Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB BRIDE (reviewed in December) started the story of Persephone “Percy” Ayren, a commoner in an alternate world of 1700s nobility. Percy has an unusual ability: She can see the presence of death. And in a world where death is suspended and no one can truly die, her ability is both a blessing and a curse.
During the course of COBWEB BRIDE, Percy met up with a number of interesting and influential people, including the newly-dead Infanta Claere Liguon (sole heir of her realm), the Witch woman Grial, the enigmatic Black Knight Beltain Chidair (son of the infamous Duke “Hoarfrost,” now dead and even more disreputable than he was in life), and many, many others, including Death Himself. All of the living people, though, paled in comparison to Percy due to Percy’s unusual abilities.
When COBWEB BRIDE ended, Percy returned home, revealed herself as Death’s Champion and managed to ease her dying, suffering grandmother — who’d been “living” despite a death rattle for weeks, unable to eat, move, or possibly even think — into a true and peaceful death.
This, of course, is a miracle of epic proportions under the circumstances. And it cannot be hidden for very long, especially as the various countries populating this alternate Earth (including Liguon, Lethe, Styx, Balmoe, Morphaea, and Serenoa, along with our “mundane” countries of France, Spain, and Italy) are at war.
At the start of COBWEB EMPIRE, Percy is dealing with the aftermath of easing her grandmother’s transition into a clean, true death. She’s wondering why she, of all people, has this ability. And she wonders if it makes her more than human, or less?
But she doesn’t have much time to spend on philosophical pursuits, as word spreads rapidly of her abilities, especially after she grants a suffering pig — which had been butchered before anyone figured out death no longer applied and has been in an undead, yet hurting state for weeks — its true death as well.
The village priest is immediately called, and he says it’s a miracle (discreetly pocketing a few coins from Percy’s relieved father on the way out). So Percy continues on her way, as she needs to return the riding animal and cart to its proper owner, Grial the Witch woman.
Of course, there are obstacles aplenty before Percy finds Grial, and one of those obstacles is the nature of these additional lands themselves. They have oddly started to fade, taking people and objects with them. No street or dwelling place is safe, and no one has any idea why it’s happening, either . . . the best guess is that because death itself is suspended, these particular “extra” realms are hurting because magic works there, whereas it doesn’t seem to be able to do so in France, Italy, and Spain.
Once Grial is found, she gives Percy a few hints along with a good meal, introduces her to the Crown Prince and Princess of Lethe, who need Percy’s help in order to allow the Crown Prince’s mother, the Queen, to truly die. And because Percy has a big heart and cannot stand suffering, she does so . . . but that causes even more challenges.
Consider, please, that Kings and Queens, if they have any sense at all, need to understand tactics. Since many of these countries are at war with one another, they need a tactical advantage.
And what could be a greater advantage in a world where no one can die than a woman who actually can send the undead into a true death?
Fortunately, Grial intervenes and sends Percy, along with the Black Knight Beltain Chidair, along their way again. Grial knows that Percy must continue to search for the true Cobweb Bride, as that’s the only way life as everyone knows it will ever return.
Because all of the same problems discussed in COBWEB BRIDE still exist. People cannot grow anything, because the grains will not ripen. You cannot butcher any pigs, cows or other animals, because the meat will not cure. Even milk will not properly curdle, so making cheese and yogurt is out, and aside from water itself, there is nothing that will keep the populace from starvation unless Death gets his Cobweb Bride . . . and that in a hurry.
At any rate, Beltain is a formidable knight, so between his fighting abilities and Percy’s rapidly improving abilities in sending the undead into true death, they are left unmolested (though with more than a few strong scares). But there’s more between them than just the comradeship of the road, as Percy had feelings for him in COBWEB BRIDE, while Beltain at least thought she was interesting and spunky. But the more he sees of her and her abilities, the more protective and loving he becomes.
Mind you, a touch of love was very welcome here amidst all this death. And someone being able to love Percy for herself despite her unusual abilities — or perhaps because of them — was even more welcome.
At any rate, there is yet another factor to consider. Rumalar Avalais, the Sovereign of the Domain (think of her as the equivalent of the Emperor and Empress of Liguon), has decided to take the field of war. And this Sovereign doesn’t seem to be keen on ruling the living . . .
The pluses of COBWEB EMPIRE are many. Ms. Nazarian has an ability to give her characters just the right words to say; her characterization is top-notch, her storytelling is keen, and there’s a feeling despite all the darkness and death that somehow, someway, the world will be righted again.
In other words, COBWEB EMPIRE, far from being a “filler” book as tends to happen in far too many trilogies as of late, has a good story to tell all its own. It comes out of the previous COBWEB BRIDE, deepening and broadening it immensely, then adds complexity upon complexity until there’s yet another major surprise in store at the end.
Bottom line? COBWEB EMPIRE is a worthy sequel to the excellent COBWEB BRIDE that leaves much room for doubt as to what, exactly will happen in the concluding COBWEB FOREST.
– reviewed by Barb
** Note that if all goes well, COBWEB FOREST should be reviewed next weekend. Stay tuned.
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been reviewed here at Shiny Book Review multiple times. They always turn out thought-provoking, high-quality novels and most of the time, their novels end up on my “to be re-read soonest” shelf.
Their newest novel is TRADE SECRET, a direct sequel to their earlier novel BALANCE OF TRADE, both off the “main sequence” of the Liaden Universe and predating the action of AGENT OF CHANGE by a few centuries. Clan Korval is only mentioned by reputation in both of these novels; instead, the Liaden Clan at the heart of both BALANCE OF TRADE and TRADE SECRET is Clan Ixin, while the personage we’re following is a young human man named Jethri who’s been adopted into Clan Ixin and is learning the business of trade (as you probably guessed by the title).
