They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded by James Alan Gardner: The Newest Canadian Super-Heroes are Back in Action

 They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded

by James Alan Gardner
Series: The Dark vs. Spark, #2

Paperback, 350 pg.
Tor Books, 2018

Read: November 26 – 27, 2018

When I read the first book in the series, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, back in January, I said “the sequel can’t get here fast enough.” I didn’t quite expect to be reading it 11 months later, but I’m okay with that.

It’s just a couple of weeks after the events of the previous book, and the newly formed team of superheroes has gone home for Christmas break. Now with just a few days before classes start up again, the team is coming back. In the last book we focused on Kim/Zircon, this time our protagonist is her roommate/teammate Jools/Ninety Nine.

Jools doesn’t even make it out of the airport before she’s dealing with the police and a powerful Darkling — and maybe a powerful Spark artifact.

(Quick reminder: In this world there are two super-powered groups: the Darks/Darklings and the Sparks. The Darks are all the supernatural-types you can think of (and some you can’t): vampires, weres, etc. The Sparks are Super-Heroes and the like (although some have gone astray))

Jools, with a little help from her friends, gets out of that mess — only to find herself signed up for more.

Soon, in an effort to keep this artifact from falling into the wrong hands — Jools finds herself cut off from her friends and in the secret-hideout with a very maverick group of Sparks — a modern-day Robin Hood and his Merry Men. This gives her an opportunity to watch other Sparks in action, to see how they live and think — and come up with some ways to evaluate her new lifestyle. Also, there’s a lot of fighting and nifty tech to read about.

I wasn’t crazy about how little time we got with the rest of the team because of this, but I think in the long run, it’ll work for the strength of the series. And when we get the team together again, it’s even better to see than it was before.

Again, I had a blast with this book. Gardner’s world is ripe with story-telling possibilities and I’m enjoying watching him develop these characters and this world. Jools is a great character — a solid combination of vulnerable and snarky, unwise and ridiculously intelligent — you’ll probably end up with her as your favorite character in the series (at least until book 3). Go grab this (and the other one, too) now.

—–

4 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

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Twisted Magics by J.C. Jackson: A Great Spin on Contemporary Fantasy Kicks Off a Promising Series

Twisted MagicsTwisted Magics

by J.C. Jackson
Series: Terra Chronicles, #1

Paperback, 220 pg.
Shadow Phoenix Publishing LLC, 2016

Read: August 30 – 31, 2018


I had a brief conversation a couple of weeks ago with J.C. Jackson and she described the book as “Science Fantasy” and told us a little about the series. Something about fantasy characters but with modern technology, but phrased better. Not really getting what she said, I asked why not just call it Urban Fantasy, and she gave a decent answer — basically that she didn’t have enough vampires or werewolves in the books so readers told her she couldn’t. I was a chapter or two in to the book when I figured out what she was saying.

In your mainstream Urban Fantasy, you have fantasy creatures — wizards, druids, werewolves, fae — popping up in our world. On the other end of the spectrum (or an other end, anyway) you have things like the Eddie LaCrosse novels or the Dragon Precinct books that have modern ideas (police squads, private investigators) used in a fantasy series. Jackson takes a different tack — it’s a typical fantasy novel in that there’s a lot of magic, elves, halflings, Dark Elves, living next to humans — very standard kind of thing, but their technology matches ours (actually, it’s slightly more advanced). I loved this approach and there’s a good chance that I’d have had nice things to say about the book just because of this idea.

I do have more reasons to say nice things, though.

Ketayl is an Elven mage who works as a a CSI-like lab tech for the Terran Intelligence Organization (a FBI-like organization). Her strength is in finding ways to use devices to do forensic investigation of magical elements of particular crimes. She’s not the most socially adept of people, clearly more secure in her lab and with clearly drawn rules governing her interaction with others.

