Read Recently — April 2017 — Cops and Robbers

A Murder of Mages: a novel of the Maradaine Constbulary by Marshall Ryan Maresca

Maradaine is a large, cosmopolitan city in the country of Druthal. Satrine “Tricky” Rainey grew up poor on the streets of South Maradaine but married well, to a constable, and now could be taken for a northern lady with, certainly, no knowledge of the streets. Unfortunately, her husband was crippled in an accident — in the line of duty — and now can’t even take care of himself, never mind her and their two daughters. The only work Satrine has been offered that she’d care to take is working for the constabulary — as a clerk, the wages for which are insufficient to keep the family fed and housed.

But, in addition to her time on the streets, Satrine learned a lot more tricks when she was recruited into Druth Intelligence. She forges a letter of introduction that gets her a job as an Insepctor, Third Class — enough to live on. She is teamed up with Minox “Jinx” Welling, a brilliant detective, most of whose partners have suffered various ills (hence the nickname). This is probably related to the fact that Minox is a mage–most mages in Maradaine are “circled”, that is gathered into a group with several other mages of similar inclinations. Circles provide training and protection to the mages who belong to them, among other things refusing to cooperate with the constabulary (they also provide enemies — other circles that your circle doesn’t get along with). Minox is uncircled, and thus self-trained. However, his family are all into civil service: constables, fire-fighters, river patrol, and the like. Minox closes cases, so he’s an Inspector. He and Satrine seem to get along well, which is good: someone has started murdering circled mages, and it will take all of both their skills to get to the bottom of it. And that’s in addition to the lie that got Satrine her job in the first place. Will she get caught? What will happen if she does?

Once upon a time it was assumed that there could not be fantasy/science-fiction mysteries, because magic and high-tech would make it too easy for the writer to get away with ‘cheating’. Many have proven that wrong since then, though I have a hard time thinking of any other police procedurals set in secondary worlds. Maresca has done a good job setting up the police culture of Maradaine: there are enough similarities to how things are done in modern North America to make the occasional diffference really slap you in the face when he brings them up.

Solid work, and Highly Recommended.

The Redeemers: a Quinn Colson Novel by Ace Atkins

Between the last book and this one, Tibbehah County held an election and voted Quinn Colson out as Sheriff. The new Sheriff, Rusty Wise, is an unknown quality, but Johnny Stagg, the Tibbehah Kingpin of crime, thinks that he might be a more reasonable man than Quinn. On New Year’s Eve, however, just before the transition of power, someone steals the safe out of the back room of a rich mill owner. Using a backhoe. They just remove the whole room.

That’s spectacular enough, but they not only get away with a load of money, jewelry, and such, but they unknowingly take away a bunch of ledgers that could really change things in Tibbehah. The mill owner did business with Johnny Stagg, and he had records of a lot of the corruption in the county. The feds are closing in, and Quinn may be off duty but that doesn’t mean he won’t get involved. Stagg is going to be desperate, and dangerous.

One of my main complaints about this series is that important stuff, like Quinn being voted out, often happens between stories. The stuff that happens in this story is important, what with Stagg being on the ropes and all, but that doesn’t mean that an interesting and important story couldn’t be set around the election, either. Anyway, the increasingly desperate robbery (originally it was a conspiracy between two friends upset at the mill owner; then they have to call in a professional to crack the safe; the pro brings his apprentice; then it turns out they can’t crack the safe; then a deputy sheriff shows up–it just goes on and on with increasing frustration, complicated by basic stupidity) has a nice southern gothic feel to it and several issues in the series are at long last resolved. If, for some reason, you wanted out, the end of this volume would make a good jumping-off point. Me, I’ma hang around Tibbehah a while.

Highly recommended. However, I do not recommend starting the series here. While you should be able to follow most of what happens, I believe you will lack important context that is best supplied by starting from The Ranger.


Read Recently — March 2017 — Lovecraft, yet again

In The Mountains of Madness: the life and extraordinary afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft by W. Scott Poole

There are already three biographies of H. P. Lovecraft out there that I know about: Frank Belknap Long’s Dreamer on the Nightside, Sprague deCamp’s phonebook-thick book, and Joshi’s version (both of the latter, so far as I remember, titled with the subject’s name). All three agree on the basic events and differ only in interpretation of some of them (Long, unlike the other two, actually knew Lovecraft). Since Lovecraft’s life was not long, pretty much all that can be said about the events has got to have been said, so anyone writing a new biography would have to bring some new element to the fray.

