WoGF Book Review: Divinity and the Python by Bonnie Randall

This is my eleventh book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

I believe the publisher calls Divinity and the Python by Bonnie Randall a paranormal romantic thriller (note: not paranormal romance, which is a related but different corner of the genre).  I’d have to agree.  It’s sexy, it’s spooky, and the tension keeps ratcheting up all the way to the end.

Our heroine is Shaynie Gavin, a carpenter—an artist, really—who’s making money tending bar at the Python while fixing up Divinity, an old morgue, to be a Tarot parlor and New Age lounge.  While the romance is great, the most important relationship in Shaynie’s life through most of the book is with Divinity.  Like it says on the cover, all things have a soul, and Divinity is most definitely a character.  For those not open to the paranormal, Divinity’s interactions give off a creepy vibe, but for Shaynie, Divinity is protection, friendship, home.  From the sound of the furnace to the well-timed unlocking of doors and switching of lights, Divinity is imbued with personality.

Shaynie herself is great.  Though I don’t believe in it, it’s nice to see a Tarot-reading character who absolutely believes and whose belief permeates every aspect of her life.  The Tarot descriptions are subtle, and the only time the fortune-teller-fraud or flaky-new-ager clichés show up are when Shaynie is bracing herself to face them.  I found it interesting that while the Tarot may have helped Shaynie stay on her guard, it also nearly ruined her romance.  I suppose whether you believe or not, a Tarot reading is really about knowing yourself, and even the most self-aware of us has blind spots.

The dialogue sparkled, the looming threat sent chills up my spine, and I got some serious shivers when the romance started to heat up.  The obstacles keeping them apart were very real, nothing that felt like it could be waved away with a single conversation.

Two big thumbs up, and I’ll be looking for the follow-up in 2014.

WoGF Review: Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

This is my ninth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Jaida Jones was my random author pick for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge, so I went into Havemercy, co-written with Danielle Bennett, pretty much cold.

And I loved it.  I did have one major issue with what was missing from the book, but what was there was a helluva story.  Volstov and Ke-Han have been at war for over a hundred years.  They’ve both got their magicians, but what really gives Volstov an edge is its dragons, made of metal and brought to life and fueled by magic.

More than the war, though, or even the magic, Havemercy is really the story of our four protagonists—a magician, Royston; a tutor, Hal; a student-cum-professor, Thom; and the dragon Havemercy’s pilot, Rook—and the relationships between them.  The book opens with Royston being exiled from Thremedon, the capital of Volstov, for having an affair with a foreign prince whose culture is unaccepting of homosexuality.  I admit I had a moment of doubt, especially when this was followed up by Rook’s blatant bigotry (not to mention his misogyny), but it was handled beautifully as Royston’s, and later Hal’s, viewpoints developed.

Rook himself was both outrageous and captivating.  He thought very highly of himself and nothing at all of anyone else, excepting his Havemercy.  His egregious behavior caused a diplomatic incident at the same time as Royston’s, and Thom was sent in to teach the airmen some manners, and perhaps try to understand their psychology at the same time.  As Rook is the ringleader, that means reforming and understanding him, above all.  Their clashes throughout the book are entertaining, but also insightful.

In the midst of all the lovely character problems, of course, there is still the war, and magic, and when things go horribly wrong it takes all four of them to prevent catastrophe.  And of course, the metal dragons.

Unfortunately, my review would not be complete without discussion of the book’s major flaw.  To wit, there are no women.  All four protagonists are male, and while some minor female characters appear, none have important roles.  The most memorable are Royston’s bigoted harpy of a sister-in-law, and the diplomat’s wife who dressed so scandalously that Rook mistook her for a whore, and who never actually appeared on the page except in gossip.  A pretty abysmal showing.

Still, I know I am more attuned to that sort of thing than the average reader, and I did enjoy the book in spite of the lack.  In fact, I’m already deep into of book 2…

WoGF Book Review: Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

This is my eighth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

I really enjoyed Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper.  Much more than I should have, given that so much of the bones of the book was built out of such well-worn tropes.  Our hero is a foundling (I’m still waiting to find out he’s a lost prince) who gets in trouble because of his magic, and is whisked away by a wise old mentor to a school for magic on a tropical island.  Not only is he an excellent swordsman, but it turns out that he has more and stronger magic than just about anybody and ends up saving the day after hardly any training.

To top it all off, the reason his magic got him in trouble?  There’s an evil, thinly-veiled, not-quite-Catholic church to stand as a beacon of hypocrisy, backwardness, and suppression of knowledge.  As in, “ye shall suffer not a witch to live.”

Despite all that, the story drew me in.  The characters were fully fleshed out beyond their archetypes, and the prose was engaging.  The plot didn’t follow the cookie-cutter shape of the tropes, either; for one thing, the protagonist was twenty, not twelve or sixteen, and he had a pretty traumatic past, so there was a lot more skepticism and frustration and less wide-eyed wonder than usual.  Perhaps also because he was older, the story didn’t get bogged down at the school with endless scenes of lessons, but instead focused on the relationships he formed there and just enough of what he learned to move things forward.

