Review: Thief’s War, by Hilari Bell


The Knight and Rogue books are among my favorites that I’ve reviewed here. They have everything going for them. Excellent worldbuilding, solid if occasionally oddly paced plotting, and absolutely fantastic characters. Michael and Fisk themselves are deeply excellent, complex bundles of emotions and motivations with enough tragedy to be intriguing and sufficient wit that it’s never a drag on the story, and I really regret that the structure of the narrative means that all the delightful side characters of one book are unlikely to ever appear in a second. And it’s not only the kind of YA fiction that’s appealing even after high school is a distant memory, bu accessible to a precocious ten year old (with occasional stops for vocabulary clarification of plot review, as we are discovering in my household).

So I was happier than a badger in an abattoir when I was offered my very first ARC of the fourth book in the series to review. And by Hilari Bell herself, increasing the honor manyfold. I’ve had authors read my ramblings on the subject of themselves before, but to have my insights considered clever enough for this sort of official endorsement just makes me bounce up and down a lot.

Of course, this means the estimable lady also read about how clearly Michael and Fisk are in love and how much of a hurt/comfort fic their entire existence is, but I’m pretty sure everybody thinks that. So.

Theif’s War. Taken on its own I suspect it would be a very good novel of magical crimes and plotting in a richly imagined, early-modern city, though I confess it’s hard to try and view it as though I’d never met the characters before. You certainly could read this book without reading any of the others before it, but why would you? Without the background of their previous adventures and the relationship that grew up over the years, the large portion of the story that hinges on Michael and Fisk’s emotional entanglements with each other and everybody else would be a lot less rich, even if you could follow the parts of the plot with stabbing and poisoning quite well. And it’s just a world worth spending time in.

The magic system of this universe continues to be fascinating as the reader spends time there. Animals and plants can have magica, a power that enhances their natural abilities beyond the possible, so that a magica rabbit hiding from pursuit becomes actually invisible, for instance. And if humans interfere with magica, especially in accidentally killing the plant or animal, they get punished. Usually quite nastily, sometimes in a very deadly fashion, and always with irony. However, magica plants and animals treated well are exceedingly useful, and we meet such luminaries as a violin made of magica wood that the deaf can hear and a magica horse that can leap an ox cart—with oxen attached, and the long way. Humans normally do not have magic, and those that do tend to go insane. If they’re born with magic they do not develop normally, and are considered to be able to use magic because these “simple ones” are closer to nature, a nasty bit of ableism that I suppose fits the culture, which also seems to be at a stage where anyone outside itself is savage. The less pleasant part of writing an approximately European early-modern culture, I suppose.

And it’s worth noting that evidence does not bear out these popular explanations for magic. Magica flora and fauna are attributed to the gods of the two moons, the green moon and the creature moon, but from what this book and others present, it does seem to be, as postulated by the villain of book one, something genetic, and even something that can be artificially triggered, a sort of latent ability. Now it sounds like I’m talking about the X-men, but the point stands. Magic seems as though it could be quite scientific!

I’m also impressed that a world that seems to lack entirely for firearms has figured out the concept of genetics, but they do have reason to keep track of heredity, so that’s presumably why. Because in addition to what’s recognized as magic, there are human Gifts, which are more like particular knacks, and especially the ability to sense magica, which can only pass from mother to child.

I ended up talking way too much about magic in my first review, too. Oops. Well, it’s very interesting. I don’t apologize. In any case, Thief’s War opens with Fisk and Michael wandering the countryside looking for good deeds to do, as do they all, thus far, and within the first few chapters the plot has thoroughly entangled the hapless adventurers, as is its wont. The story has been described to me as darker than previous books, and I suppose there is might be a higher body count, and a few details like a pack of vengeful orphans are a bit unnerving. What stuck out more than tone to me was scope. Michael and Fisk break up lots of evildoers, but previously these have been relatively petty, local crimes, dependent on one deranged baron or scheming merchant or whoever it happened to be, but this story was set up like an old pulp crime story. Everyone defers to the mysterious crime lord, if you go to the police they can’t help, the plans are much bigger than you ever expected… The story would have worked just as well with Michael in an incongruous mask and fedora with Fisk as his trusty chauffeur.

The other thing that sticks out to me with this book versus its predecessors is that Michael and Fisk spend a lot of it apart. They’ve been separated before, but only for a chapter or two, whereas they spend about half this book plotting separately. It’s a wonderful chance to see how each one works, Fisk really flexing his con-man muscles and Michael trying to be honorable and ending up sneakier than even his criminal squire. Thief’s War dredges up a lot of Fisk’s grim past, but Michael finds plenty to invest himself in without the reappearance of old enemies and painful loyalties. There are those orphans, after all. Their separation makes the structure of the book—one chapter from Michael’s perspective, one from Fisk’s—really pay off even more than usual. The narrative voices are great, but getting inside their heads is really important for the large part of the book spent scheming quietly.

