Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Geist by Philippa Ballantine


Rating: WARTY!

I could not get into this. I made it through three chapters and it was unfurling so painfully slowly that I looked at it and the thought of suffering three hundred pages of this was too much. The author seems to be channeling Stephen King, but the fact is that if the only way you have to make your characters pop is to detail their life history even unto the third and fourth generation, then I'm sorry but you're doing it pedantically wrong.

The book description tells us that "The undead are here and only the Deacons stand in their way," but it really doesn't tell us a damned thing about who or what deacons are, how they get to be in such a position, and what they actually do. Everything is so unnecessarily mysterious and after three chapters of that, I was tired of not knowing anything./p>

These deacons are supposed to be "guardians against ghost possession," but the author never showed us what a deacon would do with one of these ghosts, or undead or whatever-the-hell-they-are. Instead we're introduced to the anomaly of a host of them without ever being shown what the norm is, so it really means nothing because we have nothing with which to compare it! This is the first book in a series, naturally, and that's the first problem because it means the author thinks she has four books at least to tell this story.

She really doesn't. If she fails to tell an engaging story in volume one, no one in their right mind is going to want to read further. So it sure doesn't mean that she can coast through the first volume without doing any work. I can't commend this based on what I suffered through.


Friday, May 15, 2020

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay


Rating: WARTY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is a middle-grade novel set in Britain. I'm normally a bit biased toward such novels, and this one started out for me in great style, with Abi from one family, and Louis and Max from another being brought together into one big family when Abi's father Theo marries the boys' mother Polly. They move into a larger house, which has a lot of character and Abi finds that her immersion in novels becomes a little too literal. She'd be reading Kon-Tiki and the book would end up wet, with the water tasting of salt. She'd be reading about an Arctic adventure and almost get frostbite.

That would have been adventure enough, but there was also other stuff going on that seemed unconnected with Abi's experiences - like the large cat that young Louis encounters, or the paranoia that Max experiences, alongside his interest in this French art student who occasionally babysits. On top of that, Polly's work calls her away from home for a couple of weeks (I'm not sure why the author wanted her out of the way), and Theo it seems is hardly home, so the kids are left to their own devices a lot. At once there seemed to be both too much going on and not enough.

The story was going in so many different directions that things were becoming confused, and also being skipped: like how these kids were getting along given that one of them was entirely unrelated to the other two, and how little information is imparted about the books they're reading. The kids seemed to have no inner life, and the novel reached a stagnation point about halfway in. I began quickly to lose interest in it. It did not improve and I gave up on it at seventy percent out of sheer boredom.

Again, it wasn't written for me, and middle-graders might get more out of it than did I, but I've read and enjoyed many middle-grade level books and found them highly entertaining. This one wasn't in that category, and while I wish the author all the best in her career, I can't commend this particular novel as a worthy read.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Truth-Teller's Tale by Sharon Shinn


Rating: WARTY!

You know there was nothing outright bad about this novel, but there was nothing great about it either, and in the end, that was the problem. It was bland to the point of pointlessness. I read it very nearly all the way through - all except for the last few pages and by then I had begun to seriously resent the time I'd wasted on this when I could have been reading something more memorable and engaging. As it was, it was not even really a story; it was just a meandering ramble that really had nowhere to go, but downhill.

The problem was that it so quickly became perfectly obvious exactly what was going to happen, who the mysterious visitors were, and where everyone would end up. If you're going to tell such an obvious story, then you at least need to spice it up a bit with some misdirection and red herrings. The author never did. I don't know if she was foolish enough to believe that no-one could see the glaringly obvious truth (in a novel where 'truth teller' is part of the title!), or if she understood that and simply didn't care, but the fact that it was so painfully obvious to the reader, and yet not a single one of the three main female characters even had a clue, tells me that this author evidently delights in writing about truly stupid female characters. Why female authors do this to their characters I do not know, but it happens a lot and it always pisses me off.

The story is set in a sort of medieval world where there are three kinds of gifted people, all of whom seem to be female for some reason. One of these kinds is the wish-granter. She has the power (so-called) to grant any wish, but since we later learn that she has no power to choose which wishes are granted and which are not, it rather neuters her power, and renders it completely random.

The other two kinds of people are represented by the mirror twins who are the main characters. That is, they are identical if one is seen directly, and the other seen in a mirror reflection. The have the palindromic names of Adele and Eleda - something that was again obvious from the start, and while the reader has the advantage of seeing the names in print which makes it a bit easier than if we'd simply heard them, it's not impossible to figure it out. Yet no one ever does! Maybe it's just that the whole city is stupid?

One of the twins is compelled always to tell the truth. She has the power to discern truth about a person and typically cannot prevent herself from speaking it. The other has the seemingly pointless power of never revealing a secret. It's quite literally impossible for her to tell a secret that's been shared with her Again, that power seems a bit dumb, but because she is so similar to her sister, there is the quirk that sometimes someone who thinks they're sharing a secret that will never be passed on, makes a mistake and speaks it to the truth-teller. This plays such a small part in the story that it seems pointless, but it does again illustrate how dumb these people are.

That was the whole problem with this: the pointlessness of it. There really wasn't a story here to tell. There was never any adventure, never anything at risk, never any great revelation, never anything unpredictable, never any thrill or danger, and never any real romance or heartbreak for that matter. It was bland to the point of being tasteless and I cannot commend it as a worthy read. It's the middle book in a trilogy. I hadn't read the first, and it's not necessary; they're stand-alones it would seem, but I'm done. I have no desire to read any more of this trilogy or or any other Sharon Shinn novel. This is the second work of hers that I've been disappointed with and the thought of reading anything else by her now just leaves me cold.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Dragon Choker by Stephanie Alexander


Rating: WARTY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Errata:
"...the more likely her husband would give up and returned to his own chamber." Returned need the -ed suffix removed.
"He must think thusly at times" - 'thusly' isn't really a word. The 'ly' needs to be omitted.
"...and since they both knew the way they let themselves in." - this needed a comma after 'way'.
"She lit on the muddy ground..." - unless she shone a flashlight on it or set fire to it, lit is the wrong word. It needed to be alit or alighted. Either is acceptable.

This is volume two of a series based on the Cinderella fairy-tale. There are several quite varying "Cinderella" stories though history, originating from as far and wide as Greece and China, but most people tend to think of Cinderella as the version written by Charles Perrault in 1697, titled Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre ("Cinderella or the little glass slipper"), which is where the Disney Fairytale Mining Corporation™ lifted the premise for the animated version it put out in 1950. That's the version that introduced the two evil stepsisters, the glass slipper, the pumpkin and all that, and upon which this novel is loosely-based.

I haven't read volume one of this series, and I'm far from convinced I'd like it if I did, so I wasn't about to try reading that before I started on this one. Since I'm not very much into series, whether I'd end up liking this one was the question. I started out quite happy that it wasn't written in first-person voice - which I despise, and which would have decidedly turned me off it, so I commend the author for that wise choice.

It was decently-written for the most part (subject to occasional grammatical and word-choice errors, some examples of which I'll list below. It did keep me engaged for a while, but as time passed I started losing faith in the author and consequently my interest in the story waned considerably. I also had problems with some of the plot choices and with the portrayal of Eleanor, which I think belied the book description - or more accurately the book description misrepresented the novel.

It was from that description though, that I had become intrigued by this story, being led to believe that the novel was something bit different from the usual premise. The not-so-happily-ever-after induced me to request it for review. The description began, "Eleanor Brice Desmarais, she of the cracked glass slipper and unladylike intellectual propensities" and that caught my attention. 'Desmarais' is French for 'of the swamp' so maybe there's some history related to that in volume one. Or maybe not! I can't speak to that. Character names are important to me so I tend to have them mean something which may not always be apparent to the reader, but maybe I read more into other authors' choices than I ought.

This promise of 'unladylike intellectual propensities' however, failed to materialize unless all that the person writing that description meant was that Eleanor had a sexual appetite. Oh how scandalous - a woman enjoys sex! Who knew?! Seriously? But if that's the case, then the writer of the description needs to get an education regarding the difference between intellectual and sexual.

The really sad thing about Eleanor though, and the tragic paradox of this story is that she's purported to be the people's princess, and yet she was risking bringing down shame on herself and the royal family by her uncontrolled behavior. This is hardly how a great princess behaves. She seems to have been modeled on Princess Diana, but unlike in that real life case, Eleanor starts her affair long before she's ever built-up any credibility by demonstrating a generosity of spirit, a warmth, and a caring attitude that the real life Diana did before she embarked on her affair. There's a huge difference between the two.

I think intellectual is sexy, but if it was merely used as a euphemism for sexual propensities, then it was a cheap shot. If it actually meant intellectual, then it missed the mark because Eleanor did not come across as any such thing. Quite the opposite. She spent all her time pining for Dorian, the best friend of her husband, Prince Gregory. At one point Eleanor mentions Dorian's "girth" and from that I could conclude only that her 'intellect' seemed decidedly low and her interest in him had nothing to do with love since they never seemed to have any conversation that didn't revolve around their physical trysting.

