Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Because the night belongs to us

It took me some time to get in the spirit of Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor, a novel set in the world of their eponymous podcast. Having never listened to said podcast (full confession, my mind wanders when listening to things; it's one reason I don't do audiobooks), I started off having no idea about the setting. only that more than a few friends of mine really like the podcast.

Night Vale is a desert town that seemingly isn't particularly connected to the rest of the world. It comes off a bit like Stephen King and Garrison Keillor collaborating, creating the Derry Home Companion. 

The story for the novel centers on two disparate women, Jackie and Diane, only one of whom is an American kid doing the best that she can. That would be Jackie, who's been 19 going on centuries. She runs the local pawn shop, giving people $11 for anything they pawn. Mercedes, tears, and to get the ball rolling, a piece of paper that says "KING CITY". Said paper is pawned by a gentleman in a tan suit whom she can't seem to remember after he leaves with his ticket and $11. Nor can she seem to drop said piece of paper. no matter what she does, it keeps returning to her hand. Also, she can't seem to write anything other than KING CITY after accepting the pawn.

Diane, on the other hand, is doing the best she can to raise her son Josh, who besides being a moody teenager, spends most of his time changing shape. Her world gets disturbed when Josh's father Troy starts appearing again in town in several different jobs and locations. She also can't seem to figure out what happened to a coworker of hers, a man in a tan suit named Evan, whom no one seems to remember.

It takes roughly 6/10ths of the books before these stories overlap and join finally. Even the bizarre Voice of Night vale sections narrated by the radio host Cecil can't overcome the lack of decent pacing to get there. Not even Cecil's boyfriend, the scientist, can overcome that. It dragged until they meet up.

However, when the two storylines to meet up, the book becomes very very good, and suddenly becomes the book that goes with me for the second half of lunch, rather than going back in the bag. From the cthonic librarians (whom we only ever see the occasional tentacle), to the city council of Night Vale (who remains a background player), it gets intriguing. Even if the resolution is tied up in plastic flamingoes that send people to different dimensions.

Maybe I would have liked this more if I was familiar with the podcast, but as a novel, it was very uneven.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dost thou wish to live deliciously?

I started The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn under the mistaken impression it was the first book in a series he titled Swords of Albion. Seems I was incorrect, that this was book two in the series, which may explain why it took me several chapters to get fully immersed in this rather amusing book of spycraft in Elizabethan England.

Before I first met our protagonist, one Will Swyfte, we first meet Christopher Marlowe, on the run from a hunter who seems to know him of old. We meet one of Marlowe's boys, who is given direct instruction to deliver a note of some import to his close friend Will Swyfte, "The Greatest Spy in England".

We encounter Swyfte at the opening of Marlowe's new play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which is being performed at one of the few theaters open due to the plague sweeping across London. (For those of you not familiar, Marlowe's version predates both the Goethe version, as well as the operatic version. Marlowe's does not have a happy ending. Also of note, the book is set in 1593, Marlowe's is listed as first being published in 1604.) During the play, we first learn that Sir Walsingham, former spymaster is dead and the dwarf Sir Robert Cecil currently is running operations, even as another member of the Privy Council, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, tries to run off the old master's rings. During the performance, we see cionfrontations between the two groups, even as a killer in a devil mask stalks Master Swyfte in the auditorium. The killer fails in his attempt, partly due to to the intervention of one Irish Spy, Meg, and partially due to a devil appearing during the sequence when the actor playing Faust is summoning Mephistopheles. This devil, however, takes the form of Jenny, Swyfte's long lost true love, long ago taken Underhill by the Unseelie Court.

Oh yes, let me bring them up, since they're the primary antagonists in this. The Unseelie Court are trying to get rid of defenses on England put in place by Dr. John Dee. Who somehow managed to help capture one of the high family and lock it in the Tower.

Marlowe is found dead, stabbed, apparently in a dispute over gambling debts. Swyfte senses a rat, since Marlowe was about to be brought before the Privy council on Charges of treason due to his professed Atheism. (A note on this: they finally explain that this is considered a crime in Anglican  circles more so than Catholicism because Atheism suggests Jesus was a bastard born to a whore.)

Oh lord, so much plot, and no gunpowder. Just treason.

Swyfte, who gets declared a traitor to the Crown about halfway through, seeks out Dr. Dee, who points out the Devil in the form of Jenny has become his personal Mephistopheles. Something we sort of found out during Swyfte's visit to Saint Mary of Bethlehem's hospital. (Modern readers likely know it better as Bedlam.) Here Swyfte meets the basis for Marlowe's Faust, who supposedly is possessed by the Devil and destroyed a town in the Shire.

We also meet the soon to be crowned King of France, Henry of Navarre, who invites the Unseelie to dinner in order to form an alliance with them. It is here we learn bits about the Scar-Crow Men, who are... I guess the best way to describe them would be adult Changelings. Of the old meaning. Animated bodies that replace a real human.

Quite a bit happens, as Swyfte's closest allies try to find the Man in the Devil mask who's ritually killing off Walsingham's old spy ring, as Swyfte tries to find the secrets Marlowe cyphered into his play, that eventually lead Swyfte and Red Meg to France, after being hunted by Xanthus, an Unseelie hunter who's brother Swyfte killed previously. We meet Henry again, we see the monestary at Reims, we break into Notre Dame.

We wind up back at Nonsuch for the finale, wherein all the plots get resolved.

On the positive, with a few exceptions, Chadbourn has seemingly done his research into the era, which gives it the feel of authenticity as we deal with plague in the streets, several cabals of spies and occult organizations, and two very different supernatural antagonists. Also, while not using current idiom, the language is NOT Elizabethan, making it easier for the contemporary reader to follow along.

On the negative, Red Meg, who is by far one of the most interesting supporting characters in the book, complete with an intriguing backstory and wholly unique motivations, gets a bad case of the Heaving Bosoms outside of Notre Dame. While he later redeems her, that one particular chapter is tonally off from everything before and after it, and it shook me out of the story.  

All in all, while I wish I had read the first book first, this was a very good read, and one that had me digging through websites to get more information on the real characters interspersed among the fictitious ones.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Well, that was fast

I called in sick today, and in between passing out in bed, I managed to finish Lois McMaster Bujold's novella, Penric's Demon, set in the World of the Five Gods. I sadly haven't re-read the three novels that precede this particular tale since I started this blog, but that may change before too terribly long, particularly if I can procure a copy of the follow up to this volume, Penric and the Shaman.

A bit of summation of the setting, since a new reader to the world could theoretically pick up on some of it, but it would miss the rich tapestry of the world. Basically, Most of the nations in this setting recognize Five Gods, The Daughter of Spring, The Mother of Summer, The Son of Autumn, The Father of Winter, and the Bastard, God of all things out of season. In the archipelago of Roknari, they consider the Bastard a demon and not a God, leading to what most characters think of as the Quadrene Heresy. It also means things The Bastard rules are outlawed behaviors in the archipelago.

The previous three volumues in the series focused on the ways the gods work in the setting, as well as introducing Shamanism in cold Darcatha. Shamanism in this world merges the soul of a human with that of an animal, and must be undone for one of the 5 to claim the soul.

Anyway, this one is set in what seems to be the small kingdom of the Weald and literally starts about the place most books would place chapter 5 or 6. Poor Lord Penric (literally poor as his Barony of Jurold was left mostly bankrupt by Penric's father) is on the way to his arranged marriage with a nobleman's daughter when he stops to assist Learned Ruchia, a sorcerer of the Bastard who had the misfortune to have a heart attack in front of Penric's horse. (Temple sorcerers are those who are possessed by a demon, but have equal or greater footing in the arrangement than the demon.)

As such, as Ruchia dies, the demon she's hosting jumps into Penric, who's not been properly prepared for such a thing. Nor, when the demon starts talking, is he prepared for a demon whose personalities are all female. (Demons take on the traits of the people they've possessed. As such, this one has Ruchia and several predecessors including a courtesan, a lioness and a doe incorporated into the whole.) This leads to some rather amusing situations, as Penric is an adolescent, and also doesn't quite understand a certain bathhouse when he makes it to Martensbridge, where Learned Ruchia was originally traveling.

As such, we watch as he slowly becomes an accidental sorcerer, naming the demon Desdemona, as well as acknowledging her 12 other parts. We read, intrigued, as he gets pulled into small amounts of spy craft and trapped by one who would be a friend.

And in the end, we find him pleading with The Bastard for the life of Desdemona.

I love this setting immensely, and would highly recommend it (starting with The Curse of Chalion) to anyone who enjoys intelligent, well written fantasy that understands pacing.

The Poisoner's Garden

A few notes before I start talking about Simon R. Green's Dr. DOA. The main library finally reopened, and I had the opportunity Monday to finally go explore beyond the first floor, which lead to some new additions to the TBR pile. You'll find out more about them as I finish them, although one looks to be book 2 in a series, although unlike the other 2 series by the author I saw, this one wasn't numbered, suggesting that skipping a volume shouldn't have any real bearing on understanding the plot. (I did put a request in on Book 1 of one of his other series, the one which initially caught my eye.)

Also, the main library now as a large observation area in the reading room, meaning you can read while looking out at the Deaf School Topiary park.

 Anyway, back to our favorite cheeky Drood, as he navigates the shadows of England again.  We start with Eddie and Molly being summoned before the Matriarch again, this time to investigate on Cassandra Inc, a new organization selling information on future events to interested buyers. As this might interfere with the Drood family's own aims and ends, Eddie and Molly get sent off to find out where their information is coming from. When this gets wrapped up, and we've received a bit of foreshadowing from the source of the predictions, Eddie and Molly return to Drood Hall, where Eddie passes out and gets transferred to the ICU in the infirmary.

Seems our hero has somehow gotten poisoned by the supposedly Urban Legend, Dr. DOA. As the family can't figure out what it is, or how the Dr. managed to get through stringent security in the first place, and the only reason Eddie is still alive has to do with the Strange Matter Torc, Eddie and Molly set off on a quest to find Dr. DOA and/or a cure. What follows is fairly standard for the Shadowed world, with visits to the Wulfshead Club, a place where life energy is transferred from donors to those seeking to prolong their life, and even a remote mountain base that's home to the Drood offshoot Survivors. 

We eventualy wind up in one of Molly's old lairs from her days as a supernatural terrorist, where we solve on of the side mysteries in this one; namely, who's been sending various friends and enemies to fight Eddie while pretty much repeating the same script?

Eventually, Eddie and Molly confront Dr. DOA in the least likely place, and we get left with a cliffhanger on par with the one at the end of From Hell With Love.

As I say when I review one of these, if you've read one, you know what you're getting in to. If you haven't, and your curiousity is aroused, try one. They're all fairly short reads, and there are worse ways to spend your time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Wild women of Borneo!

A quick note before we start delving into book 11 of Taylor Anderson's Destroyermen trilogy. I had reason to visit the USAF Museum. Worth a visit if you're in Ohio. But related to this review of Blood in the Water, the section on WW II has a large map of the Eastern Pacific, which really helped me get a better grip on the locations in the series.

Much like GRRM had done with his last two books, we get brief glimpses of the war in the American continents, while focusing mostly on India and Madagascar and adventures therein for this volume.  Which is good, since it means we get more on Captain Reddy and the scene stealing Dennis Silva, but once again, we also get to see Matt's wife get taken hostage yet again. This time by the League of Tripoli, who try to engineer a bit of misdirection involving giving over one of their advanced ships to General of the Sea Kurokawa.

This is after they sink the Republic of Real People's Amerika, which admittedly does try to ram the boat that shouldn't be there to begin with.

In India, Grik General Halik, if not becoming quite an ally of the alliance, does manage to rout the Grik coming via Persia on his way out, with a little assistance from the alliance trying to get him out of India.

Silva, our favorite psycho, is chasing up central Madagascar with Chack, where they meet the Lemurian ancestors (both good and bad) and wind up fiding out where the Grik are crossing the straights from Central Africa.

Task Force Alden provides the major battle of the book, running into Kurokawa's new air and naval forces, leading to more deaths and sinkings.

Like previous volumes, this is fast paced and exciting, even if it does feel like it's been going on longer than US involvement in World War II. Looks like next year's book will likely pick up with Shinya's army in South America and the New United States that they've finally found.