Review – The Seventh Bride

Cover of The Seventh Bride by T. KingfisherThe Seventh Bride, T. Kingfisher
Recieved to review via Netgalley

I actually bought this initially, but the Netgalley page said something about it being an updated version, so I went for it. I originally picked it up for the promise of a heroic little hedgehog, and I was very happy with that aspect — the hedgehog is brave, helpful, clever, and funny. It can’t speak, so it communicates with the protagonist via miming and yes/no answers. It sounded so cute. I want one!

The story itself, aside from the hedgehogs, is a nice reimagining of a Bluebeard fairytale — but darker, really, because instead of death, the antagonist steals things of worth from the women he marries — their voices, their eyes, their ability to die — and leaves them alive. I found the tone somewhat at odds with the perceived historical/mythological time it was set in; the protagonist was too modern in thought and sensibility in some ways, it seemed. But overall, I found it very enjoyable, and I loved the way it treated the other characters. The other wives, for example, are each different, some very strange, and each of them copes with what has happened to them in a different way. As people do.

And, just to reiterate: hedgehog!

Rating: 4/5

Review – Blood and Circuses

Cover of Blood and Circuses by Kerry GreenwoodBlood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood

This is a nice change of pace for Phryne, taking her out of her element and putting her in the circus, where she isn’t automatically great at everything and people don’t automatically like her — some of her privilege of being a rich person gets stripped away, leaving the tough kid who grew up in poverty to deal with things. There’s a good bit of drama towards the end, which got a bit too much for my tastes in a cosy mystery (attempted rape, protagonist is left naked in a cage with large predator animals). I did like Jack’s involvement and trust in Phryne’s work, though, and the way he corrected the other policeman who was calling an intersex person “it”.

Also, Phryne’s men made me laugh this time when they both got in bed with her to cuddle her after her shock. They really didn’t protest very much!

The series remains easy to read and solidly entertaining; I’m getting through it at speed.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Freaks of Nature

Cover of Freaks of Nature by Mark BlumbergFreaks of Nature, Mark S. Blumberg

The title put me off this right away, the opening chapter helped somewhat because it promised to be more than a parade of curiosities, showing some sympathy and understanding, but ultimately I didn’t feel it did really manage to rise above that. There was a lot of reiteration about ‘circus freaks’, etc, and I don’t think it got past the novelty factor of such cases. There were some rather odd assertions — that the figure of Atlas could’ve been inspired by people with a developmental issue who ended up with a globe of brain matter sticking out from their shoulders, for example; it seems a rather ridiculous idea to me, and I couldn’t find anyone else saying the same thing. And saying Janus could’ve been inspired by cases where faces appear on both sides of the skull — maybe, but I think it more likely it’s a metaphorical depiction arising from what the god was said to do.

The science wasn’t particularly in depth or surprising. I don’t think anyone denies that developmental factors can be as important as genetics during gestation.

Rating: 1/5

Review – War of the Flowers

Cover of War of the Flowers by Tad WilliamsWar of the Flowers, Tad Williams
Originally reviewed 1st June, 2009

I read this book a long time ago — it was the first book by Tad Williams that I read — but never wrote a proper review for it. Both times I’ve read it I ate it up in about two days. The writing was pretty good — or it tasted good, anyway, from a synaesthete’s point of view — and the plot was interesting enough to draw me on and make me read it in great big chunks. There was something unmemorable about it, though. I have a pretty good memory, like my dad, and my dad is one of those guys who can tell you what happened in an obscure episode of the old series of Doctor Who that hardly anyone even remembers seeing. But I just didn’t really remember what happened in this book, so reading it again was actually mostly discovering things all over again.

One of the things I like a lot about the book is that it isn’t some great multi-volume epic with hundreds of characters. You stay focused on one main character throughout and don’t go off on too many tangents. Speculative fiction seems to, by default, come in trilogies, which drives me a little mad when I want a relatively simple/quick read. Unfortunately, this can be a bit of a pitfall, too. The War of the Flowers is pretty dense, and the main character, Theo Vilmos, is a bit slow and a bit of a jerk. He seems to sort of mean well, but he keeps saying and doing the wrong things.

There are some pretty awesome supporting characters — particularly Applecore, who is a little sprite with a foul mouth and a temper and, despite an odd soft spot for Theo, she calls him on his behaviour a lot. There’s a lot of other interesting characters, both good and bad, although some of them are more concepts than fully realised characters — for example, the Terrible Child.

