Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Return of the Theif
by Megan Whalen Turner
2020

This is a tricky book to review but first, it is FABULOUS and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT!

Second, however, you need to read the entire series first and I don’t want to tell you anything about any of them because the twists and revelations are just that good. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you all of the twists and turns that happen over the course of this series, because nothing is going to spoil these books, and I can and do reread them with pleasure, however it seems criminally negligent to deprive anyone of their first experience with it.

So I’m going to say, go read The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner and enjoy a wonderful light adventure story in a fantasy version of the ancient Mediterranean peninsula, and then read the sequel where consequences start to get real and then every other book after that. And don’t even read the back blurbs of each book until you’ve read the previous books.

One thing I will say about this particular book is that it is the sixth book in the series and a grand finale. I am incredibly impressed with Turner’s ability to stick the landing, because not many authors of series can do that. There are a number of different threads going through the whole series that she not only kept track of but ensured the reader could keep track of too. And in addition to the main conflict, there was a whole secondary thematic build-up that I never even noticed happening until it came to a head in this book. I enjoyed it in the previous books and had sort of noticed it becoming more intense in each book but hadn’t given it much thought until this one and just, ooooh!

This book is also possibly the twistiest of all the books as new revels keep on happening and every character has their own complexities, and themes from previous books have reprisals, and just, my god, this book was amazing and this series was amazing and this is an amazingly worthy climax. 

Reading Through the Pandemic

So, it’s been a while. 2020, huh? I may have aged 20 years since February. Everyone hanging in there?

While I have definitely spent my share of this pandemic doom-scrolling, playing a truly astounding amount of Thirteen, and watching every episode of the Great British Baking Show again, I have actually read a fair amount. My book list from the last five months is an odd mix of romance, non-fiction, and literary best sellers as I keep trying different kind of books, looking for the perfect thing to help me either forget the world or understand what is going on around me. I don’t know that I have yet to find a book that genuinely helped on either front, but I did read some smart, touching, fun things that kept me off Twitter. It’s all I’ve got today, but I’m going to offer it to you: some books that might take you away from the current hellscape for a few minutes.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
A while back I read Reservoir 13, a novel about how the disappearance of a young girl affects the residents of a small town. It got rave reviews, but I found it deeply unsatisfying. This book is everything I had hoped Reservoir 13 would be. I also really enjoyed a peek inside life in a far-flung Russian province, including in its indigenous communities.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
People absolutely adore Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I thought it was just pleasant enough and Anna was even less impressed. But it’s a pandemic, I’ve got nothing but time, so I thought I as might as well tackle her second one. It’s another long, sprawling magical realism story with lots of characters and multiple time frames, but I was much more caught up in the characters and the magical world she created this time around.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
I made so much fun of Anna for reading this at the beach a few years ago, but she was totally right! This is a smart, readable book that provides a sense of hope that there are concrete things we can do to improve the world.

Open Book by Jessica Simpson
I know! The Jessica Simpson book! It is actually very good!

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Massey wrote a series of mystery novels about a Japanese-American woman solving crimes in modern-day Tokyo, which I liked a lot, but this book kicked of an even more interesting new series about a female lawyer working in 1920s Bombay. The story was interesting, but I was most impressed with the level of research that Massey must have done, which allowed her to create this world that felt so real, even while being so far from anything I’m familiar with.

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
Have you been wanting to read a linguist discuss how people on the Internet communicate? You want to, whether you know it or not. This can get a little dense at times, but McCulloch is funny and the phenomena she describes will be familiar to anyone who has spent significant time on line over the last 25 years. Having an expert take a specific Internet language thing (a meme, an acronym, ellipses) and then explain exactly what purpose it serves actually gave me a lot of respect for how we create the forms of communications we need in real time every day.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
This last one isn’t cheerful, I’ll warn you, but it was compelling. I think I found this book in a round-up of WWII stories, but it actually has an interesting twist. The story follows two timelines–a female spy in France during the first World War, and then a young American girl in Europe in the years immediately following the end of the second war. Anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction ends up reading a lot of WWII stories, and that’s all fine, but they often focus exclusively on the war years and little before or after. I liked how Quinn’s story showed how close and connected the wars, and individuals’ experiences of them, were and how Europe had begun to rebuild in the late 1940s.

Spellbound

By Allie Therin

SpellboundI feel like this review is the complete opposite of my previous one. The writing and plotting are not terribly polished, but it is just so charming that it provided a really excellent reprieve from our current world. This is the first book in Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series, set in 1920s New York and featuring a wealthy society man, who moonlights as an investigator of magic objects, and a young ruffian from Hell’s Kitchen, who uses magic on the sly as an assistant at a small antiques shop. The two cross paths over a dangerous magic ring, and thus kicks off mystery, magic, and romance! (The romance is PG-13 at most, I’d say, with implied sex but a literary fade-to-black with every scene.)

Our two main protagonists are also surrounded by various family, friends, and even antagonists who are interesting and sympathetic characters in their own right. Therin gives the reader peeks into their lives, which adds even more charm and richness to the book. The second book, Starcrossed, came out earlier this month, and was even more delightful, so I highly recommend them both for a fun distraction!

In my attempt to limit how much money I give Amazon, I decided to buy the ebooks straight from the publisher. Somewhat to my embarrassment, these are published by a Harlequin imprint, but I persevered, which necessitated getting the Harlequin reading app on my phone. This all felt like a lot of trouble and I was grumpy, but then the app was very easy to use and having it directly on my phone was convenient, too.

The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster Bujold

physicians of vilnocThe Physicians of Vilnoc (Penric and Desdemona story #8)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2020

I love the Penric & Desdemona stories and this is no exception. I also love the meta that these are stories Lois Bujold is writing to entertain herself in her retirement and self-publishing as e-books. They’re the reason I check her website regularly to see if there’s a new one out because there’s no marketing and no schedule. This novella wasn’t available last week, and then it was there yesterday and I bought it and I read it and it was great!

The first part I found a bit wearying because it’s about an epidemic (as I imagine an increasing number of stories are going to be) but the later half was so satisfying as they got it under control and figured it out. Also the characters are wonderful, the situation is fascinating, and the world-building that went into the details of what it’s like to share a life with a demon of chaos is enthralling.

As always, I highly recommend it.

Sentinels of the Galaxy by Maria V. Snyder

NavigatingTheStarsNavigating the Stars (Sentinels of the Galaxy, book 1)
by Maria V. Snyder
2018

chasing the shadowsChasing the Shadows (Sentinels of the Galaxy, book 2)
by Maria V. Snyder
2019

Every so often I see that this author has written the start of a new series and I go to check it out. It’s always worth checking out and I really enjoyed this one, which is more science fiction than her normal fantasy, and also slightly younger with our main character still a minor under her parents’ guardianship. She also has all the internal emotional drama of a teenager while being remarkably mature about dealing with that emotional drama. I like her.

I also really liked the world building which has archeology and distant planets and potential aliens and reminds me of The Ship Who Searched by Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey. I was also reminded of Artemis but in the way of: this is how an extremely smart and talented but still inexperienced girl is written without being irritating.

One of the really interesting parts of the book, that’s both the premise and woven through the narrative is how the time distortion of space travel effects relationships and experiences.

The one downside of this book is that it does the thing that’s increasingly a pet peeve of mine: has only a minor conclusion at the end of the book, to create some sense of closure, while actually just being the first part of a larger plot arch. It’s annoying. However, in this instance, it worked and I pretty much immediately bought the sequel.

And then about halfway through Chasing the Shadows, the pandemic hit and my ability to concentrate on reading also took a hit. So I took a break and read a massive amount of self-indulgent fanfic instead before coming back to this and finishing it for completeness.

It was more of a slog than the first book, but that could very well have been just my state of mind. However, I’d noticed in previous series that Snyder’s first books are a lot better than her follow-up books as she delves ever more into complex world building beyond what the characters can support and raises the stakes of the conflict beyond what I can follow. However, it did end with an interesting twist that probably means that I’ll go back for book #3 in the series whenever it comes out.

Smoke

By Dan Vyleta

SmokeThis is a tough review, because Smoke has a fascinating premise, and is certainly well written, but it took me a month to get through it and by the end, I completely hated it. I think it might just be me? Like, it wasn’t the right book for me to read at this time, and forcing myself to continue just made it worse. So, I’m stuck where I can’t really recommend it, but I can’t pan it either.

Set in an alternative Victorian era England, Smoke elaborates on the real life coal smog crisis of the time. The premise is that people’s anger and violent thoughts manifest visually as a sooty smoke emitted from the person’s body, staining their clothes and polluting the world around them. The book opens in a prep school for the children of aristocracy, where an essential lesson is to avoid all ‘smoking’ entirely. The aristocracy apparently do not ‘smoke,’ but our protagonist, Thomas, is both on the fringes of society and has poorly controlled anger.

I was initially vaguely sympathetic to Thomas, though at a bit of a distance, which I first ascribed to being old enough that it is hard to even remember the drama of the schoolroom. However, as the book progressed, I realized that I just didn’t like Thomas very much. He is angry and aloof, and it was difficult for me to get a handle on him to empathize. His best friend, Charlie, is somewhat more likeable, but no more relatable and mostly serves as a foil to Thomas.

Through a combination of coincidence and nosiness, Thomas and Charlie uncover some minor secrets about smoke, which then leads them to a wider conspiracy. The adults around them all have their own agendas regarding the smoke’s role in society, and somehow all of them rely on causing suffering to those considered expendable to a greater purpose. Any characters that don’t try to exploit those around them are written as pathetically naïve and mostly come to a bad end (all animals also come to a bad end). Vyleta does not shy away from the brutality of British colonialism, human experimentation, and extreme poverty, and it all became unrelentingly grim by the end.

It is a very…combative story, with basically everyone in conflict with each other. Even our two protagonists form a love triangle with the same girl, and reflect that it is inevitable that they will fight each other eventually. It felt very masculine, in my least favorite way, so again, it is very possible that a different reader could enjoy it. (I was curious as to who those readers would be, so I did a quick scan of the reviews on GoodReads, and they are…varied. There’s a lot of two to three stars, all starting with “this book has a great premise, but…” and a smattering of confused one and five stars wondering how anyone could either like or dislike this book. It truly is a conundrum of a novel!)

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

SapphireFlamesSaphire Flames
(4th book in the Hidden Legacy series)
by Ilona Andrews
2019

This series is something of a guilty pleasure for me and this is the fourth book and the first one about Catalina Baylor, sister to the prior main character, Nevada Baylor.

The reason this is a guilty pleasure is the set up, which is an urban magic world where about 150 years ago, there was a serum developed that gave people magical powers. (Or killed them, or turned them into monsters, but the survivors at this point have magical powers.) And this has created something of a three-tiered society, where there are civilians going about their daily lives with no magic, and living their lives much like anyone else in the modern day; there are magic-users who have a little bit of extra magical skill; and then there are the members of the magical Houses, where families have bred themselves into powerhouses and accumulated vast wealth and are essentially above the law and only counterbalance each other in particularly lethal ways. The bad guys are the people who are trying to destabilize this society.

In any reasonable universe, I would be cheering on the rebels trying to take down this insane society. Instead, I am agog to see what these high society magical killers are doing in their love lives.

The (purported) good guys are the super-handsome, super-wealthy, super-powerful, super-psychopathic killer, scions of these Houses who, despite being psychopaths who barely feel compassion for anyone else, are desperately in love with our main protagonists: lovely ladies who had once thought they were in the middle tier of magical civilians, but discovered their ‘hidden legacy’ that means they are actually extremely powerful and have now formed a House of their own.

Don’t judge me. I love these.

Unfortunately, I don’t love this particular book as much as the previous three (I still like it though!), because the narration keeps on trying to convince me that Catalina and Alessandro are desperately in love even as they deny themselves and each other, despite them having met for all of 15 minutes three years ago when she was 18 years old. He’s a high society heart-throb who she was able to cyberstalk on Instagram (while secretly being a James Bond style assassin maybe?), while there’s hints that he might have actually stalked her for a bit (wealth, power, etc, make all things possible), but the narration keeps on denying that it’s a crush, or simply lust, or obsession. It’s love! Which mostly means that there’s no character arc for them to fall in love because it starts out with the premise that they are both in love already, just pining from afar. My suspension of disbelief, which is normally quite strong, hit a snag on that.

But anyway, the world building is still fascinating and the action sequences are ludicrous and amazing and the dialogue is fun.

What I enjoyed even more is the prequel novella:

DiamondFireDiamond Fire
by Ilona Andrews
2018

This is a good segue between books three and four, as it covers the wedding of Nevada Baylor and Mad Rogan, and sets up Catalina Baylor as a main character who is about to have a lot of changes, and thus book four can happen after the three-year training montage implied at the end of this novella. But in the meantime, the novella itself is fun and a detective story because all of Rogan’s kookie/creepy/lethal relatives show up and then the family wedding tiara gets stolen and shenanigans ensue, with Catalina being conscripted as the detective.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

PrinceOleomargarineThe Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine
by Mark Twain and Philip Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead
2017

I saw this at a library book sale and it was a Mark Twain story that I had never heard of before and had beautiful illustrations so I bought it and then the sale was over so I sat down on one of the library benches and I read it and it is sweet and sharp and funny and pleasing. It also reminded me of The Princess Bride in the way it pulls back from the story periodically to remind the reader that it is a story and that the people telling the story have their own story happening.

And: I need to reiterate this: the illustrations are beautiful and make excellent use of white space.

So while this is a children’s story, it’s also an adult story, and even the children’s fairy tale section has some rather pointed aspects as one would expect from Mark Twain. Plus, the history of the actual book is incorporated into the background of the story in a way to intentionally blur the lines between reality and fiction.

But the history of the book is that Mark Twain wrote down extensive but incomplete notes for this story, and those notes were only relatively recently identified within his his archive, at which point the rights to co-author, finish, and publish the story were licensed out.

Anyway, this is very cute and I definitely recommend it, but I am sufficiently out of touch with children these days that I have no idea what the intended age range for it is.

A House of Ghosts

W.C. Ryan

House_of_GhostsThis novel is a murder mystery, spy thriller, and ghost story all in one, and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, uneasily creepy when reading late at night, and solemnly poignant about the horrors of war. Any of these is a rare achievement, but combining all together make this something really unique. Set in England during the first world war, spiritualism is on the rise, as so many young men are missing/presumed dead on the front.

The Highmount patriarch made his fortune in weapons manufacturing during the war, but has since lost both his sons. In their grief, he and his wife have retreated to their remote island estate, which is converted from an old abbey and rumored to be haunted. They plan a house party over the holidays, inviting several spiritualists to attempt to make contact with their sons.

There are the charlatans, of course, like Madam Frey, with all sorts of tricks up her sleeves. But there are also the real deal, like Kate, friend of the family and ex-fiancé to one of the Highmount boys, who can actually see ghosts, but finds it so socially embarrassing that she hides it as well as she can. And there’s spiritualist Count Orlov, who can perhaps see ghosts but may find it more convenient to fake the séances?

Add to all that, some confidential weapons designs have been discovered in the wrong hands, and three undercover personnel, who have complicated relationships to each other, are suborned into attending the house party, under a variety of subterfuges, causing even more confusion.

Of course, there is also a light romance, which is so deftly done that I had to double check that the author is male. The two protagonists have a slow growing attraction toward each other, built on mutual respect and good communication, which is also awfully rare and a very pleasant surprise in novels.

Fanfiction: The Untamed/GoDC edition

I have now read a lot of fanfic for The Untamed / Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. I figured it was time to make some recommendations here for some of the best of them. It was extremely hard to weed it down to just four, and I had to struggle to try to keep them solidly distinct from one another (there tends to be a lot of overlap in fanfic) and generally happy (canon gives a lot of opportunity for angst). And not too explicitly graphic, although I compromised that one a bit.

So here are my four recommended fanfics, in order chronologically through events and also in order of humor, from heart-wrenching to hilarious:

   DURING CANON, there’s always going to be a certain amount of angst:

Devoutly to Be Wished
by yunitsa
word count: 3,032

Summary: Five (and half) times Wei Wuxian fantasies about Lan Wangji, and one time he doesn’t have to.

Why I recommend it: I was going to keep this list of recommendations strictly non-graphic and then I realized that I had to include this one because it’s a gorgeous and heart-breaking look at the main character and his desire for his beloved as he grows and changes.

   IN THE MISSING YEARS, there’s a surprisingly less angst:

Scapegoat
by astrobandit
word count: 1,325

Summary: four ridiculous things the Yiling Patriarch was blamed for, and one ridiculous thing that was positively his fault.

Why I recommend it: The canonical storyline switches between the past and the present with a good decade in between the end of the past and the beginning of the present, and in that time Lan WangJi appears to have decided that he has no more fucks to give and it is glorious. This story is a few very short vignettes that show just how done with everyone’s idiocy he is. Glorious!

   IMMEDIATELY POST-CANON, specifically to the TV show

The Absolutely True Story of the Yiling Patriarch: A Manifesto in Many Parts
by aubreyli
word count: 19,692

Summary: In which the junior disciples (namely, Lan Jingyi, Ouyang Zizhen, and a reluctant Lan Sizhui) turn to RPF in an attempt to rehabilitate Wei Wuxian’s reputation so that he and Hanguang-jun can get together and get married and live happily ever after. It’s… surprisingly effective.

Why I recommend it: This is both beautiful and hilarious and does an amazing job of capturing that dichotomy that’s also present in the original story of balancing humor and drama.

   FURTHER POST-CANON, our main couple are an established couple and dealing with other things:

A Civil Combpaign, and it’s companion, Besieged
by Ariaste
word count: 31,015

Summary: “And,” said one of the pompous ministers, “there’s the matter of a marriage to consider as well!”
Jin Ling, who at the beginning of that sentence had expected to slam into the very last wall of his patience and lose his temper entirely, paused. “A what?”
Thing was… it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Why I recommend it: This is side-splittingly funny. I had to struggle through some second-hand embarrassment but it’s worth it because this is the most awkward courtship attempt ever between two of the younger generation with our main couple established and looking on. And Wei Wuxian’s perspective on it all is an utter delight. Also, in some ways, this version of Wei Wuxian reminds me of Eugenidies from The Thief.