First Frost of Autumn (firstfrost) wrote,
First Frost of Autumn
firstfrost

Twenty-one books

A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland
This is a fascinating book, structurally. It starts with storyteller in jail, arrested on false charges of witchcraft, and the only tool he has at his disposal is storytelling and talking, and it goes from there. The thing is, the main character, Chant, spends pretty much the entire book in one sort of jail or another, as different political parties decide he is useful (or not) or guilty (or not) and confiscate him. So all he can do is talk. He tells people true things. He tells them lies. He tells them stories. That is all he does. It's an extraordinarily restrictive palette, but it's not boring. There is political infighting, even a war, and he pulls as many strings as he can (some of them not with the effect he intended) - and there are also the seventeen digressionary full stories that he (and sometimes others) tell, in which some active verbs take place. Also, eventually, it becomes clear that it's not just a first person narrator, that there's actually a frame story where he is telling the story to someone else, later, and it takes even longer to become clear who. That adds an interesting layer of narrative unreliability, because the whole thing is also a story being told for a purpose. (Audiobook note: good narrator. Interesting, in that I often make a distinction between an audiobook actor and an audiobook narrator; harder to do here.) Four and half stars.

 

A Choir of Lies also by Alexandra Rowland
Sigh. I am always very distressed by books which retroactively torpedo my enjoyment of their prequel. Ylfing, the apprentice from the previous book is on his own now, and rather traumatized by it. The frame story narrator (voiced by a different narrator, interestingly) is footnoting his narrative, and is seriously pissed at him. So there's two different things going on; first, there's the footnote-narrator telling the narrator what a horrible wrong person he is, and second, there's the narrator alluding to what a horrrible wrong person the first book's narrator was. (And... he's not wrong. Chant was a chaotic neutral jerk, and he treats Ylfing like an idiot, on the surface. But he does care about Ylfing, he spends a lot of effort in the first book trying to make sure he's okay. I go back and forth on how okay it is to trick the city that's about to murder you into falling apart first, if it means innocents get hurt.) By the end of the previous book, he does treat Ylfing kind of unforgivably, because he thinks he has to, tactically. Between the previous book and this one, he treats Ylfing more unforgivably, and as far as we can tell from Ylfing's narration, only because he was tired of Ylfing being unhappy with him. I waited the entire narrative for what I was hoping would be the explanation for Chant's final abandonment, and never got it. So maybe he just was that much of a bastard. Anyway, like the previous book, it is an interesting multi-threaded story about stories, and it is not just a duplicate of the first one, and it plays around with the threading in different interesting ways. I found it painful, but you might like it too.

 

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
I feel a bit sad whenever I don't adore an Ursula Vernon book, but this one was a curate's egg for me. It's a true horror story, not just a fantasy with dark bits. And there are some parts of it which are really, truly, terrifying, and perfectly done. The main thing that put me off a little was, the book is a homage to an old classic horror story (1899), "The White People", which I was not familiar with, and which I found mostly enh; so all the excerpts and references mostly bounced off me, in a way that some of the other books I've read recently hook me by referencing Lovecraft, who I find more compelling. I also want to quibble with some of the narrator's claims about her dog - maybe a border collie wouldn't have gotten her out at that one point, but a border collie darned well wouldn't have gotten her in, in the first place. On the other hand, never criticize a dog breed to that dog's owner, so I'll forgive the dog bits.

 

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
This was awesome. Everyone describes it as the "lesbian space necromancer" book, which is maybe an unexpected genre. But like "Pirates, voodoo, and virtual reality", it works if you embrace the madness. Basic premise - from each of the Nine (space) Houses, the heir and their cavalier have been summoned by the Undying Emperor to be tested to become Lyctors. So it's a twenty-person assassin game set in this crumbling haunted castle, with a complicated tunnel mechanic in the basement. The pacing and tension escalation is perfect; it starts out with some teaming up (or not) to do the mechanic, everyone has their own goals and their own set of abilities (each House has different necromantic specialties). Then people start getting a little pushy in the competition. Then some people die, maybe from each other, maybe from monsters in the basement. Then it keeps going. The characters are well drawn and interesting, Gideon herself is an endearingly knuckleheaded jock (go look at the cover, zoom in - on top of the skull facepaint, she's wearing shades.). I have a little bit of my standard quibble for murder mysteries, where the explanation covers what happened, but not why it was chosen to happen that way. But it's a first novel, and it's a brilliant first novel, funny and tense and violent and evocative and spooky and charming, and it's only sort of a mystery at all, it's more of a space necromancer fantasy, so I'll forgive it that. Oh, and also, there are what I think are my first ever encounter with necromancer dad jokes. I don't think I've been so delighted and surprised by a book since The Gone-Away World. Five and a quarter stars.

