The Causal Angel (2014)

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Third part of a trilogy that heavily depends on having read the previous two volumes to understand what is going on (at all, lots of advanced genre speak with its own inventions liberally thrown around). I really, really liked the previous two books, which were some of the best science fiction novels of recent years that managed to marry complex and dense world-building to equally well-written post-human characters and incredible smart plotting that covered a lot of current topics at the edge where technology and society meets. It’s a rare treat to find a writer so skilled at the hard SF game who also excels as an enthralling word-smith.

And the third part of the trilogy present a thrilling climax in many ways, except…

Well it depends. When it comes to computer games, I’m first and foremost a gamist. When it comes to fluff reading (which is probably more than 80% of all my reading) I’m entirely in the narrativist camp. But when it comes to the ambitious kind of science fiction that comes along only every few years, books like Diaspora or Schismatrix or Blindsight or a handful others, I really prefer the simulationist approach that play the What if game to the extreme. No big villains who have their evil monologue before they fry the heroes, no heroes who somehow turn out to be connected to all the important events in the settings past, connected to all the important movers and shakers.

The Causal Angel falls squarely into the narrativist trap after the previous two books hinted at something more complex. Instead all the smart, well written build-up of the past two books, the beautiful imagined setting, leads nowhere interesting, just a few (imaginative, I admit that) fights with various villains, some personal insights (not about the world at large but merely born out of the narrativist structure of the books) and a boring deus ex machina to save a plot that run out of things to dazzle the reader with. The heroes don’t even win, they just escape before the curtain falls.

I enjoyed it, but I really hoped for something with more substance. With more to it than merely a (very) smart surface.

Two Serpents Rise (2013)

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2nd book in Max Gladstone’s craft sequence, albeit taking place chronologically before Three Parts Dead and with a different set of characters and at another location. The series takes place in a world where human sorcerers have won a decisive war against the gods and mostly replaced them with companies that use magical power as both a power source but also collateral in complex financial contracts, with some very interesting side effects.

Two Serpents Rise takes place in a Las Vegas-like city and the main character is tasked with finding out why the water source is demon-ridden. Things go from bad to worse, with intrigue in the form of company takeovers, albeit due to the nature of the setting with added magical complexities and it all comes down to the question of whether it was good to get rid of the gods in the first place and if the system that replaced them is any better.

TSR is a great read, but is biggest strength is to ask complex moral questions in a setting nearly completely divorced from our world and still manages to make these questions and how the characters go about answering them seem relevant to our world. All packed into an intense, action driven-plot with ambiguous but likable characters on all sides with no clear good vs evil dichotomy in sight.

Chimes at Midnight (2013)

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Seventh and latest in the October Daye series about a fairy-human-halfling who works as a sort of detective/knight and solves cases that most of fairy wouldn’t touch. This time an attempt by October to stop the Goblin fruit drug from getting openly trafficked (a drug deadly only for halflings and humans, last mentioned in the fifth book of the series) backfires when the queen exiles her and she has to expose her claim to the throne as false.

The whole animosity thing between October and the queen was present from the first book, but I didn’t really expect everything to go fubar quite this fast or even this aggressively. I’m not sure if McGuire intended there to have been more back story why the queen hated her (apart from the one thing where October helped her out and said so to everyone), but at least it grew into an intense conflict with an interesting outcome. In terms of overall setup, its a big game changer, since now all the major powers in October’s vicinity are allies or positively disposed to her, which changes a lot of the dynamics. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Ashes of Honor (2012)

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Sixth in the October Daye series about a fairy-human-halfling who works as a sort of detective/knight and solves cases that most of fairy wouldn’t touch. This time an old fairy acquaintance discovers he had a daughter with a mortal and his daughter has gone missing, either run away or worse.

This is probably the closest the series has to a filler episode initially, which starts out low-key and with no real personal stake for October, but events soon spin out of control and stakes become world-threatening all over again (doesn’t feel like filler anymore once this happens). The whole question – will a halfling chose mortals and die or chose fairy and has to live their whole live as a second class citizen – rises its head again, but at least the powers October gained in the third book allows halfings to survive either option, which sadly doesn’t solve all the problem posed by the question.

The book also brings back a villain from the second book, who has never taken stage before but was extensively referred to.

One Salt Sea (2011)

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Fifth in the October Daye series about a fairy-human-halfling who works as a sort of detective/knight and solves cases that most of fairy wouldn’t touch. This time two sons of the Undersea fairy queen have been captured and everything points to the land fairies. War between the two realms seems inevitable and to complicate things even more, October’s human daughter has also been captured along the way.

Stake-wise this is pretty big, but what I enjoyed even more was the depiction of the undersea, that felt like an interesting place for stories in its own right. We also learn more about the sea-witch’s background and one major character bites the dust to allow October some more character growth.

One neat touch of the series is how each book is self-contained, but each sequel contains spillover from previous cases and the actions in previous books have consequences felt in later books. Here one of the two big villains is one who helped out in the previous book (though whether she’s still the sub-boss here is debatable, at least she has more screen time) and her antagonism to October was present from nearly the first book. We see more of October’s human daughter and one important decision late in the book mirrors similar events in the third one, but with a different outcome that feels quite poignant.

All in all, another solid entry in the series.

Late Eclipses (2011)

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Fourth in the October Daye series about a fairy-human-halfling who works as a sort of detective/knight and solves cases that most of fairy wouldn’t touch (victims weren’t important enough). This time a close friend of Daye gets poisoned and everything points to a close associate of the man who once forcefully transformed her into a fish for ten years.

Has the usual strengths and weaknesses of the series, with Daye being mostly a fun viewpoint character, who at times can get on your nerves but never really annoys. This is one of those books with a rather small scale, but you never feel like this one is just for filler, it’s just as exiting as those where the whole world seems to hang in the balance. The end shows a development that was hinted at from the first book, with the daughter of Daye’s sire having grown into what you expected her to be from the beginning.

The Rhesus Chart (2014)

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The fifth Laundry title deals with vampires, but as expected from a Stross novel, they are a bit more original than your run-of-the-mill vampires. It starts with a small group of young investment bankers who accidentally discover how to get turned, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s more sinister design than chance involved. There are some meaty twists coming hard and fast and while the story doesn’t really advance the overall CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN storyline, it’s very satisfying all around.

Sadly Stross can’t help himself and includes a cheap shot at some of his contemporary writers, which comes of a bit holier-than-thou in a novel with an interesting but still pretty restrained spin on vampires. It’s a good spin, but it doesn’t really reinvent the notion of vampires and in the end amounts to same nasty old monsters you find in other fiction, like the black and red court vampires in Butcher Dresden files.

Still, the book is an intense and riveting read and Stross manages to expertly up the ante until things explode in a violent climax where the main character isn’t even present (he’s somewhere else having his own boss battle). There were a few unexpected twists; some emotional whammies you saw miles away and who still had the desired effect, and a few deaths that really changed the status quo. Basically, it’s another excellent entry, which will make the wait for the next one really hard.

Sparrow Hill Road (2014)

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This reminded me of Gaiman’s American Gods, which tried to create an entire mythology for the modern United States, instead of merely adding some fantasy races and magic like most urban fantasy does. But by swiping and transplanting various gods and creatures from other cultures, Gaiman merely managed to tell a great story that didn’t felt particularly rooted in US culture or their myths.

Seanan McGuires short story cycle about the hitchhiker ghost Rose who wanders America’s ghost roads to finally stop the man who killed her, achieved what American Gods didn’t. An entire mythology fashioned from common elements of US culture many will recognize, that feels mythological in every sense of the world and uniquely American.

Populated with countless variations of ghosts and other things from the deeper levels of the land of the dead, bound together by Americas roads (those still alive, those deserted and those that only exists in the memory of the dead), McGuires afterlife made for quite the fascinating setting, offering things both familiar and new. Nearly each story managed to surprise with something different (sometimes setting-wise, sometimes personal for Rose) and Rose’s character was fun to follow, with her refreshing pragmatic outlook on all things dead or living in twilight.

At the final stretch the book, while not providing the expected climatic battle with Rose’s arch-enemy, managed to surprise with a creepy-romantic variation on eternal love that outshone the lack of a truly final finale.

By the way, the entire story cycle was published on the net in 2010 (it’s not online anymore, officially, but in cases like that there’s always the wayback machine) and a book version came out recently, only missing one story.

The Tyranny of the Night (2005)

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The first in Cook’s most recent series is Cook going back to his Dread Empire-series style-wise. It’s not a close first person account of things like the Black Company and far removed from the occasional fun noir-fantasy-mix of the Garrett P.I. files. Cook in Dread Empire mode reminds me of reading history, an in-depth account of various small nations, kingdoms and principalities clashing, of all the primary actors who believe they are driving things, all the events laid out by a narrator who isn’t emotionally involved.

And like real history, it doesn’t feel like a grand story slowly evolving into an unstoppable crescendo with a soap opera approach, but a lot of small events accumulating into something big, lots of small moments driven by pure chance, with all human or otherwise intelligent actors just trying to survive the ride. This is one particularly strength of Cook, making it look like real history unfolding, not driven by narrative genre tics or character-driven storytelling forcing the plot.

It’s not his most approachable mode of writing, dense with no real helping hand to understand what’s really going on. The world of the Instrumentalities has the usual amount of real-world analogues from history, but that is all you’re getting. There’s a sense that a lot of stuff has happened before you enter the story and you, as the reader, have to slowly learn who is who, how the world has come to be the way it is and what is still going on (for example what the deal with magic and the Instrumentalities is).

Once you’ve penetrated that, on the other hand, you get a rich, complex fantasy that seems entirely unpredictable and still offers a lot of action on the surface as well as the feeling you see the gears of time moving faster and faster until there’s no escape, of history getting made in a pivotal epoch of this world that will change everything. Due to that and this being a series, the ending is a bit low-key, merely a short stop before the next round of conflicts start again.

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (2013)

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I bought this mostly on the strength of Vess’ art, though I’ve read a few novels by Charles de Lint a few years back and remembered him as a solid, even good writer. It’s a sort-of modern fairy tale reminiscent of Gaiman’s & Vess’ collaboration Stardust (packaging-wise as well as the overall approach), aimed at a younger audience. The plot-hook – young girl dies and gets resurrected as a cat – sounds intriguing, but turns into a mediocre plot token hunt, first to become human again, then to solve the fallout of that. It’s not really bad, but very bare bones in both the depth and characterization department and nothing really grabbed me.

The art by Vess is great as usual, but its not enough. A solid effort that doesn’t manage to make any lasting impression.