Steadfast: the elemental masters, book eight by Mercedes Lackey
Lackey brings us the Steadfast Tin Soldier, though sadly no one is melted down in the book (I may be a cynical jackass. I may not be cynical). Trigger warnings for domestic abuse abound.
When the story opens, Katie Langford has already fled her abusive husband, taking her fair share of the money the two of them had earned from their circus act and accidentally falling in with a group of Travelers, who take care of her because her mother was a Traveler who disgraced herself by marrying away from her culture and also because Katie has magic, says the head of the family. But forget the Travelers, cause by page 30 (and from pages 9-22 we’re elsewhere, with the other protagonists, about whom more later, so really there’s less than 20 pages of Travelering) Katie’s on her way to Brighton, where she hopes to use her dancing and acrobatic skills to make some money in a place that the circus would never think to look for her. It is her good fortune to find that stage magician Lionel Hawkins is looking for an assistant, his previous assistant being leaving to get married (the fate of most of Lionel’s assistants). Lionel is a good potential boss for Katie, because he is secretly an elemental magician of air, as well as a stage magician, and Katie is in fact an elemental magician of fire.
Now, a magician of air could only give a magician of fire a basic education in magic and not much help with the specifics of fire magic, but fortunately Lionel is a close friend of the theatre’s backstage doorman, one-legged former Boer War soldier Jack Prescott. It is Jack who will teach Katie the basics of fire magic, while he and Lionel and certain others of the entertainers try to help Katie raise the money to divorce her husband.
This was kinda blah. I’m not sure why we start the story with the Travelers because they really add nothing to the narrative. Jack’s PTSD from the Boer War seems way out of proportion to what happened to him (I mean, losing a leg is tough, but it’s not that that bothers him). Katie’s evil husband is cartoonishly evil rather than frighteningly so, though it should be noted that there are scenes of marital abuse that could be triggering for people who have been through such things. And though the question of why Katie married the guy is when she didn’t really want to is raised, but never answered. I thought there might be something supernatural there, but there was no follow-through.
And once again, I have no idea when this story takes place (the final Boer War of two ended in 1902, but the first one ended in 1881 so all we can say for sure is sometime after 1881).
So if you want to read an average book in a so-far above average series, this is the one for you! If not, save your ten bucks.
The Thousand Names by Django Wexler
This is a very good, but at the same time very problematic book. On the one hand, it’s very well written, with strong characters, a well-imagined world, and good use of language. It also has a nicely varied selection of characters including women, at least one queer character, and people of colour. On the other hand, it’s main focus is characters who are the equivalent of the British colonial army in the 18th or early 19th century, and most of the people of colour are getting shot at. On the third hand (whose hand is this?) it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The Vordanai Royal Army regiment known as the Colonials is stationed in Khandar, mostly as a favour to its Prince, who is an ally the King of Vordan. The Regiment, being far away in wogland is the natural resting place of the usual collection of lovable (or otherwise) screw-ups. Among the less lovable are Sgt. Davis and his crew of louts; among the more lovable is Ranker (Pvt) Winter Ihernglass, who Davis and the louts have nicknamed “Saint” because he won’t unbend and go drinking, gambling and whoring with them. Like many of his cohorts, Winter is in the Colonials because of a woman, but unlike most of them he is the woman in question*.
At the start of the book, the Prince of Khandar has been deposed by the religious extremists known as the Redemption. They have put together an alliance with the local military (trained and armed by the Colonials), the Desoltai (desert raiders), led by the Steel Ghost (a man whose face is perpetually covered by a steel mask), to add some expertise to their mob of ordinary citizens (it is a large mob, though, and very frightening). The Colonials fled with the Prince to Fort Valor, where they wait for aid. Their Colonel died chasing raiders a while ago; since then the Regiment has been under the command of Senior Captain Michael d’Ivoire, a surprisingly competent officer. But now a new Colonel is arriving, with enough troops to bring the Regiment up to full force (though it turns out most of the new troops are total rookies). But the new Colonel isn’t bringing enough non-coms, so Winter gets promoted to Senior Sgt. All the Colonials expect that they and the Prince will be joining their new colleagues on the ships and returning to Vordan–I mean, they’re outnumbered 10-1, just by the Redeemers–add in the military and the Desoltai and, well, the new Colonel cannot mean to fight it out.
Of course, the new Colonel seems to mean to do exactly that. Moreover, He seems to be a capable leader, though not without errors. The locals argue that he is a wizard, but there are no more wizards among the Vordanai, they having been eliminated by the Priests of the Black (a division of the Church who have themselves gone out of business, there being no more magic-users to persecute). Certainly, though, he has an ulterior motive: he is seeking something in Khandar, but even Captain D’Ivoire, who the Colonel has taken on as his confidant, isn’t sure what. And Winter struggles to keep her secret as she gets promoted up to her level of talent.
So I guess the main issue is the fact that we’re spending all our time with an Imperialist force killing natives; on the other hand they aren’t conquering; they put the Prince back on his throne and then chase after what the Colonel is after. Winter has made the effort to learn the local language and has fond memories of the city from before the uprising. On the other hand, the Colonel does intend to steal something from the local society, though it’s something most of them have never heard of. I guess whether you should read it is difficult to say for sure. You should also take into account that it is “Book One of the Shadow Campaigns”, so how you feel about not-yet-completed series’ should also be taken into account.
*”he” is used so as not to spoil the surprise when I get to it. Winter is not trans*; she is pulling a Sweet Polly Oliver to get away from the prison/orphanage she was in before. Winter is queer, though (I am not sure what her exact orientation is but aside from general fucked-upedness Winter’s reason to flee the orphanage was the abuse of her first love, Jane)