Recommended: Oh god yes. A spectacular ending to a spectacular series. You want to read this.
Review: Once again, it cannot be avoided, there will be SPOILERS for this and previous books in this review.
It is fifteen years since the end of the world. The Emperor Otah Machi has been fighting for the survival of his people, and negotiations with Galt are finally going smoothly. With luck, marriages between Galtic women and Khaiate men will be commencing, initiated by the marriage of the Emperor’s son Danat to Ana, the daughter of one of the Galtic High Council. But Otah’s daughter Eiah can’t support his plan — she thinks he’s throwing away a whole generation of women just because they can’t bear children. She’s turned to her Uncle Maati, who is convinced that with female students, he can rewrite the grammar and bind a new andat, one who can restore the world to the way it used to be.
He’s wrong. Nothing will ever be the way it used to be.
They say that good versus evil is a fine basis for a plot, but if you really want to wrench people’s hearts, try good versus good. This book isn’t quite to that level, but it’s close. The Price of Spring alternates between Otah’s and Maati’s points of view, giving the reader plenty of opportunity to compare their diametrically opposed and equally stupid plans. Otah thinks he can just move on without healing any of the wounds caused by the war; Maati thinks he can make the war never have happened. You can see the end from here, and it doesn’t look pretty.
That problem I was having with the earlier books in the series where I’d put it down and forget about it for a week? Not happening here. The pace in this one is perfect, steady and almost doom-laden. Every note I wrote in Goodreads as I updated (and several more that I didn’t bother to type in) was some variation on “Really, Maati, you didn’t see that coming?” And while Otah’s plan for the future is clearly more than a little short-sighted, Maati’s has all the fascination of a train wreck. It’s skillfully executed; you can tell that Abraham has been improving throughout this series, which is always good to see.
There are still two things that bother me about this series, which unfortunately wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so well-written. First of all, this is a wonderfully-realized, complex world, with several cultures, plenty of variation within those cultures, and all kinds of people within them. And every one of them is straight. Oh, there is finally a mention in this book of someone who might possibly have been less than straight at one point in the past, but that’s it. With such a detailed world, the omission starts to seem glaring.
The other problem I have is with the female characters. They’re great characters, don’t get me wrong – I love Eiah, and the mad poet Vanjit is a fascinating character. The problem I have is more with the overall shape of the story: with one possible exception, there are no female characters who succeed at anything. Anything other than marriage, that is. Idaan tried to take over the throne in A Betrayal in Winter, but was caught and cast out; now she is happily married to Cehmai. Kiyan does a fine job of managing the city in An Autumn War, but that was something she did out of necessity, not a goal of her own. Despite her business success, Liat is portrayed as incredibly unhappy. And then, of course, Vanjit becomes the first female poet and goes mad. It’s a slightly depressing pattern. I do often complain that fantasy is annoyingly unrealistic in its treatment of women, usually preferring to pretend to equality rather than dealing with any issues with the lack of gender equality, but I don’t think the alternative is to leave women with nowhere to go.
Despite these small complaints, I found The Price of Spring a wonderful, satisfying conclusion to an incredible series. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy with strong, interesting characters and well-rounded worldbuilding. If you’d like to see someone else’s take on the series, check out Jo Walton’s reviews at Tor.com.
Series: The Long Price Quartet
Where I got it and why: From the library, since there isn’t a bookstore in town with a copy and I needed it NOW. Third in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.
Recommended?: Oh yes. But this is definitely a series you read in order — get the first two first, and look forward to this one.
Review: There is something about these books that causes me to get stuck about halfway through, leave it be for a few days, and then pick it up and drive straight on to the end. I’m not sure if it’s a lull in the action or what, but this is the third time it’s happened. I am so glad I did pick it back up, though, because this book is easily the best in the series so far.
And a warning: we have reached the point where it is inevitable, there will be SPOILERS for the earlier books in the rest of this review.
