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2010 book log

Book Log

Book Log #79: Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft

Note: This is a late review from my 2010 book log, posting as I’m trying to get caught up. The 2011 book log will commence once the 2010 reviews are up to date!

Steam-Powered:  Lesbian Steampunk Stories

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Say you’re a big fan of steampunk. Say also that you think the world needs more queer short fiction–and in particular, F/F. If both of these apply to you, you absolutely need to check out Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, a forthcoming anthology from Torquere Books. Editor userinfoupstart_crow (JoSelle Vanderhooft) kindly sent me an ARC of this antho, and I can happily say it was one of the more unusual anthologies I’ve read, not only because of the lesbian aspect but also because of the sheer diversity of stories and the emphasis on non-European and non-American cultures when possible.

Hands down, my favorite story in the whole thing was N.K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”. Fantasy fans may recognize that name from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which got a whole lot of favorable buzz; now that I’ve finally read something by this author, I can see why. I very much enjoyed her story, thanks to my ideal level of romance (i.e., it’s an aspect of the story but not the dominant point of the plot), the intrigue (a female spy in New Orleans is looking for hotly sought secrets of clean methane production, because whoever gets hold of that gets airship superiority), and the emphasis on Haiti. The heroine of this story is Haitian, and it’s just after the revolution in that country–so not only do you get a lesbian romance, it’s multi-racial and multi-cultural as well.

“Brilliant”, by Georgina Bruce, mostly worked for me as a character study–although again, we have an emphasis on non-European culture, as there are references to the “Egyptian Empire”, and the title character of the story is the daughter of the Nigerian ambassador to Cairo. Nice.

D.L. MacInnes’ “Owl Song” was a bittersweet one, which I didn’t entirely enjoy. And yet, the ending of it was haunting and powerful.

“Where the Ocean Meets the Sky” by Sara M. Harvey somewhat contrasted for me with Jemisin’s story, since there’s more emphasis here on the sexual attraction between the two main characters and not quite as much on the actual plot. But that said, I quite enjoyed that the plot featured a colorful character from San Francisco history, Emperor Joshua Norton I.

Beth Wodzinski’s “Suffer Water” gets points for a nice little blend of Old West, nanotech done steampunk style, a relationship gone wrong, and a bit of mad scientist to boot.

In “Steel Rider”, Rachel Manija Brown brings us a tale with a bit of anime-style mecha to spice up her steampunk. There’s a hint of Jewish culture here as well as Aztec and Mexican, not to mention all sorts of interesting questions about the world only barely seen in this story.

Shira Lipkin’s vignette “Truth and Life” is a glimpse of the sadness of a brilliant engineer.

Matthew Kressel, in “The Hands that Feed”, brings us a solid little tale of a shopkeeper with hidden talents, and the seemingly innocent young woman she comes to love. Our two heroines are Jewish and Hindu, as well as separated by thirty years of age, which makes for quite the unusual pairing indeed.

My fellow Drollerie author Meredith Holmes brings us “Love in the Time of Airships”, a tale of romance across social classes–and a woman who discovers not only that she has romantic inclinations she never dreamed of, but that her so-called husband is far more dangerous than she ever imagined.

Teresa Wymore, another fellow Drollerie author, has some intriguing glimpses of genetic manipulation shaping the society that exists “Under the Dome”.

“Clockwork and Music”, by Tara Sommers, is a poignant tale of a young woman who must wrestle madness, possibly nefarious intentions of the doctor who looks after her in a sanitarium, and the clockwork servants that carry out his will. All she has to sustain her is the love of a fellow inmate, who may or may not be mad herself.

Mikki Kendall’s “Copper for a Trickster” is brutal, and believably so, if you take a steampunk culture and think about how it would have impacted the development of African slavery. Protagonist Dalila and her beloved Ashaki are willing to do anything to free themselves and the children enslaved with them–but Dalila learns the price of the bargain they make with the Hare.