Then there’s an explosion in the Elven Territories, seemingly magical in origin — definitely devastating. The TIO director sends Ketayl, along with the rural tracker, Retanei; and Artemis, Retanei’s wolf companion to investigate. Along with the local TIO team — which does their best to bring these agents into their community — they dive into finding those responsible. It’s a kind of magic that doesn’t play by the rules that Ketayl is used to, and powerful enough to make her nervous.

While they look for what could have caused this destruction, we learn more about the world, the magic system and Ketayl. I still have a few questions about all of those and I think some of them should’ve been addressed in the first book — but I never felt lost in this world as I waited for the details to be given. This is a pretty decent thriller when you strip away the fantastic elements, or a pretty decent fantasy tale if you take out the criminal investigation elements. Keep them combined and the whole thing is stronger.

Eventually, the TIO hires a consultant from the Paladins — their kind of music is very different from Ketayl’s. The Paladins are also very prejudiced toward other magic users, and other species. Thankfully, the Paladin sent to help the team (Silver) is pretty open-minded and doesn’t get driven right into a religious conflict (which doesn’t preclude other kinds of conflict). Silver joining the team — primarily partnering with Ketayl — brings her out of her shell a bit.

Ketayl frequently reminded me of Tilly Bradshaw, the analyst from M. W. Craven’s The Puppet Show (one of those books that I somehow haven’t had time to blog about, but you should read, if only for the Ketayl-like character). She’s a complex character that I look forward to learning more about. The rest of the characters — with Silver pretty much being the exception — aren’t as developed as you might like, but you get enough of to satisfy just about every itch you might have.

There were a few too many typos for me, and the misspellings/unfortunate slips like homonym confusion. It wasn’t horrible, but it was bad enough to stick with me.

The novel does a good job of introducing us to the characters and world while telling a compelling story. Jackson’s particular spin on merging fantasy and a 10-minutes-into-the-future world is refreshingly original. I liked the characters, the world and everything — I’ve already gone out and purchased the sequel and am trying to find time on the schedule to get it read.

—–

3.5 Stars

Jade City by Fonda Lee: Immerse yourself in this world of Magic, Crime and Family

Jade CityJade City

by Fonda Lee
Series: The Green Bone Saga, #1

ARC, 444 pg.
Orbit, 2017

Read: August 15 – 16, 2018

So Fonda Lee has a great idea — others have employed it as well, don’t get me wrong, but the way she does it is great — instead of setting an Urban Fantasy in this world, just a version of it with some magic; you set it in a world a whole lot like this one — but you infuse the world with some sort of magic. A world where technology/science and magic co-exist. It’s enough like this world that you can get your hands around cultural mores and norms.

There’s this stone, a mineral, called jade. It looks a lot like our jade (from what I can tell, Hank Schrader, I’m not). Certain people are sensitive to it, and it enables them to channel magic, some become addicted to the mineral and what it does to them — others (“stone eyes”) are completely insensitive to it and are therefore the ideal candidates to shape it, transport it, and mine it. Only people from Kekon have this relationship with jade (not that unexpectedly, they’re also the world’s source for it).

There are other countries that want jade and what it can do to a person — military uses, primarily. But their people aren’t natively sensitive, so they’re working on ways to engineer the sensitivity. There’s a lot of money to be made controlling the Jade. Years ago — a generation or so — a group of “Green Bone” warriors drove foreign powers from Kekon and assumed control of the Jade trade. Working with the legitimate government, these Green Bones rule Kekon.

They are, for all intents and purposes, a criminal organization — or would’ve been were it not for a divergence of vision — they’re now two rival criminal organizations — with their own rules, laws, rituals, educational systems and cultures. There’s a Cold War between them — a perilous truce, with the citizens of Kekon stuck in the middle (paying tribute, currying favor, and occasionally serving as cannon fodder).

But then something shifts the balance of power — plans that have been brewing for years start to come to fruition and conflict erupts.

We focus on the Kaul family, their soldiers, their leadership, their friends and fortunes. There’s the aged warrior struggling with the weight of glory and past success in the face of the end of their life, there’s the new generation of leadership, trying to live up to the glories of the past and finding it more difficult than they expected. Some have tried to forge new paths in a new world, others are trying to recreate the past.

