Monday, January 14, 2019

I guess it's a bone orchard?

Going through goodreads.com's best of 2018 list really expanded my To Be Read pile,a and the first one to clear the hurdle was Craven Manor by Darcy Coates.

We start with Daniel Kane, who more or less lives hand to mouth, while his roommate/cousin Kyle walks all over him. Daniel is more or less an Aladdin character, known for giving what little he has to those he perceives as needing it more. Which leads to an odd job offer received by handwritten note under the door, on the night Kyle decided to let Daniel know he's being downgraded to couch surfer, since Kyle's work friend needs a place to stay and can provide more than bill money.

The job is for groundskeeper at an abandoned estate a few miles out of town. One with literally no real road going to it. Indeed, it's a huge manor that's falling apart, although there is a groundskeeper cabin in the garden, not far from the family mausoleum. Pay comes in the form of two antique gold coins, delivered weekly in an envelope, and there are a few rules as part of the employment. Things like keep the curtains closed between midnight and dawn, don't open the tower, and never answer the door if someone knocks.

Given this is a horror novel of sorts, pretty much all of the rules get broken eventually, including the one about no strangers on the property, courtesy of a drunk Kyle who lets greed cloud his judgement.

However, most of the rules deal with the ghost of a little girl, Annalise, who's mother, Eliza, is locked in the tower. Annalise's brother, Bran, would be Daniel's erstwhile employer.

As Daniel becomes more involved in affairs of the estate, he discovers a small village in the surrounding wood where the residents have obviously never seen/read The Ruins, since to a being, all of them have been dead for a century and are covered in some kind of infectious black mold.

Which does set up the central conflict in the book, of whom Daniel should trust. His employer Bran, or out of date town gossip as to who really tore the door off the church and infected the townsfolk with mold? And who really was responsible for the death of Annalise?

It wound up being a different read than I expected, particularly since the setting and stories about Annalise suggested either gothic or vampire fiction. Instead, we get a fairly good ghost story without either a fairy tale ending or a really dark ending. I particularly liked that there is no real sense of place outside the manor, since the adjacent city is never named, and about all we see of it is Skid Row.

While not the best thing I've ever read, it is well written and engaging,which is a good thing.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Under the Tuscan sun

The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold has been on my "Want to read" list for several years now, but I've never gotten around to it until now.

Honestly, I know it was released with little real fanfare, the lauds for her fantasy came later with The Curse of Chalion, but this is still a rather tasty morsel, maybe not as polished as her later works, but really good none the less.

Unlike Chalion, we're mostly in the real world, in late medieval-early Renaissance Italy in the City-State of Montefoglia. (We're not given a year to work with, but much of the statuary discussed has pagan themes, although we're told that the Malleus Maleficarum is roughly 10-15 years old here and the Inquisition does have its fires going.) Nestled roughly between Venice and Florence, Montefoglia's Duke Sandrino has a bad tendency to dangle payment in front of Prospero Benefort and his daughter Fiametta in exchange for magically imbued artisan items, like a salt cellar that neutralizes poison and makes people tell the truth. Prospero's masterwork, a bronze statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head, sits beneath clay, waiting for metal to be poured in to make it real.

Unfortunately, this all gets delayed when a Mercenary captain, Lord Ferrante, betrothed to Sandrino's daughter arrives, and it is revealed he is quite the villain. Indeed, as Duke Sandrino prepares to call off the betrothal and exile Ferrante, he is instead killed during the betrothal dinner, leading to Ferrante's hostile take over of Montefoglia. As is Fiametta's crush, Uri, the Swiss Guard captain and model for Perseus. Fiametta and Prospero flee not long after Prospero destroys Ferrante's sprirt ring, a ring housing the soul of an unshriven person. In the case of this particular ring, the soul of Ferrante's infant.

Prospero ends up dying during their escape, and the inn keeper where Fiametta runs ends up putting the body in the smoke house with the hams, waiting for payment for the room. Thankfully, Thur, Uri's brother and miner from Switzerland, happens across her, and they begin to realzie their connection. Unfortunately, Ferrante's men catch up with them and run off with Prospero's unshriven body that's been smoking with the hams for a few days. Thur has a touch of his own magic, related to the Earth, and he talks to kobalds on occasion. Fiametta's magic is related to fire, so one can only assume if their child has an affinity for air, it will compose a song about "September".

Anyway, Fia and Thur escape to St. Joseph, and the Abbot Monreale, who licenses magicians in service to the church. As the story progresses, we find out that Ferrante's magician, Vitelli, has packed both Prospero and Uri in salt in preparation to bind them both into spirit rings. We also find out Vitelli was a former student of Monreale, who in his studies of dark magic wound up becoming consumed by it.

As stated above, while it's not quite as polished as some of her later novels, this is exceptionally well written and filled with narrative goodness. Bujold does a wonderful job of working around societal limitations on women during the period in granting Fia some autonomy in her life, even as she has to hide behind her male figures. Seriously. While known for her science fiction, her fantsy deserves a read by those who enjoy the genre.

Friday, January 4, 2019

You and your words, obsessed with your legacy

I'm not sure if Morgan Brice's Burn counts as a book or not, since it clocks in at 100 pages and is listed as volume 1.5 on Goodreads. However, I own a copy and I finished it, so it's getting treated as one. (I know, technically, it's a novella, but....)

One of the original reviews of Brokeback Mountain I read summed it up as "90 minutes of angst, 1 minute of pleasure", neglecting to mention the 1 minute of pleasure happens roughly 15 minutes in. Burn is a bit like that, since we're picking up in the months following the events of Witchbane, as Seth and Evan try to find relationship balances in a fairly new romance that involves moving in together in Seth's RV. That Seth is trying to train Evan in the fine art of monster hunting and rote magicks doesn't help with this.

So, we follow Seth and Evan from Richmond to Centralia, through battles with a vengeful ghost, ghouls, zombies, and kobalds and a bunch of relationship drama and jealousies as Seth goes through the existential angst of how someone he loves would be better off with someone else and Evan thinks Seth isn't giving him enough credit for the things he can bring to the table.

This leads to both parties doing stupid things, and finally coming to terms in the end, along with a few shout outs to characters from other series, written under both Morgan Brice and Gail Z. Martin.

Honestly, I kind of liked this better than the first one, since it shows a less idealized version of boy meets boy, where boy and boy figure out sex only gets you so far when the rent's due, there's no food in the house, and someone ate the last Twinkie.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

There's a hole in the Bath

My first book of the New Year happened to be Simon R. Green's Murder in the Dark, the latest in his Ishmael Jones series, which as we found out recently is not part of his Drrod/Nightside universe, even if Black Heir is still present.

The major premise has to do with the Organization sending Penny and Ishmael to a site outside of Bath, where a hole has opened up. But not a normal hole. No, this one has razor sharp edges, no bottom, and doesn't actually have dimensions, as the scientists on site actually dug a tunnel under it that never intersected the hole.

As this is Ishmael, not long after they get there, people start winding up dead, cell phones have no signal, and Penny's car won't start. Despite the big interdimensional hole, we can be pretty sure something quite human is busy killing off the scientific team.

For such a short volume, it does contain a lot of stuff, including more clues into Ishmael's origins. On the other hand, the resolution to the mystery, while making sense also seems rather... unlikely. While the motive rings true, it really wouldn't play well in the real world, where less lethal methods that are just as vicious show up.

Fun read.