“Sleepless, Burning Life”, by Mike Allen, is perhaps the oddest piece in the collection. The prose is almost more metaphor than narrative, and even after having read through it, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s about. There are goddesses and priestesses and gears involved, and that’s pretty much what I came away with; more than that will have to wait until I get a formal copy of the anthology. (This was the first of two stories where I found the watermarking on the ARC to interfere enough with my ability to read the story that I will need to re-read it later.) Still, there’s imagery to be admired here, as well as the sheer lyricism of the writing.

And lastly, we have Shweta Narayan’s “The Padishah Begum’s Reflections”, another piece complex enough that I had a hard time reading it given the watermarking on the ARC and reading it on my iPhone. There’s a lot of jumping around between time frames in this story, which made it hard to follow on a small screen–but I glimpsed enough complexity of plot in this final piece that it’s another reason I absolutely want to acquire a full formal copy of the book.

In conclusion: highly recommended for steampunk fans as well as readers in search of lesbian fiction as well as fiction that embraces non-Western cultures. Not every piece was to my particular tastes, but they were all solid, and I look forward to buying my formal copy. Four stars.

Book Log

Book Log #78: Rebel, by Zoe Archer

Note: This is a late review from my 2010 book log, posting as I’m trying to get caught up. The 2011 book log will commence once the 2010 reviews are up to date!

Rebel (The Blades of the Rose, #3)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of Zoe Archer’s highly enjoyable Blades of the Rose series, Book 3, Rebel, turned out to be my least favorite thus far. This is not actually because Rebel is bad; it’s not. It’s got a lot of the same elements to it that I enjoy in the others. But other elements just didn’t click with me as well.

This time around we’ve got a heroine, Astrid, who’s a rarity in the romance novels I’ve read: a widow who’s a widow of a genuine, love-based marriage. (As opposed to, say, a husband who never slept with her, or a husband who abused her, or any number of excuses as to why the heroine hasn’t ever actually had sex before she lays eyes on the hero.) Her husband was slain by the Heirs of Albion, and in grief over his passing, Astrid’s fled into the remote Canadian wilderness. There she meets Nathan, our hero, who’s another rarity: a Native American who’s been brought up in white society and who is employed as an attorney. Thing is, Astrid discovers he’s got magical gifts–and that he may be the only thing standing between the Heirs and their acquisition of new Sources hidden by Nathan’s people.

I really liked both Nathan’s and Astrid’s backstories. Nathan in particular though played for me oddly as a character; on the one hand, he had an awesome history, and he’s an excellent retort to a lot of old-school romance novels where a Native American hero is fulfilling the “noble savage” stereotype that will make modern readers want to bang the book against the wall. On the other hand, the revelation of his magical ability played for me just a bit too easily. Not only is he a shapechanger, he’s a special shapechanger, with gifts that are just a bit too easily matched to the challenge of protecting three magical totems from acquisition by the Heirs. (Which is all I’ll say about that, lest I venture too far into spoiler territory.)

Astrid is an excellent match for him, nonetheless. Archer does a nice job making you think she may be about to head into the “oh noez! the Heroine will nurse the poor Hero back to health” trope, only to shoot that down very quickly–and from there, Astrid proceeds to be interestingly prickly all throughout the story, as she wrestles with her growing affection for Nathan and guilt over loving another man so soon after her husband’s death. She’s believably competent as a woman who’s a former Blade and who’s been looking after herself in the remote wilderness for a few years should be.

And, a good bit of Astrid’s character arc actually depends less on her relationship with Nathan and more with Catullus Graves, who gets significant camera time in this book. He’s been on camera before in the series, but only briefly. Here, he’s coming to Canada in search of Astrid, and he joins forces quite effectively with her and Nathan in the fight against the Heirs. I found the resolution of old conflict between him and Astrid almost more emotionally satisfying than the emotional resolution between her and Nathan, just because it was that much of a nice change of pace to see a heroine with a genuine friendship with a guy who’s not the hero.

(Plus, up until this book in the series, you get a lot of talk about how awesome Catullus is and how much brilliant invention he does for the Blades. In this story, though, you actually get to see him seriously deliver. This made Catullus quite a bit more awesome for me than Nathan, which was unfair to Nathan as it’s supposed to be his book, but hey!)