This is one of those that I can’t think how to describe without ruining everything — so that’s about as much as I’m going to say. The back cover blurb describes this as “The Godfather with Magic.” It’s easy to see why. It’s also incredibly easy to start casting various characters ___ is Michael (clearly), ___ is Tom, and if ____ isn’t Sonny, I’ll eat my hat. I do have real answers for those blanks, but I thought I’d better not give everything away. It is more than just The Godfather with Magic — but you can’t get away from that (unless you’re not that familiar with that particular work — and then you’re not missing a thing).

There’s magic, there’s a mob story, there’s family, love, loyalty . . . you name it, this book has it. Better yet, at the helm of this world you have Fonda Lee who does a great job building this world and populating it with people that the reader can relate to.

This is a rich world full of intrigue, danger, family and magic. It’s a fantastic piece of worldbuilding and you can tell that Lee has great plans in store for these characters, and I can tell that they have no clue what’s coming — and frankly, the readers have less of a clue. I’m looking forward to seeing just what it is.

Note that’s close to a disclaimer, yeah, I said ARC for a book that was published last year. How’d I manage that? Time travel? Well, no. I won the ARC at Indie Bookstore Day (or something like that). So, there be a couple of changes between what I read and the final product, but probably nothing major.

—–

3 Stars

Constance Verity Saves the World by A. Lee Martinez: Connie Verity is trying to have it all — a personal life while saving the world on a regular basis

Constance Verity Saves the WorldConstance Verity Saves the World

by A. Lee Martinez
Series: Constance Verity, #2

Trade Paperback, 385 pg.
Saga Press , 2018<br/
Read: August 18 – 20, 2018

“It’s a problem I have. When you’re ten years old and dangling from a cliff while rabid hyenas circle below, you learn to be stubborn. You can’t quit, because quitting isn’t an option. You dig your fingernails and pray that root doesn’t come loose. And if it does, you plan how best to fend off hyenas when all you have is a Pez dispenser and a priceless diamond in your pocket. I fight. It’s what I do. It’s how I survive. When people turn and run, I go forward. It’s kept me alive so far, but it’s skewed how I look at things.

“Somebody tells me I can’t do something, I want to do it more. Want isn’t a strong enough word. I need to do it. Give me that big red button labeled DO NOT PUSH in bright neon letters, and I’ll push it every time.”

Having fought for the ability to have a normal life in The Last Adventure of Constance Verity Connie’s out to try to have one. Which is harder than saving the world a few times a week. She’s still saving the world regularly, as well as having all sorts of adventures. She’s trying to settle down with her boyfriend Byron the accountant, while relying on her best friend/sidekick Tia some more (all the while, Tia is trying to strengthen her relationship with her ninja-thief boyfriend, Hiro). There are evil geniuses, aliens, robots, and vampires living in her condo — all of them behaving themselves, thank you very much.

One of the activities that takes most of Connie’s time right now is trying to help out an old friend cleanup the supercriminal organization that he’s in charge of now that his mother has apparently died. There’s a lot of rogue agents, assassins and experiments that need cleaning up if the organization is going to be come a legitimate force for good — or at least not a force for evil and chaos in the world. Connie’s tempted to spend more time doing that than she should, to the detriment of her relationship with Byron. Thankfully, Tia’s there to help keep her priorities in order. Hopefully, that’ll be enough.

You ever find yourself eating something — say, some cake — and you’re not sure if it’s too rich, if the frosting is too sweet? And then you realize how stupid you sound? Wondering if the cake is too good? Well, that’s the experience I had with this (and, I’m pretty sure with the previous Constance Verity book) — where there too many quips? Too many (seemingly) random ideas, aliens, evil masterminds, robots, henchmen of a variety of stripes, strange occurrences? What a stupid thing to ask. Yeah, there’s a lot going on, but it actually doesn’t get to the overload status. It may come close, but it stays on the right side. It’s like asking if there are too many animated personages in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, if there are too many Easter Eggs in whatever your Super-Hero movie of choice is. No, there’s not — there’s a lot of good things that are fun. Shut up and enjoy.

