Born to the Blade 1.9: Assassination by Malka Ann Older: Many things happen — some even positive — in this very strong entry to the season.

AssassinationAssassination

by Malka Ann Older
Series: Born to the Blade, #1.9

Kindle Edition, 43 pg.
Serial Box, 2018
Read: June 14, 2018

I take it all back — every hesitation I’ve expressed over the last couple of weeks — this episode fixed everything.

Well, no, not really. But man, it’s close enough to justify a little hyperbole. This has none of the weaknesses or shortcomings of the last couple of episodes — there’s some good action, the plot moves forward, there’s some great character moments and the reader isn’t left wondering about what’s going on. There’s one character’s action that you can’t be positive about, and there’s something that happens in the closing paragraphs that you can’t know everything about — but you will soon into episode 10. But those are different from being aware that there’s a lot going on and you don’t get to see or know about it.

This takes place in the shadow of the events of last week’s episode, kicking off mere hours later, and carries you at a great pace through the next events.

Adechike and Ojo have a confrontation about their nation’s actions (and some of Ojo’s) and I found myself rooting for the junior warden — not something I’d have expected even a week ago. Michiko’s investigation bears some fantastic fruit. Takeshi learned more than he expected to — and possibly kicks off another sub-plot (who doesn’t want one so close to the end?). And the other wardens find themselves forced to react to the embryonic war.

This far into the series, it continues to be difficult to talk about the events without ruining things for people who have yet to start the series, so hopefully this was enough. This was a very strong entry — the strongest since episode 4 or 5, and one that bodes well for the end of this season.

—–

4 Stars

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Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne: A Comedic Fantasy Tells a Good Story While Playing with Too-Familiar Tropes

Kill the Farm BoyKill the Farm Boy

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
Series: The Tales of Pell, Book #1

eARC, 384 pg.
Del Rey, 2018

Read: June 5 – 12, 2018
Ugh. I wish the eARC didn’t say I needed to hold off any quotations until I could compare it with the final copy — or maybe, I wish I had noticed that very tiny print before I got half a draft of this finished. On the other hand, I was having trouble narrowing down which of my lengthy options to use, because, if nothing else, this is one of the more quotable books I’ve read in the last couple of years.

Kill the Farm Boy is a comedic fantasy, a satirical look at fantasy and even a parody of the genre. But what makes it effective is that for all the comedy, there’s a decent story and some solid characters throughout. It’s be easy for it to be a collection of jokes, with no story; or a tale full of character types, not characters. But Dawson and Hearne avoid those pitfalls.

The titular farm boy, Worstley, is going about his typical day, full of drudgery when an inebriated pixie shows up to announce that he is a Chosen One — one who is destined to save, or at least change, the world. To demonstrate her power, the pixie gives one of his goats, Gustave, the power of speech. The goat isn’t too happy about being able to speak, but since he was destined to end up in a curry in a few days, decides to travel with the newly appointed Chosen One, his former Pooboy. The pixie, having Chosened Worstley, disappears. Worstley the Pooboy (hey, Taran, worse things to be called than Assistant Pig-Keeper, eh?) and Gustave head off on a quest for glory.

Despite the book’s title, we don’t spend that much time with Worstley — instead the focus shifts (for good reason) to a band of hero–well, a group of companions. There’s Fia — a fierce warrior from a distant land, who just wants to live a life of peace with some nice roses — and some armor that would actually protect her (not that there’s anyone who minds seeing here in her chain-mail bikini). Argabella, a struggling bard who is cursed to be covered in fur — she’s basically Fflewddur Fflam and Gurgi combined (last Prydian reference, probably). Every adventuring party needs a rogue/thief, this one has to settle for the klutzy and not necessarily bright, Poltro, and her guardian, the Dark Lord magician, Toby (though some would only consider him crepuscular), of dubious talents. I can’t forget Grinda the sand witch (no, really), Worstley’s aunt and a magic user of considerable talent.

There are no shortage of villains — and/or antagonists to this party. There are some pretty annoying elves; a hungry giant; Løcher, the King’s chamberlain and mortal enemy of Grinda; Staph, the pixie behind the Chosening; as well as several magical traps, Lastly, there’s Steve. We don’t meet him (I’m betting it’ll be in Book 3 when we do), but throughout these adventures we how much this world, and our heroes lives, have been turned upside down my the worst Steve since one (allegedly) unleashed the preposterous hypothesis that Jemaine was a large water-dwelling mammal. Steve . . .

