Saturday, December 17, 2016
Revisionary by Jim C. Hines
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is book four in the “Magic Ex Libris” series. I would recommend that you read the first three books before reading this one, as events in those books have direct bearing on what is happening in this one. If you’ve not read them, some of the things in this review will be spoilers, but I will not spoil the plot of Revisionary.
At the end of the last book, there was a huge magical confrontation that was impossible to hide from the “mundanes” - who up until this point were unaware of magic in the world. Our protagonist, Isaac Vainio, who is is a “Porter” - one who can perform magic using books - took it upon himself to basically let the world know about magic, after the big fight. It was too much to be able to hide, so he went public with everything. His hope was that the mundanes would see that the Porters could be a help to humanity. He was naive in that hope.
This book opens several months later, and Isaac has created a community/research center called New Millennium that does research into the limits of LIbriomancy, and attempts to keep it from being used by nefarious entities. However, the US government is conducting Congressional inquiries into the events of the last book, and is quite hostile to Isaac, the Porters, and other magical beings. The government wants to register all Libriomancers and non-human entities (vampires, werewolves, etc), or even lock them all up. I found this to be a direct parallel to current events in the US, with respect to Muslims. It was all driven by the need for “national security” - just as it is promoted in real life.
Things happen fast and furious in this book - there are attacks by magical beings, killing humans; there are attacks by humans on magical beings; and through it all Isaac has to figure out what’s going on and who he can trust. There isn’t much let up in the action, as Isaac and his companions go from crisis to crisis. This relentless pace, coupled with the very real-world political climate meant that this book was hardly “fantasy escapism.” While the magic is very fantastical (and really well though through), the politics and machinations by shadowy government figures felt all too real. Because of this, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the previous ones in the series. Don’t get me wrong - this is still a well-written book, with lots of cool magic and magical creatures. But because it takes place in what feels very much like today’s political climate, it wasn’t really escapism. For those who like their fantasy grounded in reality (if you know what I mean) then this book is spot on. For those who are looking to escape from today’s issues into a fantastical world, this is not your book.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Mary Russell's War by Laurie R. King
3.5 stars - the stories range from 2.5-4 stars
This is a collection of short stories that fill in the gaps and add more history to the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series of books by Laurie R. King (which begins with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.) All but one of these stories has been published elsewhere (including for free online) but it’s nice to have them all in one collection.
The title story was previously serialized on the author’s web site, and it follows the lead-up to, and outbreak of, WWI and its impact on a young Mary Russell and her family. It is told as a series of journal entries, often with accompanying illustrations (taken from actual newspapers of the time.) Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that extremely important events happen during this story. As such, it is a critical bit of life history for Mary Russell, and fans of the novels will be gratified to have a deeper understanding of the character.
The story titled “The Marriage of Mary Russell” is another one that fills in a gap left by the novels. At the end of A Monstrous Regiment of Women, we see Holmes propose to Russell, and her acceptance thereof. However, the next novel (A Letter of Mary) opens several years later, with the wedding a fait accompli. This delightful story gives the reader the chance to experience the wedding - which is not your normal wedding, as is to be expected by these two people!
“Beekeeping for Beginners” gives us the story of Holmes and Russell first meeting (as fully told in the first book of the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice), but told mostly from Holmes’ perspective. It’s quite fun to see what Holmes thought of that initial encounter, and subsequent events.
Most of the other stories only tangentially touch the novels, but all connect in some way and give fans more details of the lives of the two main characters, as well as more about some of the secondary characters - Mrs. Hudson, for example. While not every story is worth a 4-star rating, each one brings a little more depth to the characters and their history. Fans of this series will definitely want this book.
Friday, December 2, 2016
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
China Miéville has an imagination that runs in overdrive, seemingly fueled by LSD or other mind-altering drugs, because his books contain some of the weirdest and most bizarre (in a good sense) ideas and plots in any fiction I’ve read. (And since I’ve been reading for over 55 years, that’s a lot of fiction!) This latest novella is a perfect example of his glorious weirdness. The fundamental plot line - that a “surrealist bomb” exploded in WWII Paris, unleashing living manifestations of surrealist art - is amazingly original and bizarre. I mean, who thinks of stuff like this?
The book opens in 1950, in “New Paris” where we are introduces to Thibault, a French freedom fighter. But what he is fighting is not just Nazis, but “manifs” - pieces of surrealist art come to life - and also demons from hell. The reader is not explicitly told these things, we simply discover them through Thibault’s experiences and memories. In this version of Paris, WWII never ended, and Paris is quarantined from the rest of the world, to keep the manifs from spreading. It is a gritty, dangerous place, and we feel Thibault’s sense of desperation and despair.
Alternate chapters flash back to 1942, where we learn about the “S-bomb” that resulted in the creation of the manifs and the opening of hell, which unleashed the demons. We get a veritable who’s who of surrealist artists and philosophers, as we see the events unfolding. (For art aficionados, there is a handy appendix that references the actual works of art that are manifesting.)
The afterword of the narrative purports to be the tale of how Miéville came to write this book - from a retelling by Thibault himself. I’m not sure that this added anything to the story for me, but it’s mildly intriguing, nonetheless.
The real brilliance of the book is the world of New Paris. The reader is immersed in its danger and its weirdness, as we follow Thibault throughout his day. Miéville makes the bizarre - living works of art - fit into the world in a cohesive whole. A weird whole, but a whole, nonetheless. You get the feeling that this could really happen, it seems so real.
Miéville is a great storyteller, and while this book doesn’t have quite the narrative depth of some of his longer works, the characters are fully realized, and the world-building is masterful. For anyone who enjoys a bit of weirdness in their fiction, this book is for you!
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Doc by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Doc is a fictional retelling of the life of John Henry “Doc” Holliday, he of the gunfight at OK corral fame. It is based on family memoirs, and covers his life before the gunfight. We see his childhood in Georgia, as the son of a wealthy plantation owner, and follow him though his teens and twenties as his tuberculosis advances. This is sometimes painful to read, as we see his suffering at the hands of this horrific disease, which was incurable in those days. I felt a bit of a dark shadow over all the events, knowing the eventual outcome. (And many of the descriptions of his illness are quite graphic - not for the squeamish!)
Mary Doria Russell is a wonderful writer, and in this book she manages to capture the personalities of a myriad of characters: Doc, the Earp brothers, Kate (Doc’s mistress), and various people in the town of Dodge City, where the majority of the book takes place. I enjoyed getting a bit of background on the Earps, especially, and discovering how very different each brother was, and learning what shaped them into the men they became. Wyatt Earp is the brother that is most deeply explored, and the relationship between Doc and Wyatt is developed quite richly.
Russell has the ability to bring the “Wild West” to life, without glorifying it. Dodge City is a dirty, rowdy, dangerous mess, with politics affecting everyone who lives and visits there. Secondary characters are never simply caricatures, but are made real through little details of personality and background. Every person in this book is a fully realized person, which adds to the rich tapestry of the storyline.
All that being said, this was not as deeply moving as The Sparrow - at least for me. The book was well-researched and well-written, but it doesn’t have the philosophical depth of The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great piece of historical fiction! But it didn’t “grab” me emotionally. It may be because I held myself at a bit of a distance from Doc, because I knew he would die, and therefore was not as emotionally invested as I could have been. It certainly isn’t any fault of Russell’s writing or research. This is an excellent book - it just didn’t quite hit home for me. But for anyone who is interested in the real “Wild West” and the people who shaped it, this is a worthy addition to the genre.