Some fifteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal in Winter. Otah is now Khai Machi, responsible for an entire city. He has, scandalously, only one wife, and his only son Danat is sickly. His daughter Eiah, being a teenager, is starting to act out, despite the careful guidance of her beloved Uncle Maati. Into this relatively blissful domestic scene comes Liat, the former lover of both Maati and Otah, with her grown son, who had been raised by Maati when he was small but who is now so visibly Otah’s son that his presence is likely to cause even more scandal. Not as much, though, as the news Liat brings with her: the Galts are going to attempt an invasion.
For centuries the andat, the incredibly powerful beings held by the poets of the great cities, have protected them from the technologically advanced, militaristic Galts, but Galtic General Balatar Gice has dedicated his whole life to destroying the andat. No one, he thinks, should be allowed to have that much power – control over a being who could pull down whole cities with a thought, or destroy the crops of an entire country, or cause ravaging floods and devastation. He has gone into the desert that used to be the old Empire, he has found a poet of his own, and he is going to first destroy the andat and then any possibility that they will ever return, even if that means destroying every one of the great cities on his way.
All of the cover blurbs on this book talk about the amazing ending, which usually puts me off because most of the time, knowing the twist is going to come, I can predict it well in advance. Not so much in this case. The climax of this story hits that perfect combination of exquisite foreshadowing and total surprise – Once you get there you realize there is no way it could have gone any differently, but it was so completely not what you were expecting that it feels like a punch in the gut. In a good way, of course.
Abraham’s characters are exquisite, and as the world becomes more familiar the deeper you get into the series, the characters take their places as the highlight of the book. Otah, Maati, and Liat have all changed so much since A Shadow in Summer, grown both in wisdom and in their flaws, but they’re still deeply recognizable as themselves. It’s the characters who make that ending what it is, because it’s the characters, their drives and disappointments, the whole history of their lives, that make it so inevitable. It’s a wonderful study in how good people can do horrible things in pursuit of good causes, and there is no one, from the Galtic general to the treacherous mercenary, who you can really blame. Everyone is doing the best they can with the options they have, they’re just terrible options. It is, in fact, very like a Greek tragedy; if they were different people it would have gone differently, but they aren’t, so how could it?
In any other series, this would be the end. This book ends with an earthshattering change, but there are possibilities for growth and rebirth still visible. Most writers would have left it there, but there is another book in this series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Series: The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham
Heck with reviewing books one at a time, sometimes what you want is a big pile of books to lay up. (Especially as it heats up outside and all you want to do is sit on the couch with a glass of iced tea, a fan, and a book. Now that sounds like an ideal summer vacation.) My disappointment at The Unremembered has made me think about all the other fantasy books I’ve loved. Fantasy is such a huge genre; there’s so much you can do, so many exciting worlds you could explore, why read the same thing over and over? While I admit to a fondness for cheesy 80s fantasy (it’s what I grew up on), I can guarantee that none of these books are a Lord of the Rings ripoff, and they will all surprise you at least once. These are my favorite summer fantasy rereads.
- Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle – published in four volumes in the US as A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy. Ash is a female mercenary captain in late medieval Burgundy, and she is going to save the world. Just not her own. This is fantastic alternate history at its very best.
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This is a classic journey-into-the-underworld type story, but what an underworld! (I bought a copy when I was in London a couple of years ago, because it took me two days to figure out why I was so familiar with the Underground map when I’d never been there before, and then I just needed a reread.)
- Caught in Crystal by Patricia C. Wrede. Although she’s given up her old life, Kayl’s past hasn’t given her up, and she and what’s left of the friends of her youth have to finish what they started. Wrede was my very first writer crush – I was introduced to her through Dealing With Dragons, a sort of fractured-fairy-tale wonderfulness which you should also read – and I’ve loved this book for years. I doubt I noticed it at the time, but it features not only a female protagonist, but a middle-aged one at that. And yes, she kicks ass.
- The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Fantasy thieves and con men. If you are the kind of person who likes that kind of thing, do you really need more? This is the sort of book they mean when they say “rollicking adventure,” and better yet, it’s the first in a series. (Red Seas and Red Skies is Locke and Jean plus pirates, and the third is coming out — someday.)
