Wrapping up Shadow of the Sun

As I mentioned previously, I picked up Shadow of the Sun by Laura Kreitzer for free as the first Kindle book I loaded onto my shiny new iPad. Her goal, I’m sure, is to get people to read the first volume and subsequently pay for the following volumes.

While I found the story interesting, I will not be one of those to pony up for the sequels. The pity is that some of the flaws in this volume could easily have been avoided. Others are more systemic.

I marked more than twenty errors of grammar or editing while I read. That’s not very good, but for very long passages that I read while working out, I was not able to mark the errors I found. It would not surprise me if there were fifty errors in this volume that a good proofreader would have found. A misspelling on the first page, for crying out loud, and the horrific offense of using setup as a verb happened somewhere in there.

The other way strong editorial guidance could have helped is with a long stretch of story that went: “I was so sad I thought I would die! Then I got SADDER and I really thought I was going to die from the sheer weight of sorrow. Then I got EVEN SADDER…”

All this piling of sadness on sadness, punctuated with backstory, got pretty old. Then the action begins! And ends! After a long action sequence earlier, this climactic one at the end of the book was over in a flash, and seemed like it was just to get us moved on past the parade of pathos and into the next book.

Ah, the next book. This volume actually did feel like something was concluded: Act One. We get a real sense that the main character is moving on (after a heartbreaking funeral scene). Considering how open-ended the ending was, It did provide some closure on what had gone before.

Meanwhile, there was an extra dude in this book, whose only purpose was to fulfill the rule that spunky female leads must have more than one alpha male hot for them. This character did absolutely zero in this book but be a nice guy who miraculously survives shit that blows away supernatural beings. In the teaser for the next book, we see he will play a much larger role. Note to Ms. Kreitzer: you could have just waited and introduced him in book two and no one would have thought twice about it. I think a good editor would have suggested that Nice Guy not be there the whole time.

Having said all that, I didn’t dislike the book. With more action (not just violence–nudge, nudge) and less moping it would have been a fun read and I might have been tempted to pony up for the next episode. As it is, there are just too many other more-tightly-written spunky heroines with multiple suitors, and some of them aren’t even Chosen Ones.

Note: if you use the above link to somehow pay for this free book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.



It all started here. Joey Comeau needed a job. Somewhere along the way he began to exercise a little more creativity than perhaps is optimum in job application cover letters. Some are hilarious, some are poignant, some are just plain odd. None of them are bound by any sort of requirement to tell the truth.

He didn’t get any of those jobs.

After the police showed up on his doorstep one morning, he stopped actually sending the cover letters in. He continued to compose them, however, and post them on his Web site. He didn’t really want any of those jobs, anyway. Somewhere along the way he got the idea that he could use this form to tell an actual story. Each letter would in itself be significant, but when strung end-to-end they would reveal a larger story, at first hinted at and subsequently revealed.

Put another way, it’s “take what you’re doing already and repackage it in a way that you can sell.” And thus, Overqualified was born.

It is a book of moments, beads on a string that form a larger pattern. Some of those moments are pretty powerful. Some of them aren’t. They go by quickly and before you know it you’re at the end of a brief autobiography told in nuggets of nonsense.

I was a little disappointed, I guess, that many of the supposed cover letters in the book had no ties to the job being applied for. One of the fun things about the letters I linked to above is the cleverness with which he twists the job descriptions, and the decidedly odd ways he represents himself as a candidate. While it does happen occasionally in the book, I missed that cleverness much of the time.

Of course, before there was a larger story to tell, the letters were all about cleverness. The book has a larger purpose and I suppose that means trade-offs.

Comeau certainly has a gift with language. The words he chooses are often evocative as well as descriptive, and a sense of tragedy grows as we move along. He’s at his best when he’s both funny and poignant, as near the end when he applies to be a tour guide, revisiting the scenes of past failures. That bit alone is probably worth the cost of admission.

EDIT YEARS LATER: I still think about this book. Possibly you will, too.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.



There is a vibrant subgenre of science fiction that goes by the moniker steampunk. A steampunk world is filled with gears and gizmos, crazy clockwork inventions that in a broad sense answer the question “what if the information age started without electricity?” Escapement by Jay Lake takes the steampunk idea one step further: rather than filling the world with crazy mechanisms, the world itself is a piece of clockwork machinery. The Universe is a functioning machine.

What would the effect be in the inhabitants of such a world? Theology would certainly be changed dramatically, as evidence of intelligent design is right there in the brass gears that move the planets in their tracks. On this Earth there is a wall around the equator, miles and miles high, that fits into the track that defines the Earth’s orbit. (Gravity still seems to function, and the Earth is the same size as our home planet, so I’m not sure how regular orbital mechanics interact with the mechanical orbital mechanism. But anyway…)

The inhabitants of the flat parts of the Earth are similar in temperament and technology to those of Victorian era. (Steampunk loves the victorian age.) England never lost her colonies, despite an abortive rebellion in the US led by Lincoln and Lee, and now rules Europe as well. China is rivaling England’s dominance of North Earth. South of the wall… who knows? No one has managed to get there and back again. There are tensions between the two powers, and both nations are trying to reach South Earth. There are also international secret societies with their own agendas.

It’s a volatile situation. You know what could be disastrous at a time like that? A genius, that’s what. Adding Paolina Barthes to that situation is like adding an atomic bomb to gasoline.

Paolina was born in a dying village at the foot of the wall, way out in the Atlantic. The wall is a vertical continent filled with all kinds of strange creatures and intelligences, including robots. (Since Čapek has yet to be born, they are called Brass Men.) Events and Stupid People drive her from her home, and she sets out along the wall to find distant Africa, to travel from there to England, where the great wizards create the machines that can change destiny. Paolina has also built a clock — only it’s more than a clock, it’s a device that is in tune with the mechanisms that drive the world. Once it is tuned to resonate with something in the world, it can be used to alter that thing. Some folks on the wall call it a gleam.

In her travels she meets a Brass Man. He is a machine, identical to all the others but for the memories in the crystals in his head that have not been shared yet. There is a code word, he tells Paolina, a word that he himself does not know, that would break the seal that ties him to Authority. Naturally Paolina resolves to find that code to free him.

There are two other main characters as well, but they are less interesting. Perhaps this is partly because of the way we meet them. More on that shortly. Angus al-Wazir is a big, Scottish (with a bit of Arab) military man, formerly of an airship that went down while exploring the wall. He’s made it back to England but now finds himself part of a project to drill a hole through the wall to get to the other side. Emily Childress is a librarian and a member of one of the aforementioned secret societies. She’s been dragged from her library and is about to become a political sacrifice when Events intervene, and she finds herself prisoner on a Chinese submarine.

