Saturday, April 15, 2017
Fire Study by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book 3 in the series. It picks up right where book two left off. You definitely want to read the first two before reading this one. Fans of the first two novels will be very happy with this book.
In this book, Yelena faces her toughest adversary, yet. Not only are the rogue magicians practicing blood magic, they are in league with a spirit (demon?) from the fire realm - the underworld. He is attacking Yelena through fires, and she is unable to protect herself. In addition, the Council of Sitia and the First Magician continue to be suspicious, and outright hostile to Yelena. She has to find a way to conquer the fire spirit, and to combat the increasingly powerful evil magicians. As usual, she manages to do so, but not without many dire encounters that she barely escapes. She has more lives than a cat!
And that brings up one of my complaints - Yelena doesn't seem to change much, despite all she's gone through. Yes, she does grow as a magician, but as a person she remains foolishly headstrong and stubborn. I got a little tired of Yelena rushing headlong into situations, only to have her miraculously rescued, or for her to get out of some situation - yet again - by the skin of her teeth. It got pretty repetitious after three books.
And - my biggest complaint - once again the author is using Earth terms and phrases in a completely made up fantasy world! At one point, when Yelena was reading someone's mind, she sees in his memories that he was "sodomized." Uh, that term comes from the ancient Biblical city of Sodom, and the myth about men raping other men there. On EARTH. In THIS WORLD. There is no way that in the world of Sitia/Ixia that they also just happened to have an ancient city called Sodom, that also just happened to have a myth about male rape. This is just lazy, lazy world building. Additionally, the author uses the term "voila" - the FRENCH term for "ta-da!" But, it gets worse. She can't even spell it correctly; she spelled it "wal-ah." For an author who has an MFA, this is completely inexcusable!!! Lazy world-building PLUS bad spelling!!!
It's a darn good thing that the author is otherwise a pretty good storyteller. Pacing is always good, the story has a good mix of tension and light humor, with just a splash of romance. But any fan of REAL fantasy, who has read the likes of Patrick Rothfuss or George R. R. Martin will be just as irritated as I am with the poor world-building. Readers who just want a fun, diverting semi-fantasy, semi-romance read will not be disappointed.
Friday, April 7, 2017
Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book two in the "Study" series continues where book one (Poison Study) left off, with Yelena heading to the Magician's Keep in the southern province of Sitia, where she will not only receive training in her magic skills, but she meets her long-lost family. We learn a lot about the different clans in Sitia, some living in the jungle as with Yelena's family, some living on the plains, etc. We also learn that even though the Master Magician, Irys, supports Yelena's training, not all of the other 3 Masters do. Nor does her brother, Leif.
Nevertheless, Yelena begins training, only to be caught up in the hunt for a magical serial killer, preying on young women. Yelena's headstrong nature continually causes her problems with Irys, and the council of Sitia, and it also places her in danger more than once. But, of course, our intrepid heroine always survives. Nevertheless, I appreciated that each time Yelena branched out on her own and got in trouble, there were consequences for her. This helped to mediate the 100% success rate she has.
Naturally, being a romance-tinged fantasy, Yelena's lover, Valek, manages to secrete himself in a delegation from Ixia, and they have many secretive trysts. Not only are they trying to find the serial killer, but the purported heir to the deposed king of Ixia falls for Yelena, which complicates his desires to mount a military campaign against the current Ixian ruler.
All in all, the story moved along well, and the author again does a good job with secondary characters. I thoroughly enjoyed how Yelena was able to communicate with horses, and how her own horse becomes a player in the story. The simple-mindedness of the equine characters seemed fitting, and added a bit of levity to the book.
However - and this is a big however - the author made some really boneheaded errors in other areas, which jarred me out of the fantasy world, and interfered with my overall enjoyment of the book. The problem is the author's use of Earth terms for items that should have Ixian/Sitian names. For example, in one case, a character describes a jacket as having a "mandarin" collar. Uh, "mandarin" refers to Mandarin CHINA, of the real world, Earth. Another example is when Yelena's father, who is an herbalist, discovers a plant extract that causes paralysis - he calls it Curare, which is a real paralyzing poison from plants found in Central/South America. Why in the world would he call it Curare?? In another case, the name of one of the horses is "Rusalka" which is a Slavic name for a water sprite! These are just a few of the times that the author's laziness was a detriment to the verisimilitude of the fantasy world. There really is no excuse for such shoddy world-building.
In all other respects, this is still a fun book. Not deep, nothing too mind-blowing. Just light-hearted escapism, that can be enjoyed as long as you don't look to closely at the details.
Thursday, April 6, 2017
Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the first book in a fantasy series (now up to 6 books) that also has a bit of romance in it. The story follows Yelena, a young woman who was orphaned and who is scheduled to be executed for murder. She gets a stunning reprieve from death if she agrees to become the food taster for the "commander" - a military dictator of the nation of Ixia. She agrees, and begins her training in poisons under the tutelage of Valek, the Commander's chief assassin. Obviously, romance results, but it doesn't feel too forced, and doesn't come too early in the book. The sex scenes are not graphic at all (very G rated), but they are described with some pretty cliche romance notions. The writing is otherwise pretty solid, as is the world-building.
With any first book of a series, we have a lot of history to go through, but the author handles it well, and it flows organically with the plot. We learn that the Commander took over from a corrupt king, and has established a benevolent dictatorship (people are all cared for and employed, but movement is restricted.) The commander has banished all magicians from Ixia, and one of Valek's jobs is to kill any who are found still practicing. This becomes problematic when Yelena discovers she has magical abilities. She has to decide if she can trust Valek in this, and with other things. I thought their slow-building relationship was quite well done.
The action moves along at a good pace, and the characters are well-done - even the secondary ones. This adds some good color to the novel, and keeps the story interesting. All in all, it was a very enjoyable read, and anyone who loves fantasy should enjoy this one.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book contains five stories, all in the fairy tale vein. The first four read like your standard fables, and contain nothing really different than one would find in a collection of Grimm stories of Hans Christian Anderson. These stories would be suitable and understandable by kids. The last story, from which the book gets its title, is completely different. It’s set in modern times, and concerns an older woman who is an expert on stories, and what happens when she encounters a djinn (genie) during one of her trips. It’s rather slow to develop, but has some unique ideas. This one is probably not suitable for kids, because it focuses a lot on the woman’s desires as someone in the later years of life. I don’t think children would relate - not that I think this book is aimed at kids, but some people might think so, given the title and the genre.
Overall, I was disappointed in the book. None of the stories grabbed me, emotionally or otherwise. Of all of the stories, I probably liked that last one best, because it seemed to be the most original. But this is not a book I’d read again, or one I’d recommend, unless you’re just totally into fables and/or djinns.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Smoky the Cow Horse by Will James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book is basically Black Beauty in the wild west. Like Black Beauty, it follows the life of a horse from birth to “retirement” highlighting the treatment - and abuse - the horse encounters throughout his life. Instead of being set in 19th century England, Smoky takes place in western America, in the early 20th century. But whereas the purpose of Black Beauty was to highlight the mistreatment of horses at that time, Smoky is more of an homage to the rugged American west, where men are men, and they “break” horses to do their bidding.
The titular horse, Smoky, is born to a semi-feral herd of horses, and is spotted by a horse breaker named Clint who works on a cattle ranch. He captures Smoky and begins breaking him to bridle and saddle, and to eventually being ridden. And while Clint is careful to not break Smoky’s spirit (as we are told repeatedly), his breaking methods would make a modern horse trainer cringe. Smoky remains an aggressive, angry horse who will buck off and attack any rider other than Clint. Despite this, Smoky becomes an excellent cow horse, and Clint is the envy of all the other ranch hands.
During the winter months, Smoky is turned loose with the other horses who are not needed to work the ranch, and he ends up being stolen. The thief is described as a “half-breed” and “dark faced” and we are led to believe he is half Native American and half African American. He’s never given a name, and is constantly referred to as “the breed” by the author, and described as a very bad character, with no redeeming qualities. This blatant racism would be completely unacceptable in a book written today. And it really detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
Smoky ends up as a rodeo “bucking bronc” with a reputation as a man-killer. His life with the rodeo is brutally portrayed, and quite painful to read. After he gets too old for the rodeo, he’s sold again, and again, each time ending up more abused and neglected. There’s a semi-happy ending, but the abuse he suffered for half the book pretty much overwhelms that.
I should also mention that the dialog is all done in western slang, much as Twain does with dialects in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This lends some verisimilitude to the story, but tends to wear on the reader after a time - it seems much more artificial than Twain’s usage.
I think I tried to read this as a little girl, when I was totally horse crazy, but I couldn’t get through it - which for a voracious reader who read years beyond her grade level says a lot. I think it was probably a combination of the harsh life depicted for Smoky, along with the dialect.
If you give this to your child to read, be SURE to discuss the racism, as well as explaining that horse trainers today would not do as Clint did. But, honestly, I can’t think of a compelling reason to give this book to anyone.
A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read this out of order, and clearly there were events in previous books that played a major role in this one, but the author does a good job of recapping the event (without seeming obvious) so that I didn't feel like I missed out on too much.
The book is another in the fine series, with Inspector Gamache using his mind, and benevolently directing and mentoring his team, to find the murderer of yet another victim in the village of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada. (For such a small, idyllic place, Three Pines has an outrageous number of murders!) The village and its inhabitants are lovingly portrayed, as always; the new characters introduced are well-written and believable; the mystery is tricky enough that it had me guessing until the very end. There are some sub-plots revolving around a major incident in a previous book, which are affecting both Gamache and his second in command, Jean Guy. This adds to the texture of the book, making it more than just a murder mystery.
And that's one of the things that I like about this series - we really get into the head of Gamache, as well as his team. This personal aspect, along with the wonderful, quirky inhabitants of the village make the story much more interesting than just "who done it." Inspector Gamache is a fascinating detective, his humanity really fleshing him out. I like a detective who is imperfect!
Overall, another great addition to a really good series!