Now, you might be asking yourself why I’m dancing around the issue of Jethri’s name. Simply put, the Terrans call him one thing — Jethri Gobelyn — while the Liadens call him another — Jethri ven’Deelin Clan Ixin. And because Jethri has two names, he often has to reconcile who he is with what society expects from him.
Or, in his case, what both societies (Terran and Liaden) expect from him.
One of the ways authors Lee and Miller do this is by contrasting the expectations the Liadens have with regards to sex compared to those Jethri grew up with (the Gobelyns, who are Loop Traders — that is, their trading ship has comparatively few destinations that repeat over and over compared to a bigger trading enterprise such as the one possessed by Jethri’s adoptive mother Norn ven’Deelin Clan Ixin). Jethri is a young adult, so the Gobelyns have taught him to be careful, to be smart, to not rush into anything and not to pair off until you’re much more sure of yourself . . . and sex, obviously, is a part of that pairing off.
This, of course, is much like most parents treat young adults now. It’s a mix of caution plus some education as to why you’re feeling more hormonal surges (and urges), and the way the society on-ship is constructed, young adults don’t get a lot of opportunities for experimentation save a few furtive kisses now and again (almost never on their own ships, as they aren’t big enough to prevent inbreeding) or with “bundling,” which is a lot like cuddling except in a small space.
But the Liadens see sex differently. They feel sex should be a sharing even between two people who don’t have love between them. (Granted, the Liadens do not feel you should go to bed with anyone at all. They are more rigid in many ways than humans in that regard.) They also think if you’re not trained to be a considerate, caring partner, that shows a lack of breeding . . . and because Jethri has only recently been adopted into Clan Ixin, all of his tutoring has been accelerated.
Including his romantic training.
The ways the Liadens are similar to the Terrans are in the realm of education and awareness — neither culture sees it as a good thing when young adults are unaware of what sex is all about, and both cultures feel you should not produce children if you cannot take care of them, most especially if you are of a High House (Liaden) or are a member of a trading ship (Terran/Rim Runners/Loop Traders).
So Jethri’s introduction to sex is much more complex than you might expect, and it is a plot point because Jethri stands between two worlds — Terran and Liaden. And because he’s the first person to do this, he’s a trailblazer . . . and he feels the weight of expectations on both sides keenly.
I enjoyed TRADE SECRET quite a bit once I got into it, but the first half was a bit slow for my taste. Jethri starts out learning from his adoptive mother Norn, but must be sent elsewhere on an important mission where his dual identities will be an asset. Getting there was torturous at times, especially when Jethri’s personal objectives were nearly met in one chapter before the next cut away to what’s going on with the Gobelyns these days. And figuring out exactly why the Gobelyns mattered so much took some doing.
(Hint, hint: It’s not necessarily for the obvious reason.)
The action mostly revolves around something Jethri’s father Arin left him. No one knows where it is, but Jethri has hints. So he has to go in search of that in addition to going on the important mission (the two are intertwined in a way I can’t reveal without spoilers, I’m afraid) and it’s a decent way to structure TRADE SECRET that worked better the longer I thought about it.
Ultimately, though, the action is a MacGuffin. It’s not what’s important. What is important is Jethri’s coming of age story and how he balances his nascent adult self against what the Terrans expect on the one hand, and what the Liadens expect on the other.
Before I forget, there’s also a subplot about a particularly nasty cuss who doesn’t like Jethri and does everything he can to get in Jethri’s way. This rather immature Liaden “halfling” (teenager, roughly) has been spoiled rotten and yet has one, loyal person around him: his butler, who sees some potential in the nasty cuss and is trying to bring it out.
This particular subplot at first left me scratching my head, but ultimately it, too, came into focus. (Further reviewer sayeth not.)
Despite the slow start due to all of the above, TRADE SECRET was quite, quite good.
In fact, once everything finally fell into place (a few, short pages before the end), I understood why authors Lee and Miller chose this particular way to tell this story.
You see, all the disparate elements worked to create a mosaic. Mosaics can’t usually be understood until you step away and ponder them for a while. And while creating a mosaic is not the usual way to structure a novel, this approach benefited TRADE SECRET immensely.
Bottom line? TRADE SECRET is an excellent coming-of-age story, the cross-cultural clashes are stellar, and all of the seemingly unrelated stuff actually is related once you step away from it and ponder the novel as a whole.
– reviewed by Barb
Rosemary Edghill is one of the world’s most versatile writers. She’s been reviewed multiple times at Shiny Book Review, and for good reason . . . she never seems to write a bad book, regardless of genre.
Note that IDEALITY has already been reviewed here at SBR under the title THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS. Only the title has changed. So my comments about it will, of necessity, be brief.
IDEALITY is a novel that’s partly horror, partly fantasy, and all its own. It features Childeric the Shatterer, a character of myth and legend originally dreamed up by modern-day writer Arcadia Stanton McCauley(most often known as Cady). a fifty-one-year-old woman. When the two of their stories intersect, many unusual events occur, some incredibly violent, some surprisingly tender, and some nearly inexplicable.
IDEALITY is a novel that grows on you. The writing is stellar, as you’d expect (c’mon, it’s Rosemary Edghill!), and it varies between high fantasy courtly speech (with all its signs and portents) and, once in Cady’s point of view, is told in a contemporary, direct and sometimes snarky commentary. This juxtaposition is interesting and rarely seen in contemporary works of fantasy and/or horror.