While Poole does look at Lovecraft’s life, and also analyses his texts (everybody does that) he also looks at H. P. Lovecraft the phenomenon, examining the effects Lovecraft and his work have had on those who came after him: people such as filmmakers Stuart Gordon and John Carpenter, writers such as Ramsay Campbell and Stephen King, and even Joshi himself. He also looks at the art produced in reaction to Lovecraft.

In terms of Lovecraft’s life, Poole does something that few others have been willing to try: he defends Lovecraft’s Mother from the charges that she screwed up her son’s life, something pretty much taken for granted by other biographers. And in looking at Lovecraft’s own art, he argues interestingly that with “The Picture In The House” Lovecraft introduced “the cabin in the woods”, a uniquely American horror element.

In dealing with non-Lovecraft elements he comes off less well, though. He doesn’t seem to get, for example, Conan; in writing about the comic-book character Dr. Fate he shows that he doesn’t understand the character nor know his history; in writing about Stephen King he makes it plain he doesn’t get King either (he discusses King’s explicitly Lovecraftian short fiction and the novel Revival, but doesn’t even twitch an eyebrow in the direction of It (there are good reasons to dislike It–I, for example, regard it as King’s worst novel–but for all its failures it still has an explicitly Lovecraftian theme) and doesn’t even seem aware of From a Buick 8, which I argue is King’s most Lovecraftian novel, though of course you have to read it to realise that and if you just superficially scan King’s oeuvre you would easily miss that element of it), and in discussing Joshi and the WFA award imbroglio he makes it plain he doesn’t understand any of what happened.

The result of all this is a fascinating book, right enough, but fascinating as much for its failures as its successes and its audacious ideas. It is well-written and well-edited, which counts for a lot. Recommended for Lovecraft fans, who will find a lot to chew over here, some of it savoury and some of it bitter. Mildly recommended for general horror fans, who probably find it less fascinating. There isn’t much here for the general reader.

Read Recently — March 2017 — Lagoon

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

When aliens invade, whether war-like or peaceful, they usually descend over one or more of the big cities of the western world, or Tokyo. There are often sound reasons for this: it’s easier to get filming permits locally, and/or do up a mock-up of or have Toronto stand in for New York because everyone knows what New York looks like. Aliens who were looking for cities would certainly have an easier time finding New York or Tokyo (or Mexico City, but for some reason we rarely talk about that). But what if the aliens were looking for something else? What if they landed, not in America, but in Lagos, Nigeria?

Okorafor’s aliens are not, as one might expect from her other work, typical e-ts. They are shape-shifters, seemingly made up of small particles like ball-bearings. They like the water, which is why they land in the lagoon outside of Lagos (which means, we are told, Lagoon). They change the creatures and the people around them. Of course, people being people, they also change themselves, and not always for the better.

And then, in the middle of this nicely science-fictional scenario, Okorafor throws in a haunted road, and the question of just who — or what — is telling us the story. Things get more confusing from there.

Okorafor is a difficult, but rewarding, writer. Based on a small sample (two books) I’d say this is typical of her work, which means it takes time to read and takes a lot out of you, but is worth it in the end. Highly recommended, but I would include trigger warnings for domestic abuse.

Read Recently — March 2017 — The Broken Crown

The Broken Crown: the Sun Sword book one by Michelle West

Trigger warnings for rape.

This is the sequel series to the Sacred Hunt duology.

After a prologue in which demon-lord Isladar takes a young healer from Averalaan to the Shining Court in the far north, where she can be raped and impregnated by the Dark God (only a healer could possibly carry such a child to term), we spend most of the rest of the book in the Dominion of Annagar, far to the south of the Empire of Essalieyan, where most of the action of the previous books occurred. Annagar is a very different place from Essalieyan; for one thing they worship The Lord of the Day and the Lady of Night, two gods who, as far as can be determined in the north, do not really exist. There is a Lord of the Night, though, and for a long time in the past he ruled Annagar, but they overthrew him and now are firmly opposed to him, and his demons.