 

Ghost Talkers (by Mary Robinette Kowal)
An alternate-history WWI thriller with mediums talking to the ghosts of dead soldiers. It has some odd symptoms of being a mystery instead (there are various clues scattered around as to who the traitor is, and a lot of red herrings, but because the genre was so firmly thriller, I wasn't actually trying to deduce the answer. The ghost stuff is fun and a little touching, but there are a lot of Standard Semi-Plausible Action Movie Tropes that it ticks off that I frowned at. Three and a half stars.

 

The Raven Boys (by Maggie Stiefvater)
The first in a series. The character dynamics are good, the characters are interesting, the writing is quite good, but I just could not care about the central quest to find the sleeping (Arthur-like) Welsh king Glendower in the Virginia woods - it didn't even quite make it past my suspension of disbelief. Wikipedia tells me (spoiler!) that the entire series passes without success in this quest, so maybe it's just supposed to be a justification for why Things Are Weird? Anyway, this felt like a pretty good book that didn't grab me at all.

 

A Study in Scarlet, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, The Hollow of Fear, The Art of Theft (by Sherry Thomas)
Honestly, these are not super-great books from a mystery plotting standpoint (Andrea reminds me that anything mimicking Sherlock Holmes shouldn't be expected to be), but I really enjoyed reading them. Charlotte Holmes is an interesting non-neurotypical strong female protagonist. She's on the spectrum rather than the "high functioning sociopath" variant, not that that stops her from being a proper Holmsian observer of minute details. I like that a lot of the strong-female-protagonist fiction I've been reading lately (Ghost Talkers being another) are not studies in the Lone Exceptional Female, but are studies in many women (one of whom is the protagonist) navigate kyriarchy in different ways. Anyway, these weren't just enjoyable as intersectionality-feminism homework, but because the characters were fun and clashed interestingly, and were interestingly flawed in a lot of different directions. Even if they plots they were traversing were implausibly overcomplicated.

 

The Ninth House (by Leigh Bardugo)
What if all those fraternities secret societies at Yale were actually occult houses? It's an easy premise - I wouldn't be that suprised if it were true outside of fiction - and the plot plays well both with the occult spook and mystery, and the culture schism between the ex-druggie not-so--academic protagonist and the elite schmoozy Brock-Turner-with-magic-powers societies. In the end, it's basically pretty good. There are a lot of good light horror touches, and though I could predict some of the plot twists, some of the others were an interesting surprise. Nine houses ended up being slightly too many for me to keep track of (though I managed it okay in the (still awesome) Gideon the Ninth, which has a lot of surface similarities but is really nothing like. Four stars.

 

Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts (by Rebecca Roanhorse)
A post-fantasy-apocalypse Native American setting that felt both real and unfamiliar. Post apocalypse has never been my genre of choice, but the fantasy version made it a more interesting exploration. The story carried me along reasonably well at the time, but I think it almost has the pacing and visual of a movie rather than a book. Why have the escaped prisoners disguised themselves as wealthy auction bidders? Because it's cool! Why is the safe house there also a bar? Because all the best scenes happen in bars. But there were also a places where the beats felt a little off - when you realize (long after the reader) that the good-looking guy who likes you has 'charm' as a gift, it seemed unreasonable to fuss that hard about whether he had used his charm to seduce you when you hadn't been seduced. You said no and he took no for an answer. Ah well, the main character's gifts kind of come with a lot of extra rage, so it's not actually out of character as a reaction. Three stars, though I think they'd make an awesome TV show.

 

The Outside (by Ada Hoffmann)
A little bit Greg Egan, a little bit Lovecraft, a little bit Good Omens, and a little bit of cranky academia, blended smooth and spun out into something in between space opera and cyberpunk. The main character (like the author) is autistic; this makes her more able to stray into heresy - or, thoughts too dangerous to think. It's not super-complex, but everyone in it was interesting and different, and there were more ways to be wrong than to be obviously right. I would have liked a little more time for the love plot, which has to bear a lot of weight. It felt short, but I think I just read it pretty quickly. Still, it's interesting to be thinking "This could have dragged a little more and I would still have been happy." Three and three quarters stars.

 

Spinning Silver (by Naomi Novik)
Loosely based on Rumplestiltskin, Spinning Silver is lovely. Miryem is the central character, daughter of a Jewish moneylender, who is stasked by the lord of the Staryk (scary ice-elves) with spinning a bag of enchanted-ish silver into gold. She does this via conventional means (selling the silver to a smith who makes it into an enchanted-ish bracelet, and selling it). So then she has to do it again. Irina is the duke's daughter who ends up with the enchanted-ish jewelry. Wanda is the servant Miryem hires, poor and desparate enough to be seriously empowered by the small salary she is given. The three threads separate and braid back together and separate again, as each of the characters has their own villain to battle, and the threads go in and out of the wintry domain of the Staryk. The plot works perfectly, and is full of a lot of worthy side bits about kindness and family and trust, both good and bad. The voicework in the audiobook is good, though I might have liked a little bit more distinction between the voices; the viewpoint character can switch without warning, and while there are almost always clues enough to who it is, clearer markers wouldn't have hurt. Five stars.

 

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter (by Rod Duncan)
Steampunk circus performers! A Lady Detective who disguises herself as her twin brother! (Quite reminiscent of the Charlotte Holmes books above). A quest for a mad science device, chased by agents of the heinous Patent Office! I didn't like this as much as I expected to, and I'm not sure why not.

 

Paladin's Grace (by T Kingfisher)
A reasonably fluffy romance with a remarkably creepy horror subplot. Ursula Vernon does have a soft spot for angsty broken paladin romance. Also, a return of the awesome Zale from Swordheart! I guess I am starting to wish that her romances spent a little less time circling each other in the throes of "of course *they* couldn't be interested in *me* I am so unworthy". She does it well, and possibly re-reading Swordheart again made it more evident. Still heaps of fun, and the severed heads horror plot gives the book a bit more depth. Four and a half stars.

 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January (by Alix E. Harrow)
Another of those stories within stories books that I am fond of. This one focuses on doors that go somewhere, as so many doors in stories do. Doors in the backs of wardrobes or that open when the thrush knocks on the grey stone, or when the mirror opens up. Kind of the same starting place as Every Heart a Doorway, but then it goes in very different directions. The doors are between worlds, and travelers sometimes cross between. The characters in the different layers of story are those travelers, sometimes faced with shut doors and having to find their way to back where their heart is. The brief sketches of the other worlds and their culture are very evocative. My biggest quibble is that I have very little patience for the type of foreshadowing this book does a lot of.
I should've let go of Bad's collar right then and let him chew Havemeyer into red ribbons. I should've slapped him, or ignored him, or lunged for the door. Anything but what I actually did.
I don't mind characters making the wrong choice. I do mind this sort of lead-up. "I was about to make the wrong choice. Then I made the wrong choice. I would learn later how very wrong I was." It taints the entire narrative for me, between this annoying foreshadow and when it gets resolved again. There are a lot of wrong choices in this book, and way too many of them are called out like this. (Is it just me who finds this really annoying?)

 

The Spirit Ring (by Lois McMaster Bujold)
At first I thought this was a Bujold book that I had missed, but it is actually an old one that recently appeared on audiobook. Civil war and alchemy in one of those ubiquitous fictional Italies. Fun and actionful and generally entertaining. Weirdly, there were two chapters completely repeated in the audiobook. The first time I thought it was due to having dozed off while listening, and having to go back, but the second time was definitely just another copy of the same text. Definitely worth reading, but now a bit of a digression. This is a book from 1992, so the feminism is different. Fiametta is totally a Strong Female Protagonist, but she's an exceptional woman and is constantly being opposed or sidelined by men who won't take her seriously, but most of the other women are unexceptional. (It doesn't fail the Bechdel test, but none of the other women get much agency). It's interesting to compare that to more recent fiction which lets "competent and agency-ful" be as much of a default for women as it is for men, even in a patriarchal society (like ubiquitious fictional Italy). Certainly reading fiction in the earlier era, I didn't notice how it was falling short, I just admired how the main female character was awesome.

 

Red Rising (by Pierce Brown)
This is the first book in a series; I'm still pondering whether to keep going. It's sort of the start of an underclass rebellion on a terraformed Mars, and it's sort of an extra-brutal version of Ender's Game's Battle School (or the army battles in HPMOR). It takes a while getting to the school war, which takes up about 2/3 of the book (or maybe it just felt like it?); the leadup is sort of weirldy paced, but the war is a well paced set piece. The evilness of the upper class kept breaking my suspension of disbelief, though. Would the rich privileged upper class really subject the best of each generation of their children to this brutal culling and traumatizing of well over half of them, in order to teach the survivors to be merciless? Maybe, but if so you'd think that the culture wouldn't have the standard emotions of familial love and protectiveness that they also seem to have. Hmm. It's the sort of thing that feels more appropriate for something like Hunger Games; I expect YA fiction to be a little more exaggerated. And maybe also, I would have accepted it more readily had I encoutered it earlier in the book, when "things to suspend disbelief about" is still being populated. Somewhere between three and a half and four and a half stars, depending on what perspective I look at it from.

 

Terminus (by Peter Clines)
[personal profile] mjperson told me to skip book three in this series (which apparently nobody but the author thinks is actually in the series) and go straight to book four. Both 14 and The Fold were nigh-perfect examples of slowly ratcheting up the weird, whereas Terminus starts with half of the characters already knowing things are weird. But then they all end up on a Lost-like island for different reasons, and the doom starts ratcheting up instead. The pacing is a little less perfectly timed in this one, and some of the surprises only get to be surprises because one of the characters inexplicably fails to mention them until the dramatically appropriate time. It also reminded me a lot of the Laundry series, which has the exact same premise of "once world population gets big enough, the Lovecraftian monsters start noticing your planet", though other than that they're very little alike. Three stars, but I'll probably keep going with the series (except for the ones to skip). :)
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