Maybe Blind Dates ARE Overrated

This year I took part in a Valentine’s Day book blind date set-up. Today we all met back up to share our results.

The cover doesn't do much for me, either.

My “date” was Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara. Up front, the book looks like urban fantasy, but it’s more like a high fantasy in an urban setting. The characters fight with daggers and swords, there’s a lot of unexplained (and inexplicable magic), and dragons who manage to look like people. The story follows Kaylin, a young woman who fled a terrible past as an orphan living on the streets to become a “Hawk,” a sort of spy for her world’s Lords of Law. We discover that the murders of the children surrounding her were actually a ritual to give her some power we never fully understand…

And that’s all I’ll give away.

Honestly, I was befuddled by the whole book. It seemed to aspire to portray a world like that of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, but never felt as fully realized as Sanderson’s work. So much of the book was spent with characters denying Kaylin (and thus the reader) information that I really had no clue why I should care about any of it.

Maybe some books we should stand up.

Anyway, it got me wondering: How do we select the books we read? I require several recommendations or a recommendation from someone whose taste I trust before I’ll pick up something that doesn’t appeal to me on its own immediate merits. I’ve gotten a lot more discerning over the years, mostly because I have so many books I want to read that I can’t finish a book that just isn’t working for me.

Maybe someone who doesn’t know me at all can’t recommend a book I’ll like. Back on Valentine’s Day, I nominated Possession by A. S. Byatt for some poor soul’s blind date. I adore the book, and it’s not even fantasy. I suspect it’s beloved by only a certain subset of the population, and I further suspect that subset has all studied literary theory. Was it cruel of me to recommend a pretty heavy read to a random blog reader?

What do you think, readers? Can a completely random book set-up work for you? Ever gotten a blind recommendation you loved? How do you choose the books you read?

Review: Zoo City

Way back in 2009, when I started this blog, it was more or less intended to write about what I was reading. I got a little sidetracked with writing about writing. Oops.

Nah, I regret nothing.

I do want to write about this book, though. I just finished Zoo City, by Lauren

I have the Kindle version, so this is the first time I'm seeing the cover. How sad.

Beukes, a book that won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award and was nominated for umpty-odd others.

This book was intense.

I heard about it after Lauren Beukes was on Writing Excuses, talking about writing other cultures. Beukes is South African, but she’s white and Zinzi December, her protagonist, is a black young woman and semi-recovering addict living in Johannesburg.

Zoo City is urban fantasy at its best. To sum it up quickly, people who commit a crime or suffer from extreme guilt end up with a magical animal familiar and a magical talent of one sort or another. Zinzi has a sloth and a gift for finding lost things, earned when she was party to her brother’s murder. The “animalled” are a new untouchable caste, living in slums and even hiding their new partners to pass in society.

The book as a whole is a gritty, brutal read, and Zinzi is a tough girl. I asked myself repeatedly in the book, “Do I like this character?”

I’m still not sure.

She makes horrible choices, sure, but she’s working to get rid of her debt to a dealer. She also wants to help the kids she’s hired to find, even after the people who hired her pay her with counterfeit money and try to frame her for another murder. She’s resilient, and that’s something I admire.

I put off reading this book for awhile because there are numerous similarities between it and Shaken: an addict protagonist, a world of magical talents, and written in the first-person, present-tense. The similarities really end there, but I try to avoid reading things that I will inadvertently let contaminate my voice.

Beukes also did things I’ve said I want to do in fiction, but dismissed as potentially unpublishable: she included newspaper copy, academic papers, and other non-character narratives in the book to add perspective.

Damn, she’s good.

I did have a couple of complaints though. First, the book was abstract enough that at times I was bewildered. It never engrossed me because I was never fully immersed in the story. I never cared enough to keep reading past my bedtime.

Two, and this might be a personal complaint, it was so steeped in modern ephemera. Email scams, popular music, slang I couldn’t follow… It may not age well.

It also sparked another thought in me about urban fantasy generally, which I’ll write about tomorrow. Stay tuned, and pick up this book in the mean time.

Review: Fortune’s Fool

Fortune’s Fool (Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, Book 3) by Mercedes Lackey

Reading this book was rather like eating marshmallow: It’s sweet, fluffy, and kind of fun, but ultimately not that satisfying.