- Jhereg by Steven Brust. The first in Brust’s epic Vlad Taltos series, this is still one of my favorites: the story of an assassin and his telepathic flying lizard, and their quest to dominate the underworld of the Dragaeran city of Adrilankha. (At least for now. They’ll have other quests later.) Brust takes fantasy tropes and dances on them, with a hefty dose of wry humor. Get in on it now before the series gets any bigger: he’s churning them out at a rate of one a year, and he’s only got six left to go.
- Mélusine by Sarah Monette. Felix is a wizard of the Mirador, flighty, petty, and damaged. Mildmay is a former assassin, now the best cat burglar in the city. Not always the easiest book to get through, with half of it from the point of view of a man who’s gone so insane he cannot reliably identify humans as humans, but it’s a fantastic world, amazing characters, and the series builds most wonderfully.
I find summer terribly nostalgic for some reason, so I love using it to get reacquainted with old favorites. What are some of your favorite summer rereads?
Where I got it and why: as a free ebook from Net Galley, courtesy of IDW Press, in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thanks, guys! I read about this in Peter S. Beagle’s newsletter, but I was waiting for the trade to actually pick it up; the comic book store that is okay with girls is out of my way, and I prefer to collect trades anyway.
Recommended? Oh god yes. This is gorgeous. And if you’re not familiar with the story, this would be a fantastic introduction.
Review: When I was a kid, there was a movie rental place across the street from my grandmother’s house. You went in the door, down a couple of steps, and turned left into the children’s area. There, under the picture window, on the second shelf from the top, was where the VHS of The Last Unicorn lived. I adored that movie, and I’m sure I contributed substantially to the demise of that poor videocassette. When I was a little older, I discovered the book, and I loved it even more. This is one of my favorite stories, all about myth and meaning and magic, so of course I was thrilled when they announced a graphic novel adaptation, and I am overjoyed to tell you that it is not disappointing.
The art, of course, is the real draw for a Last Unicorn comic book, and it’s spectacular. It does seem to be a little bit inspired by the movies – there’s a strong resemblance in the art for many characters, particularly the side characters who show up and then vanish again. Schmendrick looks much more like his description in the book than he does in the movie, which I like, but Molly looks younger, which I don’t. I do like the way the unicorn is inked in a reddish sepia rather than the black of everything else; it makes her stand out and glow (which I think is another trick they used in the movie, now I think of it). And then when the Red Bull arrives! The chapter two cover featuring Mommy Fortuna is my favorite, though. She’s always been one of my favorite characters, and the drawing of her with all these little charms and tiny figures tied in her hair is perfection.
The script owes much more to the book than to the movie. It features several more episodes from the book that I miss in the movie – Arachne the spider in Mommy Fortuna’s carnival, Schmendrick’s history, the princess attempting to summon a unicorn before her wedding, and most importantly, the village of Hagsgate. (I will never understand why they left Hagsgate out of the movie and put the bosomy tree in. Hagsgate has plot relevance, but that tree! — never mind.) Plot-wise, it’s a fairly loyal adaptation. There are places, though, where scenes are incredibly rushed, and I almost wish Gillis had left out some bits entirely rather than put them in and have them feel clumsy and extraneous. (Said tree, for example – not bosomy this time, but still unnecessary.)
While the movie will always have a fond place in my heart, and the book will always be the most spectacular, this incarnation of The Last Unicorn is a perfectly respectable edition. The art is always good, and sometimes breathtaking, and while there are flaws in the script it does seem to grasp the point of the book a little bit better than the movie does, and to bring some of the quality of heartache to it that the book does so well. If you’re a fan of The Last Unicorn already you’ll want to buy the hardcover for your collection (I know I will); if you’re unfamiliar with it, this is a wonderful place to start.
The Last Unicorn, an adaptation of the Peter S. Beagle novel by Peter Gillis, illustrated by Renae de Liz and Ray Dillon, was published in hardcover by IDW Press on January 25, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads,Indiebound, Publisher’s website
Where I got it and why: I read an egalley from NetGalley, courtesy of ChiZine press. (Thanks guys!) I leaped at the chance to read this, after reading the first book in the series earlier this year.
Recommended? Absolutely – if you’re okay with huge amounts of violence, foul language, heavy drinking, and M/M sex. (And that’s just one character…)
Review: Okay, this is another one of those books I love so much I don’t know if I can be coherent about, but I will try. I read the first book in Gemma Files’s Hexslinger Trilogy earlier this year, when I spotted it on the shelf at the library and was intrigued by the blurb’s promise of ex-Confederate gay western wizards, and I liked that one, but I *loved* Rope of Thorns.
It’s 1867, the American West, a world slightly different from our own. For one thing, it contains hexes – people who can work magic, frequently violent and nasty (both the magic and the hexes), who live in a constant state of hunger, drawing magic away from their environment and from any other hexes they run into. They tend to be solitary creatures. In Book of Tongues, we meet Asher Rook, a former preacher turned hex after he was hanged for assassinating his commanding officer in the tail end of the Civil War. Now he’s head of his own little outlaw gang, rampaging across the West, taking what they like and killing folk who get in their way. Rook’s lover is Chess Parteger, a gunman, queer and not ashamed of it, red-headed, flamboyant, and nasty. They’re joined by Ed Morrow, a Pinkerton detective, who’d been sent out by his boss to test out a device for identifying hexes before they become dangerous, but who gets sucked in to the gang a little more deeply than he’d expected. Oh yeah, and there’s an ancient Aztec goddess who’s trying to take over the world. She wants Rook as her consort, and she has…plans for Chess, her “little husband’s husband.”
Okay, I’m going to try to discuss Rope of Thorns without giving too many spoilers for the wonderful ending of Book of Tongues. Suffice it to say, Chess is none to happy about how that played out, and Rook is off with his goddess in the newly-built Hex City, while Chess is out for revenge and Morrow is either still following him around or trying to keep him in check.
I love Chess. He’s a wonderful character, full of fire and anger and passion. He changes a lot through the course of the books, but he’s mostly unconscious of it, and it only shows through when he’s called upon to act and does something that surprises even him. The characters overall are great: Ed Morrow still unsure of what he’s doing; Yancey, who rapidly becomes Chess’s female counterpart; Songbird and Pinkerton and the relentless Sheriff Love.
The worldbuilding is glorious too, so deeply believable it seems almost real, like the best of historically-set fantasy. Files’s hexes and gods fit perfectly into the mythology of the Old West that grows in the American psyche. Not just the old stereotypical Hollywood version, either – this series fits right into the modern bleak Western tradition. It reminds me of Deadwood, True Grit, Carnivale. (Lots of Carnivale, actually.) And Rope of Thorns introduces an Apache warrior I hope we see more of in the final book.
The thing I love most about these books is how *fun* they are. I mean, they’re fairly bleak, there’s an apocalypse in progress, and the body count is huge, but Chess is having so damn much fun you can’t help but get carried along with him. I can’t wait for the final book, A Tree of Bones.
Rope of Thorns came out in May – you should be able to find it on bookstore shelves, but if you can’t, order it. It’s worth it.
Book of Tongues came out in 2010.
If you’re interested in the series, I also recommend the author’s blog, where she’s currently discussing a lot of elements of the new book – no spoilers for the new one, but some spoilers for Book of Tongues.
Previously On is a feature I run when I haven’t finished a book lately, but I feel you deserve a review anyway. These are old favorites of mine, which I can write about without rereading again.
I pre-ordered this book, sight unseen, in hardcover, when I was in college, on the strength of Neil Gaiman’s glowing recommendation. It was worth it. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my absolute favorite books.
This is absolutely not a book for everyone. It’s long. There are rambling, divergent footnotes. It combines Regency romance sensibilities with war narratives and an approach to magic that’s based more on medieval English folklore than on The Lord of the Rings. There’s a tonal shift three-quarters of the way through that reminds me of nothing so much as Jane Austen writing the adventures of Richard Sharpe. And if you’re like me, that makes this book perfect.
Mr Norrell is a practicing English magician. He actually does magic, which is considered beyond strange by all of his colleagues, who focus on research and analysis. And he is about to make a name for himself – is doing quite a good job, actually, between a spectacular display of living statues and raising a nobleman’s young wife from the dead – when Jonathan Strange appears. Jonathan Strange is also a practicing magician, and what’s more, he is young and handsome and a part of Society, which is not really something Mr Norrell can manage. Of course they will study together, and of course they will be rivals.
I do tend to think of this as really Jonathan’s book. I adore his attempts to make himself useful to the war effort, his rejection by the Navy and eventual adoption by General Wellington. And, of course, his relationship with the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair. (One of my favorite scenes is when Jonathan goes to see about the king’s madness.)
The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair is an excellent example of what I mean by medieval English folkloric magic – he is nothing like an Elf or a modern fairy, but one of those threatening and powerful creatures from The Ballad of Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer whom you only dare refer to as The Good Folk.
I admit to a weakness for the Napoleonic Wars, and rereading Jane Austen or the Sharpe or Aubrey/Maturin series will always lead me in the direction of Jonathan Strange again as well. It is, like those books, an exquisite glimpse at another time. Except, of course, with magic. But I reread this most often at Christmastime, for I always remember the scene with Childermass and the birds on the snow. One year I opted for the audiobook instead, since I didn’t want to carry the book itself around; it is excellent, for those of you who might be as leery as I often am of audiobook narrators.
This is one of those books I would like to recommend to everyone, even though I know there are so many reasons why many people would not like it. I just love it so much, I would like to be able to share that love with everyone. Do you have any books you feel that way about?
(New to Me books are books I’ve just read that have been out for more than a year – whether that means “a year and a bit” or “several decades”.)
Where I got it and why: I bought this from my local Borders; I loved A Shadow in Summer so much that I wanted to support the author (plus I didn’t want to wait for the library to dig up their copy and send it to me)
Recommended? Yes, particularly if you’re a fan of second-world fantasy plus politics – and of course if you liked the first one.
Review: This second book in Abraham’s Long Price Quartet takes us to the Winter Cities, about as far from the setting of the first book as possible. Machi spends half the year frozen, and tunnels under the city offer an opportunity for social life even when it’s too bitter to go outside. (I love the attention to setting in these books; I live in a climate with very volatile weather, so I miss it when the seasons never get a mention.)
The Khai Machi is dying, and his sons must start killing each other – only the sole survivor can be his heir. The Khai has three official sons, but there is also the fourth – Otah Machi, who was sent to the poets’ school as a child, but who, uniquely, neither became a poet nor rejected his claim to his father’s throne. As soon as people become aware that he is still alive, he becomes known as The Upstart, a frightening, half-legitimate figure in the shadows.
And so, to be sure that chaos does not ensue, the Dai-Kvo, head of the poets’ organization, sends the disgraced poet Maati to the city to find Otah, determine if he has been illegitimately murdering his brothers, and stop him if he can. The problem is, Maati still loves and respects Otah, and is sure he is not the one behind it.
He’s right. This is no spoiler; rather than being structured as a mystery, the book lets you follow both the criminals and the investigators at the same time. The murderer is Idaan, the Khai’s daughter. Frustrated at her position in life – destined to be married off for political power – she has developed a plan to make her fiancé the new Khai, by killing all of her brothers and pushing his family to the top of the political structure. It would be the honorable thing to do if she were a man; since she is a woman, it is a terrible crime.
I found this one a little harder going than A Shadow in Summer. Possibly this was because I didn’t connect with as many of the characters. I still liked Otah’s reluctance to get involved and his eventual realization that not getting involved was going to be disastrous, but Maati seemed to exhibit a lot of learned helplessness in this book, and the Machi poet Cehmai just didn’t do much. I wanted to like Idaan, but about halfway through I thought to myself, I wish this wasn’t yet another story about a woman being slapped down hard for stepping out of her place. If Abraham wanted to explore the awful ways the tradition of succession damages people (a genuinely interesting subject), he could have at least done it with a male character.
All of which makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book. I did, and I continue to love the worldbuilding and the andat and the way he explores the long-term consequences of peoples’ decisions. I will absolutely be reading An Autumn War as soon as I can get my hands on it (unfortunately there isn’t a bookstore in town that has a copy for sale). But this is a dark book, slow-paced and melancholy, and with the blush of new love fading from the series, I found it a little more work to get through.
Where I got it and why: from the library. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, but Jo Walton just recently reviewed the whole series over at Tor.com, and that provided that final kick.
Recommended? Hell yes! Anybody who loves second-world fantasy, unusual worldbuilding and magic, and character-driven plots will love this.
Review: A Shadow in Summer is the first of the Long Price Quartet, and Daniel Abraham’s spectacular first novel. It’s of the genre I’m inclined to call “epic fantasy,” except for most people that means swords and elves and Good Versus Evil, and what I mean by it is just second-world fantasy with a huge cast and extraordinary world-building. And let me tell you, this has it in spades.
It’s hard to say who the main characters are because everyone is important in their own way. There’s Amat, the aging overseer for House Wilsin, who was good friends with the head of that house until she found herself objecting to his political tactics, and Liat her apprentice. Maati, the apprentice to the poet Heshai, and his extraordinary relationship with the poet’s slave, the andat Seedless. And the remote Khai, the ruler of the city; the vile pimp who Amat finds herself working for for a time; and not least, Otah, who could have been a poet but refused the brown robe.
Aside from Otah’s prologue, the action all takes place in the city of Saraykeht, one of a number of loosely allied city-states each ruled over by their own Khai. The cities of the Khaiem have one thing in common that holds them together against other nations like Galt, and that is the andat. The poets describe the andat as “an idea translated into a form that includes volition.” They’re essentially the embodiment of an idea that has been described and enslaved by the poet, who is then responsible for holding and controlling the andat. The andat for Saraykeht is Removing-the-part-that-continues, called Seedless — and he’s central to the city’s dominance of the in the cotton trade. No cotton gin for them, they have an andat to pull the seeds from the cotton.
And Galt, a nation whose dominance is in military rather than in economic matters, knows that the only way to conquer the cities of the Khaiem is to remove the andat. House Wilsin is their tool in a plot to drive the poet mad and force him to release Seedless, destroying Saraykeht, and the plot of the novel revolves around not only this plan but on all the characters’ various reactions, objections, and desperate attempts to halt or at least avenge the Galtic scheme.
It’s an amazing world, based on Asian cultures in the same way that most fantasy is based on European cultures, with no direct parallels to real-world cultures and nations but providing the overall shape of the culture and history of the world. The characters are universally deep and well-drawn, and for the most part intelligent – I do so hate following around people who can’t see what’s happening in front of them. And the sequels! I’m about a hundred pages into A Betrayal in Winter, and the sense one gets is that the whole of A Shadow in Summer was necessary just so that you could understand what is happening in this book. It’s glorious, and I love it.
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Working my way through the classics of noir fiction. This is a tight little novel, fairly horrible in a lot of ways, but then again, it’s noir. (When I say horrible, I mean, of course, the subject matter, not the writing. The writing is…well, this book could have been twice as long, but it wouldn’t have been half as good.)
Barbara Sher, Wishcraft
Yes, I read a self-help book. It was recommended to me, and I found it legitimately online. I was rather surprised to discover I’d independently invented most of her motivational tricks, but the part of the book I liked the best was the first three chapters or so, the part where she explains you have every right to have the things you actually want, even if you’ve been so messed up about it for so long you’re not sure what those are any more.
Rex Stout, The Rubber Band
After the James Cain, I required something noirish with a slightly less icky attitude toward women. Rex Stout is always good for that; he very rarely has femmes fatales, most of the women in his books are either flat-out useless or clever and helpful. (The female lead in this one is the latter.)
Erin Bow, Plain Kate
Another YA from my trip to ALA last year (yes, I know, it’s been almost a year and I haven’t finished reading my ARCs!…) This was a wonderful fairy tale of a story – a proper fairy tale, that’s mostly about blood and death and revenge, with one of those scrupulously fair endings that doesn’t quite make anyone happy. That makes it sound rather depressing, which it’s not: it’s a very hopeful story, overall, about discovering your own strength. Also, the most realistic talking cat I have ever seen in fiction.