I’ll start with the disclaimers: yes, Dan Brown books have an inherent shitness to them. I could make a bunch of points about the specifics of this, but this guy has already done it in a much funnier way than I could ever hope to do.
The counterpoint is that Dan Brown books aren’t intended to be high literature. The comparison that I make is that Dan Brown is to literature what Nic Cage is to cinema: occasionally inspired, more commonly ludicrous, usually some variety of entertaining, but rarely intelligent.
The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons were Dan Brown’s Con Air and Face/Off: high art they sure ain’t, but a fun plot and high entertainment value mean we’re all having fun. Brown’s other books are the lesser films of the Cage oeuvre, ranging from the depths of terrible (Deception Point is Brown’s Ghost Rider) all the way to the heights of… well, forgettable mediocrity (The Lost Symbol being Snake Eyes).
At this point I’ve come to realise that I have seen way too many Nic Cage films. But he’s useful in making a point: you don’t usually watch Nic Cage expecting to see an examination of the human condition, and you shouldn’t pick up a Dan Brown book expecting anything other than a bit of fun.
I guess Dan Brown doesn’t really help himself by trying to conceal the inherent dumbness of his books behind a smokescreen of artistic pretension (especially in the Robert Langdon series). Each book features our betweeded hero on a treasure hunt against the clock, following various clues hidden in art and literature to reveal the answer to the mystery du jour, preferably before someone suffers a ghastly fate (usually a pretty girl getting killed).
This time around, the ghastly threat that Langdon is trying to avert is actually quite ghastly: the release of a mysterious plague that threatens to wipe out large swathes of humanity. For the greater good, of course: our villain is seeking to free humanity from the scourge of overcrowding. As the villain commits suicide in the opening scene you can’t accuse him of not practicing what he preaches.
The actual nature of the plague, once it’s revealed, is actually borderline clever twist. There are enough red herrings to make it vaguely surprising, and but also enough references to it throughout that it doesn’t feel like it’s come out of left field. That being said, it only ever gets to the level of “borderline clever”, and doesn’t stand up to much (any) scrutiny. But I’ll be fair: the overall plot is a strength of Inferno.
What isn’t a strength is the minutiae of the plot that get us through the overarching plot. The treasure hunt through art and literature that hold the clues to stopping the release of the plague is probably the least exciting Brown has ever come up with, and that’s saying something.
Said trail is focused on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In previous Brown books (or at least Da Vinci and Angels) it felt like Brown came up a plot, and then found the art and literature to bring this plot together. This time around, it feels like he’s put the cart before the horse: he’s decided to write about The Divine Comedy, and then shoehorned a plot into that. It never feels like the overall plot and the treasure hunt aspect really mesh together.
If the overall plot was a positive, and the details of the plot were a negative, we’d end up at bang average. But unfortunately, the actual writing lets the side down (shocking, I know) dragging Inferno down into the purgatory of mediocrity.
It’s not that the writing lacks grace or subtlety. Obviously it does, but it’s not supposed to have them, so I can’t mark it down for that. Except Brown seems to have decided that it isn’t a big dumb book; instead, it feels like he’s tried to write something that might be critically acclaimed. Fat chance, given that most reviewers will come in wanting to hate Inferno. But even if there was a chance that Dan Brown could, in theory, write a book critics would love, he’s going to have to actually put some effort in to doing it. And he doesn’t.
The problem is that Brown tries to make this feel like a more cultured, more intellectual book than his previous work without bothering to refine his language, which he must know is a major point of criticism for him. So instead of refining his writing, he just has people speak in Italian as often as possible, because foreign languages equal culture, and critics love culture. Surely he’s not serious? Shit. He’s American. He probably is.
While we’ve got the attempt at culture by going bilingual, we’ve still got all of the hallmarks that have made Brown ripe for parody: the mixed metaphors, the barely coherent (at best) twists, the not-even-qualifying-as-a-sketch characters with arcs as discernible as the coriolis effect (i.e. rarely noticeable), and the constant repetition.
I would love to be able to take the piss out of his use of the word “chthonic”, but while its unnecessary, it does actually have a point, which is bloody annoying, because honestly: chthonic. Who would ever use that word?
He also uses that glorious literary trope of amnesia. I’m loathe to criticise amnesia as a plot device, as it’s a key to two my favourite books (The Raw Shark Texts). But in that, amnesia is an actual plot point: the plot doesn’t exist without it. Brown uses amnesia as a cheap device to attempt (and fail) to create tension. Plus he tries to flesh out the amnesia by giving Langdon visions, which is many different varieties of idiotic.
In the end, the vague gesture towards what appears to be an attempt for critical acclaim does nothing but draw attention to the low quality of rest of the writing. As does his reference which seems to claim that Pep Guardiola is managing New York Red Bulls. Stick to what you’re good at Dan.
Sticking with what you’re good at brings us right back to the Nic Cage metaphor (or it does if you’re obsessed with Nic Cage). Nic Cage doesn’t deserve his reputation. Sure, the genre of “Nic Cage Film” definitely exists: it’s the dumb action flick that will at best be very entertaining, and at worst will be so bad you can have fun laughing at it. Most will end up somewhere in between, and be mediocre. But generally, the Nic Cage Film is something Nic Cage is good at.
But people forget that Nic Cage can also actually act. He’s put in some great, nuanced performances in things like Matchstick Men, Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas (for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor, lest we forget).
The genre of “Dan Brown Book” definitely exists: it’s the 300 page mystery, in a nice city with art and literature. Nic Cage has shown he does actually have something approaching range, and can do films that aren’t “Nic Cage Films”. Dan Brown hasn’t; he just does “Dan Brown Books”. They’re dumb, they can be entertaining, a lot of the time they aren’t. This one isn’t. It’s just mediocre.
Read if you like: Dan Brown, big dumb books, Nic Cage action films.
Don’t read if you like: good characters, good writing, good plots.
Next up: Death Masks by Jim Butcher.
Summer Knight is the fourth book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, starring the only wizard with an advert in the Yellow Pages, Harry Dresden. Much of what I’ve written in my previous reviews applies here, and my recommendation isn’t going to be much different than my recommendation for those three books. But if you want a specific review, fine, read on.
Summer Knight picks up a few months after the previous book in the series, Grave Peril, and finds our hero in a fairly bad way in pretty much every part of his life.
His personal life isn’t going terribly well: his girlfriend, arcane reporter Susan Rodriguez, has left town (and left Harry) after the events of Grave Peril, leaving Harry to spend most of his free time either moping or trying to find a way to save her from the …misfortune that she suffered during Grave Peril. His professional life isn’t great either. His never-thriving detective agency is dwindling as he focuses on Susan.
And his magical life isn’t going brilliantly. His debt to his faerie godmother, Lea, has been bought up by a higher-ranking, more powerful faerie: Mab, Queen of Winter Court. On the plus side, she offers to forget the debt (Harry’s everlasting servitude) in exchange for Harry completing three favours for her. An even bigger plus is that Harry gets to choose which favours to complete (“You say it like that, and I could pass you the salt three times and that would be that.”), so Harry is able to turn down Mab’s first suggestion of a favour: investigating a suspected murder. On the down side, faeries don’t tend to play fair.
