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

Forty-something books

The Element of Fire, The Death of the Necromancer, The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air, The Gate of Gods (by Martha Wells)

Since I got to meet Martha Wells, I decided to re-read all of the Ile-Rien books, and then the Murderbot stories. I haven't gotten to the second, but here is the first. Death of the Necromancer is one of my few perpetual re-reads; I love it in so many ways, but perhaps most because it has one of the best nemesis pairs outside of superhero fiction. Nicholas Valiarde is a grand heist-genre mastermind who ends up tripping over a villain plot and having to go deal with it because nobody else is competent enough or irritated enough by the villain. Ronsarde is the Inspector Javert / Sherlock Holmes chaaracter (complete with a really charming Watson equivalent) who Nicholas has been ducking for two decades, who turns out to be also after the villain, and is a more visible figure, so the villain moves to take him out...

Now that he had gotten over the initial shock, he was almost light-headed with rage at Octave and his lunatic sorcerer. They had stolen Edouard's work, they had tried to kill himself and Madeline, and now... And now Ronsarde. He should be grateful to them for destroying the great Inspector Ronsarde, something that he had never been able to do. Except I stopped trying to destroy him years ago. He wasn't grateful, he was homicidal. It wasn't enough that they endanger his friends and servants, they had to attack his most valued enemy as well.
This is the book that keeps me picking up other heist-mastermind novels, and they are often good in their own right, but this is still my favorite.

 

Element of Fire is Wells' first novel, though it has been polished slightly since publishing, and there are a few ragged bits. It's still head and shoulders above most books; the characters are multilayered and interesting, and start with some unusual character classes (like Queen's Favorite). The raggedest bit is that the plot is entirely centered around the nobility, and I really wonder what is happening to the rest of the city during the invasion - but I don't think that's an unusual blind spot for fantasy of a generation ago, and it's not one that the later novels fall into.

Book one is set in Early Gunpowder With Magic; book two is quite a bit later, and three through five, set a generation after book two, are getting pretty steampunky what with the airship war. The dots of continuity are nice - the protagonist of the trilogy is Nicholas's daughter, and it becomes quite clear how a lot of the characteristics that make him a lovely main character make him kind of a poor father. The trilogy also introduces two new civilizations - the Gardier and the Syprians - and here's where Wells really gets to play with the world-building, which she is awesome at. There is maybe a little more jumping through worldgates into new places and then fleeing than I needed, but it's the minorest of quibbles. Five stars (and five and a half for Death of the Necromancer).

Tricks for Free and That Ain't Witchcraft and Imaginary Numbers (by Seanan McGuire)

InCryptid is the one of series of hers that I haven't fallen off. It's fun, and it hasn't exasperated me unreasonably yet. But this is books seven, eight, and nine, so I have nothing new to tell you about here.

An Illusion of Thieves and A Conjuring of Assassins (by Cate Glass)

At its heart, these are another pair of magical heist stories. Book one takes a long time to form the party, so for a while it kind of dragged through the protagonist surviving her downfall and keeping on going. But once it gets to the actual caper, it gets interesting, and the second book has to spend less time building up to the premise, so it's a smoother ride. On the plus side, the main character's magical talent is unusual and a lot of fun to listen to, and I had a good sense of place through the whole thing. On the minus, the party spends a little too long in justifying that they're a team to themselves and each other. Maybe I'm blase about party-forming through so many RPGs. :)

The Vine Witch (by Luanne G Smith)
It's a story about terroir-buffing French vineyard witches! I'm pretty sure it's the only book in this genre, and it's interesting just how tightly it keeps to this premise. Well, there's also the magical chocolatier, and the bier-hexe from Germany, but it is very French. (Or possibly more like Disney French). It feels a little closer to fairy tale in genre than fantasy, and the plot twists weren't too much of a shock, but it was sweet.

The Beatrice Hyde-Clare Mystery Series (by Lynn Messina)

These are five (audio)books, all with the subtitle "A Regency Cozy", and are exactly what they say on the tin. It's kind of like a Georgette Heyer Lite hybrid (Heyer is the epitome of Regency Romance, and also wrote a handful of mysteries), and Messina doesn't have Heyer's full sparkle (and her mysteries are more of an excuse to mess about investigating than anything else), but... all of that above is certainly faint praise, but I find them to be very pleasant comfort listens, which is just what I wanted. I've listened to a lot of Heyer's romances, but maybe I'll go on a tear through her mysteries next.