The writing is just spot-on good. Dawson and Hearne have taken all these various and disparate themes, tropes, characters and surrounded them with a lot of laughs. There’s some pretty sophisticated humor, some stuff that’s pretty clever — but they also run the gamut to some pretty low-brow jokes as well. Really, these two are on a tight comedic budget, no joke is too cheap. The variation ensures there’s a little something for everyone — and that you can’t predict where the humor will come from. I will admit that early on I got annoyed with a few running jokes, but I eventually got to the point that I enjoyed them — not just in a “really? they’re trying it again?” sense, either.

For all the comedy — Kill the Farm Boy hits the emotional moments just right. There’s a depiction of grief towards the end (spoiler?) that I found incredibly affecting and effective. There are smaller moments — less extreme moments — too that are dealt with just right. Maybe even better than some of the bigger comedic moments. This is the reward of populating this book with fully-realized characters, not just joke vehicles.

I have a couple of quibbles, nothing major, but I’m not wholly over the moon with this (but I can probably hit sub-orbital status). There was a bit about a fairly articulate Troll being taken down by a female using (primarily) her wits that could’ve used a dollop or five of subtly. Clearly they weren’t going for subtle, or they’d have gotten a lot closer to it. But it bugged me a bit (while being funny and on point). Secondly, and this is going to be strange after the last 2 posts — but this seemed to be too long. Now, I can’t imagine cutting a single line, much less a scene or chapter from this, but it just felt a little long. I do worry that some of Poltro’s backstory is too tragic and upon reflection makes it in poor taste (at best) to laugh about her — which is a shame, because she was a pretty funny character until you learn about her.

This is probably the best comedic/parody/satire fantasy since Peter David’s Sir Apropos of Nothing — and this doesn’t have all the problematic passages. I’ve appreciated Dawson’s work in the past, and you have to spend 30 seconds here to know that I’m a huge Hearne fan, together they’ve created something unlike what they’ve done before. Well, except for their characteristic quality — that’s there. I cared about these characters — and they made me laugh, and giggle, and roll my eyes. This is the whole package, folks, you’ll be glad you gave it a chance.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

The Incredible Ordinary Hero or The Brave Bystander: Burns by Aida Rascanu, Beatrice Magrini (Illustrator): A Nice Book Almost as Long as Its Title

The Incredible Ordinary Hero or The Brave Bystander: BurnsThe Incredible Ordinary Hero or The Brave Bystander: Burns

by Aida Rascanu, Beatrice Magrini (Illustrator)

Kindle Edition, 28 pg.
2018
Read: June 2, 2018

This is just a great idea — a double-whammy of a lesson for the readers/audience. First, there’s a discussion of what it means to be a hero (doing things that are heroic) and there’s a little first aid lesson — age appropriate, mind you — to help parents/teachers train up young ones.

The writing was good enough — I think it could’ve been written in such a way to connect with readers better, and to be a little less preachy. But my guess is that the audience will have no problem with it, just the adults. I did think things ended abruptly, though — and that’s going to rankle a kid or three. Still, this is solidly-written.

The art will keep the reader’s attention — and honestly, it could’ve gone pretty graphic, but it didn’t.

From Rascanu’s website, it appears that this is supposed to be the beginning of a series — it would probably work better for reading if there was at least one companion volume. If so, it’d be a great investment for parents of wee ones — if not, this would still be a good idea. Just not as much of an investment, I guess.

—–

3 Stars

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

Born to the Blade 1.8: Refugees by Malka Ann Older: Pretty much everything goes wrong for everyone

RefugeesRefugees

by Malka Ann Older
Series: Born to the Blade, #1.8

Kindle Edition
Serial Box, 2018
Read: DATE

Argh. I just don’t know what to say here — clearly, this should’ve posted on Friday, but I only got one sentence down that I didn’t delete. This is only posting today because I didn’t let myself cut anything. This episode is too short, I think. When I consider everything I want to complain about, it all boils down to length (I’m not even seeing page counts on Amazon/Goodreads for the last couple of these). I do think the episode length is a legitimate problem, but at the same time, it’s part of the design of the series, so I should just shut up about it.

Which is just a long way of saying, I think I liked this episode, but I’m not sure — it sure didn’t satisfy my need as a reader to get a chunk of story big enough to appreciate what’s happening around these characters. I’m not saying these need to clock in at 250 pages or anything. Just 10-20% more?

