The Cruel Prince turned out not to be my thing. It just felt so immediately typical — the cruel and fascinating Fae with their fairy fruit and their grudge against mortals, the human girls in love with the world of Faerie. The human girl determined to prove herself by fighting, the betrayals and backstabbing, the evil and beautiful boy who turns out to have been abused, etc, etc, etc… it just all kind of felt familiar and I wasn’t getting into it. I’ve heard that the ending is very worth it, but I didn’t get there, so I couldn’t say.
Mostly, I just feel like if I’m dragging through a book at 50 pages a day and only that much because I feel I have to, even though it’s not all that dense or anything, then it’s time to give it up. So I did.
This Is How You Lose The Time War, Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
I’ve been curious about this book for a while, so I dug into it right away when my pre-order arrived! I’ve only read short stories by Amal El-Mohtar, as far as I recall, and only one of Max Gladstone’s novels, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. It’s a rather lyrical and poetic book, following the correspondence of two enemy agents as they follow each other up and down time, through alternative worlds and different histories, and as they fall in love.
To be quite honest, I didn’t fall in love with it. I appreciated the lyricism, and I also definitely appreciate that these two agents are definitely presented as female. I found it enjoyable to read. But it didn’t really get claws into me; I didn’t feel like I’d mind terribly much if I never finished it. I couldn’t say what it could have done better to make me love it; I’m not sure there is anything specific. It felt too clever by half, really, and then the emotional undercurrents missed me while I was watching the cleverness from a cynical distance.
Definitely an interesting endeavour, and worth a read, but not something I could love.
Exit Strategy wraps up the novella series by bringing Murderbot full circle: back to Dr Mensah and her team, the people it helped in the first book. Second-guessing itself, hating the idea of becoming a pet bot, but nonetheless needing to help the person who is (nominally, at least!) its owner, Murderbot finds that Dr Mensah is probably a hostage and goes ahead with doing what it does best. Planning, worrying extensively, and then throwing itself headlong into trouble.
If I didn’t know there was a novel coming as a follow-up, I’d be really mad about this final book, honestly. The second and third books gave us some development for Murderbot, of course, but they also gave us characters I’d really like to see again. Particularly ART, though I’d like to know what became of everyone else as well. It’s not that this book doesn’t give a kind of closure, because it does, but it doesn’t wrap things up in the kind of everything-converges-and-everybody-meets ending I guess I was hoping for.
It’s enjoyable, and Murderbot remains a delight. But I want more!
In the Labyrinth of Drakes is so full of squee. That’s a technical term.
In this book, Tom and Isabella are shipped out to Akhia to work on a breeding program for dragons, in order to supply the army of Scirland with dragonbone for caeligers equivalent to those made by other world powers. So there’s one thread of plot whereby Isabella investigates the breeding of dragons, including a trip into the desert to find where they actually breed, and perhaps even witness a hatching.
Of course, we’re in Akhia, so there’s another thread to the plot as well: Isabella re-encounters Suhail, though his family disapprove very much of his association with her. Nonetheless, they find ways to speak to each other, and Suhail eventually accompanies her on her journey to the Labyrinth of Drakes, an area in the desert full of Draconaean remains and potentially untouched sites to delight the heart of any archaeologist.
There’s the personal plot, in which we finally discover who will turn out to be Isabella’s second husband (a fact which is a bit of a tease through the previous books, but obvious in retrospect), and then this intertwines with Isabella’s journey of scientific discovery and Suhail’s archaelogical pursuits. Overall, it’s very satisfying and not a bit wasted.
All the books in this series are rather cosy, and they’ve been getting less of a plot with each installment — the first book has a crew of characters with a definite short-term purpose in mind, the second book is a character study in many ways, and this… this is slices of life on board the Exodan feet, contemporaneous with the other books. There’s not much of a plot beyond the very basics: people want to live, people want to find their place. It’s got quite a large cast of characters, and it kind of goes a bit aimless and limp in the middle if you’re looking for a plot or even hoping for a definite character arc. It’s very slice-of-life-ish. Even when something dramatic happens, the point is not the drama, but the way the people involved heal afterwards and deal with it.