The villains are still pretty much Evil Because It’s Their Plot Function to be Evil, but as of this point in the series, we’re at least getting a particular bad guy who’s screwed up by events earlier in the series and is out for revenge because of them. This helps bump up his creepiness factor, and gives him a bit more substance to his motives beyond just “FOR THE GLORY OF BRITAIN!” Points for that, overall, and points to the series for continuing to entertain. Four stars.

Book Log, Television

Book Log #77: Naked Heat, by Richard Castle

Naked Heat

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m still greatly, greatly amused that the Richard Castle books even exist–it remains an excellent marketing ploy for an enjoyable TV show. That said, I didn’t quite enjoy Naked Heat, the second of the Nikki Heat series, as much as the first one.

Most of this I attribute to the overall style of the writing seeming less focused somehow, enough that I genuinely wondered if books 1 and 2 had different ghostwriters. In this installment, mind you, the writing was still competent; this was more of a matter of certain stylistic quirks popping up here that I didn’t see in the first one, just little nuances of phrase and such that gave the prose a slightly different flavor this time around, and one I wasn’t entirely sure I liked.

I still roll my eyes at a character name like “Nikki Heat”, as well the convention of referring to detectives Ryan Raley and Esposito Ochoa collectively as “Roach”. That’s a cute enough nickname if used in dialogue, but it was used a bit too much in the narrative this time. (See previous comment re: certain stylistic quirks.) Also, we’re far enough into the show at this point that I kept spotting plot points from various episodes, which made it a bit too obvious that yes, this book really is just a thinly disguised episode of the show.

That said, I did quite also like the progression of Nikki’s and Jameson’s relationship, as it’s going down a track that we haven’t seen in the show. We also get some backstory on Jameson and get to meet his mother (so far, in the Nikki Heat version of the universe, there’s no analog for Alexis from the show).

So all in all, very fluffy reading–and if you’re a Castle fan, you’ll probably keep having the urge to swap in the “real” character names if you read this. The mystery to solve is fun, though, and there are worse ways to spend your time. Three stars.

Book Log

Book Log #76: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It wasn’t until I actually started reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood that I found out it was in fact a sequel to Oryx and Crake, which I am told is actually a better book. This I didn’t find a hardship, because I did actually like The Year of the Flood. And thankfully, it stands alone from Oryx and Crake since it’s less a true sequel and more a covering of the same events from the points of view of different characters.

Make no mistake, Atwood’s renowned aversion to being associated with the genre aside, this is definitely an SF novel. We’ve got a futuristic setting of indeterminate timeframe, in which a decadent civilization is about to fall. Its apocalypse is, I’m given to understand, covered in more detail in Oryx and Crake; here, instead, we have a character study of two women involved with a religious sect who preach the coming of the Waterless Flood and who are taking steps to try to survive the disaster along with stores of foodstuffs. Toby is one of the so-called “Eves” of God’s Gardeners, drawn into their company despite her own lack of personal conviction, and finding purpose in teaching the children; Ren is one of those children, whose mother eventually flees with her back to the society they’d come from, where Ren eventually becomes an exotic dancer. What happens to both women as the Flood finally occurs forms the overall pattern of the book, winding back and forth between their backstories and on up to the Flood itself.

A lot of this book’s character-driven rather than plot-driven, though, which resulted in the overall plot being rather thin. There are decent sequences all throughout, with interesting periodic bursts of outright action as the Gardeners schism in the years leading up to the Flood. Ultimately though things don’t so much resolve as meander to a halt. I didn’t mind this so much since Atwood’s language and worldbuilding were lovely, but others may find that a problem.

Since this book focuses on a religious sect, be prepared for that to drive a lot of the character motivations; they’re especially forthright in their abhorrence of eating meat, for example. It fit well with the characters for me, though, and seeing how different members of the Gardeners reacted to their own tenets provided a substantial amount of the character conflicts.

Overall I found this a good, solid read and am looking forward to checking out Oryx and Crake. Four stars.