The series is composed of fairy tales for women (read: adult women who like romance and fantasy novels). In this particular tale, Katya, daughter of the Sea King and his personal spy, goes to neighboring kingdoms to ensure peace and positive results for the sea kingdom. Her potential man-candy, Sasha, is the seventh son of the King of Led Balarus, and serves as his kingdom’s lucky-wise-musical-fool.

It’s cute. The main characters reflect each other nicely, fall in love at first sight and have lots of sex before Katya’s spying lands her a cozy spot as the captive magic source of an evil Jinn, a sort of fire-spirit genie that doesn’t offer the handy three wishes deal. Sasha must then face a semi-evil witch spirit and turn down sex with a sex-pot earth-spirit before teaming up with two dragons, a wolf, a goat, and the Little Humpbacked Horse, Sergei, to save his One True Love.

The concept of the series is a little better than this particular novel. Lackey turns fairy tales upside down and inside out, manipulating or even breaking down conventional stories into quaint, fun love stories. The first novel in the series, The Fairy Godmother, is the strongest book by far, dealing with Fairy Godmothers and ‘the Tradition’; I never even finished the second novel, One Good Knight.

The books are published under Harlequin’s Luna brand, marketed for female readers who like fantasy and love stories — and sex. I would have liked to see this series written straight, without the deliberate, market-driven inclusion of steamy sex scenes and references to the main characters “secret places.” The concept is clever, and Lackey delves into stories we know and some that are foreign (Japanese, Russian) to create a rich, colorful, genuinely fun world.

In particular, her idea that this fairy-tale world is governed by the Tradition, the magical force that drives people into their proper roles and tales, is unique and entertaining. (It’s also a highly convenient deus ex machina when necessary.)

Fortune’s Fool provides some fun antics and interesting characters — the wolf-girl is my particular favorite — that combine into easy, light reading… Bottom line, it’s a girl meets boy, meets trouble, meets happily-ever-after romance. What’s not to enjoy?

Nevertheless, I maintain that it could have been better without the fluff. I give it a three out of five: read it on the beach or in the middle of midterms, and don’t expect too much.

P.S. Even if you don’t read any books in this series, pick one up and look at it in the bookstore: the covers are gorgeous.

Review: Dante Valentine

The Dante Valentine Series by Lilith Saintcrow:
Working for the Devil
Dead Man Rising
The Devil’s Right Hand
Saint City Sinners
To Hell and Back

Dante Valentine has a new boyfriend. He’s got laser-green eyes, dreamy wide shoulders, and more power than anyone she’s ever met.

Oh, yeah. He’s also a demon.

In fact, he’s the Devil’s assassin.

Let me say first of all that I like these books a lot. I do! The bones of the book, the idea, the world, some of the characters, are very good. But the execution of the book is bad enough to make me a little ashamed of how much I enjoy them. When I first started reading Working for the Devil, I glanced surreptitiously at the people sitting near me on the bus to make sure no one was reading over my shoulder. The writing is that bad.

But the basic concept is so good that I wish Lilith Saintcrow would rewrite the whole series to make Dante more likeable, to make the plot more comprehensible, and to edit out all her little authorial tics that make the book read like a first draft.

Let me take that back. For the sake of the story, I’d rewrite it myself if that wouldn’t make me a creepy fanfic loser.

Basic plot: Dante Valentine , a Necromance, is “hired” by the Devil to track down and kill another demon who escaped from Hell. OR SO IT WOULD SEEM. After her demon familiar (Japhrimel) falls in love with her and gives her part of his power, she finds herself smack in the middle of a demon rebellion. She also has to face all her worst nightmares and darkest secrets along the way. And everyone dies. In short, everything bad that could possibly happen to her does.

For example:

  • As a child, she was raped and branded by her EVIL sado-masochistic school master.
  • The ghost of the same school master then psychically rapes her years later.
  • She is raped by the Devil, who implants her with some sort of X-files style worm-demon-baby.
  • Her exboyfriend is murdered before her eyes.
  • Her best friend and the friend’s husband are gruesomely murdered.

So why, you ask, do I enjoy these books?

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, like the heroines of all these dark urban fantasy novels. Or maybe I’m smitten with the demon who would give up his power and position as the Devil’s Right Hand for love of a mortal. And unlike Dante, I would trust the demon who did that, not the one who dresses herself up as my ex-lesbian-lover, claims that I and/or my ex-lover are her mother, and uses me time and again. There are dozens of times in the series that I just want to slap Dante for being so blind, so stubborn, and so childish. The girl needs a decade of therapy and some serious Prozac.