The overthrowing involved the Clan Leonne, and the Sun Sword which they — and only they — wield. It was a gift from the Lord of Day (who, you may remember, does not really exist). The Sun Sword, an excellent weapon against demons, demonstrably does exist and is effective. It also consumes in fire anyone who is not a member of clan Leonne who draws it, at least as long as Leonne exists) and led to Leonne ruling the Dominion.

Sendari par di’Marano is a younger son of a noble family of Annagar. For years he was happily married but his wife died and now he is driven by the desire for power. Not political power, at least not at first: Sendari is a mage, but put off taking the dangerous training and testing at the request of his late wife. Now that she is no longer around, he is free to go ahead. Teresa di’Marano is Sendari’s sister; she also loved his wife and in her absence Teresa runs his harem and raises his daughter, Diora. Teresa is considered the epitome of Annagaran womanhood, always proper and polite. She is the ideal person to raise Diora, who will be a rare beauty, both because she can train Diora into a young woman who will bring honour to her father and her clan, but also because, like Diora, Teresa is bardically gifted and can teach her niece how to use the powers that her voice will give her.

As Diora grows up, she attracts the attention of Illara kai di’Leonne, the heir to the Dominion. She marries him and joins his harem; his wives become her wives and, honestly, mean more to her than he does. But then, she sees much more of them than she does of him.

Trouble ensues when Sendari joins Cortano de’Alexes, leader of the Dominion’s mages, and Sendari’s old friend Alesso par di’Marente, General of the Dominion’s armies, in a planned treason against the Leonnes. The shining Court, personified by Isladar again, wants the Dominion to attack Essalieyen for the Lord of Night. Since the Leonnes won’t do that, they must go and Alesso would be willing to turn the Sun Sword against the north, rather than the demons. The Leonne guards are subborned and the Leonnes are killed with their families; Diora is returned to her father’s harem. Her preservation is partly his price for his part in the treason, and partly because she is seen as a prize to be awarded to cement alliances within the Dominion. There is, however, something they have forgotten: Diora is no mere prize to be handed out for good behaviour. She’s a woman with a powerful will of her own, and the conspirators killed her new family, who she loved more than almost anyone. She will have revenge.

This is a re-read. When these books started coming out I passed them by; I had been following West’s earlier books, under the name Michelle Sagara, and hadn’t realised this was the same person. By sheer luck I stumbled across an article in a literary magazine that enlightened me and i started grabbing books to make up for lost time. This is an excellent high fantasy book, with strong characters who face powerful opposition. West’s writing is always excellent, and this is some of her best.

Highly recommended.

Read Recently — February 2017 –The Non-fiction

The Deadly Sisterhood: a story of women, power and intrigue in the Italian Renaissance by Leonie Frieda

Caterina Sforza was awesome. To be honest, that was the main thing I took away from this book. Frieda opens the book (after, of course, several pages of family trees, maps, and an introduction that explains a bit of how we arrived at these events) with Sforza’s defeat of a group of rebels who killed her husband and briefly held her in the city of Forli, where she was duchess. She out-maneuvered them until reinforcements from her family arrived and the rebels had to flee.

Sforza is of course just one of the renaissance women chronicled here, and not all of them are as awesome as she was. Lucrezia Borgia certainly was, though if Frieda is to be believed she was much calumnied. The Borgias in general were, though Cesare was very nearly as bad as his reputation.

Of course, you can’t write about a society’s women only, and the men do get their share of the limelight, even if the main focus is the women and the men are most important when they impact those same women. Overall, though, this is an interesting book about an odd period of European history, seemingly well-researched and, to me at least, eye-opening. There is the occasional error of proof-reading, or possible proofreading anyway (a word maybe missing; maybe just esoteric sentence structure) but nothing major that would affect comprehension.

Highly recommended.

Gold Diggers: striking it rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray

The late 19th century was a period of get-rich-quick schemes, and many involved finding mineral wealth around the little-explored edges of North America. One group of men after another moved from location to location, digging or panninng or mining or making a more reliable fortune providing goods or services to the first group.

The Klondike gold rush, though set in Canada, attracted a lot of Americans, including the 21-year-old Jack London, who failed to find gold but did find the subject to write about that would make him famous and probably richer than the gold would have. He also caught scurvy.

The towns that the gold-diggers built, like those that scattered the American southwest in the earlier parts of the 19th century, were built more on dreams than solid municipal planning. As soon as the next big find occurred elsewhere, everyone cleared out and there were rarely any permanent buildings to leave behind. There was more danger in the Klondike of frostbite, scurvy or dysentry than claim-jumpers or other violence, in no small part thanks to legendary Mountie Sam Steele, who patrolled the area.

Again, this is an interesting read about a part of Canadian history that I rarely thought about in any detail. According to a sticker on the cover of the edition I bought, it was adapted for TV at some point. Well-researched, entertainingly-written, well-edited, and Highly Recommended.

Read Recently — February 2017 — Mysteries

The Big Kitty: a Sunny and Shadow mystery by Claire Donally

When Sonata “Sunny” Coolidge came home to Kittery Harbor, Maine, to take care of her widowered father after his heart attack, the last thing she intended to do was be adopted by a cat. In fact, she had intended it to be a short stay, just until Dad was on his feet again, eating properly, and used to taking his pills. Her employer and sometime boyfriend, the editor of a New York newspaper used her absence and bad times for newspapers as an excuse to fire her, stranding her at home. Rather than be a strain on her retired father’s finances, Sunny got a new job — not at the local paper, a one-man family business, but rather running the web-page and front office of MAX — the Maine Adventure X-Perience, a local travel site. She’s not making a lot of money; the owner is notoriously tight, but she’s getting by.

Ada Spruance, the local crazy cat lady, stops by the office one evening she first asks about the possibility of turning her house into a B&B. This isn’t very likely due to the, shall we say, atmosphere of a house full of cats. She then asks Sunny for some more personal help: she thinks she has a winning lottery ticket around the house somewhere, and she’d like some help finding it. Six to eight million dollars would be a big help supporting herself and her cats. Despite herself, Sunny agrees to help and, with an eye to protecting Ada in the event of her skeevy son Gordon (or anyone even less respectable) grabbing the ticket and running, lets the local press know. It’s a slow news week, and the story goes viral.

Meanwhile, Shadow, a semi-stray grey cat, makes his move on Sunny and starts to worm his way into her life.

When Sunny shows up at Ada’s house that weekend, she finds Ada in her basement (the back basement doors are rusted open), dead. It appears that Ada fell down the steps from her pantry and broke her neck. However, a friend of the family assures Sunny that Ada never used those stairs. She was terrified of them, even had the door at the top painted over. It’s not conclusive, but it sure seems to Sunny that maybe Ada was murdered.

Suspects abound, from Ada’s tweaker son and the gangsters dealing the drugs, to several neighbourhood families who quarreled with Ada over the cats, to Sunny’s own boss, who wanted to buy the house and might have an urgent need for a winning lottery ticket. Even working with handsome local deputy Will Price isn’t enough to keep people from coming after Sunny with intent to put her out of the way, Can Shadow save his new home?

I’m not a real fan of the “small town girl moves to the big city, fails, and has to move back home only to find she loves the place” sort of narrative; but while Sunny doesn’t hate Kittery Harbor, she doesn’t love it either, so there’s that. And we get to spend a lot of time in Shadow’s head, but at least an effort is made to make it feel like a real cat’s way of thinking (not that I know how cats think, but one thing I am sure of is that they wouldn’t be exactly like a human) so that’s okay too. And the mystery holds together well. You might solve it before Sunny does, or you might be as surprised as I was. I did like all the characters, so overall this one is recommended.

Taken At The Flood: a Hercule Poirot Mystery by Agatha Christie

This one takes a bit of set-up; bear with me.

In 1945, as Poirot relaxes in a friend’s club, the club bore, one Major Porter, observes that a man, one Gordon Cloade, was recently killed in an air raid when his house was struck by a bomb. Cloade and all his staff died; the only survivors were his wife and brother-in-law. Cloade had only recently married; his wife was a widow (now twice). Cloade was extremely rich, but there is no cause for suspicion in his death.

