Tag Archives: Tor.com novellas

Book Review: The Ghoul King by Guy Haley

I didn’t hate Guy Haley’s first Dreaming Cities novella, The Emperor’s Railroad, though it wasn’t one of my favorite reads of the year so far. Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to read this second installment of the series. The Ghoul King seemed to promise more action and a female character with something to do besides die for male character development, and I was hoping to see Haley dig a little deeper into some of the potentially very cool world building of his post-apocalyptic landscape. Sadly, I found myself disappointed on all counts with this book, and this is another series that I’m very unlikely to continue with.

Here’s the thing about these books: they’re fine. Haley has a handful of neat ideas, and a solid (if a bit hackneyed) premise. Quinn is a perfectly serviceable anti-ish-hero; the angels are theoretically compelling antagonists; and a post-apocalypse full of zombies and robot dragons marauding brigands and petty feudal-esque politics should offer plenty of minor conflicts and quests for an itinerant adventurer. Unfortunately, once you get past the initial observation of “huh, that’s cool,” there’s very little actually happening under the surface. Haley is great at window dressing, and the books’ appeal is helped along by sharp-looking covers, but when I finished both of these books I was just sort of like “is that it?”

Quinn is as inscrutable and laconic as ever in The Ghoul King, but he never manages to be in the least bit likeable or even interesting. Perhaps because of the choice to have the action narrated again from a point of view that isn’t Quinn’s, Quinn remains a bit of a cipher, as the first person narrator is never quite able to connect with him or get to know him on a personal level at all. Once again, Quinn is a sort of cowboy-ish character who rides into town, impresses the locals and rides away with his cloak of mystery intact. He’s a notably old-fashioned construct of stoic masculine heroism that just… isn’t fun to read about at all. Unless that’s your thing, in which case do you, but it’s not much fun for me.

There are a couple of female characters this time around, though only one, Rachel, plays a major role in the action. In fact, she’s the instigator of this novella’s adventure. Unfortunately, she’s also—through sheer ineptitude and ignorance—kind of the story’s main antagonist as well, and Rachel’s search for pre-apocalypse technology doesn’t end well for pretty much anyone. It’s an almost archetypal arc, with Rachel cast as a sort of Eve who lures men on a fruitless quest for knowledge that ends in tragedy and, ultimately, their expulsion from the seat of knowledge and into an uncertain future. On the one hand, there’s something almost mythologically epic going on. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem as if Haley has anything in particular to say with any of the mythology he’s crafting.

Certainly not every story has to be deep and insightful, and there’s something to be said for straightforward, uncomplicated adventure stories, but there still has to be something to engage the reader, make them care about the events they’re reading about, and keep them coming back for more. Without a likeable protagonist or any discernable message, and with the world building stalled out (there’s not much new information revealed in this volume at all, sadly) this series doesn’t do that for me.

This review is based on an advance copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Book Review: Return of Souls by Andy Remic

I won’t be reading anything else by Andy Remic. I didn’t care for most of his first Tor.com novella, A Song for No Man’s Land, but it got interesting right at the end. Unfortunately, Return of Souls doesn’t deliver on what little promise its predecessor held. Instead, it doubles down on everything I didn’t like about the first book in this planned trilogy and adds a heaping dose of blatant misogyny that makes it a deeply unpleasant read.

Spoilers at the end, so beware.

Once again, we’re following Robert Jones through his time in World War I, only he’s come somewhat unhinged since the events of the first book and we’re now navigating his deteriorating mental state and his journeys through a sort of dark, war torn Wonderland, still pursued by the walriders that were introduced in A Song for No Man’s Land. Though all his friends died in the last book, this time around Robert is joined by a mysterious young woman named Orana who also seems to be running from the walriders. I’m sure that there are other things going on in this novella (I think I remember Bainbridge’s ghost showing up at least once), and I still get the feeling that Remic has some point that he’s trying to manfully make about war or something, but all of that is eclipsed by the sheer disgustingness of Robert’s relationship with Orana.

I mean, come on.

First off, Orana is barely even a character at all. Instead, she seems to be a sort of generalized embodiment of Remic’s ideals of womanhood, created to both tempt Robert and to motivate him to new acts of chivalrous heroism. Over and over again, Orana is described in infantilizing and fetishistic terms as childlike, naïve and in need of protection. When Robert and Orana finally have sex, even Robert feels as if he’s raping her, and indeed it’s difficult to understand exactly how this strange child-woman in need of rescue could be truly consenting. Either way, it’s gross to read.

But, wait! It gets worse. After about a hundred pages of detailing Robert’s creepily paternalistic relationship with Orana, the final revelation of the book is that Orana was a walrider all along and was, I guess, using Robert Jones to help her reach her home? Or maybe she was just tricking him deep into walrider territory? Or maybe Orana’s transformation really is just a misogynistic commentary on the inherent duplicitousness of women? I don’t even know, and it’s hard to care very much. Robert Jones is a highly unlikeable and, frankly, boring character, and honestly, by the time I got to the end of the book I was just ready for it to be over. Unfortunately, there’s no real ending here, just this major revelation and a sort of teaser for the trajectory of the final book in the trilogy, which I just don’t think I can bring myself to read.

I’d like to say that it’s not Return of Souls, it’s me, but I’m having a hard time even thinking of reasons why other people might enjoy this title. Its pace is slow, and its prose is only workmanlike. Its horror elements are sloppy, and its fantasy elements, drawn from real-world mythology, are poorly researched and badly implemented. Robert Jones is a character in turns profoundly dull and remarkably despicable, but he’s at no point enjoyable to read about. There’s no humor to speak of in the book, no spark of fun or joy to speak of; rather, it’s just unrelentingly dark and almost nihilistic in tone. But, hey, maybe that’s your thing. I won’t be back for more, though.

Book Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

I adored Fran Wilde’s debut novel, Updraft, so I was thrilled when I learned she had written one of Tor.com’s novellas. The Jewel and Her Lapidary was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of 2016, so imagine my surprise and dismay when I turned out to just not care for it very much.

Where Wilde excels, of course, is with world building, which was proven amply in Updraft and confirmed here. I loved the idea of the Jewels and Lapidaries in this novella, and I found the magic system Wilde describes interesting enough. And I liked the framing of the story as piece of folk history. Unfortunately, for all the fine world building on display, there’s just not a whole lot else going on here. I knew going in that this novella was somewhat on the shorter side, but there’s barely even a short story worth of actual story buried under all this world building, and it’s not that interesting of a story.

Instead of a proper novella, this feels like background work for a novel, which would be a much better use for such a complicated premise and would have given the characters, in particular, much more room to breathe. It’s hard to really get a sense of Lin and Sima and their relationship with such limited exposure to them, and most of what we learn about their friendship feels like an awful lot of telling rather than showing. For that matter, it’s unclear whether we should even consider their relationship a friendship or not, as the bond between Jewel and Lapidary is kind of weirdly symbiotic, not entirely consensual (they are assigned to each other in infancy), and has the Lapidary in a decidedly subordinate position. The thing is, none of the implications of this—which are all genuinely fascinating—are examined in the text, and instead Lin and Sima’s relationship is portrayed as somewhat simplistically sister-like.

Worst of all, the story, such as it is, ends so abruptly that it feels unfinished and was certainly unsatisfying. While I don’t require a happy ending, the melancholy of this one was an unpleasant surprise; the vague cover art and the book description suggested something that was going to be much lighter in tone than what I got. Sure, one isn’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this one is misleading at first glance, and being an ebook reader I only really looked at the cover the one time. Things get fairly dark very quickly in this little book, and then they just end bittersweetly—with a distinct emphasis on the bitter part. Which would be fine if this story was part of some longer work to give it some context, but the framing device (much as I do like it) of it as folklore just isn’t quite enough to keep it from being rather unrelentingly and yet meaninglessly sad.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary isn’t the worst thing I’ve read this year, but it wasn’t great. There are the bones of a potentially great fantasy world here, but they’re wasted without a compelling story to bring them to life. I’m bummed by how little I liked this much-looked-forward-to book, but do I have to say that I’m definitely here for it if Wilde decides to revisit this universe in a longer format. In the meantime, I can always reread Updraft, and I’ve got Cloudbound to look forward to next month.

Book Review: Pride’s Spell by Matt Wallace

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this lately, but I love Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series so very, very much. Sure, I might have started off feeling a little tepid towards it, but it’s new entries have quickly become some of my most anticipated new releases. They’re only getting better over time, and Pride’s Spell is the best one yet. It’s a smart, action-packed, hilariously absurdist romp and probably the most fun thing you can read this summer.

This installment takes half of the team to Hollywood, where they’re doing the catering for an important movie premiere that takes a sinister turn. That doesn’t mean the folks who stay behind in New York are off the hook, though. There’s not a lot to be said about the plot without giving the whole thing away, but if nothing else about this book appeals to you, it’s worth reading just to read the truly superb action scene where a dude fights an evil Easter Bunny.

