Brokilon make a policy of slaughtering anyone who infringes on their ever-shrinking territory. But the wounded man was desperate to fulfill his mission: to deliver a runaway princess to her intended betrothed. Can Geralt intercede on their behalf and save their lives?

Something More
Here, Geralt is badly wounded in his efforts to save a merchant from an attack by monsters. Delirious and hallucinating, he thinks of the past and the various destinies and truths that he has tried to avoid. But destiny has a way of catching up with everyone…

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Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie ***

Ancillary Mercy
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, it looks like I’m in the minority here with my 3-star review. I guess that’s going to take some justifying, but I truly feel that this is objectively not as good a book as the first two in the series.

Let me first say that I absolutely loved ‘Ancillary Justice.’ (… ) It fully deserved all the awards it received. The book was strikingly original, offering an alien view of gender identity – or, rather, lack of gender identity – in a social context that wholly made sense, positing individual beings incorporating many different bodies. In conjunction with that concept it also offered up a grand and sweeping science fiction story, told through an interesting and effective narrative structure.

The followup, ‘Ancillary Sword,’ (… ) was still very good, although in retrospect I feel that some of my enthusiasm for it may have ‘carried over’ from the first one. Here, Leckie’s canvas shrinks significantly, as Breq finds herself on Athoek Station and involved with a fight for justice for the oppressed citizens of the Undergarden. (I have to admit that after reading both closely in time, some details of this book feel very similar in memory to those of Catherine Asaro’s ‘Undercity.’ (…) ) It’s a very good book, and very enjoyable, but it’s also a much less risk-taking, more conventional, simpler story.

In ‘Ancillary Mercy,’ we’re still on Athoek Station. And well, we stay there. Some stuff happens, but honestly, the book is lacking any kind of narrative sweep that captures tension or pulls the reader forward. What ends up being the grand ‘point’ of the book (view spoiler) is introduced abruptly, at the end of the book, literally as a spur-of-the-moment idea. Before we get there, we feel like we’re just bumbling around for a while.

Anaander Mianaai, the evil overlord, is still at war with herself, a civil conflict that threatens the Radch empire. However, when she finally shows up, it’s only with one body. We also ‘meet’ a fascinating ‘ghost ship’ – but we also meet only one of its ancillaries. This means that in a world with these fascinating multi-bodied identities, we actually don’t have any of them in play in the story. Everyone is just one body. Why create this interesting (if difficult-to-write) scenario, that was handled so very well in the first book, and then just drop it? This also happens with the gender thing. The other books made it very, very clear that although the Radch citizens are both male and female, they only have one gender pronoun, translated here as ‘she’ by default. This story doesn’t involve that at all. If you hadn’t read the previous books, you’d just assume that all the characters are women, since it doesn’t come into play in any interesting way.

Well, there is one character, introduced previously, Seivarden, who is clearly physically male. However, where previously Seivarden was arrogant, angsty and tormented in a very attractive way, here ‘she’ just turns whiny, arrogant and pathetic. An absurd amount of page time is devoted to her conflict with her lover, Ekalu. An ‘absurd amount’ because it’s neither dramatically interesting nor germane to the narrative. Rather, it feels shoehorned in, in order to make a point. Basically, Seivarden offers Ekalu a backhanded ‘compliment’ by telling her she’s “not like” other members of her considered-to-be-lower-class ethnic group. Ekalu, understandably, is offended and tells Seivarden to screw off. Seivarden doesn’t understand what she did wrong. But instead of getting Seivarden to understand WHY what she said was offensive, the book hammers it in repeatedly that it doesn’t even matter IF what she said was offensive (although, yes, it was), the important point (according to the author) is that Ekalu was offended, and that’s all that matters. I don’t personally agree that emotions should be elevated over logic, but this is just such an of-the-moment argument that it really brought the story out of the future/alien society realm and into a place of contemporary grandstanding.

Throughout the story, I felt that the intrigue and action scenes kept taking a back seat to minor stuff like this. Even when we did get into the ‘big’ stuff involving ships and AI and treachery… well, in the previous books I’d compared Leckie’s settings to Iain Banks. I suppose, considering the events of this book, you could almost even view this scenario as a super-prequel to the scenario described in his ‘Culture’ novels. But instead of wild enthusiasm, reading this, I just found myself getting sad that Banks has passed away. Maybe it was just my mood at the time.

There were some things about the book that I continue to like. I love the Radchaai obsession with tea and tea sets. It’s a wonderful social quirk. I like Breq’s almost-subconscious personal quirk of constantly singing to herself. The political drama was interesting, particularly the discussion of a ‘hands-off’ policy vs. a ‘forceful response’ to dealing with protests on the part of authority.

In this book, we also have a new Presger translator. I absolutely love the bizarreness of the translators – it completely makes sense that beings created by an incomprehensible alien species in an attempt to be more similar to the species they’re designed to communicate with would be peculiar, like this. However, I do have to admit that after a while, it begins to feel like Translator Zeiat’s quirkiness begins to be played just for laughs. I don’t feel that her presence at the end of the book was fully successful – it makes a scene that in many ways seems like it should be the grand climax of all three novels feel almost… flippant. (The previously mentioned spur-of-the-moment-idea thing also contributes to this.) The climax also feels like a bit of a letdown in that it’s just a theme and concept (view spoiler) that’s been done so very many times before in science fiction. This isn’t a terrible iteration of the idea, but I wanted (and expected) something more.

Three stars for the good parts, but I can’t deny that I left this one feeling disappointed.

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City of Blades – Robert Jackson Bennett *****

City of Blades
City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sequel to ‘City of Stairs’ open with what’s likely the most entertaining ‘calling-a-character-out-of-retirement’ scene I’ve ever read. General Mulaghesh has tried to leave war behind and purchased a cottage on a remote beach. However, we quickly begin to suspect that her retreat isn’t quite the haven she imagined. And now, an envoy has been sent from Saypur with a message for her – and a mission.

After the initial scene, the POV switches – it initially feels like a disappointment, because the opener was so strong. I also missed the brilliantly realized city of Bulikov that ‘City of Stairs’ introduced us to, even though it’s clear from the titles that each book in this series is intended to focus on a different locale. But soon enough I was won over by the new perspective and the new setting.

The ‘City of Blades’ is Voortyashtan. At times (and I’m not concretely sure why) it reminded me of an evil Gondor. Voortyashtan was largely destroyed by the ‘Blink’ – the cataclysmic battle in which all the gods and all their associated miracles were destroyed. The bulk of the city, once suspended by Divine power, has sunk below the waves. The surviving inhabitants are in conflict over the remaining bits of arable, livable land. Meanwhile, Saypuri politicians from overseas seek to maintain political control, and a force of Dreylings, also from overseas, are working on an engineering project to clear the harbor, which has the potential to become a key spot in international commerce.

Among both Dreylings and Saypuri, Voortyashtan has a reputation as being the ass end of nowhere – and dangerous, to boot. It’s the sort of place where half-discredited military officials are shoved out of the public eye. But now, a bizarre discovery has been made – one that’s either an amazing discovery that could revolutionize new technologies, or a disconcerting sign that the gods might not be as dead as everyone assumed. In conjunction with this, an agent has disappeared. Rumor has it that before vanishing, she went insane. General Mulaghesh is asked to investigate…

It’s a great setup for a murder mystery in an eerie, fascinating world. And indeed, the story unfolds with plenty of twists and action. However, as it progresses, somehow the book also becomes a truly insightful meditation on war, the multitudes of costs it inflicts on all parties, the place that violence holds in human society, and what it means to be a soldier. All this without in any way sacrificing the flow and tension of the plot. An impressive achievement.

Many thanks to Crown Publishing and NetGalley for the chance to read this excellent book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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A Wild Swan: And Other Tales – Michael Cunningham ***

A Wild Swan: And Other Tales
A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fairy tale retellings are one of my ‘things,’ so I had to pick this up when I came across it on the library shelf. I haven’t read anything else by this Pulitzer Prize-winning author, so I can’t compare this to his other writings.

The stories collected here are very consistent in ‘feel’ throughout. Each takes a fairy tale (or other well-known tale), and injects it with a dash of the modern-day (without wholly removing its more ‘classic’ elements), and twists the story a bit in order to accentuate the ironic, and perhaps make a bitter comment on humanity. There aren’t a lot of happy endings to be found here.

Dis. Enchant.
This very brief piece on the theme of ‘ordinary’ people being resentful and jealous of the ‘extraordinary’ sets the tone of the book very well. If you like this piece, I’d recommend continuing. If you don’t – the book might not be for you.

A Wild Swan
Based on: The Wild Swans:
All happens as it did in the Andersen tale – the brothers transformed, the sister who works to rescue them from the curse. But the author focuses on what happened to the one brother who was left with a swan’s wing; transposing him in his trauma from the fantasy castle to a contemporary setting of bars full of alcoholic, depressed victims of curses.

