Tag Archives: reviews

Saint’s Blood, a review

sbloodLast week, I finished Sebastien De Castell’s novel, Saint’s Blood, the third book of the Greatcoats.  Like the previous two, it was a fun (well, okay, mostly fun) rollicking adventure yarn full of wit, humor, and swashbuckling derring do.  As much as I enjoyed the previous two installments, I’ll give Saint’s Blood higher marks in that it keeps the main cast together.  Both Traitor’s Blade and Knight’s Shadow have bogged down when Falcio val Mond (our noble protagonist) has gone off on his own.  Really – for me anyway – it is the banter and interrelationships between Falcio, Kest, and Brasti that really make these books sing.  Take one of them out of the picture and the landscape darkens noticeably.

As fun as it was, there were a couple of issues for me.  Castell’s language has always been colorful, but in this installment things just seemed more…explicit.  It just felt a bit out of character.  And the repeated use of “arsehole” just felt a bit silly.  Likewise, rather than his usual pragmatism, Falcio seems far more pessimistic and defeatist in this adventure.  That might make sense given the natural of the adversary (sorry, no spoilers), but again it feels out of character and inorganic, as though Castell decided he needed to recast Falcio’s personality to fit the story rather than the other way around.  But while these detract slightly from the whole, it doesn’t diminish the story, the characters, or the finale.  And what a finale!  I cheered the finale of Knight’s Shadow – if you’ve read it, you know exactly the part I’m talking about – and Saint’s Blood closed with at least as much joy in this reader’s heart.

tthroneThe most bittersweet part of finishing Saint’s Blood is in knowing that the fourth installment, Tyrant’s Throne, is the final book of the Greatcoats.  It feels funny to say that – I am not a fan of endless series or of authors who ride one series into the dirt in their careers.  Yes, that applies to Terry Prachett and Jim Butcher, as much as I love their work, as it does Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan (the less said about those the better).  And yes, I know Butcher is working on a fantasy series too but c’mon.  24 Dresden novels?  Really?!  When he gets to #22, someone needs to send ole Jim a copy of Stephen King’s Misery just for laughs.

But yes, it is bittersweet to know the Greatcoats is coming to an end.  Not only because I’ll miss the adventures of Falcio, Kest, and Brasti (and Ethalia, Valiana, and Dariana), but because this is the first series of books that I’ve had this much fun reading in a long time.  The swashbuckling adventure genre isn’t awash with options these days.  So while I wait for the Dallas Public Library to get their hands on Tyrant’s Throne, I’m going to be looking for a new voice that brings me the same thrill.  Wish me luck.

A Parting Gift

An excerpt from the novel.  Don’t worry, it won’t spoil anything. Go ahead and read it:

Udriel is what we call in the business a sanguinist: a fencer whose primary strategy is to go for little cuts—wounds that sting and bleed and distract you, until you start to slow down without even realizing it.  Sanguinists take their time, pulling you apart bit by bit, until they can end the fight with a single, brilliant flourish—they usually go for an artery so that you end up bleeding out spectacularly all over the floor.  It can create quite a stunning tableau for the audience.

I hate sanguinists.

The moment I read this passage, I said to myself, “dammit, 7th Sea needs sanguinists!

Throughout the book, Falcio describes a number of duelist archetypes.  I’ve taken the liberty of compiling all of them into a single file so you can add them to your swashbuckling game of choice.  Flashing Blades, Honor+Intrigue, Witch Hunter, All For One, Savage World of Solomon Kane, it doesn’t matter.  All of these games need sanguinists.  And now they can.

Would you Believe more Books for Gamers in Training

That’s right!  It’s been awhile, but I’m back with more children’s reading recommendations for gamer parents with young kids.  Here we go!

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George and the Dragon, by Chris Wormell

The story of a fierce fire breathing dragon with a terrible psychological flaw and his new, impoverished but upwardly mobile neighbor.  This book is not what you expect.  It’s short and its fun.  The art is great, too.  If your kid loves dragons, this needs to be in your library.