And then there was the music.  As a musician, I love seeing magic systems that involve music, and it was that music that caused me to pick the book up in the first place.  I made the mistake, though, of reading Peter Orullian’s “The Sound of Broken Absolutes” (from the anthology Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman) immediately after, and before writing this review.  It truly has a musician’s magic system, replete with technical descriptions of resonance and harmonics, musical notation, the mechanics of throat and mouth, and even how to rebuild a broken instrument.  Songs of the Earth has none of that.  Its magic is much more wild and fluid.  It’s a lovely metaphor, actually, the energy of the earth as music that can be accessed and channeled as magic.  I’ve always thought music was rather magical, so it makes perfect sense to me.  The descriptions are beautifully poetic, evocative of nature and emotions in the same way as music—exactly as it should be.

WoGF Book Review: Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman

This is my seventh book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin HoffmanSword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman was a light, fun book.  By no means perfect, but quite enjoyable.

Captain Vidarian Rulorat is commissioned by the fire priestesshood to transport one of their own to a place of safety, beyond the reach of the Vkortha who are hunting her.  Thus, he sets himself a course that will change his life and change the world.

The magic system is one of elements—earth, air, water, and fire—the source of which are the four goddesses.  Most magic users are women, priestesses, and can wield only one element, but during the course of saving the fire priestess Ariadel’s life, Vidarian finds himself suddenly in possession of both fire and water magic, and the subject of prophecy.  The magic is never described in much detail, but I enjoyed seeing Vidarian stumble through discovering his own, rather than having a teacher on hand to give him all the answers.

The griffins were wonderful.  Sentient, telepathic, magical creatures, and fresher than the standard dragons.  It was nice to see their limitations, too; if they wanted to fly with humans, the griffins had to work together in twos or three to carry them in air gondolas.  I also appreciated that they were characters in their own right, not just talking extensions of their masters’ will.

The gender balance of the cast was great.  I think it actually skewed toward more females than males, because the priestesses were of course all women, but it’s always nice to see a fantasy culture where women are actually considered equal.  The crew of Vidarian’s ship seemed to be a pretty even split, and the other sea captain we meet is female—and to the characters, it was nothing remarkable.

I was a bit disappointed by the love interest.  She started out great, saving the whole ship from a pirate attack, but then it seemed like as soon as she became the love interest in earnest, all she did was get rescued and get jealous of Vidarian’s former fiancée.  And speaking of love, physical attraction is one thing, but Vidarian started calling her the woman he loves entirely too quickly for me to believe it.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I love that the quest started out as a very black and white goal, and morphed into an actual choice.  I’m not sure I like the love interest’s role in the choice, and I’m not sure I agree with Vidarian’s ultimate reasoning behind his choice, but I was glad he had to make it, and that it had real, immediate consequences.

I didn’t love Sword of Fire and Sea so much I’ll rush to read the next book, but it is going on my list.

WoGF Book Review: The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

This is my sixth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

The Queen of AttoliaThe problem with trying to write a review of The Thief is that the only thing really worth dissecting is the twist ending, which of course I can’t do without spoiling the whole book.

I thought I was going to have the same problem with The Queen of Attolia, that anything I say about it would spoil the first book, but happily that doesn’t seem to be the case.  So I’m going to cheat a little on the challenge, and review the second book I’ve read by Megan Whalen Turner.

I went into this knowing that the second book was supposed to be much better than the first, but that there’s a really big twist at the end that makes the first book worth reading.  I haven’t decided yet whether knowing about The Thief‘s twist made for better reading or not—it certainly made it much easier to guess, but probably lessened the feeling of betrayal on finding out the first person narrator has been concealing things for the whole book.  But I wholeheartedly agree that the second book is better, and I actually found it to be more surprising than the first.

One thing The Queen of Attolia does that I don’t see often is show believable consequences to trauma.  It actually made the book start out rather slow, because after something terrible happens to Eugenides in the opening, he basically spends the first quarter of the book recovering (read: not doing anything).  I was actually beginning to wonder if the book had been over-praised.  Eventually Gen is knocked out of his funk and the story takes off, but the trauma stays with him. He doesn’t just bounce back unchanged, and I end up feeling so much more connected to him as a character because of it.

The other thing I absolutely loved about this book was the complex characterization of the villain.  The queen of Attolia does horrible things to Gen, and we hate her for it, but we slowly come to understand why she is so ruthless, and that her actions didn’t only hurt Gen.

The surprises in this book were so organic, I don’t think I would even call them twists.  Now that Eugenides’s character is firmly established from the first book and a half, it doesn’t feel like a cheat that he would keep his plans to himself, and the contents of those plans–well.  I thought they were perfect.  As events unfolded in their fullness, I had fun watching the subtext of the key players’ words and actions, and feeling like I was in on the secret.  I imagine some less attentive readers, or possibly the middle grade audience it was written for, might not catch the subtler clues, and therefore get a dramatic twist ending, but I didn’t feel like my reading experience was in any way diminished by guessing the ending ahead of time.

Oh, and I can’t close the review without at least mentioning the setting, which is an alternate Greece.  Totally different from the usual medieval European fantasy setting, and I love the way the gods are woven in and made an integral part of the story.

My verdict: The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner is absolutely worth reading, and while I wouldn’t recommend The Thief on its own, I believe that reading it first enhanced my reading of The Queen of Attolia.  So, go out and read both of them.  And then read the next book, too, because I think that might be the best of them all.