So do I recommend Thief’s War? Absolutely! The series just keeps getting better. The world and characters are as awesome as ever if not moreso, the writing is solid with the added trick of switching narrators to keep you engaged, and this is the most twisty-turny-unreasonably-huge plot they’ve encountered yet. And it ends on a cliffhanger. Next book, please!



Trans-Inclusivity in Spec Fic: Insufficient!

I’ve been spending lots of time reading the awesome Natalie Reed just lately. Her blog is full of coolness and good writing and awesome resources for gender egalitarians, freethinkers, and nerds alike, but as my bloggy thing is about books that have dragons and spaceships, I mostly feel qualified to comment only on the latter subject. Being a lefty radical and all (because apparently “hey, maybe people should receive equal treatment and opportunity regardless of identity and we should all just enjoy pudding together” is a radical statement), I do try and talk about representation of everyone in both the authorship and the fictional universes of the nerd-book world.

And yet I find I haven’t talked about trans characters anywhere here. And while I certainly accept my own culpability in being unconsciously cissexist like a jerk, there’s, uh, kind of a paucity of such characters out there. I’ve reviewed a lot of progressive, inclusive authors here and I’ve covered LGB back and forth a few times, but nothing in the Trans or even genderqueer bit of the spectrum.


Of course, gender variance is relatively rare, but there are a lot of books and a lot of stories out there. Folklore is full of characters who move between binary assignments or just hang out in the middle or somewhere else entirely. Coyote has a detachable penis! Which isn’t really all that relevant, since male manifestations of Coyote usually take it off just to bother someone with it, but it’s pretty badass, isn’t it? I’d like one.

I can think of lots of trans characters in anime and manga, which could be a great analysis and reflects rather poorly on the culture I live in (though the depiction is usually still a bit problematic). I’ve never reviewed any of this stuff because there are far more qualified individuals and I don’t think I could analyze in any useful detail. And I usually find light novels to be very bland in translation. From my early teens, Noriko of Fushigi Yuugi. stands out in my memory. Noriko was mostly a badass, confident lady, capable of passing without but confident enough once she got outed by an evil something or other (despite the fact that the revelation was couched in terms of “really a man,” so yuck). Late in the series there was a pretty pointless revelation that she had decided to be female after her little sister died and “as a man” she… blah. It would have made sense if Noriko was actually bigender or something, but I don’t give the manga-ka that much credit. She was this truely terrible writer and world-builder who accidentally wrote a great supporting cast only to kill them off for the mild dramatic benefit of her horrible, horrible main characters.

But as to spec-fic novels of the sort I usually review? Well, I can think of two examples, one awesome despite many issues, one interesting but odd.

As I just review Christopher Moore’s new book, another old favorite of mine is on my mind. Island of the Sequined Love Nun features Kimi, a confident, awesome trans woman of color, unashamed sex worker, survivor of human trafficking, violence, and abuse, and probably the only halfway competent individual in the main cast. The narration insists on using male pronouns for Kimi, which is annoying and stupid, and the male lead’s initial response to her is, “Oh, hey, a sexy lady to whom I’m attracted! …Oh, ew, that’s a dude in a dress.” They’re respectful friends later on, but the story doesn’t try not to other her. Feels more like unthinking cissexism than the hateful kind, but that’s still not okay. It’s also noteworthy that Kimi speaks oddly broken English. Since I think English isn’t her first language, that’s fine, but very few of the other characters with English as second language do it, and the result is more like “me love you long time” than any permutations of dialect I’ve heard. And Kimi (spoiler time!) doesn’t survive the book, but admittedly most of the characters don’t, and Kimi gets to appear as a perfectly contented ghost/deity later on. It… kind of makes sense in context. Is Kimi disposable because she’s trans or because there’s lots of dying and it just happens? I dunno. It’s debatable.

However, Kimi has a talking, fashion-forward fruit bat for her sidekick, which makes her the coolest ever.

The other trans character I can think of (and the pool here is “books I’ve read and can think of,” so this isn’t necessarily diagnostic) is Tamir in Lynn Flewelling’s creepy fantasy trilogy, the Tamir Trilogy. I love these books, and the only criticism that immediately occurs is that there wasn’t exactly a need to invoke magic to write a story about a person whose gender is other than what was assigned them as a baby. But if using fantasy to deal with real issues is against the rules, say goodbye to Drow. It’s an interesting story whatever the case.