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Vampirina Ballerina, by Anne Marie Pace (Illus. LeUyen Pham)

Here’s one for you World of Darkness fans, you Camarilla members, goths and gothic lovers.  First up, LeUyen Pham is a fantastic illustrator and has been attached to a lot of good projects (I’ll give the Hillary Clinton puff piece a pass because my personal biases shouldn’t diminish the quality of the art).  This is a cute book and my daughter’s new favorite.  It really speaks to being the new kid, being out of step, and coming together as a team.  Oh, and it has vampires.  BTW, for fashionistas-in-training, I can also recommend another LeUyen Pham illustrated book, Shoe-La-La.

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When a Dragon Moves in Again, by Jodi Moore

What?!  Jodi Moore wrote a follow up to When a Dragon Moves In?  I haven’t even read it and I’m going to recommend it.  That’s how good it’s predecessor was.

Penny Dreadful: A Retrospective

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So it should be old news by now that after wrapping its third season, the curtain falls and the lights go up on Penny Dreadful.  There is something cool and liberating about these limited run series (limited run in that they tell a finite story rather than dragging things out for 6-7 seasons of 20 episodes each).

One of the things I’ve begun to experience with Walking Dead specifically but even Game of Thrones is the futility of investment.  When characters you care about die in the narrative, characters that you’ve become emotionally invested in, it shakes the narrative to its core.  Now, so far, Game of Thrones has done well to build on those deaths.  (Crap!  How do I do this without spoilers?) The executions, the assassinations, the atrocities, they still reverberate throughout the narrative.  Characters who died in the first novel/1st season are still impacting the story as it moves forward.  In that sense, you’re investment in the character isn’t completely lost.  Walking Dead is a different matter.  The writers may claim to be doing dramatic service to the narrative, promoting the idea that no one being safe raises the tension of each season.  Yes, I suppose it does.  But when a character dies on Walking Dead, their impact is gone after 2-3 episodes.  It becomes spectacle; a gimmick.  This is especially true of last season’s finale.  And its become old hat and annoying.  It’s like profanity.  If you curse like a sailor, those words have no impact.  But the guy who never curses swears once and EVERYONE is suddenly paying attention.  So when the body count in a show reaches a certain level, it doesn’t impact you in the same way anymore.  At some point, your perspective changes from who is going to die to who is going to live.  At that point, you stop investing in anything tangible about the narrative.

What was that Stalin said?  One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.  (At least a lot of people attribute that quote to him.)

Wait.  Stop with the Stalin quotes.  What does ANY of this have to do with Penny Dreadful?!

Sorry.  Let me put my soapbox away.

The point is that a short, defined narrative makes it easier to do the former and blunts the latter.  If you only have 10 episodes to tell your story, it’s easier to have a death or twist reverberate through the narrative longer.

Alright, so let’s get to Penny Dreadful.  First, some spoiler space for those waiting for the DVD collection to binge watch the season.  You folks just go ahead and bookmark this and come back later, k?

spoiler space…

Still with me?  Ok.

First up, I thought the season was incredible.  At least as good as last season.  I really applaud the way they handled Renfield and Dracula’s spawn.  When they revealed Dracula’s identity in episode 3, I wasn’t shocked, but I was disappointed for Vanessa Ives.  Ethan’s storyline wraps up nicely.  The Creature gets a ray of sunshine, only to have it tragically jerked out from under him.  Man, that guy can’t catch a break.  Doctor Jeckyll doesn’t really get to come into his own, but I liked the spin they put on him. Yes, it feels like by season’s end, everyone has turned a corner in character development.  Except…

Vanessa Ives.

Her fate is the lone, big, fat, red, nasty, pussy pimple on the whole season.  It isn’t bad enough to ruin the season for me, but it is enough to make me throw up my hands and say, “really?!

Now I haven’t seen any of the first season aside from 1 and 1/2 episodes.  I saw Van Helsing get knifed by a street thug and Eva Green get her first solo episode where we wax poetic for an hour about how she betrayed her friend and spiraled into the grip of the devil.  Pure Victorian Melodrama.  Also, pure crap!  If that’s what the show was about, I didn’t need to watch it.  Goodbye.

I did give it a second chance with the Season 2 and, without Vanessa being the sole focus of the show, I came along for the ride.  That’s what you get for trying to jump in mid-season.

But it’s been my complaint about Vanessa all this time.  Her sense of self-loathing just rolls on like a Sherman tank ignoring any obstacle in its path.  And it’s damn irritating.  “Oh, poor me.  I did something bad once and now I am irredeemably evil.  No, don’t try to tell me otherwise.  Lalalala!  I’m not listening to you!

But you helped feed poor orphans in the London underground? Nope.  Sorry.  Evil.

But you were there when the creature needed a shoulder to cry on.  Evil.

You help send evil things back to hell on a regular basis.  You’d love to think that but…evil.

But isn’t forgiveness a tenant of Chri… Ok, would you stop already?  Don’t make me prove how evil I am.  I speak witch!

So after 8 episodes of gearing up to put the screws to Dracula, with everyone behind her, knowing that anything less is to doom mankind, one monologue by our sharp dressed villain and Vanessa “accepts herself” for the evil, self-loathing bitch that she is.  Really?!  

Now you can say that she did it for love, for acceptance, for passion.  But no.  Vanessa did it because at her core she is a selfish, self-loathing lemming whose courage and determination amount to exactly shit when the chips are down.

Which is to say her decision feels totally forced and out of character to me.

And since her decision could be construed as directly related to the death of the Creature’s son, I was terribly disappointed that Mr. Claire was not the one to rip her fool head off.  No, instead we get Ethan who proves once again that Vanessa left her spine in episode 7 somewhere.  Because honestly, if her sacrificing herself so evil couldn’t win was the right move, someone should have suggested that in Season 2.

And this twist of fate is doubly annoying because it robbed me (!!!!!) of a proper finale with the Dracula v the Wolf of God.  Yes, I wanted to see Ethan wolf out and throw down with Dracula.  I wanted them to paint the walls!  Who didn’t?!  But no, Vanessa is the reason we can’t have nice things.  And as the curtain falls on her death, she becomes the story of Penny Dreadful, and that cheapens the whole run.  Thanks a lot, John Logan.

Other than that, it was a great ride.

What did you think?

The Thousand Names: A Not-Review

1000namesFor about the past month, I’ve been reading Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names.  As of last Wednesday, I stopped.  I’ve given it the old college try, stuck with it through plague and pestilence, running solo as a parent while the wife was away at a conference, even visits from the in-laws.  In that time, I only managed 80 pages…in small bites.

I’m not really sure how this one failed me.  It was on my short list.  I really wanted to like it. It begins with a very cool Prologue that the first…tenth – geez, this really does sound unfair – of the novel just does not manage to capitalize on.

Perhaps my expectations were off.  I dug in hoping for a clash of cultures worthy of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan.  What I got was more like a British Military outpost in Afghanistan (circa 1839-42), if the military spoke more like American soldiers.  It just felt…off.  Compound that with the first hundred pages is all set-up.  The veterans at the garrison are demoralized.  A new Commander has been sent to kick them into shape and deal with the insurgent threat of a massive tribal army bent on kicking the invaders out.  That sounds great, doesn’t it?  And yet…The main characters we’re introduced to early on are mostly cliches: the woman masquerading as a man in the military, the soldier promoted up from down ranks who is more aware than the rest of the officers.  At least the new commander is receptive to his criticisms and recommendations.

So this one goes back to the library.  Sorry, but if I can’t find something to latch onto in 30 days that will keep me reading more than 3-4 pages at a stretch, the name on the book had better be Pynchon (or Delillo, I’m easy) or it’s going back.  I’m not even going to rate this one for obvious reasons.  If you’ve read the book and loved it…even liked it, please sing its praises in the comments section.  Maybe at some point I’ll give it another shot.

A Plunder of Souls: A Book Review

18490652A Plunder of Souls, D. B. Jackson’s third book in the Thieftaker series, doesn’t waste a lot of time kicking into high gear.  Like Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls revolves around Ethan Kaille, a sorcerer (or conjurer in the context of the series) with a checkered past doing his best to make ends meet and maintain his honor on the streets of British colonial Boston.  Back is the usual rogues’ gallery of foils and foes, including firebrand Sam Adams and the Wicked Sephira Pyrce.  A spectral threat looms over the city at large, all as we have come to expect from this series.

Where the previous two books have focused on mystery and the sinister machinations of an unknown villain, A Plunder of Souls dispenses with all that gives us a very front and center villain in Captain Nate Ramsey.  There isn’t much mystery to Ramsey’s motives, though the means marks another departure for the series.  Along with its villain, A Plunder of Souls really puts magic at the fore of the story.  This allows Jackson to really dig his teeth into the metaphyics that govern the universe of his novels, with promising results.

But back to the villainous Ramsey.  It is well understood that the hero of any story is nothing without a good villain.  In fact, in my experience, the villain is often more important than the character of the hero.  If we, the audience, don’t buy into the villain, don’t buy his or her motivations and complexities, than what follows is largely formulaic (especially in genre fiction).  Perhaps it his directness or his intensity, but Nate Ramsey quickly becomes one of those villains you love to hate.  I feel the need to applaud Jackson.  Given Ramsey’s motivations, it would have been very easy for the writer to paint him as overly sympathetic and justified.  Thankfully, Jackson avoided that awful knee-jerk tendency and gave Ramsey a suitably black heart.  In a stroke, his motivation also becomes one of his few weaknesses, and one that Kaille is loathe to employ regardless of the threat posed.

Perhaps it was because I read this book following the long slog that was Mark Chadbourne’s The Devil’s Looking Glass, but the pacing felt lightning quick and satisfactory.  Despite all the technobabble about how magic works, the book never feels like it slows long enough to loosen its grip.  Where in the previous two books, the main character has had time to pause, reflect and connect the dots, A Plunder of Souls has a real sense of urgency to it — as if in taking that time to tie everything together, the hero and reader alike will be steamrolled by unfolding events.  Jackson even manages to give us some real character growth in regards to Kaille, though the true measure of that will depend on the The Dead Man’s Reach, the next installment of the series.  You can bet that will be on my reading list for 2016.

Four and a half out of five stars.

The Devil’s Looking Glass: A Book Review

Last week I finally finished Mark Chadbourn’s The Devil’s Looking Glass, the third (and final) book in his Swords of Albion trilogy.  Set in mid-16th century Elizabethan England, the Swords of Albion tells the story of England’s “greatest spy,” Will Swyfte.  While the public at large reveres him as a hero against Spanish aggression, this is all an elaborate ruse put on by the crown as Swyfte and his cohorts battle against a much more sinister and dangerous foe: the Unseelie Court of the Fey.

I began reading the series at the recommendation of a friend.  The first two of the series were good, but fell a bit shy of the greatness they aspired too.  The Devil’s Looking Glass was no exception.  In fact, while the third installment was certainly the most action packed and “weird fantasy” of the series, it was also the hardest to finish.  It felt like it was full of speed bumps.

The story The Devil’s Looking Glass attempts to tell is quite ambitious.  London is suffering under a terrible enchanted siege by the Unseelie Court while Swyfte and his coterie of spies race to rescue Dr. John Dee, alchemist and sorcerer who alone holds the key to protecting England from the otherworldly predations of the fey.  Unfortunately, the doctor has fallen into madness under the influence of an enchanted mirror and has set off across the sea towards the New World.  Ultimately, our journey takes us across the Atlantic to the otherworldly den of the Unseelie Court in a mad gambit to defeat them once and for all and tie up as many loose ends as we can along the way.

Ambitious.  And therein lies the problem.  To do justice to any one of the stories it presents, The Devil’s Looking Glass would have to be nearly three times as long.  So the siege of London gets barely a chapter here or there, enough to tell the reader, “yeah, it’s bad.”  Most of those times, it’s to remind the reader of some terrible secret the minister of spies is keeping from Will Swyfte (that pretty much everyone else in power seems to be aware of, coincidentally) – a secret that could drive the man to murder those he cherishes most.  Without giving away too much, that terrible secret turns out to be pretty…uncomplicated, shall we say, as are the effects of its revelation.  But hey, we get a big sword fight with the King of the Unseelie Court.

Speaking of which, there is never any mention of a Seelie Court of the fey.  This was something I always found annoying about this whole series.

The novel really amps up the “weird” aspect of Will Swyfte’s world.  From the terrifying mermaids to the glassy Sargasso Sea, to the bizarre defenses of the Unseelie fortress, the novel dips much deeper into the fantasy aspect of the series, though it still remains rooted in alternative history.

In the previous books, there has always been some historical event to provide a foundation and a backdrop to the events in the novel (The Silver Skull, for instance, featured the battle against the Spanish Armada), giving them a sort of secret history vibe.  The Devil’s Looking Glass pitches all that for a race against time that doesn’t really feel that urgent.  Our heroes are chasing Dee knowing that England is under siege by a force they cannot hope to match, but the story doesn’t give it that much weight.  In fact, most of our heroes seem confident they will never return, giving their lives in the battle against the Unseelie or, in Will Swyfte’s case, uncovering darker, more personal mysteries.  And frankly, if the characters are going to care so little about what’s going on at home, why should we, the readers?

By denying the book a terrestrial foe, say France or Spain as in the previous books, the world feels much more narrowly defined and two dimensional.  Such a gross display of power by the Unseelie is not going to be answered by anyone else?  This makes the events of the novel feel shallow.  Again, if no one else is going to care…

The interpersonal conflicts feel a bit two dimensional too.  None of them really resolve themselves.  Sure, everyone has something of an “oh shit!” moment, but nothing that forces them to really reexamine themselves.  The closest we get to that is the Earl of Launceston, who in addition to being a noble and a spy is a compassionless serial killer.  But Launceston has known what he is since the first book.  Ultimately, the sun goes down on Will Swyfte and the other characters much as it rose, with only one question of importance being answered.  I don’t really expect hard-core character driven stories from genre fiction, but this time around Chadbourn doesn’t even seem to be trying.  He’s just things off his outline as he goes.

And the threat of the Unseelie court?  Likewise swept up with lukewarm satisfaction.  Consider, if the fey live in a dimension where a decade or a century passes for each of our years, exactly how long can you hope to occupy them with even the best of intrigues.  It’s a numbers game that doesn’t add up.

So there you have it.  While at once the most ambitious book of the series, The Devil’s Looking Glass falls farthest from satisfaction.  It never really delivers on its promise, and leaves this reader more satisfied with the effort of actually finishing the book than the conclusion of events.  Two out of five stars from me.

The Bastard Executioner, Second Impressions

The reviews are in.  The critics have spoken.

Bold!

Imaginative!

An Epic Journey!

Who are these people?!  Are they watching the same show I am?  What is their frame of reference? NBC sitcoms?

With a keen understanding that a lot of pilots are crap, I did eventually make my way through the muck that is the second episode of the Bastard Executioner.  Thankfully, the gore was toned down bit (and I mean A BIT, like the difference between 98° and 100° F).  Between severed limb man and cut off her nose to spite her face…yeah, no real indication that the series is anything but an excuse to slice off limbs with swords on TV.

I won’t bore any of you with the details or spoilers.  By now the series is four episodes in and people either like it or don’t.  My serial-genre programming time is a bit too precious these days to really bother with shows full of unlikeable characters (speaking of which, anyone catch that finale of Masters of Sex?).  As far as the Bastard Executioner goes, I’m having a hard enough time getting over the fact that the deceased evil baron’s wife is still in power.  Am I that ignorant of patriarchal medieval culture?  Maybe.  And if I am, I really can’t abide a show of this quality making me feel more dumb for watching.

So two episodes in we will be ending our “epic journey” with this “bold” and “imaginative” show and go off seeking other means of escapism.

I will leave you with a quote from Willa Paskin of The Slate:

The Bastard Executioner is monstrously fetid, a mound of gorgonzola stuffed into a dead catfish’s gullet, smoked in sulfur, doused with heavy cream and left to rot for weeks inside a port-o-potty in full sun.

Yes.  That does sum things up quite nicely.

BTW, did anyone notice Sleepy Hollow work up from the dead last week?  Fingers crossed that they can make a turn around from last season’s hit or miss storytelling.  I’ve seen the season premier and will have something to say about it soon.