This was a fun book, but I want to talk for a little bit about the first couple of chapters. Each chapter starts with Paolina, then comes Angus, then comes Emily. Paolina lives on al Muralha; it shapes her life. As something that’s always been there, it’s not something she considers directly that often. I, on the other hand, had no idea what the hell al Muralha was. The village is small, and dying, and everyone besides her is really quite stupid. Only gradually do I start to discover what everyone in the story already knows — that the wall is truly, stupendously, mind-bogglingly tall. In the meantime, I was confused.

It has become a theme in my rambling reviews of late to discuss the way a novel interacts with others of a series. The other two characters in this story (and the wall) were introduced in a previous book. When we are introduced to Angus and Emily there is a whole ton of backstory to deal with, especially with Emily. We are told about Emily’s role in sending some other guy off on a mission with the White Birds, her secret society. We are told about the theological differences between her society an the others they are at odds with. The thing is, all that backstory could have waited. I was starving for information, but given a bunch of blah-blah-blah instead. What I was waiting for was for someone to look at the damn sky. More than once there are passing references to brass in the sky, and even phrases like, “one had only to look at the sky to see the hand of the creator.” I thought at first that the writer was being coy, teasing me along with references to the strange clockwork universe, but in the end that wasn’t it. I think the wall and the sky were made clear in the previous book and he didn’t feel the need to go into the details again. I can’t say for sure as I haven’t read the previous one. I just needed Paolina to spend an evening estimating the width of the track the Earth follows (later she mentions that she has done this), perhaps calculating the stresses on it or speculating on the motive force behind it, to not only appreciate the clockwork world but Paolina as well. It would have been interesting and could have focussed on details of the world not touched on in the previous book, to make it interesting to newbies and returning fans as well.

So we begin with a lot of information, but it’s the wrong information. All that other backstory that we did get is also handled when it is actually needed, so overall chapter one, when we should be getting to know the people and the world, is more about getting to know a different and not terribly relevant story.

After we get through the blah-blah-blah (which is pretty quick) we get on with the story and it’s a pretty good adventure. Just how much power Paolina’s gleam holds is revealed gradually and interestingly, and her struggle to find a place in a sexist society is excellent. Eventually she has to come to grips with the fact that she is an atomic bomb in an ocean of gasoline, and figure out what to do about it. Angus is all right, a tough and sensible guy with an honorable streak. Emily never really picked up a third dimension. The three converge for the big finish, but in the end Emily doesn’t matter much, except to provide a vehicle to tell us, the readers, what the Chinese are up to. Angus has several sub-adventures along the way that add flavor but not substance to the narrative. Somewhere along the wall he foments a Coup d’Etat, then drives away unaffected. Huh. I guess the author needed something for him to do to preserve the structure of the chapters.

Overall, this was an entertaining read, and I’m glad it was in my goody bag at the World Fantasy Convention last November. Had I read this review beforehand, I would have enjoyed it even more. I would have had the right backstory. Now you can go in prepared.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.



Note: On review lo these years later I have to admit that this is one of my less-coherent reviews. Which is too bad, because the book really is good.

I met Lane Robins a couple of years ago in a writing workshop. I was strongly encouraged by others there that I should read Maledicte, but someone else in the workshop bought the last copy from the university book store, so I had to wait. It’s been a while now but I finally got around to ordering the book through Amazon and reading it.

I’m not going to give this book a great review because I know the author; I’m going to give this book a great review because I genuinely liked it. Not everyone may be comfortable with this book, but it’s a really rewarding read. (My bias toward the author is manifested in that If I didn’t like the book I just wouldn’t review it.)

First, hats off for the publisher, who created a striking volume with great cover art and a substantial feel. I’ll be ordering a Kindle in the near future, but this book’s physical presence adds to the experience. It’s a pleasure to hold.

At the heart of this story is a love triangle. It’s a very complicated love triangle, between very dangerous people. Maledicte is a beautiful young man in blind pursuit of vengeance against one of the most powerful people in the land. Maledicte is also a young woman from the slums of the city who will do anything to be reunited with her childhood sweetheart. Toward both ends Maledicte has been granted power from a god long thought dead, manifested in a black-bladed rapier — ever sharp, ever quick to hand, ready to spill blood. When his vengeance is complete, Maledicte will have a price to pay.

In his pursuit of vengeance Maladicte finds a powerful ally, and the servant of the lecherous old man forms the second point on the triangle. For a while as their relationship developed I found it difficult to understand why Gilly put up with Maledicte at all. “Here we go again,” I thought to myself, “another petulant rage by Maledicte.” Gilly is thoroughly convinced that Maledicte is male, and he’s a damn unpleasant person to be around most of the time. There is a moment when that changes, a brief, candid conversation that provides a glimpse into the human being behind the horrible mask. After that things made a lot more sense. Just in time, too, because the body count is about to start climbing.

Gilly is troubled that he is attracted to a man, but there’s not much he can do about it, except run away to distant shores and start over. He’s not ready to resort to that, yet, though as time passes he finds himself getting drawn deeper into the web of death and intrigue, his own hands getting bloodied even as he recoils in horror.

The third point on the triangle is Janus, Maledicte’s old flame, also from the slums and every bit as dangerous as Maledicte. He is the bastard child of the man Maledicte wants to kill; Janus just wants to make sure that death furthers his own goals. Where Maledicte kills to further his plans for vengeance, Janus is driven by ambition. He is subtle, seemingly an easygoing young man, only slowly revealing the depths and intricacies of his plotting. Calling him evil would miss the point; his affection for Maledicte is genuine, and he will sacrifice for her. But if that sacrifice means killing people and becoming one of the most powerful men in the land, well, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

In this story Robins asks us to like some pretty unlikeable folks. There are no angels between these pages, and good people die. Also, bad people die. I was unable to sympathize with Maledicte at all for a while; to the point where it started to get in the way. Once I got the glimmer of light from Maledicte’s soul, I was completely on board. Heinous acts and atrocities begin to pile up (the royal court is not a pleasant place), and because we can see Maledicte through Gilly’s eyes, and we see that the victims are rarely innocent themselves, we can still pull for our heroes.