There is also a lot of world-building packed into the book. Because parts of it rely on political machinations, there’s a lot of social/historical background packed in. It’s also complicated by the fact that Williams uses the old stories about Faerie, but his Faerie society is what we would consider to be more advanced: out of the medieval era into the world of “electricity”, etc. I liked the world he built quite a lot, although the obvious parallels with our modern world were somewhat intrusive. I don’t know how much it was intended to be a commentary on our world, but some parts felt rather pointed.

Overall, I think it could have been a shorter, slicker read, but I kind of liked the slow build. I’d say it’s just good summer holiday reading, but I know the first time I read it I read in the gaps between classes and so on, so it’s not something you can only stand if you settle down with it in the evenings or whatever. Depends how you read, I guess.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Green Mill Murder

Cover of Green Mill Murder by Kerry GreenwoodThe Green Mill Murder, Kerry Greenwood

This is what, by now, counts as a fairly typical story for Phryne, featuring two different lovers, some acts of derring-do, and little glimpses of the found-family going on with Ruth, Jane, Bert, Cec, the Butlers, Dot, and Phryne. Oh, and some very unpleasant people in society. Actually, I would quite like to see Phryne getting on with some people that she doesn’t want to sleep with and doesn’t despise, in her own social class… not that social class matters much to her; it just feels like a gap.

The mystery itself is a bit odd, in this one: it’s not really about finding the murderer, just about proving someone innocent. Even though, in this instance, there was a murderer. I dislike the attitude in some detective novels where the person who dies is an awful person, so the detective doesn’t really want to find out who did it. You can’t run a business by deciding who you like and who you don’t — and murder isn’t any more acceptable when the dead person is not likeable.

This book does include a few queer characters, very openly; it’s mostly dealt with casually, with pity for the situation they’re in and acceptance on Phryne’s part. But. Do they have to be stereotypes? Sigh.

It also contains a wombat character, who is epic, and some really gorgeous descriptions of flying and the Australian outback. So… swings and roundabouts.

I gather the TV show handles this one quite differently, and it’s the next one I have to watch, so that should be interesting.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Of Sorrow and Such

Cover of Of Sorrow and Such by Angela SlatterOf Sorrow and Such, Angela Slatter
Received to review via Netgalley

I wasn’t as sure about this one as I was some of the other Tor.com novellas, so I didn’t buy it outright, but I was curious enough to request it on Netgalley. Especially since the cover wouldn’t be out of place on one of Patricia McKillip’s books, or Juliet Marillier’s, perhaps. Well, it wasn’t exactly like either of those, but it was enjoyable. The main character, Patience, is just so wonderfully practical. Even when that means doing pretty horrifying things. It makes sense, given her life, and I was glad it wasn’t sentimentalised or smoothed over. It happens, and she deals with it as practically as she does it.

The writing itself was a bit uneven, for me — the opening chapter was a bit too much of being told about the world and the character and her life, especially when the setting is fairly typical. There was nothing really that surprised me about that; medieval Europe with witches who are actually witches, really.

It was enjoyable enough that I read it in one go, but I don’t seem to have much to say about it.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Accident Season

Cover of The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-DoyleThe Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle

I’m really not sure what to make of The Accident Season! It’s a strange story, rich with otherworldly descriptions and feelings, and yet in the end, you might read it as straightforward contemporary. I liked that ambiguity in the end: normally, I wish people would just go for it or not, but it’s more unsettling and strange and rich because you can’t be sure, and because the plot is driven by people being people, not by supernatural events.

I loved the way the characters relate to each other and get along and argue, like real friends, constantly readjusting to each other; I felt that the relationships were realistic and natural. The moral dilemma about one particular relationship felt a little manufactured, though — they keep asserting that a certain thing isn’t the case, then manage to have moral dilemmas about it anyway? You can’t have it both ways! Ultimately, I thought the relationship worked well, but then I also thought that about Harper and Tolliver in Charlaine Harris’ books and I’m used to cousin-marrying in Heyer and Stewart, so you might take that with a pinch of salt. I know it bothered some readers.