Crazy Old Lady
Based on: Hansel and Gretel
The woman who focused on sex and good times while all her friends were getting married and settling down always dreamed of being a ‘Mrs. Robinson’-style cougar in her later years. To her dismay, as she ages, she realized the boys just aren’t interested. A bit unhinged, she decides to build a candy-and-gingerbread cottage. What eventually happens mirrors what happened to the witch in Hansel and Gretel a bit more closely than she expected. But the kids who visit her are no innocents.

Based on: Jack and the Beanstalk
Here, the classic story is infused with plenty of authorial commentary on topics such as how very foolish it is to entrust your last cow to an ‘imbecilic son’ who’d trade it to a stranger for a handful of beans. It also comments on the very questionable morality of everything Jack does, although his burglaries and thefts certainly allow he and his mother to buy private planes, remote island, and limited edition Murakami Louis Vuitton handbags.

Based on: Snow White
After rescuing Snow White from her glass coffin, the prince develops a pervy obsession.

A Monkey’s Paw
Based on: the W.W. Jacobs story, of course. (…)
The twist is: What if they didn’t use the third wish to send away the rotted corpse of their son? What if they invited him back anyways?
The story becomes a disturbing digression on the erosion of happiness.

Little Man
Based on: Rumplestiltskin
I’ve read other positive representations of the titular ugly ‘little man’ of the Rumplestiltskin story. Here, he is consumed by the desire to have a child: to be a good father and to pass on his knowledge to a new generation. His efforts to help a hapless girl spin straw into gold are motivated largely by kindness. But we all know what happens to a dream deferred… or denied.

Steadfast, Tin
Based on: Hans Christian Andersen’s Steadfast Tin Soldier
A modern relationship is depicted here, which may mirror the tragic fairy tale in certain respects. At least, the woman in the relationship seems to think it does; and her daughter explicitly think that her mother used telling her the story as a way to try to explain her parents’ relationship.
The story rather deftly questions the concept of destiny and true love, as it describes a troubled – but eventually ‘steadfast’ – marriage.

Based on: Beauty and the Beast
Ooh, this was a twist on the story that I hadn’t ever actually seen before. (And I’ve read a LOT of takes on this story.) I thought it worked really well, too. I might even say it was Angela Carter-worthy. Here, many events proceed as expected, with the additional information that Beauty herself might’ve been less meek and selfless, and more hopeless and frustrated than we thought. She professes her love for the Beast and breaks the spell… but have you ever considered WHY someone might’ve cast such a spell on the Beast?

Her Hair
Based on Rapunzel
Beginning where the story usually ends, this shows us a blind man at the fulfillment of his long and arduous quest to find his love. The short piece quickly becomes a metaphor about how we all sometimes hide certain things in relationships, to keep others happy.

I guess Cunningham didn’t want to end the book on a low note, because this original fairy tale of an arranged royal marriage that works out surprisingly well is a love letter to life, with all its quotidian warts and travails.

Note: The illustrations here, by Yuko Shimizu, are exquisite. Simple, stark black-and-white, like something from a less-perverse Aubrey Beardsley. I couldn’t help feeling like they belonged to a less earthy, more transcendent collection of fairy tales, though.

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The Web of Wizardry – Juanita Coulson **

The Web of Wizardry
The Web of Wizardry by Juanita Coulson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I selected this book knowing that it was originally published in 1978, by an author who was most prolific during that decade. Although that’s also the decade when I started reading sci-fi and fantasy avidly, I’d never read anything by her – and wanted to see what I’d missed out on!

Well… it was OK. However, the plot was firmly within genre tropes, without any strikingly original flourishes. The language was mainly unremarkable – but interspersed with occasional stilted phrases and overly-florid passages.

The main character, Danaer (I’ll call him Dan) is a warrior of the horse tribes of Destre-Y, a country which has long been in conflict with the neighboring kingdom of Clarique, although both groups are part of the land of Krantin. When Krantin is invaded by warriors from over the sea from Maukland, led by an evil and power-hungry wizard who has no compunctions about using men as zombie warriors to gain personal advantage, Dan must try to help form an alliance between Clarique and Destre-Y in order to work together and repel the attack.

It doesn’t hurt that one of the wizards of Clarique is a most-alluring young Sorceress named Lira, whom Dan has no trouble wanting to ally himself with at all. Soon their alliance is more than professional. Together – and accompanied by a fearsome sidekick in the person of the huge but goodhearted warrior Gordyan, they may be able to save their homeland and create a unified Krantin.

Before we get there though, there will be a lot of swords & sorcery.

Since this is clearly advertised as “Book 1” I was afraid that it’d end on a cliffhanger – but I was pleased to find that, no, this book wraps everything up in a nice, fully-resolved manner – it’s fully a stand-alone.

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

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