Really, that’s the worst thing I can say about the book — occasionally, there are too many fun things happening. The pacing is great, the characters are rich, lively, and well-developed (including many of those only around for a page or so), you’ll laugh, you’ll be moved, you might even have a thought provoked. It’s just a charming book set in a delightful world.

Do not make the mistake of thinking this is a romp, just a free-wheeling ball of fun, snark and self-referential humor. It’s an A. Lee Martinez book, so yeah, there’s a lot of that — but laying underneath that is a good story, some interesting ideas about relationships, about trust, about fate. A whole lot of other things, too, I’m sure, but let’s stick with those. Too many people will read this, focus on the “fun” stuff and will miss the very thoughtful portions — it’s Martinez’ strength and weakness that it’s so easy to do with his works. There’s nothing wrong with a silly adventure story, and there’s nothing wrong with a book that’s about something. But when you have a novel that’s both — you should pay attention to both.

I knew Martinez could write a series if he wanted to — I had no idea what it was going to look like when he did. I’m glad I got the chance to find out. Constance Verity Saves the World is equal to its predecessor in every way that it doesn’t outdo The Last Adventure of Constance Verity — which is no mean feat. It’s fun, the characters are better defined and have grown some, and there’s never a dull moment. Constance Verity, the caretaker of the universe, the Legendary Snurkab, possibly the only woman with more titles than Daenerys Targaryen, is a character you need to get to know. Her sidekick Tia is, too. I cannot wait to see what the two of them do next.

—–

4 Stars

Reposting Just ‘Cuz: Skyfarer by Joseph Brassey

Last night I found myself reading when I “should have been” writing — which meant that by the time I finished, there wasn’t time enough to really get anything ready for today. Well, today, I find myself almost at the half-way point in the sequel to this outstanding book, the possibly more-outstanding (outstandinger?) Dragon Road. But I can’t talk about it yet, which is what I really want to do. So instead, let me once again post this little nugget.

SkyfarerSkyfarer

by Joseph Brassey
Series: Drifting Lands, #1
eARC, 352 pg.
Angry Robot Books, 2017
Read: August 11 – 14, 2017

I’ve read a few interesting mergers of SF and Fantasy this year — some that were just that, interesting, some that were good — a couple that were more than good. Thankfully, Brassey’s Skyfarer was in that latter camp. Even in those early chapters where I was still trying to figure out the world, remember which name lined up with what character, and get a handle on the plot, I had a sense that this was going to be one of those books I talked about very positively — and very often. That sense just only got stronger as the book went on.

I feel like could go on for pages about this book — but won’t let myself (so I can avoid the wrath of Angry Robot and you can actually get something out of reading it yourself — which you have to go do as soon as it comes out).

So you’ve got this group called the Eternal Order — a group committed to death, destruction, power, and plunder. When it comes to numbers, they can’t stand up to the civilizations around them, at least when they ally themselves against the Order. But when they (rarely, it seems) can come in with a quick strike against one people they can wreak much havoc. Which is exactly what they do here — they come in and demand that the rulers of Port Providence hand over the Axiom Diamond, or they will wipe them out — and it’s clear that Lord Azrael, the commander, isn’t being hyperbolic. The royal family responds with armed resistance, which has some measure of success, but is primarily fighting losing battles.

Into the midst of this looming genocide comes a wayward spacecraft, the Elysium. The Elysium is a small carrier with more weapons than one should expect (we’re initially told this, anyway). The crew has just welcomed an apprentice mage, fresh from the academy, to complete her studies with her mentor/professor. Aimee de Laurent has been pushing herself for years to excel, to be the best — if there’s a sacrifice to be made for her studies, she’s made it. All leading up to this day, where her professor, Harkon Bright has taken her as an apprentice on his exploration ship to complete her education. She joins a crew that’s been together for years and is eager to find her place within them.