Which is a crying shame — because there’s real opportunity in these pages for Michiko and Kris to get something done (both to help their people and the readers who like them as characters), but there wasn’t time. Ojo doesn’t seem like the same man anymore — which is completely understandable, but I’m having to do too much surmising to get to my understanding. I did like Adechike’s portion of this episode — that was really well done.

Oh, and Lavinia continues to be just the worst person in this world. but that’s not a surprise, really.

The action here revolves around this world preparing for the looming war — I get why the characters don’t know what actually happened to set off the conflict, but it’d be cool to let the readers in on the secret. There’s preparations for war — both in getting fighting forces ready, and refugees from affected/soon to be affected areas streaming into Twaa-Fei. Which is going pretty horribly — between the stress that an influx of refugees brings to an area and a healthy dose of subterfuge on someone’s part.

Speaking of Twaa-Fei, I’d have preferred to see more examples of this compact on between the nations working (however well it actually functions) before seeing it on the verge of collapse. It’s hard to appreciate just what they’re close to losing without seeing it more.

I’m still in this ’til the end, I think I’m still enjoying this — but I feel the authors are holding out on us, which bothers me. I’m trusting they’ll win me over (again) soon.

—–

3 Stars

Brief Cases by Jim Butcher: ‘Scuse me while I unleash my inner fanboy

If you’re a Dresden fan still working their way through the series and haven’t gotten to the end of Skin Game yet, DO NOT READ this post. Go catch up first.

Brief CasesBrief Cases

by Jim Butcher
Series: The Dresden Files, #15.1

Hard Cover, 448 pg.
Ace Books, 2018
Read: June 13 – 16, 2018

Being a wizard is all about being prepared. Well, that and magic, obviously.

Generally, when I start a book, my question is: how much am I going to like this? (Occasionally, the question is: I’m not going to hate this, am I?) But there are a few authors that I ask a different question with: How much am I going to love this book? Jim Butcher is probably at the top of the latter list, and the answers are typically: a lot, a considerable amount, and WOW, SO, SO, SO MUCH. I make no bones about it, I don’t pretend to be anything like objective. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not looking to convince anyone to give him another shot (but I’m willing to give it a shot if someone wants me to), but for many, many reasons, I’m an unabashed and unashamed Jim Butcher fan and Brief Cases gives several reasons why I continue to be one.

Incidentally, I started this collection assuming the answer would be “a lot.” It ended up being on the other end of the spectrum of love. I’ll explain that shortly.

This is not a novel (alas!), it’s another collection of short stories and novellas, like Side Jobs. It’s been awhile since I’ve read or thought about that collection much, but I believe that this is a stronger batch on the whole. I’ve only read “Cold Case” from Shadowed Souls before, so this was a lot of new material for me — and I enjoyed it immensely. It was great spending a few days in the pages and world of probably my favorite ongoing series.

Five of the twelve stories here were told from the point of view of a supporting character in the series. Anastasia Luccio told “A Fistful of Warlocks” about a little adventure she had in Dodge City, which opened the collection on a fun note; we got to know “Gentleman” John Marcone a little better than we wanted to in “Even Hand,” (which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the story). Molly got to shine in “Bombshells” and the aforementioned “Cold Case.” And Waldo Butters’ opening lines to “Day One” — the tale of his first adventure as a Knight — will go down as one of my favorite opening lines of 2018. I really got a kick out of all of these — “Bombshells” and “Day One” were probably the most effective for me, but I’m not going to complain about any of the rest. Actually, after reading “Day One,” I figured I got most of my money’s worth just for that one.

Which leaves us with seven others from Harry’s perspective — there are the three Bigfoot stories that were published in various collections and then in Working for Bigfoot. I’ve been kicking myself for a while for being too budget-conscious to get that collection when it came out, yet unable to bring myself to get the e-book. Thankfully, I have them now — and they were great. Not worth the $80 that used copies seem to go for now, but still pretty good. I really liked the characters in these stories and would gladly see them again. “Curses,” was a lot of fun; “AAAA Wizardry,” was a good story that I’m glad I read, but I can’t say it was great; and “Jury Duty” was okay, but had its moments.

