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Book Review – Foundryside

Foundryside is the first book in a new fantasy series by Robert Jackson Bennett. The author is best known for his Divine Cities Trilogy (City of Stairs, City of Blades, City of Miracles) which was recently nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Series.

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In his newest release, Bennett embarks upon an ambitious fantasy series that follows a street smart thief caught up in the schemes of the Merchant Houses in the city of Tevanne. The world in Foundryside features a fantasy setting with a few elements that feel like steampunk, even though the devices are powered by magic rather than steam. Carriages are horseless, lights hover in the streets, and weapons are enchanted to have greater speed or to explode. All of the magic in the story is controlled by scrivings, symbols carved into objects that tell them how to circumvent the laws of nature. These scrivings are writing in the language of the lost civilization of the Hierophants, and the Merchant Houses are always searching for new symbols.

The four Merchant Houses in Tevanne are powerful family-owned miniature cities with their own vast economies. Each house is physically walled off from the rest of the city, where law enforcement is unknown and poverty is widespread. The miraculous devices powered by scrivings are rare outside of the Merchant Houses, but there is always a black market for valuables.

Sancia Grado is a thief from Foundryside, one of the poorest sections of Tevanne. However, she has a unique ability to sense the physical nature of anything she touches. This lets her work as a successful thief, but is also a curse because she has to keep most of her skin covered to avoid being overwhelmed. Sancia’s power comes from a scrived plate in her head, and she dreams of the day that she can afford to have it removed. When she takes a job to steal something from a safe at the waterfront, Sancia never imagines that her plans will go so far awry. She breaks into the safe and takes a sealed box, but inadvertently sets the entire waterfront on fire, attracting the attention of Gregor Dandolo, self-appointed head of the new city watch.

After Sancia escapes the scene, she decides to open the box to find an artifact with unusual powers. She decides to deliver the stolen goods at the prearranged location, but nearly falls into a trap. Whoever set the trap has powers and devices that Sancia’s never seen before, and seems determined to see her dead.

The plot spins into a complicated chase from there, and Sancia tries to figure out who is her enemy and who might be her friend. The tension never slows for very long, and as more details about the stolen artifact emerge, the stakes get higher. Foundryside was an action-filled tale that drew me in with both the characters and the plot. The magic of scriving was unique and fascinating, although I thought that it was used in a few ways that felt far-fetched to me by the ending.

Without giving any spoilers away, I have to say that the ending of the book did a nice job in resolving the current dilemma while opening up a larger story. Even though Foundryside is the first book in a series, you can read it without being left with a cliffhanger at the end.

Disclaimer: I received this book through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review – The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season is the first book in N. K. Jemisin’s newest series, The Broken Earth. I have read all of her previous novels, and like her other work, The Fifth Season brings a truly unique world to life. The world-building is fascinating, but for some readers, may be confusing in that the author never dumps any long explanatory passages into the story. This requires the reader to piece the information together while suspending many questions, but everything you need to know is in there. The book also contains a glossary at the back for many of the terms.

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Once the world of The Fifth Season starts to become clear, it is one of the most bizarre and mesmerizing settings I have ever encountered. Civilization flourishes between Fifth Seasons, each one a devastating volcanic winter in a world plagued by frequent seismic and geologic upheaval. During a Season, anarchy reigns, and only those who follow the ancient stonelore and are willing to take extreme measures to defend their homes and supplies survive. The people who live in this land are not quite human, and other non-human denizens, mysterious obelisks, and fragments from lost civilizations lurk across the surface and below.

A few people are born with the ability to sense and manipulate the earth, giving them a sort of geology-magic. Of course, this power comes with a price, and these orogenes are feared because they can freeze and destroy anything or anyone around them if they lose control. If they choose to, they could trigger earthquakes or worse. Set in place to control the orogenes are the Guardians, with their own set of strange powers. The book brings up the question of who is really in control – the orogenes, the Guardians, the Emperor, or someone or something else, and even the characters in play don’t know the answer.

The story is told through three different point-of-view characters. As the plot emerges, it becomes clear that each thread of the story is set at a different time. Essun is an orogene in hiding, having somehow escaped her Guardian. When a massive quake hits, she returns home to discover that her husband has murdered their son and disappeared with their daughter. Essun is determined to track down and kill her husband before he can hurt their daughter.

Damaya is a child who has just exhibited her orogene powers for the first time. In small villages, these children are often killed out of fear, superstition, or prejudice. Fortunately, Damaya’s parents have sent for help, and a Guardian arrives to take charge of her. Damaya trains in the Fulcrum to learn how to control her orogeny, but delves too deeply into its secrets.

Syenite is a trained orogene of the Fulcrum and is sent on a mission with the not-quite-sane Alabaster, a ten-ringed orogene who is supposed to mentor her, as well as father a child with her. Everything in their lives is controlled by the Fulcrum, but Syenite soon learns that Alabaster has been quietly subverting that control whenever he can.

One strange aspect of The Fifth Season is that it lacks an antagonist. While each character encounters physical obstacles or people who may post a danger or serve to slow down their progress, there is never a true enemy. In many ways, the greatest threat to all of them is the volatile earth itself. Even without an antagonist, the plot works well and remains engaging until the end.

The conclusion of the book was abrupt, and I felt like I was left hanging and was a little uncertain about what I was supposed to infer from one character’s revelation. The Fifth Season is only the first book in the series, so I hope that my questions are answered in the next volume.

Book Review – How to Stop Time

How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig, is a bit outside the type of book that I would normally pick up. I acquired an advance copy at New York Comic-Con last year, so I thought I’d give it a try. This novel is a more literary treatment of a concept that I identify mainly with the movies and television show, Highlander.

Tom Hazard isn’t exactly an immortal, but he might as well be. He is one of a rare breed of humans who stops aging at a normal rate around his early teen years. In How to Stop Time, Tom is over 400 years old and appears closer to 40. Unlike Highlander, no one is  running amok with swords (unfortunately), looking to take out the other immortals.

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Tom had a rough childhood – his mother was killed for witchcraft once the villagers realized that Tom was different. He fled his home and had no understanding of his condition, thinking himself alone in the world. Years later, Tom discovers the Albatross Society, an organization of others with the same affliction. The society helps members move and hide, find jobs, and helps Tom realize that he is no longer alone. The head of the society, Hendrich, simply asks members to do an occasional job for him, and there’s one rule for the Society: you aren’t allowed to fall in love.

At first this sounds great to Tom. He had lost his wife to illness hundreds of years ago and has been grieving her ever since. The pain of this loss makes him realize he doesn’t want to become attached to anyone like that again. However, Tom also had a daughter, and he knows that she is an immortal like him. His main goal throughout the book is to find her and reunite with her.

The storytelling in this book alternates through different timelines, but was pretty easy to follow, with Tom always the narrator. Most of the plot follows the events of Tom’s life and how he has been dealing with his emotions. Little action or suspense is present through the story. For me, this was the weak point of this book. Tom’s despondency with his life becomes apparent early on, and he doesn’t seem to want to change.

The intrigues with the Albatross Society finally fuel some excitement by the end, but for me this book was not a page turner. However, it was easy to read and relatively short, so it may be something to pick up if you like a more literary treatment of a story that questions human mortality with a dash of time travel.

Graphic Novel Review – The Walking Dead, Vol. 1 – Days Gone Bye

I picked this book up at New York Comic-Con last year and just had a chance to sit down to read it recently (so much to read, so little time). I had thought I was coming to this fresh, not having watched the show, and only being peripherally aware of it. However, the story at the outset seemed very familiar.

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Rick is a police officer and suffers a gunshot wound in the line of duty. He wakes up from a coma to find himself in a strangely abandoned hospital. After a bit of wandering, he discovers that everyone is either dead or undead. A-ha! This is how the film, 28 Days Later begins, so I thought that must be why the story seemed familiar.

Rick flees from the zombies and escapes the hospital. When he fails to find his family and friends at home, he heads toward nearby Atlanta. He eventually falls in with a group of survivors, and this is when I realized that I had actually watched the first episode of the television show several years ago.

I liked the artwork, and while blood and gore certainly doesn’t bother me, it wasn’t pictured beyond what you need to see to depict undead brain-eating monsters.

Soon enough, the plot continued past what I half-remembered, and the volume ends with a punch that was both surprising, and, in hindsight, followed logically from earlier character actions and conversations. It also ties into the initial premise mentioned in the introduction that was what actually made me purchase this book.

Two excerpts:

Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society… and our society’s station in the world.

And:

With THE WALKING DEAD, I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events CHANGE them.

This idea echoes the theme of another novel that I enjoyed – Stephen King’s Under the Dome (the book, NOT the television adaptation!), and I hope to watch these characters struggle and change as they try to survive in future volumes. I already have volume 2, so look for my review on that coming soon!

Book Review – Sorcerer to the Crown

I received Sorcerer to the Crown through NetGalley, and while I enjoyed the book, it wasn’t really what I had expected. This story by newcomer Zen Cho is set in Regency London and is a light and fun adventure filled with magic, humor, social commentary, and a little romance. Sorcerer to the Crown is a stand-alone novel that could be followed by more books in this alternate world.

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Zacharias Wythe was seized from his home as a child, sold into slavery, and raised in England by Sir Stephen, England’s Sorcerer Royal. He is freed and raised much like a son to the sorcerer and trained in magic as well. Zacharias inadvertently inherits his mentor’s position as Sorcerer Royal after Sir Stephen dies under mysterious circumstances. This shrouds Zacharias in suspicion, and with his race already making him an outsider amongst the London social elite, the other sorcerers in England plot against him.

The true protagonist of the novel is Prunella, a young lady who teaches at a school for magically gifted girls. However, it is unseemly for women to use magic, so the true purpose of the school is to teach the ladies how to avoid using their powers. Prunella is particularly gifted, but runs into trouble when Zacharias Wythe visits the school. She leaves with the new Sorcerer Royal and hopes to learn more about her powers and her past.

The plot weaves back and forth between these two, with Prunella struggling to master her magic while keeping some dangerous secrets. Zacharias works to discover why England is running out of magic, a problem likely linked to the Faerie realm.

I found the story to be light and engaging and the plot drew me in. Prunella is a fantastic character, and overshadows Zacharias with her audacity and bravery. I don’t read a lot of books set in this time period, but to someone who isn’t overly familiar with Regency novels, the historical aspects worked and nothing seemed out of place.

The mysteries behind Sir Stephen’s death and Prunella’s past are all cleared up in a satisfying way. While the stakes are high, the outcome is logical and happy, as befits the overall tone of the book.

I’ll be looking out for more books from Zen Cho in the future.

Book Review – Twelve Kings in Sharakhai

This book took a long time for me to read, but it was absolutely not the book’s fault at all. When I first started to read Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu, I was sidelined by other obligations and just never had enough time to read more than a few pages of the book at once. I’m sorry, but I would have struggled to stay engaged with even the most suspenseful page-turner at that time.

Sharakhai cover

I put the book down on purpose once I realized that I really liked it, but my snail’s pace was hampering my enjoyment of the story. Once the rest of my life was organized again (as much as it ever is, really), I went back to give this book the time that I thought it deserved, and was not disappointed.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is the first book in a series titled The Song of the Shattered Sands, which is supposed to run to six books total. This fantasy novel is set in the desert city of Sharakhai and has a Middle Eastern or Arabic feel to the names, cultures, and details. The main character is Çeda, a pit fighter and courier for those customers who don’t want their business known. Sharakhai is ruled by twelve seemingly immortal Kings, and Çeda is determined to kill all of them because she blames them for the death of her mother when she was just a child.

It is a tall task for a pit fighter to go up against the mystical rulers of Sharakhai, and Çeda flounders trying to figure out how to avenge her mother. She has been left with only her mother’s book and the skills and knowledge of how to sneak to the fields of the adichara, deadly trees with forbidden blooms that grant the user a hypervigilant state.

The story opens on B’eht Ihman, the night on which the asirim (undead slaves of the Kings) search the city and claim several of its inhabitants. While this is a death sentence, it is also supposedly an honor to be chosen. It is forbidden to be out on the streets, a law which Çeda routinely flaunts. On that night, one of Çeda’s courier jobs goes wrong when her best friend, Emre, is nearly killed. She is also cornered by one of the asirim who wears a crown, whispers mysterious words to her, and plants a kiss upon her forehead.

There is more to the plot that Çeda’s desire for revenge, for the Kings of Sharakhai have numerous enemies, including neighboring states and a more organized ruthless rebel force, the Moonless Host. Their plot threads all begin to intertwine as Çeda is drawn into the secrets surrounding the Kings, solving riddles that are seemingly the keys to their demise.

The book begins by telling its story through mainly Çeda’s point-of-view, alternating the current day with flashbacks showing her time with her mother. These flashback scenes become more sparse once we have learned the necessary information, and other characters add to the narrative, including Emre, Ramahd (an emissary from another state), and even one of the Kings. This structure worked well for me, but as more characters are introduced, it did require some concentration to remember all of the political relationships between them.

I truly enjoyed Çeda’s tale and found her to be an enthralling and realistically drawn protagonist. Some of her secrets and foreshadowed events were obvious early on, but I believe that was an intentional decision by the author, as more of the excitement of the story comes in how she pulls off what she does. But this book also ends as one volume of a series should – with many unanswered questions. One aspect of the plot is wrapped up so there is still some satisfaction to be had, and it doesn’t end on a huge cliffhanger. The next book (With Blood Upon the Sand) is already available, and I plan to pick it up soon.

Book Review – Artemis by Andy Weir

I had a chance to read an advance copy of Artemis, the new novel by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Like his earlier book, Artemis is set in the fairly near future and is written with an emphasis on getting the hard science right. Unlike The Martian, Artemis employs a larger cast which gives the protagonist a direct interactions with other characters.

artemis cover

The story follows Jasmine (Jazz) Basheera, a young woman who has lived on the moon base of Artemis for almost her entire life. After an incident with her father and law enforcement, she is on her own, working as a type of courier, transporting goods around the base. Jazz is innovative and smart and has also set up a smuggling operation to help net her some extra cash.

When an eccentric billionaire asks her to destroy important equipment in return for a fortune, Jazz cannot refuse. Of course, her caper does not go as planned and there is more to the billionaire’s plan than she was told. The plot accelerates from there as Jazz is hunted by a vicious enforcer while trying to escape discovery by officials on the moon. Her personal life is also a disaster, and all of these aspects come together in a fast-moving and unpredictable conclusion.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and I particularly appreciated the scientific rigor of the moon base and the elements vital to the plot. The opening was slightly slow to set the stage for me, and everything kept going right for Jazz for a bit too long. However, her sarcastic personality kept me reading, and once things go wrong for her, they went massively wrong.

The book is structured with short letters between Jazz and her childhood pen pal interspersed with the rest of the narrative. These weren’t very interesting at first, but became a clever way to explain some of Jazz’s personal history, and eventually became relevant to the plot.

While the ending wrapped up the caper nicely, I think that it was somewhat unbelievable as far as Jazz’s resolution goes. If you’ve read the book, let me know what you think in the comments, as I don’t want to put spoilers up here.

I also had a chance to visit the Museum of the Moon while I was at New York Comic-Con last month. This was a promotion put on by Audible for the audiobook release of Artemis. They had some props from the book on display which I’ll share below. The museum also featured a gigantic realistic moon by artist Juke Jerram.

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Jazz’s EVA suit

 

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Most of the inhabitants of Artemis eat Gunk.

 

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The Moon – created with NASA imagery.

New Year, New Things – YAY!

Well, it’s a new year and I’m only a month behind in pointing that out. I’ve been quite busy for the last six or eight months, and I’m sorry to say that my blog here has suffered from that inattention. It’s partly due to a new job and the demands on my time that came with that, and partly from adjusting to the way my sleep patterns have changed with the new job. I’ve worked nights for several years, but the hours are a bit different and I’m having to regiment my sleep better. Add some stress to that, along with holidays and some other things, and my writing has suffered all around.

I’d like to think that I’m back on track now, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’m back to reading more regularly, participating in my online critique group, and I have two stories that I’m actively working on. One is an older story that I never finished. It needed to be reworked and it still needs an ending. The other story… I think it wants to be a novel, but that’s the last thing I need. I have so many unfinished novels in my files that if I managed to finish them all, I would never have time to write anything else.

On the reviewing front, I’ve had a change there as well. The site that I used to write reviews for has changed its focus and will no longer be featuring book reviews. I still like reviewing (and hey, I get some free books), so I’m in the process of setting up some alternatives in that area. I might even post an occasional review here, rather than link to them elsewhere.

In other endeavors, I’m helping out with a new online magazine – Fantasy Scroll Mag. The first issue is in the works and the magazine is open to submissions, paying 1c/word.

And sometime soon, I should have a new story appearing in print. YAY! It was accepted a year ago, so this isn’t really new news, but I’ll be happy to see it finally published. I’ll post more details when it happens though.

That’s it for today! Back to writing…

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