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Four Books - Qualified Perceptions
Four Books
The First Betrayal (by Patricia Bray)
One of my personal fundamental rules of novels is that if the characters don't care about their plots, I can't either. This book is even more frustrating - not only do the characters not seem to care, but half the time, I don't even get the impression that the author does. All the choices are shades of grey - which would be okay, except that they're mostly all the same shade of grey, with no interesting contrast or drama. Of the main characters, none of them are particularly passionate about much of anything. The amnesiac would kind of like to know who he is. The foreigner inciting the rebellion doesn't really care if the rebellion succeeds, but she'll get kudos at home if it does. (She is passionate about boats, but that's basically irrelevant to the plot.) The empress isn't a particularly bad ruler, but we don't get much from her viewpoint, so there's no real draw to being sympathetic to her against the rebels. The rebels, the few that are passionate, aren't viewpoint characters, and they're mostly passionate because of some fairly abstract point of law having to do with the country the empress's family comes from. Now, rebellion might be interesting, even if for goofy reasons, but the only mechanic to carrying out the rebellion seems to be having secret meetings in which rebellion is talked about. (This is an example where it seemed like the author didn't care enough to come up with something for them to really do...). Then, in the end, everyone is crushed or dead or fled - game over, everyone loses. Now, it's not that I don't like tragedy, but I want my tragedy to be dramatic somehow. I want to mourn the dead and the broken, not shrug and move on. But nobody - character, authors, or me the reader - really cared enough to bother mourning. (First in a series, but it's not like it's a cliffhanger...). Enh. One and a half stars, and that's all coming from the personal drama of the amnesiac (who, some of the time, does care passionately, though it's usually not quite clear what about).

Bear Daughter (by Judith Berman)
Well, this one had passion. A somewhat meandering and unusual story, sort of like a fairy tale but set amongst shamans, spirits, and larger-than-life creatures of an imaginary Pacific Northwest. The main character, Cloud, is the daughter of a Bear (one of the immortals), but she loses her bear mask and thus changes from looking like a bear cub to looking like a girl, at age twelve. She changes and grows over the course of the book, but doesn't lose all her flaws (which are in part due to her bear nature). I'm not describing it well; it's like trying to pin down mist. It's maybe a little too wandery for my tastes, but for a first novel, I'm impressed. Three and a half stars.

Snake Agent (by Liz Williams)
A police procedural set in Singapore Three (ahah, I belatedly realize, that was the "science fiction" part from the cover. It didn't matter other than that, but I find the conceit of multiple franchises of Singapore rather charming), with the main character as the detective who deals with the Chinese bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell. The plot is a little muddly, but all the details were endearing. The demon who's infected with the human disease of a rudimentary conscience, goes to the healer to have it treated, and worries about whether his health insurance will cover it. The teakettle which is also a badger (ahah, that's a Japanese folk tale, I knew it was sort of familiar). I wouldn't have minded a slightly higher density of plot, but since the best of the charm was in the side details, I can't complain too much. Four stars.

Eye of Night (by Pauline J. Amala)
A million years ago, I read A Spell for Chameleon. A major feature of the book is the love plot between the main character and Chameleon, the woman who shifts back and forth between being beautiful-and-stupid, and ugly-and-smart. In the end, he marries her, because his TRUE LOOOOOVE enables him to put up with the horrible disad of her being ugly-and-smart some of the time. Then, there's Beauty and the Beast. Was there anyone who wasn't a little disappointed when the Disney Beast transformed into a random-looking guy we'd never seen before? If the moral is you love someone for who they are, not what they look like, it's kind of a gyp to then say "but we're going to transform what they look like, since that's what really matters." (Okay, it's not actually that simple, since the Beast started out as a human, and the teapots and candles never did anything wrong...). Anyway. Eye of Night wholeheartedly rejects the Chameleon line of reasoning, but it does slip a bit into Beauty and the Beast at the end.

The plot... I really can't decide what I think about it. The Quest has started by page 15, about as abruptly as Snakes on a Plane and with less explanation. They have to take the MacGuffin to the North, to stop the Troubles and either save or destroy the world. Wait, save or destroy? That's a little different. The whole thing is kind of like that, an odd mix between serious cliche and unusual twist. The climax happens, the world is either saved or destroyed — and then there's another hundred pages of puttery empire-building, angst out the ears, and wrapup of "what happened to that character we forgot about back on page three hundred?" I just don't know what to make of it.

Some other random comments: Why is the map upside down (north at the bottom, south at the top)? If the author is trying to to be clever about map direction being arbitrary, why does everyone talk about the Troubles coming down from the North? Shouldn't it be "up from the North"? As it is, there's no reference for the upside-down map in the book, which just makes it pointless, and annoying when you're trying to match the travel directions to the map in your head. Next: There are a lot of -- well, I've been thinking of them as "plot hooks" that the characters fail to bite at. The oddest one occurs at the very beginning, when the narrator shows up with a travelling companion who he's just met, and who has given him a brief backstory. Then, the travelling companion tells someone else something which conflicts with that backstory. The narrator notes that he should have, at the time, noticed the conflict, but he was too distracted by the entrance of the other two main characters. Then, a few pages later, the guy gets killed, so it never becomes any more of a plot. It makes me imagine the author as GM, pointing out the plot to the players, saying "um... does anyone want to follow up on that? Anyone?". Finally, I am most disappointed in the cover, which draws the character who I've spent a whole paragraph explaining is ugly-but-smart (which includes short, stout, crippled, and scarred) as willowy and gorgeous. All in all, a frustrating, flawed, fascinating, unusual, and compelling story, which I will vastly oversimplify to two and seven-eights of a star.

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