That said, Porter had known the widow before–or rather, he’d known her first husband (Mr. Underhay) in Africa. She was the sort who didn’t like living in the bush and he was the opposite. He was also the kind of old-fashioned chivalrous sort who would offer to fake his death so that she would be free. “[M[aybe Mr. Enoch Arden will turn up somewhere a thousand miles or so away and start life anew.” And sure enough, Underhay died of a fever off in the bush where no one but his most trusted servants saw.

Poirot thinks nothing more of this until, in 1946, a Mrs. Cloade (sister-in-law to the late Gordon) comes to see him, driven, she says, by spirit guidance. It seems that the spirits have told her that Mr. Underhay is still alive, though of course they neglected to mention where, and she wants Poirot to track him down. Poirot refuses, of course, as he has better things to do with his life than wander around the world looking for a man who might, after all, be dead.

We the reader quickly learn that the Cloade family had been riding high on Uncle Gordon’s fortune, both the future expectation of it coming to them after his death (an expectation thwarted by his new marriage) and the present expectation of regular cheques that kept things comfy. Certainly they’d be happier of it turned out that the former Mrs. Underhay had never been legally married to Uncle Gordon in the first place.

Then a man named Enoch Arden shows up, claiming to have news of Mr. Underhay, and trying to blackmail money from the widowed Mrs. Cloade, formerly Underhay. And then someone kills him, apparently bashing in his head with a set of fireplace tongs. Poirot gets involved in a rather roundabout way. Can he solve the case before anyone else turns up dead?

I’m a little torn on this one. On the one hand, when the mystery is finally solved it’s frankly ingenious. On the other hand, I didn’t like any of the characters (with maybe one exception), and I thought that the last scene of the book, the denouement, if you will, was really almost offensively stupid. So there’s that to consider, and that takes me over to Not Recommended.

Read Recently — February 2017 — Fantasy

Silver On The Road: the Devil’s West, book one by Laura Anne Gilman

The Weird West generally follows the rules of classic urban fantasy: the magic stays behind the scenes, and doesn’t come too far out into the open. Unless, of course, it’s an alternate history of some kind, such as the one we find here.

Exactly when the story takes place is unclear, though the United States exists, albeit not as we are familiar with it. It stops east of the Mississippi, called the Mudwater in this world. West of the river is the Territory, also known as the Devil’s Territory (west and south of the Territory is the Spanish protectorate). The Territory is under the control of the Boss, who some people (particularly Church types) call the Devil. Everyone in the Territory must obey the Boss’s rules, or depart. The rules are not, generally, onerous, though they do involve leaving the natives alone. Which is what got Isobel (Izzy)’s parents into trouble sixteen years ago. They built on land belonging to one of the tribes and lost everything; though they kept their lives and their daughter, then two years old. They went to Flood, the Devil’s town, and they indentured Isobel to the Boss, took the money they were given, and left. Izzy grows up in the Boss’s saloon, working hard, but safe. Now, however, she is sixteen, a grown woman. Her indenture is over and she must find a new way of life: either leave the Territory or strike a new deal with the Boss.

Like all men, the Devil has two hands. His right hand, currently a woman named Marie, runs his saloon in Flood. His left hand travels the roads of the Territory, enforcing his will where and when needed. Traveling with Gabriel Kasun, a gambler who has made a deal of his own with the Boss and will serve as Izzy’s mentor, she will see places and things she has never seen before. Because there’s trouble in the Territory, and it’s Izzy’s job to deal with it.

I mentioned above that the date when the story takes place is unclear; if a year is ever mentioned I must have missed it. Most Weird Westerns take place after the US Civil War, in the period popularly known as the Wild West. One thing that can give the period away is the technological level as demonstrated by the weaponry in use. Izzy and Gabriel rely on their knives, with a blunderbuss for backup, and that means that revolvers aren’t a thing yet. So it’s probably the early 19th century (there are other hints that this is so).

Both Izzy and Gabriel are great characters, and the world they move through is like none other in the subgenre. And while the story is an adventure, it’s also the story of a young girl growing up. Izzy may one day become a power, but she isn’t there yet. I’m looking forward to future volumes.

Highly recommended.

Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs

A re-read. Original write-up is here.

I originally called it Highly recommended, and it’s still good but downgraded to a mildly recommended, because Briggs has done much better since then, and this doesn’t hold up as well.