Crooked Little Vein (2007)

Crooked Little Vein

Warren Ellis’ first major foray into prose fiction is a pretty enjoyable if superfluous read that feels like he found a way to stuff all the various ‘research’ into the plain crazy or weird he posted on his various blogs and websites over the years into one overarching, coherent narrative. His protagonist McGill, a detective who for reasons unfathomable to him, always gets the crazy cases since he left the police force and struck out on his own, gets his first big case. Not the big break he thought it would be, though.

Tracking down a secret Constitution of the United States sends him on a tour through the US, with a young, female aide he picked up on the streets, always getting himself into situations where he rather wouldn’t want to be. The whole book gives the impression of trying to show how fucked and freaky the US can be, but maybe I’m too jaded, most of the stuff in there merely made me smirk. Still, it works well enough, even if it’s somewhat formulaic: you know each and every time McGill closes in on the McGuffin he will just be sent further again.

Most of all, despite being sort of written in the hardboiled tradition of detective fiction, it’s actually a lot of fun to read and seeing McGill fumble on and on makes it even more funnier, even or because of how likable a guy he is. Surprising actually that Ellis ended it on such a well-meaning note, I was expecting something mean and nasty, but somehow I can’t fault him there, seeing McGill catching a break at the end was kind of nice.

Succubus Nights (2007)

succubusNights

Second in a six-part urban fantasy/paranormal romance series about a succubus working at a bookstore, doing her evil work (seducing people obviously while stealing their life-force in the act) and falling in love with a famous author while solving various cases involving the supernatural community on the sidelines. This time a magic drug makes people reach their peak-potential with some nasty side-effects and Georgina goes to the rescue.

But like with the first case, this stuff is mostly background, the real story is about Georgina, her love live, her ridiculous infatuation with author Seth, who seems like a walking cliche of the shy, smart, bookish geek and the impossibility of their love (no sex or he loses lifeforce). For a book about a thousand-years old succubus, Georgina comes off as both far too young-ish and naive, not really world-weary as you would expect someone this old to be like.

Also the two big sex-scenes in the book (it is after all about a succubus) felt off-turning and awkward, which worked as intended in the first case, but the second at the end felt just as ridiculous and off-putting. The whole paranormal romance genre is pretty predictable when it comes to the whole romance part, but if they drag out the romance-aspect of Georgina’s and Seth’s relationship for four more books, this will become tiresome very fast. And when it doesn’t even offer some good porn (porn-wise and romance-writing-wise) along the way, I’m not sure why I should read further.

Mhh, forgot I’m a sucker for the genre and I do want to see if the series gets even a bit more interesting than what is has offered so far.

A Sorcerer and a Gentleman (1995)

Sorcerer

The first part of a two-part prequel to The Well-Favored Man, that seems to deal with the hinted at War of Independence of Argylle from Landuc. Seems to be, because what it actually deals with is the war of Argylle’s founder/creator with his brother and throne-stealer, the king of Landuc, the adventures his two children have at the same time and various other machinations and intrigues.

It’s nicely written, but like The Well-Favored Man eschews the more interesting story, the War of Independence, for something that feels far less interesting, since Argylles creator hasn’t realized yet that his own young kingdom is better than regained the decrepit one his brother has usurped. Also, the female character I expected to take a more prominent role here, since even her absence in the previous book implied a strong, imposing presence, is delegated to weak and disappointing secondary character who, unlike her father and brother, is less of an actor and more of a plot token. Slightly disappointing.

The Well-Favored Man (1994)

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A perfect example of a book where the plot run away from the writer, or is it the other way around? Vaguely reminiscent of Zelazny’s Amber sequence (though instead of the order-chaos-dichotomy, it’s a three-part stalemate of magical kingdoms based on three of the four magic elements (fire, stone and water)), at least from the world-building angle, it’s a story that sets up a rising threat to then completely derail into a different direction about bringing back a seemingly lost family member.

What saves the book is the excellent writing that makes it even satisfying as it goes further and further away from the initially promised conflict. It really captures positive family dynamics and that it’s a family of mighty magicians and adventurers who are also princes and queens and so on only helps. And while it’s reminiscent of Zelazny’s famous series, it doesn’t entirely feel like a copy-cat and it hints at enough mystery and adventure that is left to be told that makes you want to go back to its setting and discover its intricacies .

The High House (1998)

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James Stoddard’s High House evokes all those childhood memories of big, old houses and their particular magic: seemingly endless corridors, an infinite number of rooms full of treasure and mystery and wonder. There’s a small tradition of fantasy that plays into those, ancient houses that indeed are full of magic, full of doors to uncountable fantasy dimensions and housing various wondrous and dangerous creatures.