The Folk of the Air: The Cruel Prince, The Wicked King, The Queen of Nothing (by Holly Black)
Marcus recommended these to me, and I do to you. The initial setup: Jude and her twin sister Taryn, and her elder sister Vivienne, are the daughter of a mom who ran away from Faerie. Vivi is the half-Fae daughter of the elven general she ran from, Jude and Taryn are mortal. When Jude is seven, Madoc (the elven general) catches up to the family, and brutally kills Mom and Dad. Then, he takes his three daughters (because the daughter of your wife is your daughter) back to Faerie with them, and raises them, as well as a cold-hearted elven nobleman can. Vivi vows to hate Madoc forever, and because she's Fae, she follows through on the promise. Jude and Taryn, though...

As the High King's general, Madoc was away often, fighting for the crown. We were well cared for nonetheless. We slept on mattresses stuffed with the soft seed-heads of dandelions. Madoc personally instructed us in the art of fighting with the cutlass and dagger, the falchion and our fists. He played Nine Men's Morris, Fidchell, and Fox and Geese with us before a fire. He let us sit on his knee and eat off his plate. Many nights I drifted off to sleep to his rumbling voice reading from a book of battle strategy.

And despite myself, despite what he'd done and what he was, I came to love him. I do love him.

It's just not a comfortable kind of love.

It's a very nice setup for an uncomfortable character. Mortals are badly susceptible to glamour and abused in Faerie, though Jude is somewhat protected by virtue of her adoptive father's position. Jude doesn't want to want to belong, but it's the home she's known for most of her life when the story opens, so she's striving to anyway. The plot is betrayal-studded Faerie Court Politics, and is a lot of (uncomfortable angsty) fun. There's a bit of YA grain of salt needed to accept that Jude can hold her own as well as she does against a bunch of magic immortals, but she's pretty consistent in what she can do and what she can't (one rueful but honest comment: "Adrenaline may turn out not to be a replacement for experience."). Plus, being mortal, she can lie. There are some lovely examples of how to do misdirection and evasion in a culture that prizes trickery but must tell the truth.


The Cthulhu Casebooks: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows / Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities / Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea Devils

These were Christmas presents from Charles, and this particular mashup is definitely in my wheelhouse. It is a wheelhouse which has disappointed me in the past - Shadows Over Baker Street was 80% the obvious "Sherlock Holmes Investigates a Mystery and Gosh there are Monsters!". These were better than that. This one goes in the direction of editing the world so that there's a lot of hidden Lovecraft beneath the surface - snakemen underneath London, the Jezail bullet that wounded Watson in the backstory is a ghoul's claws, and then stipulates that Watson lies and mundane-ified his stories to make them more palatable to readers. The conceit lets the stories do a lot of name-checking in both directions. I quite enjoyed them, though I don't know if they are awesome enough to stand on their own if you aren't already fond of the genres. I had a couple of objections which are hard to get into without spoiling the entire thing, but at their heart they stem from bringing Holmes and the Old Ones a little closer in power scale to each other to let it be an unequal fight rather than crushed-like-a-bug.

Midnight Robber (by Nalo Hopkinson)

This is a tough one. I really liked the worldbuilding. There are two planets in the story - the one that's mostly utopian by virtue of a benevolent but not overcontrolly AI, and the prison planet with natives that people who fail utopia get sent to. I really liked listening to the audiobook, written in Jamaican/Trinidadian creole and narrated in an accent to match. I might have struggled with it as written, but spoken, it was beautiful. The opening:

Oho. Like it starting, oui? Don't be frightened, sweetness; is for the best. I go be with you the whole time. Trust me and let me distract you little bit with one anansi story: It had a woman, you see, a strong, hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two fot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush, the devil bush on the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree. When she walk, she foot strike the hard earth

bup!

like breadfruit dropping to the ground. She two arms hard with muscle from all the years of hacking paths through the diable bush on New Half-Way Tree. Even she hair itself rough and wiry; long black knotty locks springing from she scalp and corkscrewing all the way down she back. She name Tan-Tan, and New Half-Way Tree was she planet.
But, the thing is, it's a coming of age story. And I think maybe I'm getting too old for them; whiny immature protagonists making immature selfish decisions, who by the end of the book have matured into someone that I would be interested in reading about. I mean, that's the whole point of that type of story - that characters don't start out wise and competent, that they have to get there, and, you know, safety rules are written in the blood of past mistakes. But I want to read about them after they've come into their own. (TW if you decide to read it for some very abusive parenting)