In the wider wizarding world, the wizard’s White Council is now at war with the Red Court of vampires, something which the Red Court places the sole blame for at Harry’s feet, following his actions in Grave Peril. There’s a suggestion from the Red Court to the White Council that if they were to hand Harry over to them (for execution) the war could end. Given that a decent portion of the White Council also blames Harry for the war, the Red Court’s offer isn’t as ludicrous as Harry might like.
It also doesn’t help that the Red Court is winning the war, largely due to the fact that wizards (quite amusingly) can’t mobilise their forces too well, as most technology (such as, say, aeroplanes) doesn’t react well to the close proximity to magic. Fortunately, the wizards should have a chance if they can use the Nevernever, the netherworld existing behind ours. Mortal laws such as time and space don’t really apply in the Nevernever, so quick travel from one place to another is easy.
Unfortunately, the Nevernever is a place chock-full of dangerous beasties. But swinging back to fortunately (for the White Council; unfortunately for Harry) the Nevernever is controlled by the faerie Courts. The Summer Court is unwilling to help, but the Queen of the Winter Court (that’d be Mab) is happy to grant the White Council safe passage through the Nevernever. If Harry does a favour for her (that’d be investigating that suspected murder). It’s doubly unfortunate for Harry, because the White Council decides that if he can’t sort this out for them, he’s not really a wizard worthy of the name, and they’ll hand him over to the Red Court.
The opening quarter quickly sets up Harry to essentially be screwed from one of any number of directions. To name but a few: he’s not at the top of his game due to his personal life, so any old threat could be the end of him. He could, as he is wont to do, get mixed up with beings far beyond his power, and die trying to solve Mab’s case. He could survive it, but fail to resolve it to Mab’s satisfaction, leaving him a failure in the eyes of the White Council (and subsequently dead). Or the Red Court could just decide to cut out the middleman and come and have a go at him anyway.
A quarter of the way into the book Harry is looking fairly fucked. After a little investigation of the case, it becomes clear that he is almost entirely fucked: the suspected murder is definitely an actual murder, of a very powerful magical being, and while the suspect pool is small and clear, all of them are wildly more powerful than Harry could ever hope to be.
Oh, and Elaine, he finds out that his thought-to-be-long-dead-ex-girlfriend is alive and well(ish), and she’s back in Chicago. There’s some tension there, as it was Harry who thought he killed her. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with.
Despite the great setup, the actual plot of Summer Knight is actually arguably the weakest of the series so far. The final act is excellent, but the middle act (which covers about 50% of the book) isn’t up to the same standard. The main problem is that plot doesn’t really move on a great deal: Harry investigates, but there’s never really much momentum to the investigation. At times, it feels like Butcher is just stringing things to give us more uncertainty about what is going on, until we get to finale. It doesn’t really feel like we’re building up to anything specific, then Harry has a flash of insight and BANG we’re heading to the finale.
That being said, the finale is fucking fantastic. There’s an adjective I hate to use, but I can’t avoid it here: the last quarter is epic. I might dislike the word, but when the fate of the world is in the balance, with only Harry and his crew of werewolf accomplices standing in the way of the certain destruction of the mortal world as we know it, “epic” is the only word I can use.
Yes, Harry’s werewolf crew. These are the folks who appeared as newly-minted werewolves in the second book of the series, Fool Moon. In the intervening year or so the werewolves have matured from, as Harry puts it, “a collection of misfits with bad hair, acne and wanna-be tough guy leather outfits” into fit, strong, formidable allies. It does feel like Harry has built up a relationship with them over the last year, we’ve just not seen it happening. The werewolves (and particularly their leader, Billy) definitely seem genuine in their care about Harry’s deteriorating mental state in the wake of Susan’s departure. They even threaten to become something that Harry he doesn’t have much in the way of: friends.
Butcher had already created a strong universe for Harry in the first three books of the series, but the werewolves, and particularly their relationship with Harry, are one of the many ways that Summer Knight makes Harry’s Chicago feel even more like a living, breathing city, in a living, breathing world (and associated netherworlds). We also get introduced to a few new supernatural species: ogres, ghouls, and, in one outstanding sequence midway through the book, a cholorofiend. That’s a plant monster to you and I.
Beyond that, we also get to find out more details about aspects of the world that we’ve been introduced to before. The White Council has only previously been mentioned in passing, but here we get to find out about its power structures, its members, and the various excuses that they give for missing meetings of the Council (my favourite being “pyramid sitting”). We’d heard of faeries, but hadn’t heard of their different courts, their borderline ridiculous royal structure consisting of a Queen That Is, a Queen That Was, and a Queen Who Is To Come, and how their relationship to the mortal world. While the plot is arguably weaker as a whole than previous books in the series, the book as a whole is definitely a very worthwhile addition to the series.
There’s not really much more to say beyond that for Summer Knight. I can’t imagine that, at this point in the series, Summer Knight is the kind of book to change your opinion of the Dresden Files: if you’ve liked previous books you’ll like this one. If you’ve not, you probably won’t. I have done, and I did do.
Read if you like: wise-cracking wizards, Jim Butcher books.
Don’t read if you like: not Jim Butcher books.
Next up: Inferno by Dan Brown
These two books form the first two thirds of the Braided Path series by Chris Wooding. I decided to read this series because I absolutely loved Wooding’s Tales of the Ketty Jay series. Short review: the Braided Path series isn’t anywhere near as good (so far). I’ve decided to review these two chaps together now, because I’m taking a bit of a break from the series before the third book.
Like most of the stuff I’ve been reading this year, this is fantasy. This time the place we’re in is called Saramyr. The book opens with our heroine, Kaiku, narrowly escaping the murder of her family by a bunch of shin-shin (vaguely spider-ish demons, just one of an assortment of demons knocking about in Saramyr) thanks to her handmaid (turned bodyguard) Asara. Technically, Asara doesn’t so much save Kaiku as bring her back to life, which makes for a pretty decent opening, as it’s fairly rare that a book starts with the main character being dead. Kaiku shows her thanks to Asara by accidentally killing her, and decides that the only place she can go to find safety (and answers about the mysterious mask that her now-dead father found) is with her childhood friend Mishani, in the capital city of Saramyr, Axekami.
There’s another plot which runs alongside this and concerns the heir to throne of Saramyr, Lucia, a precocious child kept hidden in the castle by her mother (the Empress, rather than Queen, what with Saramyr being an Empire). Turns out pretty quickly that Lucia is an “Aberrant”. Aberrants are freaks of nature that come in many different varieties that can broadly be described as good, bad and ugly – some are hideously deformed freaks, some have terrible magical powers, and some look normal but are something along the lines of the next evolutionary step of humanity. The latter one of these categories (and obviously the one that Lucia sits in) isn’t well known publicly, because the public view of Aberrants, pushed most vehemently by the Weavers (we’ll get to them), is that all Aberrants are monsters. Typically, when discovered they are summarily executed.
Obviously Lucia’s status as an Aberrant becomes public, which causes consternation in Saramyr as folks don’t really want what they see as a monster becoming their ruler. Lucia being one of the lesser-known good Aberrants makes this more complex, and the whole plotline features a bunch of interesting and twisty political fighting, posturing and backstabbing (literally, at times) which escalates very nicely throughout the novel, leading to a pretty fun and unexpected climax.