All three of the characters are able to surprise us, and all are realistic — if in twisted ways — as are the supporting cast. The machinations of the court are laid out so naturally that thinking back I’m surprised to realize how complex it all was. There were a couple of background issues that didn’t help the story (Antimachinists, for instance), that are probably there to set up another story but got in the way here. That’s a quibble, though.

Love, hate, revenge, duty, despair, jealousy, and downright crazy all take their turns pulling on the strings of the characters, and what’s really great about this book is that you feel it – even the crazy. This book is both atmospheric and visceral, and doesn’t pull it’s punches. You are right there with everyone else. It’s a good ride.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this excellent book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


Jailbait Zombie

This was another in the pile of freebies I got at the World Fantasy Convention last fall. I pulled it out of the ‘to read’ pile when I was in the mood for some light reading, and light reading is what I got. That said, just because you don’t plan to win the Nobel Prize for Literature doesn’t mean you can abandon sense when writing a story. Even a story called Jailbait Zombie.

What do you expect from a book with a title like that, combined with a cover that has a silhouette of a slender female in a graveyard, carrying handcuffs? You expect a pulpy romp with some racy bits, a tongue-in-cheek attitude, a feeling that you’re on an amusement park ride and the conductor is having a wonderful time. There’s some of that here, but I get the feeling that our guide in this weird world, Mario Acevedo, pulled his punches. This is not the sort of narrative that benefits from subtlety.

The protagonist, Felix Gomez, is a vampire. He’s a newbie, quite naïve about many elements in the vampire world, yet for some reason he’s an enforcer – it’s like hiring a 12-year-old on a bike to be a sheriff’s deputy. Anyway, we join Felix as he’s being treated for a zombie bite. Apparently he and his buddy have already cornered the zombie in a construction site; we were not treated to that action. Another vampire comes along, is an asshole, burns himself to death, and that’s it for that character. Huh.

Gomez is charged with finding out who is behind the zombies, and while he’s at it, find the source of some crazy psychic disturbances in rural Colorado. There are some interesting parts as he does his detective work — strange things happen, he gets mixed up with some unsavory characters, some of those characters disappear, and he winds up in the company of a young, distraught, dying girl who wants to become a vampire, and who also happens to have some amazing psychic mojo.

There is chasing, vampire mayhem, zombie dismemberment, tough scrapes, old friendships renewed, and quite a bit of good storytelling. It just seems that at key moments the author could go a little farther. Like with the sex. There’s sex in there, but it’s not visceral. It seems wedged in to allow the publisher to check off ‘racy’ on the marketing form. There’s not enough passion to it, no sweat and desperation and futility and hope. It’s just mechanics. Pulp fiction can’t be afraid of making a mess.

How would you react to watching someone you really don’t like burn to death? Probably a really weird mix of conflicting emotions, right? His screams making your hair stand on end even as some dark thing inside you prevents you from helping? The stench of his flesh turning your stomach. The reminder that even if you’re a vampire you’re not immortal. Seems like a great chance to really get inside the head of the main character. Only, in Jailbait Zombie this scene seems to be constructed only to demonstrate that our main man has no feelings at all — which makes him a lot less interesting. We learn soon after — and several times after that — that Gomez is guilt-ridden over something he did in the past, and that’s a start, but the author flashes back to that one event over and over, while passing up fresh opportunities right in the narrative flow.

There is, however, one totally awesome plot twist. “Wow!” I said when I read it. “Never saw that coming!” I’m willing to forgive a lot for a good surprise like that.

My biggest gripe from a storytelling standpoint is the complete idiocy of the mysterious organization that sent Gomez on his mission. Am I to believe that they simply forgot to tell him the crucial information that made his job harder and led to disaster, or is it that they chose to withhold that information? Either way, Gomez’s bosses (I forget what their mysterious cabal was named) are repeatedly guilty of being really bad at their jobs. Bad enough that I simply couldn’t accept that they would ever be bosses.

Maybe that becomes clearer as the series progresses.

Ah, yes, the series. The main reason I’m writing this review is so I can discuss series with all of you. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Remember how I said it seemed like a significant chunk of action had already happened when I started the story? That’s because for all practical purposes, this book began on chapter two. Whither the erstwhile chapter one? At the end of the previous book. And guess what happens at the end of this book? Yep, Everything is wrapped up, Gomez relaxes, and then we are treated to chapter one of the next book. It’s like they dropped the proofs at the printer’s and got the covers in the wrong places when they put everything back together.

Sure, the cliffhanger has been a staple of series since the dawn of time (I imagine Homer wrapping up an evening of oration with Odysseus in some terrible bind), but if you’re going to put chapter one in the previous book, at least have the decency to mark it as such and also put it in the next book, as chapter one, where it belongs. There were enough flashbacks in this thing without also having to explain what had just happened before the story started. (Homer’s hypothetical cliffhangers would have occurred within a story told over episodes; no one in the audience thought they were going to hear the end of the Odyssey that night, and he could count on people being up to speed when he began his next performance.)

This is not to be confused with the honest “here’s the first chapter of the next book” sections that many series use. Those pages come after the current episode has been wrapped up and the reader already knows that what they are reading belongs to the next story. And if anyone picks up the second book without reading the first, they get to read the whole thing. The last two books I read that were parts of series did an excellent job making sure the covers of each volume contained an entire story. I consider it a contract with the publisher that I will get an entire story between the covers of a book unless otherwise noted.

None of those gimmicks are going to work anyway, unless we’re already nearly sold on reading the second volume based on the power of the first.

You may have already heard me rant about books marketed as a series when in fact there’s only one story that spans all the volumes. It is a series of one, split into many pieces. This is especially common in high fantasy, where “epic” now means “no pretense whatsoever at putting a complete story between the covers of each volume.” To me it also means “wait until all the volumes are published before you start reading.” Only then can you read a full, satisfying story from beginning to end (and you know ahead of time what you’re getting into).

Done properly a series is a good thing, giving a skilled writer an easy sell on subsequent books, and giving a reader a chance to explore more deeply characters that develop over an extended time. Everybody wins. Just make sure that within the series each episode can stand on its own.

Back, then, to Jailbait Zombie. It wasn’t bad, misplaced covers aside. It could have been better. It needs to more fully embrace what it is to really shine, and it needs fewer really stupid people in it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


Amazon Ink

One of the cool things about attending a writing convention is the big pile of free reading material one comes away with. Writers and publishers pay to put their work in the hands of influential readers, hoping to generate buzz. Some are worthy of notice, others… not so much. Amazon Ink by Lori Devoti was in my pile of goodies from last Autumn’s World Fantasy Convention, and it looked promising. My sweetie got to it before I did, and enjoyed it. So, with expectations high, I picked it up.