Book Log

Book Log #75: Scoundrel, by Zoe Archer

Scoundrel (The Blades of the Rose, #2)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Scoundrel, Book 2 of Zoe Archer’s Blades of the Rose series, came across my radar with a bang thanks to the Smart Bitches Trashy Books ladies and their current montly book club. As I mentioned in my review of Book 1, Warrior, I was very happy to see a cover with a hero who’s not only fully dressed, but who also seemed to come right out of a mold I find most swoonable indeed: the Indiana Jones archetype, ready for adventure.

Even more so that with Book 1, Scoundrel delivered this in spades. I enjoyed Scoundrel quite a bit more, in no small part due to the hero. Bennett Day of the Blades of the Rose is an unhesitant rake, cheerfully cutting a swath through the dozens of women willing to go at it with him in the sheets in between his far more serious missions for his compatriots, and sometimes both at once. Little does he know he’s about to meet up with London Harcourt, the daughter of an Heir of Albion–and whose husband Bennett in fact once killed. London has no idea whatsoever of the nefarious activities of her father and spouse, and suffice to say, her worldview is blown wide open when she finds out that her father has hauled her off to Greece to make use of her gift with ancient languages. Harcourt’s bent on tracking down the same Source Bennett’s pursuing, and Bennett and his fellow Blades have no choice but to abduct London, clue her in, and hope like hell that she’ll defect to their team and help them.

A couple of things kicked Scoundrel up another notch over Book 1 for me. One is the secondary romance playing out between the witch Athena and the boat captain Kallas, which was in some ways almost more fun than the primary romance of London and Bennett–but only almost, because I had great fun with them too. I very much liked that London had refreshingly little angst about Bennett’s womanizing ways, which led beautifully into Bennett flooring himself with his obligatory Realization of True Love(TM). The big revelation of said True Love in particular was quite charming; look for the “monkeys in hats” lines, here.

I also have to give Archer props for actually making me not skim past a sex scene, for once. If an author is going to actually make me read a sex scene, she needs to have either a masterful command of the language and make me swoon on the sheer power of words alone. Or, she needs to say something interesting about the involved characters, and give me something more to go on than just the physical depiction. Archer does the latter in a goddess-play scene that I’ll freely admit was, indeed, rather hot for the delightful things it said about London as a character and as a woman.

Meanwhile, in the main plot, we’ve got ourselves a chase through Greece through lovingly described islands and waters. The Heirs are still fairly flat as villains–I still never really get a sense of any of the Heirs as actual people rather than bad guys spouting “For the Glory of Britain!” Here, though, London’s father is actually genuinely creepy in the final big showdown between them. The Heirs’ dark mage, as well, is legitimately creepy in a scene involving torture.

All in all not something to take too seriously, but a highly engaging read nonetheless, in no small part because of the charm of London and Bennett. Four stars.

Book Log

Book Log #74: Warrior, by Zoe Archer

Warrior (The Blades of the Rose, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came into Zoe Archer’s Blades of the Rose series courtesy of the fine ladies at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, when they chose the second book of the series as a book club read. Pretty much right out of the gate I wanted these books, and I’m not ashamed to admit that a big part of that was because of the covers on Books 1 and 2. First and foremost, I want to thank whoever did the cover art! Gabriel on the cover of Book 1, I’m not ashamed to say, totally slew me for looking like he stole Indiana Jones’ outfit, and even aside from that appealing to my fangirl sensibilities, I just found it such a refreshing change from a lot of the shirtless, overmuscled guys on the covers of romance and paranormal romance these days.

Happily, the book itself also proved to be quite enjoyable. Warrior, as the opening book of a series, has the task of setting up the world for us, and it does a nice strong job of doing so by giving us our hero, Gabriel, drawn into saving a man’s life in a brutal attack. The man he tries to rescue dies, but not before begging Gabriel to take a message–and a mysterious compass–clear around the world to Mongolia.

Gabriel, you see, has stumbled into the ongoing conflict between two factions at war over magical Sources, artifacts all over the globe which are so named for being the repositories of great power. The Heirs of Albion are bent on securing these Sources for the greater glory of the British Empire, so that Britain might take over the world. Pitted against them are the Blades of the Rose, sworn to avoid using any magic save that which is theirs by gift or by right, and to keep all Sources safe in the hands of their rightful people.