The story was boring because this was all she ever did. There was one brief interlude where she was visiting the poor and talking about opening school for girls, but that was a bump in an otherwise featureless romp, or unending talk of romping, or unending wishful thinking of romping, with Dorian. She didn't even spend any significant time with her child - not according to how this was written up to the point where I quit reading it, about a quarter the way through. Maybe things changed later, but I had zero faith, given what I'd read thus far, that it would improve. Eleanor was a one-trick pony (interpret 'trick' however you like), and she wasn't remotely interesting to read about.

I can understand that a woman who is unhappy in her marriage may seek solace elsewhere. I don't have a problem with that, and missing the first volume may well skew my perception, but did Eleanor even try to resolve things with Gregory or did she just leap right onto Dorian's girth? I know Gregory could be a bit of a jerk at times, but overall he did not seem to be a bad person, yet Eleanor was willing to spend all kinds of time on sexual technique with Dorian. Could she not spend any time at all working on her marriage with Gregory?

This perception diminished her in my eyes, and led me to the conviction that she's not much deserving of sympathy or support. Like I said, without having the first volume under my belt, maybe I'm misjudging her, but frankly she seems like a bit of a sleaze here. It's not a good look on her! If once in a while she'd expressed some regret or harked back to earlier times when she'd tried to work with her husband to make their marriage a good one and been rejected by him, that would have changed my perception of her, but in this story she's all Dorian all the time and it's tedious.

This book seriously failed to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test (after a fashion) because all Eleanor could think of was how to get with her lover. She had a one-track mind. Talking of Disney, it's like she had no life that wasn't animated by Dorian. After I'd read that book description, what I'd been hoping for was someone like the princess in my own novel, Femarine which really did have a different mindset from your usual princess story.

The very reason I wrote that was to offer readers some sort of an antidote to the disturbing plethora of stories about simpering, compliant princesses and their wilting addiction to princes charming, and it seemed I was not wrong because there is a readership for the road less taken. I just wish publishers and other authors would embrace that more, but it seems all they want to do it retread this old story, and even when a slightly different direction is taken - like this one attempted, the original prince is merely replaced by a new 'prince' and off we go, stuck on the same old rutted road - or rutting road in this case!

This is why I tend not to believe book descriptions much, because I've seen so many misleading ones, and it bothers me that they often seem to have been written by people who haven't read the novel, or in the case of YA stories, by people who seem to have completely missed the point of the #MeToo movement. But moving on: Eleanor is the Cinders of this story, having the slipper and the requisite two stepsisters, although as in the Drew Barrymore Ever After movie which I enjoyed, one of the sisters is friendly toward Eleanor. The other, Sylvia, is very much antagonistic and deceitful. Fortunately, she does not know that Eleanor has the hots for her husband's best friend Dorian, for that would be a disaster she'd dearly love to exploit.

I have to say a word about poor Sylvia. I was not a fan of hers, but she's after Prince Gregory. In her pursuit, she's doing nothing worse than Eleanor is doing, and arguably better since, unlike Eleanor, Sylvia isn't married! The problem is that she's portrayed as some sort of marriage wrecker or trouble-maker! When Dorian sees what she's up to he makes a mental note to tell Eleanor. The thing is that Gregory is known for quite literally whoring around, and Eleanor is already getting down to it with Dorian, so why slut-shame Sylvia? It was inappropriate at best, and it wasn't the only case where a woman is demeaned in this book.

On another occasion I read, "Pandra was twelve years his senior, but she was amazingly well preserved for all her years of use." What? That means she was only 38, not old by any means. Saying she was amazingly well preserved is ageism without a doubt. It's one thing to have a character say something like that about another person; it's an entirely different thing to have the author say it - and that comment wasn't in a character's speech - it was in the narrative! Now you can argue that it was intended as the thought of either Prince Gregory or Dorian, but that wasn't indicated as such, and if it was indeed Dorian's thinking, what does that say about his attitude toward women?

At a ball, Eleanor is recommending Dorian ask this one girl who'd shown an interest in him, to dance with him. This was not because she wanted Dorian to, but because it would be a diversion from their mutual horniness. After that I read, again not as speech, but as narration, "In truth, Patience had been an obvious dingbat." It's like if you're not part of the small specific set of people of whom Eleanor approves, then all you merit is insult. It really turned me off her. This was not the 'intellectual propensity' girl I'd been promised - someone deep and interesting, strong and motivated, fun to read about. She was just the opposite and I didn't like her.

And 'dingbat'? The term has been around for a century, but it's hardly terminology from the Cinderella era! I know you can't write a novel in ancient English - it would be tedious to read, if not impossible! - but you can write it with a bit of an atmosphere, ans a nod and a wink to the period in which it's supposedly set. This one was written with such a modern outlook that for me, it kept tripping up the narrative, making it seem like it couldn't decide if it wanted to be ancient or modern.

In this world, it is, of course, a capital offense for the princess bride to have an affair, even with the prince's best friend, so one has to wonder about Dorian's love for Eleanor when he willingly puts her life at risk by continuing to see her for sex. She's obviously so weak-willed that she can't help herself, but you'd think he'd be strong for her, if he cared. On the other hand, he's reported as someone who's been lucky to avoid sexually-transmitted diseases since he cannot for the life of him keep his junk in his pantaloons. He's had sex with so many women, he's lost count, so maybe his integrity is as poor as hers and his backbone just as flimsy. At any rate Eleanor has no reason to believe she's not just another conquest. Not from what I read anyway.

I began reading this with interest and quickly encountered an unintentionally amusing scene which brought the novel some credit by putting me in a good mood. That was sadly dissipated with disturbing velocity by further reading, and in truth it was another writing issue. An exasperated Eleanor is mucking-out the stable where her unicorn is housed. She's not doing this because she has to, but because she needs something to take her mind off her frustrations. While she's thus engaged, her husband and Dorian come down to take out the prince's horse, Vigor, for a ride.

In what I consider to be an amusingly unfortunate juxtaposition of ideas, I read, "Gregory kissed her again. This time she felt the flick of his tongue. He mounted and she held Vigor's bridle." Now, who or what exactly is he mounting - his horse or his bride? LOL! I assume it's his horse, but it just goes to show that one needs to be careful when writing narrative! There really needed to be something between "his tongue" and "He mounted" to distance the two actions. On a more adolescent note, it also struck me that the very title of this novel is rather unfortunate. To be clear: the Dragon Choker isn't a teenage boy's slang term for masturbation. It refers to a beautiful necklace that Prince Gregory buys for Eleanor and for which she shows little gratitude. Again, unlike the necklace, she came off in a bad light.

So, in short, I did not finish this novel. I gave up on it because the more I read the more I disliked Eleanor and the more I disliked the story. It felt like there were problems with the plot that could have been avoided with more sensitive writing, and with a better portrayal of Eleanor (and maybe a somewhat worse portrayal of Gregory). Eleanor comes across not only as having no character, she doesn't even have any depth - and certainly no intellect, let alone any sort of propensity at all to growing one. She wasn't interesting and I did not want to read any more about her. I wish the author all the best in her writing career, but I can't commend this one as a worthy read.


Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Dalya and the Magic Ink Bottle by JM Evenson


Rating: WARTY!

This is aimed at middle-grade readers and so is not for me. Despite not warming to it myself, I tried to see how it might appeal to a younger reader, but even then it felt like it wasn't up to snuff.

For me it felt confused and cluttered, and the main character went from being put in peril here, to being put in a different peril there, and then yet another one everywhere. It felt like it was far too much, with barely time to take a breather. I know that when you want to entertain young children, there has to be danger, but this felt like it was all danger all the time with no respite, no downtime, and little humor to buoy-up the main participants.

Dalya is of Turkish ancestry and when she gets a chance to travel there with her father (mom is predictably out of the picture), she jumps at the chance to 'reconnect' with him, but he proves just as unreachable there as he is at home. They stay at a largely derelict and old family mansion in Istanbul, which is badly-neglected and unsafe in many regards. Naturally, Dalya disobeys her father's strict instructions to remain on the first floor of the house because upstairs is unsafe, and in chasing a cat she espies, she discovers a bottle of magic ink hidden under a floorboard.

The ink is supplied by a djin, and grants only one wish to each user. Dalya wishes to go home, but instead ends up being sent back in time and turned into a cat - the very cat she was chasing upstairs in the first place. How this happened was never explained, given that her explicitly stated wish was to return home. The cat she becomes is apparently a magical cat, although throughout the story the cat never actually does any magic, which struck me as very curious, and a waste of a good cat to boot. Why give it all the appearance of being magical if it serves no purpose?

In order to return to her human self, and to return to her own time, Dalya must embark upon an adventure through the mythology of Istanbul in quest of the djin who owns the bottle, in order to have her wish revoked. This is all well and good, but these folk tales and animal stories don't resonate well with people who have never heard them before, and it felt like the author was trying to toss in everything but the kitchen sink (although that also appeared in the story, I believe).