The Amazons in question are straight from the Ancient Greeks, a tribe of fierce and magically adept women. They have lived among humanity since the ancient times, secreting themselves in out-of-the-way places (like Wisconsin). They live a long, long time, and perhaps that’s why they’re still using swords while the rest of the world has moved on to more lethal technology. They keep to themselves and while they have a lot of rules, there is one that tops all the others: No boys allowed.

Melanippe’s first child was a son, but that was a long time ago. She has not forgotten what happened to him. She no longer lives with the rest of the Amazons. She has gone into de facto exile in the city.

Mel has a reasonably comfortable life there, raising her teenage daughter — who knows nothing of her heritage. Mel’s not looking forward to that discussion. Melanippe herself is an artisan, a skilled tattoo artist, able to apply the traditional markings to young amazons. These markings are more than decoration, they are deeply personal and bind power and kinship among the clans. Mel’s also been dabbling in sorcery on the side, and she’s been getting pretty good at it.

She’s going to need all her skill now. Someone’s killing young Amazons and leaving them on her doorstep, with their tattoos carefully cut off. Whoever is doing it knows who they are. Melanippe must juggle a teenage daughter who is a ticking time bomb, cops who think she knows more about the deaths of the young women than she’s letting on, a mother and grandmother who are not shy about providing their opinions, and on top of everything else she must deal with a lot of very angry women with swords.

In a way this story is thematically kindred to The Delicate Dependency — a superspecies of humanity, a tiny minority, has been living among us for thousands of years, but now they are coming to realize that technology is fundamentally upsetting the balance between the races. Mere mortals can use machines and science to undermine the innate superiority of the few. In the case of the vampire story, they were dependent on humanity for sustenance; in Amazon Ink the main thing they need from mortals is sperm. Melanippe’s position as an exile has allowed her to straddle the two societies and see clearly that the time has come for change, even while most of her peers are content to live tucked away from prying eyes.

There’s romance (single mom, not even 100 years old yet, very fit, seeks…), plenty of mystery, and some great plots twists, all hung on a well-drafted framework of Amazon society. Some obstacles succumb to brute force, while others require wit and craft. As the story progresses you begin to sense that something else is going on, something no one has recognized. Some people don’t quite fit in the world as it’s being painted by the narrator. Some twists I saw coming from far away, while others snuck up on me. Overall it was a lot of fun to read. My expectations were high going in, and I was not disappointed.

This book is set up to the the first in a series, but Ms. Devoti went about it the right way — putting a full and complete story between the covers. There are still unresolved issues at the end, but that’s how real life works. I’m interested to find what comes next for this four-generation all-female family and the odd assortment of characters that have become attached to it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. You really should. It’s a good book.


One for the Money

It was after I read this passage:

During the winter months, wind ripped up Hamilton Avenue, whining past plate-glass windows, banking trash against curbs and storefronts. During summer months, the air sat still and gauzy, leaden with humidity, saturated with hydrocarbons. It shimmered over hot cement and melted road tar. Cicadas buzzed, Dumpsters reeked, and a dusty haze hung in perpetuity over softball fields statewide. I figured it was all part of the great adventure of living in New Jersey.

that I turned to my sweetie and said, “this looks promising.”

She was glad to hear me say that, since she had recommended the book to me, and said something like, “The first ten books in the series are all really good. The next ones go downhill, but the fifteenth was the first one I really was disappointed with.” You can probably dispense with the rest of this write-up — that tells you all you need to know.

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich is the first of fifteen (and counting) stories of Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter, and an interesting assortment of characters that surround her life. Stephanie does not wake up one morning saying “I think I’ll go be a bounty hunter and kick some ass.” Far from it. In fact, in this first installment Stephanie proves herself to be really bad at being a recovery agent. Ill-trained, ill-equipped, and unimposing of physique, she ends up with the job because she can’t find any other. Her cousin the bail bondsman doesn’t think she will succeed, but hasn’t got much to lose letting her try for a week.

Stephanie does have one advantage: She’s a local girl, and some of the kids she grew up with are still around, working as cops and storekeepers. It is this network that will allow her to survive.

Not all her friends are on the right side of the law. At the top of her list of people to apprehend: Joe Morelli. She hasn’t seen him since she hit him with her car years ago, in retaliation for his taking her virginity behind a deli counter and then never calling. You might say they have a history.

Stephanie is in way over her head, and if she were the stereotypical lone wolf hero type she would have been dead in two days. One man she tries to apprehend laughs at her, steals her stuff (including her brand-new gun), and slams his door in her face. There’s nothing she can do except call for help, and help comes. I imagine this is much more like what a real newbie bounty hunter would go through, no matter how badass they were.

What does she bring to the job that makes us care whether she succeeds or not? Well, she’s persistent, no doubt about that. And she’s courageous. She’s got grit. Moxy. A desperate need for cash. She’s willing to learn from her mistakes and it’s easy to imagine that one day she’ll be a kick-ass bounty hunter, if she lives long enough. (The release of the fourteenth novel in the series would indicate that she will live long enough.) I wonder if I’ll like her as much when she knows what she’s doing.

Meanwhile, Stephanie and Joe are driving each other crazy. She’s not good enough to capture him, but she’s persistent enough to cause him serious trouble. When she needs a car, and Joe’s is just sitting there going unused… well, what’s he going to do, call the police?

Joe is not Stephanie’s most serious problem, however; there’s a psychopathic boxer who likes to rape and torture women who has set his sights on her. He is very creepy and very scary and a real, believable threat to her life.

There are a lot of interesting characters (some of which are automobiles) in this book, and while they all have quirks, they are all believable. The reason for this is consistency – I never once thought, ‘Ramirez would never do that’. Well, actually there was one point where I thought exactly that, and in fact he hadn’t done it. Characters are consistent enough that behavioral changes are significant clues. It’s sad that we can’t take such basic craftsmanship for granted when we pick up a book to read, but let’s appreciate when it’s done well.

There’s an interesting quirk to the writing and I wonder if it’s intentional. Many times Stephanie comes home to her empty apartment (new extra deadbolt installed on the door) and we follow her through a series of mundane tasks — setting down her bag, putting away her keys, splashing water on her face or whatever. It’s the kind of thing that other books and screenplays use to slide us into the “She’s not alone!!!” moment. So trained have I been with this device that it’s more of a surprise now when she is alone. I was surprised several times in this story. Probably the author was just using these lulls for pacing, not realizing that she would be pushing my suspense button. It was pleasant all the same.

Naturally I have a couple of criticisms. The most serious is that the bad guy does the classic full-confession-before-I-kill-you-in-a-complicated-manner mistake, which really wasn’t necessary.

Overall I really enjoyed the language and the descriptions. The passage I quoted at the start uses some pretty high-falutin’ language but it reads gritty, which means the writer has mastered the language, rather than the other way around. There are lots of descriptions like this, where Evanovich finds just the right word to really put us in the scene. (OK, in the above I could quibble with shifting the scope of the description from a street to the entire state, but that’s the kind of thing you notice later, when you go back to take a closer look at a passage you particularly enjoyed.)

Will I read Two for the Dough? I don’t know. Probably, eventually. There are a lot of books on my shelf to be read first, though. While I liked this story plenty, it did not fill me with the burning desire to sit down and plow through the entire series.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

It is a common practice these days for publishers to put a series of questions at the end of their more ‘literate’ offerings. The purpose of the questions is to help drive book club discussions, and therefore book club sales. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith is no exception. The last of these study questions reads thus:

Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel would be like without the violent zombie mayhem?

This was a question I had asked myself many times while reading the book. If our protagonist, Elizabeth, were not a superlative zombie slayer, trained in the ways of Shaolin and other deadly Eastern arts, what would she do instead? Skimming Project Gutenberg’s archive of an earlier draft of the story, it seems Elizabeth was originally an accomplished musician. That’s not bad, but the motivation of this pursuit seems mainly to attract the best mate possible.

And what of Mr. Darcy, her foil in this early example of the I-hate-you-so-much-I-must-love-you story? Even as a highly refined killing machine he doesn’t bring that much to the table except a generous nature (it turns out – sorry for the spoiler) and a lot of money. Take away his skill with blade and musket and there’s not much left.

So bring on the zombies, I say. Let Elizabeth kill several of Lady Catherine’s ninja bodyguards. Let the final confrontation between Catherine and Elizabeth take place in a dojo, with swords and grievous wounds. Let Mr. Bennett spend an amiable morning with Mr. Bingley trapping, decapitating, and incinerating the undead. Let Mr. Wickham — oh, but there I go spoiling things again. Anyway, let’s give these people some teeth!

As an afterthought, I would be curious to know how well a student would do on a typical exam for the abridged Austen-only version, having read and Zombies instead. Would some teachers decide that reading the expanded version was better than not reading it at all? Would some teachers say quietly to unmotivated students, “If you read the zombie version you can still pull a B”?

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


The Delicate Dependency

There are a lot of vampire stories out there right now, most of them occupying the Ann Rice (with Buffy Extensions) World. Rice, I suspect, as primary architect of the AR(wBE)W, is justifyably proud of the impact she’s had on mainstream literature, as writers of every skill level have adopted the AR(wBE)W — some to add interesting twists on it, others because they aren’t inclined (or able) to come up with a world of their own.

But is that really the world vampires would build?

Let’s say you’re a vampire, oh, around the time of the ancient Greeks. Give or take. You have been around for a while, much longer than the fleeting human lives that surround you, and you understand that now you are a fundamentally different animal. A more evolved species. What do you do? Do you run out willy-nilly and vampirize the cheerleader squad and the buffest dudes?

Probably not. You would probably be very selective about who you invited in to your immortal fraternity, choosing the best and the brightest that humanity had to offer. Centuries pass. Your cabal now holds the greatest minds, and preserves lost knowledge. You are part of a secret cult that weilds immense power, subtly. Things are going pretty well, but there’s one problem. People. Those clever little bastards are getting better and better at killing each other, and killing your kind. You see the day coming when everything will change.

Let’s call that day the Victorian Era, a time when Learned Men spoke of the Triumph of Reason over Superstition. Scientific method and exploration are turning the mysterious into the Known at a dizzying pace, and a technology boom looms close behind.

The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot is a story told by one of the champions of reason of the Victorian Age. Dr. Gladstone is a physician and a medical researcher. He is rather passionate about influenza (it’s personal) and has devoted his life to understanding the virus. As a result, under a bell jar in his laboratory, he has an influenza virus for which the human body has no resistance whatsoever. It is a supergerm. To him it is a professional triumph, to others it looks more like the first weapon of mass destruction, and an entirely indiscriminate one at that. A global catastrophe waiting to happen.

That’s when the vampire comes to live at his house. Dr. Gladstone wants to study the creature. There is nothing that can’t be explained, after all. His teenage daughter Ursula has other ideas. Yet when the vampire leaves suddenly, it is neither Ursula nor the virus he takes with him.

He has even warned his host: Nothing the vampire do is as it seems.

The language of the book feels authentic to the period, and reads right along. One thing I noticed: adjectives. Lots and lots of them. Dr. Gladstone would never lay something on a desk, he would lay it on an oak desk with teak inlay and gold trim. Rarely is does a bit of setting escape unadorned, even if it’s the third reference to the object. I think this is deliberate on the writer’s part; the good doctor has an eye for the finer things in life and when details of craft or workmanship catch his eye, he will report them faithfully. He is an object-oriented person.

The prose takes its time moving through the story, and much of the action is intellectual, as clues and mysteries mount up. There is a rip-roaring chase or two, however, and you can feel the breathlessness of the characters as they dash for survival. This is a fine read, a story well told, with plenty of surprises and twists along the way.

Note: You’ve really got to want this one, as dealers are asking huge prices for used copies, but as always if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


The God of Small Things

I picked up The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy off the shelf at a thrift store. “Winner of the Booker Prize,” The cover said in tastefully-restrained block capitals. Winning a major literary award is often a good sign but not always. Sometimes I think an Emporer’s New Clothes Effect takes hold and the judges are ashamed to admit that the opaque prose left them baffled, so they give a prize to a mixed-up jumble of words. Not so in this case. This was a good story written with a clear if creative voice.

Near the beginning of the book (but not the beginning of the story) we are at the funeral of Little Sophie Mol, Loved from the Beginning. Something has happened, something Horrible, but even though it is only days past it has become Something No One Talks About. When Ammu, mother of two-egg twins, goes to the police station and says, “I killed him,” even the police do not want to talk about what happened anymore.

The language the author uses is playful, coining words and bending others to reflect the Indian ears that hear them. The language provides rays of light even when things are dark. In a way the whole book is a Muddled Ramble, a story that builds not through time but through the growth of the words themselves.

The story moves about in time, simultaneously tip-toeing up to the Horrible Events and drifting away through the aftermath. Before, we pass through the trip by the family to pick up Sophie Mol at the airport (cousin of the two-egg twins, Loved from the Beginning) and the events of that trip that set in motion the final run to the Horrible Events. After, we see a home with no life in it, the occupants slowly decaying or leaving, slowly dying. The family business long dead, the Bar Nowl that lived in the rafters of the pickle factory now just a pile of bones in an unused vat. Even the river, once powerful, is dead and sluggish. All that’s left is a pair of two-egg twins, one mute, separated for twenty years.

a) Anything can happen to Anyone.
b) It’s best to be prepared.

What ties all the threads of the narrative together, what really defines the flow of the story, are words. Special words, coined capriciously, that, as the story progresses, take on greater and greater weight, until some of them are almost breaking under the freight they must carry. Later. Lay. Ter. Only when the words are ready can the Horrible Events be told. And after the Horrible Events, there’s only one thing left to tell, one thing that had the power to drive all the rest.

This is the sort of writing that is both humbling and motivating, the sort of story I aspire to write—if I had the courage to really let go. Read this book; you won’t be sorry.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


Shadow Gate

“Uh, oh,” I thought as I picked up Shadow Gate. I’d bought it in a hurry while at the Atlanta airport, and I did not look closely at the cover. It was a big fat fantasy novel and I like those, especially when traveling. I didn’t read it on the plane, however, and so it was a few days ago that I pulled it off the shelf of books waiting to be read. That’s when I looked more closely at the cover. “Book two of Crossroads,” the fine print on the cover said. Crap.

“Uh, oh,” I said again as I flipped through the pages in front. There was a map. Not generally a good sign. With trepidation, I began to read.

Things started off well. I met a character who, apparently, had been killed in book one. Only, she’s what you might call “sort of dead”; she can walk around and talk to people and in fact can kick some pretty serious ass. She has become a Guardian, a person with great power and the responsibility to apportion justice in the land. One of the central themes of the book, and one I enjoyed exploring quite a lot, is what happens when those given the power to maintain justice turn around and misuse it instead. This gives all the adventuring and conflict a higher purpose, and many of the people we like are struggling with the issues, and sometimes making decisions that are morally questionable. Add cultural differences and you’ve got quite a yummy stew of ideas.

But let’s get to those two uh-oh’s, warning instincts that I have come to trust. I’ll start with the simplest one: the map. As a rule I’m suspicious of books with maps, for a couple of reasons. Writers often confuse a big stage with a big story, and have people tramping all over the place for no real reason. My story The Monster Within has travel, but there’s no need of a map. I kept the geography unimportant, and focussed on the people in the places. In this case, I looked at the map a couple of times at the beginning, but then gave up on it for two reasons. First, what little information it did impart it did poorly, second, much of the geography that really mattered for this story was off the edge of the map. As ‘outlanders’ interacted I really wished I knew how their domains connected. Oh, well. Ultimately, the exact locations of things wasn’t that important, and when I mentally threw the map away the reading experience improved.

Then there’s the ‘book two’ business. The cover of this book reads:

Shadow Gate Book Two of Crossroads.

What it should say is

Crossroads: Volume 2 of n – Shadow Gate.

Or, as I think about it more, perhaps the title should be:

Crossroads pages 781-1564

When I buy a book, especially in an airport, I expect a there to be a story contained between the covers. Airport selections are limited, and the chance that I’ve read book one of a series is small. Still, optimistically, I began to read this volume, and at first it seemed like Ms. Elliott was on my side. The mostly-dead character awakens, and we fast-forward ahead about twenty years. Many of the characters that are introduced subsequently weren’t even born when Marit became a Guardian (presumably after the end of the first volume), so I got the feeling that we were off to a nice fresh start. There were cultural traits and slang words that seemed to be taken for granted, but I worked through them. The writer could have done a little better welcoming new readers, but it wasn’t a big deal. Then there was a huge battle that was never depicted, but the aftermath drove much of the narrative. Characters appeared only to disappear again almost instantly. Hm. I started getting the feeling that I was seeing events that had been in book one, but were now being shown again from a very limited perspective.

Still, the narrative chugged along with good characters and big developments portrayed from very human perspectives. Morals and ethics of different cultures contrasted and clashed. The nature of the evil that threatens the land becomes clearer, but is plausibly self-justified. Bad people die. Good people die. The bad guys have the upper hand, but we see all the characters heading for a major confrontation. I was hooked.

It was the promise of the major showdown, and lingering hope that my impression at the start that book two was not merely a continuation of book one that kept me going. (Although, would it kill Ms. Elliott to be more selective with pronouns? To start with “he” after a break and go for a page and a half without naming the character is annoying to say the least.) On I read, and as I learned more about the overall power struggle among the Guardians the more interested I became. This was obviously the grand struggle that would span the entire series, while this book would resolve one specific part of that struggle. Wheels within wheels, I thought. We’ll take care of some personal conflicts, perhaps between Shai (who is shy) and the woman who torments him. Or maybe Kesh and Elidar will realize they have a common goal. There are about a dozen of those threads as we draw to the end of the volume, as well as some extra problems caused by conflict in faraway lands.

There is no ending. No smaller wheels within the larger plot. This is not a story, but an episode. It even ends with a cliffhanger. Once again I have shelled out my hard-earned cash to read a story only to discover at the end that I have merely invested in an installment, and I will have to purchase an unknown number of volumes over an unknown number of years to get to the end of the story. I could have set the book down at any point and be no worse off. Books like this should say in big letters: CONTAINS NO ENDING!

Note to Kate Elliott: Let me know when the entire series is published. I liked your writing enough to give the story a try — once you’ve finished writing it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


Bangkok Tattoo

Before I get to the quibbles let me just say that Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett is a damn good read. Interesting characters, many of whom are not particularly good people, fill this story. It follows the story Bangkok 8, but stands alone as a complete story; while having read the precursor will add understanding of some of the nuances, I think one could pick up this book cold and enjoy it tremendously.

On to the quibbles: There are many passages about the contrast between east and west, about the different way that people think in Asia. There are times when Burdett goes beyond the need of the story to present and defend Thai culture and the sex trade in general. After one too many times harping on this theme, it started to feel defensive and even condescending at times. It started to feel western. Our narrator, Sonchai, himself a fairly advanced Buddhist for being a corrupt cop, were he really Thai, would have let events speak for themselves more. Thus the writer’s voice undermines his narrator’s voice, and the story is weakened.

But let’s look past that, shall we? This is a mystery story, but even the question they are trying to answer is evasive. What happened that night in the hotel room when an American was mutilated and murdered seems of only secondary importance. What concerns everyone involved are the consequences of the crime. As various interests try to influence the interpretation of the crime, things escalate. The Americans want to blame Al Qaida. The moderate muslims want it to be a simple crime; they are working to keep politics stable in the south next to Muslim Malaysia. Colonel Vikorn, head of police in the part of town where the crime occurred, wants to keep one of his star prostitutes out of jail. Sonchai’s dead partner has advice that seems to make no sense at all. Then things get complicated.

One of the best things about the narrator is the reverence Sonchai has for his boss. The relationship is a mass of contradictions; Vikorn is a drug-dealing cop and one wily SOB. Sonchai makes the whole force nervous with his ethics but he has nothing but praise for the man who runs the department (and is a majority shareholder in Sonchai’s mother’s brothel). Vikorn falsifies evidence, and Sonchai can do nothing but praise the skill with which he did it. Then there’s Lek, Sonchai’s young partner. The Colonel is glad hear that he’s not gay; he’s merely a transvestite, a female spirit in a male body. The Buddha teaches that this is a natural state and points out that such people must walk a very difficult path. Do not judge; you’ve been one before and you will be again. And there’s Chanya, the beautiful prostitute who took credit for killing the American. Chanya, whom Sonchai has come to love, even while admiring her skill making other men love her.

So, there are lots of people who want different things. Colonel Vikorn proves adept at coming up with evidence that will satisfy all parties. Every time he does, however, a new interest shows up on he scene, or contradictory evidence comes up in a way that can’t easily be ignored. There is a point, maybe two-thirds of the way through, where Sonchai says (I’m paraphrasing but the actual quote is equally straightforward), “that’s the end of the story. There’s just a coda to follow.”

The coda starts out like a well-behaved wrap-up would, then explodes. I don’t want to tell you too much more, but there comes a time when a man must pay for his actions, and sometimes that price can be unpleasant.

It’s hard for me to turn off the editor brain while I read these days. I’m cruising along and sooner or later I hit something that makes me think about the writing rather than the story. I’m happy to report that for this book most of those interruptions were positive; sometimes an unexpected but perfect adjective, other times a satisfying twist of phrase, once of twice a particularly sweet metaphor. The only negatives were when he betrayed the voice of the narrator to beat home that it’s different there. Got it. Thanks. Let’s move on with the story. It’s a really good story.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


The Secret Agent

This evening I picked another book off fuego’s shelves, this one a putative classic. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, by Joseph Conrad, has proven to be a pretty good read so far. First published in 1907, it is a story based on an actual terrorist attack against the Greenwich observatory outside London. In this version the act is incited by entrenched political forces who want to encourage terrorism so they can better legislate away the freedoms of the populace. The story is a satire, but back in the day it apparently pissed a few people off.

I was reading along, and I hit a section where I really got the joke. Which makes me wonder if there are other sections where I don’t get the jokes. I suspect that many of the character descriptions and actions are steeped in irony that is often lost on me because the vocabulary (and simple Englishness) used to describe them impedes my understanding. This isn’t a comedy by any means, but I think that wry undercurrent is what gives the story life. I just wich I could understand it a little better.

I get the same feeling sometimes with Japanese literature (and cartoons), that there are veins of humor and symbolism that I can detect but cannot fully appeciate. In a way that’s pretty cool; it defines a new area I can learn stuff. Happily, I can still laugh at things like nonsensical street numberings. Some things will never change in London Town, and Conrad deals with the subject with a dry wit that permeates the entire book. His portrayal of ‘revolutionaries’ is not very flattering, to say the least, and many of the good guys don’t come off that well either.

This story came out in what must have been a great time to be literaturati. The novel as an art form was changing dramatically; I mentioned it a while back when speaking of The Great Gatsby, and this work just adds to the muddle of those decades. There’s a couple of decades there where What A Novel Is was no longer clearly defined, and a few writers shook off convention and told good stories their own way. This one has a lot of devices, like non-linear storytelling, that I was surprised to find in something of this era. (Maybe non-linear storytelling was common then. I’m certainly not a expert, but I associate things like that with much more recent literature.)

The story has a slyness which I’m really enjoying. People are working at cross-purposes; even the best of the good guys has a personal agenda. Perhaps the bomb maker has the purest (in the sense of not being diluted) of intentions. I haven’t finished reading yet, but I will soon.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


Bangkok 8

At the beginning of Bangkok 8: A Novel, by John Burdett, we meet a pair of cops, former thugs who have had their brains dismantled and reassembled by a Buddhist Abbot. As we learn over time, they are honest cops in a way that makes just about everyone uncomfortable. They are Thai, and from the beginning we learn that cops are not supposed to be honest (otherwise, as one citizen point out, their pay would have to be increased and that would increase taxes).

That, of course is itself an oversimplification. The two are sent to tail an American marine. Two hours later the marine is dead in an unlikely fashion, trapped in a car with a bunch of poisonous snakes on yaa baa, the local amphetamine coctail. One of the cops dies trying to save the american. It is the sort of thing an arhat would do — a buddhist saint. The other cop, Sonchai, is devastated by the loss of his soul brother. It is seen as perfectly natural that he will kill those responsible for his partner’s death.

This doesn’t go over so well with the Americans charged with investigating the death of the marine. Sonchai has had extensive experience dealing with the west; his mother was a prostitute who was kept by a succession of western men in Europe and the United States. Even so, the female FBI agent sent to work with him is a source of mystery and frustration. She, in turn, is baffled by the way the one clean cop in Bangkok idolizes his boss, a gangster in cop’s clothes.

Sonchai is an intelligent man, very observant, who can see his own past lives and feel the histories of the people around him. This does not strike him as odd or even particularly noteworthy. It’s not some secret power he uses to solve cases. It’s just an empathy he has that lets him see below the surface of the people he meets, allowing him to reach conclusions that would be difficult to arrive at logically.

Obviously, the clash between western and eastern thought is a big theme in this story. This theme is made most obvious in the context of the sex trade. Prostitutes, brothels, minor wives, and other more disturbing forms of people selling their bodies for money, security, or even love abound, and give ample opportunity to contrast cultural responses. Sonchai’s own feelings on the subject are very complicated, and are almost as confusing to his countrymen as to westerners.

There are times when the author gets a bit preachy about the subject, and unfortunately one of the preachiest times is the last chapter of the book. It is a satisfying last chapter on some levels, but it actually embraces the very patness the previous chapter openly rebelled against, which is disappointing. The actions of one of the characters in the last chapter defied reason.

Last chapter notwithstanding, this was a really good read. I like stories that effectively portray a view of life different than mine, in such a way that it makes complete sense. This story succeeds admirably on that scale. In addition, it’s not a half-bad mystery. There are a lot of different forces in conflict with one another (some of whom never emerge from the shadows, which is cool), and its got old alliances, betrayals, gut-wrenching evil, and revenge. Not everyone is completely sane.

It’s really not a thriller, thought there are plenty of tense moments, and even some intense ones. The author does an excellent job communicating the extremity of situations (some very bad) without being gratuitous. You see enough to fill in the blanks. I like that in a story. This book was a fun read with plenty of food for thought, and if you don’t mind things getting a little gritty sometimes (although not nearly as explicit as many other things I’ve read lately), then you might want to give this one a try. I’m sure glad I did.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


The Heretics of Dune

I was staying at fuego’s the other night, and I was looking for something that I could spend a few minutes reading without too much commitment. The first thing I pulled off the shelf was Hemingway, but it was in Czech. An interesting project, but not the few minutes of entertainment I was looking for. Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert caught my eye. I decided to read just the opening of the book, to see how a well-known author constructs his first words to his readers. Then I would put the book back on the shelf and get on with my life, perhaps a little wiser.

I made myself comfortable and opened the book. The first sentence is a quote. Ordinarily opening with a quote is a risky move because in your head the context is there, but the reader doesn’t have a clue. So even a very dramatic statement is not going to have nearly the effect you expect. If the statement is very short, it’s not so bad, but when the reader has no idea who is speaking, not even gender or clues about how the speech is pitched, the reader will have to defer understanding the statement until he or she gets more data. It is just a bunch of words, waiting to be interpreted. A dramatic moment wasted.

I say “ordinarily” because there are plenty of exceptions. I regularly start my stories with someone speaking (though these days almost all of those openers die in revision), and other people do, too. My corollary to the above rule is “Only start with a quote if it has context and characterization built in.” Off the top of my head, the line “I don’t care who you say you are, you’re not going to see the King,” tells a lot about the circumstances, and even tells us that the speaker is probably not important, it’s who’s being spoken to that matters. It’s got setting, conflict, and is a clear marker that the following will be a fantasy story. So, it’s not bad. Still, is it any better than, “The guard’s armor squeaked with rusty joints as he stepped in front of the door. ‘I don’t care…'”? The second version says volumes about guard (and by extension the king) as perceived by the one being addressed. When the guard says his bit, we already have mild contempt for him.

An interesting project: find works that start with a quote that cannot be easily improved with an introductory sentence. Figure out what they have in common.

So, book review. Right. That’s why we’re here. Herbert opens this novel with a quote, and he most certainly has not found an exception to the above rule. I started right off with a feeling of disorientation. That feelilng did not go away. Heretics of Dune is a textbook example of how not to start a novel. I was bombarded with made-up words, names of people and organizations, leading statements that went nowhere, things left understood between characters without letting me in on it, and on and on. I read chapter 1 with a giant WTF?! hovering over my fizzing head.

It’s probably a good time to point out that I’ve read the book before. And I’m still confused. It’s been a long time, but I’m familiar enough with Frank Herbert’s universe that I made it through that chapter. I pity the poor slob who reads this before reading the many prequels.

It was, overall, a pretty frustrating chapter one. Chapter two wasn’t much better. By chapter three we were meeting new characters that don’t have histories or secrets we needed to know. And just like that I read the whole damn book.

Which leads to the central mystery: I only planned to read the first bit. It wasn’t very good. But for some reason I kept reading. This, somehow, is Herbert’s great skill. He hides things from me, both by not telling and by deliberately obscuring them behind jargon and dogma. (I ground my teeth every time I read something like, (slight paraphrase) “Lucilla understood the full scope of Taraza’s plan. Holy crap! That was the most amazing plan ever! The implications were astonishing!” and then not tell us what Lucilla figured out. AAAARRRGGGHHH!) He assumes knowledge I don’t have. He flatters his characters by saying they have qualities that their actions demonstrate they lack.

All that, and I read the whole book, even though I didn’t intend to, in three sittings.

So what’s in there that kept me going? It’s an interesting question. The writing itself flows well; despite a rich vocabulary the words did not get in the way of the story. I think what really kept me going, however, was a handful of the characters. Not all of them; the principle rivals were all crippled by flaws that undermined thier rivalness, and some of the good guys were too damn good. But there was real internal conflict in some of the characters, people fighting against known flaws and weaknesses. (To make things more interesting, some of those perceived weaknesses sound a lot like strengths to us.)

There is one little girl who comes in out of the desert in a circumstance that has ‘miracle’ written all over it. The local priesthood adopts her, and what do you know? she turns into a spoiled brat. It was nice to meet a character who will obviously be a major factor in the history of humanity portrayed with natural human frailties. She also had a knack for superpowers.

Superpowers abound in this book; some powers are shared by members of the various secret societies, while rogue superpowers manifest unpredictably in individuals (of proper breeding). Politics are everywhere as well, and the core theme of the book might be condensed to “people with superpowers wrangling over how to rule the rest of us.” Herbert, I think, would have disagreed; his good elite are the ones who still care about the welfare of the common man. All the characters in the story are among the elite, however. Even one of the most ordinary of the good guys manages to grow spectacular superpowers (super-duperpowers) by the end.

Speaking of the end, I was running out of pages and there were still a whole lot of loose ends flying around in the narrative. People who needed to interact at length hadn’t even met yet. I knew this book was part of a series, but it was starting to look like this was going to be one of my most aggravating of peeves, the book that doesn’t even pretend to end. Happily, that was not the case. It wasn’t the best ending imaginable, but the end of one of the major characters marks a fitting end to this installment in the series. We get open-ended closure for many of the others — lessons learned, resolutions made, plans revealed — and I was satisfied with that.

It occurs to me that this might be the least useful review I’ve ever written, in terms of advising people whether or not to read a book (which, to be honest, isn’t really my goal). If you haven’t read any of the prequels, do not, by any means, start with this one. If you have read Dune, you’ve already decided whether to continue with the series. I’m guessing that if you did read Dune it frustrated you, but you read the rest of the series anyway, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, and you’re glad you did.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.