Tamir is, far more literally than is usually the case, a girl in a boy’s body. Her dead brother’s body, actually. Yeah, it’s a terrifying story, actually, but that’s beside the point. In any case, scary magic results in a little girl growing up with the body of a little boy. Tamir, as Tobin, is fiercely remonstrated for liking girly things, so as to keep up the charade and raise a respectable little lordling. She performs masculinity fiercely throughout childhood and young adulthood, dealing as best she can with her lack of interest in girls as sexual partners, being in love with her male best friend, her ease in bonding with girls as friends, her need to see women as equal despite vicious demands that she act otherwise, and so on. Not all of this necessarily has anything to do with gender expression or identity, but to Tamir it certainly seems to set her apart. There’s a lot of gender-fuckery in these books, with LGB characters as well and repeated questions about what’s essential to gender and what’s constructed, what’s enforced on Tamir from outside and what’s all her. She finds her female body initially more alien than she did her male body, once magic happens again. Maybe that’s a side effect of being magic-trans instead of the regular kind?

So it’s not perfect, but it’s interesting, and Flewelling seems to me to handle Tamir well.

And, of course, not every trans person is out and it’s not necessarily going to be relevant to the plot, and lots of fictional characters could be trans that we don’t know about or need to. Maybe Spock is trans. That’d be cool. Maybe The Incomparable Dejah Thoris. Maybe Jesus.

But we could use some more. Really. (And, um, I brought up Jesus and detachable penis in the same post, for which I feel there should be some kind of award.)

Review: Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore

I considered getting this book for my Kindle (yes, I have one, because I am a traitor), but I’m very glad I didn’t. I love it when books are designed to impact the story on more than one level. Unfortunately it’s mostly a tactic used in gimicky children’s books that aren’t good enough to be bought on their own merits, and that’s when the scratch-and-sniff and the tinny little prerecorded noise-buttons and the probably-toxic tiny jewelry comes into play. But in books for grown-ups (or, hell, older kids), you’ve generally got black text and whatever combination of paper and glue was cheapest. Illustrations and/or decent cover art if you’re lucky.

This is a ridiculously long-winded way to say that this book is printed in blue, and it increased my delight tenfold. Okay, maybe point-twofold. It’s plenty enjoyable enough on its own, but the blue print just made it that much shinier. It also has a modesty dust jacket to hide the mild partial nudity on the cover (which doesn’t even approach the moderate partial nudity on the cover of Island of the Sequined Love Nun, but whatever) and is full of color prints of topical artwork. Which would explain why my print copy was pricey. But I regret nothing. My kindle’s the lame kind with no color.

Seriously. This should happen more. I’ll pay for it. I think the only other non-graphic novel I can think of that does this is my fancy copy of House of Leaves.

Anydangway. Sacre Bleu exists. I’m pretty sure that Christopher Moore doesn’t need my help selling it, but I’ve loved him very much for ten years or so. He can have it anyway, my own little tiny drop of review in a sea of New York Times Bestselling Authordom.

(Ginger Waif may need to cut the caffeine. I’ve had more emphatic paragraph breaks here than I think is strictly legal.)

Sacre Bleu is a bit of a departure for Christopher Moore, though it’s hard to put my finger on why. It’s a grim yet very comedic work of dark fantasy inspired by raw strangeness and starring Inept Yet Well-Meaning Douchebag and his love interest, Hypercompetent and Snarky Yet Vulnerable Babe. Seems like it should be par for the course. I think it’s that the book is less archly comedic than most of his and that the plot is a thorough mindfuck rather than a straightforward if peculiar series of events. Most of his departures from form are just the same thing done poorly. This is something new.

The story follows some fictional but mostly historical figures in the Parisian and general art community in the late 1800’s. Lucien Lessard (not real, if you’re like me and not a turn-of-the-century France fanatic) and a bunch of his more extant friends are a bunch of reprobate starving artists. Then there’s a suspicious, grotesque figure and a hot chick, both of them more than what they seem. That’s really about all I can explicitly unpack in a summary without spoiling surprises buried deep in the book. The first bit does drag a bit as you try and figure out what’s going on. I actually thought it might be a work of non-fantastical historical fiction for a moment there. The story is twisty-turny, heinous fuckery most foul, leaping back and forth through time like Quentin Tarantino and the Energizer Bunny had a baby, and that baby mostly concerned itself with French people boning.

Le bon, I feel like they should call it given my total lack of capacity for French.