When the Elysium arrives in the middle of this, it doesn’t take anything approaching calculus for them to figure out what this particular crew is going to do. There’s The Eternal Order on one side, civilians and the remnants of the military on the other. There’s a ravaged civilization on one side and the ravagers on the other. There’s a group trying to prevent The Eternal Order from getting something they want and there’s, well, The Eternal Order. So our band of adventurers tell the remnants of the royal family that they’ll hunt down the Axiom and protect it.

This isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea for a story — but man, it doesn’t matter. There’s a reason everyone and their brother has tried this — it’s a good story. Especially when it’s told well. And, I’m here to tell you that Joseph Brassey tells it really well. Not just because of his hybridization of SF and Fantasy, but because he can take a story that everyone’s taken a shot at and make it seem fresh, he can deliver the excitement, he can deliver the emotion. There is some horrible stuff depicted — either in the present or in flashbacks; there’s some pretty tragic stuff; and yet this is a fun read — the pacing, the tone, everything makes this feel like the adventure films and books that I grew up on. You want to read it — not just to find out what’s going to happen next, but because it’s written in such a way that you just want to be reading the book, like a having a glass of iced tea on a summer’s day.

The characters could uniformly use a little more fleshing out — which isn’t a weakness in the writing. Brassey pretty much points at the places where the reader will more details (especially when it comes to Aimee and Harkon), making us want more than he’s giving us. What we’re given, though, is enough to make you root for or against them, hope that they survive (or are subjected to painful and humiliating defeat), or simply enjoy the camaraderie. The good news is, that there’s more to learn about everyone — about their past and their present — and how those shape their future.

You’ve got magic — various schools of magic, too, each with its own understanding of what magic is and how it can be used; you’ve got swords and lasers (and similar kinds of weapons); you’ve got space ships running of magic (not just hyperspace drives that act like magic); objects and persons of prophecy; beings and intelligences that aren’t explicable — tell me why you wouldn’t want to read this? Especially when you throw in epic sword fights, magic duels, and spacecraft action all written by someone who writes like a seasoned pro. Sign me up for the sequel!

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Angry Robot Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Between the Shade and the Shadow by Coleman Alexander: A disappointing fantasy

Between the Shade and the ShadowBetween the Shade and the Shadow

by Coleman Alexander

Kindle Edition, 487 pg.
The Realmless, LLC, 2017
Read: July 24 – 26, 2018
There is some really fine writing, and some decent storytelling in this novel — maybe some of the emotions are overwrought, and there’s some poorly written scenes and whatnot. But on the whole this is an impressive work. The problem is, the only way I know that is because I forced myself to finish the book because I told Alexander I would. If this were a library book, I’d have been done with it by the 10% mark — if I’d bought it? I probably would’ve made myself go on to 20%. But I literally had to force myself to finish this — which was a pain until the last 20% or so, but that’s just because momentum had kicked in and my Kindle was telling me there wasn’t a lot of time remaining to finish.

That might have been mean of me to say, but what else am I supposed to say? I really didn’t like this book — I guess I can see where some would — I was reassured on Goodreads what patience would pay off. And you could argue it did — but I shouldn’t have to be that patient.

Here’s the thing: a reader needs a way in. We shouldn’t have to take notes and flip back and forth to see how an author it using this term or that — especially when some terms are spelled so similarly that it’s difficult to differentiate between them at the beginning. This is truer when you’re using terms that in our world or in similar fantasy worlds can be used to mean something else. I don’t mean you have to hold our hands and spell everything out in the first few chapters, because that can be really dull. But you need to bring us into this world and give us enough tools to figure out what we’re talking about — it shouldn’t be the case where I’m a few hundred pages into something before I figure out that half of my problem is that these characters are mispronouncing things — like elf!

It’s not that I’m stupid. It’s not that I’m lazy. I’ve read plenty of fantasy novels that are stranger, more arcane, less like our world or traditional fantasy than this — the difference is, those authors were able to bring the reader into the world so that I could get oriented enough to follow the story and not have to wonder if what you think you’re reading is anywhere near the story. Maybe if I’d read the description of the book on Alexander’s website, or Goodreads (or the form he filled out on my blog) just before starting the book I’d have been better equipped — but it should be in the book, not on the back-of-the book (metaphorically speaking) where I get grounded in the world.

