Uncommon Echoes by Sharon Shinn

echoinonyxUncommon Echoes
by Sharon Shinn
2019

Echo in Onyx (Book 1)echoinemerald
Echo in Emerald
(Book 2)
Echo in Amethyst (Book 3)

I have a somewhat odd perspective on Sharon Shinn because while I really like some of her books and don’t care for others, I am fully aware that it’s a matter of personal preference because I trust her as an author: echoinamethystI trust that she’s going to write really well and that scenarios and tropes that other authors wouldn’t be able to pull off, she can and does. The quality of her writing is always high, but the tone fluctuates enough that I enjoy some of hers and don’t others. These I really enjoyed.

This particular series is also fascinating because the fantasy element is one I’ve never seen before: that some people have “echoes”, ie physical copies of their bodies that give them an automatic entourage. From a practical standpoint, it’s both impressive and ridiculous unwieldy. Each book is a romance plot set in this relatively generic royal fantasy land during a time of unrest… except that there are added complications of all these extra bodies just hanging around. Each person is their own crowd (at least among the nobility.)

Shinn also does an amazing job of showing how conflicted civil wars are: the current monarchy vs the rebel factions, and there’s significant in-fighting on both sides and sympathetic and idiotic aspects of both sides as well. And I, as the reader, am also conflicted, because both sides are being awful in many ways and both sides of trying to make things better for people in many ways, too.

An amusing aspect is how bad all of the characters are at actual physical fighting. I feel like that’s probably a lot more realistic than a lot of fantasy novels: the high ranked nobles are not used to having to actually defend themselves from physical attack so when it happens, they’re incredibly bad at it.

But as the greater political situation continues to be fraught in a variety of ways, the main characters get their happy endings. And I really needed that.

Note: I read these books about a year ago, and enjoyed them, and was writing this review when the national news broke about another young black man who had been killed by the police. And here I was enjoying fantasy romance about wealthy nobility. And there’s a line between enjoying some escapism versus being disconnected from society, and I felt like I had fallen over that line. Now, a year later, with the constant grinding news cycle, my take away is: enjoy what I can, when I can, but don’t lose track of the work that needs to be done in the real world.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education
Lesson One of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
2020

Naomi Novik is awesome so I always perk up when I hear a new book being promoted and this one is a delight. Although also clearly a two parter and the next part isn’t due out until late June. Hmph!

The Scholomance is a magic school that’s more along the lines of The Magicians than of Harry Potter, but also with a strong influence of Battle Royale/Hunger Games although the students are not pitted against each other exactly. The school itself is deadly and dangerous and the students struggle to maintain alliances that might help them survive both the daily (and nightly) dangers, but also prepare for the horrific battle of graduation. This is not a situation of a malicious authoritarian government, which would be bad enough, but the best answer developed so far to get magically inclined kids to survive the hideously dangerous adolescent years where they are most tasty to the monsters that want to eat them. The school is essentially under siege and subject to constant invasions but at least the students aren’t easy pickings like they would be outside of it. The world-building is amazing and complex with fascinating implications.

The main character, Galadriel, known as El, has the additional problem of having an affinity for devastating magic of mass destruction. Friends aren’t really an option when people assume you’re a serial killer just biding time till you can become a mass murder and harder still to learn practical life skills when the school syllabus assumes you’re more interested in slave armies and supervolcanoes.

It’s like Novik asked: how could an already fraught middle-school/high-school of cliques and miserable adolescence be made even worse and then went with it. And it makes the wins all the more triumphant and the friendships all the more satisfying.

This book was the second half of Junior year and it was amazing. Next up: senior year! (aka, The Last Graduate, Lesson Two of The Scholomance, to be published June 29, 2021, in theory book 2 of 2, but this world is so fascinating that I’m already hoping for a book 3 as well.)

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. 

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

CatfishingcoverCatfishing on CatNet
by Naomi Kitzer
2019

Naomi Kritzer wrote the Hugo-Award-winning short story, “Cat Pictures Please” in 2015 about an AI that woke up on the internet and wants to do good but struggles a bit with how people work. And decides that their currency of choice is cat pictures. Send cat pictures, get help fixing your life. The help is a bit hit-or-miss but the internal ethical debate about what help should be provided is a combination of interesting, adorable, and hilarious.

This book developed from short story and the AI has set of a social media site CatNet where people can go trade in cat pictures. Our main character, however, is Stephanie, a teenage girl who’s mother is moving her again because they are always moving because the mom is spooked that Steph’s father might have found them again. Steph is mostly resigned to the whole situation, with no particular memory of her father but going along with the constant moves and always being “the new girl” and having all of her friends in a chat room on CatNet.

But then things begin to happen: Steph makes an actual friend at her terrible new school and she begins to test some of her mother’s rules, the AI is enjoying having friends on CatNet too and is beginning to think of “coming out” to some of them, and the world at large is struggling with the ethical considerations of robot teachers and self-driving cars, both of which have the potential to be hacked.