Anyway, the Weavers. They get their name in the title, so clearly they are pretty important to the plot. The shorthand for Weavers is that they are wizards. They’ve positioned themselves as aids to government: they are mainly used to send messages between powerful families (each of which has their own Weaver) to rule the Empire. Obviously they also have their own nefarious motives (which at the outset of the series are unknown). They are also ridiculously powerful. They send their messages through the “Weave” (hence their name), a Matrix-y shadow world that only they (in theory) can access. They can also use the Weave instantly kill any non-Weavers if they fancy.
The Weavers are good fun, both as a whole and as the individual Weavers who get a bit of character. They aren’t hugely interesting from a story point of view, because it’s utterly clear that they will become the villains from the outset, so it isn’t like there’s really ever a twist coming. But they are entirely evil, in a wide range of quite delicious ways, so they never really get boring. There’s also the fact that the Weavers are seen by most of Saramyr (and particularly by those in power, who rely on them most) to be utterly awful creatures, existing in a readily-acknowledged area of conflict: being needed but not wanted. When you add into that mix that the Weavers are serving people that they could kill with a click of their fingers (literally), and the relationship between the Weavers and Saramyr as a whole is a good source of tension, which Wooding does a very good job of retaining throughout the two books so far (I imagine it’s going to have disappeared a little in the third book).
The Weavers of Saramyr does a decent job of introducing a range of interesting characters, and bringing them all together. Most first books in series follow this path, but here it’s done in such a way that it never feels like characters coming together is predetermined. It also helps that there is a defined, self-contained plot that runs from start to finish within the opening book, while still establishing the wider plot. It’s a strong balance that many books at the start of a series struggle with (for example, the lack of a strong self-contained story is basically the only glaring flaw in Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, which is one of my favourites).
Despite a good self-contained story and interesting setup for the wider trilogy, Weavers isn’t in the class of Abercrombie (or Wooding’s Ketty Jay books). There just aren’t really any attributes of Weavers which make it outstanding, although there also aren’t any specific problems that stop it being outstanding either. It’s just solidly decent throughout. My only real complaints about it are more minor quibbles than anything else.
The first is that sometimes the perspective from which a section is inconsistent. As is the standard in ensemble-cast fantasy, there are a range of point-of-view characters, with each chapter written from the perspective of one of them. However, while Wooding sticks to this, every so often there will be a paragraph or two which tell you the thoughts and feelings of another character. And it’s not a suggestion of what they may be thinking from the point of view of the main character, it’s an outright shift of perspective.
Thankfully it doesn’t happen too much, but it still happens often enough to be worth noting. To be fair, sometimes it is done deliberately, as a mid-scene switch of perspective from one character to another, but even then it’s jarring. And when it’s not done for that reason it just feels like uncharacteristically poor writing.
The other thing that annoyed me was references to the Empress. She’s the only one who is often referred to by her full name and title (“Blood Empress Anais tu Erinima”). I think what Wooding was going for here was giving her some sense of regality by referring to her full title as Empress, rather than just her name, although he refers to her inconsistently – the first reference or two of each chapter refers to her full title, then after that it just becomes her name.
Really, this just doesn’t work. Rather than any sense of regality, or maybe even separation between “Empress” and “Anais”, it makes it seem like Wooding is worried that if he just says her name at the start of a chapter the reader will think “who the hell is she?”. I get what he might have been going for, but it makes it feel like every so often he decided to audition as a ghost writer for one of Tom Clancy’s more phoned-in efforts, rather than just be the actual good writer that he is.
Like I said, minor quibbles, but still annoying. These flaws don’t make the difference between Weavers being good or great, but they do probably knock the book down a mark. Anyway, Weavers in summary: good characters, good story (both the self-contained and the setup for the wider story), good world. All in all, good. Definitely good enough to get me to read the second book. Which is what I did after finishing Weavers.
The Skein of Lament picks up five years after the events of Weavers. It’s tough to summarise the story of Skein without spoiling Weavers, so I’ll try to stick to broad terms: the plot is basically the same as The Two Towers.
Following Weavers, the main characters have all made homes in a hidden town called The Fold, which is also home to various organisations making up the resistance in the (currently secret) battle against the Weavers. After spending Weavers bringing the cast together, Skein splits them up again as they face a range of different tasks, mainly attempting to forge alliances with other factions to strengthen the resistance and investigating the Weavers to discover their strength and plans.
This eventually leads to a large scale battle, in a desperate defence against seemingly overwhelming odds (hey, sounds like Helm’s Deep!). At the same time Kaiku and an ally find a way to penetrate into Weaver territory to try to strike a blow against them. Not quite as big a blow as chucking some jewellery into a volcano, but that didn’t happen until Return of the King.
In addition, there’s a third plotline that’s vaguely separated from the resistance itself, focusing on the political machinations around the capital, as the factions (the Weavers and others) seek to grab power for themselves. There’s some decent twists and turns in this plotline, and again it works well to give Skein its own self-contained story running within (and alongside) the wider trilogy.
Skein introduces a range of new supporting characters, and they are largely a decent bunch, although none really ever threaten to be so exciting as to entrench themselves as main characters. A good few of the supporting characters from Weavers also get a fair bit of character development this time around, which means there’s a pretty strong stable of characters throughout the book.
The main problem with Skein is that there’s not much in the way of character development for the main characters. It does happen to some extent, but only really right at the end. At it doesn’t feel like character is sidelined at expense of propelling the story along, because the story doesn’t really get pushed along at a much pace. It’s also a bit annoying that, after the good work in Weavers to believably bring the main characters together, they get split up for most of Skein. Rather than having each main character forming new relationships with new characters I’d rather have seen a deepening of the existing relationships, because the relationships that have been established through Weavers are all pretty good, with a good balance of both friendship and tension.
Skein does open strongly at least, with a section taking place on a separate continent from Saramyr (Okhamba). This works well as both a fairly exciting start to the book and to flesh out the wider world, before we return to Saramyr for the remainder of the plot. It also leads to a pretty decent revelation about the real nature of the Weavers, which was one of the remaining mysteries from the opening book. All in all, the opening quarter or so is the strongest part of Skein. Sadly, the middle half is probably the weakest section of the trilogy to date. Things do pick up in the final quarter or so of the book though as the action kicks in, and the setup for the final part of the trilogy is good enough. Basically, the quality of Skein looks something like an inverted bell curve.
Skein seems to suffer a lot just from being the second book in a trilogy. The main story and characters have been set up in the first book, the resolutions will happen in the third book, and the second is spent trying to escalate these things a bit. Skein is successful enough at this, in that it’s not discouraged me from reading the final book in the trilogy. But it’s also not completely successful, as its not making me want to read the third book right now.
Next up: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
(I’m skipping the “read if you like” bits on this one; I’ll wait until I’ve finished the trilogy before giving my assessment on that).
Wolfhound Century is the first novel by Peter Higgins, and was a free book that I got through the Gollancz Geeks programme. Basically, every so often Gollancz sends you an email asking if you’re interested in reading a new book that they’re publishing. It helps that Gollancz publish stuff from a good few of my favourite authors (running the alphabetical gamut from Ben Aaronovitch to Chris Wooding), and I’m pretty much yet to read a book published by Gollancz that I’ve hated. So free books from my favourite publisher? Yes please.