I’m not saying that people can’t enjoy this, or shouldn’t, either. But it absolutely didn’t work for me in every conceivable way.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author, it clearly didn’t bias me in his favor.

—–

2 Stars

My Lady Jane (Audiobook) Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, Katherine Kellgren: This YA Romance/Alt-History/Fantasy is simply delightful

My Lady JaneMy Lady Jane

by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, Katherine Kellgren (Narrator)
Series: The Lady Janies, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 13 hrs., 47 min.
HarperAudio, 2016
Read: July 2 – 5, 2016

           You may think you know the story. It goes like this: once upon a time, there was a sixteen-year-old girl named Jane Grey, who was forced to marry a complete strange (Lord Guildford or Gilford or Gifford-something-or-other), and shortly thereafter found herself ruler of a country. She was queen for nine days. Then she quite literally lost her head.

Yes, it’s a tragedy, if you consider the disengagement of one’s head from one’s body tragic. (We are merely narrators, and would hate to make assumptions as to what the reader would find tragic.)

We have a different tale to tell.

Pay attention. We’ve tweaked minor details. We’ve completely rearranged major details. Some names have been changed to protect the innocent (or not-so-innocent, or simply because we thought a name was terrible and we liked another name better). And we’ve added a touch of magic to keep things interesting. So really anything could happen.

This is how we think Jane’s story should have gone.

So begins the Prologue to this wonderfully fun book. It’s that second paragraph — but specifically the parenthetical sentence — that locked in my appreciation for the book. Thankfully, it continued to be as good as that paragraph, but I was going to be a fan of anything that happened from that point on.

The advantage you have with historical figures that no one knows anything about, is historical novelists — particularly those who like to play with their history — can do pretty much what they want. Lady Jane Grey is probably the English monarch that people know the least about (if they know about her at all) making her perfect fodder for this story.

This is one of those books that I can’t figure out how to summarize, so I’m just going to steal the publisher’s blurb, as much as I hate doing that, but my attempts have a mess, and theirs worked:

           In My Lady Jane, coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have created a one-of-a-kind YA fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, featuring a reluctant king, an even more reluctant queen, a noble steed, and only a passing resemblance to actual history—because sometimes history needs a little help.

At sixteen, Lady Jane Grey is about to be married off to a stranger and caught up in a conspiracy to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But those trifling problems aren’t for Jane to worry about. Jane gets to be Queen of England.

Like that could go wrong.

The characters are wonderful — no one’s perfectly good, or perfectly evil (although there are a few that come close in both directions). The authors keep things moving well, never letting the story detract from the characters, or one part of the narrative take over (there’s plenty of action, romance, friendship, espionage for everyone). Yes there’s magic, yes there’s comedy, but there’s also a lot of heart — a lot of joyful storytelling. This has it all. I really can’t point to a favorite bit, or favorite theme or anything. This is just one of those books I enjoyed all of.

Inside this novel is a love letter to books — and Jane is the representative book lover par excellence (though she could like poetry and novels a bit more) — there’s a treasure trove of quotations about reading, books, and related topics in these pages. All of them delightful.

The novel is clearly clever, witty, with a lot of heart, etc., but what sealed the deal for me was Katherine Kelgren’s outstanding performance. I would’ve enjoyed the novel pretty much no matter who wrote it (I’m not sure Scott Brick or Dick Hill could’ve pulled if off, but you never know), but Kelgren absolutely sold it. Her accent work was outstanding, the life and verve she brought to the project just wowed me.

I’m blathering on, I realize — yet I’m not sure I’ve actually said anything. Bah — just grab the book or audiobook. I don’t care if you’re YA or just A, if you like romance or not, male or female — if you like a fun story that’s well told and never takes itself too seriously (but never makes a joke out of anything important), read it. You’ll have a blast.

—–

4 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge