Books, July 2018

Six out of my seven titles this month were installments in a series. (Two pairs came from the same series!) I will sing to you the praises of a series: long-term investment in characters and story stakes, themes that emerge only over the course of telling multiple discrete but linked stories, and most of all, the ability of the author to say “you know these people, it’s been 3 books already, no time for introductions, LET’S ROLL.”

(On a related note, it cracks me up when continuity-heavy series continuously insist on re-introducing the main characters every volume. Ok sure, when it’s a supporting character we haven’t seen for a while, remind me who they are. But if you don’t know who the narrator/protagonist is after book four or so, then you should just go back to book one, do not pass go, and definitely do not collect $200 because you spent it all on books.)

A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light, VE Schwab

Oh, the tournament plot. It shows up pretty regularly in medium- to long-running series, especially for kids. Goblet of Fire is the most obvious example, but off the top of my head it also crops up a few times in Tortall books, Jonathan Strange, heck, I’d even count The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, while it’s a great way to quickly introduce a lot of new secondary characters, give them all enough character development that we actually care about them when something bad inevitably befalls one or more competitors, and raise the stakes by handing out a literal prize, it can also bring the main story arc and quest to defeat the bigger bad to a grinding halt. In Shadows, the bigger bad that was only hinted at in Darker Shade is given a name and a goal, and by the end has presented a genuine threat to the entire world, but Lila and Kell’s baddie-defeating momentum has basically ground to a halt. However, SPOILER, the tournament nicely shows rather than tells what I had already suspected – Lila not only has magic, but is an Antari. Still, this volume earned its 3 rating by the charisma of its characters and Last Airbender-style duels of magic more than it actually moving the plot along.

In contrast, Conjuring had me at the edge of my seat for the entire dang time. I was genuinely unsure how they were going to resolve the threat until the convenient plot device was introduced (which does nicely leave a sequel hook hanging – please do the thing!) and I really did believe that nobody had plot armor – that is, that anyone could be badly hurt and/or die. I’m a fast reader, but a book has to be truly gripping for me to finish a 600ish page whopper in 2 days. Also, there’s even MORE pirates than the other two.

As I said last month about Darker Shades (and a while back about The Rook, which is still in my top 5 recommendations), it’s unusual and exciting to encounter magic systems that are completely new to me, and this trilogy earns points in every category – concept, execution, pirates, characters, writing skill, pirates, a detailed and interesting new magic system, raising the stakes and actually following through, and, of course, pirates.

Genre: thriller, speculative, character study. Setting: fantasy. Format: novels. Rating: 3/3 and a serious contender for series of the year

Til Death Do Us Tart, Ellie Alexander

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the sidelining of delightful human Thomas in favor of the exciting but unreliable Carlos is a terrible thing both for the series and for protagonist Jules, who is also a delightful human but also is prone to impulsive romcom choices that are actually awful for her. Carlos sweeps her off her feet and makes these grand romantic statements, clearly fishing for her to come back, which he then follows up with… a two week visit. And co-buying a winery, leaving the country and expecting someone else to run it, AND keeping a crucial term of the deal secret from co-owner Jules until AFTER their hostile co-owner tries to bully her. And to cap it off, he butts in on HER kitchen. Meanwhile, Thomas cares about her well-being regardless of her romantic intentions, and checks in on her well-being without being pushy or demanding of her affection – that is, he’s a genuinely good person and not just nice to her as a means of getting a relationship from her. He’s rewarded with an ever-shrinking narrative presence and a secondary love interest who was introduced as “irritating” and is clearly now just convenient. Anyway, I still love the series anyway, largely because of the wonderful and relatable secondary cast. And I did not mean to have this much of a rant about Carlos, but he’s clearly roused a strong opinion, which is certainly worth something, even when that opinion is UGH.

Genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3 for now, but not if you keep ignoring precious cinnamon roll Thomas, too sweet, too good for this story

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire

It is no insult to this third installment in the series to say that it’s the weakest so far – it’s only a compliment to the other two. Following the previously-established formula of shifting its focus to a new main character while moving previous protagonists to its stable of supporting characters, we focus on new student Cora and Rini, daughter of previous murder victim Sumi, who needs to undo her mother’s murder before Rini Back-to-the-Future fades out of existence. Once the quest is established, it’s essentially a heist – and we all know I love a good heist. Unfortunately, while the plot was as strong as the first two volumes, I found Cora and Rini to be rather flatter personalities compared to Nancy and Kade (Every Heart a Doorway) and Jack and Jill (Down Among the Sticks and Bones). Kade and Nancy played important roles again here, and I itched for the focus to return to them. Kade in particular is a winner as both a deuteragonist and a supporting character, and I sure hope that he gets his own starring turn in a future installment.

Genre: adventure/quest, character study. Setting: fantasy. Format: novella. Rating: 3/3

Head On and Unlocked, John Scalzi

I sang the praises of Lock In last year, back when I thought it was going to just be a stand alone novel. I’m back to sing the praises LOUDER and with a dramatic key change in the middle to express how much I love Head On. It’s a compelling mystery (I was genuinely uncertain which of two suspects did it for a solid 1/3 of the book), the increased presence of Chris’s quirky roommates and steadfast parents is a welcome addition to the growing universe, and I will never cease to find Chris’s constant destruction of threeps for reasons outside their control to be anything short of hilarious. Best of all, the science is extraordinarily accurate without sacrificing an ounce of story quality. (I am always in favor of sacrificing science detail or accuracy in favor of a good story, but that sacrifice wasn’t necessary here – in fact, the accuracy actually adds to the story.)

Tie-in novella Unlocked rewinds 20ish years to the initial outbreak of the disease that causes mass lock-in syndrome and tells its unfolding through a documentary/interview transcript format with scientists and medical professionals looking back on their experience. I was nothing short of delighted at how the “interviews” captured the very real mindset of many scientists facing a devastating emergency like a pandemic – half fascinated detachment, half desperate scramble for the benefit humanity. I can only imagine that Scalzi interviewed a bunch of neuroscientists and/or epidemiologists to capture that contradictory but necessary spirit. Not only that, but it captured the real funding politics of basic research and the reasons why funding fundamental discovery into science (here, human biology) benefits us in more practical applications later. And it called out and thanked science and medical researchers for persevering in the face of a disaster. I know it wasn’t meant as a direct thanks to the profession, but I sure felt appreciated.

Genre: Head On, mystery, commentary, speculative; Unlocked, commentary, allegory. Setting: science fiction, also “history” for Unlocked. Format: novel; novella. Rating: respectively, 3/3 and 4/3, with the bonus point for Unlocked being the only novel I’ve ever read that called out the importance of the NIH and basic research by name

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, ed. John Joseph Adams

In one volume, we got your diabolical cacklers, your self-righteous antiheroes, your slippery slope from hero to villain, your evil corporations and/or bureaucracies, your right motives/wrong methods, and so much more. I’m still feeling out the reasons I find villain protagonists so fascinating, but at least part of it is how it deconstructs and demonstrates how to counter the sheer variety of nastiness that humans are capable of. It’s the evil version of Star Trek’s “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” Infinite nastiness in infinite severities. By diving deeply into villains through fiction (because that’s part of what stories are for – ruminating on real-life actions), we can understand what motivates such actions, and perhaps how to prevent the slide into villainy in the first place.

Genre: yes. Setting: science fiction or fantasy, depending. Format: short stories. Rating: 3/3, but some stories were better than others

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