Mind you, the horror element in and of itself unusual, and yet is strikingly modern all the same, while the storytelling in both sections (Childeric’s and Cady’s) is exceptional.
Don’t miss IDEALITY, one of the most original works of fiction I’ve read in the past fifteen years.
Next up is FAILURE OF MOONLIGHT, which is a short story collection featuring Bast, perhaps Ms. Edghill’s most popular character ever.** Bast is a Wiccan priestess from New York City who struggles with her faith, solves murder mysteries and is one of the most intelligent characters in or out of detective fiction.
That being said, here are the stories in the collection, reviewed one at a time:
“Advice from a Young Witch to an Old Priestess:” This is about Bast’s first experiences with the Wiccan faith. She wants to learn, there is a procedure as to how you learn from people already initiated in the Craft, and yet it can be tough to get started due to the secrecy of the people already involved and the hoop-jumping required to show your bona fides before you ever get a chance to prove yourself as a dedicated student. In addition, Bast’s relationship with a male NeoPagan, Lark, is a big part of the plotline — why this is so is all bound up in Bast’s faith, and how she admits she was searching for answers, and wasn’t quite ready for what she found.
Mind you, this is the one Bast story extant where Bast doesn’t solve an external mystery. The mysteries here are all internal instead.
Why is Bast putting up with the exceedingly immature Lark? Why has she bought into the concept of Free Love (as this story is set in the early 1970s) without a qualm? And why does it takes her a while to figure out that faith and responsibility go hand in hand?
Ultimately, this is an interesting story of an extremely intelligent woman who admits she’s flawed and made mistakes trying to find her feet in a faith that’s not exactly commonplace. Watching her make these mistakes as they happen is sometimes uncomfortable, but that’s because it’s easy to identify with Bast’s plight despite her unusual religion — or because of it.
“The Iron Bride:” This Bast adventure is a straight-up mystery. Who has killed pagan swordsmith Wayland Smith? For what purpose? And will the police ever believe Bast once she figures it out?
This story is perhaps the strongest in the collection because of several things. Bast is a smart woman who makes wisecracks and uses her knowledge of the Wiccan faith to solve murders no one else is likely to solve quickly (or perhaps at all), and there is a logical progression she follows that explains just who killed the swordsmith and why.
“A Winter’s Tale:” This is a conversational story between Bast and Lark while they both work at an occult shop in New York City. Lark had run across a very strange occurrence years ago, and wants Bast’s opinion — Bast, of course, would rather be anywhere else, but she needs the work and there’s a snowstorm outside anyway, so she listens. Slowly, the story emerges, one of horror and faith intertwined . . . and a monkey’s paw is invoked (in both senses) by someone who has no idea what she’s doing, upping the complexity and the horror factor immediately.
This is a gripping story for all it’s “shaggy-Witch” quality, and it’s easy to see why Bast’s attention is arrested.
“Burden of Guilt:” Here, Bast helps out at an upscale pagan festival in upstate New York. This particular brand of paganism does not appeal to Bast, as she views it as a sellout: if enlightenment visits this festival’s participants at all, it has to be accidental. The main purpose of this festival is to separate the well-heeled from their money while making them feel good at the same time. She hates being there, and would not be if she didn’t need to make money to pay her rent, but ends up having to deal with a murder . . . Marcie Wheeler ends up dead, and a ghost named Edward Madison is blamed.
Of course, Bast figures out (by doing her research) that there never was an Edward Madison anywhere around this particular establishment. So someone has deliberately spread this rumor — why do so, and for what purpose?
Ultimately, the mystery is straightforward. The police probably would’ve figured this one out on their own, as there’s a particularly mundane reason for the murder (that I refuse to spoil), but because Bast is the first to do so, she’s in danger.
How will she get out of trouble? And will she ever forgive herself for making money at this particular establishment, considering they’re doing any number of things she outright despises?
The last two stories are different.
The first one, “A Christmas Witch,” is a pagan fable for young readers. Rowan is Wiccan, and wants to celebrate the winter holidays just like anyone else. But her family hasn’t explained what they do to celebrate the holidays, instead telling her to wait and see . . . and like any young child, this does not go over well.
Ultimately, Rowan figures it out and is left satisfied.
This is a cute story that I enjoyed very much; it’s short and pithy, very different in tone than the four “Bast” stories, but welcome all the same.
The final story is an essay that was originally included at the end of the first full-length Bast mystery, SPEAK DAGGERS TO HER. Ms. Edghill explains what her motivation was for writing this book — an old, unsolved mystery that she’d always wanted to explore, that just did not leave her alone no matter what she did.
So she wrote it.
(If she hadn’t, I doubt any of the other material would’ve existed, except perhaps for “The Christmas Witch.” But I digress.)
Ultimately, FAILURE OF MOONLIGHT is an entertaining short collection — about 100 pages in length — and I enjoyed it very much. (My only wish? That there were more Bast stories left to explore.)
IDEALITY — A-plus.
FAILURE OF MOONLIGHT — A.
– reviewed by Barb
**Full disclosure: I helped Ms. Edghill find someone who could help her format FAILURE OF MOONLIGHT, and was surprised to see that she’d written me a dedication thereby. I didn’t do anything else with regards to this book, which is why I was able to review it. (We take our conflict-of-interest policy here at SBR very seriously.)