There’s also a diverse cast of characters that isn’t the point of the book but also shows how diversity of a variety of types is really the foundation of putting together a group of semi-outcasts: the main friend group is all people who have made their main friendships online for a variety of reasons. And as I was writing that I realized I had to skim four years back through my reviews here because this book is reminiscent of WWW: Wake, but just so much better.

The one problem is my growing pet peeve with a lot of books and how it sets up the next book in the series immediately, the new mystery starting even before the main conflict concludes. I’m still going to read the next book as soon as it’s available in 2021, but I’m annoyed at the set-up.

Anyway, I definitely recommend this book, and if you have time to be browsing this review, then check out the short story immediately!

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.

Carols and Chaos

By Cindy Anstey

Carols_and_ChaosSince Rebecca is still catching up on reviewing holiday reading, I figure I can, too. I thought this would be a fun cozy mystery/romance for the holidays, and it could have been…if only it had been written a little better. Anstey has real promise as an author, but the writing needs more polish. We’ve found on this blog that while it is easy to review books we either loved or hated, it is really difficult to write about books that are just mediocre.

On the one hand, I liked the details of life “downstairs” as the central romance and mystery centers around a lady’s maid and a footman attached to two different households visiting for the holidays. (I’ve gotten more into books centering servants or other lower/middle class characters, and Rebecca and I were pondering whether that’s gotten more popular in general as our society loses patience with the wealthy.)

On the other hand, all the descriptions felt a bit like just throwing a bunch of adjectives at a paragraph to see what sticks:

“The driver was not Mr. Niven; he was a young man with broad, muscled shoulders, freckled cheeks, and a Grecian nose. Kate watched as his thin lips curled up in a sardonic smile, and then he dropped the reins and jumped over the bench and off the back of the bouncing wagon. He landed hard, spilling onto the road, and knocked his tartan cap off. A shock of red hair was exposed, looking bright against the fallen snow.”

Between the descriptions of shoulders, cheeks, nose, lips, hat, and hair, it all started to remind me of my favorite Mitch Hedberg bits, and this sort of writing made it difficult to picture the characters and events, much less empathize. The mystery itself got a bit lost in all the descriptions, too, so that it was difficult to piece together exactly what were important clues and what were added just for ‘color’.

I realized afterwards that the book is considered young adult, which explains both the glossary of period-specific terms in the back and the occasional diversion in the text to randomly explaining historical details. Perhaps this would have been a fun new series of books for me 30 years ago.

My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen

By David Clawson

My-Fairy-GodmotherThis showed up on my daily Bookbub email, and I was curious enough to read the excerpted section on Amazon, and that first chapter impressed me. For a modern, queer retelling of Cinderella, the author does a good job of characterizing a stepmother and stepsiblings who are self-centered and incompetent but not wicked, and a protagonist who is enough of an introverted neatnik to fall into a Cinderella role when the family runs into hard times.

Unfortunately, chapter 2 opens with meeting the fairy godmother drag queen, and while the actual sequence of events is clever, I’m not sure David Clawson actually knows any drag queens, and I’m almost positive he doesn’t have any black friends. I’m saying it gets real awkward real fast.

I really wanted to find excuses, so I spent far too much time thinking, oh, the protagonist is just so young and naïve, and perhaps this is just showing his own ignorance before he grows as a person, until I just couldn’t fool myself anymore. The titular drag queen and her friends are the broadest caricatures, vaudevillian even. Which could almost (but not quite) be waved away with the self-aware camp-ness that is built into drag, but meeting the man outside drag was too much. We’re talking 90s-sitcom-level portrayal of a “slightly thuggish-looking black guy in oversized hip-hop clothes” (direct quote from the book, and it gets worse from there).

Finally, just to add insult to injury, in Chapter 3 we meet Prince Charming, who is “the ridiculously handsome, brown-haired, brown-eyed, square-jawed, cleft chinned J. J. Kennerly, the only child of the closest thing America has to royalty,” and I wanted to vomit. While I appreciate the almost-ligature of the r and l, the Kennedy’s are so overblown in my opinion that any attempt to make them (or a facsimile of them) into a romantic lead loses me completely.

So, I was already predisposed to dislike Kennerly when he “ironically” said something incredibly homophobic to the drag queen to shock her for mistaking (?) him for a bigot. So, I’m left side-eying the protagonist, embarrassed by the fairy godmother, and contemptuous of the prince, which is not what I was hoping to get out of a fluffy bit of summer reading.

A Sky Painted Gold

A Sky Painted Gold

I recently took a trip that involved many, many hours on a plane. I usually use flights like this to catch up on movies I never got around to seeing, but this time none of the movies really called to me, so I watched that Zac Efron as Ted Bundy thing (he was good, the movie is not worth your time) and then decided to just read instead. Over my many flights I read Daisy Jones and the Six (fun, quick, perfect vacation read, a fiction version of an oral history of a 70s rock band), One Day in December (perfectly nice rom com story set in London), and most of the latest Elizabeth Gilbert City of Girls (so far, pretty fun, but I’m still finishing up so no promises). But the book that I want to tell you about is a YA coming-of-age story called a A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood. I have no idea where I heard about this book–a copy was on my Kindle but my library doesn’t have it, so I must have bought it? On someone’s recommendation? I don’t remember any of this, but it was exactly the kind of book I like and I was so glad it was there waiting for me.

Without giving too much away, Lou is a teenage girl who lives with her big, wild family on the coast in Cornwall between the World Wars. She has dreams, but leaving home and living a life outside her village seems impossible. She stumbles into a friendship with some local aristocrats and gets sucked into their Bright Young Things circle of fun, but what will happen when they ultimately go off to their city lives and she is left behind in Cornwall? This description makes her sound like an ugly duckling among swans, but I think one of the smartest things the book does is acknowledge those optics, while never making Lou seem dumb or lesser than some of the more glittering characters.

The book contains many, many things I like, including:

  • Detailed descriptions of elegant clothing
  • English village life
  • Characters enjoying lots of cocktails
  • A little bit of romance
  • Sympathetic parents, so the main story isn’t about how her parents just don’t understand

Overall, A Sky Painted Gold is a fairly traditional story, nothing terribly surprising is happening here, but it’s got a modern air about it. It was like rereading an old favorite from childhood, but without discovering any weird racist or sexist things that you’d forgotten about but that now make you cringe.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dreamy, romantic interwar England coming-of-age.

You might also like: I’ve definitely recommended all these before, but A Sky Painted Gold fits so well into a set of books I love that includes Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets.

Tempest & Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

TempestAndSlaughterTempest and Slaughter
by Tamora Pierce
2018

This is a very odd book.

Like many girls in my generation, I grew up reading Tamora Pierce books, and while I don’t read them quite as religiously anymore, there are only a handful I haven’t read. This particular book was making waves before it was even published because not only is it the first time she’s written with a primary male protagonist, it’s also giving the backstory to the powerful and mysterious Numair Salmalin, the love-interest from one of her other series, The Immortals. This book is the first in a series about his youth as young Arram Draper, attending a school for magic.

The problem with any prequel, of course, is that regardless of what happens in the plot, you have a pretty good notion of how everything ends up.

But Pierce seems to have gotten around that by just deciding not to include a plot?

So there’s a lot of world-building (although much of the magic seems more similar to her Emelan universe rather than her Tortall universe where this particular book is set) and a lot of fun character interactions (although no character development), and a whole lot of foreshadowing. But no actual plot.

Like, stuff happens. But nothing ever develops.

I still enjoyed it, because I do love world-building, and Pierce is a talented writer, but… it’s just really odd to read a book without a plot.

Also, Arram was fine enough as a point of view character but he’s a bit of a goody-two-shoes in a way that I found surprisingly off-putting. It wasn’t that his ethics were wrong, in fact, they were very much on-point; it was more that they were unearned. He is a child growing up in a society that keeps slaves, and yet he is alone in wanting to speak out against it? Where did those ethics come from? What made him decide to speak out against what his friends and family who are fine with? And why are there no others that share his opinion? For all that he’s a teenager through most of the book, his ethical perspectives felt a bit like seeing a toddler at a protest rally being cute but clearly not able to truly argue the perspective.

Anyway, to sum up: interesting, but odd, with a few pointed problems. But I’ll definitely read the next book in the series to figure out what (if anything) happens next.

One of Us is Lying

By Karen M. McManus

One_of_Us_is_LyingThis book is literally The Breakfast Club, but if someone killed Anthony Michael Hall (and if Anthony Michael Hall had a real mean streak). Simon, the victim, wrote a gossip blog, revealing secrets about his classmates. He’s killed before he can post a new piece, while in detention with the four classmates he wrote about. Of course, those four are an over-achiever, a delinquent, a queen bee, and a jock.

Which could have been a little too clichéd except that the chapters all rotate through the four teenage suspects in their own voices. It is just so clever because it is pretty much a locked-room mystery, but we get to read the thoughts of all the suspects and truly none of them seem to have done it. As the book goes on, in addition to being a real stumper of a mystery, the characters become more complex and sympathetic, and I don’t want any of them to have done it.

They all have their own different struggles, which are naturally not helped by being suspected of murder. But the investigation turns their lives around in such a way that each one has to discover how to be true to themselves, and that’s very satisfying to read, too.

A quote from one of the chapters really captured the feeling of the book for me: “I guess we’re almost friends now, or as friendly as you can get when you’re not one hundred percent sure the other person isn’t framing you for murder.”