I’ve heard for years about the amazing writing team of Sharon and Tom Curtis, but their books are out of print and hard to find. [I did borrow a copy of The Windflower, but I haven't been able to get past the first couple of chapters.] Loveswept reprinted this one as part of their classic line in digital format, and I bought it. I’m sure I’m not the only one, since I think it was sale priced earlier this fall. So leave a comment here, or hit me up on Twitter, if you’re interested — I will set a date to post about it based on when others think they can/will read it.
19 Nov 2013 7 Comments
This month’s TBR Challenge theme was much-hyped books; this doesn’t really qualify, except in a personal sense. I loved meeting Carrie Vaughn at RomCon in the summer of 2010, and finding out that she had written a book with its roots in the Trojan War was exciting. When I got one of the free copies, and a had a minute while getting it signed to hear some of the author’s enthusiasm, I couldn’t wait to get it home and read it. But it turned out to be the wrong time for me to read this book, despite the fact that it hits so many of my “yes, please!” buttons. And so it has sat for more than three years, until I decided that I’d challenge myself to read it in place of the “hyped” books that I don’t appear to have sitting in my TBR pile.
Evie Walker has come home to Fort Collins, Colorado, because her father is dying. He has metastasized prostate cancer (the disease that killed my own father in February of 2010; hence my inability to read this book for so long). He is refusing any treatment other than pain medication, which means that he probably won’t live very much longer. Evie wants to help him, even though she is unhappy with him for not seeking more aggressive treatment; he wants her there not only because he loves her and wants to spend time with her before he dies, but also because she has a strange but important inheritance awaiting her.
For many generations, a member of Evie’s family has been the guardian of a storehouse of mythic treasures: the Golden Fleece, Persephone’s uneaten pomegranate seeds, Cinderella’s glass slippers, and many more. Including the ones most important in this book: the apple of Discord (which basically started the Trojan War) and Excalibur. People come looking for these treasures, and sometimes it is right to hand them over, and sometimes NOT. Keeping them safe and releasing them to the right people is Evie’s father’s job; when he dies, it will be hers. Whether she wants it or not.
Evie is a comic book writer; she writes about a kick-ass bunch of special forces agents. The book is set in a near future that’s kind of frighteningly believable — terrorism in the US has led to the rise of local militias that turn large urban areas into domestic war zones and make people in more rural areas suspicious of travelers and strangers. The world is on the brink of nuclear war, with allegiances shifting in response to acts of terror around the globe. In short, there’s a lot of discord, with the potential for global destruction; setting the apple loose in the world would almost certainly result in destruction on an even larger scale than Troy.
Into Evie and her father’s world come some characters out of myth: Hera, the Greek goddess, wife of Zeus; Merlin and Arthur, who has been brought back to meet Britain’s great peril; and some others. There’s also Alex, an ancient, mysterious (at first) stranger, to whom Evie is attracted, whose story I won’t spoil with any more details. Through flashbacks, we learn more about Alex, about the history of the Walker family, and about how those tie in with huge events that have shaped the world. Meanwhile in the main “present day” timeline, Evie, her father, and Alex, eventually aided by Merlin and Arthur, work to stop Hera and her various minions from taking the apple and creating even more discord in the world. The ending is one I didn’t see coming in many ways, but it absolutely makes sense and feels satisfying.
So what did I love about this book? First and foremost, GREEK MYTHS! I’ve been a student of ancient Greek mythology since the fourth grade (that’s age 10), because that’s when I had a school textbook for literature class that explored them. (It also tied into a science class where we looked at constellations — great integration!) I am fascinated by the Greek notion of gods as no more noble than humans, just more powerful, and of course the Trojan War saga is at the heart of all of that. There was more explanation of who’s who and what’s what in the book than I needed, but I didn’t mind it — it was entertaining, and worked into the story well enough. I think there was enough there for a reader without much beyond general awareness of the Olympic pantheon and the basic idea of the Trojan War to appreciate the story, but of course I can’t be sure.
Add Arthur to this mix and I’m done for, even though this is Arthur away from the other aspects of his story. Arthurian retellings are another passion of mine, and this one is bit more fun and light-hearted than most, since it’s after all the Morte d’Arthur stuff. And for all that this book explores serious themes and puts the characters in difficult, threatening situations, it does maintain that layer of enjoyable entertainment. A lot like one of Evie’s comics would, or at least that’s the experience I have when I read action comics. Vaughn’s other books are a pair of superhero novels (that I am definitely going to read) and a lengthy urban fantasy series about Kitty Norville, a werewolf late night disc jockey. Knowing that made me expect a lighter tone going into this book, and that’s what I found. There are life-and-death events, and decisions and challenges on a world-saving scale, but while there are sad, tender, suspenseful and sexy moments, it somehow never stops being fun.
I love books that connect myths and legends from different traditions into one big story. A tapestry, if you will. A Twitter conversation while I was working on this review had me explaining my love for Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy of books that does a similar thing, albeit in many more serious, lyrical, complex pages. I’m not saying that this book is a “Fionavar Lite,” but both books are written in the tradition of connecting our present to our past and our varying pasts to each other for a worldview that unites normally disparate elements of human history and belief.
Also, amazingly, this is a stand-alone novel of fewer than 400 pages — not an epic, not part of a trilogy or series. In my recent fantasy reading, that’s worth remarking on.
**In the interest of full disclosure: Ms Vaughn and I are alumni of the same undergraduate institution, albeit more than a dozen years apart. Other than meeting her for a panel at RomCon as described above, and writing her a quick note4 about this book which she graciously acknowledged, I have not interacted with her. I don’t follow her on Twitter and we aren’t Facebook friends.
15 Nov 2013 5 Comments
This weekend is the second iteration of the More Diverse Universe effort, where participants review speculative fiction books by writers of color in an effort to call attention to the diversity that’s out there in the field. You can follow posts on Twitter with the hashtag #Diversiverse; the event is the brainchild of Aarti at the Booklust blog. Her post on the event is .
I chose to read Shanghai Steam, an anthology of wuxia steampunk stories. The cover art is by James Ng, a favorite of mine, and the mix of stories is quite good. There are 19 authors, each with one contribution. They are Tim Ford, Amanda Clark, Laurel Anne Hill, K.H. Vaughan, Crystal Koo, Brent Nichols, Julia A. Rosenthal, William H. Keith, Shen Braun, Jennifer Rahn, Emily Mah, Frances Pauli, Camille Alexa, Tim Reynolds, Ray Dean, Frank Larnard, Derwin Mak, Nick Tramdack, and Minsoo Kang. As you can guess from the list of names, not all of these are writers of color, but I love the diversity among the authors as well as the different take on steampunk they provide here.
One of my favorite things in several of the stories is the concept of qi-powered machinery, either in place of or addition to steam power. I also really appreciated the number of strong women characters in the collection. (I was sad not to see more diversity of sexual orientation or gender identification explored, but one can’t have everything, I guess.) Most of all, I loved the aesthetic that ran through the book, used very differently by each author, of Chinese spirituality, tradition, philosophy and history. The wuxia tradition of the martial arts hero who fights against oppressors is brought to life in a variety of ways in this collection. Some were funny, some were sad, some were uplifting, and while some spoke to me more than others, there were no weak stories in this anthology. I had a list written of the seven or so that spoke most strongly to me, but I managed to lose it while writing the rest of this post. I can’t recreate it, because going back through the stories, I’m finding different nuances and new favorites; I think that says a lot about the overall quality of the work here.
ETA: Here’s a link to the list of other More Diverse Universe participating reviews.
02 Nov 2013 16 Comments
A lot of what I have to say about this book is in my review from the September TBR Challenge. I thought the world building was strong, and the story is complex enough to sustain a pretty hefty fantasy trilogy. That’s what strikes me, thinking back on this reading experience — because this is fantasy, there’s a whole world of plot that isn’t directly about the romance, and consequently, the romance aspect is drawn out and given time to develop in a way that wouldn’t work in genre romance.
Cat and Vai start off very much on the wrong foot, They are forced into marriage, they don’t know each other at all beforehand, and before they have a chance to figure anything out, the marriage is termed a “mistake” and he’s ordered to kill her. Which he can’t, of course, because he is already falling in love with her. No surprise that she is suspicious, dismissive, prickly and so forth — she’s not playing hard to get or over-reacting, because the man married her at the command of the same lord who has now commanded her death. Of course she doesn’t trust him, even if she does find him attractive, and of course she’s glad to see him frustrated, humiliated, or thwarted. I was glad that it took her the better part of three long books to completely trust him — anything faster would have belied important aspects of her character.
Aside from not immediately falling for Vai out of suspicion and fully justified fear, Cat has other issues that she needs to resolve before she can believably love and commit to anyone. She has fundamental identity issues — who is she, who were her parents, how did she end up in the Barahal household? What about her magic power(s) — where do those come from, and of what is she capable? In addition to figuring all of that out, she has a concern that takes priority over a potential romantic relationship. She knows that her beloved cousin Bee is the next target for the cold mage, and she doesn’t want to see that happen; after staying alive herself, her next priority is Bee’s safety and welfare. She has a lot to figure out, she has herself and her cousin to keep alive and safe, and she has very little reason to trust Vai to help with any of it.
More than anything (the secondary characters, who are fabulous, the world building, which is rich and rewarding, the use of history and myth to make a mash-up that feels familiar, new and consistent all at once), it was this aspect of the novel (and eventually the trilogy) that I found most rewarding. The romance had time in which to develop, the two characters went through a lot for and with each other to prove how strong their feelings were, and there was so much going on that I didn’t feel that anything was dragged out or put off in a frustrating way. In other words, reading this reminded me why fantasy with strong romance is still my favorite genre.
So what did others think? What did and didn’t you enjoy about this novel? What aspects do you think deserve deeper analysis? Comment here, or link to your thoughts posted elsewhere.
16 Oct 2013 4 Comments
The official suggested theme for TBR Challenge this month is “Paranormal or romantic suspense.” I have a few RS in the queue; I read very little in that genre but keep picking up titles that sound interesting, only to ignore them because I’m not in the mood. I fully intended to dig into Pamela Clare’s I-Team series some more (I’ve read one and liked it a lot, but I have to be in an RS mood, and I haven’t been). As it turned out, the day snuck up on me — good thing Wendy tweeted a reminder yesterday, or there would be no review from me. I panicked, went to the Kindle archive, and found the perfect thing: an Ilona Andrews novella!
Magic Mourns is book 3.5 in the Kate Daniels series, and was originally published in the Must Love Hellhounds anthology. It’s the story of Andrea, one of Kate’s protégées and colleagues, who is taking Kate’s calls while Kate is recuperating (presumably from the events of book 3). The call she takes leads her to Cerberus (yes, THAT Cerberus), who is chasing Raphael, the sexy werehyena who has been attempting to romance Andrea for months. They end up working together to figure out how vampires, stolen corpses, and the mythology of Hades all fit together.
Mind you, I’m far enough out of step in the Kate Daniels series that I haven’t read the book to which this is the companion novella, so I had no idea who the main characters were. I suspect that wouldn’t be true for a lot of readers, and they might find this short too full of unnecessary backstory — I really don’t know how much of what Andrea shares about herself and her past is contained in the other book. But for me, it was great; I had no trouble following the story or getting into the characters. Andrea’s rejection of her feelings for Raphael is more than just the standard “he’s a womanizer and can’t be faithful” reasoning, and I thought the short form of the novella (77 pages) was right for the intensity of Andrea’s choice to take the risk of telling Raphael her truth and giving the two of them a chance. I did feel that Raphael was a little too good to be true, and I’m guessing that his “bad boy” dimension is on display more in the preceding books.
I enjoyed Magic Mourns a lot, and I recommend it, but there were two things that struck me about reading it. The first was the level of information (almost info-dump) about the Hades myth — the long (especially for short fiction) explanation of Demeter, and Persephone, and the golden apples of Eris. I guess I can buy that these characters, in alternate history Atlanta, don’t know this stuff, but Sisyphus? How the Trojan War started? Come on, don’t we all know that? I certainly do, and the exposition felt excessive to me. I have to note, however, that when I checked Goodreads for a copy of the book cover to use here, I found several reviews talking about the book’s extensive research into Greek mythology, and it’s pretty clear that many readers didn’t already know this stuff. So in retrospect I’m less disappointed in the book and more disillusioned with the general state of myth-literacy.
The other thing that niggles me, and that I would spend a LOT of time unpacking if I didn’t have a plane to catch today, stems from Twitter comments the other day by Meoskop about her discomfort with PNR because shifters (like aliens in some science fiction) have taken over some problematic race tropes (“plantation”). I’m woefully understanding her points here (take a look at her Twitter feed from October 14), but I did find myself thinking about Andrea’s personal story with a strong sense of “code for race.” I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m not sure it would have struck me quite that way if I’d read it when it was first released.
This feels short and incomplete, but as I say, today’s a travel day and I’m already pushing it. Maybe more in the comments, if folks have thoughts to share?
01 Oct 2013 7 Comments
This is the fourth Tang Dynasty Harlequin Historical novel by Jeannie Lin; I’ve read and enjoyed them all, as well as her four novellas. There are things about Lin’s approach to historical romance that I really enjoy, and they are all on display here.
First, I love Lin’s choice of setting and her world-building technique. While I don’t know enough about Chinese historical culture to judge the accuracy of her details, the world she creates feels real and consistent. I’m wary of fetishizing the “exotic other,” but I do find the very “otherness” of the setting attractive — in some ways it’s like reading a fantasy novel, since I have no real yardstick for judging historical accuracy, and yet it is meaningful and real in a different way, because I know it IS history. Lin knows that her readers need to be told everything about the world; there are no short-cuts based on the assumption that readers are familiar with the setting, as we find in some historical romance set in more well-trodden places and times. And yet she skillfully avoid the “info-dump” most of the time, giving the reader just as much detail as needed to figure out what’s going on for the characters, and only including such political, social or economic aspects of the bigger picture as are truly relevant. Even on the rare occasions where I feel like I’m getting a little mini-history-lesson, though, I don’t mind, because the writing is skillful and the details fascinating. Since each of her stories is set in a slightly different time, place, or social milieu, each one gives me a new perspective on this period in Chinese cultural history.
Part of what I love is that, while Lin treats the time and place of her books with reverence, she doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects. She depicts the restrictive roles allowed women, the rigid social divisions between classes, and the harsh systems of government and punishment, and she makes these work as challenges for her characters to overcome. She often depicts characters who are outsiders, often renegades, because of their personal situations or choices; one of the joys of each book is watching the characters’ perspective change to a broader awareness of social injustice.
Like her first novel, the Golden Heart winner Butterfly Swords, the heroine of The Sword Dancer is trained in combat, both willing and able to defend her own honor and person. (The heroines of two novels in between are concubines, a different dynamic.) To own and be able to use a sword makes each of these heroines unusual, but not unheard of, and that creates a space for them in the world that is tenuous and wholly believable. Both are fugitives for much of the book as well. I loved the cross-class dynamic in Butterfly Swords, and the accompanying emphasis on tradition and family honor (I reviewed it for Dear Author here: http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-a-reviews/a-reviews/welcome-change-of-pace/ ) In The Sword Dancer, I appreciated how very much on their own the main characters were, and yet they were each motivated by the loss and absence of family.
Li Feng, the heroine and title character of the book, is very much an outsider. She lost her family when she was young, under clearly suspicious circumstances, and she was raised by a Taoist monk and martial arts master. An orphan girl raised by a naturally solitary man, Li Feng is self-sufficient, resourceful, and possessed of a moral code that is at odds with the laws and authority structure of formal society. She is an outsider, a participant-observer on the fringes and in the shadows.
Han, the hero of the novel, is a thief catcher by trade; he earns bounties by tracking criminals and bringing them to justice. While he has a defined role in the legal system, and a more rigid moral code, his is still a social position that’s in a grey area, doing a job that’s necessary and somewhat appreciated, but at the same time looked down upon and without an avenue for advancement or real formal recognition. When the novel opens, Han is doing his job, pursuing an alleged thief who turns out to be Li Feng. Their very first encounter pits their minds and bodies against each other, in a struggle/dance that becomes the essence of their relationship. He watches her, then chases her; she escapes him, then rescues him. He captures her, but takes care that she’s not mistreated; she escapes. And the pattern persists, as they are drawn together by their separate but intertwined interests. They each find the other compelling in movement, and they are well-matched adversaries; Han is larger and stronger, but Li Feng is fast and flexible, with an agile mind that serves to get her out of situations where physical escape doesn’t work.
This a very active book — there’s a lot of chasing, searching, fighting, fleeing, capturing, and escaping. The loving fits right into that, another physical activity, while the emotional dimension develops and builds through the action, with occasional quiet spaces where feelings can be explored and expressed rather than just experienced. The prose is beautiful, with vivid descriptions and moments of lyrical beauty. Repeatedly, I found myself torn between the desire to move ahead with the compelling story and the desire to go back and savor a particularly fine passage. Indeed, what was meant to be a quick skim of the book for this post turned into a full re-read, because I could not make myself rush or shorten the experience.
These are very general reactions, and I could probably say a lot more, but I want to get this posted and encourage other voices to chime in. I’ll add links below if people want to post their thoughts elsewhere (feel free to call my attention via Twitter or by posting a link in the comments), or you can feel free to post your reactions here in the comments.
Oh, and isn’t that cover gorgeous?!?
Here are Liz’s thoughts over at her blog — you can tell she’s a better literature scholar than I am, because she takes time to use quotes and stuff. It’s a great piece; go read it. http://myextensivereading.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/the-sword-dancer-jeannie-lin/
30 Sep 2013 1 Comment
A while ago, I posted a list of books I planned to read, suggesting that anyone who was considering some of the same titles might want to join a discussion here. The first book to get the On the Same Page treatment will be The Sword Dancer by Jeannie Lin. I read it and will be posting some thoughts tomorrow; I invite comments here, or links to thoughts posted elsewhere, from other readers. We’ve tossed this around a bit on Twitter.
Be advised that as Tuesday is a teaching day for me, my thoughts won’t be posted until later in the day — likely late afternoon, Pacific time. So a lot of the discussion may not happen until October 2, or even later, and that’s just fine with me. We’re not on a timetable here in paradise.