As it’s been a while since I’ve done a Romance Saturday post here at Shiny Book Review (SBR), I thought I’d serve up a special treat — four reviews of four different types of romances await the reader. And as Valentine’s Day was yesterday, I thought it might be interesting if I treated this more like a dinner — with an aperitif, an appetizer, an entrée (the main course), and a dessert.
Four romances. No waiting.
Let’s get started.
Our aperitif is by Sherry Thomas and is entitled THE BURNING SKY. It’s a young adult fantasy romance set in late 19th Century England, and features Iolanthe Seabourne, Elemental Mage, and Prince Titus of Elberon, who live in an alternate reality that intersects with England in such a way that magicians frequently cross from magical Elberon into non-magical England without too much distress. Titus is a Prince, but he does not rule as another realm has forced him into vassalage. He’s a teen on the verge of adulthood, doesn’t have any idea who his father was (his mother refused to say before she died years ago in an uprising) and his recently-deceased grandfather was such a bitter old man that Titus could barely stand the sight of him. And Iolanthe is a mage who commands all four Elements — Fire, Air, Earth and Water — even though she doesn’t exactly realize it at the start of the book.
More to the point, Iolanthe is the one foretold to kill the Bane — a man who’s lived more than one lifetime and cannot be permanently killed by a normal man or woman. And because mages who can command four elements are rare, Iolanthe was hidden for years and was not trained to the limit of her ability, either, in order to keep her from the Bane’s sight.
So when Iolanthe finally betrays herself, she’s a sixteen-year-old on the run. Prince Titus is her only ally, but she doesn’t fully trust him . . . more to the point, the only way to hide her is to bring her into 19th Century England, a place she doesn’t truly understand, and ensconce her at an all-male school, the famous Eton College. And to the Prince’s credit, he quickly does this, as Eton is both his prison and his refuge.
Quickly renamed “Archer Fairfax,” Iolanthe excels at most athletic pursuits, outdoes the boys in Greek and Latin, and in general enjoys herself thoroughly. But her feelings for the Prince cannot be denied . . . will they throw off the Bane, or won’t they? And will she ever be discovered as a female in disguise?
I enjoyed THE BURNING SKY in many ways, as it’s a quick read with a decent-to-better romance as Iolanthe and Prince Titus are fun characters with a nice dynamic between them. Ms. Thomas seemed to be enjoying herself thoroughly here, and her storytelling had wit and life as well as an understated, age-appropriate passion — all good.
However, it’s not a grade-A read. It’s closer to a grade-B read — well-executed, deft, pleasant, and completely forgettable once you’ve turned the pages.
Still, I’d read more of Ms. Thomas’s fantasy, no question.
Our appetizer is an English historical romance, THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON, also by Ms. Thomas. It stars Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, and the woman who eventually becomes his bride, Louisa Cantwell. She’s a woman of gentle birth but little money, and feels she must marry well . . . this is a tried-but-true plotline, but there are a few interesting touches. Lord Felix is an appealing rake whose polish masks a ferocious intellect, while Louisa’s charm and light conversation mask the fact she’s his intellectual equal. And it’s because they’re both extremely smart that their sexual passion is so strong, a particularly appealing touch.
As usual with the romances of Ms. Thomas, the dialogue is crisp and for the most part well-executed, and the reasoning behind how these two got together makes sense.
However — and this is a big however — I found little life to this romance. Lord Felix was mistreated in childhood by both parents, and his pain is palpable, but I don’t see why Louisa would go for him as there’s nothing inside her that would seemingly respond to his pain. Yet she does so without complaint, partly because she wants his immense fortune (which, to be honest, she never hides from either the reader or Lord Felix), partly because he is her intellectual equal and she doesn’t expect she’ll ever find another man who is.
If you haven’t read any of Ms. Thomas’s work, THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON should divert you for a few hours. But ultimately, it is nowhere near as good as her two best romances — PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS or NOT QUITE A HUSBAND (both reviewed here) — which is why I recommend you read those instead.
Our entrée is by debut novelist Giselle Marks, whose pleasant Regency romance THE FENCING MASTER’S DAUGHTER is a nice addition to the genre. It stars Edward Charrington, the seventh Earl of Chalcombe, recently of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and Miss Madelaine Deschamps, the aforementioned fencing master’s daughter.
The novel starts off agreeably with Madelaine rescuing Lord Edward from a vicious streetfight. Three armed assailants had downed Edward due to an old war wound suffered during the fighting in France disallowing him to fight at his usual capacity, and he would no doubt have been killed if not for Madelaine and her man-at-arms Henri fighting them off. As one man was killed and another grievously wounded, Madelaine says to everyone that Edward did the deed — and because he’s an Earl, no one questions him any further.
Of course, Edward feels guilty that he wasn’t able to handle his own affairs. But as he’d been hit hard on the head and suffered a concussion, he truly couldn’t be faulted. He does his best to find Madelaine again, as he wants to reward her . . . and did she really have the face of an angel?
And why are people trying to kill Edward, anyway? He’s just another Lord . . . he doesn’t have immense wealth, doesn’t have any known enemies, and even Napoleon’s men shouldn’t care any longer because Edward is lame and is never going to return to the battlefield.
As the romance progresses, Madelaine finds herself falling for Edward, even though she’s vowed she’ll never marry (for reasons that must be read; I refuse to spoil them). So will he manage to convince her that he’s not like other men, most of whom have been roués at absolute best? Or won’t he?
All I’m going to say further about the plot is this — I enjoyed it, thought there was some life and energy there, and greatly appreciated the touches of wit Ms. Marks sprinkled throughout her novel.