 

the Murderbot stories, by Martha Wells

A handful of novellas and one novel. I read the first novella a while back, and was disheartened by the ending, in which Murderbot seems to walk away from the arc of the story. I was wrong; it's actually a longer arc than I realized. These are really very good. It's a fairly standard corporate dystopia; Murderbot is a security construct, but the point is more about the internal monologue of a sentient person officially assumed to be the equivalent of a non-sentient robot, and how a non-dystopia might treat them. At the very top level, it's space marine combat stories, but it's so much better than that, and I can't summarize it very well. Wikipedia says "The series is about an artificial construct designed as a Security Unit, which manages to override its governor unit, thus enabling it to develop independence. It calls itself Murderbot, and likes to watch unrealistic space operas. As it spends more time with some caring humans, it starts developing human feelings which it does not care for." Yeah, that's about right. Murderbot reminds me oddly of Gideon from Gideon the Ninth - the stories are nothing alike, and the characters aren't really alike, but both of them are unselfconscious meatheads, somehow endearing rather than annoying for it. Martha Wells can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned; I loved her from way back, but Murderbot has made her a new hotness, and it's well deserved.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K. J. Parker

Not part of a trilogy! It feels surprisingly like The Martian as far as being a story of one engineer attempting to defend against the environment which keeps trying to kill him in interesting ways. Except "the environment" is an invading army and he's not really alone, he's got a walled city full of non-engineers to defend. And KJ Parker is, always always, darker than Andy Weir. But I really enjoyed it, for most of the same reasons I enjoyed The Martian. I read it nearer to the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all fussing about toilet paper shortages, so the digressions about how disrupting the logistics of a supply pipeline that has been made very tight for efficiency reasons, were painfully timely. Orhan, the narrator and protagonist, has risen as far in the Empire's engineering corps as a conquered minority can, and it requires him being both smart with engineering and smart with bureaucratic corruption. He has to use both of them, turned up to 150%, to keep the city from falling. A couple of quotes from the beginning of the book:

I was in Classis on business. I needed sixty miles of second-grade four-inch hemp rope---I build pontoon bridges---and all the military rope in the empire goes through Classis. What you're supposed to do is put in a requisition to Divisional Supply, who send it on to Central Supply, who send it on to the Treasurer General, who approves it and sends it back to Divisional Supply, who send it on to Central Supply, who forward it to Classis, where the quartermaster says, sorry, we have no rope. Or you can hire a clever forger in Herennis to cut you an exact copy of the treasury seal, which you use to stamp your requisition, which you then take personally to the office of the deputy quartermaster in Classis, where there's a senior clerk who'd have done time in the slate quarries if you hadn't pulled certain documents out of the file a few years back. Of course, you burned the documents as soon as you took them, but he doesn't know that. And that's how you get sixty miles of rope in this man's army.
Hang on, you're saying, so maybe I should explain. They called it need-to-use stockholding, and they reckoned it saved the navy a fortune each year. The idea being, we had six fleets of three hundred and twenty ships each back then, and a ship on its own is not much use; you need masts, sails, oars, ropes, all manner of stores, of which the most important are barrels, for holding fresh water. Without water barrels, a ship can't go out of sight of land, because of the need to tank up once a day, twice in hot weather. Now, if every single ship in the Fleet had to have its own separate set of gear---you're probably better at sums than me, you work it out---that's a lot of very expensive equipment, and since most of the time only two of the fleets, three in emergencies, are at sea at any given time; and since the navy yards had been to enormous trouble to make sure that everything was interchangeable, ship to ship---it was quite a coup on the part of the government official who thought of it. One fleet---the Home Division, which is on permanent duty guarding the straits---was fully equipped at all times. The other five shared two complete sets of gear, which for convenience and ease of speedy deployment were kept in store at Classis, ready to be issued at a moment's notice when someone needed to use them.
The relevant point after both of these is that one of the first things that happens in the book is that Classis burns, destroying all the navy stores (including rope), making the navy very very fragile. This is step one in the invasion. Four and three quarters stars. I was a little leery of going back to Parker after the haunting gruesomeness of the Fencer trilogy, but this is just Gritty and not Terrible.

