Musician, writer, editor, composer . . . ELFY, an urban fantasy/mystery/romance, has been completed and is looking for a home. Some stories available at e-Quill Publishing and in other places hither and yon.
Posted in Book Review on June 7, 2013
The first novel in Karen Myers’ The Hounds of Annwn series is TO CARRY THE HORN. It stars George Talbot Traherne, a whipper-in from modern-day Virginia, his Elven grandfather Gwyn ap Nudd, and a cast of thousands rotating around these two.
The story starts with George out riding one day with the Rowanton Hunt. However, he gets distracted by a huge white stag and ends up veering off course, ending up in the Fae Otherworld on the very day Gwyn’s own Master of the Hunt has been murdered. George quickly realizes he’s in a different place (though the land is much the same), but rather than becoming discommoded by this, he quickly immerses himself in working with Gwyn’s hounds. This quick immersion isn’t as jarring as it sounds, however, because George is obviously a man of action rather than one of introspection.
Anyway, Gwyn’s hounds are not your normal run of dogs by any means, as they’re actually the Hounds of Hell (most are half-demon, half-dog), which makes Gwyn far more than just any Fae overlord. And there’s only two weeks to go before the next edition of the Wild Hunt must take place; if it doesn’t come off, ancient God Cernunnos, who set Gwyn up as Lord of his own establishment long ago, can take the rulership away from Gwyn again.
Now, you might be wondering how a normal guy from Virginia, albeit a huntsman and whipper-in, can possibly control the Hounds of Hell. Well, in Ms. Myers’ conception, it comes down to two things: George genuinely has a gift when it comes to animals (most particularly dogs), and he also has an extra ability gifted to him from his non-human — and non-Fae — grandparent, who appears to be none other than Cernunnos himself. Because of these two rather exceptional grandparents, he can handle the Hounds of Hell. And because George is somewhat at loose ends in his life — thirtyish, athletic, smart enough to own his own computer company and pragmatic enough to make more than enough money to live on with it — he definitely is ready for a new adventure.
Once George takes charge of the pack of hounds, he quickly realizes that he’s going to need allies. The Elven teenager Rhian becomes George’s apprentice along with the lutin Isolda, while Rhian’s older brother Rhys continues on for a short time as the most experienced person left who’s used to dealing with the hounds. This is important, because George never led a hunt by himself before, much less with these particular hounds.
But George also needs allies in Gwyn’s court, which is why his nascent friendship with two Elves — Edern, a lord, and Angharad, an artist — is so important to the plot. These two help George get up to speed quickly with regards to the overall political situation with the Elves, much less the major scandals in Gwyn’s past that may or may not come back to haunt Gwyn in the near future, and often function as quasi-infodumps.
Then George realizes that the more time he spends with Angharad, the more he wants to be with her. Yet he still has a home and business in our Virginia, and he’s been told it won’t be that difficult to go home again. He doesn’t want to leave his grandparents behind (this grandmother is Gwyn’s daughter and George’s reason for close kinship to Gwyn in the first place), but he certainly doesn’t want to leave Angharad, the dogs, Rhian, Isolda, or any of the others in this strange new place he’s come to love.
So what’s to do? And will he ever figure out who, exactly, killed the former huntsman? Much less why? And is Gwyn’s rule really as endangered as all that? All of these questions will be answered, but most of the answers in turn raise more questions.
This is a good story that I found both engaging and absorbing, but it does have a few flaws. This is a first novel, and because of that, there are a number of minor issues that distracted just a touch and interfered with the reading trance. These small things mostly were in the way inner monologue was presented (most of the time, it’s easiest to show that with italics), or in a few areas where our hero, George, was led to the right answer rather than reasoning it out for himself.
Overall, TO CARRY THE HORN is a solid fantasy that is interesting, well-plotted, and held my attention through several re-reads. There are many nonhumans in this story (much less Cernunnos), and their motivations are sensible, logical, and well thought out. Ms. Myers’ knowledge of Welsh mythology, up to and including the Mabinogion (perhaps the first-known collection of Arthurian tales), served her well in the creation of this novel.
Bottom line: TO CARRY THE HORN is a solid introduction to the Hounds of Annwn series. I liked George quite a bit as a hero, can’t wait to see how his relationship with Angharad develops, and will be interested to follow his future adventures.
– reviewed by Barb
NOTE: Book two of The Hounds of Annwn, THE WAYS OF WINTER, will be reviewed here at Shiny Book Review in the next few weeks.
Posted in Book Review on April 21, 2013
Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s HIDDEN FIRES is the third book of her Chronicles of Nuala to be reviewed here at Shiny Book Review, but is the second book in the series in chronological sequence, following FIRES OF NUALA (FIRE SANCTUARY was the first book written and sold). As it is the second book in sequence with FIRES OF NUALA, many of the same characters appear as in the previous novel, including Sheel Atare, his wife, Darame, his sister, Avis (the Ragäree, both a powerful politician and a huge symbol of fertility for both the Atare family and Nuala as a whole), and many more. As with FIRES OF NUALA, there’s a complex plot, a goodly amount of realistic romance, and worldbuilding that is second to none, along with a great deal of storytelling that, put simply, drew me right in and never let me go.
New to HIDDEN FIRES is Garth Kristinsson, the son of free-traders. He has a past connection to the woman he knows as “Silver” — Darame — and he’s bent on finding her. However, he doesn’t know she’s gone to Nuala, much less that she’s now a member of the Nualan aristocracy — he only knows her as a former free-trader of considerable acumen, and someone who may know exactly why Garth’s father was murdered.
As with FIRE SANCTUARY, we see Garth’s slow transition to Nuala and the difficulties he endures, particularly with regards to the irradiated food (Nuala has some severe problems with radiation, which has caused systemic problems with fertility and many, many other issues). The main thing to consider is that unlike in FIRE SANCTUARY, or even in FIRES OF NUALA, Garth the reluctant, possible immigrant is not taken in hand by the honest, ethical and forthright Atare family — instead, he’s taken in hand by Lucy, a scion of the diabolical Dielaan family. Lucy’s interest in Garth is two-fold: One, Garth is an off-worlder, so his genes have not been compromised by radiation and should be able to give her at least one healthy child if all goes well. And two, because Garth is an off-worlder with an enigmatic connection to Darame Atarae (meaning, the wife of the Atare), perhaps Garth can be used by the Dielaan.
