Tag Archives: Tor.com novellas

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.

Book Review: Pieces of Hate by Tim Lebbon

Pieces of Hate is, technically, an okay book. However, it’s exactly the sort of thing that I normally try to avoid like the plague because I kind of hate it. It’s one of the better examples of its kind of story, but it’s still not my cup of tea. There’s very little that I find more boring than a fridged wife—nameless, even, to add insult to injury—and a manly revenge quest in which the only other women encountered are prostitutes who are (of course) repulsive to the protagonist. It’s a level of casual misogyny (either the author’s or the characters’—it doesn’t matter) that I found alienating from page one.

The mythology of surrounding the characters of Gabriel and Temple is moderately interesting, but nothing particularly special. The introductory novelette, “Dead Man’s Hand” didn’t help much in this regard, either. If anything, it was especially dull, being told from the point of view of a minor character who doesn’t actually know or understand the events happening around him. It’s also a pretty terrible introduction to Gabriel as a character. Without any of the insight into Gabriel’s inner thoughts like we get in Pieces of Hate, the Gabriel of “Dead Man’s Hand” isn’t at all likeable or sympathetic.

While I like the flexibility the premise of the two warriors, locked in an ongoing battle or hunt across time and space, offers, the downside of it here is that the two stories in this volume are so different that they are very disconnected. It lets Lebbon experiment with different genres, which could be potentially very interesting, but the juxtaposition here of the western with a sort of pirate story just doesn’t work. Partly this is because it’s cliché, but the disconnectedness of the narratives is exacerbated by the abovementioned change in point of view between the two parts of the book.

The biggest issue I had with Pieces of Hate, however, is just that it’s not my kind of story. While I enjoy reading outside my usual genre comfort zones from time to time, it’s very difficult for me to get into any of these sort of testosterone-fueled revenge narratives unless there is something really special or unique about them. Unfortunately, Pieces of Hate isn’t anything I haven’t read many times before, and Tim Lebbon fails to bring anything fresh or compelling to a set of very old tropes.

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

Book Review: Genrenauts #2, The Absconded Ambassador by Michael R. Underwood

When I read the first of Michael R. Underwood’s new Genrenauts series, I compared it to the pilot of a television show—it was a solid introduction to the series, but it had a lot of pilot episode problems. The Absconded Ambassador is a rather shaky second outing for the series, and it just didn’t work for me. This time the genrenauts travel to science fiction world, which was exciting, but Underwood didn’t really do anything particularly new or interesting with the setting. The Shootout Solution had a sort of twist that, while obvious, was an interesting exploration of western adventure tropes. There’s nothing like that here, which was a little bit of a letdown.

On the bright side, there was more character development for the main characters this time around, and Leah and the rest of the genrenauts are starting to feel a little more like real people. That said, Leah isn’t a particularly likeable character, but she’s also not unlikeable in any particularly interesting ways. She also shares a lot of screen time on this outing with other characters, but none of them are very memorable, either.

If you don’t have compelling characters, a great plot is a must, but the actual plot here is whisper thin. Very few things actually happen, and those that do aren’t very interesting. The peril caused by the kidnapping of the ambassador never feels very high stakes, and the more general danger of what could happen in the real world if a genre world breaks never manages to feel, well, real.

These issues may simply be due to the limitations of the short length of these novellas and the serial nature of the story, but it’s already hard to muster up any excitement for the next installment at this point. I’ve so far compared this series to a television show, but the problem with serial novella-length installments is that they don’t come out a week apart. The next one won’t be out until months from now, and that’s a long time to wait for mediocrity.

Book Review: The Devil You Know by K.J. Parker

Alright, so I loved this book, but I kind of hate that I did because it’s actually, objectively, a lot of things that I hate. Mostly, The Devil You Know is just not nearly as clever an idea as the author seems to think it is. Still, I just ate it up, and I tore through this little book in the space of an afternoon, it was so much fun. K.J. Parker has taken an idea that has been done before and freshens it up just the right amount, but without making it overly precious or smugly faux-intellectual.

The Devil You Know takes the unreliable narrator trope and multiplies it by two, telling its story from the twin perspectives of an actual (if unnamed) devil and the great philosopher, Saloninus. While there are a couple of point of view shifts that were easily missed—to the point I had to go back and reread once or twice—this mostly works. Saloninus in particular is a wildly clever and funny character, and the contrast between his confidence and the increasingly worried tones of his devil servant is consistently hilarious enough to make up for some of the story’s shortcomings.

The biggest problem that I had with The Devil You Know was the way that women were treated in the narrative. For one thing, there are no actual female characters in this book. There are hordes of nameless prostitutes, shipped in to entertain the menfolk, and there is the woman presumed to be Saloninus’s ex-wife. The sheer lack of agency and importance of these women isn’t particularly surprising, but the way in which both Saloninus and his devil callously use women makes it difficult to truly root for either of them. It’s one thing to have a story with few or no women, but it’s something else entirely to have two essentially misogynistic point of view characters and expect them to be universally appealing.

Regardless, I rather found myself liking both Saloninus and his devil in spite of myself. Saloninus is a wonderfully wicked and manipulative character, but he is only human. The devil has the air of a sort of harried bureaucrat. His anxiety about the contract with Saloninus is palpable, and it’s highly entertaining to experience the devil’s warring feelings about the philosopher. Neither character is particularly compelling, and they definitely aren’t breaking any new ground, but they are both better-than-middling examples of their types.

While the story’s ending is somewhat telegraphed and certainly not very original, Parker manages to mostly make it work. It wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, if anything, and it would have been nice to see things go down in a way that was a little less expected. However, it’s a solidly entertaining story that one doesn’t have to think too hard about. Sometimes, that’s good enough, and this is one of those times.

This review is based upon a free advance copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom opens with a dedication, “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings,” which is a handy summary of how many, if not most, modern readers feel about Lovecraft. Victor LaValle has written at some length elsewhere about his history with Lovecraft’s work and how he was inspired to write this novella in response to the Lovecraft story “The Horror at Red Hook,” so I won’t rehash that all here. Suffice it to say that The Ballad of Black Tom functions as both an indictment of and a love letter to Lovecraft, but it’s also a great story in its own right and is sure to be one of the best novella-length works of 2016.

It also doesn’t actually require a familiarity with the material that inspired it, although it does help. Even just a basic knowledge of Lovecraft’s work and his major themes will enrich your reading of LaValle’s novella and place The Ballad of Black Tom in proper context. While there’s definitely a vast difference in the length of Black Tom and the short story that inspired it, the biggest difference here is one of narrative scope. LaValle brings Tommy Tester and his contemporaries to life in a way that is directly contrary to Lovecraft’s fantasy of immigrant communities as unwashed, faceless hordes to be controlled and exploited by one malevolently erudite old white dude. Victor LaValle has done his research and combined it with his own lived reality in order to resurrect for the reader a specific time and place and people, and “The Horror at Red Hook”, in comparison, ends up looking like exactly what it is—the paranoid imaginings of a very sheltered, racist white man.

Whereas Lovecraft viewed immigrants and brown people with the same degree of horror with which we might think of tentacle monster gods in the depths of the ocean, LaValle is consistently clear on what the horrors are in Black Tom. At the same time, though, LaValle eschews any simple dichotomy of good and evil, instead preferring to explore ideas about how and why evil is made and used—and what it means when different people use it. When the climax of The Ballad of Black Tom comes, it’s a scene of catharsis that is both exhilarating to read and uncomfortable to feel so exhilarated about.

It’s a powerful reclamation of the racist narrative that Lovecraft created nearly a century ago, and it’s more wonderful and more unsettling than anything Lovecraft could have thought up. It’s a viscerally effecting and definitive illustration of the ways in which Lovecraft’s own biases and neuroses hindered him from telling this story in the way it deserves to be told. Victor LaValle has rehabilitated it and made it perfectly his own.

Book Review: A Song for No Man’s Land by Andy Remic

A Song for No Man’s Land is a dull, depressing slog of a novella that never seems to figure out what it wants to say. For all of its short length, it seems to drag on interminably before finally sputtering to a stop right when things seemed to almost start to get interesting. It is the first book in a series of at least three, so perhaps that can be forgiven, but I’m not sure I care enough about Robert Jones to want to come back for more.

The story alternates fairly rhythmically between Robert’s time as a soldier during World War I and his childhood in rural Wales, but neither setting is particularly compelling. Robert’s time in the war is characterized by pretty run-of-the-mill WWI imagery and tropes while the flashbacks to his youth are mostly concerned with introducing the story’s mystical elements. However, the use of Scandinavian mythology (the hulder) seems out of place in a story about a Welshman as well as in a story about WWI. I’m not averse to the idea of forest spirits being upset or angry at the destruction of war (that would be very Princess Mononoke), but it seems an odd choice to co-opt the forest spirits of a neutral country where there was no actual fighting during the war. Alternatively, the forest spirits could be a reference to some similar German creatures, but that still doesn’t explain what they would be doing hanging around in Wales while Robert Jones was a kid.

