Tag Archives: Tor.com novellas

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.

Book Review: Lustlocked by Matt Wallace

I received a free advance copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.

Lustlocked is the second in Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series, which began with the riotously funny Envy of Angels late last year. When I read the earlier volume, it was as part of my ongoing project of reading all of Tor.com’s new novellas, but I didn’t expect to like it much. Instead I found it quite enjoyable—smart and fast and a thoroughly fun read. I couldn’t wait for Lustlocked, and I was not disappointed.

It picks up more or less right where Envy of Angels ended, with Lena and Darren still kind of reeling from their experiences during their first days on the job at Sin du Jour and now faced with the decision of whether or not to sign on to the company on a more permanent basis. Of course they do, or there’d be very little story left to tell, and they (and we) quickly learn that there’s never a boring day at this catering outfit. The first job after Lena and Darren sign their contracts is a huge formal wedding for goblin royalty, which quickly gets out of hand when the bride complains that her in-laws aren’t always as nice to her as they could be and resident witch Boosha decides to do something about it.

Where Envy felt a little disjointed and too busy, with the fish-out-of-water story of Lena and Darren seeming almost incidental to the various other, more interesting storylines happening around it, Lustlocked finds a much better balance. There’s still an awful lot going on, including a sort of prologue that still seems somewhat out of place and disconnected from the main plot, which concerns a goblin wedding, but Lustlocked never feels overstuffed the way its predecessor sometimes did. Aside from the prologue, things flow along at a respectable and pleasantly methodical pace.

Where this second installment of the (hopefully open-ended and long-running) series really shines, though, is in continuing to bring to life its world and characters. Every new revelation about the mythology Matt Wallace is creating for this series is a new delight, and between Lustlocked itself and the bonus short story at the end (which was an excellent surprise) there was a ton of character background and development. I loved the sequence where Lena and Darren are being given a tour of the building, where I was glad to meet a couple of new characters. Wallace’s descriptions of food are delectably creative and full of vivid sensory descriptions, while his knowledge of the restaurant/catering/food business is definitely up to the task of making Sin du Jour feel like a real and lived-in place.

My only real criticism of the series so far is that I’m not quite sure what exactly Darren is there for. He didn’t make much of an impression on me in Envy, and he wasn’t much more present in Lustlocked. While Lena is really coming into her own as a character, Darren just kind of… exists. In a series as jam-packed with characters as this one, especially when being told in novella-length pieces, I kind of feel like every character really needs to exist for a specific reason. Lena is his roommate, and even she doesn’t seem to like or think about Darren very much at all, so he sadly ends up feeling superfluous.

In a bittersweet-in-hindsight turn of events, I read Lustlocked the day that David Bowie died, which feels a little like destiny, as it’s heavily implied in the book that David Bowie is/was an actual goblin king. I think this book might always be a little special to me because of that, as it’s a lovely tribute to the man, and one that I especially like because it is such pure, unadulterated fun. Of course David Bowie could be actual goblin royalty—IRL headcanon accepted.