However, what Garth really doesn’t understand is that there’s a power struggle going on with the Dielaaners. Rex Dielaan, the next head of the family, is twenty-one, hot-blooded, and impatient. All of that could be worked around by his mother, Livia (the Ragäree of Dielaan, an ethical, though ruthless, woman). But the fact that Rex is both xenophobic and psychotic is something that gives her great pause.
Unfortunately for all concerned, Lucy either does not realize Rex is crazy, or she’s willing to go along with him. Yet she’s drawn to Garth, and really wants to be with him . . . which way will Lucy turn when the worst happens? (Further reviewer sayeth not, at least not about this.)
Getting back to the Sheel/Darame arc, Sheel has grown into his role as both Atare and healer. He’s been aided in this by Darame, who as a former free-trader (think: consummate con artist, who only cons other con artists) is skilled at sniffing out scams and is nearly as skilled dealing with various forms of political intrigue. They now have three children who will never rule due to the peculiar inheritance laws of Nuala (the next ruler will be one of Avis’s sons, which is part of why the Ragäree is so important), but of course Darame wants them to grow up to be strong, intelligent, capable, and ethical — what every good parent wants for his/her child, in short.
Sheel and Darame, surprisingly enough, are very good friends with Livia, the Ragäree of Dielaan. They’re aware of at least some of Rex’s problems, mostly because Livia’s second son, Quin, has ended up with many of Rex’s duties due to Rex not wanting to be bothered. As noblesse oblige is a very big part of the Nualan aristocracy (even though it’s not called that), this has not set well with Livia, Sheel or Darame because a poor ruler can do a great deal of harm without even trying.
And, of course, Rex is trying his best to live up to the worst aspects of the Dielaan family, which may plunge all of Nuala into a war. (Thus ends the plot summary, or I’ll give far too much away.)
Look. This is a book that you really need to read if you love science fiction, romance, or any blend of the two. It’s complex, engrossing, honest, surprising, intelligent in how it deals with the problems of a completely different world with its own history and nuances, even more intelligent when it deals with the problems unwitting potential immigrants face on Nuala, and contains two realistic and root-worthy romances in the continuing, enduring love between Darame and Sheel, and the newfound romance between Garth and Lucy.
If there is a flaw here, it’s that Garth’s character seems remarkably naïve. There were times I just wanted to shake him, because he obviously didn’t know what he was getting into, and Lucy’s oblique hints just weren’t helping. Yet Garth being young and impulsive enough to have followed Darame’s trail for a hundred subjective years (most of that spent in cryogenic freeze/sleep) is an important plot point, and I’m not sure if there was another way to get this point across. (Really, an older, wiser man would’ve given up long ago and never ended up on Nuala at all.)
I also was a bit annoyed by Lucy. She was smart, well-educated, ethical in her fashion and honest, but she couldn’t seem to figure out that Rex was flat-out crazy until way too close to the end to suit me. (I’m dancing around the spoilers, folks. All apologies if I’ve unwittingly given something away.) She truly cared about Garth. She wanted the two of them to have a future. But she couldn’t see a way through to that future, and was so inarticulate about it that it took a miracle of subtext by Ms. Kimbriel to get this fact across — a very neat authorial thing to do, and something for which I applaud Ms. Kimbriel.
While I enjoyed HIDDEN FIRES a great deal and found it a worthy companion to the two other novels comprising the Chronicles of Nuala, I adjudged it just short of a full “A” mark. So the grades stand as follows:
HIDDEN FIRES: A-minus. (Solid, smart, entertaining, intelligent, and two good romances. What more could you want, save a bit more life out of Lucy and a bit less naïveté from Garth?)
For the Chronicles of Nuala as a whole: A.
– reviewed by Barb
Posted in Book Review on April 7, 2013
FIRE SANCTUARY, technically, is the third book in the Chronicles of Nuala by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel. (The first book in the series, THE FIRES OF NUALA, was reviewed here.) But it was the first released, and as it contains different characters and situations than THE FIRES OF NUALA or HIDDEN FIRES (to be reviewed soon), it can be read alone.
If you’ve read THE FIRES OF NUALA, you already know how important the Atare are to the people of Nuala. The Atare are aristocrats of the first water, and are a fertile family made up of “20s” (the infertile, or people with borderline fertility, are called “80s”). Their leadership has been essential to the survival of Nuala.
The main storyline of FIRE SANCTUARY deals with the interplay of five characters — Moran and Lyte, officers from the Axis worlds, Braan and Ronuviel (“Roe”) Atare, siblings and an important part of the Nualan aristocracy, and Teloa, a planter from Caprica. Perhaps Teloa’s story is the simplest, as she lands on Nuala and immediately claims sanctuary. As Nuala has been known for millenia as a planet that will welcome anyone, providing you are willing to be honest about who you are and who you’ve been, she is accepted with relative ease — especially as planters are valued highly on Nuala.
Now, the main reason we have so many differing and important characters involved is this: there’s a war brewing, and Nuala may not be able to stay out of it. The Axis has been at war with the Fewha Empire for many years, and in this conflict, it’s possibly easiest to see the Fewhas as classic xenophobes, while the Axis is the old, corrupt empire that no one particularly wants to belong to, but everyone (save the Fewhas) has been forced to deal with anyway. Moran and Lyte have long been considered essential to the Axis, yet because times are changing — and because Moran has fallen in love with Roe — both Moran and Lyte have been ordered to Nuala.
This is much more important than it seems, and not just because Moran and Lyte have major roles to play in FIRE SANCTUARY. You see, the Fewhas quickly attack Nuala and drive the Axis off. Nuala sustains a great deal of damage, with many people killed, even more crops destroyed and no real way of getting back at the Fewhas save by surviving long enough to outwait them. And because of the immediate attack, Braan, formerly a third son, and his sister Roe must assume power as the ruling Atare (Braan) and the Ragäree (Roe). This is no light thing, as what they actually now are happens to be the most important political leader and the most important, living symbol of fertility the Nualans have.