So there are these people and things happen to them that I mostly can’t explain because it’s a secret. This is a great review. Let’s talk about the people? Moore has this thing where he has two characters. Two avatars, I suppose, two Platonic ideals. As referenced above, one is male, a quietly clever but generally not accomplished dude who enjoys adventures and ladies. One is female, smarter and better at actually accomplishing things than her almost inevitable love interest and deeply sarcastic, but very fond of reassurance and eventual commitment. These aren’t bad characters, but they exist in a thousand guises in almost all of his books. They’ve been Biff and Mary Magdalene, Pocket and Cordelia, Tucker and Kimi… I dunno, I get a little bit bored with them.

And I’ll take a moment to point out that Moore is kind of addicted to saying sweeping things about men and women. Not always consistent things, seldom complimentary things, occasionally useful things, but always sweeping generalizations. He leans a little toward “ladies are awesome and nice and smart and dudes are just a bunch of neanderthals,” which is a silly sentiment even if well-meaning, but some of these ideas are quite counter to your standard cultural gender narrative. He makes room for variant sexuality and gender expression. He sincerely believes that just about everyone, whatever their gender, likes screwing and ought to have fun doing it. He lives in his own world, but he still really enjoys putting pronouncements about gender in his characters’ mouths. Odd habit. He also seems to think sudden-onset lesbianism happens? Not in this book. I just thought of it now.

On a more problematic note, this book includes recurring magical possession that results in… kinda rapey implications, with the least bit of thought. This is upsetting.

Back to characters. The side cast is, as usual for him, pretty good. When he’s writing characters other than the recurring two (and their frequent sidekicks, who are usually the same people slightly repackaged) they’re entertaining, loveable, and almost always kinda icky. You wouldn’t want to be friends with these people, but they’re fun to read about. This is especially entertaining when he’s working with personages one thinks of as dignified, what with their paintings prized by serious and important galleries nowadays. Artistic license with artists. It works.

The Paris inhabited by the artists of all stripes worked for me. I’m not particularly acquainted with the history of this particular time and place, so I don’t know how accurate it was. Lots of fun, engrossing detail, so I can’t say I care all that much whether it was true to the manners or clothes of the time. It might bug a more dedicated scholar. Or maybe not. Dunno. The glitzy, grimy, strange little city interested me and made a great backdrop for its inhabitants.

The tone of the book was in line with the Christopher Moore standard, wickedly funny, kind of mean, and strangely sweet. Despite subject matter that generally deals with ghosts and monsters, he loves his creations and it’s palpable. Everything’s always so cute in these books, even with all the death and horror and cruel humor. No, I don’t know how that works. I’ll quote Christopher Moore quoting Henri Toulouse-Lautrec quoting Renoir. “Love them all.” He does.

It’s a much less funny book than he’s written before. the subject matter is harsher and sadder than he’s tackled, or at least treated as such. He did rewrite King Lear, after all. It’s still pretty funny, but there’s less of the laughing. Still lots of nifty wordplay.

I just realized I’ve pretty much gotten through the review without touching on the motif of blue. And I decided I’m not going to. Read and find out what’s up with that. It’ll be awesome.

Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

It says a lot about my beloved genres of choice that I find the cover of this book so fascinating. It’s a picture of the characters in the book, drawn in a dramatic array but doing things that make perfect sense for them to be doing, looking like the text describes them, and rendered in a slightly stylized, dynamic, fun way that evokes good comic books. The female lead is poised, but in a fluid, combative way rather than a somehow-point-both-tits-and-ass-at-the-viewer way. Their features have not been quietly rendered generically Caucasian. No stiffly drawn generic characters pulled from a box o’ illustrations. No bland, obtuse mess of geometric bits graphic-designed to death. Not even a vague mass of colors and shapes or an epic landscape that may or may not be accurate to the story, but evokes a fancy matte painting far more than the meat of the tale. There’s neither cost-cutting nor “no, seriously, this is a real book about important things and I am a sensible author” pretension. This is a book that is unashamed of being a fun, clever adventure story. (Of course, frequently the author has very little control over that, so I guess this is just a nod to the publishers? Anyways, I like it.)

Saladin Ahmed’s first novel draws from Arabian folklore ancient beyond telling and modern tropes both embraced and skewered. It’s the story of a city imperiled by forces supernatural and mundane. While wicked sorcerers and their pet ghuls poke at the fabric of reality, the entrenched ruling class harasses the poor. The central story is an adventure with swords and all sorts of magic, but the political situation (and here I use political as a shorthand for a very well-developed socioeconomic sense of the highly stratified city, international intrigue only hinted at, a complex but apparently universal religious system with many splinter groups of varying fanaticism, and so on) is at times more interesting. There are three major factions containing main characters and infinitely more around and within them, and no one has anyone else’s best interests entirely at heart.