Which leaves us with “Zoo Day” — the only original piece in this anthology, a novella about Harry taking Maggie and Mouse to the Zoo. And it was great. Just great. I know I’ve got a healthy dose of recency bias working here, but I think in 5 years if you ask me for my favorite pieces of Butcher writing that it will be in the Top 10 — maybe Top 5. Watching Harry try to figure out how to be a good dad, while watching Maggie try to not drive him away, while Mouse just wants the two of them to understand each other . . . it just melts your heart. Yes, there’s still supernatural and dark things afoot — many of which we’ve never encountered before that could really mess things up for all three of these characters (and the rest of the Dresden Files cast, come to think of it) — and there’s at least one scene that creeped me out in a serious way. But mostly? I just loved the characters interacting with each other. My “Day One” affection and excitement remain intact, but they pale compared to what I thought about this novella. My notes (again, recency bias may play a role here) read, “A little slice of perfection. I didn’t know a 50 page story could make me so misty-eyed and so happy all on its own.” But it did, and I feel the heart-strings being tugged again as I write this.

Simply, this was a joy for me, and I imagine most Dresden Files fans would feel the same way. If you haven’t read Jim Butcher’s books about a Wizard P.I. yet, and have somehow read this far into the blog post, you really, really should. This collection isn’t the place to start — but it’s a great place to hurry up and get to.

Loved it, loved it, loved it.

—–

5 Stars

Rescued by David Rosenfelt ★ ★ ★ 1/2 A tale of self-defense, an old flame and a truckfull of dogs

RescuedRescued

by David Rosenfelt
Series: Andy Carpenter, #17

eARC, 304 pg.
Minotaur Books, 2018

Read: May 4, 2018

At an early age, Andy Carpenter discovered that he couldn’t hit a curve-ball and therefore had to give up on his dreams of playing in the majors and fall back to following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a lawyer. His father, a lifelong prosecuting attorney, probably wished for something else, but for the many people that he’s defended in court, they wouldn’t have it another way.

This is the seventeenth novel in this series — I’ve talked here about nine of the previous sixteen. There’s part of me wondering just what I could possibly have to say about this one that I haven’t said at least once before.

Andy Carpenter is called to a nearby rest area — a truck containing sixty-one dogs was discovered with the driver shot. Andy and Willie were called out to help the police retrieve the dogs and care for them. The police are really not happy to see him there — Andy Carpenter at a crime scene? Not a welcome sight. But then he’s called away, there’s a prospective new client waiting for him at home.

Not that surprisingly, the potential client was also at that rest area earlier in the day. He actually tells Andy that he shot the driver — in self-defense, mind you. Sure, there’s a history between the two — Kramer (the client) had assaulted the victim and threatened to kill him, in fact. But that was years ago, and he had no current reason to. He just needs some help with the inevitable arrest. Andy believes him — he has to. Kramer is Laurie’s ex and she vouches for him — so much so that Andy pretty much has to take the case for her sake.

Honestly, Andy really isn’t that interested in helping tall, hunky and dangerous Kramer — ex-Military, ex-police, ex-licensed investigator. But it’s not long before he starts to believe that there’s something more afoot. And what was the deal with all the dogs?

All the regulars are along for this ride — Pete Stanton brings the law and order, we get a little more about the fun side of Hike that was introduced in the last book, Sam and his hacking crew dig up plenty of information, Marcus is his typical imposing self, Tara is as loyal as ever — and Andy gets a lot of courtroom time in. There’s a new prosecuting attorney for him to face off against — I liked her, and would like to see her against Andy again.

I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler here, because it’s pretty much the default in this series, but there’s a conspiracy behind the murder and they men behind it have decided to frame Kramer. This is one of the better — or at least one of the more grounded — conspiracies featured in these books. Up to a point, some of it was pretty hard to swallow — it just went a little over the top for my taste (but many of them do in this series). Also, this one features the best code names this side of Reservoir Dogs. Still, it was one of the more clever solutions that we’ve been treated to lately.

A thought about the series as a whole at this point: I would appreciate it if Rosenfelt would shake things up a little bit — I’m not talking about killing Hike or splitting up with Laurie or anything — just dial down the super-criminals a bit, maybe spend some more time with the client again. But there’s little reason for him to do that — the series moves like clockwork and is reliably entertaining. I only say this because I’m a fan — Rosenfelt is in danger of becoming a parody of himself (at worst) or just putting out cookie-cutter books (at best), I don’t want Andy Carpenter to become a Stephanie Plum.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book — because I did. Andy, Sam, Pete, Vince, Laurie, Tara and the rest are old friends that I enjoy getting together with every few months. Rosenfelt’s latest demonstrates what’s been true for years — this series is at the point where you can reliably count on each book for an entertaining read, a puzzling mystery, some good comic moments, a nice dog or two and maybe even a tug on the heart strings. They’re still charming enough to win over a new reader (and any of the books serve just fine as entry points) as well as satisfying the long-term reader. Rescued delivered just what I expected and left me satisfied — satisfied and ready to read number 18.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this, it was a real pleasure.