That said, there’s a lot to love about Pride’s Spell, and it’s good to see the world Matt Wallace is creating start to feel a bit more lived in. There’s a definite monster-of-the-week feel to it that keeps each installment fresh and interesting, but three books in there’s also an internal logic emerging that is finally making the Sin Du Jour world feel fully realized. It also helps that the overarching plot of the series is starting to take shape and make a bit more sense out of the sometimes random-seeming events. The copious pop culture references will likely date the books in the future, but right now they work well to keep these stories grounded enough in reality that the reader can accept some of their more surreal qualities.

Distinct character arcs are starting to come together as well, particularly Lena’s, which was the biggest surprise of this book for me. When I read Envy of Angels, I rather thought that Lena’s roommate, Darren, would end up being the main character, but instead it’s Lena and her experiences that have been increasingly foregrounded. I’m glad because, while Darren’s rocky adjustment to the new job isn’t completely boring, I’d much rather read about Lena’s burgeoning friendships with other women, her professional accomplishments, and even her messy relationships with men. She’s a delightfully complex character who does everything with an admirable if occasionally ill-advised fierceness that makes her both admirable and relatable.

The only major issue I see with Pride’s Spell is that I don’t know if anyone will be able to make heads or tails of it without having read the previous installments of the series. While each novella is a self-contained adventure, there’s a lot going on, and enough references here to the previous books that I could definitely see an uninitiated reader feeling a bit adrift. The good news is that the series is really excellent and improving over time, and it’s not too late to start from the beginning. Sin Du Jour is a fast, fun read perfect for breaking reading slumps or relaxing between more challenging books. You could start with Pride’s Spell, and a clever reader will catch up quickly, but you really owe it to yourself to go back and read the first couple installments.

This review is based on an advance copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: A Whisper of Southern Lights by Tim Lebbon

A Whisper of Southern Lights is the second novella I’ve read by Tim Lebbon, and it’s probably the last. I didn’t care much for Pieces of Hate a couple of months ago, or that book’s bonus novelette “Deadman’s Hand,” but I thought I would check this one out nonetheless. Generally Tor.com’s novellas are of good quality, and I thought that perhaps I just needed to give Lebbon’s Assassin Series a second try. Unfortunately, I liked this entry of the series even less than the previous installment.

The basic plot of this series is that this guy, Gabriel, is an ordinary man whose wife and children were murdered by a demon, Temple, after which Gabriel is made immortal and set to hunt Temple across time and continents. Over hundreds of years, the two immortal enemies meet and fight several times, but neither comes out ahead, and there doesn’t seem to be any actual purpose to their struggle. Indeed, when Gabriel and Temple do brush up against regular mortals, it tends to be fatal one way or another.

In A Whisper of Southern Lights, Gabriel is hunting for Temple in the chaos of the Second World War. He finds him in Singapore, where both of them are working to discover some knowledge possessed by a soldier who is being kept by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. However, for all that this sounds as if there would be some specificity to the tale, everything about this book is vague and generic. Even the racial slurs and the venom with which the soldier character thinks about the Japanese are entirely boring because it’s so obviously exactly the sort of thing I feel ought to be expected from this series as it moves into this setting. Gabriel continues to be a completely non-descript character, and Temple is still a caricature of evil. The man with the snake in his eye is as mysterious as ever, and the mythology of Gabriel, Temple, and their eternal struggle is still murky and ill-defined.

Worst of all, though, is that there’s very little reason to care about any of the characters at all. Even the soldier who is a temporary point of view character isn’t very likeable. He’s a random sort of fellow, not highly educated or a deep thinker, and without any particular virtue to make us root for his continued survival except that he is human, while Temple is not and even Gabriel is something else by now. It does seem unfair that some random guy would get caught up in their conflict, but with no real sense of what the conflict is even about and little enough to like about any of the characters, it’s hard to get invested in the events of the novella.

It seems as the Tim Lebbon wants to convey something deep and profound about the nature of war or of good and evil or humanity or something, but it’s hard to convey much of anything if you can’t string together a coherent story and make readers care about it. Your mileage may vary, but I’m getting off this ride before I waste any more of my time on waiting for it to come to some kind of point.

This review is based upon a copy received from the publisher through NetGalley.

A Whisper of Southern Lights will be released on May 10, 2016. 

Book Review: The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley

The Emperor’s Railroad is an utterly pedestrian story that is only rescued from total mediocrity by some intriguing world building. Unfortunately, Guy Haley’s novella never manages to full utilize the potential of its setting, and the ending leaves the reader with far more questions than answers.

