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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.

Fifth Season Cover

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.

Walking Dead 1

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.

Mini Book Reviews – October 2017

I haven’t had as much time as I would like to read and write reviews, so here’s just a quick attempt to summarize some of what I’ve read this past year:

Zero World by Jason M. Hough – part science fiction, part spy thriller, this book was a lot of fun. I particularly liked that I could never truly anticipate where the author was going with the plot. The twists were intriguing and the world set up by this novel holds a lot of potential for more. I can’t even describe it more without giving something away.

The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold – a historical fantasy novel by one of my favorite authors. This story is set in Renaissance Italy and follows a young woman’s plight when she witnesses the murder of the local ruler. Using the bits of metal-magic that her father taught her, she has to rid the city of evil. I listened to this as an audiobook and enjoyed it, like most of Bujold’s work. However, it took me two tries to get through it, mostly because I was too busy to listen regularly.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog – I took a break from fiction to read this fascinating book about how people relate to animals in modern society. Even though I love the idea of non-fiction books, many are not written in a way that makes them easy to read. However, this book was engaging and allowed me to consider many new perspectives.

The Stand by Stephen King – It seems that this is considered one of King’s best works, but I did not enjoy it as much as some of his other books. I listened to this as an audiobook, and if I had read the physical book, I’m not sure that I would have made it through. I like the opening premise well enough: a deadly strain of flu escapes from a military research facility and kills most of the population. The spread of the flu and each character’s struggles as they deal with their friends and family dying, and the fall of most of civilization was a darkly fun read. However, most of the book then moves on to become a classic struggle of good versus evil with a lot of Christian mythologic overtones, which just isn’t very interesting to me. The antagonist is distant and never felt like enough of a threat, and the day-to-day activities of the characters dragged down the plot.

Codex Born (Magic Ex Libris #2) by Jim C. Hines – I started to read this series because I loved the concept of a class of magicians who could magically pull technology, monsters, swords, etc. from books. I listened to this as an audiobook and it went quickly. I found the narrator a little off-putting at first, but then grew used to him. The narrative sneaks in some backstory for one of the characters in small excerpts through the regular chapters. I couldn’t always follow the numerous rules about the magic, but the plot moved quickly and the characters are unique.

Here is what I’m currently reading:

Twelve Kings in Sharakai (The Song of the Shattered Sands #1) by Bradley P. Beaulieu – the first book in an epic fantasy series, set in a desert land with a well-developed mythos and world. I’m enjoying this one a lot so far, but I had to start from the beginning again when I had been too busy for several months.

Artemis by Andy Weir – I just snagged an ARC of this book by the author of The Martian at New York Comic-Con. It’s really good so far, and is the book I’ve been reaching for first this week.

Tongues of Serpents (Temeraire #6) by Naomi Novik – It’s been quite a while since I read any of this series, basically because there hadn’t been any more out yet at the time. It looks like Novik is up to nine books now, so I’m going to catch up. Dragons fight alongside human soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. This volume sees our main character and his dragon sent to Australia after committing some treasonous acts in the previous volume.

How about you? Have you read any good books lately?

Fencing Travel and Fiction Research

This past weekend, I had the fortunate opportunity to combine both fencing and fiction research together in one trip. I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri for a North American Cup (NAC) event. This is a series of tournaments run by the United States Fencing Association (USFA), held all over the United States, and on occasion elsewhere in North America. From October through April, these events are held once a month. Each NAC is comprised of different levels of events and age groups. This year’s schedule can be found here. The final event of the season is a combination of Division I National Championships and Summer National Championships. This is held over about a ten day time span from the end of June through the first week in July. It is a massive affair, with events for every age group and level.

St. Louis – Gateway to the West.

The October event was a Division I, Division II, and Cadet event. Division I is the highest level of national competition. If a fencer finishes in the top 32 of a Division I event, he earns points that go toward a national ranking. The Cadet event is for fencers under sixteen years of age and is also a point event, but with a separate tally for national rankings. I fenced in just the Division II event. This level restricts entrants to those with a C, D, E, or U rating (leaving out A and B fencers). If you missed my earlier post on ratings and rankings, you can find more of an explanation here. The Division II event awards no points, but rather awards new letter ratings depending on how high you finish.

Fencing venue. For most of the day, these strips were full of fencers. But earlier in the day, I was busy fencing so this was taken toward the end of the day’s events.

A NAC is an immense and overwhelming thing to a first-time competitor. The venue is usually a large convention center exhibit hall. Fencing strips stretch as far as the eye can see. Scoring machines buzz and beep, fencers scream and shout, and blades clash together on all sides. The bout committee runs the event and is sequestered on an elevated platform in some central location. Equipment vendors, merchandisers, equipment check-in, equipment repair services, and stenciling services can be found around the periphery of the hall.

The bout committee. The section to the left is for referees to gather and rest.

When I first arrived at the event, I had to check in. Everyone has to pre-register for a NAC event. Walk-in competitors are not allowed. At the posted time, the competitors for a given event line up at a booth which is usually in the hall outside the venue. They scan your USFA membership card and then you’re confirmed for the event.

Instant replay station.

The next step is the equipment check. This is within the venue and the line can vary from non-existent to a 45 minute wait. This is where your mask is checked for safety, and the conductive pieces of equipment are verified to be working.

This tournament had several instant replay stations, more than I’ve ever seen before at an event. But despite all the technology, each fencer has to cluster around a simple bulletin board to find out which strip her bouts will be fenced on.

One of several bulletin boards around the venue where important details are posted.

Overall, it appeared to be a well-run event. If you knew where to look, you could even glimpse some of the recent Olympians in action.

At the end of the day, I did not fence as well as I had wanted to, but after my injury and surgeries I was happy to be able to even compete again. I’ll likely enter the Division II NAC in the spring.

The Missouri Historical Society Research Library.

The rest of my trip was spent working on research for my novel, Badge of the Black Dragon. Since this story is set in St. Louis, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to explore the city’s history. The first day of research was spent at the Missouri Historical Society’s research library. I delved through old photographs and books, taking notes on a variety of topics.

This was the type of library where you need to come in with a specific area of interest. I had to request specific files of photographs, and a little research about this ahead of time had at least prepared me as to what was available. The librarians were very helpful when it came to my other topics. They suggested several approaches to search for what I was looking for and brought me about a dozen books. My favorite item was a reproduction of a map of St. Louis showing which blocks were destroyed in the fire of 1849. The library also had newspapers from the mid-1800’s which were filled with fascinating headlines and advertisements.

A section of the map showing the extent of the fire’s destruction in 1849.

On the last day of my trip, I traveled to a local cave system and then returned to the city to explore the St. Louis arch and the Missouri History Museum. These excursions were less specific for my novel research, but sparked some ideas that I hope will add to the depth of my worldbuilding.

I finally returned home with some additional books for study. My favorite is The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions – a reprint of a guide to pioneers that was originally published in 1859. I’m not sure that I would have found this small publication if I hadn’t investigated the local museums.

Also this week, I was interviewed by Michelle Carraway over at Reality Skimming about my writing process, ideas, and influences. Please go check out her page here. I’ll even tell you a little more about Badge of the Black Dragon in the interview.

Are there any readers out there who are thinking about taking a trip to research for a novel or story? Have you already done this? If you could do it again, would you prepare any differently?

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