A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

A Crown for Cold Silver (The Crimson Empire, #1)First, my heartiest apologies for the long absence – fall at work and school has proven busier than expected. Not that I haven’t been reading, but my writing time has been limited.

Alex Marshall, purportedly the pseudonym for a well-known author of other genres, makes his high fantasy debut with A Crown for Cold Silver. As if the critical accolades weren’t enough, the way the title rolls off the tongue built up the intrigue as did the ferocious cover, a perfect depiction of the bloody struggle for empire narrated in the book.

Feared conqueror Cobalt Zosia and her Five Villains tore and remade the Crimson Empire, until the Queen was stricken down and her mercenary army scattered. Presumed dead for twenty years, Zosia’s peaceful life is disrupted by the assassination of her husband and the massacre of her village. Vowing vengeance, she sets out to reconnect with old allies, discovering that loyalty is not what it once was, nor are her enemies the same.

That summary only captures part of Marshall’s sprawling story, which follows numerous characters across 600-odd pages. Unfortunately though, that’s a little too much reach, as the parts of Zosia’s past are more compelling a tale than the present. Her life has faded into legend, and it’s an interesting contrast to see how such a larger-than-life figure has aged. You don’t get a lot of fantasies with the protagonist in their fifties, as she and her villains are, and they still steal the show, unfortunately for the other characters.

Princess General Ji-hyeon, who is impersonating Zosia for her own glory, is a pale copy of the original, and her love triangle with the bland horned wolf Sullen and priggish Virtue Guard Keun-ju is nothing short of boring. Same with Sister Portales, a conflicted devil-ridden witchnun whose struggles with sinfulness are tedious at best. How can they compare to Villains like Singh with her martial skills and mighty mustache or Hoartrap’s uncanny wizardry and twisted humor?

Poorly, that’s how. I will admit that I admire the diversity found in the characters – I’ve never read a book so nonchalant about gender identity and sexuality. Males have arranged marriages to other men and spawn children. Multiple characters are open to bisexuality, and a few are happily androgynous. All of this is blatantly acceptable as is the crassness and debauchery you would expect from hardened soldiers. They flirt, they drink, they smoke – more attention is paid to this very human behavior than to the politicking and military strategy.

In fact, that’s another thing I didn’t like. Marshall often told rather than showed. Zosia narrates what her plans are, but we don’t get to see them unfold. We hear she’s a great tactician, but we don’t directly hear her and Ji-hyeon plotting war strategy. Hoartrap, Colonel Hjortt, Wan – all these men come across as cartoon caricature bad guys because they spend time declaiming their plots to their captives.

Meanwhile, we learn about all this intrigue, but other parts of this world are left unexplained. This is practically the only fantasy I’ve read that doesn’t include a map, so I’m boggled at the scope of the Crimson Empire from the Immaculates to the Chain. We know little to nothing about how devils work, which is acceptable because neither do most characters, but unacceptable when the horned wolves or the wildborn are thrown in without explanation about how they’re related to devilry. (If you didn’t understand this paragraph, don’t worry, because I don’t either even after finishing the book.)

So I concluded with mixed feelings. A Crown for Cold Silver is certainly unique, but between the length and my general confusion/boredom, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel.

3,5 Stars

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Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale

For forty years, peace has prevailed between the kingdom of Goredd and the dragons, whom have taken human shape to serve as ambassadors, scholars, and teachers. Gifted musician Seraphina Dombegh has benefited from their knowledge, and was recently hired to be assistant to the court composer when a member of the royal family is found murdered. All signs point to a dragon as killer and tensions run high as the anniversary of the treaty approaches. Seraphina finds herself at the center of the investigation, under the watchful eyes of Prince Lucian Kiggs, and must struggle to uncover the truth even while hiding her own deadly secret.

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina was one of the best books I’d read in 2013, well before I started this blog, and one of my favorite fantasy books of all time. Seraphina proved to be a bold and intelligent, yet relatably vulnerable heroine – so very human despite her hidden part-dragon nature. Her supporting cast, from the menagerie of “grotesques” to the swoon-worthy Kiggs to the charming Princess Glisselda, were all equally compelling as was the surprising villain. And the dragons are like no other dragons in print. This book had it all – politics, art, religion, all wrapped up in strong writing that ended with me begging for more.

Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)So I obviously picked up Shadow Scale as soon as I could get my hands on a copy from the library. In the sequel, Seraphina has exposed herself as half human, half dragon and must search for more of her kind to halt the deadly war between dragons and humans. I was thrilled to widen the world she inhabits, especially as Hartman increased the character diversity and was respectful of race and sexuality, but sadly many of my favorite parts of the first book were shafted. We barely glimpse Kiggs and Glisselda, and the resolution to their love triangle was frustrating. Most of the book follows Seraphina slowly meandering to find her kind, but there’s too many found to keep track of or develop well. The villain of this piece is disappointing, and is vanquished in an even more dispiriting deus ex machina. Worst of all, Seraphina lacked her character spark and agency – she doesn’t play music or hunt down murderers, she just sulks and twiddles her thumbs for 2/3rds of this lengthy volume.

I’d still take another glimpse into this world, though it seems like this is Hartman’s last, at least focusing on Seraphina. But I was incredibly disappointed by how the duology wrapped up since my expectations were so high following the first book. I’d still highly encourage fans of music or dragons to pick up Seraphina as it’s a truly magical, well-constructed YA fantasy but continue on to Shadow Scale at your own risk.

5 Stars to Seraphina & 3 Stars to Shadow Scale

The Necromancer by Jonathan Howard

The Necromancer (Johannes Cabal, #1)Several months ago, I read The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4), and really enjoyed its tantalizing blend of humor and horror. So of course I had to go back to the beginning with Jonathan Howard’s The Necromancer, the first book in his series (of which The Brothers Cabal is most recent) about the dread, slightly dreary necromancer Johannes Cabal.

Brilliant scientist Johannes Cabal was so devoted to his work that he sold his soul to the devil years ago in order to gain greater knowledge of necromancy. Satisfied at his master of the subject, he now decides he’d like to get it back. Journeying deep in hell, he finds the Devil, who is fiendishly amused by the idea and proposes a wager: Johannes has one calendar year to harvest 100 souls for Satan or his own is damned forever. With the help of one of Satan’s traveling carnivals, a crew of zombies and his charmingly persuasive vampire brother, Johannes sets off on his macabre road show, and hopefully his redemption.

I was hopeful after reading this description of an adventure that was alluded to in the fourth book, but the carnival is less fun and more tragic than expected. Among the souls that Johannes tries to collect are distraught mothers, abused women, elderly fathers, and young children. I found Johannes cruel at time and (worse!) dreadfully dull, plus there isn’t nearly enough of my favorite adorable brotherly vampire, Horst. Admittedly, the various odd denizens of Hell are delightful as are the hapless zombie minions, but the human soul of the book is close to nonexistent, except ironically in the undead.

Normally I would never advocate to read a series out of order, as I think you lose a sense of the universe it’s in besides spoiling yourself silly, but for this one I will. The Brothers Cabal was way superior a book to The Necromancer in both plot and entertainment, so skip right on ahead past this sagging story to its quirkier sibling.

3 Stars

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

The Midnight Queen (Noctis Magicae, #1)Gangly and geeky Gray Marshall studies magic at Oxford’s Merlin College, where a mysterious errand with four fellow students ends with a friend’s death, difficulties using his considerable powers, and a summer of confinement at the country estate of his domineering professor Appius Callender. There he meets the professor’s daughter Sophie, whose supposed lack of skill in magic doesn’t deter her from secretly devouring magical lore from her father’s library. Sophie and Gray’s instant camaraderie is tested when they uncover the professor’s sinister conspiracy with the king’s closest advisor, dragging them into an adventure that will uncover the hidden secrets of both their pasts.

(Spoilers ahead)

The Midnight Queen is the first book in Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s Noctis Magicae series, which takes place in a magical England in a Regency-like era. Naturally that includes a patriarchal disdain for women studying magic, but thankfully Sophie defies those rules and proves to be a likeable heroine, intelligent and quick-witted without being irritably rebellious for the sake of rebellion. Meanwhile, Gray is not the typical macho man, instead lovably dorky and supportive of Sophie to the extent that he’s relagated a bit to the sidekick position once he arrives in the country as her character and magical ability are developed strongly. In fact, it’s mostly the women, including the mysterious housekeeper Mrs. Wallis and Sophie’s spunky younger sister Joanna, who drive the plot thereafter while Gray bumbles about.

The plot itself is engaging at the beginning as Gray and Sophie uncover the truth about the events that have led them to that point in their lives, but dithers after Sophie and Gray escape the Callender household to London in order to save the day. Mostly nothing happens for 100 or so pages as they lounge around Gray’s sister’s house, except their slow-burning romance that mirrors a Shakespearean comedy in their ineptitude to recognize each other’s obvious feelings. Although I enjoyed the action-packed conclusion, I felt like many of my questions about the conspiracy remained unanswered. As well-sketched as Sophie and Gray were, the villains came across as caricatures because of the lack of information about their motives.