Obviously, Braan and Roe will need all the help they can get. And Moran and Lyte’s help will be considerable. But don’t underestimate Teloa — she’s not only a planter, but has also been a “hustler” (what might be considered as a particularly high-end prostitute). She’s been forced to live by her wits due to a planetary disaster at Caprica, and because of that, she’s become an extremely quick study.
Which is a good thing, because as Teloa finds out, Nuala is a tough place to live.
As previously seen, Nuala is an extremely fragile planetary ecosystem. The radiation is what’s damaged so many people’s fertility over time, and it still needs to be accounted for in every facet of daily life. Planters like Teloa are valued because they must deal with the fact of the radiation along with everything else, and every available method — including sophisticated solutions from the Axis-aligned worlds and much easier, yet more intensive, methods such as crop rotation — must be applied or Nuala cannot feed its people.
And it’s because Nuala is so fragile that a most unusual system of marriage has cropped up. The Atare have been bound by law to marry only off-worlders for years due to Nuala’s radiation and the need for off-world genes to add to the mix, and because of this, the Atare may take only one spouse as the people of Nuala have found, over time, that off-worlders do not take too well to polygamy or polygyny. Plus, there are extensive rules, lightly sketched by Ms. Kimbriel yet real, dealing with how the 20s may not take multiple spouses unless they do so from the 80s . . . and the upshot of all these rules is that the people of Nuala (Ms. Kimbriel never calls them “Nualans”) are both moral and flexible when it comes to dealing with human sexuality.
The good part of this is that there literally are no illegitimate children. Like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, children are known by their mother’s name the vast majority of the time (only the aristocrats take a surname, it seems). And even when a father is acknowledged, his contact with the child he’s fathered seems largely up to the individual — something Ms. Kimbriel denotes by the attitudes of both Moran and Lyte as they acclimate to the society of Nuala.
Most of FIRE SANCTUARY deals with how Nuala must adapt and survive now that the Axis has withdrawn from actively helping them keep the Fewhas off. Yet all of this action is underscored by the human relationships we see between Roe and her husband Moran, Braan’s growing attachment to Teloa, and Lyte’s various adventures.
And that doesn’t even get into the important minor characters, including the remaining family of Roe and Braan, the high priest and priestess of Nuala, the other healers (Roe’s contemporaries), and the movers and shakers among both the Sinis (the radioactive people) and the Ciedärlien (nomadic tribes that live in what was once an inhospitable waste).
Overall, FIRE SANCTUARY is an excellent novel, full of believable characters, interesting challenges, cross-cultural romance, and a goodly amount of action. As it was Ms. Kimbriel’s first-ever published novel, it’s not quite as good as her later FIRES OF NUALA — but that’s like saying an orange isn’t quite as good as an orange with chocolate sauce on it.
Really, the only bad thing about FIRE SANCTUARY is this — it needs a sequel. Because I really want to find out how Braan, Roe, and the rest manage to keep the Fewhas off while staying alive to appreciate another day (or three).
– reviewed by Barb
Posted in Book Review on March 30, 2013
It’s Saturday, which for all long-term readers of Shiny Book Review means one and only one thing — it’s time for a romance.
Some weeks are better than others in this regard. I’ve reviewed romances of all descriptions, plus some books that have romance encapsulated in them but are not predominantly romances. Tonight I have one of the latter in Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s THE FIRES OF NUALA, surely one of the best books I’ve read all year. (Note: if you’d rather buy this through Amazon, here’s that link.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The main characters here are Sheel, who will soon be Atare (the ruler of his clan) despite being a Healer gifted with both empathy and the ability to diagnose by touch-telepathy, and Darame, an off-world woman and “free trader” who’s really a combination spy and criminal, but with one caveat: she only cheats other spies and criminals. The two share one night of passion, then wake up to disaster. The four or five people who’d been heirs before Sheel are all either dead or dying, and no one’s certain as to anyone’s underlying motivations. Darame is immediately a suspect despite having an undeniable alibi — she was with Sheel, and in a mightily compromising position, to boot — but Sheel knows that Darame could not possibly be involved.
The plot thickens when it’s discovered that the guaard around Sheel’s kin when they were murdered had been changed at the last minute in a way that’s extremely suspicious. This suspicion is contrary to everything the guaard stands for, as these complex people — more than security guards, they take an oath to the various noble families (such as Sheel’s) in a quasi-feudalistic rite — have been thought incorruptible. But when Sheel’s own guaard commander Mailan concurs with Darame’s assessment that at least some of the guaard have been compromised, this forces Sheel to start thinking outside the box immediately in order to assure his kin’s safety.
Of course, Darame immediately suspects another off-worlder in this conspiracy to subvert the guaard and kill Sheel’s kin, as the man who brought her to Nuala in the first place, an enigmatic career criminal named Brant, is definitely hiding something. That Brant has also made it very difficult for Darame to find out what’s happened to her mentor Halsey, who’s stood as a father figure to her for years, just adds fuel to the fire.
But there’s deeper waters ahead, things that have to do with Nuala’s unusual way of inheritance (half goes through a female offshoot of the family line, this leader being called the “ragäree,” with the other half going through the male) and the fact that the current ragäree-presumptive, Leah — Sheel’s eldest sister — is barren and is trying to cover it up.
Nuala, you see, has had major difficulties with radiation sickness over the centuries. Eighty percent of its population is either outright sterile or is “borderline,” meaning they may or may not ever be able to have children. And some — the Sinis and “mock-Sinis” — are so radioactive that people either can’t be around them at all (the former) or for not very long (the latter). And it’s because of the radiation sickness that this particular way of inheritance became common in the larger families where money and influence was at stake.
So there’s murder. Conspiracy. Greed. The conflict between what’s always been done and new, unexpected methods. A political economy that’s based on fertile Nualans going off-world regularly in order to bring back healthy genes and/or healthy people who wish to settle there, lest Nuala die out. A hereditary line of inheritance that’s different, but makes sense according to everything I’ve ever read, sociologically. And an excellent romance that’s based on competence, mutual regard, and shared values as much as it is about two healthy people in their prime being sexually aware of each other and acting on it.
Ms. Kimbriel has developed a rich, well-developed world to play in, and she does so with great flair. The characterization is outstanding from beginning to end. The world building is first-rate. The romance between Sheel, who needs an off-world bride but has given up on finding one, and Darame, the off-worlder who’d never thought she’d find someone she wanted to settle down with due to her chosen profession, is one of the best I’ve ever read in the science fiction and/or romance categories. Even the dialogue reads well and easily, which is no mean feat considering all the Nualan loan words.
