Read Recently — July 2009

The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

I have, as a general rule, been avoiding Jim Hines’ work. His previous series, about goblins, looked like it was trying to go for humorous by way of twee, if you get what I mean. A second problem is this kind of “revisionist fairytale” thing. Done wrong, it’s really annoying, and it’s usually done wrong. So this book, which has as its theme Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty as a kind of medieval-fantasy Charlie’s Angels seems like just the sort of thing I love to not read. So why would I buy it?

First thing’s the cover. Excellent art by Scott Fischer showing the three princesses ready to do battle. Yeah, it’s dumb, but a good cover really can sell a book. A second thing is the whole female empowerment thing. I love stories with strong female characters. I am often disappointed in those stories, but I keep looking.

So. This book begins after “Cinderella” ends. The Prince has been kidnapped to fairy town by Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, who are demonstrating magical ability that they never showed before. Fortunately, Cinderella (Danielle) has some magic of her own, plus the help of the Queen (who wants her son back) and the Queen’s best agents: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Beauty (Talia) is a combat master thanks to all those fairy blessings. Snow (Snow–well, her real name is Ermillina . . . which would you prefer?) uses mirror magic in creative ways. The three of them set off to rescue the Prince in a story that is both deeper and darker than its subject matter would seem to indicate, without sacrificing the essential optimism of the “Happily Ever After” ending. Recommended, though I still won’t be going back for the goblin stories.

Hunter’s Prayer by Lilith Saintcrow

Sequel to Nightshift. Jill Kismet battles evil in the form of a mysterious creature killing and eviscerating prostitutes and dumping their bodies on the streets, as well as the threat that a group of “Sorrows” (don’t worry, the term is fully explained in the course of the story) may be setting up camp in her city and raising up an elder god or two. Aside from that, she spends most of the story worrying that her boyfriend, sexy werecougar Saul, is going to dump her, even though he never gives her any reason to believe that. I like this one because of Jill and Saul’s relationship, actually. Saul is everything that the tough hero’s boyfriend should be; he backs her up when she needs it and never turns her into something semi-human against her will.

On the other hand, this lets me down in important spots: while Jill stands up to all her opponents, when the chips are really down, she needs to be rescued by a man. Marginally not recommended.

Unfallen Dead by Mark del Franco

Sequel to Unshapely Things and Unquiet Dreams. Connor Grey investigates a minor crime that leads into a threat to the world. Again. This continues to be a good series, going in interesting and unexpected directions. Start with Unshapely Things, though, if you haven’t already. Recommended.

Iron Angel: the Deepgate Codex volume II by Alan Campbell

Sequel to Scar Night. In the wake of that book, Deepgate is in sad shape, Rachel Hael is heading across country with an unexpected companion, and the giant John Anchor is hunting for Carnival to set his god, Cospinol, free of his prison. And Dill is in Hell, where everyone seems to want him. This suffers slightly from “middle volume of the trilogy” syndrome, in that while plots advance, nothing can be really resolved. It’s also kinda grim, since so much of it occurs in Hell. But it’s still the same kind of weird fun that the first book had. Recommended.

Don’t Eat This Book: fast food and the supersizing of America by Morgan Spurlock

You may remember Spurlock as the star, director, etc. of Supersize This, the movie in which he ate nothing but MacDonald’s food for a month. This book sort of follows-up, explaining why he did it, what he actually did, answering his critics, etc.

I had some problems with some of his arguements re:incidence of obesity, etc. I had no argument with his arguements about the amount of junk food most people eat, and how it can affect you. He writes well, communicating clearly. Recommended.

Irish Tiger: a Nuala Anne McGrail novel by Andrew M. Greeley

The last time I talked about this series, I said it was irritating that Greeley was always throwing a secondary plot in with the main story, usually in the form of a manuscript read by the hero. They were taking reading time away from the heroes and, lately, not even contributing a parallel to the main plot. Well, thankfully that’s over. One story this time. Otherwise, more of the same. I neither recommend nor not recommend.

The Dragon’s Nine Sons: a novel of the Celestial Empire by Chris Roberson

It’s 2052, and Earth’s two great powers are at war over Mars. Those two great powers, of course, are China and the Aztecs (Mexica). Okay, it’s a parallel world in which China never withdrew from the world in the 15th century. Spaceship captain Zhuan Jie is is relieved of command for cowardice in the face of the enemy, and Bannerman (Elite soldier) Yao Guanzhong is up on trial for asking the wrong questions. Both men are given a chance to redeem themselves, though, but taking a captured enemy ship, a nuclear bomb, and a crew of seven screw-ups and convicts to destroy the Mexica’s orbital base. Basically, this is the Magnificent Seven plus two, in spaaaace! And it’s surprisingly good, too, though a bit heavy on the hard-SF side of things: it could probably have been cut by a quarter if all the tech-stuff had been removed or reduced in significance. Recommended.

Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty and Ben are planning to get married. Oppressed by the whole big wedding thing, they decide to take off to Vegas. Of course, they have to tell people that they’re doing so, and before they know it, Kitty is doing a live TV version of her radio show at one of the hotels, her parents are coming along to attend the wedding ceremony, and her friend Rick, the new Vampire master of Denver, is asking her to carry a message to the Vampire Master of Vegas (of course there are vampires in Vegas. Duh!). At the other end of things, the hotel they’re staying at is hosting a gun convention, which in addition to the standard NRA-types is also attended by several werewolf-and-vampire hunters, who don’t know about Ben but sure don’t like Kitty. And then, on the night before the wedding, Ben gets kidnapped.

Despite the fact that Vaughn has given us her first cliffhanger-ending, this was still fun. The whole series is highly recommended.

Shadow’s Edge Brent Weeks

Middle of the trilogy, kinda grim . . . still good, though, and I’ll be picking up the third volume. Recommended.

The Accidental Sorceror: rogue agent, book one by K. E. Mills

Gerald Dunnwoody is a third-grade wizard, having earned his accreditation through a mail-order school. Third-grade wizards are the bottom of the heap, and the best job Gerald has been able to get is as an inspector for the Department of Thaumaturgy, a job which results in him accidentally blowing up a magic staff-manufacturing factory. After which, of course, he can no longer get a job in Ottosland . . . so he takes a job as the royal wizard of New Ottosland, under King Lional, feisty Princess Melissande, and mad Prince Rupert. Maybe this will keep him out of trouble until the heat wears off back in the mother country.

Yeah, right.

This started out sounding like one of those books that was trying to be funny but not succeeding, but it rapidly got more serious and dark. The ending was really interesting and worked well. This is recommended, but I’m torn on whether I’ll pick up any of the sequels.

Territory by Emma Bull

Bull refers to the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral and associated characters as “the Matter of Tombstone”, which struck me as such a perfect way to put it that I almost couldn’t wait to read this book. It was worth it. I kept contrasting it to Robert B. Parker’s Gunman’s Rhapsody, though that was more of an Earp hagiography and Bull is more even-handed. Highly recommended.

Child of a Dead God by Barb & J.C. Hendee

At long last, the story started so long ago in Dhampir is over, as Magiere, Leesil, and their ever-growing band of companions at last find the McGuffin they’ve been hunting for for so long. Then, even if they can fight past its guardians, and long-time adversary Welstiel, they still have to get home, past the elvish assassins stalking them. And then we have to prepare for the next volume.

To be honest, while I’ve enjoyed every book in this series, I feel a bit intimidated by the series as a whole. I can’t help but feel that the Hendees should maybe take a break and write something else for a while. But, no: the next volume is already out. And I will probably read that one, too. So, cautiously recommended, but, as always, start at the beginning of the series.

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

Third of the Supernatural Spies series’ I was talking about a little while ago. Stross posits a world in which creatures like Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones actually exist, and there are government agencies meant to fight them, and keep all traces of them away from the general public. Britain’s is known as The Laundry, and Bob Howard (no relation) works for them. He’s not a field agent at the start of the story, but as time goes by he spends more time battling the Old Ones and their minions. But neither alien gods nor cultists are his most dangerous foes . . .

This is the best written of the spy series’ so far, if I may damn it with faint praise. Stross has aimed for a more Len Deighton-esque kind of spy story, and succeeded to the best of my limited experience with those. There is a distressing but mild tendency towards misogyny, which is completely in tune with the spy stories of the 60s and early 70s. This one hangs on the cusp of recommended/not recommended; your reaction to Stross elsewhere should determine whether you pick this up or not.

Mad Kestrel by Misty Massey

The titular Kestrel is a pirate in a fantasy otherworld, and also a mutant. Like the world of Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Nightfall, some people are born with random magical abilities. In this world, those people are seized by the wizards known as Danisoba, but Kestrel managed to hide herself and make a life for herself at sea. Then, at a port that should be safe, her Captain is scammed by the owner of a mysterious ship, and then arrested, and Kestrel herself is seized by the Danisoba. She escapes, and sets out to rescue her Captain and friend, an effort that will tangle her up in destiny. Atmospheric, action-packed, and a lot of fun. Recommended.

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: the Smart Bitches guide to romance novels by Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan

I don’t read romance novels, unless they’re firmly rooted in one of the other genres I regularely read, so the question must be raised: why do I read a website that specializes in reviewing, however snarkily, the romance genre? And, even granting the website, why did I go out and by their book?

I don’t know. But both website and book are well- and amusingly-written, and if you’ve got any interest in the topic at all you should give the book a try.

God’s Problem: how the Bible fails to answer our most important question–why we suffer by Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman takes on the problem of pain, and comes to what strikes me as a reasonable solution. Well-written, readable, but whether it’s something you’d be into is impossible for me to guess. Cautiously recommended.

Harry, a History: the true story of a boy wizard, his fans, and life inside the Harry Potter phenomenon by Melissa Anelli

The story of how Anelli discovered Harry Potter and went on to become a big-name-fan. Along the way she tells us a bit about the books, their author, and fandom itself. An interesting read. Mildly recommended.

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