And as for the writing, Saintcrow spreads the overarching plot unevenly across the books. Books one and two seem fairly episodic, except for the relationship with Japhrimel, while nothing really happens in Book 3, but by Book 4 you realize something BIG is happening here, but you get no answers at all until Book 5. It almost seems that Saintcrow herself had no idea where she was going until that final book. When you finally get to that plot, however, you’ll say, “Ohhhh! I get it!” and then wish she would go back and rewrite the whole series so that it makes more sense.

Have I talked you out of reading it yet?

I think I keep rereading the books out of sheer frustration, hoping that this time they will be better. That this time, Dante will trust Japhrimel, that she won’t blame herself for everything that happens. And the fact that the story itself is compelling enough to make me feel that way, in spite of all the reasons I gave you NOT to read this book, says something about the fundamental quality of the books.

In the end, 4 stars for the whole series. (The quality of the books is pretty uneven.) Read them for Japhrimel and the fun of riding flying skateboards and killing a lot of demons.

Review: Magic Bites

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels, Book 1) by Ilona Andrews

Any book that can give a main character the title “Beast Lord” without making me snort in derision automatically earns a bonus point.

All the cool kids are doing dark urban fantasy right now, and it’s even made the hop from the pasty-faced sci-fi channel to sexy HBO.

To win my favor, a book must offer uniqueness, cleverness, or sheer ballsy fun.

Magic Bites falls into the first and third categories. It’s not especially clever; the witticisms only made me snicker two or three times in 260 pages. (Come on, only a serious stick in the mud wouldn’t laugh at an Order of Merciful Aid who will “kill shit on your behalf pro bono.”)

That said, writer to writer, Ilona Andrews won me over with a unique and engaging world.

Here’s the plot: Mercenary Kate Daniels cleans up magical messes in a world where magic and technology can’t simultaneously exist, causing alternating tech and magic black-outs. When her protector/father-figure/we’re-not-sure-what is brutally murdered, Kate teams up with the Order of Merciful Aid (a magical and violent sort of Red Cross, complete with knights and batshit crazy crusaders) and the sexy lion shapechanger Beast Lord to hunt down the killer. Dark and violent hijinks ensue.

Yes, I know I make it sound like less than high literature. But that’s the beauty of it: in spite of a relatively generic plot, static characters, and gruesome violence, I was hooked. Andrews manages to blend science and fantasy in a way that makes the world believable and drives the action forward page after page.

Kate is a gritty heroine, by no means perfect, but without the glaring issues typically found in these novels. Don’t read the book expecting lots of gushy romance or steamy sex, because (surprisingly) that’s not what this book is about. Kate’s focused on the task at hand: she doesn’t take a break to get on the Beast Lord’s fuzzy feline sexy body –sorry furries. (But now that I’ve mentioned it, Rule 34 of the internet states that some sad, sweaty cartoonist is drawing the fanfic cartoon furry porn as you read this.) 

The writing leaves a bit to be desired, by I’m willing to forgive Andrews because she’s not a native English speaker. (The integration of Russian myth, perhaps, is part of what gives this world its unique flavor.) The writing itself could use a finer polish. The sentence structure varies little, the action gets a little choppy, and the repeated allusions to Kate’s mysterious power is a little annoying. I get that we’re reading through Kate’s head and that the author must have some secrets to keep us reading, but Andrews is heavy-handed in her tactics; but maybe that’s the key to the genre, like noir or Quentin Tarantino movies, I don’t know.

In terms of characterization — oh wait, this is urban fantasy, there is no characterization.  Kate is intriguing, but she really doesn’t have that many feelings, or if she does, I didn’t notice. To some degree that’s a relief, when you look at other fantasy heroines that spend the novel obsessing over their sadomasochistic relationships.

All in all, the series has a lot of promise from this first book. I read it in a day, partly because I stayed up way past my bedtime in the first 100 pages. I never rolled my eyes at the protagonist’s actions, never told her she was being an idiot. That may not sound like high praise, but for me and this genre, trust me, it is. I scoff at things in books I reread every year.

As escapist fantasy, this one goes on my list of keepers. Four stars: room for improvement, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go order Magic Burns, the sequel.