book reviews by Althea

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Pieces of Hate – Tim Lebbon ***

Pieces of Hate
Pieces of Hate by Tim Lebbon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this tale, the nemeses we met in ‘Deadman’s Hand’ return. The one-eyed gunslinger Gabriel is still pursuing the demonic shape-changer Temple in his seemingly unending quest for revenge – a quest about which he may have no real choice.

The setting, however, has changed. We’re aboard a Caribbean pirate ship en route to Jamaica’s infamous Port Royal. It seems unlikely that all hands will be enjoying their anticipated shore leave…

I received a copy of this – and the companion story, Deadman’s Hand (…), from Macmillan-Tor/Forge. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Deadman’s Hand – Tim Lebbon ***

Deadman's Hand
Deadman’s Hand by Tim Lebbon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the legendary Wild-Western town of Deadwood, a mild-mannered and unremarkable young shopkeeper, Doug, is intrigued by a fast-talking, roguish stranger who’s recently come to town.

But soon, a second stranger arrives – a weather-beaten gunslinger named Gabriel, who’s in search of his nemesis, known as Temple. But this drama that Doug’s unwittingly encountered is more than just a typical feud or quest for revenge – it’s something stranger, and supernatural.

I received a copy of this – and the companion story, Pieces of Hate (…), from Macmillan-Tor/Forge. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Snakewood – Adrian Selby ***

Snakewood by Adrian Selby
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been hearing quite a bit of buzz about this debut…

Grim! Grim! Grim! Dark! Dark! Dark!
Seriously, this makes most fantasy described as grimdark look like a sunny and cheery laugh riot. This book is bitter and brutal and nasty. Also, kind of disturbing, for those who care about things like bodily integrity.

My first impression of the book was that it was really, strikingly original. The group of mercenaries we meet here are dependent on cocktails of toxic drugs – and antidotes for those drugs – which they use, berserker-like, as the main part of their fighting arsenal. Indeed, although these drugs are used mainly by fighting men, this society’s economy depends largely on trade in rare and desirable ‘plant’ – herbal elements – and the drudha (druids?) who mix and innovate the drugs are coveted and powerful men. The descriptions of the various drugs and their effects are colorfully (literally) and vividly described, and deeply weird.

However, as the story went on, I began to feel like, overall, the book wasn’t as innovative as a thought it was going to be. A couple of decades ago, the infamous and successful mercenary group known as Kailen’s Twenty disbanded. Each of the fighters went their separate ways. But now, someone is killing them. The ones still left alive aren’t sure who could be out for revenge, so many years later. But they’ll have to try to find out, or they’re sure to become the next victims.

The book did have some flaws. Although different characters were written in different styles, I still found them difficult to immediately distinguish from each other. They didn’t feel distinct. The jumps in time period and perspective often felt awkwardly placed, and the pacing at which information was revealed could’ve been better. Overall, it was still interesting.

I felt like this may have been influenced by Gene Wolfe.

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

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The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps – Kai Ashante Wilson *****

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After seeing literally dozens of reviews for this novella, I had to see for myself what was going on here… I’d read only one other story from Wilson previously, and it didn’t blow me away – but this – this was great.

A few of the reviews I’d seen criticized the style as being opaque and/or confusing. I didn’t find it so at all. On the contrary, it was much more straightforward than the other story I’d read (‘The Devil in America.’) Sure, there’s a gradual reveal of information which adds depth to the scenario – but that’s kind of the point.

The ‘Sorcerer’ is Demane, a young man who’s been hired to be one of a number of caravan guards, accompanying a group of merchants through the dangerous wilderness known as the Wildeeps. ‘Sorcerer’ is the nickname he’s earned for his seemingly-magical knowledge and abilities. Although he’s a brawny fighter, healing is where he really excels. From the start, it’s clear that Demane hails from what we would call a much more progressive and egalitarian society than his fellow guards. But although the ignorance and savagery that he is faced with on a daily basis often disgusts and depresses him, he has a deep respect for the Captain of his crew.

Unsurprisingly, the caravan’s owner ignores warnings in favor of profits, and heads into the Wildeeps. As the story progresses, we learn more of Demane’s past, and the truth about his background.

The finale is both action-packed and heartbreaking. I fail to see how anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, surrounded by the ignorant masses, could not love this story. If you’ve ever thought you’ve found the one person who could understand you…

In addition, the world introduced here is wholly intriguing. I’d love to learn more!!!

March 2016: Nominated for Hugo.

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – Lois McMaster Bujold ***

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoy Bujold’s writing style, and I love the whole Vorkosigan saga. Seriously, Bujold could probably write about her characters simply cooking dinner or going shopping and I’d happily read it. However, in most of her books, she excels at juggling the mundane details of daily life and relationships with planet-spanning high drama and life-or-death intrigue. In ‘Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen’ she dispenses with the action and writes a simpler, quieter story. It’s still good, but I missed the ‘action’ half.

Without giving away too many spoilers, the story here is about the personal drama involved when two older people fall in love, consider starting a ‘new’ family, and have to break that news to both their professional and family circles. All of it rings very true – the complexities of real human relationships, the considerations concerning balancing personal and professional obligations, the lifestyle changes that come with deciding to have children later in life, the possible hurt feelings of those who may fear that former loves are being supplanted. Of course, these concerns aren’t necessarily what all readers are looking for in a ‘space opera.’

Bujold has stated that she feels that this book can be read as a stand-alone. I would have to respectfully disagree. I feel that having read the earlier ‘Cordelia’ books (Shards of Honor and Barrayar) is essential, and one is more likely to enjoy the book if you’ve read a great deal more of the saga than just those.

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Noonday – Pat Barker ***

Noonday: A Novel
Noonday: A Novel by Pat Barker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this one up on the basis that Barker is a Booker Prize-winning author. I probably also had a subconscious disposition toward the book based on its description, as I’ve read a couple of other books with a similar setting not so long in the past – and enjoyed them very much.

It’s a slice-of-life, during the London Blitz.

Due to the war, artist Elinor is now volunteering as an ambulance driver. She’s not seeing much of her husband, Kit, these days, who’s busy with his own war-effort-related activities. Instead, she’s seeing a lot more of their long-time friend, Neville, who’s also involved in search-and-rescue, getting survivors out of bomb-raddled ruins. Neville’s carried a torch for Elinor for years, and in this time of death and chaos, the normal boundaries seem like they’re crumbling.

Meanwhile, Kit is weltering in guilt. He believes that a child is dead due to a decision he made. When a professional psychic says that she sees the ghost of a boy hovering around him, he’s inclined to give her words weight, skeptic though he might usually be.

Barker is undeniably a good writer. Her characters are complex and well-drawn. However, the book as a whole feels like it’s floundering as much as its characters are. While it eventually draws itself together to say a bit of something about relationships, grief, and social bonds, it’s very, very loose-knit and lacking tension on the way to getting there. For the bulk of the book, it doesn’t feel like it has a plot at all. In addition, some of the more dramatic events of the book either aren’t used particularly well, or feel irrelevant and out of place: an early mention of past incest feels like a non-sequitur, the ghost/psychic subplot is interesting, but almost buried, a rape that’s just a bit odd, in context, and a too-conveniently-timed death…

For those looking for fictional treatments of the situation and time period, i’d recommend Sarah Waters’ Night Watch, and Connie Willis’ Blackout.

Many thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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Ash and Silver – Carol Berg ****

Ash and Silver
Ash and Silver by Carol Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read “Dust and Light” first, or you’re likely to be just as confused as Lucian is, in this book!

In Ash and Silver, we meet a postulant known only as Greenshank, who’s been in training for some time with the secretive Order of the Equites Cineré – Knights of the Ashes. All of their candidates for knighthood willingly submit to a magical procedure which suppresses all of their memory of personal identity, allowing them to train and make decisions free of their former identity and deeds. For their final confirmation, a knight must decide whether to agree to let that past finally go, continuing on solely as an instrument of justice, or whether to return to their old life, giving up instead all knowledge of the Order.

But Greenshank’s case seems to be a little unusual. Forces from both within and without the Order seem to have some kind of special interest in him. What could be the common link that leads both politically-inclined Registry officials and a lovely, inhuman woman of the Danaë to seek him out? It is revealed to Greenshank that he was once Lucian de Remeni – but, without knowledge of the past, what does that mean? If corruption has infected the Equites Cineré, the missing information is vulnerability rather than freedom.

As always, Carol Berg is excellent.

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