 

A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones

I keep revisiting Diana Wynne Jones hoping to like her, because she seems like one of those authors who lives in so many people's hearts. But she may be another case of being too old now. I mostly just found this a silly example of "the children save the world because the grownups don't take them seriously."

Dust and Shadow (by Lyndsay Faye)

Another mashup - Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper is the super-obvious first Holmes mashup (er, is it a mashup if Jack the Ripper isn't fictional? He's nearly as fictional as real at this point, though.). I had a theory that I might go read a bunch of them and compare, but this one is said to be the best of the lot, and I found it unsatisfying for what are, in retrospect, obvious reasons. Holmes can't solve the initial murders, because then the later ones don't happen, and you can't mash up with Jack the Ripper without having all the murders. So there is a lot of failure-to-get-anywhere through most of the book, which Holmes and Watson find frustrating, as did I. Leaving that aside, it is quite well done.

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

It's an origin story of New York City becoming alive in the fantasy way that large cities do under this premise, and it's also a philosophical rumination on how cities are alive in the metaphoric but true sense. I think I would probably love this beyond words if I had ever lived in New York - it's common to say that the setting is another one of the characters, but the characters are the setting, that's the whole point. Thinking back on it, it's poetic in its visuals and its ambiance; I don't remember the all details of what happened, because the mechanics are a little fuzzy. It's fascinating and evocative and maybe a little muddling and makes me - who has monogamously loved Boston for thirty years - want to be a New Yorker. Four and a half stars.

Harrow the Ninth (by Tamsyn Muir)

This is as different from Gideon as it is possible to be while still being in the same Space Necromancer genre. It's more complicated, more convoluted, way more confusing, and less fun. After finishing Gideon, my reaction was "OMG I have to read that again right now". After finishing Harrow my reaction was "...I think I have to read that again right now to see if I can understand what happened better" because it takes the concept of unreliable narrator and turns it up to fifteen. I admit I didn't enjoy it as much, but it clearly wasn't written to be enjoyed. The NPR book reviewer titles his review Whatever You're Expecting, 'Harrow the Ninth' Is Not That Kind Of Book and pretty much nails it.

[personal profile] mjperson and [personal profile] fearless_prime and I all pretty much inhaled it when it came out while we were on our Castle Vacation. After both Mike and I had read it a second time, I asked him "So... is [X] actually [Y] ? I am pretty sure the answer is either Obviously, or Obviously Not, but now I'm not sure which." His answer: "I was going with Obviously Not, but I'm less sure now." Because it's that kind of book. Five doomed stars. (Side note: The Gideon audiobook was ridiculously good. The Harrow audiobook is equally well done, but you might want to have your first read be print, because there are places where the typography is relevant.

 

The Iron Druid Chronicles (Nine books and some extra bits, by Kevin Hearne)

I wanted to listen to a long audio series like the Dresden Chronicles without having to think about which book to buy next. This is that. This is... Dresden-adjacent, a little bit in the direction of American Gods. It was good enough to keep me paying attention the whole way through, but not good enough to really prosleytize for. The thing that makes it more ambitious than just formulaic, is also the thing that I think it didn't do quite right, so it's been interesting to think about in retrospect as well. Book One premise: Modern day with covert weird shit. Atticus is the last of the Druids, 2000+ years old, and has been on the run all that time from Aengus Og, one of the gods of the Tuatha de Danann. He finally decides to stop running and fight. There are gods, from multiple pantheons. There are werewolves, vampires, witches, and telepathically talking dogs (though the last is just a side effect of druidic magic). Fights lead to other fights lead to ill-advised escalation lead to more fights, and nine books later you have Ragnarok Plus. One of the long-running themes is Atticus coming to terms with how Actions Have Consequences, and shifting from a comic book morality to something more nuanced that includes concepts like consent and owning up to your previous bad decisions. So... that's an ambitious arc. But I'm not sure how well it accomplished it, because at its heart, it's not clear to me how you can properly adopt a civilized ethical philosophy by yourself. Ok, yes, Mary, mother of Jesus, is not a murder hobo. But the Tuatha de Danann and the Greek and Roman pantheons and the Norse pantheon are all about both the Epic Battles and the slaying of mortals for minor offenses. One of the early events in the snowballing, that characters in the later books blame Atticus for is: Aengus Og and other bad guys kidnap Atticus's dog and his lawyer (a werewolf), and threaten to kill them if he doesn't surrender and give Aengus the MacGuffin sword. Rather than doing so, he and the werewolf pack go and fight the bad guys. Some other werewolves are killed. Atticus is also seriously blase about killing fae who show up (it's treated more or less comically; he's bound cold iron to his aura so they pretty much explode on contact). He's called out for this later - but all the fae who show up to try to kill him and are trivially offed, are, in fact, showing up to try to kill him. Another of the original snowballs involves some choices Atticus makes in order to stop the Maenads who are arriving up in Tempe - and these Maenads are about as bad as you'd expect, involving widespread carnage and mind control. So, yes, the long-arc lesson of how these violent delights have violent ends and then when Ragnorok happens there's a bunch of violent choices that led up to it, is a powerful one to try to tell. But there isn't ever a clear non-violent alternative to the classically violent plots like "supervillians kidnap your DNPC". Even Mary blesses the arrows for Atticus to hunt demons with. Okay, that was my Thinky Qualm about the story. My non-thinky qualm is that it is just too amused with dick and poop humor, and the general attitude towards sex. Is everyone in the series a teenage boy, or just the author?

The Labyrinth Index (by Charles Stross)

Mentioned only for completness. Things keep getting worse in the world of the Laundry Files. This one was a bit more fun than some of the other recent installments - it's in the Mission Impossible genre and has an almost-happy-ish ending.

Footsteps in the Dark (by Georgette Heyer)

I decided to start poking at her mysteries instead of her Regency Romances. It's still awfully Romance-flavored, but there are some nice creepy moments, especially given that the premise is about buying a "haunted" (in the Scooby Doo sense, as it turns out) house. I still seem to have a soft spot for country house mysteries, which involve characters whose job is being rich and think playing tennis is a grand accomplishment for the day, in a way that I suspect I would be much more dubious were they set in modern times or with fewer murders. Ah well.

The Obsidian Tower (by Melissa Caruso)

I should have read this in October rather than the summer. There's bone magic (though not as much as Gideon/Harrow), and fancy locked doors with Sigils, and mysterious murders, and Elder-Amberite-scale aunts, and a protagonist with strange deadly powers, and family politics, and a strange "are they my nemesis or my love plot" relationship and some interesting culture clashes and a spoooooky cat. Heck, the name of the castle is Gloamingard. I enjoyed it a lot, though there are a couple of character notes that felt overplayed. Four stars

The Kinder Poison (by Natalie Mae)

This was kind of exasperating. The opening was fun. "All good stories start with bad decisions." The main character really really really wants to go to the festival in the capital, and lets her friend talk her into tricking her way there. Except she accidentally tricks her way into being chosen as the human sacrifice in the "the three heirs do an Amazing Race style battle race to take the human sacrifice to the place of sacrifice to win the crown" race which... what. The three heirs are Psycho but Maybe Redeemable, or Charismatic but Reckless or The Good Guy But Doesn't Want To Be King for Reasons, and it's all very armwavingly noodleheaded. Two stars.

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking (by T Kingfisher)

Another one of the "Young wizard with unlikely power spec has to save a small part of the world" stories, with a surprising overlap with Sixteen Ways To Defend a Walled City. Among the sixteen ways of the first book was not murderous cayenne gingerbread men. Charming, as always. Four stars.

The Office of Mercy (by Ariel Djanikian)

A love story set in a dystopia. You know what else was that? 1984. This is kind of like the YA version of 1984, which I guess the Hunger Games tried to be, but without the completely abandon-all-hope ending. This version follows through to the ending, which... I really wasn't expecting, not having paid enough attention with what I was getting into. The domed techno-city of America-Five has embraced the ethics of reducing suffering, which it does by attempting to carefully and mercifully destroy all the low-tech people outside the city, who are presumed to be Suffering Greatly. The precise mathy calculations surrounding how and when to kill them (because injuring them, or letting them stumble over the bodies of their loved ones, are both Very Bad) is icily horrible and also still believable. It has the YA-ish small-world peculiarities, but is otherwise very well done and maybe not the thing I wanted to read.

The Angel of the Crows (by Katherine Addison)

I really loved The Goblin Emperor, which was an unusually kind and talky fantasy novel. This novel, on the other hand, is author-admitted "Sherlock wingfic", fan fiction where someone is an angel. Also another Sherlock Holmes / Jack the Ripper mashup. It's perfectly fine and definitely in the Things I Read category, but I find I'm having trouble keeping them from blurring together, so probably time to back off for a bit. :)

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