—–

3.5 Stars

Rubicon by Ian Patrick: A thrill-ride that will stay with you long after the action ends.

RubiconRubicon

by Ian Patrick

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: May 31 – June 2, 2018

. . . there’s no money in policing unless you cross the line.

But that doesn’t mean that Sam Batford isn’t going to try.

Batford is an undercover police officer who’s after a kingpin of some repute and his guns and drugs importing. DCI Klara Winter is a no-nonsense head of a task force going after the same kingpin, Big H, more directly — phone taps, applying pressure to associates, interrogations, etc. Batford is assigned to her task force to supplement their intelligence. Neither want this assignment, and work to undermine it immediately. They do actually help each other out — but it’s almost despite their best efforts. Their mutual dislike, distrust and antagonism is one of the more interesting dynamics that I’ve run across lately.

We see most of the novel through Batford’s eyes, with the occasional glimpse from Winter’s perspective. It doesn’t take much to get a strong sense of Winter’s personality and thought process. Just from the volume, the reader ends up seeing things Batford’s way — whether or not they should.

Batford infiltrates Big H’s organization — at least to a degree — for one job. A large one, no doubt, one that would secure Winter’s career (and would do his own some favors). Like most undercover officers (especially in fiction), he cuts many legal and ethical corners to do so. There’s some question — as there should be — whether or not Big H really trusts him, and the constant testing, evaluation and insecurity makes for great reading — it’s an atmosphere you can almost feel through the words.

So Batford is doing what he can to get enough information to take down Big H, to gain his trust (and therefore access), to disrupt the flow of drugs and guns — and mostly to stay alive. If he can find a way to make a little money while he’s at it . . . well, he might as well. Winter just wants enough evidence to make some arrests — and maybe some headlines — so she can get the budget to keep her team working.

This is not a book for the squeamish — there are a few scenes I know that would cause some of my friends and readers to throw the book down in disgust (the same scenes will cause other friends/readers to fist pump their excitement — I’m not sure which of these bothers me more). There’s one scene in particular that made me think of the dental scene from Marathon Man (I’ve never watched the movie just in case they nail that scene from the novel).

There were two . . . I don’t want to say problems for me, but things that kept me from going over the moon with Rubicon: Batford works his way into this assignment by worming his way in to the trust of one Big H’s associates while they’re in Bali. Do Metropolitan Police Undercover Officers really get to globe-trot the way that Batford does? Is that a bit of Artistic License? Is it a sign of just how far outside the lines that Batford colors? Does it tell us that he’s not just a Metropolitan Police Officer? It’s a minor point, I admit — and it’s really easy to accept as kosher (but that doesn’t mean I don’t wonder), because watching Batford’s machinations there is fascinating.

Secondly, Batford displays a very particular vocabulary — I’m not sure if it’s London slang, or Ian Patrick-slang. I could believe either. I will admit that there were periods that the slang got in the way of the story. That’s probably on me — and some of it is Shaw’s two countries separated by a common language phenomenon. With a little bit of work, and a small amount of guesswork (and a willingness to go back and revisit a passage later), it was all accessible enough and perspicuous.

There’s a lot about this book that I’m not sure about — I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of days, and it’s going to take a few more at least. Patrick’s characters take a little chewing, I think. It’d be easy to put Batford in the “murky anti-hero” category and move on — but I’m not sure he fits there; I’m even less sure where Winter fits — she’s not the straight-laced cop you’re at first tempted to label her, nor is she just the figure that makes life difficult for our anti-hero to do what he wants (although she functions pretty well that way). But even if/when I decide how to categorize these two — then I have to decide what I think of them as these characters — are they good people? No. That’s easy. Are they good fictional beings in their particular roles? My gut says yes, and my brain leans that way, but I’m still working on that.

Either way, I’m enjoying chewing on the novel and these ideas — and I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of this book, just having to think about it this much.

There is part of this evaluation that’s easy — the writing? Gripping. The pacing? Once it gets going, it’s a runaway train that you’re just hoping you can hang on to long enough to get through to the end. The narrative voice is as strong as you could ask, and even when you’re thinking this cop might be more deserving of a being handcuffed on his way to a long incarceration than his targets, you’ll need to hear his singular perspective on the events around him.

Strong writing (some of my favorite sentences of the year are in this book), characters that demand thinking about, a plot that you can’t wrap up in a tidy bow — this isn’t your typical thriller. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, it’s one that you won’t forget easily.

—–

4 Stars