The High House hits all the right notes in that regard, making it easy to get lost in it’s myriad descriptions of the various worlds that can be entered through it and all the dangers it harbors. Plot-wise, it’s about the young son of the present master of the house, who gets a new (evil of course) stepmother, has to leave and later return to claim the title of the master of the High House himself.

If the book is one thing, it’s a bit too predictable. I was expecting some unique or at least a few minor plot twists, but the story, as expected from early on, unfolds exactly as fate foretold. This, to be honest, is one of the two major faults of the book. The other, which for no reason I could discern exactly, was that nearly all the acting characters were male. Only three females actually appeared in the entire book: the evil stepmother, an evil, female incarnation of order in two parts (an adult temptress and a young child being order itself) and one good female whose kingdom was only saved by the presence of our hero.

This configuration isn’t exactly unique to fantasy, but somehow it felt more than usual overwhelmingly male-centric with the endless, slightly bromantic variations of good guys congratulating each other about their various virtues and goodness (the good son of the evil stepmother, a lawyer who becomes the best friend of the main character, various other house servants). Very distracting, especially when you want nothing more than enjoy the book at hand but your mind begins to wander why the world is only full of males.

While I did initially enjoy reading the book, its predictability and male-centric made me less enthusiastic as I read on. This was further aggravated by the fact that the enemy faction is never more than a facile opponent without any motivation that makes much sense and the final reveal (sorta) that the High House is a construct by God, which took away a lot of the mystery surrounding it makes me wary of trying out the sequel.

The Queen’s Squadron (1992)

QueensSquadron

I’m a big fan of Meluch’s novel War Birds, but other books I’ve tried by her were pretty much disappointing. The earlier Jerusalem Fire because the characters annoyed me to no end and the Tour of the Merrimack books because they showed a writer who had replaced the complexity of plot and characterization of her earlier novels with simplistic and dumbed-down notions of the same. Entertaining in a way, but utterly without ambition nor substance.

The Queen’s Squadron on the other hand showed that Meluch’s War Birds wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder. The background is odd, with a race of immortals establishing a space empire far off from Earth once humanity has discovered space flight and gone to the stars. The various groups fighting each other seems to originate on the same planet (two nations of free mortals and the immortals) and yet various other worlds (connected by wormhole-gates) are colonized and Earth is still around, though playing not much of a role.

The immortals have the tactical advantage, because they have true FTL-drives and aren’t depend on the gate. Their disadvantage is their age and their believe that they are unassailable.

It’s told mostly from two viewpoints and Meluch manages to give both characters a different style. The male character reminded me both in outlook and writing style of Garrett from Glen Cook’s Garrett, P.I. series, the other is a female immortal who has gone native among her own people’s military to abandon her former live.

I didn’t mention Glen Cook’s writing just for the character similarities. A core value of his entire output is that whoever you are, however mighty, nobody can plan for everything and bad luck can fuck up the best of plans. And that outlook, that no plan survives contact with reality, that nobody can ever really control the outcome of any scheme, is at the heart of Meluch’s novel. Things happen, very often horrible things, and the characters either survive them or don’t, but control is rarely in the hands of anyone and even those who think they have it, loose it when it counts the most.

There are few scenes that make for pretty uncomfortable reading, the torture scenes halfway in were pretty graphic and the whole follow-up with a Stockholm effect by one survivor a bit too neatly and flippant written to not feel disturbing. Still, it’s a hell of novel in many ways, marrying complex characterization to an interesting, slightly hard SF setting and a space opera plot that feels realistic enough with all the political shenanigans and yet with enough action to also satisfy those aspects. It’s as best as any other space opera I’ve read for some time and it’s levels above any of the stuff Meluch has written as part of the Merrimack series.

Whispers Under Ground (2012)

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Normally you should start with the first novel in a series, but when you’re at a small bookshop at a railway station searching for something to read while on the train, you rarely have the chance to start with the first. I had to lay aside two books which sounded interesting but were middle-trilogy books, but in the past I had good experiences with starting urban fantasy slash mystery fiction series in the middle, and Whispers Under Ground entirely satisfied that condition. Self-contained, a great read that made me hungry to read part one and two and the latest, the fourth, shortly after I finished this one.

The setup is about a sub-division of the London police force that deals with weird cases, which translates into magic, monsters and other supernatural stuff. The case in Whispers Under Ground is about a murder of an American student in a station of the London Underground, which doesn’t sound all that magical, until Peter Grant, the principal character of the series, finds the murder weapon, a clay shard imbued with magic. From there it goes to stranger (thought not exactly unexpected) places.

