I’ve been reading a number of books over the summer: tales of magical lawyers, medieval samurai, peculiar children, interplanetary missionaries, and blade-carrying death-gods really run the gamut, but sadly most of them have been disappointments. (Given that they all had good reviews out there, maybe it’s just me.) Nevertheless, I think they’re all worth checking out if for no other reason than to inject a little variety in one’s reading list. I hope these capsule reviews will help you find something you might like. Enjoy!
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
For any new fantasy book, it’s always great to start out with a clever concept (especially when it comes to how magic works in this made-up reality). We start out this story with the fact that a god has died (I know, dead gods are not such a new concept). What’s interesting about this world is that the gods are kind of like the patrons of a city (similar to how they were treated back in ancient Greece). The cool flipside to that coin is that the gods of this world share their divine powers as agreed upon in contracts. In other words, the magical power that comes from these gods is also a traded commodity/currency. When Kos Everburning, a major fire god, ends up dead, a “craft” firm is hired to investigate. Tara Abernathy is the hero of this story, being a rule-breaking yet skilled craftswoman (aka sorceress) who finds that the more she digs into what happened to Kos, the more mysteries, plots and secrets are revealed. While I enjoyed the idea of the gods selling out their own power to fuel the cities of the world, the overall story was kind of all over the place. A lot of stories that involve investigations really become chaotic when the heroes start to chase after the bad guys and it feels like we’re all just running through a bunch of alleys and rooms without a clear sense of direction or a well-crafted plot. It’s a bit of a cliche storyline leading to the villain’s defeat after he is revealed. The world of this book also seems a bit random, with ghosts, vampires, artificial gods, etc. just showing up out of the blue. This book is part of a trilogy, so maybe these kinds of background details and connections will be put to better use in one of the other volumes. (3 out of 5)
Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks
I was really looking forward to this as a fantasy novel set in medieval Japan (rather than your typical European simulacrum). I thought it would have been so much fun to see how magic works, what kinds of creatures exist in this fantasy Japan. Unfortunately, there was actually very little fantasy. Instead, it mostly turned out to be a story of court intrigue. There were a few demons, but they acted more like informants than spirits. There wasn’t much actual activity in the story either. Instead, there was a lot of talking and even some poetry (medieval Japanese nobles all communicated in haiku), but it was all very confusing as the names of characters sounded very similar, and often plot points were introduced without providing much understanding of the consequences. I ended up more baffled and confounded than intrigued. Half-way through the story (which is about a minor noble in the Japanese court assigned to look into the circumstances around a lady’s suicide.) I didn’t even care what the end-result would be once the villain was revealed, I just wanted to move on. I wish (like so many other reviews out there) I could recommend this book, but don’t let the title fool you, this story is more mundane than magical (2.5 out of 5)
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
As the sequel and conclusion to one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read, I was extremely excited to get to The Fall of Hyperion. In chronology, this book picks up immediately from the cliffhanger of the first where a group of future pilgrims are on a journey to meet a death-god known as The Shrike. While this book has each pilgrim confronting the Shrike in very different ways (based on their motives and their past relationship with the Shrike), the story becomes very complicated and convoluted for each of them. Unlike the first book, where each pilgrim recounts their own discreet stories, this time it is less clear where the stories end and begin. The stories sometimes became surreal and dream-like experiences which may or may not have answered the questions set up in the first book around the Shrike and why they are all seeking it. For those reasons I found the resolution of the Shrike storyline a bit challenging to understand. However, a cool surprise for me was that the entire interplanetary backdrop of the story: the many worlds, the politics and the conflict between humankind and the fringe-dwelling Ousters, all entered the foreground of the story. A lot of focus fell on Meina Gladstone — the CEO of Hegemony of Man who played only a small role in the first book. One of my favourite scenes of the book involved Gladstone touring the pilgrims’ home worlds on the eve of war. I was incredibly impressed by how Simmons could just as easily have satisfied the narrative needs by tying up the Shrike elements, but instead created a more expansive story about the human race scattered in space. As much as I enjoyed this book, I had to read the first book twice to really get it, and I think I will have to read this one again as well for it all to really sink in (4 out of 5).
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Here’s one more book that seemed (before reading it) to be fresh and inventive. Included with the book were a series of old black and white photos which seemed to show Victorian-era children doing supernatural things. The photos looked like they might have been faked (similar to the famous Cottingley fairy photos from the 1920s). The photos were actually an element from within the story about a young teenage boy who discovers his grandfather’s story about a mysterious home for “peculiar” children that he’d grown up in. When he seeks out more information about this piece of his grandfather’s past, it leads him to a magical place where he meets these children and gets involved in their world. So this story takes place in two worlds: the present-day of a small Welsh island, and the magical past version of the same place. Unfortunately, just like the inclusion of the photos, I found this book relied too much on those gimmicks and the actual story left a lot to be desired. I don’t think we really got to know the peculiar children very well and so I didn’t care enough about them when they were in jeopardy. Also, their situation was a bit too contrived, their enemies a bit cliche, and their situation too simple (Keep us safe from the mean bad-guys coming after us!). The entire set up of a group home for children with special, supernatural abilities really made little difference to this story. It could have been regular children for the most part. Also, the bad-guys were not very interesting and their motives seemed to be purely villainous (it’s their nature to want to harm these children) and two-dimensional. To top it all off, I found the audiobook narration to be terrible! The voices of all the Welsh children sounded like horrible imitations of cockney British accents that made me feel like I was hearing a school production of Oliver Twist or something. It was totally distracting. (2.5 out of 5)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
I knew surprisingly little about this book when I bought it (an interesting title and cover is attractive even when I’m buying audiobooks). So I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the story was about a Christian missionary who is deployed to work among the local population of a newly colonized alien planet. There’s been so much “realistic” sci-fi lately (like the movie Gravity, or the novel The Martian) that I was excited for this new angle and interesting premise. Most of the story focuses tightly on the main character, missionary Peter Lee. He struggles to fit in with his crew-mates, and then builds up his outreach ministry with the local aliens. We get most of the story from his perspective. A lot of attention is given to relatively mundane events and details of life on an off-world base, and what it might be like to work in such a situation, but there is still relatively little action overall. As well, there are regular correspondences from his wife Bea as the situation back home becomes increasingly bad. In the end I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this story. I felt like there wasn’t a very good resolution to a lot of thematic questions, and the focus on escalating issues in Bea and Peter’s marriage also seemed beside-the-point for a sci-fi novel. As an audiobook, I found the voices of the native aliens were very hard to listen to. They sounded like someone whispering with a raspy throat full of phlegm. It probably made the rendition more realistic to have the aliens speak in a way that was difficult to understand, but it was a bit distracting from the novel. Nevertheless, for me the biggest difficulty was the unresolved feeling about it and I wondered in the end why I really cared about any of the characters or situations in the story. (3 out of 5)
So, unfortunately my summer reading met with more misses than hits, but I enjoyed getting into each book and the variety of stuff that is out there to enjoy. Hopefully I’ll read some more gems in the fall.