If you’re looking for a character study and an exploration of how this society might work, though, there is a lot to enjoy. I got a bit teary about the other books, but this one had me in tears within the first fifty pages. There’s something powerful about the Exodan fleet and what it stands for, and this book explores that. It’s interesting to follow these characters as they do their very particular jobs, with meaning and significance only for the Exodan fleet.
I think it’s still an enjoyable read, as long as you’re not going into it with the expectation that you’re going to have gun fights and interstellar politics. This isn’t The Expanse, and there’s very little of the do-or-die heroism. Instead, it’s about people getting on with life, and the small everyday ups and downs they have to deal with. I don’t think it’s as strong as the previous two books, even though it’s the epitome of the hope and family and connection that makes those books so good! It’s just a little too slow and contemplative, without the clear drive of either of the other two.
I can’t remember who I spoke to who thought this might be rather like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, just a sort of awkward shoehorning of zombies into a historical period in a fairly superficial way. That’s not how this comes across — I’d compare it more closely to Mira Grant’s Feed and sequels in terms of the way it’s built into how society works — and it does seem to me to reflect the era of history fairly well. Set after zombies rose during the American Civil War, this book follows the fortunes of Jane, a black girl who has been sent to a combat school in order to learn to kill zombies (along with all other non-white children of her age). No longer slaves, but definitely second class citizens, black people bear most of the burden of fighting zombies, leaving white people living in luxurious safety.
For the most part, anyway. Maybe things aren’t safe as they seem. But as soon as Jane starts to poke around into that even a little bit, she’s caught and carted off to a new settlement, a place that’s meant to be safe from zombies — safe because it’s guarded by a vast perimeter wall and the endless patrolling of people like Jane. Naturally, there’s all kinds of nastiness — in terms of race, class, and just plain horribleness — and a whole mystery into which Jane must dig.
I enjoyed her character on a superficial sort of level, though I found her somewhat contradictory. One minute she hates Katherine, another girl from the school, and the next she does her a favour with the thinnest of reasoning. (Tit for tat doesn’t work if you don’t like or trust the person covering your back if you cover theirs, especially if the stakes are rather different between the two of you.) Katherine’s the same, one minute despising Jane and the next relying on her. The interpersonal stuff just never quite adds up for me.
The setting works well, and I believe in the way Ireland has tweaked history and changed things up. What she changes makes sense, as far as I understand history, and the social consequences are all too easy to imagine. The story ticks along well, action following action rather than getting stuck — it certainly keeps the pages turning. In the end, though, I just wasn’t in love with it. It wasn’t bad, but nor do I feel any pressing need to read the sequel when it arrives.
AAAH. Well, this book certainly did things to my heart. If people were hoping that the war beast pods at the end of the first book meant everything was going to be okay, then they were sorely mistaken (of course). Vostok is the only war-beast who has memories of her past lives, and the whole team are working badly together, finding it impossible to take orders and coordinate efforts. Vostok believes that the missing memories will provide that link, so Tor and Noon end up off on an adventure to find the Eborans who left to find where Ygseril originated, while Vintage, Bern and Aldasair hold down the fort.
And then there’s Hest, taken up by the Jure’lia at the end of the book, and finding her way on the corpse moon itself…
The revelations of this book have it feeling ever more like it’s really sci-fi at heart, which is a pretty cool turnaround. Vintage continues to be awesome, and Bern and Aldasair come into their own a little more as well. I adore the relationship that grows between Bern and Aldasair, the care they take of each other, and the way they work together. Of course, by the end of this book the whole group have come together more, through yet more heartstabbing events. And Hest, well. The less I say, the better, in terms of spoilers, but if you spent the first book peeking at her warily wondering what on earth she was going to do… it’s that again and more so.
Once again, there’s just so much to chew on, and it delighted me. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next book, the last of the trilogy.