Hunter’s writing style truly is gorgeous, and weaves an appropriately magical atmosphere; however, her written content can become clunky, such as the heavily hinted prophecy of “The One” and the tale of the hidden princess. I also felt like she failed to provide adequate backstory to parts of the world that weren’t Sophie&Gray, including Merlin College, the history and politics of their society, and the truth-seeing priests of Apollo who briefly appeared as deus ex machina saviors. Since it’s the first in a series despite its definitive conclusion, perhaps we’ll learn more but that’s no excuse for poor exposition in such a lengthy book.

I was charmed and hooked while reading/devouring this story, but (since I suck) I’ve delayed this review a few weeks and whatever alluring magic I felt then has mostly faded now. Recommended for fans of Sorcery & Cecilia or the Glamourist Histories series, both of which also remind me of fantasy Jane Austen novels, but I would say its not as good as the former if slightly better than the latter.

3.5 Stars

Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen

Red Queen (Red Queen, #1)Finally, I got my hands on the much-hyped Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, one of the most heralded YA books of 2015 thusfar…and it sat on my shelf for weeks. In my defense, I was plodding through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a much different sort of book. After that, I gave my eyes a well-earned break and stuck to television for a few days. Anyways, onto the review!

Mare Barrow is a skilled thief. As a common Red, its the only way she can help keep her family from hunger and poverty, at least until she turns 18 and is conscripted into the army. She expects her life of slavery under the elite powerful Silvers will continue until she dies, but her world is shaken up when she is hired by the palace as a servant and then discovers that she wields power over electricity despite her lowly blood. Disguised by the royal family as a long-lost Silver to prevent rebellion from both the Silvers and Reds should the truth be discovered, Mare enters into a dangerous game hoping to spark change, but both Red and Silver blood will be shed to achieve it.

(Spoilers ahead)

Mare, oh Mare. You know that saying, “You can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink”? Mare is not that horse. She’s pretty easily lead around by her nose and plunges herself over her vacant little head into any water, especially if a guy bats his eyes at her. She has not one, not two, but THREE! love interests whom she does a myriad of idiotic things for, from getting caught in a riot to pickpocketing a prince to joining a rebellion. She doesn’t have a strong conviction about any of these decisions, which I would admire, but rather she acts impulsively and then vacillates before allowing a man to bail her out of her troubles. Also, despite being a stranger in a strange land, she trusts way to easily, both the people who are hiding her secret for a high price (the Silvers) and the people who want to use her secret in a deadly way (the Reds of the terrorist Scarlet Guard).

The thing I liked the most about Mare is that she did see the repercussions of her actions, in that she regretted killing innocents in some instances, though she forgot about them quickly when faced with her own problems. This realistic impact of terrorism and war is unfortunately lost in many fantasy books. I do wish that the supporting cast was given more depth because it was less poignant when characters like Lucas, Julian, and Walsh die for Mare’s mistakes.

Likewise, the “bad guy” of the piece, Maven, had weak motives in my opinion and came across as a caricature, as did his evil stepmother-ish mother Queen Elara. I enjoyed Maven at first, even though I quickly suspected him of duplicity, but being jealous of your older brother and his crown is the oldest excuse in the book of villainy. And honestly, despite murdering the king and wanting to kill Cal and Mare, I don’t necessarily know if he’d be a worse king than Cal, who also wanted to keep the slavery status quo going. Plus this whole coup exposed a rather obvious lapse in Silver security – if you have individuals with mind control abilities, how have they not already seized power? It was bound to happen since there doesn’t seem to be any Occlumency.

One of my biggest issues about the book was how similar it was to other YA fantasies I’ve read and even to other pieces of pop culture. For example, the blood prejudice reminded me of Harry Potter (and I’ve heard it’s even more like Red Rising, which I haven’t gotten to yet), the superpowers reminded me of The Young Elites or X-Men, the Queenstrial was a deadlier version of The Selection with a tinge of The Hunger Games and Mean Girls in its aftermath. And that’s just a small sampling of the parallels I spotted. It just felt very unoriginal, even in a genre than tends to be repetitive. However, it was an easy, engaging read that I finished in a few hours and the writing was (mostly) solid. The phrase “Rise, red like the dawn” gave me the chills every time it came up.

Sadly, Red Queen did not live up to the hype for me. But I still may pick up the next book in the interest of seeing where things go. I was pleased that romance fell by the wayside at the end, with Mare literally announcing that she’s not picking either suitor, but I don’t expect that to remain the same. Nevertheless, I am hoping to see some fire and blood (whoops, wrong book!) before the inevitable happy ending.