It’s hard to know what to say, and whether I’d recommend it to someone or not. I definitely found it interesting, though it’s slower and more atmospheric than you might expect from the plot, which seems to promise more of a horror film plot (to me, anyway). It’s more uncanny than outright chilling, though it has a couple of moments.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Ghost Hawk

Cover of Ghost Hawk by Susan CooperGhost Hawk, Susan Cooper

It’s a shame that I didn’t enjoy this book more, given how much I adore The Dark is Rising and Seaward. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to venture into spoiler territory to explain why, so here’s the non-spoilerish thoughts: the writing is still good, and I actually found the first section of the book pretty absorbing, despite criticisms I have seen about the portrayal of the Native American culture.

Given that it’s written in the voice of a Native American character, it has a certain authority about that, but apparently it’s not very accurate, taking elements from different tribal cultures and mixing them up. The end result is a pretty generically Native American setting, with the characters behaving and believing in a general Native-American-ish way to the casual reader… but despite all the details and the sense of authority, this doesn’t fit the tribe Little Hawk is supposed to be a part of. It fits with what I sort of expected, but I’d have liked something more accurate — even with fiction, I don’t read just to get a general stereotype reflected back to me.

And now for the spoilery part.

Just under halfway through the book, the point of view character is murdered, and thus we pass from the Native American experience to a Native American hanging around relatively unable to act, like white people become the focus. I’m not a big fan of the narrative trick Cooper pulls to begin with, and it makes it worse that it takes a character who was active, engaging and unique and makes the story all about the experiences of a young white boy, just arrived to colonise North America, while the Native character hangs around being sympathetic and trapped. And dead.

So much no. That set up just… no. And then, surprise! We get some white saviour stuff.

I still enjoyed the general quality of Cooper’s writing, but in terms of plotting, the book was rather slow, and that ‘gotcha’ in the middle just annoyed me. Bah.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Death at Victoria Dock

Cover of Death at Victoria Dock by Kerry GreenwoodDeath at Victoria Dock, Kerry Greenwood

If you were under the impression that Phryne is unfeeling, that her lovers mean nothing to her, this one should thoroughly disabuse you of that notion. I don’t know how you could be under that illusion after the anger she feels about the people hurting Sasha in Cocaine Blues, or the way she protects Jane and Ruth, but still. The story opens with a young man dying in her arms and that injustice drives the story, through Phryne’s anger.

The story itself is a whole world away from what I’m used to/know about, in terms of date, setting and politics, so I mostly just let it carry me. I love, though, that Phryne has loyal friends in the chance-met Bert and Cec, in Dot and in her adopted daughters. It’s a found family thing, which I always love.

In a way, the books don’t really bring anything new. There doesn’t seem to be an overarching plot, and Phryne isn’t changing, really. But it’s still so refreshing to have her so capable, so independent (but not infallible, not invulnerable, as this book particularly shows us) that I can’t stop reading them.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Hollow Hills

Cover of The Hollow Hills by Mary StewartThe Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books are certainly very different to her romance/mystery ones. It’s much more the world of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset than the sort of world her heroines inhabit in the modern stories: one of uncertain magic and prophecy, of blood and hatred and death. And it comes out much less positive about female characters. There are few prominent ones, and even mentions of women tend to be dark portents and shadows on the future Merlin foresees. But I do love the Welsh background, the Welsh names, the way that the different races of Britain are all represented here and are all Arthur’s subjects.

It’s doubly difficult to read this with any sense of suspense, though. First, Merlin knows what’s going to happen, at least broadly, and secondly, it’s the Arthurian legend. You can do surprising things with it, but Stewart sticks fairly close to the sources, which leaves very little room for surprising anyone who knows the source texts well. She plays the tropes relatively straight, too, and telegraphs all the usual causes of strife in Camelot well in advance. Arthur isn’t even acclaimed as king yet until the very end of the book, and already there’s foreshadowing for various betrayals. I really must look up Bedwyr’s involvement with Gwenhwyfar more — several modern tellings align him with her, and I can’t remember what might spark that.

Still, Stewart’s writing is good, and the sense of atmosphere she brings to the more far-flung settings for her romance/mystery stories is equally strong here, in the cold and damp corners of Britain. Her writing in this book reminds me a lot of Sutcliff, which can only be a compliment.

I do hope she’s more subtle with Morgause, Morgian and Gwenhwyfar, when they appear properly, though.

Rating: 4/5