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Hot Off the Press: Review of The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth BearWhere I got it and why: as an uncorrected proof from Tor Publishing in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thanks, guys!

Recommended? Absolutely! Particularly if you’re a fan of vikings, wolves, or telepathic animal companion stories. And especially if you read Pern as a twelve-year-old and went back to it later, and found yourself looking at it and thinking, “I’m not sure this has been very thoroughly thought out.”

Summary: For once, I think the back cover copy is better than anything I can come up with, so here you go:

In Iskryne, the war against the Trollish invasion has been won, and the lands of men are safe again…at least for a while. Isolfr and his sister, the konigenwolf Viradechtis, have established their own wolfhaell. Viradechtis has taken two mates, and so the human pack has two war leaders. And in the way of the pack, they must come to terms with each other, must become brothers instead of rivals — for Viradechtis will not be gainsaid.

She may even be prescient.

A new danger comes to Iskryne. An army of men approaches, an army that wishes to conquer and rule. The giant trellwolves and their human brothers have never hunted men before. They will need to learn, if they are to defend their homes.

Review: The Tempering of Men is the sequel to A Companion to Wolves, which came out in 2007. It picks up right where Companion left off, at the end of the trellwars, and this is the story of how the wolfcarls and their intelligent wolfish brothers and sisters learn what to do with themselves now. The wolfhaellen were formed to keep men safe from the trolls of the north, but now that the trolls are gone, is there still a purpose to the wolf-and-human packs?

Where Companion was the story of Isolfr learning how to live as part of the pack and how to become the brother of a konigenwolf, a queen wolf, Tempering follows several different characters, all of them being drawn out of their comfortable place in the pack and into new roles. Vethulf and Skjaldwulf are Isolfr’s wolfjarls, the pack’s war-leaders, still learning how to rule together; Brokkolfr is one of the only survivors of his previous pack and is learning his place (and regaining his confidence) in his new one. Between the three of them you have a great range of characters, providing very different points of view on their changing world.

Skjaldwulf is my favorite, though. He’d been in training for a poet before he bonded to a wolf, and it still shows in his sense of the dramatic and his instinct for narrative; he knows he’s in a story, and he tells it as he goes along. He’s frighteningly smart and more ambitious than he gives himself credit for. Although his moment of glory is at the AllThing, my favorite scene was his conversation with the invading Rhean captain. Skjaldwulf is not willing to see his countrymen become vassals to a foreign empire — but he knows that such an outcome would not be all bad, either. His internal tension is enthralling to see.

The cultural details, both historical and invented, are just lovely — the politics of town and wolfhaell, and of the northern and southern alfs; the godsmen and sworn-sons and city jarls. This is a huge, wonderful, complicated world, and The Tempering of Men gives you plenty of opportunity to indulge in exploring it.

Aside from its individual merits, though – of which there are plenty – the Iskryne world is a breaking down and re-imagining of the telepathic animal companion fantasy. Tempering is a little less biting in its way thanCompanion – which introduced the open mating, or what happens when the wolf bitch you’ve been telepathically bonded to goes into heat and all the dogs are willing to fight over her. Iskryne is a wonderful fantasy world, but it’s a gritty one. That doesn’t mean it’s bleak – far from it. The wolves and their men love each other with a love that is adorable to see, and in many ways Tempering is a book about the men learning to love each other as well. (…Yes, in that way, too.)

I love both Bear and Monette’s work, and with The Tempering of Men, they are continuing to work wonderfully well together. (For more examples of their collaboration, check out their short story “Boojum” in the Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology, or the many-author shared-world series Shadow Unit.) And if all goes well, there’s a third book in the Iskryne series scheduled for 2013, An Apprentice to Elves. Hurrah!

Series: Iskryne

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear will be published by Tor in August of 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, IndieBound, Barnes & Noble.

Saturday Shorts: “White Charles” by Sarah Monette

In honor of the review of The Tempering of Men that I’m hoping to post this evening, this week’s short story is by one of that novel’s co-authors, although it has nothing else in common with it at all.

Edgar Bergen should play Kyle Murchison Booth. Someday, when I have a time machine, I will make this happen.

“White Charles” is one of the Kyle Murchison Booth stories, which Monette has described as kind of based on the Lovecraft/Blackwood tradition of horror only with actual people in them. Booth is an archivist at the Parrington Museum, and he’s a little bit empathic and knows a little bit about ghosts and magic – and he has just enough of a sense of responsibility that when horrible things start to happen, he’s the one who has to take care of them. He’s a fragile, nervous little thing, with a core of solid steel. I love him.

In “White Charles,” the Parrington takes delivery of the remains of an old wizard’s library…and the thing that lives in it. Monette does an excellent job of capturing that creepy something-horrible-is-watching-me vibe of the best of classic horror, but she pays attention to the things they never did: people like the museum’s black caretaker, and the desires of the Thing in question. As a horror story, it’s not only properly scary, but a bit of a revelation.

There is a collection of Booth stories, The Bone Key, which which is in its second edition, but you’ll find “White Charles” at Clarkesworld Magazine online. I recommend their audio version as well, it’s spectacular.

Tuesday Review (#5)

My weekly review and recap.

Also Read: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. #4 – The Dagger Affair by David McDaniel. You know how some days you just don’t want to read any of the books you’re currently reading? I had one of those on Saturday and grabbed this out of my TBR stack to take to work. I picked up a stash of these old TV tie-ins at a used bookstore a couple of years ago, and they’re wonderful brain candy. This one was actually surprisingly good – all the characters were solid, including the creepy, creepy Thrush San Fransisco couple, and the plot carried itself along at a good clip. The ending fell apart a little, but then, it’s not like you’re afraid Napoleon or Illya are going to die or anything. It reminded me of the best episodes of season one and two, which is all I can ask for from a tie-in novel.

Also also read:The Devil in Gaylord’s Creek” by Sarah Monette, available free online at Fantasy Magazine. (Monette is one of my favorite authors; expect to see a link here every time she has a new story up somewhere.) This is a great short about loss and devastation and monsters – go, read.

Reviewed: Libra by Don DeLillo (New to Me), Rope of Thorns by Gemma Files (Hot Off the Press), Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell (New to Me). It was a finishing week.

In the rest of the world: I am horribly, horribly sad that I am not able to attend the American Library Association conference this year in New Orleans. Exciting stuff is happening – 3M is unveiling their new digital library platform (a competitor to Overdrive, at last!), the director of the Wikimedia Foundation will be speaking (I can’t wait to see all the tweets from that program), and of course all those free books I’m missing out on!… (I’m consoling myself with egalleys from Net Galley). If you’re also a librarian, or you’re just interested in what libraries do, track the #ala11 tag on Twitter and elsewhere June 23-28 and see what all the fuss is about.

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Five

Day 25 – Any five books from your “to be read” stack
I’ll take the letter of this one instead of the spirit and actually pull books from my “to be read” shelf instead of sampling from my to-read list as well. You do not even want to know about my list.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. The only reason I haven’t started this one yet is I have now reached hailing distance of having no more Bujold left, and I want to draw it out as long as possible while I can.

Library Wars Volume 1: Love and War, Kiiro Yumi & Hiro Arikawa. It’s shojo manga! About militant anti-censorship librarians! I admit, I’ve never actually read any shojo manga before. (Shojo is the stuff aimed at girls, with a lot of romance and relationships; my preferred poison is shonen, the stuff aimed at boys, full of fight scenes and wisecracks, or seinen, aimed at young men, which tends toward either more realism or more dramatic science fiction type stuff.) I’m looking forward to this one, though. Militant anti-censorship librarians!

Chicks Dig Time Lords, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea. One of my friends got this for me for Christmas – it’s an anthology of essays by women about the glory and wonder that is Doctor Who. (People apparently think that women don’t like science fiction, thus giving rise to this project. I will never understand why.)

Sarah Monette, Unnatural Creatures. This is a special-edition chapbook of four published but uncollected Kyle Murchison Booth stories. The original collection is The Bone Key, which I urge everyone who’s ever liked ghost stories to go out and buy right now. (Although it is being rereleased shortly, so you may want to wait until the new edition comes out.) I’ve read two of the stories in Unnatural Creatures already, but there are two in here entirely new to me. New! Booth! Ghost stories!

The Profiler: My Life Hunting Serial Killers and Psychopaths by Pat Brown with Bob Andelman. I may have mentioned previously on this blog that my favorite television show is Criminal Minds, now suffering from an excess of studio mismanagement but previously an exquisite drama about criminal profilers. It’s given me a fondness for profiling books and serial killer stories (and a low tolerance for badly-written fictional serial killers). And hey, this one isn’t by John Douglas.

30 Days of Books: Day Two

Day 02 – A book or series you wish more people were reading and talking about

The Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette. The popularity of this series suffered from two things, first some unfortuanate covers (I cringed in shame when buying Corambis), second from the arithmetic of publishing houses that meant that by the time the fourth book in the series came out, the second was out of print. (Not the first or the third. The second.) Find it, through your local library or Amazon or however you can. This series is amazing. In order, they are: Mélusine, The Virtu (out of print, alas), The Mirador, and Corambis.

I’ll be the first to admit it’s hard going; if I hadn’t started reading Mélusine while I was working in a call center and was trapped in my cubicle with whatever book I’d brought that day, I might not have kept going, but I did and you should too. There are two point of view characters; the first is Felix Harrowgate, one of the wizards of of the Mirador, and even more concieted, self-involved, and melodramatic than his title requires. Also, Felix goes crazy within the first fifty pages. And not just a little crazy: full-on psychotic break with hallucinations and paranoia (sometimes justified).

Your other narrator is Mildmay the Fox, a former assassin and current thief from Mélusine’s lower city. Mildmay is the opposite of Felix in almost every way; where Felix is a wizard, Mildmay is annemer, without magic. Where Felix is concieted, Mildmay has an extremely understated opinion of himself (although he does know that he’s a damn good thief.) Where Felix has a very refined vocabulary, even when he’s losing his mind, you can almost hear the Appalachian twang in Mildmay’s narration. And where Felix is a jerk, Mildmay is willing to give almost anyone the benefit of the doubt. Even Felix. Who Mildmay didn’t meet until he was already completely nuts.

And that’s just the first book. What really makes this series shine is the amount of character growth that goes on; there are no reset buttons here. Things that happen have permanent influences on the characters, both good and bad. Mildmay gets an injury that brings an end to his career as a thief, and eventually develops a little bit of self-esteem. And while Felix never really stops being a jerk (I don’t think he can), he does eventually learn to be a little more human.

The world is wonderfully complex, too. Mélusine has a kind of antique alternate-universe Parisian feel to it (they use the months of the French Revolutionary calendar); they also visit Troia which is very Greek. Ish. And then in Corambis, the final book of the series, they go north to that country, which I’ve described to people as a kind of steampunk Anglo-Saxon.

I think my favorite detail, though, is the magical system, which could only be written by someone who’s spent a lot of time in academia. (Monette has a PhD in English Literature.) The wizards argue incessantly about the differences between thaumaturgical architecture and architectural thaumaturgy, certain schools of magic do not allow for the existence of things which are very clearly happening anyway, and huge amounts of hypocracy are uncovered on the part of the institutionalized hierarchy. And — this is the best part — all the magical technobabble actually does make sense, if you’re willing to sit down and make the effort to understand what the hell they’re talking about. (You don’t have to, but one of the side effects of getting to know Felix is an unwillingness to just take his word for things, so it does become tempting after a while.)

The plot is kind of uneven sometimes — not the plot, I should say, but the pacing, since the plot is built entirely on the characters. The writing is incredible throughout, though, and the characters are so real that I never really mind. About fifty pages into the first book, Felix and Mildmay moved into my brain and set up residence; I have no doubt I’ll be thinking about these books for years to come.

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