The other characters introduced never manage to come truly alive, though Bainbridge comes closest. Instead, they’re all simply passing through, and they don’t even seem to have much impact on Robert, much less on the reader. Even Robert’s supposed friend, George, appears abruptly in the final quarter of the book only to come to a senselessly tragic end that left me wondering why he was introduced at all. The only women mentioned are either decidedly subservient figures (mothers, a sister, a nurse) who exist only to coo over or fuck the men in the story—well, mostly just Robert—or they are the demonically horrific Skogsrå that has apparently been menacing Robert Jones since he was a little boy.

The horror elements of A Song for No Man’s Land are sadly underdeveloped. The abovementioned appropriated mythology is made regrettably generic, and the monsters themselves are left largely to the reader’s imagination. I believe that Andy Remic was trying to rely on building a horrific atmosphere and crafting a feeling of terror through language, but his workmanlike prose is just not up to the task. Furthermore, the decision to replace vulgarities with “______” is described in an introductory note as a hat tip to the time of the book’s setting, but it comes off as coy, distracting, and frankly confusing as it’s often not clear what the censored term ought to be. This choice might have made sense if the overall tone of the writing was made to feel antiquated, but in a book that is otherwise modern in its style it just feels like an on the nose anachronism.

One of the reasons I read all of Tor.com’s novellas is because doing so encourages me to read outside my comfort zone and try new things that I wouldn’t normally pick up. Often, this has paid off big time; it’s been nice to discover several new authors to follow, and it’s interesting to read stuff that isn’t my usual cup of tea. Unfortunately, this time it just didn’t work out that way. A Song for No Man’s Land might be a great story for the right reader, but I just couldn’t like it.

Book Review: The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster

I expected to love The Drowning Eyes, but I’m sad to say I only liked it. The gorgeous cover art and the book’s description had me very excited about it, but it just wasn’t quite what I expected.

In spite of the way the book description reads, The Drowning Eyes is told almost entirely from Tazir’s point of view. I had expected it to be more equally split between Tazir and Shina, so this was a disappointment. Worse, Shina’s viewpoint was utilized suboptimally in addition to simply being underused; while it did offer a point of view through which the reader is given some extra information, mostly about Shina herself, there’s just not enough of it, and Tazir’s stronger personality is much more interesting and entertaining to read. Instead of being a good complement to Tazir’s sections, Shina’s brief POV scenes ended up being a somewhat irritating distraction from the real meat of the story.

I also thought there would be more swashbuckling adventure. Disappointingly, there was basically none. This was largely made up for by Shina’s actually really fascinating weather magic and the accompanying sort of religious order that she’s part of, but still. I feel like I was promised pirates, and all I received was the rather mysterious Dragon Ships, which are never really explained very well and aren’t actually that big a threat to the characters over the course of the journey described in the book. This also has the effect of making it feel throughout the book as if we’re being told over and over again how high the stakes are without it being backed up by any action that the reader is privy to.

It’s a problem, particularly when the personal stakes are plenty high enough to carry the story all on its own. Shina’s trauma could have been handled better and given a little more page space, and I would have loved to see more interaction with Shina and Tazir regarding Shina’s decision to give up her eyes. I love the whole idea of this practice, personally; all the best magic systems have heavy costs for power, and this is one that deserves to be explored more than it was. Tazir in general is a fascinating example of a type of female character that doesn’t usually get to exist—a somewhat grizzled, world-weary, and slightly misanthropic sea captain. I would read a dozen books about her adventures is Emily Foster would just write them. The supporting characters of Kodin and Chaqal are somewhere between underdeveloped and superfluous—especially Kodin—but this is something that, again, could be helped by just a couple more pages dedicated to each of them.

Where things really fell apart for me in this book was the abrupt ending to Shina’s quest and the disorienting shift five years into the future. Frankly, I just don’t care for it, and I would rather have seen Shina’s search for the idol wrapped up a little more neatly. The break between Chaqal and Tazir and then the one between Tazir and Kodin could have still been handled similarly, but closer to the events that actually precipitated these changes in the characters’ relationships. I suppose there’s something to be said for capturing the messiness of human relationships or something, but I would rather read a story that shows things happening instead of reminisces on them years after the fact.

Even with my criticisms of it taken into account, The Drowning Eyes is a wildly enjoyable novella. It’s full of a lot of things that I love in fantasy, and I sincerely hope that it’s part of some larger fantasy setting that we’re only just being introduced to. Probably the biggest issue I have with this novella is that it feels very much as if it’s only a part of something much larger, and I feel frustrated at not having that something larger in my hands to read right now.