That said, as twisty and complex as the world is, the plot is surprisingly simple. I kept waiting for the major epiphanies that I was sure were coming. the characters and the world were so unique, so surely the story would go spinning off somewhere interesting! …Well, I won’t say it was dull. Far from that. Everyone was fighting everyone else all the time in really spiffy ways and the stakes were high. The titular throne was in peril from several directions and the main party of characters had to concern themselves with the awakening of unspeakable and ancient evils, while alongside them the idealistic underworld lord with a heart of gold threatened civil war and the aristocrats… aristocrated. I can’t say anything in the plotline is all that special, really, as much fun as it was. Even the characters’ conflict all came from either within themselves or from outside the main group. There was some lawful good on chaotic good bickering and a lot of moral conundrums, but everyone is pretty much who they appear to be.*

The characters make up a wonderful, prickly cast. I won’t go so far as to call them affectionate grotesques, that oh-so-useful term I kind of invented myself, but while they’re all fundamentally good, they go about it in some very odd ways. There’s Doctor Adoullah, cranky, crude, and the last defense of the world against supernatural evil. There’s his assistant Raseed, a teenage sword prodigy with a stick up his ass. Their dear friends Litaz and Dawoud, a husband and wife team from far off lands and an alchemist and mage respectively, get shafted on both the cover and the book jacket blurb. I suspect mainly due to space constraints. Anyway, the persnickety old married couple with world-shaking magic add a pleasant vibe to the book. I particularly enjoy books with middle aged and old characters, especially ones that aren’t pure stock character. It’s nice to get some perspective from people who might not be hot enough to want to empathize with. Zamia is a very good try at writing a tough teenage girl. She usually works, she has a motivation for her growly personality, and she softens under some circumstances to a more palatable sort. She also turns into a lion, which helps. Sure, her weakness is a hot guy, but she actually appreciates him for being hot in a way that acknowledges the female gaze and respects him for his skills rather than just butting heads with him and then inexplicably falling for him, which is a nice change of pace. I’m not gonna complain too much.

The roleplayer in me likes to see such a balanced party. Healer, couple specialized spellcasters, dps, and… and a fucking lion. Every party needs a lion. The team aspect of the book plays a lot, and everybody has a role to play under pretty much all circumstances. The world does seem a bit like a really good game setting with good NPCs and an excellently executed plot. The book frequently pauses for local color, and while it doesn’t enhance the story much, it makes you feel part of the world. The sights and smells of the various quarters of Dhamsawaat, the coolest city ever if you don’t mind the crime, monsters, and lack of justice. The various magic traditions mostly follow from the strangely universal religion, but like a lot of fantasy, the deity actually does stuff, so belief is pretty clearly justified. My favorite bit of worldbuilding was the fractured state of this belief system, the way various factions of devotees and even heretics went about interpreting this not-quite-omnipotent God. Two of the main characters are holy men and Zamia’s lion-shifting is apparently a god-given thing and the baddies work for the fallen angel, so he had fun with it and all the viewpoints keep the religious thing from getting tedious.

You get all viewpoints all the time. It’s one of those books that jumps from character to character in a sort of roving third-person-limited, at one point reiterating dialogue twice on one page so as to get two people’s reactions thoroughly. Each character has a very distinct voice and a different way of viewing things, so while there’s no swoon-inducing prose poetry or deeply clever wordplay, it all stays interesting enough to engage, even when there are two pages on the subject of tea. Raseed is my favorite viewpoint character, since I like internally-conflicted hardasses, apparently, almost as much as I like making fun of teenagers. I perhaps over-empathize with the cranky-ass doctor.

So the book is well written with good characters. The world is rich and interesting. The plot is fun, if not too special, and I’m looking forward to the next book. Yes, we got another series! That I jumped into right after the first book came out! I hate waiting.

And I have something to add, because I love tangents more than any other trigonometrical subject. This book is billed in conjunction with the Arabian Knights in its typically breathless and over-written blurb. I even thought about making the comparison myself, and then I noticed there was no reason to do so. I’ve found the reference in several other reviews and mentions, too. And I guess I can see how it’s a useful shorthand, meaning “this story uses Middle Eastern rather than Western European folkloric roots.” But no one feels the need to introduce Tolkien with “well, this is sure Icelandic!” The fact seems to be that drawing from a not-entirely-Western tradition is so staggering that we have to fall back on the most basic, stereotypical reference we can find, dripping with Disneyfication and what’s left of colonial exoticism. For the record, Throne of the Crescent Moon has nothing in common with the Arabian Nights cycle that Earthsea doesn’t have in common with The Brothers Grimm. I’m equally excited to have a story that builds its mythos on a different foundation and annoyed that this is, in itself, a big fucking deal.

And I don’t really know which impulse is better. But I definitely think you should read this book, and the other ones when they come out.

*Disclaimer: Who they appear to be according to my genre savvy. Perhaps another reader will be shocked!

Review and Retrospective: The Raven Ring, by Patricia C. Wrede

Many of my readers will probably agree with the premise that Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are among the best YA books in the history of ever. The wild, gleeful skewering of tropes, the preponderance of dragons (automatically and immediately improving any book), the best use of rebellious princess syndrome in recent memory, Killer the levitating blue winged donkey who used to be a rabbit… I don’t know if I could critique these books even now, but when I was an even littler Ginger Waif, a wide-eyed and peculiar nerdling with an impossibly fast and demanding metabolism when it came to devouring books, Dealing With, Searching for, Calling on, and Talking to Dragons were pretty much the alpha and omega of what was awesome.

So after I’d read them ten or twelve times, I went looking for more by Wrede and, at the time, found it all in the intimidating grown-up section of the library and enjoyed what little I found there. This was before Google and I had to make due with what I had. Later in life, when used book stores, Sci-Fi club libraries, and the internet were available I did all I could to track down the early works of Wrede, as well as following her more recent stuff. Somehow, the only one that eluded me was The Raven Ring. Until now. Bwahahaha!

The Raven Ring is a novel of Lyra, the world Wrede created and mostly wrote in in her early career. The edition I got (on my schmancy ereader that seems to have laid claim to me entirely) rather interestingly includes the first chapter of the first book by the author as edited for a rerelease. I do enjoy these little glimpses into the writer’s thought processes, and it’s pleasantly humanizing to see one of the voices that defined my childhood, well, editing. Books seem to not actually burst fully-formed from the firmament, and it’s always nice to be reminded that a combination of work and talent rather than magic is responsible for great fiction.

While Lyra contains all kinds of strange creatures, The Raven Ring focuses on humans, and while there are ancient temples full of magical traps and sweeping landscapes and exotic locales of all sorts, almost all of the action of the book happens in a city, resulting in a sort of medieval urban fantasy of a kind I quite like (see, um, half the titles previously reviewed). The story follows Eleret, a warrior maiden who strikes out to the distant city to claim her soldier mother’s possessions following her suspicious death. She’s pulled into a bizarre intrigue surrounding a mysterious artifact and acquires some sidekicks. The Big Bads are alluded to. Apparently nothing bad ever happens in Lyra without the ultimate evil having a hand in it somewhere. It’s a little like Sunnydale that way.

SoThe Raven Ring is a good example of my lifelong idol’s work for adults and as a mature writer. I’m willing to say right here that it doesn’t work for me on the visceral level that theEnchanted Forest Chronicles did. Some of that is no doubt pure nostalgia at work, of course. I’m not aiming to make this a comparative review but rather to see how the dewy eyes of third-grade love work when the veneer of obsession is gone.

The writing in The Raven Ring is solid but unremarkable. There’s no stunning narrative voice to point to, though the dialogue is well constructed. The pacing of this rather short book feels occasionally pinched. There’s a lot of setup and a hurried payoff in the larger story arc, but individual plot threads are better. As I compared Swordspoint to a highly political LARP with erratically intertwining stories that never quite paid off, The Raven Ring strikes me as an investigative tabletop run by a small, intimate group that knows each other well, plays pretty neatly, and prefers the journey to the destination. The final showdown with the nefarious villain piles into an infodump of details the players didn’t catch on the way there and is finished in one climactic session of game.

To continue my nerdy, nerdy analogy (and I’m allowed because you’re already reading a spec-fic blog), the characters play together well. Eleret could be a generic grumpy action girl in an inferior author’s hands, but she has motivations and moods rooted in herself and the bizarre situation she finds herself in. She feels like a real person. Her sidekicks verge a little bit on the caricature in both cases, the dashing aristocratic rake and the snarky rogue. Wrede pulls them off and I admire a writer who takes old archetypes and breathes new life into them, but Daner is a little too Prince Charming wannabe and Karvonen a little too gleefully clever. they’re goofy. But it’s Eleret’s story. The main villain never has much of a character, but for good reasons; I’d say not having a real identity is a big part of the spookiness. He has some good minions, though. The supporting cast is just kind of there, I must admit. There are some soldiers and magicians and noble ladies and they amuse, but most of them just deliver plot points or conflict on cue.