While the setup isn’t all that unusual for the genre, there’s magic, but it’s mostly hidden from the mundane world and the main character slowly learns the ropes of this magical world, uncovering more and more strangeness. What is unusual is that the main character is black (in general you have white male characters in urban fantasy with a very similar background), something the American publisher tried to hide in the most unprofessional way on their covers (why they didn’t use the excellent British covers in the first place boggles my mind).

Second, either author Ben Aaronovitch worked for the Metropolitan Police, did his research well or is just great at faking the mindset of the police officers and their whole procedures. I don’t think I’ve read any other urban fantasy slash mystery fiction that seems to get the mindset of the coppers and their organization so perfectly. Like I said, it may be just a clever con, but if, then it’s pretty convincing.

Ancillary Justice (2013)

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You can find a lot of praise for Ann Leckie’s first novel on net, which probably was the reason why I had such big expectations and felt a bit meh about it in the end. It’s an old-school space opera (big, galaxy spanning empire) with a few selected pieces of transhuman technology that inform and drive most of the overall story.

There’s an emperor who is basically a person-array, a synchronized personality with thousands of individual personal units all over the empire. There are AI-driven ships who initially had mostly tech-slaved people (the Ancilliaries) as crews who acted as hands and eyes (and with erased personalities) of the ships. The rest is pretty conventional it terms of technology.

The biggest problem I have with that approach is that the contrast between the old-school elements and the selected bits of technology works only if you don’t think too much about how such a situation could have arisen in the first place, but since I actually like to think when reading science fiction, it feels like the entire setting is build on a galaxy-wide plot hole. Either you write a transhuman space opera, which makes it nearly impossible to use an old-school emperor or base-line humans for most of the setting, or you go completely old-school but then the technology has to be much more restrained, which is impossible because the bits of transhuman tech are essential to the story.

Which is not to say it’s not clever in places. They way how the main character, a surviving unit of a destroyed ship-AI, can’t differentiate between gender and nearly always used the female pronoun when talking to males, makes for an interesting trick. Because despite knowing that one of the secondary characters is male, the constant use of she or her for him makes it hard not to think of him as female. Makes you appreciate and think about how strongly language and gender concepts inform our everyday thinking.

Beside the whole problem with the selectively used tech, I found the setting in general pretty dull and generic and I never read a first-novel author who managed to write two alternating perspectives (one from the past, one in the present) equally compelling.

Despite all the problems, it’s not a bad book, merely average with a few neat twists, but certainly not as good as all the praise made me think it would be. Also, it’s the first in a trilogy, that while pretty self-contained, isn’t as conclusive as it probably would have been if there would be no follow-up.

Wicked Bronze Ambition (2013)

Wicked Bronze Ambition

The latest Garrett adventure is the usual clusterfuck that starts with an emotional sucker-punch of murder and mayhem you don’t see coming and concerns a winner-takes all (and the losers obviously die) tournament among the kids of the rich and powerful from the hill.

The rest is like always typical police work. Not Sherlock Holmes-like observation and deduction, but losts of legwork exhausting all the possible leads until some of them sooner or later turn up something useful. The ending is uncharacteristically for Cook pretty sweet and nice, but I kind of liked how he tempered the initial sucker-punch.

It’s rare that a series this long going still manages to surprise you or feel fresh, and the Garrett files certainly had their moments when the series seemed stuck in a rut. But with the last and now this newest entry Cook managed to infuse some much needed changes in Garrett’s world that makes it interesting again and I like how external changes (the rise of the guard as a new power in the city, the overall political climate) mirror his personal situation, that of the seemingly eternal bachelor having to grow up and realizing that he doesn’t get any younger and changes are necessary whether he wants them or not.

At times TunFaire reminds me of a more serious Ankh-Morpork, a fantasy city that feels like it’s growing and changing, with class and race conflicts (but not as much in your face and moralizing as Pratchett can be), but at a pace more real, not jumping from middle ages to Renaissance in just one generation, but from a war time city to one where the surrounding nation is more or less at peace and how that influences people, organizations and traditions.

Bayou Moon (2010)

BayouMoon

The second Edge novel by author duo Ilona Andrews takes a different tack to serials and instead of reusing the main characters from the first, takes a side character and reuses the plot structure from the first novel. Bayou Moon has again a male character from the magic Earth fall in love with a girl from the Edge (the zone between the mundane and the magic Earth) and lots of other enticing action stuff to fill the gaps between the developing romance.

This time the enemies are a lot more interesting than just the generic evil dude guy from the first novel. Instead we learn a bit about the politics in the Weird and the spy war going on between two nations (the good nation being the one from which the male love interest in the previous and the one in this book hail) and its spill over into the Edge.

There are various neat monstrous creatures on the enemy side, a slightly different setting (a magically revved up Louisiana swamp) and a romance that is, despite following nearly every cliche of the romance genre (or maybe because of that), quite effective at pulling you in.