I usually start out these reviews with a quick outline of the plot, which is kind of tough to do with Wolfhound Century, because the plot is so intrinsically related to the setting. I’ll do it very quickly: policeman Vissarion Lom gets summoned to Mirgorod, the capital city of Vlast, to catch a terrorist, Josef Kantor.
The book is set in an alternative Soviet Union, which is established incredibly effectively and incredibly quickly. The few proper nouns alone in that brief plot description alone should begin to demonstrate that, but this extends far beyond just character and place names: even in the opening page the language quickly conjures up images of grey, utilitarian buildings, put-upon citizens and a centralised police state. Higgins’ world evokes so many feelings of not-quite-Cold-War-Soviet-Union that it instantly feels like a real place. Not just through the settings, but through the inhabitants of the world as well.
The opening couple of pages are basically as good at establishing a world as any I’ve ever read. You’re dumped into Lom’s surveillance of a suspect, and you get quickly acquainted with his duelling emotions of excitement and boredom at this. And then, just as it might seem that this isn’t any different from your usual criminal investigation novel, Lom’s view of his target is interrupted by a bunch of giants wandering past.
Because this isn’t your usual criminal investigation novel. In Higgins’ world, way back when there was a war in heaven, and the dead angels from this war have fallen from the sky, allowing Vlast to use the remains of these angels as a natural resource (angelstone). Higgins manages the trick of quickly creating a world that is familiar enough to not feel like a fantasy world, but that is simultaneously weird enough to be new and exciting.
The easiest analogy that I can come up with is that Higgins’ world is to Cold War Soviet Union what George RR Martin’s Westeros is to medieval Europe: comparable on a basic level, but with a whole heap of elements that quickly take the story away from that grounding in reality. Higgins probably makes a greater effort to stick closer to reality in his actual settings, by using very Soviet sounding names and organisations. This works well as as a sort of shorthand, which I’m fine with: a single carefully invented word can get you thinking “right, like this but…”, which in my mind is definitely preferable to pages and pages of painstaking descriptions to get you to that point. But I’ll not get into an ironically lengthy whinge about George RR Martin just now.
Anyway, now I’ve established the setting, a little more on the plot. It turns out an angel has survived the fall from heaven, and while crippled, the angel is working with Kantor, using him to try to return to the heavens. At the same time, Kantor is trying to use the angel to help him seize power.
Sadly, in the end the plot doesn’t really live up to the world they are in. There are elements that might help it become more compelling, particularly a mysterious Macguffin (the Pollandore) that various folks want to either use or destroy, a tonne of political scheming, and particularly nods to a shadowy war encroaching onto Vlast’s borders. The plot isn’t outstanding, and doesn’t live up to its setting, but at this point it’s good enough.
The characters can probably also be classified as “good enough”, but none are particularly exciting. A fair bit of time is spent establishing a range of supporting characters who don’t really go anywhere, and the book is at its strongest when its focusing on Lom and his makeshift ally, Maroussia (who is also Kantor’s daughter). Lom, Kantor and Maroussia aren’t particularly great characters, although the arcs for Lom and Maroussia are pretty decent.
In a novel that, just off the top of my head, tells the story from the point of view of at least six characters, it’s a little disappointing that the standout character, Safran (Lom’s colleague/antagonist), is only really ever portrayed from an external perspective. Although there are interesting technicalities that necessitate the use of the word “really” in that last sentence, getting into them would involve spoilers. A greater understanding of him could really have pushed Wolfhound Century up a notch.
But the plot and characters being merely acceptable, rather than excellent, aren’t the most glaring problem with Wolfhound Century. The most glaring problem is just that it isn’t complete. Or rather, it is, but it’s only the first part in a series. For the whole novel it builds up and up, drawing elements together towards a strong finale, and then, just when it seems things are coming to a head for an explosive final act, it just stops.
I think I’m probably even more critical of the ending than I would otherwise be because the section leading up to the ending is probably the standout section of the entire book: an extended chase sequence, that amid tense action scenes somehow manages to not only fit in a tonne of character development, but also bring in new elements of intrigue to the wider world. Abruptly ending with a “to be continued” after building up such momentum takes something that could have been genuinely special and turns everything that has gone before into a case of “it was good, but…”.
Wolfhound Century is definitely good enough that I’ll be checking out the sequel (due out next year apparently), but unless the sequel is exceptionally good, I think I’ll probably come out of it thinking that I’d have preferred an extra 100 pages or so of Wolfhound Century to get everything wrapped up in a single package. The alternative, I guess, is that things will sprawl out into a wider series. I’ve no problem with that, as there are certainly enough interesting elements to make that possible. But even then I’d have been much happier with this book if it had just finished what it started.
Read if you like: Fairly gritty low fantasy (think a combination of Neverwhere and your detective novel of preference), Cold War Soviet Union.
Don’t read if you like: a complete, self-contained story, stuff that doesn’t have fantasy creatures in it.
Next up: The Braided Path series by Chris Wooding
Yep, another Dresden Files book, number three in the series. You can read my reviews of books one and two here and here. My enjoyment of those should make it clear why I went for book three of the series.
Butcher dumps you straight into the plot in this one – Harry Dresden and a new ally, Michael (we’ll get to him) heading to a hospital to face down a ghost, just the latest in a series of ghost incidents in the last couple of weeks. This quickly leads to Harry and Michael crossing over into the Nevernever, the realm of ghosts, demons, hellhounds and suchlike. And Harry’s fairy godmother, Leanansidhe (or, fortunately, Lea for short).
Harry’s fairy godmother was mentioned in the opening book of the series, but more as a punchline than anything else ( “I didn’t have a godfather. I do have a godmother, and she is, inevitably perhaps, a faery”). Harry essentially owes her allegiance through previous agreements, which he’s consistently broken (which is probably a little foolish), and which she would like to collect. What with the claims to ownership and enslavement and what have you, their relationship isn’t exactly what you would call familial. Although I don’t know what your family is like, so maybe it is.
Anyway, avoiding the clutches of his fairy godmother soon becomes the least of Harry’s problems. The barrier between the real world and the Nevernever is getting thinner, meaning ghosts and suchlike can cross to the real world more easily, including a nasty piece of work that Harry dubs The Nightmare, which seems to fancy spending its evenings attacking Harry and his allies. And worse, it seems to be doing so in alliance with powerful parties unknown who wish Harry and his friends harm.
Harry seems to do a good job of collecting enemies. He’s got loads of them. There’s a line in Justified where Raylan Givens’ gives the startlingly un-self-aware advice that if “You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” Harry Dresden doesn’t quite run into assholes all day, but they do seem to make up a high proportion of his daily personal interactions. He has a few pretty decent friends, but he definitely has enough enemies to make you wondering whether he is, in fact, a bit of an asshole.
Three books into the series, it’s easy to see why he accumulates so many useful partners, and so many dangerous enemies. In any given day, he tends to face any three personal situations, and his reaction to each is pretty uncompromising: one, if he wants to help you, he’ll do anything within his (considerable) power to help you, or die trying; two, if he doesn’t agree with your ideas about things like whether it’s fine to go around killing folks, he’ll do anything within his power to stop you, or die trying; or three, if he doesn’t agree with your positions, but at the moment they aren’t a direct threat to anyone, and he needs your help, he’ll take it, make promises he has no intention of keeping, and then try to figure his way out of his obligations once he’s had the help. Situation one yields him allies. Situations two and three yield him enemies, and to them, they’ve got to think he’s kind of an asshole, always disagreeing with them in such an intransigent way.
As with previous books, new characters and new elements to the world are introduced throughout. In addition to the aforementioned new characters of fairy godmother Lea, and holy knight Michael, there’s Thomas, a charismatic and friendly (for now, at least) vampire. The good thing about these characters isn’t that they’re just good additions to the character list on their own, but that they also serve to introduce new features of the overall world and mythos.
Lea’s introduction to the story serves to give us more information about the Nevernever than has ever previously been the case. We learn, for example, that beings of the Nevernever are far more powerful inside it than outside it. And given that the ones we’ve been introduced to so far (demons and ghosts) are plenty powerful enough in Harry’s world, the possibly of further forays for Harry into the Nevernever make for some pretty promising episodes.
Thomas’ introduction gives further depth to vampires in Harry’s world. Like with the werewolves in Fool Moon, there’s more than one kind of vampire. Before Thomas comes along, the ones we’ve been introduced to are the Red Court vampires. They are the sort of stereotypically blood craving suave seducers, when under their human exterior they are complete monsters. The two other Courts (Black and White) feature noticeably different kinds of vampires, and overall have different levels of power throughout the world. There’s clearly tension between the Courts as well, which is a further promising avenue for Harry to get involved in. Especially given the conclusion of the book.
Michael’s introduction opens up perhaps the most interesting aspect of the world though: the power of religion. Michael is one of three Knights of the Cross, wielders of sword that contain a nail from the cross on which Jesus was crucified (Michael’s is called Amoracchius, because legendary swords have to have ridiculous names, and presumably vaguely means something in Latin). Harry repeatedly refers to Michael’s believes giving him quasi-magical power, which seems to manifests in his fighting skill, and there’s consistent references to churches being places of power and safety and so on. Most things-that-go-bump-in-the-night fantasy focuses on the darker, evil side of mythology, often drawing on demons, devils and such like. It would be fun to see the impact of the “good” side of mythological creatures on Harry’s adventures.
Michael’s introduction also brings in the element of family to the series. His faith-inspired work against the evil in the world is balanced against protecting his family. Up to now, all of Dresden’s allies on the good side haven’t had much in the way of family, and it’s an interesting aspect to bring up, about how the work they’re doing might put loved ones in danger.
I said in my review of Fool Moon that I was slightly concerned that formula might set in with this series. While Grave Peril generally sticks to the formula established in the previous books, it actually did a great deal to allay my concerns, largely due to the actual existence of the peril mentioned in the title. A lot of times in series like this, the danger the protagonist and his allies appear to be in doesn’t ring true, because you know everyone is going to get out unscathed in the end. The writer has established the characters and wants to continue with them. It’s a low risk approach, but it can take away from the story.
That feeling started to set in towards the end of Grave Peril and then BAM! Something happens to show that actually, Butcher will take risks and do things that shake up the series. Harry’s reaction to the incident that happens is great as well. By this point in the series he’s been established repeatedly, by both his words and actions, as chivalrous to the point of chauvinism, and his reaction leading to the (actually quite emotional) ending is absolutely dead on in terms of how you’d expect his character to react.
I’m a little concerned that I’m going to be reading a Jim Butcher novel once every two books for about the next year or so to get through this series. But I’m quite happy to do so while they keep being high quality. Then I’ll probably move onto Butcher’s (fortunately shorter) Codex Alera series.
Read if you like: The previous Jim Butcher books
Don’t read if you like: Not the previous Jim Butcher books
Next up: Kraken by China Mieville.
Legion was recommended to me by a Twitter follower who it seems has similar tastes to me (alas, I can’t remember who it was!). I deliberately chose to read it now because it’s ridiculously short (it’s technically a novella, rather than a novel) and I wanted something to quickly cleanse Harry Dresden from my pallet before getting further into that series. And Legion did a perfect job of that. Almost too perfect actually.
The premise of Legion is excellent in a couple of ways. The main character is Stephen Leeds, also known as ‘Legion’ (hence the title I guess). He has a unique schizophrenic-like psychological disorder that makes him conjure up a variety of hallucinations (referred to as ‘aspects’), each of which have specific skills. It’s a beautifully mad idea, and it’s executed with beautiful madness too – Leeds’ various aspects are wildly different in skills and personality (comprising characters like gun nuts, psychologists, interpreters, computer geniuses and so on) so that they all work as individual characters, but all work well enough together that you know they are all intrinsically part of Leeds’ as well.
It’s fairly rare for a piece of glorious madness like this to turn up, so it gets even better when the plot turns up, and shows itself to also be delightfully mental: Leeds is hired by a technology company to track down a stolen camera. The camera isn’t a normal camera, obviously. It’s a camera that can take pictures of the past. These two pieces of madness are joined by a bit of intrigue – the camera appears to hold the key to Leeds tracking down his ex, who left him ten years previously.
I’ve never read any Brandon Sanderson before, but I’ll definitely be checking out more of his stuff in the future (I’ve already bought his Mistborn trilogy on the back of Legion). Hopefully the quality of writing in that is similar to that of Legion, because Legion is gloriously written. Witty, suspenseful and well-paced, it’s just a joy to read.
Really, my only complaint with Legion is just that it’s too damn short. It’s like a great punk album – a short burst of high quality energy, and maybe it wouldn’t have been as good if it was extended to full novel length, but I’d happily have delved much deeper into the world, story and characters that Sanderson creates.
There’s hope for more though: Legion has been picked up for a potential TV series, which I’m now pretty excited about. The novella essentially reads like a pilot for a TV series, with plenty of action, quick introductions to a range of characters and a setup of a wider mystery that the early part of the series could focus on. Apparently any TV show is only in the very early stages, and I guess it might never happen, but it’s definitely something I’ll be looking out for in the future.
Given that genre fiction has given us one of the more well-received TV series of recent years (Game of Thrones), and is the source for another hugely anticipated upcoming series (American Gods), it’s almost as if reading sci-fi and fantasy is becoming all cool and mainstream. So maybe you should read Legion, if only so you can be the sci-fi and fantasy book equivalent of the music fan that has always seen a band before they were famous.
Short book, short review. Short conclusion: read it.
Read if you like: great short books. That’s it. Even if you don’t like sci-fi (ish) you’d still probably like this. And if you don’t, it’s only short!
Don’t read if you like: long books, resolutions.
Next up: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher
After The Passage and Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Fool Moon marks a welcome return to genuinely good, genuinely enjoyable books. Which is nice, because the reason I read this one was because I’d really enjoyed the first in the Harry Dresden series, Storm Front, so I was pretty certain I’d enjoy Fool Moon. It’s nice to be right.
A lot of the stylistic elements from Storm Front continue in Full Moon. It’s still written with a great deal of humour, there are a lot of fun characters involved (both new and recurring), and the pace is absolutely cracking.
This time around, as implied by the (quite poor) title, Harry Dresden is facing werewolves. Werewolves that, at the last full moon, killed multiple folks, and at the start of the novel have started to kill again. Erstwhile Chicago PD lieutenant Karrin Murphy enlists Dresden to help her to stop them before more people are killed. The werewolves soon connect to a twisting plot involving crime boss Johnny Marcone and megarich philanthropist Harley MacFinn.
I don’t generally think werewolves are a particularly interesting antagonist. Most books, films and TV shows featuring werewolves tend to feature one of two characters as their werewolf: an anti-villain, who doesn’t want to kill folks, but at every full moon becomes an unstoppable killing machine, inadvertently dangerous to those closest to him; or an all-out villain, who absolutely does want to kill folks, and intentionally at each full moon positions himself near his targets.
Fortunately, Butcher generally avoids these tropes (with one big but fun exception). In Butcher’s world, there aren’t just werewolves. There are loads of different types of them, as explained by Bob, Dresden’s possessed human skull. In ascending order of danger, there are werewolves (people who can intentionally change into wolves using magic, but retain their human mind), lycanthropes (people who retain their human form, but psychologically turn into a werewolf-like killing machine), hexenwolves (people who transform to a wolf using a magical talisman), and loup-garous (the classic turn-into-a-near-unstoppable-monster-at-full-moon werewolf).
Apart from lycanthropes, the various different groups all turn up during the plot, each forming different factions within the narrative. It’s an interesting twist on the werewolf formula, and it helps to give the different factions (if not really the different characters) specific qualities. The werewolves are weaker, but more sympathetically human. The hexenwolves are more dangerous, but more insane. And the loup-garou is by far the most dangerous of all, while being simultaneously as human as the werewolves and more insane than the hexenwolves. The loup-garou also stars in the standout set-piece of the book: an action sequence with it rampaging through Chicago Police Headquarters, with a fairly spectacular ending.
The plot itself is good in and of itself, but it also works to let Butcher do an excellent job of developing Dresden as a character, and developing his relationships with the major recurring supporting characters: Murphy, love interest Susan and (particularly) Marcone. These all feel like interesting, complex and strained relationships even at this early point in the series. And like in Storm Front, it does a nice job of making reference to potential areas of future interest (Dresden’s parents and his past, threats from demons and recent increases in supernatural activity) without having to go into great depth. The finale in particular has an exciting look into Dresden’s dark side, another area that’s clearly going to be explored in the future.
All of these things help it to feel even more like a living, breathing world inhabited by living, breathing people.
I wouldn’t say that Fool Moon is quite as good as Storm Front, but it’s certainly good enough to keep me excited for the next in the series. This is helped by the fact I seem to have got my brother hooked on the series and he’s already told me that the third book, Grave Peril, is great.
My only concern at this point is the possibility of formula setting in. The structure of Fool Moon and Storm Front is very similar. Opening up with a crime for Harry to investigate, adding further elements of players around that crime to up the stakes such that Harry can’t walk away, a twist to reveal the identity of the people beyond the crime, and then an action packed denouement.
While there is a chance of it getting formulaic, I’m fairly confident the series will avoid that. Really, it feels a bit like the start of the series of Supernatural (or any episodic sci-fi show): it starts with a few standalone episodes to introduce the characters and the world, before moving onto the overarching plot. There are a lot of intriguing elements, so I’ll definitely be plowing further into the series soon.
Read if you like: Storm Front (obviously), Supernatural, just good, well-paced books, humour.
Don’t read if you like: stark realism.
Next up: Legion by Brandon Sanderson
I’d heard pretty decent things about The Passage. It’s had positive mentions from folks online, and it even had one of those handwritten cards underneath it at Waterstone’s (sorry, “Waterstones”) that said it was recommended by a member of staff. Those are usually both good signs.
To save you time, I’ll just sum up this review now: I will not be recommending it.
Despite doing more research than normal on this one (so I could be sure that it wasn’t another young adult novel aimed at girls), I didn’t really check details of the plot (as I didn’t want to spoil it). I gleaned a little bit: some researchers find a virus that might possibly grant eternal life, super strength, super speed and so on. So the US military, being the US military, decides to try to weaponise the virus to create super soldiers. Obviously it goes wrong, ends up killing the vast majority of people in the USA, and the book deals with the plight of the survivors. That sounds like quite an interesting plot.
Alas, I missed out one detail, which is that the virus didn’t just kill people. It turned a few people into vampires (or “virals”), who naturally go off and kill loads of people, turn a bunch of others into vampires, and that’s the ‘plight’ that the survivors have to deal with. Yes, it turns out The Passage is a vampire apocalypse story, the least interesting of all apocalypse stories (see The Strain Trilogy).
I almost quit on The Passage about 8 pages in, at the first, joking mention of vampires. I really should have. It’s not really that it’s bad, it’s just not worth reading.
One of the problems is that The Passage is an oddly structured book. The opening act introduces a decent range of characters in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the outbreak, all somehow related to the military research: Wolgast, an FBI agent collecting death row prisoners to become test subjects; Carter, a death row prisoner targeted as a test subject; Amy, a 6-year old girl, abandoned at a convent by her mum; and Lacey, a nun at the convent. All are vaguely interesting and seemingly have a decent amount of depth to their backstories. There’s a bunch of supporting characters as well, but towards the end of the first act Wolgast is established as the main character, the central narrative is about him looking after Amy through the outbreak, and the other characters all seem to have roles to play in supporting him and fighting the outbreak.
And then at the end of the first act, just as these characters are getting interesting, and the outbreak is gaining momentum, the narrative jumps forward 90 years to forget about those characters and bring in a bunch of new ones.
The second act then becomes basically another first act, introducing the characters, the setting and so on. The main character then becomes Peter Jaxon, a watchmen in what might be the last remaining human colony. The colony is kept safe by watchmen like Peter, and (more usefully) a massive array of lights around the walls. Peter’s personal story is about stepping out of the shadow of his (dead) brother Theo. And the overall narrative becomes an almost-standard quest through hostile territory by Peter and a number of (quite decent) supporting characters to attempt to secure the future of the colony (and hopefully mankind as a whole).
I don’t think have a problem with the structure of the plot in and of itself. The Player of Games had a similar structure of changing up the character list after the opening act, and that worked well (and was a hugely enjoyable book). And there are callbacks (some pretty significant) from the second and third acts that, to some extent, justify the inclusion of the opening act and the 90-year gap in the narrative. Not enough, or of high enough quality that the second and third acts couldn’t stand up without the opening act, but enough that I can see the idea behind it. I think my problem is more just the simple length of it, and how that combines with the structure.
The Passage is over 900 pages long. I knew this going in, so I’ve only got myself to blame. That means the opening act clocks in at about 300 pages, or the length that a decent, snappy novel could be. By the time the actual main plot is fully established and underway, we’re 600 pages in. I genuinely think that 600 pages is about the maximum a book should be without a really, really good reason otherwise. That’s plenty of time to develop complex characters and tell a complex, twisting story. Most books beyond that length feel like they just have so much filler. There are whole swathes of The Passage that could be cut without any significant detriment to the story or characters (and with significant benefits to the pacing).
There are some standout sequences, particularly a chase scene in an abandoned Las Vegas, and the night of the actual outbreak. The use of different mediums at certain points is quite good as well. The discovery and research of the virus is told through a series of emails. The spread of the outbreak is told through a series of newspaper reports. The move to and establishment of the colony is told through a character’s diary. Those all work well (enough), to the extent that I wish this sort of thing had been used further. Although that being said, later in the book a character’s diary entries are used to skim over the uneventful parts of the journey, and these pages seem to mainly consist of finding ways to say “fuck all happened today”, for far too many pages.
In fact, pretty much all of my problems with The Passage come down to its length. The length robs the story of any momentum, and basically slows what character development there is to a crawl. The last few pages are actually fairly decent, although it’s a little heavy on the deus ex machine. On the other hand, at least during the finale it felt like there was something going on.
And that’s really the problem with The Passage. So much of it is just nothing. It’s just words, on a page, serving no real purpose to develop characters or the story. Usually, after reading a book where my main criticism is “it’s too long”, I can usually think that it would have been a good book at 500 pages (hello George R. R. Martin). But with The Passage, I don’t even think that’s true. If you boil down the plot and the characters to only the things that are worth a damn, there’s maybe, maybe a passable 300 page book in there somewhere. Maybe. I’m not even convinced of that though.
Is it wrong to criticise a book for being too long? I don’t think so. Other media, such as albums and films have fairly prescribed lengths (45-75 minutes; 1.5-2.5 hours). It’s common for an album to be criticised for having lots of filler, or a film to be criticised for being boring, and to me, both of those are no different than criticising a book for being too long: not enough happened during the running time to justify the running time. There’s a quote from some comedian (I think Dylan Moran, possibly in Black Books) along the lines of “it was terrible, but it was short, so it was ok”. The Passage was ok, but it was long, so it was terrible. There are some very good, very long books (Game of Thrones, Shantaram to name two), so I’m dismissing all long books out of hand, but the good ones that justify their length are fairly rare.
In the end, I have three things that sum up my thoughts on The Passage:
- I spent 10 hours on a bus to and from London, with nothing to do but read The Passage, and I probably spent three hours total reading it, because I just couldn’t be bothered with it.
- Generally, I’m a sucker who will read a sequel even when I wasn’t wild about the original. The Passage has a sequel (called The Twelve), it’s another 900-page opus, and I have absolutely no plans on reading it.
- I’m not even dismissing The Twelve it out of hand because it’s too long (although I am exactly the kind of hypocrite who would do that). Even if it was short I wouldn’t bother. The set up from The Passage just isn’t interesting enough to justify my time. And I value don’t value my time very highly.
Read if you like: Vampires, post-apocalyptic fiction, killing time.
Don’t read if you like: character or plot development ever moving faster than an amble.
Next up: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher.
I’ve said before that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it at least a little by its title, and the title was basically the only reason I read Daughter of Smoke & Bone. It’s quite an intriguing title, and the fact that it was on the shelf next to another interesting titled sequel (Days of Blood & Starlight) probably sealed the deal.
If I’d done any research, I’d probably have pretty quickly found that I’m not the target audience. I’m pretty sure the audience is teenage girls, given that the daughter of smoke and bone in the title is Karou, a 17-year-old girl living in Prague as an art student. Yes, I appear to have read a young adult novel, aimed at girls. This is why reading a random book with no research on Kindle is great: I read a girls’ young adult novel, but no one ever has to know, and my reputation as a manly man* is left intact. Unless I write a review about it.
Anyway, Karou. She’s confidence, independent, popular, intelligent, smart (those are two different things) and so on, but never really to a ridiculous extent. Basically, in most areas of she’s essentially strong enough to be a young heroine while remaining realistically (and sympathetically) flawed.
There are two areas where Karou isn’t realistically flawed – she’s impossibly beautiful, and ridiculously great at drawing. Both of those things are actually fairly intrinsic to the plot, so while they don’t really help in the construction of an interesting character, I can allow it.
Actually, on reflection Karou’s art isn’t exactly required for the plot, but it does make a good entrance point into it: her friends at art school are all vaguely addicted to her continuous story-like drawings of weird fantasy characters. The star being Brimstone: a part-man, part-lion, who buys teeth from people in exchange for wishes. Various other part-human, part-animal characters assist Brimstone in his adventures in Karou’s drawings.
Except, obviously, these characters aren’t just in drawings. These demons, or chimera, are essentially her family. Karou was raised in Brimstone’s wishes-and-teeth emporium from as early as she can remember. Brimstone’s shop exists in another world, which Karou just refers to as Elsewhere, but it has portals from the shop that Karou can use to get all over the world. She may live in Prague, but still regularly runs globe-trotting teeth-collecting errands for Brimstone.
The opening third is mainly about establishing Karou as a character, creating the conflict between her “real” life in Prague and her secret life, and setting up the central mystery of who Karou is, and where she came from. The mystery in itself is quite good. It’s well set up, and there are good clues littered throughout the book so that once it’s revealed you can think back and see where you might have been tipped off. It’s also not quite as straight forward as I initially thought (although it’s still pretty obvious where things are headed from only a few pages in).
I should say here that, at times, it’s fantastically well written, with a lot of humour. Some of the dialogue between Karou and her best friend is actually great. Also, after last year’s HHhH, it was nice to have another novel set (mainly) in Prague, because it just seems like a great city in which to set a book. I think there’s just something about describing Prague that grounds a story in the real world while giving it an air unreality, so it’s just a great setting for fiction. Common real world settings like New York or London just feel a bit dull in comparison to Prague.
I had to say that now, because now I’m going to get all negative, and I didn’t feel right doing that before I mentioned the stuff I enjoyed. It should be clear that I thought the first act was good. The story at that point has some subtlety. It’s obviously setting up that there’s a war between angels (seraphim) and demons (chimera) in Elsewhere, but it never flat out states that. Then Karou meets an angel, Akiva, and it fairly swiftly changes from an interesting mystery in a fantasy war to an attempt at a reluctant Romeo & Juliet. The second act is mainly a fairly dull will-they-won’t-they between Karou and Akiva, while also giving more information about the war between the chimera and seraphim. The quality of writing ebbs away as well.
The final third is basically the reveal of who Karou actually is. Which was pretty terrible. Instead of the reveal giving further complexity to Karou’s character, it basically stripped her of it. In fact, after the first act set Karou up as a strong, independent girl, the final two acts spent all their time changing her to “actually, she’s just a girl who wants a nice man”. That’s not so much a good character arc as it a startlingly bizarre message for a female writer to give to teenage girls. And not a particularly uncommon one.
It’s not just me that thinks it odd that the message in books written by men and women is so different, is it? On reflection, I guess it’s something that’s starker in fantasy than general fiction. But fantasy is just that: fantasy. It’s a genre that doesn’t need to be constrained by the dull realities of life. I just had a quick look through my Kindle, and if I had to derive a moral from the books of my favourite fantasy books by men, it’d be something like “be stronger, smarter, and more violent, and everything will work out well”. I’ve not read a huge amount of fantasy books written by women, but from what I’ve gleaned from the likes of Twilight and whatever else popular culture has somehow forced into my brain, the moral in them seems to be “you don’t need to be interesting if you have a man”. Is that really, unconstrained from reality or consequence, the biggest dream for women? To divest yourself of character or individuality and find a man? Like I said, it just seems a weird message.