Told from the point of view of an elderly man, Abney, looking back on his childhood encounter with a Knight, Quinn, The Emperor’s Railroad details a harrowing journey as Quinn escorts twelve-year-old Abney and Abney’s mother from the ruins of their small town in what I guess is Pennsylvania to a different small town in Ohio. It’s not entirely clear, and it doesn’t really matter that much because the setting a really just so much set dressing for a very old and very dull tale. It’s cool set dressing, but there’s not really a lot of substance if you think about it for more than a minute.

So, basically, there was some kind of global war apocalypse that was followed up by a zombie plague some thousand years before the events of the story. In the centuries since, “angels” have taken up residence in some of the major cities east of the Mississippi—Pittsburgh, Columbus, and others—from which they rule large territories that are additionally broken up in a sort of feudal system of kings and lords and even at one point an emperor, all of whom are beholden to the angels. The angels seem to have retained some science and technology, and they seem to have at least some measure of control over the armies of Dead that still ravage the countryside.

The Dead, along with a “dragon” set to police the borders between a couple of territories, are the dangers that are most immediately relevant to the story here, though, which I guess is good because none of this makes much sense. It’s neat, and I like some of the ideas, but Haley both over- and under-explains here. There are a lot of details that hint at a complex and potentially interesting world, but there’s not enough explanation for how or why this world came to be. Sure, the “angels”—though they obviously aren’t really angels—are kept mysterious, but their motives are also completely opaque, and while it’s clear that these overlords are managing the ugly and unjust world as we find it in the story, what’s not clear (at all) is how this benefits them. The subjugated towns and downtrodden populace live miserable lives, but they don’t seem to pay taxes or tithes of goods to the Dreaming Cities. In fact, travel and trade of all kinds is shown to be nearly impossible. It just doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Abney’s mother, Sarah, is the only female character in the book, and she’s not particularly present in the story. She exists largely on the edges of the story and her primary purpose in the narrative is to die so that Abney can survive. She does get a bit of backstory about how she’s a valuable commodity in a world with few fertile women left, but though Abney loves his mother and is saddened by her eventual—and heavily telegraphed—demise, The Emperor’s Railroad is primarily about Abney and Quinn and how meeting Quinn changed the way Abney saw the world. Quinn is a pretty standard lone wolf itinerant hero, though, and there’s not much to distinguish him from other characters of his type. He’s stoic and self-deprecating and gruffly kind, and when he discharges his duty he moves on to new adventures. That is to say, he’s nothing special.

Perhaps this story deserved to be told in a novel length work in order to take better advantage of the author’s considerably imaginative world building, or perhaps it’s a world that ought to have been explored through a different character’s (Sarah’s, perhaps?) perspective. Either way, The Emperor’s Railroad doesn’t quite manage to be terribly interesting. It also feels a little too reminiscent of the other recent Tor.com novella, Pieces of Hate by Tim Lebbon, which dealt with another type of itinerant hero and opened with a novelette that was a similar type of boy’s-adventure-with-hero-passing-through kind of story. Still, it’s for the most part a highly readable and mostly-enjoyable introduction to the world of Guy Haley’s Dreaming Cities. I don’t expect that these will be among my favorite of Tor.com’s novellas, but I’m looking forward to the next one, if for no other reason than I’m hoping to find out some of the answers to all the questions I have about how this post-apocalyptic world works.

The Emperor’s Railroad will be released on April 19, 2016.

This review is based upon an advance copy of the book received for review through NetGalley.

Mini-Review: Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Forest of Memory is one of my favorite of Tor.com’s novellas to date. It’s an interesting exploration of memory and the authenticity of experiences in a world in which nearly all human experience is filtered through a technological lens. Smartly, Kowal doesn’t dwell much on the actual future technology she’s imagined, and she also avoids the pitfalls of attempting to examine the broader societal effects of that technology. Instead, she focuses squarely on a single character and her personal experiences in order to tell a singularly excellent story.

The first-person point of view is likewise a good choice, and Katya is an engaging narrator. The peculiar method in which the story is being told—from Katya’s point of view, in hindsight, ostensibly as Katya types the story on a typewriter for a client—is clever but not too precious. The occasional misspellings and typos are just enough to be noticeable to a keen reader, but not so obtrusive that they detract from the reading experience. Instead, they lend character to the story and add a small sense of realism to an otherwise somewhat dreamlike narrative.

I haven’t read much of Kowal’s fiction, just this and her marvelous novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” and I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to reading her Glamourist Histories fantasy series, but I will definitely be watching for more of her science fiction in the future.