There’s a lot to like in THE FENCING MASTER’S DAUGHTER. The fight scenes are well-executed and lively, the dialogue — what there was of it — was well-rendered, I liked both Edward and Madelaine as characters and wanted them to achieve their “happily ever after” ending, and the historicity was excellent.
But there are some weak spots here that puzzled me. For one, much of the plot seemed summarized. There wasn’t nearly enough dialogue in spots to suit me. There was hardly any internal monologue — what the characters are thinking has to be deduced from external events instead. I didn’t see any reason for this, either, because what Ms. Marks did is actually harder to render than giving readers a few quoted thoughts now and again.
Further, because the historicity is so good, Ms. Marks actually went a bit overboard in her use of description. It is a perfectly period Regency romance — I cannot find fault with it on that score — but for modern-day readers, the descriptions alone may be a bit too much to bear.
With a top-notch editor, Ms. Marks’ novel would’ve been a guaranteed hit, at least in this quarter — a solid A. But because Ms. Marks did not have that top-notch editor (whoever edited for her did a workmanlike job and was competent, but didn’t address the faults listed above), this is a B-level debut instead.
Still good. Still interesting. Definitely memorable. I’d gladly read it again.
But it should’ve been even better.
Finally, our dessert course has been prepared by the redoubtable Rosemary Edghill, whose time-travel romance MET BY MOONLIGHT is back in print and available at Amazon as an independent e-book. Diana Crossways is a modern-day Wiccan priestess from Salem who owns a bookshop. It’s a stormy Halloween night (Samhain, by any other name) and she just wants to get to her coven meeting, but a rare book has been dropped off that requires her attention.
As Diana takes charge of it and starts to turn the pages, a bolt of lightning knocks out power to her shop. Something compels her to go out into the storm rather than stay inside in safety, then another bolt of lightning sends her elsewhere . . . to a forest in England directly before the “Glorious Restoration.” (If you’re not up on your English history, we’re in 1647. Thomas Cromwell has taken charge of England.) A coven is there to receive her — dripping wet, shivering with cold — and while Diana does see an enigmatic presence as well (a young man, dark and handsome, but somehow alien), she cannot dwell upon it.
Diana’s taken in by Abigail Fortune, one of the coven members, and is passed off as Abigail’s niece, Anne Mallow, from London. Abigail doesn’t know what Diana is, but as it was Samhain and that’s a holy night to those of the traditional faith (not yet called Wiccans, but the forebears of same), Abigail doesn’t question Diana overmuch, either.
“Anne” finds herself trapped in time without the creature comforts she’s used to, amidst a rigid society made worse by Cromwell’s depredations, and cannot quite catch her bearings. But then she sees the young man again, this time dressed in severe plainness, and is told his name is “Upright-Before-the-Lord.” Of course, this young man’s name is nothing of the sort, but unlike Diana, when this young man was found in the forest, he was taken in by Puritans of a particularly obnoxious vintage.
How can these two lovers be united, considering the times they live in and all that stands against them? How much help can Diana expect from the coven, especially as they must be discreet as this definitely is “the Burning Times?” And will Diana ever manage to get home again?
All of these questions are answered in ways that are satisfying, realistic, and historically honest — a neat trick that very few writers are able to pull off.
MET BY MOONLIGHT is perhaps the best time-travel romance I’ve ever read. It has heart, style, wit, verve, historicity, realism, and emotional honesty — a phenomenal and poignant read, something every romance reader should enjoy if they have any sense or brains about them.
So your final grades are as follows for this day-after-Valentine’s Day Four-Play:
THE BURNING SKY — B.
THE LUCKIEST WOMAN IN LONDON — C.
THE FENCING MASTER’S DAUGHTER — B.
MET BY MOONLIGHT — A-plus.
–reviewed by Barb
Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane’s BALANCE: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America is an entertaining overview of a number of civilizations, ancient and modern alike, and why these civilizations’ economies eventually faltered. Covering such disparate countries as Rome, Ming China, Spain, Ottoman Turkey, Great Britain, and the United States (with two sections, one on the state of California alone), Hubbard and Kane make the case that all of these countries’ economies failed for simple and systemic reasons — albeit not necessarily the same simple and systemic reason in every case.
However, there are some things that tend to crop up whenever nations start to decline, including the ossification of political elites, the substantial obstacles to any form of new technology or new way of doing anything, and in some cases — like Ming China — where a change in rulership means economic policy may make U-turns for no good reason whatsoever. This is mostly because an Emperor, like contemporary Prime Ministers or Presidents, wants to put his own, individual stamp on something — and oft-times, that means a change in policy for the sake of change alone rather than doing whatever is in the best interest of the country.
One interesting thing Hubbard and Kane discuss is the theory of “rent-seeking,” a term coined by economist Anne O. Krueger in an article for the American Economic Review back in 1974. Rent-seeking, according to Hubbard and Kane, is when “a group of people have the power to make money by manipulating the rules of government to their own advantage.” (Ms. Krueger came up with this term to discuss the corrupt nature of many Third World officials, who often took bribes to circumvent burdensome government regulations — this after first setting up the obnoxious regulations to begin with.)
But Hubbard and Kane go further in their discussion of what rent-seeking is, including economic protectionism on the part of lobbyists and labor unions — something that’s somewhat controversial, to put it mildly — and monopolistic restrictions or policies, which are far less so.