The noble ladies actually point to a slight tonal issue in a lot of Wrede’s books, especially the older ones. As a rule, the positive characters are the ones who have swords or magic and go around doing useful things as far as the plot is concerned, and as long as they’re active and busy, the villains are generally at least interesting, if not sympathetic. People who prefer to ignore the tides of plot tend to get derided, which is fair enough, I suppose. Usually there’s a world or at least a large landmass and attendant population to save. Wrede likes high stakes. But while people who are mildly detrimental or wholly neutral as a whole just get made to look ridiculous, when these characters are female, they’re not just putting stupid stuff ahead of what’s important. They’re putting stupid girl stuff ahead of what’s important. Feminine heroines are alright, but if you’re a pesky sister or a courtesan with not much to do with furthering the story, you’re a stupid, dumb, girly girl who likes girl things.

As it happens, the Ginger Waif understands this issue. When one happens to be a girl, one is expressly and implicitly told over and over that these things over here are girl things for girls to like. If one happens not to be disposed to like the majority of those things (like, say, the color pink, ruffles, shopping, and so on), one becomes resentful, and that resentment can spill over onto the perfectly neutral totems of cultural femininity. And that in turn can spill over to the people who like those things. It’s clear to you that shoes and sequins are stupid and no one likes them (ah, self-centeredness), so people who seem to take honest joy in fashion and romance novels must be either disingenuous or stupid. I still have to remind myself every so often that there’s nothing wrong with happening to enjoy being what you’re expected to be.

I’ve heard Wrede speak at length on the subject of her female characters, but she dwelt on the heroines. Apparently, her stock answer to “How do you write such strong women?” is “Do you know any women?” Or something close to that. The talk was years ago. I don’t object to writing so that characters who are ambivalent to the plot are jerks, but I do object to using femininity as shorthand for shallowness.

Wow, that was… a tangent.

The story can’t be called generic, but it is a tad bit predictable as it unrolls. I can’t claim it’s the old “brave but naive warrior woman comes to the big city where various forces seem to coalesce around her and she makes friends with some entertaining weirdos and magic happens” yarn, but the mystery is far more for the characters than the genre-savvy reader. Karvonen injects a little chaos that the story badly needs, but even he can’t offset the predictability. That said, it’s a good story. It has all the important bits. Ennobling and base emotions at war, sword fights, intrigue. All the necessary elements, and it’s fun to read.

It’s hard to fairly assess the worldbuilding of The Raven Ring. I know a lot about Lyra and I suppose most readers of the book will as well, what with all that came before. That said, the Lyra books are all stand-alone stories, united only by universe, so the sense of place should be strong by itself. The city at the heart of the plot is fairly well explored, but it seems to consist entirely of inns, alleyways, maybe a market, and various buildings with NPCs waiting to dispense plot. It doesn’t have a lot of unique personality. Eleret’s homeland holds some interest, but so little of the action takes place there that all I know is that it’s mountainous and everyone there is warlike. The scary evil from beyond time is a little underwritten here (it makes a very oblique appearance, after all), so there wasn’t anything really scary going on. Though you might have a hard time finding a fantasy regular who’s easily scared by a bunch of ancient evil things that are evil and also evil rar. The magic at work is the most unique part. There’s a peculiar spin on tarot cards, some creepy and effective magical skullduggery, and some genre-standard magic-school sorcery, and it all works together well. The idea of superstition in a world with active magic is an interesting one, the same as mixing magic and gods, another idea that always draws me in.

So, altogether, The Raven Ring is a perfectly okay book with some real strong points. It’s nothing like as awesome as The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, though. What’s the moral of the story? Well, could be that the books that define us are stuck on a pedestal and there’s nothing to do about it. There’s the observation that some authors are more suited to one voice than another. Or maybe it’s just that there weren’t any dragons and it’s just a fatal flaw.


I think I need to place a moratorium on myself when it comes to using the word “problematic.” It’s so damn useful, but really, it’s gotta stop.* I can get by without this linguistic crutch! It’s simply a tic. Now, the Ginger Waif will go and do something soothing. Let’s see. Given the recent loss of the groundbreaking author and my mood to enjoy some dragons, I think I’ll delve into Pern. Relive high school a little. Carry on a tradition, too, since I inherited all the older books from my dad’s extensive sci-fi collection.