THE FIRES OF NUALA, written in 1988 and reissued** in 2010, is a book that should be in every science fiction library as it is complex, engrossing, interesting, compelling, and outstanding. This is the first book in a trilogy and sets up Nuala, its conflicts, its vital people, and its unique and special problems as a world that you will want to revisit again and again.
Why THE FIRES OF NUALA isn’t already known as an outstanding epic science fiction novel of the best kind — complete with romance — is beyond me. Some novels do not find their entire audience the first time around, and perhaps that was the case here.
However, considering THE FIRES OF NUALA has been reissued by Book View Cafe, you owe it to yourself to read this outstanding novel. Especially if you love epics, complex plots with spots of humor, cultural clashes, well-drawn generational battles, or simply enjoy a good yarn that’s extremely well told.
Bottom line? Technically, THE FIRES OF NUALA is a combination of space opera, romance and mystery. Book View Cafe’s own description calls it “perfect for fans of Darkover and Pern,” and I can’t say they’re wrong.
But in my view, that’s only part of the appeal here, as I’d classify THE FIRES OF NUALA as closer to DUNE on an epic scale (more understandable, and far more fun, but lots of history and interest that reminded me of Frank Herbert) far more than it did any of the Darkover or Pern novels, even the most complex (such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s THE SHATTERED CHAIN or SHARRA’S EXILE).
If you haven’t read THE FIRES OF NUALA already — and I’m betting most of you haven’t — you need to pick it up, pronto. Or you will be missing out on something extraordinary.
– reviewed by Barb
** Upon further review, I’ve been reliably informed by Ms. Kimbriel that THE FIRES OF NUALA that I just read is the very same, exact version put out in 1988. Which makes me wonder, again, what was in the water that year that the awards committees for the various high-profile ceremonies didn’t even consider this amazing novel. (Shame on them.)
So if you bought a copy back in 1988, and read it and loved it, you do not need to worry about anything having changed. (But if you want an e-book copy to augment your hard copy, you still might want to look at Book View Cafe’s reissue as $4.99 for an e-book of this size is an absolute steal.)
Posted in Book Review on March 17, 2013
Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s newest novel is CROWN OF VENGEANCE, book one of a new trilogy about the great Elven Queen Vieliessar Farcarinon. Previous readers of Lackey and Mallory’s work will recognize Vieliessar from a short snippet in a previous novel, WHEN DARKNESS FALLS (book three of the “Obsidian Mountain” trilogy). She was described as the best queen the Elves ever had. She was also the best mage, the wisest ruler, skilled with both sword and magery alike. And of course the legends about her mostly speak of her benevolence, as she’s the one who drove the nasty, vicious Endarkened out of Jer-a-Kaliel.
(A quick note about the Endarkened: They do not see themselves as evil. They are servants of a God known as He Who Is. They also are blood mages who enjoy causing pain and death to maximize their own power, and especially enjoy killing Elves. But the Elves, at first, do not know about the Endarkened. Thus ends the history lesson.)
If you’ve read the other six books Lackey and Mallory have written about this world, you already know that Vieliessar’s story isn’t going to go exactly the way history has remembered it. Because of this, you can safely assume that Vieliessar is both more and less than what history gives her credit for.
So yes, she will turn out to be a triumphant Queen. And a brilliant military tactician. And a great mage, oh yes.
But she’s also a flawed person, someone the reader can empathize with. Because her power sets her apart. And it’s hard for her to find anyone who can relate to her, due to her own amazingly strong abilities.
Having a sympathetic heroine is absolutely essential in a book where most of the character names are at least four syllables in length. And when a character has hundreds of years to become what she needs to be, for that matter — because Vieliessar isn’t human. She’s an Elf. And at this time in Jer-a-Kaliel’s history, because we’re so far back in the past, humans aren’t even in the picture because they haven’t yet evolved enough to matter.
We pick up Vieliessar’s story literally at birth. Her noble mother, Nataranweiya, has fled to the Sanctuary of the Star — clerics and mages, the equivalent of a nunnery or monastery — as her husband has been slain, along with nearly all of her retainers. (Those few she had left were the reason she was able to reach the Sanctuary at all.) Nataranweiya gets there, gives birth, and promptly dies . . . but because Vieliessar’s birth was seen centuries ago by an ancient and possibly mad King, and because Vieliessar is, after all, in a holy Sanctuary, the enemies that brought down the House of Farcarinon are not able to kill Vieliessar outright.
Instead, she’s fostered out.
We pick up the story again when Vieliessar is twelve. Renamed “Varuthir,” all she wants to do is to become an Elven knight. She knows nothing of being the last of Farcarinon; she knows nothing of her birth, her mother, her status as “Child of the Prophecy” or anything else. So when she’s shipped off to the Sanctuary of the Star to become a perpetual servant, she is outraged.
That one of the nobles cruelly tells Vieliessar exactly who she’s supposed to be (minus the Child of the Prophecy part, as the Sanctuary didn’t let on about any of that) before she leaves just adds salt to the wound.
So, Vieliessar goes to the Sanctuary, and becomes a servant. She’s there for perhaps as many as ten years, learning that servants are people like any other — that the “Landbonds,” who’ve been held as serfs, tied to the land, are perhaps more noble than anyone who’s inherited a title — and that magic has its limits.
Then, one day, she calls fire.
A wise servant tells Vieliessar to hide her new abilities, as if she’s chosen to become a Lightsister (mage and cleric, both), she’ll lose her protected status. (Only if she stays in the Sanctuary or on its grounds is she safe. And perhaps not on the grounds, depending on how the other noble houses feel about it.) But of course Vieliessar isn’t able to do that.
If she had been, it would’ve been a much shorter, and far less interesting, book. But I digress.
The remainder of the novel deals with how Vieliessar first becomes a mage, then an Elven knight, and finally reclaims her birthright as a noble. In so doing, she realizes she must unite the Hundred Houses behind her banner, as she firmly believes that evil is approaching, just as that mad King said centuries ago.