The most interesting points Hubbard and Kane make are those of political ossification — that is, when a system has hardened into a non-functional mess and is perpetuated by the bureaucrats, for the bureaucrats. When you add in the potential for self-enrichment by those self-same bureaucrats, such as what happened with the recent United States Farm Bill (where many seated legislators came out ahead, financially, because of the policies they enacted), you can see why nations might tend to decline.
There are some historical inaccuracies, however, with some of the overviews of other countries. Spain’s economic problems, for example, weren’t as simplistic as Hubbard and Kane want everyone to believe — they’re right that chasing the Jews out hurt the economy, they’re right that most of the rulers didn’t understand then-contemporary economics, but they minimize one of the biggest problems that caused Spain’s decline — the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Great Britain in 1558. Having a whole fleet of ships suddenly disappear certainly impacted the Spanish economy to a great extent . . . why this wasn’t discussed hardly at all is quite vexing, especially as one of the main reasons Ming China failed, according to Hubbard and Kane, was the dismantling of Zheng He’s fleet after Zheng He died (ships were actually burned in the harbor, partly due to isolationism on the part of the then-Emperor, partly because the ships were starting to rot anyway).
That being said, much of BALANCE is an entertaining overview of politics, economics, and history. It’s interesting, albeit not deep, and many of the high points are discussed.
Bottom line? If you like history, politics, or economics, and are looking for a quick, fast read that hits many high points, BALANCE is entertaining and will probably hold your interest.
But I’d have preferred a little more authenticity along with the entertainment value, thanks.
–reviewed by Barb
It’s been a while since I’ve read an anthology that I haven’t been a part of, so when the
psychotic nutjob social media coordinator and anthology editor Nick Sharps over at Ragnarok Publications asked if I would be interested in reviewing a book featuring kaiju (Japanese for “strange creature”) and fresh off my complete enjoyment of Pacific Rim, I enthusiastically agreed.
I was not disappointed. Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters was, overall, simply amazing. Instead of an overall review, however, I’m going to review each story individually, so that each author can be featured and their story dissected and given the proper space for the review. Edited by the aforementioned Nick and Tim Marquitz, it is a collection of tales that should satisfy every type of kaiju lover.
Big Ben and the End of the Pier Show (James Lovegrove) starts off the anthology, and is a story about a man who was stuck with a part of his family’s legacy that was driving him under: a tourist pier that his grandfather had built. He contemplates selling it, as well as burning it down. But just as he’s about to, he hears word that a kaiju nicknamed “Red Devil” is slowly making his way up the English Channel. The U.K.’s response? Big Ben, the lone fighting machine that is the only thing left that can potentially fight the kaiju head-on. A good, solid start with plenty of action, Lovegrove sets the bar fairly high for all the writers to follow.
The Conversion (David Annandale) is up next, and his story about the Eschaton, the Jewish “End of Days”, the name for the kaiju which is intent on destroying Manchester and the characters believe that faith can turn back the monster. Family conflicts abound here, but the primary story (faith vs kaiju) is a bit overshadowed by the slow build up. A decent enough story, though not one of my favorites. However, the ending of the little story more than makes up for the slow start and leaves the reader with a satisfied conclusion.
Day of the Demigods (Peter Stenson) was a humorous tale (for me, anyway) from the point of view from an actual kaiju who was struggling to make it in his own society. Rejected by his cousin/crush (I’m sure kaiju mating options can be limited at the best of times), Sweetgrass is determined to make it big in Hollywood, so he stomps into the city to audition for the studio execs at various production companies. Unfortunately, he can’t really talk to him, because his voice is so loud it blows out their eardrums when he tries to communicate. Mass panic ensues, and some hilarity as well, since Sweetgrass isn’t the smartest kaiju out there. A very well written story, and an interesting perspective as well.
The Lighthouse Keeper of Kurohaka Island (Kane Gilmour) is next and, quite frankly, is my favorite story in the book. It is the story of Shinobi and his father, who are lighthouse tenders along the many Japanese islands. It is their duty to ensure that all lighthouses and up and running, including the lighthouse on an island which is not mentioned on their maps but Shinobi’s father seems to know where it is located: Kurohaka Island. There, Shinobi is shocked t ofind many bones of enormous monsters and his father tells him that this is where the kaiju come to die. When Shinobi presses for more info, his father tells him the story of their family and how the firstborn boys always have the sight to see monsters, which includes fascinating stories about his grandfather who was at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was the site of two kaiju battles and not nuclear explosions like everyone thought. This story is a sad and powerful one, and as I said before, my favorite.
Occupied (Natania Barron) was a confusing story about a woman and a kaiju who share a strange connection. A disjointed tale which seems to revolve around a magic pair of scissors and the descendant of the creatures who fell from the heavens eons before, it could be argued that the tunnels the woman featured in it represent her mind, but I’m not entirely sure that one was correct. After such a powerful story previously, this one was a bit of a letdown. I think it would have been better served elsewhere in the book.
One Last Round (Nathan Black) starts off differently, with a movie being filmed about the KRASER, a kaiju response machine and the… superhero(?) Colonel Ausum defending New Orleans against the kaiju Akoni, the devil of Tokyo. After the end of the scene, the star of the film discovers that the films about the KRASERs were being stopped, which would mean an end to the kaiju-fighting robots, since they rely on the movie proceeds to fund them. However, as the set is closed down and the KRASER is being removed, the kaiju alligator Grimmgarl attacks New Orleans, and it’s up to the KRASER team and Colonel Ausum to stop it before it “does what Mother Nature failed to do: level New Orleans.” A good, fun story.
The Serpent’s Heart (Howard Andrew Jones) is another good story, featuring a group of men who serve the Caliph and are drifting in the middle of the ocean after being attacked by a sea monster. They are rescued by a mysterious ship captained by an exotic, dangerous woman, and not all is as it appears. This is one of those stories that I can’t go too much into detail without spoiling it, so I’ll just give this one a positive grade and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Monstruo (Mike MacLean) is about a kaiju about to hit Playa de los Muertos (fitting name for the beach, actually) and tells the story about how the kaiju are drawn to a selected “person” who had been marked by one of their scout bugs on the planet. In this case, it is a little boy. Task Force M operatives are scattered around the globe to eliminate the person “targeted” by the infiltrators, but unfortunately the hero of the story can’t bring himself to kill a little boy and the devastating effect his decision has on Mexico City. A good story, worth a second read once you get to the end and everything makes more sense.
The Behemoth (Jonathan Wood) is the story of a mech pilot who is the best at beating the kaiju when they attack. However, he risks losing everything when he discovers that his wife is chosen to be a Proxy — a person who runs the interface between the Mech and the pilot, buffering the pilot from the circuitry at the cost of all of the Proxy’s memories. The story takes the reader back through time and shows the mess that the pilot, who was once idealistic and fighting for the people, becomes as time wears on. The pilot has a plan to save his wife, however, though the cost could be too high for everyone involved. Great, great story here, and I really like how the author delves into the psyche of a warrior who has seen too much, been given too much power and how it can twist any man.
The Greatest Hunger (Jaym Gates) is another powerful story about a kaiju named Derecho and her handler, a woman with psychic powers who is a slave to the owner of the kaiju. She tries to keep derecho alive and motivated to fight in the arena, hoping to simply keep her friend alive. She devises a plan to save both her and Derecho, and exact their revenge upon their masters at the same time. Great story, if a little slow at first, but with a solid conclusion. The author has a great voice and would love to see more from them.
Heartland (Shane Berryhill) is a story I really didn’t care too much for. It was less kaiju and more virginal sacrificing, which is interesting but oddly placed in the book. Our protagonist must save her daughter before she is to be sacrificed by the elders of the city. It almost reads like a battered wife story, with a heavy-handed approach that comes off a bit awkward. Perhaps it’s the subject matter that turned me off from this story, but even the ending left me completely unsatisfied. Though I will again add that perhaps it’s just me, and others may like the twist at the end. I think it’s too Shyamalanian.
Devil’s Cap Brawl (Edward M. Erdelac) is a story of a shaolin monk and a kaiju which is accidentally awoken during the building of a railroad line through the mountains sometime during the late 19th century. Joe Blas was a rough man who was trying to meet his quota and build the railroad line, but his superstitious workers (mainly Chinese and Indian) slow progress down when they believe that they will awaken a great monster in the mountain. A slow starting story, it builds nicely as the reveal of the shaolin monk is made and the kaiju appears. Good story, if, as mentioned before, a bit slow to start.
Shaktarra (Sean Sherman) is a story about a powerful kaiju which is released onto unsuspecting Las Vegas, and a dimensional shift occurs and drags people into a dense jungle where the lizardmen worship the kaiju as a god. A decent story that was heavy on action but light on just about everything else, it’s an okay story that is supported primarily by the idea (wishful thinking on my part) of destroying Las Vegas.
Of the Earth, of the Sky, of the Sea (Patrick M. Tracy and Paul Genesse) is a story which takes place in shogunate Japan and stars three slumbering kaiju who were, in ancient times, protectors of Japan. They are left to slumber, however, as their destructive capabilities almost outweighs their usefulness. This comes to an end, however, as gaijin (the British) arrive and begin to demand that Japan open their ports to trade. Using their ironclad ships and destroying everything in their way, the Japanese grow desperate and summon their kaiju to protect them — but at a terrible price. A great story, this is another one of my favorites in the book and has everything a reader could want — action, story, romance and loss. Good, good story here.
The Flight of the Red Monsters (Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam) is a story which was wrongly named. I got the impression throughout that it should have been “Fall Into Shadow”, which would have suited the story much better. The story is about revenge on both sides, as the red monsters who live in the oceans are pissed about their homes being polluted by humanity and the heroine of the story out for vengeance against the red monsters for killing her fiance. She loses herself in her quest for vengeance, and joins a shadowy group of people who are fighting back against the kaiju. A good story, though a bit confusing between the point of view shifts (those keep you on your toes), though it had another one of those twist endings. At this point of the anthology, however, I’ve started expecting them.
Operation Starfish (Peter Rawlik) is a story set just after World War Two, when nuclear “testing” is occurring in the South Pacific. The Russians, British and Americans have secretly teamed up to use their nuclear bombs to destroy kaiju as they appear from beneath the waves of the Pacific. The story is pretty good, though with a bit of “what the hell?” scattered within (the USS Miskatonic made me chuckle, however), it was a little confusing towards the end. Still, pretty good overall.
With Bright Shining Faces (J.C. Koch) was just weird. It tells the tale of a little girl who draws monsters, but the monsters aren’t there to hurt her classmates or her teacher. The teacher is mildly concerned about her student’s ability to start to take over the class, but doesn’t worry about it too much. Eventually it turns into a horror story straight out of Arkham as everyone begins to turn into nightmarish creatures. As I said, the best way to describe this one was “weird”.
The Banner of the Bent Cross (Peter Clines) was a fascinating look at ancient Greek myths, where kaiju have been hiding right beneath our noses. When the legendary Argo is discovered by Nazi Germany, it is put into action against the allied forces. Desperate, the allies seek out historians who may be able to help. Their come up with a suggestion: awakening the sisters Scylla and Charybdis, who have a hatred towards Jason and the Argonauts and desperately want revenge. Their plan works, but with disastrous results. A good story by the author, it’s possibly the most original one in the entire bunch, as it touches on something nobody has ever thought of before: kaiju have been mentioned since the time of the Greeks, just in a different form.
Fall of Babylon (James Maxey) is another brilliant story about the End of Days, though this one is kind of twisted. The Lamb of God is marching into New York City, and the only person who can stop it is a washed-up teen pop star. My confidence in her saving the day, obviously, was not too high. Nonetheless, the author creates enough twists and turns to make it work, culminating in a fight between the pop star, her brother, a fallen angel, the great dragon and the Lamb. Great, fun story here.
Dead Men’s Bones (Josh Reynolds) is kind of mash-up of zombies and kaiju set in World War One. It’s almost kind of mystical story, though it does have some interesting characters, I think the author hit the shock factor a bit too hard. It was more of a tell and less of a show, though it did have parts in it that were okay. It was decent enough, but personally not my thing. Other may like it, however.
Stormrise (Erin Hoffman) is a story I tried to read, but couldn’t get into it. I tried, but it didn’t grab me. I can’t really review this one.
Big Dog (Timothy W. Long) is a story about Big Dog, a kaiju fighting machine built just after the fighting in World War Two ended. Crewed by a mixture of German, American and British, the Big Dog is tasked at defeating the massive kaiju that the Japanese Empire are sending out to destroy the rest of the world. With some internal tension among the crew of the Big Dog (the German is a former tank commander, the pilot’s husband was killed by a German tanker) it’s a good story with some solid meat to it. I enjoyed this one quite a bit.
The Great Sea Beast (Larry Correia) is the story of Munetaka and his encounter with the great sea beast. Discovered half-dead and poisoned by the son, his recollection of the events which led to the death of his father and many sailors of the Minamoto clan is discounted and he is ridiculed. He becomes a brilliant archer, however, and eventually begins to hunt the great sea beast himself. It’s a solid story with a very realistic portrayal of feudal Japan.
Animikii vs. Mishipeshu (C.L. Werner) is a story about two Native American kaiju who battle after one of awaken during a copper mining expedition in Canada. This was pretty good overall, though I kept picturing the Plains Indian Thunder God in place of one of the kaiju. A separation between the two could have really helped, or perhaps fully delving into that mythology might have. Still, fun story, and the only one to really take a look at Native American mythology.
The Turn of the Card (James Swallow) wraps up the book, and is a story about a kaiju which takes on London (the United Kingdom seems to be the target of choice for the kaiju in this book). In the midst of a city-wide evacuation, India 99, a helicopter crew, is trying to get a relative out before the kaiju who are fighting among themselves destroy the entire city. Packed with plenty of action and suspense, this story was near the top of my list as well, though not for obvious reason. The dialogue, something I usually don’t comment upon, was absolutely perfect for the characters, breathing a life into them that prevented the story from flopping. It’s a pretty satisfying conclusion to the entire book.
Overall, the book was very good. Most of the stories weaved seamlessly between each other and I was generally pleased with the stories. A must-buy for anyone looking for some kaiju-related books, or anyone looking for a fun, entertaining read. No link yet for those looking to purchase, but keep an eye out at Amazon for the book to premier.
Part noir, part urban fantasy, Cedar Sanderson’s Pixie Noir fun little story about the darker side of fairies that nobody ever wanted to tell you about.
Lom is a pixie tasked at retrieving one of the few surviving human/fairie hybrid princesses to Court in order for the King to chose his consort. Bella Traycroft is living in the rough wilderness of Alaska, which makes his journey even more difficult as he battles the frigid Alaska spring, hoping to convince Bella to accompany him back to Underhill, the magical lands of all fae folk. Along the way, Lom has to protect her from trolls, ogres, and any others who may not want the princess to arrive in court and be recognized.
Oh, and he has to teach her magic along the way. His life is tough.
After a few close shaves, they arrive in Underhill, where Lom, who suffers from a toxic reaction in his body whenever he uses magic, falls ill and is bedridden for a few days. Fortunately, the two of them are tucked away safely in Lom’s house, where his housekeeper Ellie keeps them both well-attended until the pixie is able to get up and present her to court. Lom also has to keep his feelings in check for the time being, because while he isn’t into tall women, women in glasses who knows her guns and is easy on the eyes, well…
They have a few teacher/student bonding moments, especially when they discuss the dangers of Lom being a pixie bounty hunter and when he tries to teach her magic initially. They begin to bond in an unpredictable way, which could potentially lead to troubling developments down the road.
Pixie Noir is fun and breezy, though with a pacing problem that can detract a bit from the reading experience, it is a pleasant read overall. Some of the scene changes were jerky, including one in the beginning which completely threw me out of the story for a bit until I realized what was going on, but fortunately that only happened twice throughout the book. The book is written with Lom being the point of view character (for the most part) and does a fairly good job at showing the conflicting nature of the pixie and his charge/princess.
I did have one fundamental problem with the book early on, and it involved the main character. It felt at times that the author tried too hard to make him rakish and rogue-like, instead of focusing on developing him as a character overall. I found myself thinking (only in the early part of the book, mind you — once they get to Underhill, it’s an entirely different Lom) that if Lom had been a female pixie, the story might have worked better at some points. Overall, though, it worked in the end for both the reader and the author.
Overall, a fun book. I would recommend picking up the ebook.