Dragons, flying on dragons, time travel, hey, a bard. And… and sexuality is a smell and rape is love and no woman who isn’t demure and childish/sexy (…what?) ever makes good and… Now, now, Ginger Waif, it was a different time. Why, considering the 60’s, she was perfectly progressive! By certain lax standards, anyway. She did improve later in life, and there are fun stories buried in the… Endless waves of impossibly messed-up gender-based tripe. I love my old-school pulp, but it’s so–

Maybe try another comfort read. Let’s go for some early Tanya Huff! An author who was ahead of her time; so much so that you don’t actually need to qualify her early books with the dates! And sure there’s a little squick, but I’ve already been over that in previous reviews and I think it probably does come down to character perspective, in the end. So I’ll just enjoy some nice, familiar Vicky Nelson. And wondering how on earth a writer ever came to be so hostile to journalism. Does the media ever do anything other than harass victims, cause panics, and interfere in active investigations? Sure, the popular media can be kind of awful about airing whatever’s most sensational, but is there a sympathetic journalist anywhere in this universe? And on a similar note, do all the police officers and military personnel need to be deified? In all the thousands of pages given over to the Canadian constabulary and the space marines, I think there are, what, two bad cops? And they… actually, completely fail to get their comeuppance. They just disappear. Did the system work? Or are they still out there somewhere in imaginary-90’s Toronto, planting evidence and brutalizing suspects? Is this actually an incredibly subtle commentary? Am I being hypercritical and assuming that just because a wrong isn’t addressed specifically, it’s tacitly approved? Maybe. Probably. But still, I find the slight authoritarian bent a little– Damn.

Do you really need to spend all that time on the rape, George R. R. Martin? Lesbianism doesn’t work that way, Christopher Moore. Dear entire genres of horror and comedy, agh! Terry Goodkind, I hate you and everything you love.

…No. I’m not giving up my word. There’ll never be anything worth reading that won’t contain some premise or idea that I can quibble with on some level. There’ll never be an author I agree with wholly. Hell, I can reread my own stuff going back a year or two and wonder what I was thinking. Some stories are too laden down with execrable ideas to enjoy, but even the best stories have their baggage, their questionable aspects, their betrayals of an author’s foibles. I’m sure my writing contains its own challenges and mistakes. And hell, while I consider my idea of right to be pretty well-considered, there are certainly other opinions out there. I never want to be blinded to new or even disturbing ideas in my fiction, and I seldom want to tar a whole story with the brush of WRONG. (Unless it’s that thing where Orson Scott Card made Hamlet’s dad a child predator because gay is caused by Satan. Fuck that book and fuck Card for writing it. And Ender’s Game isn’t even that good. Yeah, I said it.) I can’t think of a better word to address concerns appropriately without bogging down reflections of the literary merits. Problematic. It’s here to stay.

*Except when my food is problematic. That is an opinion I will always and forever voice. Or until someone figures out how to eat a gyro without a chest-high table, rolled-up sleeves, and a lot of luck.

The Bottleneck

Know what’s hard? Reviewing sequels. I usually aim to do a whole series at once, so as to address the major overarching themes and give a plot intro for the first bit of the first book, and that’s that. I did do that short story followup to the Smoke series, I guess, and that was pretty fun, but it was a good stand-alone story and that’s a universe that lends itself very well to episodic stories. You don’t really need to know what came before to enjoy specific instances of monster-defeating. However, I’ve been plowing through series just lately, and in the case of many, any description of the second book would spoil bits of the first, and so on. So that’s one reason there haven’t been any new reviews. The rest of the Inheritance Trilogy to take an example at random) is excellent but resists all the efforts I’ve made to discuss them without busting bits of the plot for number one. Sigh.

The other problem is author saturation. In this information age, following authors is so, so easy. I remember being an even smaller Ginger Waif and wandering up and down the shelves of the library, hoping occasionally that a new book by a good author would appear, occasionally driven by the internal flame to ask the librarians to tap into their resources to find out if Bruce Coville or Brian Jacques had put out anything new. Carefully typing titles into the brown-on-black screen of the generally distrusted computers that had replaced the card catalog. I still occasionally find books by childhood favorites that I never knew existed, thanks to the insufficiency of the local library system.

Now I have all my favorite authors on facebook and twitter and feeds of all their blogs. Amazon alerts me and friends I can reach at a moment’s notice anywhere in the world give me tips. I’m about to acquire an e-reader of some sort (yup, I surrender, come the after-Christmas sales, anyway) and then there’ll be nothing between me and instant gratification.

And that means whenever the long list of established authors I follow loyally brings out something new, I can pounce on it. And that means precious little time for the random thing I just found at the library.

It looks like a good thing, though. Maybe I’ll fit a day or two into my schedule for it.