3 Stars

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreDear God, do I love books about books! What bookworm doesn’t? And Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is one of the best out there.

Clay Jannon fell victim to the recession, losing his job as a web designer for a startup in San Francisco. In desperation, he stumbles across Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – hiring now. Compelled by Penumbra’s stocking his obscure childhood-favorite fantasy series, Clay takes a job as the night clerk with all its weird quirks, including the odd assortment of characters that appear at all hours. As Clay discovers the bookstore’s secrets with the help of his artistic roommate Mat, his Googler love interest Kat, and his nerdy millionaire best friend Neel, he realizes there’s more to Penumbra, and to the bookstore, than meets the eye.

Sorry, y’all, I know that’s a pretty terrible book summary – the book encompasses so much more (even books within books!) but it’s so hard to describe succinctly. It’s an epic quest filled with mystery and fantasy, and a love-song to both typography (Gerritszoon) and technology (Gerritszoon on Macs!). The conflict between the past and the future is present throughout the narrative, lending a heavier weight to Clay’s adventure as he confronts the moral and intellectual quandaries that all of us face in the new digital age.

I wasn’t too fond of Clay at first, thinking him a dull, one-dimensional creature in comparison to the fun oddball assortment of characters surrounding him. But as the story continued, his everyman persona helped me the reader adjust to and engage in the puzzle-solving, especially as the titular Mr. Penumbra remains almost mythological. Without a doubt though, my favorite character remains Clay’s childhood best friend Neel who, from his genius money-making breast simulation company to his enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons, is completely adorkable.

There’s a lot of 21st-century product placement here, particularly heavy-headed sections about Google with trips to Mountain View and homages to their book scanner. I love Google but I was kind of excited to see Google lose for once, and the underdog (i.e. old fashioned “technology”) to win. I guess in that respect, I’m more similar to the villain of the piece than Kat, especially as this book has made me more than a little suspicious of the evil genius lurking in the depths of Google. At least Kat demonstrated a strong feminist figure as an expert programmer and ambitious leader within Google, though she channeled a snotty teenage Voldemort with her obsession with immortality and technological fanaticism.

The denouement was disappointing and unclear, with Sloan having slowed down the plot pace significantly but still rushing to weave together all the threads. I found myself so annoyed by the ease of Clay’s ingenuity in solving the mystery and his extraordinary luck in having a veritable guild of skilled sidekicks that this was one conclusion I would’ve liked to be less definitive and more difficult. It was dispiriting all in all. For those reasons, I can’t quite give it 5 Stars, though the charm of the middle convinced me I would.

4.5 Stars

The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal, #4)I thought I had reviewed Jonathan L. Howard’s The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4) already and was horrified to realize that I’d neglected to for nearly 4 months! For although it was a random pick off the shelves because of it’s ridiculously amazing cover, it definitely deserves more attention than I think it’s gotten, given that I’d never heard of the series before. And while I hate reviewing a series in improper order (this is the 4th!), I simply can’t wait until I start from the beginning. Plus, it wasn’t too confusing to start with this book – if anything, it made me even more eager to go back and read about the Cabal brothers’ prior alluded-to adventures!

Horst Cabal has arose from the dead. Again, and against his intentions. A occult conspiracy needs a general to lead their monstrous army and Horst, despite being a generally affable and gentlemanly vampire, is the one they picked for the job. When Horst realizes the extent of their ambitions to create a supernatural homeland, he escapes their clutches and searches for his brother, the amoral but effective necromancer Johannes. Despite parting on uncertain terms, they must now band together to save the world.

The book is jam-packed with action and adventure, not to mention comedy courtesy of the adorably hilarious Horst and his interactions with the cynical Johannes. Peppered with snarky footnotes to the readers, I honestly laughed out loud multiple times, and the rest of the time I was on the edge of my seat. It’s tough to describe the plot because it weaves around a fair bit and the first half is told almost entirely in flashback, but it includes a nomadic band of female aviators, moldering castles, too many explosives to count, and even a werebadger! If you think honey badgers don’t give a shit, werebadgers give even less.

This book is unlike anything I’ve read before, though the dark humor calls to mind The Reformed Vampire Support Group while the supernatural steampunkery falls in line with Gail Carringer’s works. The writing style veers towards the 19th century Gothic, adding to the delightful atmosphere, while the plot wasn’t perfect with its decidedly anti-climactic ending. Overall, the charms of The Brothers Cabal far outweigh its flaws.

4 Stars