And the man Gabriel has to take the dire message to? He is of course a Blade, living in Mongolia with his daughter Thalia, who is naturally afire with the ambition to follow in her father’s footsteps. Neither want to embroil Gabriel in their affairs, but Gabriel won’t be put off easily. He has after all come all the way from England at the behest of a dying man. Also, Thalia is awfully, awfully hot.

It’s a nifty worldbuilding concept, and Archer has great fun with it, setting up an engaging blend of period adventure and supernatural activity that hearkens indeed back to the aforementioned Indiana Jones as well as the Mummy movies with Brendan Fraser. As these are in fact paranormal romance novels, you do have the obligatory blazing chemistry between the lead characters and more than one sex scene in which they indulge it–but for once, my tastes in such things are actually pretty in line with what a romance novel has to offer with that. Archer’s very good at giving her female leads strong sexual agency, and the sense of equality between her heroines and heros is awesome both within and outside of romantic contexts.

In this particular story, as she’s been brought up in Mongolia, Thalia is very much afraid that a man from her native Britain will expect her to behave like a proper British lady–and she’s delighted to discover that Gabriel, as a commoner and a foot soldier, is just as happy that she’s anything but. The two of them must set out to find and protect the Source the Heirs are targeting, and along the way, have themselves quite the adventuresome ride. There’s a bit too much obvious pointing at characters who are destined to have their own installments as the series progresses, and a bit too much simplistic motivation on the part of the bad guys. But all in all this was fun and it made me quite interested in continuing with the series. Three stars.

Book Log

Book Log #73: Lord of the Silent, by Elizabeth Peters

Lord of the Silent (An Amelia Peabody Mystery, #13)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After the mighty awesomeness that was He Shall Thunder in the Sky, any book Elizabeth Peters might write would have its work cut out for it. Thunder is so clear a culmination of the Ramses/Nefret love story that in many ways it serves as an admirable stopping point for the series. It would be somewhat unfair to Lord of the Silent and its immediately following book, Children of the Storm, to call them afterthoughts. But Silent definitely takes the Emerson saga into a new phase, one that loses something of the charm of many of the previous books while at the same time still having charm of its own to offer.

Like many of the later Amelia Peabody books, this one brings back characters we’ve seen before. This time around we got Margaret Minton, last seen in Book Five, Deeds of the Disturber, annoying the devil out of Kevin O’Connell. She is of course much older at this point, though in some ways not particularly more mature–because her entire plot arc involves her reacting to a surprise encounter with none other than Sethos himself. This being a series with a long tradition of pairing off side characters along with the main action, it’ll probably surprise no new readers to this series that at least on the part of Miss Minton, the encounter proved quite romantic. Nor will anyone who read Thunder be surprised that this book, in playing out Sethos’ reaction to the woman chasing him, continues the whole concept of reforming the erstwhile Master Criminal. It’s inevitable, really, given what Margaret’s previous appearance in the series had established about her resemblance to Amelia–and, of course, Sethos’ own attachment to same. It’s a nice touch on Peters’ part. (Though at the same time, I must admit to being vaguely disappointed, since he’s one of the liveliest characters in the entire cast, and the idea of reforming him is almost ridiculous. As Sethos himself snarkily observes!)

Meanwhile, fans of Ramses may find it almost disappointing that now that he’s won Nefret, the resolution of that romantic tension fundamentally changes the position of those two characters in the overall framework of the series. There’s good stuff here with the British government being desperate to pull Ramses back into intelligence work, and Ramses adamantly refusing with his family’s staunch support. Nor can I really speak against the value of exploring how the newly married younger Emersons’ relationship develops, given that similar exploration between Amelia and Emerson has of course defined the heart of this entire series. But Ramses is not his father, no matter how kindly the advice of his parents in marital matters might be meant, and so some readers may find that the passages where Ramses and Nefret explore their new married state drag a bit in comparison to the rest of the book.

There’s some fun here as well exploring the character of young Sennia, and the introduction of Jumana and her brother Jamil expands the cast a bit, providing good contrast between a young woman who wants to prove herself and her reprobate, lazy brother. And there’s still enough substance to Peters’ writing here that unlike later novels in the series, this one’s still a pretty solid read. Three stars.