Feb 23 2018

The Belles (The Belles #1) by Dhonielle Clayton

Ah, jeez, I feel like a total asshole criticizing this book but I got so huffily mad reading it. So much of this book, like over 70% is really terrific and smart and interesting and fun but the other 20-odd just made me want to break my Kindle, it was so dumb.

First, that cover is gorgeous, and a large part of why I wanted to read this book. The premise is amazing, and I was touched by Dhonielle Clayton’s afterword (even if I’m one of those people who is still impatient at those who care too much about the opinions of others. I can understand how that can traumatize you as a young person, tho.) The first twelve percent of the book was a pretty tough slog for me as a reader, however. It was wildly over-written, with the worst part being food metaphors littering each page like bushels of overripe fruit. But once the Belles completed the selection process, it became a lot easier to read.

Camille, our heroine, grew up sheltered and with one purpose alone: to bring beauty to the realm of Orleans by using her innate arcana to magically change the inhabitants from their natural forms (grey, wrinkled skin; colorless hair like straw; blood-red eyes, and filled with a sadness that inevitably turns to madness) into beautiful, happy people. Orleans is a kingdom obsessed with beauty, no matter how expensive, no matter how painful, and as Camille makes her debut into society and becomes entangled in royal intrigues, she discovers that beauty in Orleans can exact a higher price than anyone should be willing to pay.

Cool premise, right? And after that over-stuffed first 12%, everything is pretty good, even if there are certain tiresome YA tropes that rear their daft heads. Camille makes some poor decisions, understandable since she grew up so sheltered, and her love triangle is dumb as hell. But then the climactic scene with Claudine happens about 90% of the way through and I was so thoroughly irritated by a) how absolutely ridiculous Amber was, and b) how there were no safeguards for the Belles considering they’re hovered over and narrowly regulated everywhere and any time else. And when the truth about Princess Charlotte was revealed, I literally wanted to slap everyone for being too stupid to live. Generously, one could consider these scenes under-written: perhaps if more had been written of the feelings and reasonings involved, it would all seem less idiotic, but honestly, it just strained the bounds of credulity too much to enjoy. I didn’t even need more words so much as I needed more world-building.

So I kinda want to read the next book to see what happens, but I’m already inwardly cringing away from whatever dumb shit happens to mar my enjoyment of what is a genuinely interesting setting which raises some very worthwhile questions regarding the commodification of beauty and how far people will go to attain it. I’m also curious regarding the mythology of Orleans and why the people are as they are (nuclear disaster, perhaps?) I guess Ms Clayton has me for at least one more book: I only hope it’s more like the awesome 70+% than the incredibly awful 20+% of this one.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/23/the-belles-the-belles-1-by-dhonielle-clayton/

Feb 20 2018

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

Intriguing space opera with lots of twists and turns that I kicked myself for not anticipating sooner (tho to Gareth L Powell’s credit, there were so many red herrings that I was constantly second-guessing myself!) The writing is wonderfully descriptive, and I loved the concepts and definitely want to see where our ragtag group of heroes will go next. I wish I could say more about specifics but there are so many cool surprises from the get-go that it’s hard to talk about the plot without giving anything away.

What was kinda weird tho was that when it came to emotions, this was definitely a book more of moments than of arcs, and that was a pity. Our cast of characters is put through the wringer, but I didn’t really feel for anyone besides Ashton Childe and Trouble Dog, which seems like a missed opportunity. I especially wanted to feel more empathy with Captain Sal Konstanz, who is a great character, and I’m not sure why exactly it was so hard for me to do more than care for her objectively. None of her feelings were presented in a way that felt, to me, organic, as opposed to just something we’re told about. It was however really nice to read so many well-drawn characters who weren’t tied to gender roles. Trouble Dog especially is a terrific and refreshingly original character, with her mix of human and canine genetics and behaviors.

Anyway, a great entry into the sentient ship genre, and I’m looking forward to reading more. And while I’m looking forward to reading more of our crew, I am hoping we get to see more of the intriguing Laura Petrushka in the sequel too!

Oh yes, and Titan Press sent me this to review.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/20/embers-of-war-by-gareth-l-powell/

Feb 17 2018

Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3) by Seanan McGuire

No sign of Jack and Jill in this installment, except for a reference to the events in the first book, and while I was a bit disappointed since I wanted a lot more of them after Book Two, the storyline here definitely made me feel a lot better about it fast.

A girl falls out of the sky into the turtle pond at Miss West’s Home For Wayward Children, and demands to see her mother, Sumi. Only problem is, Sumi died at the hands of a serial killer before she could return to the realm of Confection and fulfill her destiny, a destiny that includes defeating the evil Queen Of Cakes before settling down with a candy corn farmer and giving birth to her daughter, Rini. As Rini begins to disappear, Back-To-The-Future-style, four intrepid students decide to assist her on a quest to recover her mother and put Confection back in order.

This was another great novella in the series, probably a bit lighter in tone than the first two books. I did like the inclusion of The Baker, tho I differ with Seanan McGuire (or at least the viewpoint of our heroes) that The Baker is necessarily a god by virtue of being able to access things others can’t. I very much understood The Baker’s refusal to ascribe divinity to herself simply because she had resources and knowledge others didn’t, and the perpetuation of a thought system otherwise lends itself to a dangerous elitism that allows for cargo cults at its mildest and outright religious fascism at its worst.

The really nice thing about this series is that it prompts you to think about things like that. I do hope Ms McGuire writes more of these: I hear she has material for at least four more! Here’s hoping that at least one of them continues the adventures, such as they were, of Jack and Jill.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/17/beneath-the-sugar-sky-wayward-children-3-by-seanan-mcguire/

Feb 14 2018

Real Tigers (Slough House #3) by Mick Herron

Oh my God, I finished all these books by the 13th! *collapses into oozing puddle before picking up her next work assignment.*

I freaking love Mick Herron, and I’m not sure if there are very many authors I could have binged under such time pressures and still come out wanting more of. I love the Slow Horses so much, and am at the point where I’m sick of both Ingrid and Diana and their jockeying for power that leaves so many corpses behind. Real Tigers was pretty rough on my favorite of the Horses, Catherine Standish. Kidnapped by an old flame to further his mission for revenge, Catherine spends far too much time battling her inner demons… and then Jackson Lamb figuratively sucker punches her at the end. He didn’t have to, but that’s the thing about the denizens of Slough House, dumping ground of MI5’s least capable: they’re all painfully flawed in ways that make their teamwork, never mind success, not necessarily a foregone conclusion. As always, River Cartwright was a disaster from the start, and I’m starting to blame his grandfather for that: the Old Bastard filled River’s head with such tales of derring-do as a child that grown-up River still forgets, to paraphrase Jackson, that he’s part of MI5 and not Famous Five.

But the team muddles, mostly intact, through the task of recovering Catherine and putting at least a pause to the insane shenanigans between Ingrid and Diana, First and Second Desk of MI5. I very much want to read what happens next! These spy thrillers are part procedural, part slapstick and 100% entertaining.

OH MY GOD, NETGALLEY HAS SPOOK STREET AVAILABLE NOW! I’d cry tears of joy if I weren’t so incredibly dried out by the weather rn, but ooh, what a terrific Valentine’s gift to meeee! (I may also be sleep-deprived but seriously, Mr Herron’s writing warrants this glee.)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/14/real-tigers-slough-house-3-by-mick-herron/

Feb 13 2018

The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine

When it was built, the House of Government — maybe better known in English as the House on the Embankment thanks to the book by Yuri Trefonov — was the largest residential building in Europe. With The House of Government, Yuri Slezkine gives the building, its people and its first era an equally enormous treatment. The main text is just under 1000 pages; the book itself is something of an argument for electronic editions. Although I am very happy to have it as a physical object (heft! good design! many illustrations and diagrams integrated into the text!) there is no way that I am reading it anywhere but at home. The bookmark whose downward progress I am self-indulgently admiring reads “Yes I’m actually reading this.” My original caption for this picture was “That’s not a book, mate, this is a book.” One friend has already remarked on social media that maybe he will get to this one in his next lifetime.

His loss, though, because so far the book is totally worth the effort, and in a way that’s inseparable from its size. Occasionally, I will come across books where it feels like the authors have put everything they know about a subject on the pages, like they are stretching to fill the pages. More often, given my tastes, I find myself wishing for more, that authors had taken the time to make their arguments completely, that they filled in details on subjects that they touched on briefly. Heck, I wanted more of an 876-page biography of Khrushchev. (Still do. Khrushchev had a second marriage that was largely unknown for decades, and Taubman only spent a page or two on that relationship.)

So far, Slezkine gets the balance just right. There are details, there are a lot of details, but none of the individual excerpts or quotations feels like Slezkine is stretching a point or including it just to fill up space. Neither does he skimp on his arguments, or take certain things as read or self-evident. “Early in the book, the Bolsheviks are identified as millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse.” (p. XII) Considerations of communism as very much like a religion are not new, it’s an argument that has been made many times. The Captive Mind (1953) is essentially a collection of conversion experiences, so the argument was current even while Stalinism held sway.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/13/the-house-of-government-by-yuri-slezkine/

Feb 12 2018

Dead Lions (Slough House #2) by Mick Herron

Good tho, to a certain extent, I enjoyed Slow Horses better because that one was undoubtedly a win for our agents. This one… well, it’s complicated. See, an old spy is found dead on a bus he didn’t have a ticket for, and no one seems to care except Jackson Lamb, who worked with the dead man back in Berlin before the wall came down. As Lamb sorts out Dickie Bow’s movements, he slowly entangles the rest of his Department of Deadbeats in the investigation.

Except for Louisa Guy and Min Harper, that is, who’ve been seconded to Regent’s Park by the ambitious James Webb, the same MI5 bureaucrat who played such a pivotal role in the current staffing of Slough House (the not-actual-but-close-enough name of the department Lamb runs.) Webb wants to make a sweetheart deal with a potential Russian asset, but with accounting at HQ on a tear due to recent financial scandal, has decided to fly under the radar by picking up Slough House assets and dangling before them the carrot all Slow Horses want: re-entry to Regent’s Park proper if all goes well. Of course, all doesn’t, and it’s a hell of a thrill ride through London and the Cotswolds as Webb inevitably screws up while Lamb locks horns with an old specter: a Cold War spy who was supposed to never have existed.

As always, I loved the interactions between Lamb and Catherine Standish, his right-hand woman. I also enjoyed the addition of the two newest Slow Horses, especially Marcus, whom I’m hoping eventually partners professionally with Louisa. Honestly, I’m still reeling a bit over what happened with her and Min. I’m feeling a bit protective of my team of misfits over here! But I needs must read something lighter before plunging back into this fascinating, if occasionally depressing world, so I’m off to read a cozy before devouring the next book in this series.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/12/dead-lions-slough-house-2-by-mick-herron/

Feb 11 2018

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes #1) by Nancy Springer

A surprisingly unsentimental view of life in Victorian England, far removed from romance and riches. Our heroine, Enola Holmes, does start out moneyed, after a fashion: she lives on her ancestral estate with her mother, but Nancy Springer is quick to point out that the women aren’t rich in their own right, as all their property and income are beholden to their male relatives.

On her fourteenth birthday, Enola is aghast to find that her mother has pretty much gone walkabout. After failing to track her down, she summons her older brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, for help, unwittingly opening up a Pandora’s box of unpleasant surprises for everyone involved. While Sherlock continues to investigate the disappearance, Mycroft decides that the best thing for Enola is boarding school, a place against which their feminist, rationalist mother had railed. Enola decides to take matters into her own hands and runs away, stumbling across the case of a missing marquess in the meantime and setting her off on her own career path.

Ms Springer does not shy away from discussing how absolutely squalid London could be in the Victorian era, and how poorly women were treated across all social classes. I was a bit leery of the Sherlock connection but I think it’s handled well, overall, and used as a springboard for a more socially conscious sort of mystery. This is a terrific book for young women and mystery lovers of all ages: it’s a quick read, but it certainly punches above its weight in terms of refusing to ignore the realities of life for Victorian women and the poor.

Oh, almost forgot: I picked this up after hearing that Millie Bobby Brown had optioned it for production.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/11/the-case-of-the-missing-marquess-enola-holmes-1-by-nancy-springer/

Feb 10 2018

Kabale und Liebe by Friedrich Schiller

From the subtitle, “A Bourgeois Tragedy” to the Romeo and Juliet references that crop up in discussions of the play, it’s clear that Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love, although I am glad to see that at least some translators go with the better order of Love and Intrigue) is not going to end well for the protagonists. And of course it doesn’t. Along the way, though, readers encounter what Theodor Fontane, quoted on the back of my little yellow Reclam edition, called the play’s “extraordinary dramatic power.”

Kabale und Liebe was Schiller’s third drama, his second important play after The Robbers, and his last in prose. From Don Juan onward, he turned to verse for his plays. He also turned to historical subjects and away from fictional settings like the ones in Kabale und Liebe. The play follows Luise Miller, sixteen-year-old daughter of a bourgeois family, who has fallen in love with Ferdinand von Walter, the son of the president of an unnamed ruler’s court. (The dramatis personae says that it is a prince’s court; in the play, he is usually referred to as a duke.) The drama opens with her parents worrying about Ferdinand’s interest in their daughter, what his presents mean, the likelihood that this bodes ill for her and them, for a match across class lines cannot be made. The second scene sets the intrigues in motion, as the president’s assistant — the all-too-aptly named Wurm — asks Herr Miller for his daughter’s hand and is rejected.

The play premiered in 1784, after the American Revolution but before the French. Ancien régime rulers held sway across Europe while the Enlightenement brought new ideas into play. The ruler of Kabale und Liebe‘s setting seems far more despot than enlightened, and it is hinted that Ferdinand’s father attained his present position by well-timed murder, although the exact deed is never spelled out. Schiller has a great many targets as his tragedy unfurls: the arbitrary power of monarchs, the poverty of the people they rule (these two combine in the description of the duke’s selling thousands of his subjects into indentured servitude in America to finance jewels for his favorite; people who protest are massacred, and the whole takes place off-stage, an event merely to be reported), the impenetrable barrier between nobility and commoners, the servility and violence required at court life.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/10/kabale-und-liebe-by-friedrich-schiller/

Feb 09 2018

Slow Horses (Slough House #1) by Mick Herron

It’s a bit weird coming to this book after reading the author’s excellent, bleak Nobody Walks. At about the halfway mark of Slow Horses, I felt an uneasy stirring of familiarity, much like I had upon reading Agatha Christie’s The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd after her excellent, bleak Endless Night. While the plot twist in Dame Christie’s more famous work was thoroughly spoiled for me because of it, I was exceedingly pleased that, while SH does bear a similarity to the standalone NW, it goes beyond and better, in a different direction and tone. I really enjoyed this.

Anyway, SH is about an office of sad sacks nominally employed by MI5 but relegated to a building kept away from the action, given busywork with the intent of boring them into leaving the service. When a young man is kidnapped by terrorists and threatened with public execution, River Cartwright, one of said sad sacks (or Slow Horses, as they’re called in a layered pun on the name of the building they work out of,) thinks the abduction might be connected to a work errand he was sent on, going through the trash of a disgraced former journalist. What he uncovers could put their entire department, and lives, in danger… or perhaps give them all a shot at redemption.

It’s hard for me to review this book without bringing up NW because that was a deeply affecting book, and the one that initially made me a fan of Mick Herron’s. I will say that I was very pleased that SH wasn’t as much of a downer as I’d feared it might be. I have to read and review the next two books in the series by the 13th, so I’m really glad it won’t just be a litany of sorrow, if this book is anything to go by. I’m especially looking forward to the continuing adventures of Lamb and Standish, tho I am rather fond of all of the Slow Horses still left standing.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/09/slow-horses-slough-house-1-by-mick-herron/

Feb 07 2018

Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire, #1) by Yoon Ha Lee

Whoo, jeez, this was one hell of a read!

So you know that bromide, that any scientific technology, advanced enough, is indistinguishable from magic? To a very large extent, one can apply that to science fiction, where if we follow theoretical math and physics to their natural conclusions, the results are indistinguishable from fantasy. Because, y’all, this book works on the tenet that mathematical harmonics are codeable not only into weapons and defense systems, but also into genetics and physical behavior modification. The basis is the “calendar” or the overarching numerical system upon which the Hexarchate, the galactic empire that our heroes serve, hangs its technology, propped up by its citizens’ belief (which is another fascinating deep dive into the intersection between quantum mechanics and human philosophy.) There’s some crazy theoretical math made practical here, and if you’re not familiar enough with or willing enough to concede that these are a plausible, if speculative, use of the concepts, then you’re gonna have a bad time. But if you’re okay with accepting that there’s a future where pure math can be bent into applied, then ooh boy, are you in for a treat with Ninefox Gambit!

I just realized that the entire preceding paragraph makes this book sound like total nerd wankery, but I promise you, it’s a terrific space opera that just happens to use some crazy ass tech as its basis (insert comparison of Yoon Ha Lee to the Hexarchate here, lol.) There’s this Captain, Kel Cheris, who is selected to lead the assault on an important fortress that has sunk into calendrical heresies. To this end, she has been given the weapon that is the shade of the legendary general Shuos Jedao, who was executed and kept in a sort of limbo to be brought back whenever the Kel Command saw fit. Jedao never lost a battle, not even the one where, two hundred years before this, he massacred not only an enemy base but also all of his own troops before being captured and condemned to undeath. Now, he is the greatest weapon the Hexarchate has against a heresy that threatens the entire empire. But is he really working with Cheris or does he have plans of his own?

Mr Lee writes like a man swiftly navigating a tangled, thorny tightrope. It’s a bravura performance that relies on the reader being smart enough to follow along as he plunges you into action and betrayal and scenes from lives and times in chaos. It’s a book that at once praises and despairs of military discipline and loyalty, even as it presents a refreshing view of gender and sexuality, devoid of stifling cultural baggage. Plus, it’s clearly rooted in an East Asian mythos, making for a gloriously original sort of sff. And it has sequels! I’ve already placed a hold on Raven Strategem from my local library and am very excited for the release of the final book in the trilogy this summer. Heady stuff for anyone into theoretical math and philosophy, but especially for anyone who loves a smart space opera.

Also, servitors sound cute as hell and while I’ve never given a darn about a droid, I totally want a servitor.

(Doug’s review is here.)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/02/07/ninefox-gambit-the-machineries-of-empire-1-by-yoon-ha-lee/