Anyway, back to Daughter of Smoke & Bone. There is some complexity there, and as this is the first in a trilogy, it’s not entirely without merit. Karou is a better character in the opening act than later in the book, and maybe that’s part of a deliberate arc. I doubt it, but you never know. There are a couple of good twists and reveals. I particularly liked the realisation of what the smoke and bone in the title referred to. There are also some interesting plot points and characters moving forwards to the rest of the trilogy, and overall quite a lot of potential.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone was a much better book in the first third than the last third. About two thirds of the way through I’d decided I wouldn’t be reading the rest of the trilogy, but I can’t 100% count it out. There are a lot of good books, and a lot I reckon I’d enjoy more, but it is a fairly intriguing set up, so it could happen.
Rating: 5/10, but probably a couple of marks higher if you happen to be a 17-year-old girl.
Read if you like: witty dialogue, a vaguely decent mystery and badly-written romance.
Don’t read if you like: originality. A satisfying ending. Empowering messages for girls.
Next up: The Passage by Justin Cronin.
*I don’t have that reputation.
Storm Front is the first in the Dresden Files series, which so far comprises fourteen novels (added to at a rate of roughly one per year), 10 short stories and an abortive TV series. I’m not actually sure where I even heard of the Dresden Files. They are pretty big sellers, as fantasy books go, so I guess it’s just a name that’s been popping up now and then over the last few years and I just decided to take the plunge.
The series following the exploits of the eponymous private investigator and wizard, Harry Dresden. Harry claims he’s the only person listed in the phonebook under the category “wizards” (certainly the only one in the Chicago phone book). But despite having the market cornered, his business isn’t exactly booming with his rent overdue, and his only jobs for the morning consisting of finishing reading his book, deciding what to have for lunch, and dealing with the new postman.
Obviously, 300 pages of that would make for a dull book, so Harry quickly gets into a new case, after fielding a phone call from a woman who has misplaced something (her husband), before taking another call from his main source of income: Chicago Police Department, for whom Harry is the “psychic consultant”. That means he gets paid to aid their investigations into any essentially unsolvable crimes which may or may not have been commissioned with magic, and which get assigned to the Special Investigations unit.
The police case comes first, which takes Harry to a grisly scene at a hotel room, where a pair of lovers have had their hearts torn out of their chest mid-coitus. It’s quickly established that this would have to have been done by magical means, by a powerful dark wizard, using a spell that Harry has no clue how to perform.
Things quickly get worse for our hero Harry, as there’s a gangland connection to the murder, with one of the victims being an enforcer for the head of Chicago’s underworld, “Gentleman” Johnny Marcone, who quickly threatens Harry about investigating the case. If that wasn’t enough, it turns out that the White Council (the governing body of wizards) suspect Harry was the murderer, and given that he’s already under the Doom of Damocles (essentially one more strike and he’s out – “out” here meaning “summarily executed”) for previous infractions, in their eyes he’s guilty until proven innocent, and investigating the spells used will only cast more suspicion onto him.
So pretty quickly Harry is set up to be fucked in any number of ways. He’s fucked if he doesn’t investigate, because he won’t be to pay his rent, and, more pressingly, the White Council will think he did it, and he’ll be executed. He’s fucked if he investigates, because the White Council will think he did it anyway, and even if he convinces them he’s not, Marcone will be less than pleased with him and may try to kill him through less magical means. And then of course if he avoids all that, he might be fucked if he figures out who’s behind it, and they are a wizard who is too powerful for him to handle.
Again, obviously, not investigating a murder doesn’t make for much of a book (and won’t pay Harry’s rent), so Harry investigates anyway. The plot is good enough, if fairly standard for a 300-page detective novel. It has twists and turns, is pretty suspenseful, has some decent action scenes and is told with a decent amount of wry humour. In the style of the genre (detective novels, not fantasy novels), red herrings (of course) aren’t.
The characters are a pretty decent group too, with a good amount of depth. Beyond Harry there’s a bunch of interesting folks. Karrin Murphy, a lieutenant in the Chicago PD, head of Special Investigations, and probably Harry’s only friend (although even she doesn’t like him that much). Susan Rodriguez, a reporter for an occultist newspaper and potential love interest for Harry (they have a first date. It does not go well). Bianca, a brothel owner and vampire. Johnny Marcone, the Chicago hood with a set of morals (or at least business sense). Morgan, the White Council’s equivalent of a policeman, constantly convinced Harry is up to something and determined to see him punished. Mac, the taciturn owner of Harry’s favourite bar.
And Bob, a spirit that lives inside a human skull and serves as Harry’s encyclopaedia.
That’s seven supporting characters (well, six and a skull), all introduced in about 300 pages, all of whom feel like they have depth, nuance, secrets, and all of whom feel like they’ll be appearing in future books. To be honest, I’d be interested in reading further books in the series just to find out more about most of them, because they are, mostly, pretty fun to spend some time with. Especially Bob.
Obviously Harry is the star of the show, and if anything he’s more interesting than the rest. He’s fun enough, although he is a bit close to what now feels like an archetype: the wry, world-weary, lonely but talented detective. I think what is most interesting about him is his backstory. Most of this isn’t explained to you, it’s just alluded to or mentioned in passing. Whole swathes of it: as mentioned, he’s under the Doom of Damocles; his former master was a dark wizard who he killed; he murdered his first girlfriend; he’s more powerful than the White Council actually realises (but at the same time, maybe not as powerful as he’d like to think). And so on.
These all feel like pretty rich topics for investigation in future books, and are interesting enough to get me wanting to read more of the series.
Which annoys me a bit. I’ve got far too many series that I have made a commitment to read, so I’m not sure I want to sign up for another 13 books. Last year I read about 40 books, and five books into 2013 I feel like I could hit that number just by reading the rest of this series and the Culture series (I couldn’t quite, I’d be about ten short). On the other hand, if they continue to be tightly plotted, high-paced 300 page batches of fun, I’ll be happy to keep plowing through them. Even if the rest of the series is at least 3,900 pages of fun. I had to force myself to not just jump straight into the next in the series after I’d finished this one.
The obvious comparison for me with Storm Front is the Rivers of London series (which is basically Harry Potter, if Harry Potter was a mixed-race Metropolitan Policeman, an incredible nerd, and allowed to swear). Currently, I prefer Rivers of London, largely because it’s English and has the distinctive sense of humour running through it. And lots of jokes about the Metropolitan Police. If you’re British I’d recommend you read the Rivers series first, but if have the sad misfortune to be born anywhere else, currently I’d say you can’t really go wrong with either.
Read if you like: the Rivers of London series, vaguely private detective stuff (like the Jack Reacher novels or films like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang), whatever you call fantasy that is set in the real world (I think it’s “low fantasy”), magic and the like, humour.
Don’t read if you like: having all of the loose ends wrapped up and no further books in a series to read.
Next up: Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor.