Book Review: Tempests and Slaughter

Cover of "Tempests and Slaughter" by Tamora Pierce

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

Star rating: ★★★★

Usually, I avoid YA fiction like the plague; I’m too old and too cynical for the amount of angst that sloshes around. Tamora Pierce is one of the few exceptions. I still remember buying Alanna: The First Adventure second-hand from a market stall when I was a kid, leading to hunting for all the others – a difficult task, pre-internet. I’ve read her stuff multiple times since then and will probably continue to do so. I was therefore very happy when this one – the first new one in a while – came out.

And I read it in one sitting.

Pierce wrote Tempests and Slaughter to fill in the blanks of Numair Salmalin’s background – a character introduced in the book Wild Magic. Numair is a powerful mage, working for the government of Tortall after fleeing Carthak to avoid the wrath of the Emperor Ozorne – a plot point which becomes important later on in the Immortals quartet of books, when the action moves to Carthak (in Emperor Mage)Tempests and Slaughter is about Numair’s – when he was still Arram Draper – early years at Carthak University.

Since Pierce is very well able to write an adventure story in a ‘school’ setting – which she did well twice with protagonists Alanna (Alanna: The First Adventure) and Keladry (First Test, the first of the Protector of the Small quartet) I was expecting something of the same with Tempests and Slaughter.

I didn’t quite get it.

Tempests and Slaughter started with a lot of telling rather than showing; Arram is already a student at the University (at the age of ten) when the story opens, so there is a certain amount of catching up to do, involving rather a lot of exposition. The amount of telling reduces as the book progresses, but I never felt there was quite the close focus on events that there is in Alanna or First Test. This might be because Tempests suffers, I think, from a lack of actual plot.

In Alanna, although the book is the tale of Alanna’s four years as a page (disguised as a boy) in Tortall’s palace, it very much moves towards the climax of the book – the final fight scene where the immediate enemy is vanquished and the villain for the next book (In the Hand of the Goddess) is revealed. In First Test, the book chronicles Keladry’s first year as a page at the same palace – but she is the first openly female page, and is put under probation for a year. The ‘villain’ of the book is the training master who opposes girls being trained to fight – the climax is when Keladry finally proves her ability, and he has to admit that he has no grounds for preventing her carrying on with her training as a page.

Unlike Alanna and First Test, Tempests has no discrete story arc of its own. The trilogy as a whole tells the story of Arram’s relationship with the future Emperor Ozorne, from friendship to enmity, but that is not obvious during Tempests: Arram and Ozorne begin the book as friends (or at least, they meet and become friends shortly after the start of the book) and they are still friends at the end. There are hints that some plot is in motion, but nothing is resolved by the end of the book. A person who isn’t already invested in the characters and the world is likely to be left thinking, “What was the point of all that?” Yes, it’s a nice story about three young people at a magic school – but where’s the villain? Where’s the danger? Where’s the story?

I think Tempests suffers from being a book that only exists to tell people how a character got to be where he was in another – previously published – book. And although the final result is going to be a big confrontation with attendant danger and excitement, what Tempests is doing is pure setup. In a way, Tempests is not a story itself – it’s one-third of a story.

Of course, it’s usual for a trilogy to have an overarching plot which only pays off at the end of the last book, but it’s also usual for each book to have its own storyline that comes to some sort of climax and conclusion at the end of each book – as Pierce did with her previous duologies/trilogies/quartets. Each of her previous novels has functioned very well as a standalone story – except Tempests. It makes me wonder why not.

Character-wise, you can see how the three main characters ended up where they did in Emperor Mage. I liked Varice more than I expected to, and I hope she gets developed more in Book 2. When we see Varice in Emperor Mage, she doesn’t show to particular advantage (although that might be due to point of view), and it was interesting to see how Pierce has written people’s attitude to Varice – she isn’t taken seriously not because she is female (there are plenty of powerful female characters) but because her magic is dismissed as ‘kitchen witchery’ and therefore less important/powerful. After reading Tempest and Slaughter, the one character I’d like to see more of is Varice. This book makes me wonder what she did after the events of Emperor Mage

Ozorne was less interesting, as we pretty much knew what was going to happen with him, and we know where he’s going to go. However, Pierce seems to be managing the move from Ozorne as he is at the beginning of Tempests and Slaughter to where he is when we meet him in Emperor Mage. We know what has to happen, of course, but it’s not an easy character development to write convincingly.

In some ways, Arram/Numair was the least interesting in the way of character development – he’s a nice kid, and he stays a nice kid throughout the book. To some extent, Varice and Ozorne both have more to put up with than Arram in this book – Varice with the mild disdain she endures from others, and Ozorne with the changes in his status – so they change more. Arram has no real challenges, and he’s also younger than the other two and a bit of a follower – I suspect that the real development will come in Book 2, as he has to make difficult choices.

So, to conclude: this is a book for existing fans who have already read at least The Immortals Quartet (starting with Wild Magic) and want to know how Arram Draper became Numair Salmalin. As a story, it relies on the reader’s interest in the characters rather than plot – and a lesser writer than Pierce couldn’t have pulled it off. Four stars for pulling it off!

And the prize for idiocy goes to…

Me.

I’ve had an Audible subscription for several years, and always struggled to find enough audiobooks to buy. This is because, historically, I’ve been a purely print (ebook) reader. I like to see the words – otherwise they don’t seem quite real. Definitely a visual learner!

So I’ve steered away from audiobooks I didn’t already own in print – I’ve mostly been using my Audible subscription to buy books so that I can ‘re-read’ old favourites while doing household chores. The first time I bought an audiobook I hadn’t already read in print was one in a long-running series, so I already knew all the characters. And that didn’t go too badly. I followed the story quite nicely. 🙂

And I’ve just recently (as in today) realised that… well, I can do that again! Those books that I’m waiting for the Kindle prices to drop so I can justify buying them? Well, I can get the audio versions with my mostly-still-unused subscription!

Wow. Who knew?

Now I’m off to go and listen to some books…

Review: Charming

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Charming
Charming by Elliott James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was looking for something to fill in the wasteland before the next Jim Butcher book, and although Elliott James has a way to go before he reaches Butcher’s standard, I congratulate myself on having made a good decision when I picked this one up.

Characters
John Charming, sort-of-werewolf and definite bartender, is the main character. He’s on the run from the Knights, whose job it is to enforce the Pax Arcana, which is a spell enforced policy of leaving supernatural wotsits alone as long as they keep their heads down. Anyone sticking their head up gets it shot off. Being a werewolf is a career-ending state, and the knights would like it to be a life-ending state.

I liked John. He has a nice, self-deprecating sense of humour, and is tough without being an eye-rolling cliche. James puts him in quite a few situations, ranging from the embarrassing to the dangerous, and I enjoyed the way John reacted. Especially to the embarrassing ones. The man actually thinks with his brain rather than his… other parts. In some ways, that’s a pretty courageous decision on the part of the author; it means James actually has to put actual plot in place instead of just have the MC commit hormone-fuelled stupidity to move things along.

Sig, female, is the secondary character. I really liked Sig. If it’s rare to have a male MC who doesn’t commit testosterone-fulled stupidity, it’s even rarer to have a female character who manages to keep her brain operating all the way through the book and doesn’t fall over backwards as soon as a hot guy shows up. There was a lot to like about Sig: she’s intelligent, tough, and a leader.

There are other characters – Molly the episcopalian priest, Choo the exterminator and Man With Van, plus others – who all have their own personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. I seriously hope that James is building a team for keeps here, because I want to hear more about these people. It’s also noteworthy that the MC doesn’t immediately take over and start being better than every other character at what they do. The dynamics between all the characters felt reasonably realistic as a team.

The Plot
Was not terribly complicated. This is where James has a way to go before he reaches Jim Butcher’s standards. Still, it kept moving, and it kept me interested. The pacing suffered somewhat from a lot of exposition in the early stages, but picked up after that. I would recommend, if you’re a bit ambivalent about the first bits, that you carry on reading at least a third of the way through.

The World
James has some interesting ideas, and doesn’t just follow the usual urban fantasy tropes. It’s not as dark as The Dresden Files, but it’s not rainbows and unicorns either.

The Bad Bits
There honestly weren’t many. I could definitely have done without the heavy slugs of exposition, but hey, it’s the first book in the series, and I survived. Hopefully, he won’t see the need in future books.

And on the very, very last page, he did an irritating thing that actually appears on a couple of ‘reader pet peeve’ lists I’ve seen. But it was only one page and though it scraped across my mind like fingers across a blackboard, I survived that too.

The Verdict
This book didn’t exactly knock my socks off (four out of five stars, but only just), but it’s joined my list of good urban fantasy that I’m going to carry on with. Given the style of the book as a whole, I’m expecting that further books will improve as there is less need for exposition, and more room for plot.

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Review: The Death of the Necromancer

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The Death of the Necromancer
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago – maybe when it first came out. It’s one that’s stuck with me, and when I saw the Kindle version on sale, I snapped it up.

I’m glad I did.

Some books, when you read them a second time, years later, have lost their lustre. This is not one of those books; I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time round.

So, what did I enjoy?

The Characters
All the characters are just a bit larger than life – the gentleman-thief, the actress, the sorcerer, the great detective, and so on – but not so much so that it disturbed the enjoyment of the story. They felt real – they lost their tempers, sniped at each other, and made mistakes.

The Plot
There’s an awful lot of running around, and a fair number of corpses. To be fair, I think the actual plot was the weakest point of the story, because there were a few holes in it, and things just got wrapped up a bit too neatly and too quickly at the end, but…

The Setting
I think this probably the main reason why Death of the Necromancer stayed with me for so many years. Wells writes the city of Ile-Rien vividly enough that I could see the dark, foggy streets in my head. It had weight and depth – it felt real.

Conclusion
Thinking on, this is the book by which I measure all other gaslight fantasy.

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Review: The Gate of Sorrows

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The Gate of Sorrows
The Gate of Sorrows by Miyuki Miyabe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is definitely Young Adult fiction – but it has a distinct lack of romance (let alone a love triangle featuring the protagonist) and a refreshingly low angst quotient. And at 600 pages or so, it’s about twice as long as your typical YA novel. I found myself wondering whether this book was unusual, or whether that’s just the way Japanese YA writers write. If the latter, Japanese Young Adults are very fortunate.

The Translation
I found the translation pretty good: there was only one instance in which an obviously wrong word was used (people don’t ‘audit’ a lecture unless they’re doing some kind of quality control, despite the fact that the root of ‘audit’ means ‘to listen’). Furthermore, the translation seemed to me to have kept the ‘Japaneseness’ of the setting and the people.

The Characters
Once again, this story is different from the general run because our hero (Kotaro) is just an ordinary 19-year-old student who gets involved in paranormal goings on. He’s not some kind of superhuman ‘chosen’, and he doesn’t have amazing powers. Nor is he the only one who can save the world. This means that the scope of the story is somewhat smaller, but it’s more realistic. Kotaro is dealing with issues that ordinary people deal with – although most people don’t get the paranormal angle.

Another interesting difference between this and many other YA books is that in this one, the adults aren’t all stupid and/or oblivious. People are people: they have their own concerns; they make decisions – good and bad; they live with the consequences. Kotaro is the main character, but he moves in a web of associations – friends, family, colleagues. It all felt refreshingly normal.

The Plot
There were at least two intertwining plot strands – the murders, and the school troubles of Kotaro’s younger sister’s friend. Both of these were very much in service to the book’s overall message: the power of words and communication, for good or for evil. There were definitely times that the author seemed to be speaking directly to the reader – which is one reason this is definitely pegged as Young Adult, in addition to the age and situation of the protagonist. That said, the author did put together an interesting plot – and I found that the pace definitely picked up in the last 25% of the book, as things start to come together. This is a long, slow read – but rewarding.

The Conclusion
Definitely a Young Adult book, rather than ‘adult’ as it’s labelled on Goodreads. However, refreshingly free from angst, and rather more thoughtful and less dramatic than most.

Am I glad I read it? Yes, definitely – although YA isn’t a genre I enjoy as a rule. Would I read anything by this author again? Yes, if I can find an adult book translated into English.

Definitely several hours well-spent. 🙂

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Review: A Discovery of Witches

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A Discovery of Witches
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You can definitely tell that this book was written by a historian – and an academic at that. Not only are there lots of bits of history in it, but the author’s love of learning, of acquiring knowledge, shines through. Not simply because Protagonist 1 (Diana) is an academic, and a historian of science at that (just like the author!), but Protagonist 2 (Matthew) is a centuries-old vampire. Interestingly, the author doesn’t chart his long life in terms of money, or power, or sex, but in terms of scholars known and books read and/or acquired. Similarly, Diana’s reaction to old manuscripts is entirely believable.

Many people don’t seem to like the amount of detail in this book – myself, I loved it. I loved the way Diana and Matthew discuss history, alchemy, genetics, the eating habits of wolves… It was a real treat to read two protagonists who are highly intelligent, very well-educated, and have an insatiable desire to learn.

The plot – well, there are two. The love story between Diana and Matthew, and whatever is going on with Ashmole 782. The first got rather more advancement than the second – I expect Books 2 and 3 will have more about the mysterious manuscript. If you are looking for a fast-paced plot with lots of excitement, this book is not for you. This is a slow-burn sort of book, and I expect the story will play out with a lot of finding of information, and putting together of puzzles, rather than explosions and car chases.

Urban fantasy done with academics.

I love it. 🙂

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Review: 13 Bullets

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13 Bullets
13 Bullets by David Wellington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have not, hitherto, considered myself to be a reader of horror fiction – mostly because I’m a wimp and I don’t want to have nightmares. But I really enjoyed this one.

To be honest, it’s gory rather than scary, per se. Body count in triple figures, mostly courtesy of vampires who are actual monsters. These are not your wishy-washy sparkly vampires: these are predators. (Admittedly, I have a few minor quibbles with the way Wellington does vampires, but really, it’s his train set and he can play with it however he likes – and minor quibbles did not significantly detract from my enjoyment [during daylight hours] of the story.)

Laura Caxton, highway patrol trooper, makes an unpleasant discovery at a routine traffic stop – and gets conscripted as junior van Helsing by the United States’ best (only) vampire hunter: Special Deputy Arkeley. There must be something special about Laura, beyond the fact that she’s the only one who’s read Arkeley’s report of his last (only) vampire killing – mustn’t there?

The narrative follows the confused, scared Laura as she struggles to meet Arkeley’s expectations (if she can figure out what they are) and to work out why he wants her at all. And why the vampires seem to want her, too. I have never hunted vampires, but Laura’s reactions seemed to be pretty realistic – she goes through the gamut of this is cool/horror/fear/despair/terror/etc that a real person thrust into such a situation might do, rather than instantly becoming some kind of superpowered vampire killer. This was a nice change.

And I did like the twist at the end. Some might find it disappointing, but I thought it gave the whole book a new layer. You end up looking at the whole thing from a slightly different angle, and thinking yep, that’s life.

Thoroughly recommended.

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Writing for the in-crowd, or writing for everyone?

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Let’s say this right now: nerd culture/pop culture/geek culture leaves me cold. I read a graphic novel once (one of the Jim Butcher ones – so one of my favourite authors) and didn’t like it; I just ended up thinking “This would have been so much better as a real book.” Superheroes? Well, I saw Batman once. I think. Or maybe it was a trailer. There was a lot of dark and rain. I also saw one of the Star Wars films: there was desert. I’ve been forced to play tabletop games, when I couldn’t think of a sufficiently good excuse to avoid it.

I’ve been to sci-fi/fantasy conventions three times. Never again. The last one, the best day of the entire weekend was when I put my foot down and stayed in our room in the second-worst hotel I’ve ever encountered (the worst one was in Paris, on the edge of the red light district).

So, despite being a keen reader of sci-fi and fantasy, my geek cred is zero.

I don’t think anybody writes urban fantasy better than Jim Butcher. And, of course, Harry Dresden‘s pop culture credentials are established pretty early on, with Star Wars references and then the weekly gaming sessions with the Alphas. That fits in well with Harry’s character; he isn’t just a vehicle for plot: he’s an actual person, with hobbies and a life outside the hell Butcher puts him through.

Lately, though, the pop culture references have been getting more frequent – a particular example is the Butters short story Day One, which makes a lot less sense if you don’t do roleplaying games. It’s possible to read it and more or less understand what’s going on, but it’s a bit like when I read in French: I can get the gist of the action, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of the detail is going over my head, and I may be missing some important stuff.

For me, Day One was the least-good story of Butcher’s that I had read up to that point, and I finished it with a dull sense of disappointment: Was that all? I also felt that a story that could have been pretty amazing – Butters the polka-playing medical examiner becomes a hero in his own right – flopped because poor Butters took a backseat to all the pop culture references in his own story.

And that, I think, is because I’m not in the target audience for it.

Day One was written for people who do like the whole geek culture thing, who enjoy the constant gaming references. It is, essentially, a roman à clef: a book that sort of makes sense if you aren’t in the in-crowd, but in order to appreciate what the author is really doing, you have to be in the know. It’s also obvious that there are jokes and references that you (as a non-member) don’t get, so you know you’re in the out-crowd.

I think, as an author, it’s important to realise what you’re doing. Making fun references is one thing – Easter Eggs (see, I do know some of the terminology) for the in-crowd to find, to give them a little extra. However, the more numerous and plot-central these Easter Eggs are, the more likely they are to push the novel into roman à clef territory, when the novel stops working for people who are not in the in-crowd.

If you want to write a roman à clef, then go ahead. If you want to exclude a large part of your potential audience, that’s up to you – maybe the roman à clef is the book of your heart, and you really don’t care that it will leave the out-crowd bemused (and probably less likely to read any more of your work). After all, you can’t please everyone, and it’s best not to try.

But know that that’s what you’re doing, and do it intentionally. If you’re going to write a roman à clefthen write the best one you possibly can, and be damned to anyone else.

However, if it’s not your intention to exclude people who are outside your circle, then sprinkle your Easter Eggs with a light touch. After all, too much chocolate is bad for you!

 

Book Review: Oracle, by Susan Boulton

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Star rating: ★★★★

Sometimes, you know you’re going to enjoy a book within the first page. This was one of those books; Boulton hooked me almost immediately. Her characters are likeable and well-drawn – she avoids the pitfall of making her villains too villainous to believe – and the plot is just what I like: politics and manoeuvring, rather than a lot of screaming and rushing around. (OK, I also like violence, but even then I like it to come with actual plot.)

Boulton’s world has a lot in common with late 19th-century England, just as the industrial revolution is really starting to kick in with the accompanying riots, but with some extra twists – a species of villeinage (“bond-servants”) seems to have survived (or been resurrected), but the monarchy has not, although the country is ruled by a hereditary aristocracy.

This was a solid four star read – at times, I thought it might even make five stars (which I don’t often give). There were only two things which let it down: firstly, the resolution seemed to come a little too easily to the characters. At a cost, yes, but still… And secondly, there was a definite feel that this would have done best as Book 1 of a series, or at least a duology. There is sufficient world-building for an excellent series, and also enough plot is left unresolved for certainly a second book. So much so that I do wonder whether that was Boulton’s original intention. If so, it’s a pity that she never wrote a follow-up.

A sense of place in fantasy

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Every book is set somewhere, whether that’s a quasi-medieval world or a space station or a modern city – or even in someone’s mind. An interesting question, though, is how much influence the setting has on the story being told. Lindsey Davis, who writes the Marcus Didius Falco and Flavia Albia historical detective series set in ancient Rome, particular dislikes “books set in Birmingham but you can’t tell that it’s Birmingham.” (Along with some other things – I went to a reading by Lindsey Davis (in Birmingham!) a year or two ago, and she was brilliantly funny.)

Jim Butcher was initially intending to set Harry Dresden in Kansas City (Butcher’s hometown) but his writing teacher persuaded him not to, because it was too similar to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books set in St. Louis. He didn’t want to pick Washington DC because it would mean incorporating politics into the books and didn’t want New York because that’s where all the book editors live; he picked Chicago pretty much at random, and the rest is history… or fantasy. I remember reading that when Butcher started writing the Dresden Files, he hadn’t even been to Chicago or really done any research on the city (the research came later). I don’t know how well Butcher portrays Chicago in general, but an important part of the Dresden Files books is ‘Undertown’ – supposedly the result of the original streets sinking into the swamp and then being built over. Butcher seems to have taken some creative licence there; Chicago does indeed have tunnels – the Pedway – but the first tunnel was built in 1951, as an underground pedestrian route between two underground railway lines. It just sort of expanded from there, without any real plan. A little different from Butcher’s version, although possibly nearly as mysterious! If Butcher had picked some other American town – Miami, maybe, or Philadelphia – would it have made any real difference to how the stories played out?

Right at the other end of the scale, you’ve got the urban fantasy classic Neverwhere, where the nature of London permeates every page and London locations are vital to the story. If you set Neverwhere in, say, New York (or Chicago, or Miami), you’d end up with an entirely different story. Not only would the details have to change, but the feel of the story would have to change too. London has nearly two thousand years of history behind its mysteries, but New York is very much a new city.

Likewise, York (the original one) is only about thirty years younger than London, but the cities are now very different, so urban fantasy set in York would be different to London – and different again if set in Birmingham. Birmingham is a relatively new city – the first documentary evidence of its existence (as a manor worth 20 shillings) being in 1086, although a settlement is thought to have existed earlier. But although Birmingham is the UK’s second-largest city, it’s only a seventh the size of London. It has a different feel to it – newer, less steeped in history, less sure of itself. Birmingham is still a provincial city, without the effortless superiority of the capital. It’s also a manufacturing town in an area hard-hit by the decline of heavy industry, not a political and financial centre. Brummies have made knives and guns and chocolate and jewellery, not financial crises and political scandals.

What would you get if you set an urban fantasy in Birmingham? Less politics, less glamour. People say a lot of things about Birmingham, but none of those things are, “if you want glamour, go to Birmingham.” You’d have to think, why Birmingham? Because the house prices are cheaper? Do vampires care about that? Because it’s in the centre of the UK – that would work, but only if your characters had a reason to need to be somewhere in the middle of the country. What makes Birmingham special, and how can you bring that out as part of the story?

What would you get if you set an urban fantasy series in your town?