But her quest is not an easy one. Before she’s done, she may alienate every friend she has, all to keep at least some semblance of Elven society alive. And because she knows this — and knows how rare it is to find a true meeting of the minds, besides — her fate and fame become that much more compelling.
There’s some really good characterization here. The problems of the Landbonds and servants are well-drawn. The nobles — Higher and Lesser — are also well-drawn, though their petty politicking grows tiring even to those Highborns willing to partake in such. And despite her immense powers in a wide variety of spheres, Vieliessar is a likable, winning heroine that most readers will be willing to cheer for — even as they wish the Endarkened would just go away and leave her alone already.
Because this is book one of a new trilogy, you may safely assume that the scenes with the Endarkened are more like an appetizer than an actual main course. This is fine, as far as it goes, especially if you’ve read the previous six books.
But even if you haven’t, there’s more than enough here to show that the Endarkened are nasty pieces of work that you definitely wouldn’t want to invite to dinner. (Or anywhere else, either. Because they’d probably have you as the main course, and smile while they killed you, as slowly and painfully as they possibly could.)
Bottom line? This is a fine epic fantasy, a quest story with heart, and a compelling read from beginning to end.
If you love epic fantasy, loved any of Lackey and Mallory’s previous six books in this world, or have enjoyed any of the two authors’ solo efforts, you will enjoy this book.
And if you love all of the above, plus appreciate seeing that legends aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be (they might be more, might be less, but are assuredly different), you will adore CROWN OF VENGEANCE.
– reviewed by Barb
Posted in Book Review on March 2, 2013
Lenore Applehans’ debut novel LEVEL 2 is an intriguing and different type of dystopian young adult romance. Applehans, a noted blogger and reviewer of dystopian fiction, has created a world that’s reminiscent of a high-tech version of the Catholic Purgatory — except it’s one that no one can escape, because those charged with running it have decided to play their own game for their own ends. (Human sinners be damned.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The main character is the deceased seventeen-year-old Felicia Ward. She’s a noted pianist with a composer for a father and a diplomat for a mother. She’s traveled all over the world, and has one good female friend — Autumn — whose family is also caught up in the diplomatic world. Felicia’s life seems to be idyllic, but she’s had a few bad scares overseas (including a mugging in Nairobi when she was only thirteen), and her parents are more like friends she sees every great once in a while than real, hands-on parents.
Felicia and Autumn end up falling in love with the same young man, the enigmatic Julian, while in Germany due to their parents’ workloads. Felicia doesn’t tell Autumn that Julian has been around to see her quite a number of times alone, though Felicia knows that Julian has been to see Autumn. (Julian, of course, tells both girls that each is the only one for him.)
Finally, the truth comes out — and nothing is the same ever again. (I’m dancing lightly around this to avoid giving too much of the plot away.)
Felicia ends up in the United States, away from both parents, and falls in love with a good, kind, studious and respectful young man — Neil. But Felicia doesn’t think she’s good enough for him due to what’s happened in her past.
Mind you, all of this comes out in memories — flashbacks — rather than directly, because Felicia is dead. She died the day before her eighteenth birthday, and it’s because her life wasn’t particularly resolved that she’s in Level 2 — Purgatory — reliving everything in order to somehow come to terms with it.
Yet the angels who run the place — the Morati — have decided that they’re unhappy with their lot. They wish instead to use the deceased humans as a source of energy (as Felicia says flat out, “Shades of the Matrix!”) as a way to somehow storm Heaven proper and speak with God Himself — or at least with some higher level angels, so they can do some work that’s better suited to their overly grandiose views of themselves.
That’s why Level 2, rather than being truly like Purgatory where souls come to terms with all they’ve done (good and bad alike), has become segregated by gender and age. Has become a sort of “memory storehouse” where memories are played back by a type of computer, and other “users” are able to rate your memories, the same way users online rate various things right now.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Julian, too, is dead, and still has plans for Felicia . . . .
Ultimately, Felicia has to decide what she’d rather have: her addiction to her good memories (because yes, the Morati have gone there, too, being bad angels), or reliving everything, the good and bad alike? Because only by doing the latter may she eventually find Neil — and get off Level 2 for good.
This is an intriguing take on the afterlife, and Ms. Applehans does it well. The “love triangle” between Julian, the bad boy, and Neil, the obvious good boy, is well done. (Julian has a number of secrets of his own, so he’s not as stereotypical as all that.) Felicia’s devotion to her female friends (Autumn in real life, Virginia and Beckah in the afterlife) is well-drawn. And her lack of connection with her mother, along with her stronger but still not quite strong enough connection to her father due to their joint love of music, also makes sense.
Mind you, I wanted to shake Felicia’s parents. Especially her mother, who really was not admirable in any way, shape or form despite her high-powered career. At least Felicia’s father gave a damn about Felicia and tried to help her, whereas Felicia’s mother was just . . . well, a waste of space.
The only drawback here (aside from Felicia’s useless mother, who at least serves as a plot point) is that Felicia never quite figures out that Julian ended up being the catalyst for everything that followed in her life — good and bad alike. (Julian definitely realizes this, but seems to enjoy keeping Felicia in the dark.) As Felicia is intelligent, albeit inexperienced, this was a bit puzzling.
Bottom line? I enjoyed LEVEL 2, and believe that if you enjoy young adult novels, dystopian fiction, sweet romance or a new take on the afterlife — or better yet, all at once — you will also enjoy Ms. Applehans’ debut novel.
– reviewed by Barb
Posted in Book Review on February 21, 2013
Travis Taylor and Stephanie Osborn’s A NEW AMERICAN SPACE PLAN is one of the more ambitious pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time. Taylor, the self-described ringleader of the Rocket City Rednecks (a TV show on NatGeo), is a writer and scientist with multiple degrees who enjoys doing more with less, while Osborn is a scientist and writer whose books have been previously reviewed here at SBR (go here and here for further details). The two between them have created an entertaining and thought-provoking book that asks the question, “What would NASA be like if it were fully funded?” (And, for that matter, if NASA’s priorities didn’t shift with every different presidential administration.)
Taylor is known for his folksy style, and the book’s style is exactly the way you’d expect if you’ve ever seen him on his TV show. There’s a breadth and depth of knowledge here that’s startling to behold, but for the most part the narrative never lost me. The details are enough for most scientists without confusing the intelligent layman most of the time, which is a neat trick to pull off. And the arguments for a much bigger budget and a solid mission focus that doesn’t depend on what President happens to be occupying the Oval Office at the time are compelling and well thought-out.
The main problem with NASA right now, according to Taylor and Osborn, is that there’s not enough money to do what’s necessary. The space shuttle program has been dissolved, and there seems to be no real focus aside from the information gleaned by the Mars Rover. The International Space Station has some real implementation problems (including the wiring being different in various aspects of the station), and is not funded equally by every country that has sent astronauts into space — in fact, the United States has paid far more money for the International Space Station over time than every other country combined, according to Taylor and Osborn’s math.
Yet rather than the US keeping its “first among equals” status when it comes to the knowledge of space and space exploration, for whatever reason the US has backed off giving NASA enough money to figure out a new mission — a new way forward. Both Taylor and Osborn have worked for NASA in one form or another (perhaps not directly, but as contractors), and are cognizant of all the problems that derailed more consistent applications of American ingenuity and drive when it comes to space.
Taylor and Osborn also point out the many economic benefits, both past and present, that are accorded by the US being the leader in aerospace engineering. And it worries them, significantly, that the US currently has no simple and well-funded way forward, especially considering the ominous symbolism of the space shuttles being grounded.
Put bluntly, most Americans no longer see astronauts as “rock stars.” At least, they don’t see contemporary ones as such — Buzz Aldrin, the late Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, now those guys still have that rock star quality, but the new astronauts are mostly devoid of that. Yet these are people who risk their lives to go into space, whether it’s at low-earth orbit like in the space shuttles, or in a higher orbit as with past programs, or in going to the Moon. Astronauts have died in attaining their goals to go into space, and their bravery in continuing to go despite the “Challenger” disaster, despite the destruction of the “Columbia,” and of course the destruction of “Apollo 1″ back in 1967, should be celebrated.
This lamentation for simpler and better days, when astronauts were celebrated for their bravery — along with the arguments for more money and a consistent mission for NASA (perhaps set up along nonpartisan lines) — shows that above and beyond the United States’ need for a new space plan, we also need to figure out our priorities. It’s obvious that both Taylor and Osborn do not appreciate what’s going on today, politically. They view the way the US Congress and current Obama Administration treats NASA as a type of political football, and they believe that must end.
They also think that Americans should regain our trust in the space program, something that is hard to argue with. And they wish that Americans could recapture at least some of our lost optimism, because with that we could create many jobs (the space program has always created solid jobs that pay a living wage for ordinary Americans without multiple PhDs), regain our foothold in space and show that the United States can again be first in innovation.
All of this is a powerful message, and it’s delivered in an easy-to-understand way.
There are a few drawbacks here, though. Every great once in a while, things descend into formulas, ratios, or lists. The lists are comprehensible to intelligent laymen, but the other two may not be. And it is a bit odd to see this in a book that’s not meant for other specialists — but perhaps this was the only way the authors could come up with to describe what they meant.
Still. It may as well be “technobabble” to anyone outside the authors’ specialties, and is the one and only one thing I found to criticize here (aside from a possible math quibble that was brought up already over at The Space Review).
Look. This is a book that everyone should read regardless of politics. The authors are both literate and entertaining writers, and their collaboration has resulted in a book that will teach people why the United States still needs a space program. Much less why that program should be fully and consistently funded on a non-partisan basis.
Bottom line? If you love science fiction or good, solidly researched non-fiction, you really owe it to yourself to read A NEW AMERICAN SPACE PLAN.
– reviewed by Barb
Posted in Book Review on January 13, 2013
Janet Edwards’ forthcoming debut novel, EARTH GIRL, is a fun young adult adventure story about Jarra, an eighteen-year-old Handicapped young woman from Earth. In the not-so-distant future (the year 2788, to be exact), most human beings can portal to other worlds, but someone Handicapped, like Jarra, cannot do so and must stay on Earth as it’s literally a matter of life or death.
So even though most human needs have now been largely alleviated, as everyone has food, clothing, shelter, medical care and as much education as he or she wants — a largely utopian vision — there are still differences. People like Jarra are called “Neans” (short for “Neanderthals”), “apes” or worse, while the Handicapped call everyone who can portal “exos,” short for those who made the Exodus away from Earth long ago.
Jarra wants to become a historian, which isn’t just a scholar but also is something of an archaeologist, and find out more about what was lost on Earth due to the Exodus. But she’s tired of thinking of herself as a second-class citizen, which is why she’s determined to get accepted to an off-world university — possible only because every off-world university sends their first-year students to Earth. She does this, makes up a fake military background for her parents (as having to admit that she has a “ProMom” and a “ProDad” would blow her cover right away) and heads off to school.
Jarra ends up meeting a number of “exos,” including her teacher, Playdon, an extremely well-known young woman, Dalmora Rostha (whose father makes important, wildly popular historical videos), two people from the notoriously hedonistic Betan sector, Lolia and Lolmack, Krath, an obnoxious young man who could be from anywhere and any place, and a good-hearted young man from the somewhat puritanical Delta sector, Fian, who becomes Jarra’s love interest. Getting to know all of these people causes Jarra to realize that not all exos mean her ill (even if Krath is a pain in everyone’s posterior).
Jarra continues her pretense of being a “military kid,” which allows her to say she’s never really stayed much of anywhere except Earth (the flat truth). Over time, she has a wide variety of adventures, all dealing with archaeological digs centered in and around New York City. Jarra has some experience with such things — as much as any underage teen could have, before she turned eighteen and started her university studies — and starts to impress Playdon and the others with her energy, knowledge and zeal for history.
History in Jarra’s time is a fascinating endeavor. Due to the Exodus, Earth’s population has been drastically reduced, which is why most cities have been abandoned. It’s unsafe to dig in the abandoned cities due to the way skyscrapers have settled and/or collapsed (much less the various chemical spills and other assorted problems). Yet there’s so much to be rediscovered that these latter-day historians/archaeologists view it as being more than worth the risk.
That’s why these first-year students are so vital. They are learning in a hands-on environment in the birthplace of humanity — Earth — and get to see right away what their careers will be like.
At any rate, all of this backstory would seem to overwhelm Jarra or her importance, but it doesn’t. Instead, Jarra thrives in this environment and seems just like any other living, breathing kid with a bent for archaeology and the skills to match. Her coming of age story is powerful, precisely because she’s a smart kid with a bad attitude who wants to be taken seriously despite her Handicap, and we can’t help but root for her.
Of course Jarra can’t get away with her deception forever. So it can be reasonably assumed that push will come to shove at some point.
When this happens, Jarra must admit she’s from Earth to her young lover, Fian. This admits her Handicap and gives Fian a reason to run, but will he?
And even if he doesn’t, what will happen to Jarra once her year with the exos is up? (Further reviewer sayeth not.)
Overall, this is a young adult science fiction action-adventure story with just a little romance, one that’s based more on how well Jarra and Rian get along than about how they call to each other romantically. And while there is a lot of physical chemistry between Jarra and Rian (the romance wouldn’t work without it), I found it to be a smart, engaging and realistic romance.
Which I suppose isn’t a surprise, because I found EARTH GIRL to be a smart, engaging and extremely realistic view of what happens when an intelligent and talented young adult with what’s viewed as a handicap comes of age in a largely utopian society, albeit one with flaws.
Bottom line: this is an excellent read (a debut novel, no less) that teens and adults will love. So when it is released in the United States in early March, go grab yourself a copy, soonest. (For those lucky enough to live in the UK or Germany, go find this book today. You won’t regret it.)
– reviewed by Barb
Posted in Book Review on December 29, 2012
As it’s nearly New Year — and as I have two romances I keep meaning to review here at Shiny Book Review — I decided to make a virtue out of necessity, which is why tonight’s 2-for-1 SBR special features the work of two highly distinct authors — Sherry Thomas and Marie Lu. Both are romances in one way, shape or form, but are set in wildly disparate milieus.
The first romance to be reviewed tonight is Sherry Thomas’ TEMPTING THE BRIDE. This is the third book in her Fitzhugh trilogy that’s set in England during the Victorian era; the previous books, BEGUILING THE BEAUTY and RAVISHING THE HEIRESS, were reviewed here. (I also reviewed four previous Thomas romances here.) BRIDE features Helena Fitzhugh, a London publisher in love with a married man, and David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, who’s loved Helena for a long time but hasn’t been able to show it appropriately (partly due to Helena’s love for the married guy).
The main reason David and Helena don’t have a romance at the start of this novel is because David, to be blunt, was a very bratty teenager when he first met Helena and said some really obnoxious things to her. Over the years, that pattern of behavior has continued even though everyone else in Helena’s family (sister Venetia, featured in book 1, and brother Fitz the Earl, featured in book 2) has known for a long time just how deeply David’s feelings for Helena lie.
But, of course, Helena does not know this. She just thinks David is an obnoxious ass. (Which, of course, he is. Among other things.)
And, as previously stated, Helena is in a doomed romance with the very married Andrew Martin, one of her writers at the publishing house. Which means David can’t do much of anything other than snipe at her and wonder what could’ve been . . . until one day, when Helena is nearly discovered en flagrante delicto with Andrew. Quickly, David steps in and hides Andrew, then says smoothly that he and Helena have eloped and she’s the new Lady Hastings. (Helena, being no fool, doesn’t contradict him even though she has no idea why David would do such a thing.)
Then they have to go explain things to Helena’s brother and sister, which is awkward and upsets Helena. She ends up running out into the middle of the street, takes a head injury, and gets amnesia.
(I can hear you all now. “Oh, no! The dreaded amnesia plot!”)
I’m sure, thus far, anyone who’s reading this review that doesn’t know about Ms. Thomas or her writing skill is wondering why I’d bother with this, considering the hackneyed plot device employed. Yet TEMPTING THE BRIDE, far from being an irredeemable mess, is by far the best of the Fitzhugh trilogy because it focuses on David and his doomed love for Helena and shows just how good a man David really is when he’s not behaving like a jerk.
So the two get to know each other without any of Helena’s preconceived notions (as she’s lost all of her adult memories, plus most of them from her late teens), and they fall in love.
But what will happen when she regains her memory?
And what is she likely to do with that married man who’s kept her on the string all this time?
While I can’t go into any of that (or I’ll blow any of your potential reading pleasure out of the water), I can tell you that I found it to be not only plausible, but highly engaging.
Put simply, TEMPTING THE BRIDE is Ms. Thomas at the top of her game, which is a welcome thing to read indeed. Which is why if you love romances and you haven’t read any of Sherry Thomas’s books yet, you’re really missing out.
Next up is Marie Lu’s LEGEND, a dystopian romance set in what could be the very near future. The United States has broken up into disparate parts, one of them being the Republic of California (called simply “the Republic,” possibly to save steps). The Republic is a cold, cruel place that’s based off one thing: military achievement. Everyone takes a test at age ten to find out what he or she is going to be, and the top-rated thing you can possibly do is to go into the military or work in military research — nothing else need apply.
Our two characters here are June, born into an elite military family, and Day, who comes from the bottom end of the economic ladder. Both are military prodigies, but only June has been encouraged — Day was basically left for dead by the cold, cruel, corrupt elders running the Republic.
Both are in their mid-teens. Both are extremely bright. And both have many military skills that manifested at a surprisingly early age — Day’s out of necessity, June’s because she’s been pushed to become the best.
Normally these two would never meet as Day’s a fugitive and June’s already in the Republic’s military (albeit as the equivalent of a cadet). But then June’s brother Metias is murdered, and Day becomes the prime suspect.
But there are secrets within secrets, wheels within wheels. Things are not as they seem, which is why Day and June must meet, take each other’s measure, and possibly form an alliance in order to succeed. Yet everything June’s learned has told her that Day is automatically the enemy, while Day, in turn, has learned that no one from the Republic — not even someone as young as June — can be trusted.
What will happen to these two distinct individuals, especially if June cannot shake off her early conditioning?
Overall, LEGEND is an enjoyable and quick read. It has a surprising amount of emotional depth — rare for the dystopian teen romance genre — and makes some good points about romances overall in that the best and most realistic romances occur when both people can understand one another or have similar skills and gifts. June likes how Day looks, sure, but unlike other teen dystopian romances such as Lauren Oliver’s DELIRIUM (reviewed here), June is far more concerned about what’s going on in Day’s mind than she is about his looks.
That’s not only refreshing for a teen romance, but it’s also extremely realistic.
Don’t get me wrong. I felt LEGEND‘s plot, overall, was plausible. The milieu was appropriately dystopian and Ms. Lu didn’t shy away from showing the worst aspects of this.
But Ms. Lu also showed that people can survive the worst things with their humanity intact — something that made Suzanne Collins’ original THE HUNGER GAMES (reviewed here by Jason) so good, but otherwise has been rarely imitated — and shows recognizable human emotions and drives throughout. I appreciated this greatly and wish more writers would emulate her example.
Wrapping up tonight’s 2-for-1 Saturday romance special here at SBR, here are tonight’s grades:
TEMPTING THE BRIDE — A.
LEGEND — A.
– reviewed by Barb
Posted in Book Review on December 22, 2012
As Shiny Book Review is well aware that we’re fast approaching the holidays, this seemed a logical time to review two Christmas-themed romances, one by Sabrina Jeffries and the other by Victoria Alexander. Jeffries’ romance is ‘TWAS THE NIGHT AFTER CHRISTMAS, while Alexander’s is WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS.
First up is Jeffries’ effort, set during Regency England and featuring Pierce Waverly, the Earl of Devonmont, and Mrs. Camilla Stuart, a respectable widow with a young son. Pierce has engaged Camilla to become a companion to Pierce’s own mother, whom he cares for but refuses to speak with for reasons that both he and his mother refuse to discuss. However, Camilla is having none of that as it’s Christmas. (She feels every mother deserves to have her son home for Christmas no matter how badly things have gone wrong in the past.) Which is why she sends a brief note to Pierce saying that his mother is unwell and that if Pierce wishes to see her “before it’s too late,” he’d best come soon or not come at all.
Of course this is extremely upsetting to Pierce, who immediately goes to see his mother. However, once he gets to his mother’s small house, Pierce gets extremely upset and feels both violated and manipulated. But as he’s immediately attracted to Camilla despite what Camilla perceives as her lack of beauty, he decides to stick around for a few days to figure out what’s really going on with his mother.
And, of course, since Pierce wants things his own way, he also blackmails Camilla in the process. Which means that he isn’t above a bit of manipulation of his own as he’s attracted to her, intends to get to the bottom of just why this is, and will figure out a way to make her his own if at all possible.
Over the course of this novel, many things are revealed, including why Pierce and his mother have been estranged, why Camilla’s so keen on keeping families together (hint, hint: it’s not just because she’s the widow of a vicar), and why these two are meant for one another. Yet because Camilla is not a member of the nobility and Pierce obviously is, it seems for a time as if there’s no way these two can possibly marry and be together.
Of course, as this is a Christmas romance — and “happily ever afters” are a specialty of most romances the world over anyway — you can freely expect that there will be a way around this conundrum. That way is well-written, involving, and interesting, yet felt a bit contrived beyond the normal levels expected of any given romance.
Still, it’s a nice read with two good main characters with many flaws (I do love flawed heroes and heroines), and I felt the romance between them was realistic and well done.
Moving on, Alexander’s farcical WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS is one of the more amusing Christmas-themed romances I’ve ever read. This Victorian-era English romance stars Camille, Lady Lydingham, and Grayson Elliot, the man who got away years ago. Camille was in love with Gray when she was eighteen and he was around the same age, but she was about to marry another. Gray declared himself, Camille was flummoxed, and both declared themselves brokenhearted forever when their abortive romance did not end in a “happily ever after.”
Now a widow (as Camille did marry the man she’d been engaged to), Camille is about to marry Prince Nikolai of the Kingdom of Greater Avalonia. Camille doesn’t know where Avalonia is, much less much about Prince Nikolai, but as she’s always wanted to be a princess — and as she hasn’t seen Gray in many years — she’s willing to do just about anything to make Prince Nikolai happy. So when the Prince wants a “proper English Christmas,” Camille is bound and determined to do anything she can to bring it off even though her mother and one of her sisters are in France and her father is presumed dead.
So what does the intrepid Camille do? Why, hire a whole troupe of actors, of course! They’ll play the parts of her devoted family plus all of the servants (who’ve been given holiday time off prior to the start of the book), and that will give the Prince the “proper English Christmas” he’s always wanted.
Of course, things go wrong nearly immediately when Gray comes back into the picture. Now an extremely wealthy man after making a great deal of money in India, Gray believes he has the panache to offer for Camille. Thus he goes to Camille’s house at the behest of his brother, the country squire, to renew his acquaintance.
But of course Gray has no idea that Camille hired a whole troupe of actors until he gets to her house. Then, seizing on the opportunity presented, he proclaims himself her “third cousin” and takes up residence in Camille’s home alongside the other actors.
And of course it’s Gray who realizes that Prince Nikolai is not who he seems to be, especially as the Principality of Greater Avalonia no longer exists, but the only person he can discuss this with is Camille’s identical twin sister Beryl. (Gray has always been able to tell the two apart. So can Beryl’s husband, which is just as well.) Beryl is not wholly unsympathetic to Gray’s pursuit of Camille, but she believes that Gray should have to earn Camille’s trust (a quite sensible attitude). This leads to much spirited and witty by-play and a great deal of comedic intrigue.
And then . . . as this is, after all, a farce . . . things get even more convoluted when Camille’s real mother and her other sister, Delilah, show up and start interacting with the actors. Because they still don’t want anyone to know what’s happening with all of these actors as the truth would ruin Camille socially, they end up taking false names right alongside Gray.
And if that wasn’t enough, another of Camille’s relatives shows up — someone completely unexpected — and he, too, must be accounted for in the whole farcical floating narrative.
Because WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS is a flat-out farce, all of this plot description doesn’t begin to do it justice. So let’s boil it down to brass tacks — Alexander’s book is extremely funny, and it’s well worth the read and the consequent re-reads because the humor is excellent, the characters make sense and the romance is incredibly realistic considering the farcical situations going on all around.
Bottom line: Both romances are better than average, but Alexander’s was funnier. Still, both are well worth reading and will hold your interest.
‘TWAS THE NIGHT AFTER CHRISTMAS — B-plus.
WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS — A.
– reviewed by Barb