In An Artificial Night, Toby ends up confronting one of the Firstborn in order to save children — both mortal and fae children, snatched away to join Blind Michael’s Ride. I think in the previous books we’ve had a reference or two to him here or there, but now he comes out in full force, and full horror. Toby has to be a hero, of course, even when her Fetch arrives to say hi early in the book. As ever, she goes through the whole thing a couple of steps from being killed, and the reader lets it work because we love heroes.
I think this is the book that really got me into this series: it’s so clever, the way the mythology is used and added to, and there are so many great emotional notes that I shouldn’t name for fear of spoilering people.
I do still feel that for all that Toby suffers in this book, it’s lacking in teeth in one way: I never really felt that someone we love was at risk, even when Toby behaved recklessly. We know she’s going to be fine, and I feel like I’m always waiting to see her reckless behaviour really hurt the people around her — not just because they’re worrying about her, but because she’s really pulled someone else into trouble. In the first book, there was Dare, of course, but… that was the first book. It feels like the stakes should be raised, and yet this book is remarkably bloodless in that sense. The person who suffers is Toby — and it’s not that it means nothing, but I’m just expecting the way Toby behaves to get Quentin killed or something. By rights, she should’ve by now.
Despite that quibble, it’s a strong book in the way it uses the mythology and ratchets everything up to the ending, and I enjoy it a lot.
This review might be a little spoilery, so if you want to go in totally blind, this is more than just a high level overview of the setup. Just as a warning!
Though I didn’t know much about Savonarola, I thought that even for Jo, making me like him might be too much of a task — and here he’s the main character! But it works: with the first section of the book, we’re introduced to Savonarola, his genuine piety and his earnest attempts to rid himself of his sins, to the point where the first return burns. It’s just a horrifying moment, this holy man who loved God finding himself plunging into Hell, and finding that all his life has been a kind of cosmic joke, because there is no forgiveness, and even his “god-given” skills of prophecy and banishing demons are actually due to his demonic powers.
And then it begins again. This was a weaker part of the book for me, because it’s hard to avoid the repetition of all the different lives while also making it clear how much of a grind it is. The different lives are interesting in themselves, and it’s fun getting to see other sides of the same characters, and every return is still awful. But the actual resolution comes both too fast and too slow — it felt half too easy and half like reading it was about to become a drag. It’s an awkward line to walk, and I do think the book does a good job with something that’s difficult to portray well.
The section of this that is historical fantasy is beautifully done, and making me like — or at least be fascinated by — Savonarola when I was predisposed not to was quite a feat. I feel like I’m still chewing this one over, in a good way, even if I ended it not quite sure how I felt exactly. If I rated solely based on the punch in the gut of the first return section, I’d give it five stars.
I reread this because I wanted to read the sequel, just out recently. It’s stood alone for a few years now, and almost feels complete in itself: the story of a young girl, Baru Cormorant, who comes of age just as her home is taken over by the Empire of Masks. She vows vengeance in her heart, while on the surface she plays their game, and keeps on playing it as she becomes the Imperial Accountant for another land in transition. She keeps on playing the game as she gets embroiled in a rebellion, though she’s now compromised by her love — a love the Masquerade would kill her for having — for the Duchess Tain Hu.
The ending is one of those awful punches in the gut that you kind of know is coming, but which still feels awful and which you keep hoping you’re going to be able to dodge. It’s amazing that this book about an accountant manages to be riveting, really shows how money has the power. Sometimes I think it’s simplified a bit too much in this book: it’s a bit too easy to push this lever and get that reaction from the people of the country. But in principle, it works, and it’s a hell of a ride. There are so many characters to love even as you know nothing good is going to come of this.
It’s a shame that when I read the first 10% of the sequel, it didn’t work for me — something felt off, and people’s reviews encouraged me to put it down and let The Traitor Baru Cormorant stand alone. Luckily, in a bleak way, it does stand alone — and really, after everything that happens in this book, I don’t think there’s anything that would feel like enough of a payoff, or enough of a triumph. I kind of like the idea of treating it as a standalone, with that awful and hopeful ending.