I can understand that these things might well appeal to the author and be very meaningful to her, but to me they really felt like a jumble of unrelated ideas that didn't really gel together, and which left me unsatisfied and a bit lost at times, too. I felt it could have been done better. The ending was too predictable. For the intended audience, maybe that's not such a bad thing; indeed, they may well get much more out of this that I did, but I've read many middle-grade stories and really enjoyed a lot of them. This one didn't get there for me and I can't commend it as a worthy read.


Bellamy and the Brute by Alicia Michaels


Rating: WARTY!

This is - quite obviously from the title, a take on the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, and it's not my usual fare, but since I'm working - on and off, and nroe off than on lately! - on my own redux of a fairytale, sometimes I take stock of what other authors are doing. I don't consider them my competition because I don't write quite like other authors, but it never hurts to look up from that keyboard once in a while and see what's going on around you. This to explain why I embarked on this, a first person voice YA novel which I normally flee from. While it wasn't completely awful, it had multiple, predictable issues, and I certainly wasn't much impressed considering this was supposed to be professionally published.

The novel is larded with YA trope and additionally, there are some curious writing peccadillos in it. Aside from the ritualistic first person PoV which I typically detest because it's tired, annoying, and derivative, but which fortunately wasn't overly nauseating in this particular story, there's the trope of the jerk of a school jock who's after this girl Bellamy. She of course has no interest in this brute because she's saving herself for a different brute!

Also, there's the predictable alienation and school bullying which is the hallmark of ninety percent of YA high-school stories. People make fun of this girl because her dad thinks he can see ghosts. How everyone else knows about this was not explained at least up to the point where I quit reading which was a little under halfway through. I'd thought about quitting before then, more than once, but I kept on going. Foolishly, it's now clear.

There is of course the single-parent family trope, but I can't really call it on that because that's part of the original story. One thing I didn't get was the choice of the name Bellamy for the main character. It know a lot of parents think it's cool to use some family's last name as their daughter's first name (Mackenzie, Madison, Reilly, etc), but while Bellamy (bel ami) is of French origin (it means good friend or nice friend), it has no direct correlation to the name Beauty; however, I was willing to let that go.

Another strange occurrence was when Bellamy visited her mother's grave late at night for no apparent reason (except of course for her to encounter a shadowy hooded figure this one night - and we all know who that is - Tate the stalker!). But in the real world, why not stop by the cemetery right after school? There's no reason to go late at night. The thing is though that the text said "I located her headstone with very little effort," and I had to wonder why was it any effort at all to find her mother's headstone if she'd been in the habit of doing this for two years? It made no sense.

Sometimes, the text itself would make no sense, as when I read, "I had my dad, which was more than most people could claim to have." What the hell does that mean? That most people have no father? Their father is dead or a deadbeat dad? That they can't connect with their father? This is patent nonsense! I have no idea what she meant by that, but clearly, whatever it was she was trying to say, it's ridiculous.

There was another part which was equally meaningless. I read the following:

"I never see her," he murmured just before I could leave.
I paused, my hand on the doorknob. "Never see who?"
This would have been perfectly fine except that it appeared very shortly after several maudlin paragraphs about it being 2 years to the day since her mom's death, so how could she not get what her father was referring to? This kind of writing makes your main character look stupid. As if that wasn't odd enough, her dad's habit of continuing to call his 17-year-old daughter 'munchkin' was truly an irritation.

It wasn't as much an irritation though as the author's fetish with starting every other sentence with a present participle, making her sound like a tiresomely passive person. Okay, so it wasn't literally every other paragraph, but even I was surprised by how common it was when it reached a point where it had become not just noticeable, but actually irritating, and I went back and checked to see if it was occurring as often as it felt like it was. I found in the first few screens the following:

  • "Making my way to the front room, I..."
  • "Noticing a stack of boxes near the door, I..."
  • "Pointing to the paper laid on the counter, he..."
  • "Standing on tiptoe, I..."
  • "Pushing those depressing thoughts aside, I..."
    "Flipping it to the employment section, I..."
    "Spotting an ad requesting a summertime babysitter for two young kids, I..."
    (these were all on the same screen in three successive paragraphs)
  • "Hanging up the phone, I..."
  • "Edging slowly down the hall, I..."
  • "Retreating to the kitchen, I.."
  • "Pausing with the fork halfway to his mouth, he..."
  • "Frowning, I..."
  • "Hesitating for a moment, I..."
  • "Raising his eyebrows, he..."
Seriously? This screams lazy author and even worse, bad editor.

I pressed on and followed the story to the point where Bellamy and Tate (the 'brute' of the title) were about to start on investigating why two ghosts haunted the Baldwin mansion where Tate lived and Bellamy was babysitting his two younger siblings for the summer. Why Tate himself, who is permanently housebound (living in the Tate Gallery! LOL!), cannot do this is left unexplained.

These ghosts were terrifying, and Bellamy first encountered Tate fleeing from them after she'd predictably gone to the forbidden third floor. I guess it's supposed to be obvious that the brutishness of Tate is a curse for the evil his family has perpetrated (and some that he himself did), but the novel makes the serious mistake of letting slide Tate's real brutishness, Tate which is that he is a manic and cruel.

He mistreats Bellamy repeatedly and she always finds an excuse for his unacceptable behavior. Just when it seems like he might be about to reform, he gets into an unnecessary fight with this tediously trope school bully who's been trying to get into Bellamy's pants for a while. She's had no problem fending him off, but Tate treats Bellamy like she's a helpless a child who can't protect herself and needs managing! He takes over control of her life at that point by going after this bully. He gets into a physical fight with him and beats him savagely, and Bellamy sees no problem with his behavior. The beaten bully leaves with the clichéd threat, "This isn't over!"

It was for me. I could not stand to read any more about this from that point and had lost all interest in learning what the deal was with these two ghosts. The ridiculous thing about that was that right when Bellamy and Tate finally decide to confront the ghosts and discover what it is that causing them to haunt the Baldwin mansion, neither Tate or Bellamy ever thinks to ask who the ghosts are or what happened to them. This proves both of these guys are morons.

This trope of the ghosts showing up and only bit by bit revealing their story is so tired, and so clichéd. The ghosts appear unable to speak, but they can write. They evidently cannot manipulate air to voice words, but they can manipulate physical objects and wreck Tate's room one evening like a pair of deranged poltergeists. It was pathetic and illogical.

So I'm done with this story and with this author. I can't commend it. It was indeed brutish and awful in the end and kept getting worse the more I read of it.


Sunday, March 1, 2020

Sanyare the Last Descendant by Megan Haskell


Rating: WARTY!

This was supposedly an "IAN Book of the Year Finalist" but it's not this Ian, rest assured! The last thing I'd want is a book prize named after me! I should say right up front that typically, I am not entertained by fantasy stories, but there are occasions when I see one that looks like it might be different and better than the usual unappealing cloned crowds of such books. This was one such novel, but while it started out interestingly enough, it soon sunk into a mire of trope that is the very thing which turns me off these stories in the first place.

The story begins with Rie, a messenger working for the government (the 'high Court' - this is mired in trope, as I said, so there are kings and courts and so on - nothing new or original). Rie's delivering a message to a Fairy lord. They're called 'fae' here, employing the archaic spelling because the author is apparently too much of a wuss to call them fairies, like the 'fae' spelling somehow makes them more mature, or more worthy of being taken seriously. Seriously?! But anyway, she's attacked by what the author repeatedly refers to as 'blood sidhe' - read vampires, even though sidhe - also known, and pronounced, believe it or not, as 'sith', never were vampires. They were simply fairies or muses in Gaelic - not garlic! - folklore.

So when she's sent undercover to the 'dark realm' (it's always frigging' realms in these stories isn't it?!) she immediately teams up with a handsome muscular blood sidhe despite him twice trying to take advantage of her. It was at this point that I quit reading this nonsense. I can only drink so much trope because I become thoroughly nauseated and this story was so larded with it, that it was in danger of self-induced coronary right there.

I can't commend it based on the portion I read. When is a fantasy writer going to come along and give us something truly imaginative, different, and fulfilling? Please make it soon! The blurb warns us that "war is looming in the nine faerie realms." The nine realms? Shades of Thor! Or should I say 'Sidhes of Thor'?! One can only hope that this war will arrive soon, because what is it good for? Well, it might wipe these tired nine realms out completely and clear the decks for a clean start with some new and original fantasy stories! One can hope.


Friday, February 14, 2020

Search and Find Unicorns by Georgie Taylor, Maaike Boot


Rating: WORTHY!

Written by Taylor and illustrated by Boot, this book seems designed to endlessly entertain. The deal is that there's a hidden unicorn on each page that can only be discovered by 'painting' the page with water! Once the water dries, the magical unicorn disappears, and so it remains to be discovered again next time. Each illustration contains a clue as to what to look for.

It seems to me that a book like this will not only be magical to a child, but will encourage confidence and perhaps draw-out (so to speak!) a budding artist. Yes, I'm coloring up after such a bad pun. I commend this one as a worthy read.


Thursday, February 6, 2020

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher


Rating: WORTHY!

Here come six reviews of an entire series one after another!

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I really can’t get into fantasy stories with witches and wizards, and fairies and dragons, elves and dwarves, etc. That is to say, it has to be something particularly special and appealing before I’ll get into it, because most of that stuff turns me right off. So it was curious then that I got into Jim Butcher's series, and entirely uncurious that I don’t read his wizard series. What the difference is between the two in terms of why the one attracts me and the other repels, I can’t say! It pretty much boils down to: I may not know much about fantasy but I knows what I likes! I don't much like series, but this one was exceptional in more than one way.

I got reading this when a friend of my wife loaned her the first book in the series, and she asked me if I was interested. Of course, I leaped at the chance, but then I found out she was talking about reading the book, so I was a bit less enthused, but I was not so turned-off by the lesser offer that I couldn’t get into it, which was a bit of a surprise. The story was written well, which is always a big plus with me. Butcher is very skilled at what he does.

The problem with this series is that it wasn't finished when I began it, so once I caught up to what was last written, I had to wait for the next installment, which was, I think, the 5th book. Waiting is never a good thing with me! I lost my steam and got into reading other things and it wasn't until after the whole series had been published that my interest in it resurfaced. At that point we bought the entire series in hardback and once that had been procured, I embarked upon a mega-read of the entire thing.

It was at that point that I became addicted and pretty much turned into a Codex Alera evangelist! I don’t know what it was that brought this on, but it just caught me and that's when I fell deeply in love with Kitai (don’t worry, my wife never reads any of my stuff, so my marriage is safe!).

I can go back in there even now and re-read the Kitai scenes and love them just as much as I did originally - and probably more. That time in vol 1 when they first encounter each other and go through their challenge is outstanding to me, and I wrestle with this, but I think it’s only exceeded by the next time they encounter each other in vol 2 after a separation of a couple of years. That encounter in vol 2 is classic literature as far as I'm concerned. I want to hug Butcher and clap him on the back and shake his hand for writing that scene.

Anyway, enough of this sappy crap, let’s look at the individual volumes, but a few words of explanation for the series is in order before we do that. The story is that Butcher wrote this series when challenged by someone in his writing group to create a good story based on a really crappy premise. Butcher, so the tale goes, said he could meet such a challenge based on two crappy premises, and the premises with which he was inflicted were: Pokémon and the legend of the Roman Lost Legion!

He decided to set his story on another planet where some power of which we learn nothing allows for, or forces, races from different planets to arrive on the same planet. The Pokémon element is, of course, the furies (more on this anon). The Lost Legion is the Alerans, a human race with strong Roman legion influences.

The planet on which Alera resides is also occupied, as we learn through the volumes, by a race of ice giants in the north, the Marat, a completely different species of humanoid life, in the south, and across the ocean two more races: the Canim - a race of sentient and aggressive wolf people, and the Vord, an aggressive, insectile and sentient race which is, as the name might suggest, like Star Trek's Borg: compelled towards assimilation and domination.

And so to vol 1. I saw at one point that Amazon was asking $400 for this book in hardback! Woah! Who says organic books are on their way out?! but Amazon consists of a bunch of USDA Grade A assholes, so enough said about that.

Vol 1 introduces us to the main characters of course, and there's a lot of chopping back and forth as we meet them all and start to learn who they are and why, and what they're up to. Normally I don’t like this approach and have been known to get confused by so many introductions so quickly (who me?!), but Butcher again excels at this and clearly sets out who's who and what's going on without writing reams of tedious or confusing exposition. I don’t know where he learned to write but I want to take that course!

The main character (ostensibly, because I'll have to disagree in a minute or two) is 14-year-old Tavi, which as usual I mispronounced. I started thinking it was Tah-vee, but evidently, as becomes clear over the course of the entire series, it’s really Tay-vee, because (and we don’t learn this until much later), it's short for Octavian. In a world where the citizens all have at least one 'fury', Tavi has none.

A fury is a connection with a natural power or spirit, which can manifest itself as a ghostly animal (hence the Pokémon element!). This connection allows those who have it to manipulate the 'elements'. Normally this is where I would check-out, because these elements are, as usual in this kind of story, earth, wind, and fire, along with water, metal, wood, and air. I stayed with this because Butcher again has a way of describing these powers and showing their use without it looking like some juvenile magic. On day, when out with his uncle Bernard, a tough giant of a man, Tavi encounters a Marat warrior and his uncle is injured. The latter arranges for himself to be carried back home to "Bernardholt" - a kind of homestead - using his earth fury.

Tavi is to follow, but of course, Tavi goes astray and encounters a cursor - an official messenger of the First Lord (effectively, the king) of Alera, Gaius Sixtus - right when a deadly wind storm, powered by wind furies, comes hurtling down off the mountains. He saves Amana's (the cursor's) life by hiding with her in the memorial to the dead son of Gaius Sixtus: the Princeps Septimus. Those who are a lot sharper than I was may see where this is going at this point!).

Eventually, Tavi gets the injured cursor home to Bernardholt where his aunt Isana, Bernard's sister, who has a water fury and is therefore a healer, fixes her up, and eventually she and Bernard (whom Isana also fixed up) fall in love. Meanwhile out and about on another occasion with an apparently simple-minded servant who has a story all of his own, Tavi and the servant are captured by the Marat, deadly foes of the Alerans, a people who should not be in the Calderon Valley. The warrior who captures him is of a different tribe from the one he initially saw with his uncle, and Tavi is not killed, but held prisoner.

This is where Tavi encounters the real protagonist of this series for the first time. Her name is Kitai. This is another thing for which I hate Jim Butcher immensely because the name is kick-ass! I wish I’d thought of it first. Kitai appears to be male and is very hostile to Tavi. So, of course, the two of them are sent upon a trial, the winner to decide both Tavi's fate and the question of whether this Marat tribe will side with the Alerans or with another and hostile Marat tribe which wishes to eject the Alerans from the valley.

The trial involves them stealing a species of mushroom which has healing properties, but which is in a deep crater harboring a Vord infestation. In the course of this theft, Tavi discovers, as Kitai raises her smock to keep it out of some water, that she's a girl. She denies this! She's a whelp, she insists, and it isn't until she comes of age and is assigned to a tribe that she will become a girl. She desperately wants the horse tribe, whereby she will bond with her horse and take on some of its qualities and it some of hers, resulting in a lifelong pairing as a warrior team.

Kitai is seriously injured by the Vord during the theft, and she urges Tavi to leave her, telling him hoarsely (which is funny because she wanted the horse tribe!) that his plan was a good one, and he must apologize to her father, on her behalf, for her failure. Tavi refuses to abandon her. He realizes that one of the two mushrooms he has stolen will heal her, and he pours some of its juice onto her wound, and makes her drink some too, and as he does so, suddenly, there is a frozen moment where they become completely and intimately aware of each other, and Kitai's eyes, which had been of mixed coloration, suddenly resolve to match Tavi's green eyes. Kitai has bonded with Tavi. Never has this happened before! I'm sorry, but I have to quote this!

Tavi dropped the knife, slid down the rope, and ran to Kitai He seized her and began dragging her back toward the ropes, grunting with effort but moving quickly, jerking her over the ground.

"Aleran," she whispered, opening her eyes Her expression was pained, weary.

"Aleran. Too late. Venom. My father. Tell him I was sorry."

Tavi stared down at her "No," he whispered. "Kitai, no We're almost out."

"It was a good plan," she said.

Her head lolled to one side, eyes rolling back.

"No," Tavi hissed, suddenly furious "No, crows take you! You can't!" He reached into his pouch, fumbling through it as tears started to blur his vision There must be something She couldn't just die She couldn't They were so close.

Something stuck sharply into his finger, and pain flashed through him again. The crows-eaten mushroom had jabbed him with its spines. The Blessing of Night.

Fever. Poison. Injury. Pain. Even age. It has power over them all. To our people, there is nothing of greater value.

Weeping, Tavi seized the mushroom and started tearing off the spines with his fingers, heedless of the pain. Shrieks rose all around him, came closer, though the still-blazing branch seemed to have confused some of the Keepers, to have temporarily slowed their advance.

Tavi reached down and slipped an arm beneath Kitai's head, half-hauling her up. He reached down to the wound over her thigh and crushed the mushroom in his hand.

Musty-scented, clear fluid leaked out from between his fingers and dribbled over the wound, mixing with blood and yellowish venom. Kitai's leg twitched as the fluid touched it, and the girl drew in a sudden breath.

Tavi lifted the rest of the mushroom to her lips and pressed it into her mouth. "Eat it," he urged her. "Eat it, you have to eat it.".

Kitai's mouth twitched once, and then began to chew, automatically. She swallowed the mushroom and blinked her eyes slowly open, focusing them on Tavi.

Time stopped.

Tavi found himself staring down at the girl, suddenly aware of her, entirely aware of her in a way he never had been aware of anyone before. He could feel the texture of her skin beneath his hand and felt the abrupt compulsion to lay his fingers over her chest, to feel the beat of her heart beneath it, slowly gaining in strength. He could feel the surge of blood in her veins, the fear and regret and confusion that filled her thoughts. Those cleared as her eyes focused on him, widened, and Tavi realized that she had felt his own presence in the same way.

Not moving her eyes from his, Kitai reached out a hand and touched his chest in response, fingers pressed close to feel the beating of his heart.

It took Tavi a frozen, endless moment to separate the beating of his own heart, the rush of blood in his own ears, from hers. They beat together, perfectly in time. Even as he realized it, his own heartbeat began to speed, and so did hers, bringing a flush of heat to his face, one answered in her own expression. He stared at the wonder in her eyes and saw that it could only be a reflection of that in his own.

The scent of her, fresh and wild, curled up around him, through him like something alive. The shape of her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth. In that single moment, he saw in her the promise of the beauty that would come in time, the strength that had still to grow, the courage and reckless resourcefulness that matched his own and flamed wild and true in her.

The intensity of it made his eyes blur, and he blinked them, tried to clear the tears from them, only to realize that Kitai was blinking as well, her eyes filling with tears, going liquid and blurry.

When Tavi had blinked the tears away, his eyes returned to hers-only to find not opalescent swirls of subtle, shifting color, but wide pools of deep, emerald green.

Eyes as green as his own.

"Oh no" Kitai whispered, her voice stunned, weak. "Oh no" She opened her mouth, started to sit up-then shuddered once and slumped in his arms, abruptly overwhelmed with exhaustion.

The frozen moment ended.

Tavi lifted his dazed head to see the first of the Keepers edging past the blazing blanket and branch. Tavi hauled himself to his feet, lifting Kitai, and stumbled toward the ropes. He stepped into the loop at the base of one, then reached over to the other, and wrapped it around his waist, around her legs, tying her to him. Even before he was finished, Doroga had started hauling the rope up the face of the cliff. The other rope came in as well, where Hashat must have been pulling it along to keep it tight.

Tavi held on to the rope, and to Kitai, not really sure which one he held tighter. He closed his eyes, overwhelmed, and did not open them again until he and Kitai sat at the top of the cliff, in the cold, fresh, clean snow. When he opened his eyes again, he sat with his back against a stone and idly noted the fresh earth beside him, where Doroga had uprooted the boulder and hurled it down.

A moment later, he realized that Kitai lay against his side, beneath one of his arms, warm and limp, half-conscious. He tightened his arm on her, gently, confused-but certain that he wanted her to sleep, to rest, and to be right where she was.

(Furies of the Calderon by Jim Butcher pp 306 - 308)

When they finally get out of the crater, Kitai's aunt, of the horse tribe, demands of Kitai's father, Doroga, that he do something about this, but he is adamant that the bond has been made and cannot be changed. Moreover, he's beholden to Tavi for saving his daughter's life. While Kitai realizes what this means, Tavi is clueless (as we discover he often is during this series). He thinks no more of it.

Unfortunately, Kitai doesn’t appear any further in vol 1, which means that the story goes downhill somewhat from there! But Butcher is just teasing us for her triumphant return in vol 2.

The rest of the story consists of assorted subterfuges and misleading plays by a guy called Fidelias, who used to be a trusted cursor, but who is now a rebel against the First Lord. The climax of vol 1 is an assault by Atsurak, a bloodthirsty leader of a Marat tribe, upon a fortification which is supposed to be protecting the Calderon Valley. Lead by Bernard and Amara, and with the aid of Dorog, Kitai's father, who is even more massively built than Bernard, the garrison successfully holds off the attack.

In gratitude, the First Lord declares Bernard and his new love Amara to be the new Count and Countess of the garrison, and Isana is granted the right of steadholder in Bernard's place - the first woman in Aleran history ever to be a steadholder and gain her citizenship of Alera in her own right. Tavi is granted a scholarship to the academy, despite his having no fury powers.

And therein lies vol 2!


Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher


Rating: WORTHY!

The next episode in Jim Butcher's Adventures of Kitai in Alera takes place two years after the events of Furies of the Calderon. This is solely to give Tavi time to grow up somewhat so he's at least a bit more on par with Kitai although of course, he never actually succeeds in becoming her equal or in holding his own against her formidable feminine force.

The book begins with a prolog, which frankly annoys me, and I tend to ignore such things: introductions, prologs, etc? Bleccch! (Yes with 3 c's). If it’s important enough to read, make it chapter 1 for goodness sakes! What’s with the prolog crap? Seriously. Call it chapter 0 if you have to, just get it done. Besides, wasn't volume one the prolog to volume 2?!

Having said that, this prolog was one of the very few I've ever found to be worth reading, and even then only the part where it details the interaction and amusing discussion between Kitai and her father, Doroga, chief of one of the Marat tribes, and rider of some sort of giant ground sloth. In fact, I'm going to unapologetically quote that section right here because I laughed out loud when I first read it, and it still tickles me immensely. Kitai is so unapologetically feisty!

She and her father have come, at Kitai's urging, to visit what the Alerans call the wax valley - the site of a Vord infestation, not to be confused with the Calderon Valley. The Vord had occupied this small valley and coated it in their 'croach' - a living substance which breaks down organic material and converts it into food the Vord can use.

It was in this valley, treading carefully over the croach so as not to break it and awaken the Vord, that Kitai and Tavi came in vol 1 to get the mushrooms, and where, at the end of their trial, they became bonded inextricably. Since that time, neither one of them has seen or been in contact with the other. Tavi is clueless about what their bonding means, but Kitai is not, and she resents it immensely, feeling robbed unjustly of her heart's desire to join the horse tribe of the Marat.

As her father overlooks the valley, he sees what Kitai has already discovered: the Vord have gone, and the valley is now dead:

Kitai began to feel cold for the first time since spring. She turned to squint behind her, shielding her eyes from the sleet with one hand. She wore a brief cloth about her hips, a belt to hold her knife and hunting pouch, and nothing else. Wind threw her thick white hair around her face, its color blending with the driving snow.

"Hurry up!" she called.

There was a deep-chested snort, and a massive form paced into sight. Walker the gargant was an enormous beast, even of its kind, and its shoulders stood nearly the height of two men above the earth. His shaggy winter coat had already come in thick and black, and he paid no notice to the snow. His claws, each larger than an Aleran saber, dug into the frozen earth without difficulty or hurry.

Kitai’s father, Doroga, sat upon the gargant’s back, swaying casually upon the woven saddle cloth. He was dressed in a loincloth and a faded red Aleran tunic. Doroga’s chest, arms and shoulders were so laden with muscle that he had been obliged to tear the sleeves from the red tunic-but as it had been a gift and discarding it would be impolite, he had braided a rope from the sleeves and bound it across his forehead, tying back his own pale hair. "We must hurry, since the valley is running from us. I see. Maybe we should have stayed downwind."

"You are not as amusing as you think you are," Kitai said, glowering at her father’s teasing. Doroga smiled, the expression emphasizing the lines in his broad, square features. He took hold of Walker’s saddle rope and swung down to the ground with a grace that belied his sheer size. He slapped his hand against the gargant’s front leg, and Walker settled down amicably, placidly chewing cud.

Kitai turned and walked forward, into the wind, and though he made no sound, she knew her father followed close behind her.

A few moments later, they reached the edge of a cliff that dropped abruptly into open space. The snow prevented her from seeing the whole of the valley below, but for the lulls between gusts, when she could see all the way to the bottom of the cliff below them.
"Look," she said.

Doroga stepped up beside her, absently slipping one vast arm around her shoulders. Kitai would never have let her father see her shiver, not at a mere autumn sleet, but she leaned against him, silently grateful for his warmth. She watched as her father peered down, waiting for a lull in the wind to let him see the place the Alerans called the Wax Forest.

Kitai closed her eyes, remembering the place. The dead trees had coated in the croach, a thick, gelatinous substance layered over and over itself so that it looked like the One had coated it all in the wax of many candles. The croach had covered everything in the valley, including the ground and a sizeable portion of the valley walls. Here and there, birds and animals had been sealed into the croach, where, still alive, they lay unmoving until they softened and dissolved like meat boiled over a low fire. Pale things the size of wild dogs, translucent, spider like creatures with many legs once laid quietly in the croach, nearly invisible, while others prowled the forest floor, silent and swift and alien.

Kitai shivered at the memory, then forced herself to stillness again, biting her lip. She glanced up at her father, but he pretended not to have noticed, staring down.
The valley below had never in her people’s memory taken on snow. The entire place had been warm to the touch, even in winter, as though the croach itself was some kind of massive beast, the heat of its body filling the air around it.

Now the Wax Forest stood covered in ice and rot. The old, dead trees were coated in something that looked like brown and sickly tar. The ground lay frozen, though here and there, other patches of rotten croach could be seen. Several of the trees had fallen. And in the center of the Forest, the hollow mound lay collapsed and dissolved into corruption, the stench strong enough to carry even to Kitai and her father.

Doroga was still for a moment before he said, "We should go down. Find out what happened."

"I have," Kitai said.

Her father frowned. "That was foolish to do alone."

"Of the three of us here, which has gone down and come back alive again the most often?"

Doroga grunted out a laugh, glancing down at her with warmth and affection in his dark eyes. "Maybe you are not mistaken." The smile faded, and the wind and sleet hid the valley again. "What did you find?"

"Dead keepers," she replied. "Dead croach. Not warm. Not moving. The keepers were empty husks. The croach breaks into ash at a touch." She licked her lips. "And something else."

"What?"

"Tracks," she said in a quiet voice. "Leading away from the far side. Leading west."
Doroga grunted. "What tracks?"

Kitai shook her head. "They were not fresh. Perhaps Marat or Aleran. I found more dead keepers along the way. As if they were marching and dying one by one."

"The creature," Doroga rumbled. "Moving toward the Alerans."

Kitai nodded, her expression troubled.

Doroga looked at her and said, "What else?"

"His satchel. The pack the valleyboy lost in the Wax Forest during our race. I found it on the trail beside the last of the dead spiders, his scent still on it. Rain came. I lost the trail."

Doroga’s expression darkened. "We will tell the master of the Calderon Valley. It may be nothing."

"Or it may not. I will go," Kitai said.

"No," Doroga said.

"But father-"

"No," he repeated, his voice harder.

"What if it is looking for him?"

Her father remained quiet for a time, before he said, "Your Aleran is clever. Swift. He is able to take care of himself."

Kitai scowled. "He is small. And foolish. And irritating."

"Brave. Selfless."

"Weak. And without even the sorcery of his people."

"He saved your life," Doroga said.

Kitai felt her scowl deepen. "Yes. He is irritating."

Doroga smiled. "Even lions begin life as cubs."

"I could break him in half," Kitai growled.

"For now, perhaps."

"I despise him."

"For now, perhaps."

"He had no right."

Doroga shook his head. "He had no more say in it than you."

Kitai folded her arms and said, "I hate him."

"So you want someone to warn him. I see."

Kitai flushed, heat touching her cheeks and throat.

Her father pretended not to notice. "What is done is done," he rumbled. He turned to her and cupped her cheek in one vast hand. He tilted his head for a moment, studying her. "I like his eyes on you. Like emerald. Like new grass."

Kitai felt her eyes begin to tear. She closed them and kissed her father’s hand. "I wanted a horse."

Doroga let out a rumbling laugh. "Your mother wanted a lion. She got a fox. She did not regret it."

"I want it to go away."

Doroga lowered his hand. He turned back toward Walker, keeping his arm around Kitai. "It won’t. You should Watch."

"I do not wish to."

"It is the way of our people," Doroga said.

"I do not wish to."

"Stubborn whelp. You will remain here until some sense soaks into your skull."

"I am not a whelp, father."

"You act like one. You will remain with the Sabot-ha." They reached Walker, and he tossed her halfway up the saddle rope without effort.

Kitai clambered up to Walker’s broad back. "But father-"

"No, Kitai." He climbed up behind her, and clucked to Walker. The gargant placidly rose and began back the way they had come. "You are forbidden to go. It is done."

Kitai rode silently behind her father, but sat looking back to the west, her troubled face to the wind. (Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher pp 1 - 5)

Of course she ends up going. But more about that anon, with another quote! I love the moody way she behaves here, but I have to admit this piece isn’t exactly clear about what’s going on. I think Doroga means for her to watch Tavi, but not go to talk to the master of the Calderon Valley, who happens to be Tavi's uncle, the Count Bernard. Doroga has met Bernard, fought at his side, and become friends with him. Kitai has never met him, so Doroga visits Bernard.

We find Tavi in Alera's capital Alera Imperia, home of the First Lord. He's attending the academy. He still has no furies, but he has friends, and he has a job as a page to the First Lord. He also has a school bully who is only important here in that he allows us to learn of Lord Kalare, one of those who have their eyes focused jealously upon the First Lord's position.

The capital is vastly different from the rustic background from which Tavi hails. It’s all ruthless politics, and since the First Lord is both gaining in years and heirless, his son having been killed in a battle against the Marat many many years before, there is much jockeying for position amongst the lesser lords to see who will take his place when Gaius Sixtus dies.

Tavi is in training to be a cursor - an official messenger of the First Lord and part time spy. His best friend is Max, a black sheep, and disowned son of one of the Lords of Alera. Max can impersonate the first Lord, but he is very much a ladies man and when he gets himself into trouble and tossed into jail, and the First Lord becomes incapacitated, Tavi comes up with the improbable idea of having Max impersonate Gaius in order to keep the kingdom stable until the First Lord can recover.

To achieve this end, Tavi has to break Max out of jail, which is pretty much impossible since this is fortified military tower, not some little down-town lock-up. Tavi can think of only one person who could help him. There is a thief at large in Alera Imperia known as The Black Cat, who seems to be able to come and go as he pleases, lifting whatever goods he wants, by-passing all the fury-crafted alarms and barriers, and never getting caught. Tavi has been assigned to try and figure out who this thief is, but he has not yet succeeded. Now he decides to recruit him, to gain his aid in breaking Max out of jail. Here’s how he captures The Black Cat, and I have to say that I think this is my all time favorite portion of any novel:

A sudden quivering excitement filled him for no reason whatsoever, and Tavi abruptly felt certain that his instincts had not led him astray. He found a pocket of deep shadows behind a chimney and slipped into it, crouching into cautious immobility.

He didn't have long to wait. There was a flicker of motion on the far side of Crafter Lane, and Tavi saw a cloaked and hooded figure gliding over the rooftops just as lightly and quietly as he. He felt his lips tighten into a grin. He recognized the grey cloak, the flowing motion. Once again, he had found the Black Cat.

The figure eased up to the edge of the roof to stare down at the vocalists, then dropped into a relaxed crouch, hands reaching down to rest his fingers lightly on the rooftop. Beneath the cloak's hood, the Cat's head tilted to one side, and he went completely still, evidently fascinated by the singers. Tavi watched the Cat in turn, an odd and nagging sense of recognition stirring briefly. Then the Cat rose and ghosted down to the next rooftop, his covered face turned toward the bakery, with its tables piled high with fresh, steaming sweetbread while a red-cheeked matron did a brisk business selling the loaves. A quality of tension, of hunger, entered the Cat's movements, and he vanished over the far side of the building upon which he stood.

Tavi waited until the Cat was out of sight, then rose and leapt to the roof of the bakery. He found another dark spot to conceal his presence just as the dark-cloaked Cat emerged from between the two buildings across the street and walked calmly through the crowded street, feet shuffling in a rhythmic step or two as he passed the vocal ensemble. The Cat slowed his steps by a fraction and passed the table just as the matron behind the table turned to deposit small silver coins into a strongbox. The Cat's cloak twitched as he passed the table, and if Tavi hadn't been watching carefully he would never have seen the loaf vanish under the thief's cloak.
The Cat never missed a step, sliding into the space between the bakery and the cobbler's shop beside it and walking quietly and quickly down the alleyway.

Tavi rose and padded silently along the rooftop, reaching to his belt for the heavy coil of tough, flexible cord looped through it. He dropped the open loop at the end of the lariat clear of his fingertips, and opened the loop wider with the practiced, expert motions his hands had learned through years of dealing with the large, stubborn, aggressive rams of his uncle's mountain sheep. It was a long throw and from a difficult angle, but he crouched by the edge of the roof and flicked the lariat in a circle before sending it sharply down.

The loop in the lariat settled around The Cat's hooded head. The thief darted to one side, and managed to get two fingers under the loop before Tavi could snap the line tight. Tavi planted his feet and hauled hard on the line.

The line hauled The Cat from his feet and sent him stumbling to one side.

Tavi whipped the cord twice around the bricks of the bakery's chimney, slapped it through a herder's loop in a familiar blur of motion, then slid down the roof to drop to the alley, landing in a crouch that bounced into a leap that carried him into the Black Cat's back. He hit hard, driving the Cat into the wall with a breath-stealing slam.

The Cat's foot smashed down hard on his toes, and if he hadn't been wearing heavy leather boots, it might have broken them. Tavi snarled, "Hold still," and hauled at the rope, trying to keep his opponent from finding his balance. There was a rasping sound and a knife whipped at the hand Tavi had on the rope. He jerked his fingers clear, and the knife bit hard into the tightened lariat. The cord was too tough to part at a single blow, but the Cat reached up with his free hand to steady the rope and finish the cut.

The lariat parted. Tavi slammed the Cat against the wall again, seized the wrist of the thief's knife hand and banged it hard against the bakery's stone wall. The knife tumbled free. Tavi drove the heel of his hand into the base of the Cat's neck, through the heavy cloak, a stunning blow. The Cat staggered. Tavi whirled and threw the thief facedown to the ground, landing on his back and twisting one slender arm up far behind him, holding the Cat in place.
"Hold still," Tavi snarled. "I'm not with the civic legion. I just want to talk to you."

The Black Cat abruptly stopped struggling, and something about the quality of that stillness made him think it was due to startled surprise. The Black Cat eased away the tension in the muscles that quivered against Tavi, and they softened abruptly.

Tavi blinked down at his captive and then tore the hood back from the Black Cat's head.

A mane of fine, silvery white curls fell free of the cloak, framing the pale, smooth curve of a young woman's cheek and full, wine-dark lips. Her eyes, slightly canted at their corners, were a brilliant shade of green identical to Tavi's own, and her expression was one of utter surprise. "Aleran?" she panted.

"Kitai," Tavi breathed. "You're the Black Cat?"

She turned her head as much as she could to look up at him, her wide eyes visible even in the dimness of the alley. Tavi stared down at her for a long moment, his stomach muscles suddenly fluttering with excited energy. He became acutely conscious of the lean, strong limbs of the young Marat woman beneath him, the too-warm fever heat of her skin, and the way that her own breathing had not slowed, though she had ceased to struggle against him. He slowly released her wrist, and she just as slowly withdrew her arm from between their bodies.

Tavi shivered and leaned a little closer, drawing in a breath through his nose. Strands of fine hair tickled his lips. Kitai smelled of many scents, faint perfumes likely stolen from expensive boutiques, the fresh warmth of still-warm sweetbread and, beneath that, of heather and clean winter wind. Even as he moved, she turned her head toward him as well, her temple brushing his chin, her breath warm on his throat. Her eyes slid almost closed.

"Well," she murmured after another moment. "You have me, Aleran. Either do something with me or let me up."

Tavi felt his face flare into a fiery blush, and he hurriedly pushed his arms down and lifted his weight from Kitai. The Marat girl looked up at him without moving for a moment, her mouth curled into a little smirk, before she rose with a thoughtless, feline grace to her own feet. She looked around for a moment and spotted her ill-gotten loaf of sweetbread on the ground, crushed during their struggle.

"Now look what you've done," she complained. "You've destroyed my dinner, Aleran." She frowned and stared at him for a moment, annoyance nickering in her eyes as she looked him up and down, then stood directly before him with her hands on her hips. Tavi blinked mildly at her expression and stared down at her. "You've grown," she accused him. "You're taller."

"It's been two years," Tavi said.

Kitai made a faint, disgusted sound. Beneath the cloak she wore a man's tunic of dark, expensive silk, hand-stitched with Forcian nightflowers, heavy, Legion-issue leather trousers, and fine leather shoes that would have cost a small fortune. The Marat girl had changed as well, and though she was obviously little taller than before, she had developed in other, extremely interesting ways, and Tavi had to force himself not to stare at the pale slice of smooth flesh revealed by the neckline of the tunic. Her cheek had a reddened patch of abraded flesh sharing space with a steadily darkening bruise, where Tavi had first slammed her into the wall. There was a similar mark upon her throat, though it was slender and precise, from where Tavi's lariat had caught her.

If she felt any pain, it didn't show. She regarded Tavi with intelligent, defiant eyes, and said, "Doroga said you would do this to me."

"Do what?" Tavi asked.

"Grow," she said. Her eyes raked him up and down, and she seemed to feel no compunction at all about staring at him. "Become stronger."

"Um," Tavi said. "I'm sorry?"

She glowered at him, and looked around until she spotted her knife. She reclaimed it, and Tavi saw that the blade was inlaid with gold and silver, the handle set with a design of amber and amethysts, and would probably have cost him a full year's worth of the modest monthly stipend Gaius permitted him. More jewelry glittered at her throat, on both wrists and in one ear, and Tavi gloomily estimated that the value of the goods she had stolen would probably merit her execution should she be captured by the authorities.

"Kitai," he said. "What in the world are you doing here?"

"Starving," she snapped. She poked at the ruined loaf with the tip of her shoe. "Thanks to you, Aleran."

Tavi shook his head. "What were you doing before that?"

"Not starving," she said with a sniff.

"Crows, Kitai. Why did you come here?"

Her lips pressed together for a moment before she answered. "To stand Watch."

"Uh. What?"

"I am Watching," she snapped. "Don't you know anything?"

"I'm starting to think that I don't," Tavi said. "Watching what?"

Kitai rolled her eyes in a gesture that conveyed both annoyance and contempt. "You, fool." She narrowed her eyes. "But what were you doing on that roof? Why did you attack me?"

"I didn't know it was you," Tavi said. "I was trying to catch the thief called the Black Cat. I suppose I did."

Kitai's eyes narrowed. "The One sometimes blesses even idiots with good fortune, Aleran." She folded her arms. "You have found me. What do you want?"

Tavi chewed on his lip, thinking. It was dangerous for Kitai to be in Alera at all, much less in the capital. The Realm's experiences with other races upon Carna had invariably been tense, hostile, and violent. When the Marat had wiped out Princeps Gaius Septimus's Legion at the First Battle of Calderon, they had created an entire generation of widows and orphans and bereaved families. And since the Crown Legion had been recruited from Alera Imperia, there were thousands, tens of thousands of individuals in this city with a bitter grudge against the Marat.

Kitai, because of her athletic build, pale skin, and hair-and especially because of her exotically slanted eyes-would be recognized immediately as one of the barbarians from the east. Given all that she had stolen (and the humiliation she had inflicted upon the civic legion in the process), she would never see the inside of a jail or a court of law. If seen, she would probably be seized by an angry mob and stoned, hanged, or burned on the spot, while the civic legion looked the other way.

Tavi's neglected stomach gurgled a complaint, and he sighed. "First thing," he said, "I'm going to get us both some food. Will you wait here for me?"

Kitai arched an eyebrow. "You think I cannot steal food for myself?"

"I'm not going to steal it," Tavi said. "Think of it as an apology for ruining your sweetbread."

Kitai frowned at that for a moment, then nodded cautiously and said, "Very well."

He had just enough money to purchase a couple of heavy wildfowl drumsticks, a loaf of sweetbread, and a flagon of apple cider. He took them back into the dim alley, where Kitai waited in patient stillness. Tavi passed her a drumstick and broke the loaf in half, then let her choose one. Then he leaned back against the wall, standing beside her, and got down to the serious business of eating.

Evidently, Kitai was at least as ravenous as Tavi, and they demolished meat and bread alike in moments. Tavi took a long drink from the flask and offered the rest to Kitai.

The Marat girl drank and wiped her mouth with one sleeve, then turned to Tavi, exotic eyes glittering. She dropped the empty flask and studied him while she licked the crumbs and grease from her fingers. Tavi found it fascinating, and waited in silence for a moment.

Kitai gave him a slow smile. "Yes, Aleran?" she asked. "Is there something you want?"

Tavi blinked and coughed, looking away before he started blushing again. He reminded himself sternly of what was at stake and that he did not dare allow himself to be distracted when it could cost so many people their lives. The terrifying weight of his responsibility drove away thoughts of Kitai's fingers and mouth, replacing them with twisting anxiety. "Yes, actually," he said. "I need your help."

Kitai's playful little smile vanished, and she peered at him, her expression curious, even concerned. "With what?"

"Breaking into a building," he said. "I need to learn how you've managed to get around all the security precautions in the places you have raided."

Kitai frowned at him. "For what reason?"

"A man is locked inside a prison tower. I need to get him out of the Grey Tower without tripping any furycrafted alarms and without anyone seeing us. Oh, and we need to do it so that no one knows that he's missing for at least a quarter of an hour."

Kitai took that in stride. "Will it be dangerous?"

"Very," Tavi said. "If we're caught, they will imprison or kill us both."

Kitai nodded, her expression thoughtful. "Then we must not be caught."

"Or fail," Tavi said. "Kitai, this could be important. Not just for me, but for all of Alera."

"Why?" she asked.

Tavi furrowed his brow. "We don't have much time for explanations. How much do you know about Aleran politics?"

"I know that you people are all insane," Kitai said.

Despite himself, a low bark of laughter flew from his lips. "I can see how you'd think that," Tavi said. "Do you need a reason other than insanity, then?"

"I prefer it," Kitai said.

Tavi considered it for a moment, then said, "The man who is locked away is my friend. He was put there for defending me."

Kitai stared at him for a moment and nodded. "Reason enough," she said.

"You'll help me?"

"Yes, Aleran," she answered. She studied his features with thoughtful eyes. "I will help you."

He nodded seriously. "Thank you."

Her teeth shone white in the dim alley. "Do not thank me. Not until you see what we must do to enter this tower." (Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher pp 264 - 270)

This marks the only occasion upon which Tavi bests Kitai.

Having successfully liberated Max, Tavi, with the help of another reliable soldier, Captain Miles, sets about his daring subterfuge of replacing Gaius until he's well enough to resume his position.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Tavi's aunt Isana, having heard from Doroga of the apparent Vord interest in Tavi, becomes concerned for her nephew and resolves to go to the capital and plead for his safety directly to the first Lord, whom she detests intensely. Unfortunately, when she arrives, she's unable to really see him because he's not really there, and several attempts are made on her life. Having thus failed with the First Lord, she falls into the clutches of the Aquitaine family, another rival for the Gaius' s position. They promise they will take care of her and her nephew if she will align herself with them and give them her allegiance. This she agrees to do.

Meanwhile, Tavi has befriended the Canim ambassador and learns from him that there is some interesting, dangerous and odd activity underneath the city which turns out to be, upon investigation, the Vord, who are evidently being aided by another of the Canim race.

As Tavi tries to figure out what to do, and to manage his vicarious and illegal impersonation of the First Lord, we find that the other odd couple, Amara and Bernard are not exactly on easy street. Isana resents Amara, and Amara resents herself for the same reason: she is unable to have children and she feels that because of this, Bernard should ditch her and find a more fertile spouse. Count Bernard isn’t interested.

As the novel draws to a close, we're faced with an assault on the First Lord's palace by the Canim in a coup attempt. Of course, the only people who can defend him are Tavi, Max, Miles, a few palace guards, Kitai, and the Lady Aquitaine, who happens to be present. They fight a running battle which they win, but barely. Tavi passes out, in fear of Kitai's life.

He recovers, and is discharged from his duties as palace page. As his final task, he's required to deliver a letter of welcome to the new Marat amabassador. I leave you with that scene:

He left the First Lord's suites and walked slowly into the north hall. He paused to ask a passing maid where the new Ambassador's quarters were located, and she directed him to a large set of double doors at the far end of the hall. Tavi walked down to them and knocked quietly.

The door opened, and Tavi found himself facing Kitai as he had never seen her before. She was dressed in a robe of dark emerald silk that fell to her knees and belted loosely at the waist. Her hair was down, brushed out into long and shining waves of white that fell to her hips. Her feet were bare, and fine, glittering chains of silver wrapped one ankle, both wrists, and her throat, where the necklace was set with another green stone. The colors were a perfectly lovely complement to her large, exotic eyes.

Tavi's heart suddenly beat very quickly.

Kitai studied Tavi's expression, her own face somewhat smug, and she smiled slowly. "Hello, Aleran."

"Urn," Tavi said. "I have a message for the Ambassador."

"Then you have a message for me," she said, and held out her hand. Tavi passed the envelope to her. She opened it and frowned at the letter within, then said, "I cannot read."

Tavi took the letter and read it. "Ambassador Kitai. I was pleased to hear from the crown guardsman you passed on the way into the palace yesterday morning that Doroga had dispatched an envoy to Alera to serve as an ambassador and emissary between our peoples. While I did not expect your arrival, you are most welcome here. I trust your quarters are satisfactory, and that your needs have been adequately attended to. You have only to inquire of any of the serving staff if you have need of anything else."

Kitai smiled, and said, "I have my own pool, in the floor. You can fill it with hot water or cold, Aleran, and there are scents and soaps and oils of every kind. They brought me meals, and I have a bed that could fit a mother gargant giving birth." She lifted her chin and pointed at the necklace. "You see?"

Tavi saw very soft, very fair skin, more than anything-but the necklace was lovely, too.<.p>

"Had I known of this," Kitai continued, "I might have asked to be an Ambassador before now."

Tavi coughed. "Well. I, uh. I mean, I suppose you are an Ambassador, if the First Lord says so, but for goodness sake, Kitai."

"Keep your opinions to yourself, message boy," she said disdainfully. "Continue to read."

Tavi gave her an even look, then read the rest of the note. "In order to help you better understand your duties here, I suggest that you take the time and effort to learn to understand the written word. Such a skill will be an immense advantage to you in the long run, and enable you more accurately to record your experiences and knowledge so that you may pass it on to your people. To that end, I am placing at your disposal the bearer of this message, whose sole duty for the next several weeks at least will be to teach you such skills with words as he may possess. Welcome to Alera Imperia, Ambassador, and I look forward to speaking with you in the future. Signed, Gaius Sixtus, First Lord of Alera."

"My disposal," she said. "Hah. I think I like that. I can have you do anything, now. Your chieftain said so."

"I don't think that's what he meant when-"

"Silence, errand boy!" she said, green eyes sparkling with mischief. "There are horses here, yes?"

"Well. Yes. But…"

"Then you will take me to them, and we will go for a ride," she said, still smiling.
Tavi sighed. "Kitai… perhaps tomorrow? I need to make sure Max is all right. And my aunt. We're having dinner this evening."

"Of course," she said at once. "Important things first."

"Thank you," he said.

She bowed her head to him a little. "And you, Aleran. I saw you against the Cane. You fought well. It was cleverly done."

And then she stepped up to him, stood on tiptoe, and kissed him on the mouth.

Tavi blinked in surprise, and for a second he couldn't move. Then she lifted her arms and twined them around his neck, drawing him closer, and everything in the world but her mouth and her arms and the scent and fever-hot warmth of her vanished. It was sometime later that the kiss ended, and Tavi felt a little wobbly. Kitai looked up at him with languid, pleased eyes, and said, "Cleverly done. For an Aleran."

"Th-thank you," Tavi stammered.

"My disposal," she said, satisfaction in her tone. "This promises to be a pleasant spring."

"Uh," Tavi said. "Wh-what?"

She made a little sound, half of impatience, half of disgust. "When will you stop talking, Aleran?" she said in a low, throaty growl and kissed him again, drawing him back into the room, until Tavi could kick the door closed behind them. (Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher pp 450 - 452)

Perfect.


Cursor's Fury by Jim Butcher


Rating: WORTHY!

So in volume three of Jim Butcher's Excellent Adventures of the Warrior Goddess Kitai, we find Tavi with the First Lord, who seems to be taking an unseemly interest in Tavi's sex life. Not that he has a complete one from what he reveals. The First Lord proves that despite his awesome fury-crafting powers, he's even more clueless than is Tavi with regard to how deep this bond is with Kitai. He dispenses pretty much the same advice that Norman Osborn offers his son Harry with regard to Mary Jane in the original Spider-Man: "A word to the not-so-wise about your little girlfriend. Do what you need to with her, then broom her fast."

Tavi is almost panicked at the thought of spending significant time away from Kitai, and to give him his due, he does honestly worry that she might suffer, because of their bond, if she's forcibly kept from him for long periods of time, but in this same concern, he's actually disrespecting her strength and independence, so even though he's beginning to recognize their bond, he's still essentially clueless about her. This will come back to haunt him humorously, as it happens, in the final novel of the hexalogy.

Fortunately he doesn't need to worry. When he arrives at the legion camp and settles in, he gets into the habit of visiting the public baths, run by Cymnea, the brothel keeper. He tosses a coin to a blind beggar girl on his way in, and sitting in the bath later, he thinks, "Crows" and runs outside to discover that, as he's just begun to imagine, the beggar girl is actually Kitai spying on camp activities to learn all she can about what's really going on. She does this routinely throughout the novels from this point on, delivering invaluable information to Tavi because of her excellence in this pursuit. She chides him about taking so long to recognize her.

Before he gets to the camp, however, Tavi is sent to meet a crafting master to try and get his non-existent skills kick-started. There's a reason his skills have shriveled on the vine, but we don't learn of this until later in the series. He's dragged from his crafting lessons by Max, rather like Luke Skywalker is forced to abandon Yoda's teachings to address a problem. Hmm! Come to think of it, there's rather a lot in common between Tavi and Luke, isn't there?!

We learn a bit of Max's past here, because his stepmother who hates him with a vengeance and has tried to kill him, and his step brother who will inherit if Max dies, has also joined the new First Aleran. What happened to the original First Aleran isn't specified!

Tavi is now supposed to be a fully-fledged cursor, but given that he has no windcrafting - or crafting of any kind for that matter - he's pretty much useless as a cursor. In the legion, they call the newbies 'fish', so this novel really ought to have been called 'Fish's Fury'. Tavi goes under a false name: the bizarre name of Rufus Scipio, which no doubt was all the rage in the real Roman era, but strikes me as one of the most hilarious names I've ever seen. Perhaps that's why Butcher chose it?

Lord Kalare, is the bad guy in this instalment. Because of a letter the First Lord sent, written in a deliberately provocative manner because he knew it would be intercepted by Kalare's spies, the wannabe First Lord has launched a war upon what he considers is the real, but weak First lord. Kalare wants to be First Lord himself. He has kidnapped more than one person in order to hold them hostage and thereby prevent people from doing things he does not want done.

One of these kidnappees is a cursor friend of Tavi's - or rather her child, so that she then had to become a spy for him. Another is the wife of one of the other lords of Alera. It is Count Bernard, his wife, the cursor Lady Amara, and the problematic Lady Aquitaine, who are tasked with rescuing her. Lady Aquitaine holds the allegiance of Isana, Bernard's brother. Isana isn't involved since she's spending way the hell too much time trying to revive Fade, her slave (who is way more than that we discover) and who has been poisoned. So focused on him is she that she neglects to help the wounded in the battle.

Tavi is supposed to be garnering military experience for himself as the sub-tribune in the First Aleran. He discovers that things aren't working the way a well-organized military should be: supplies, for example, are disappearing, so he brings in Cymnea to take charge!

Lord Kalare has made an alliance with the Canim. They are to help him become First Lord in return for his granting them a portion of Alera upon which to live. The reason they need Alera rather than their own land is something to be explored in vol 4 of this series, but in this volume, Tavi is the only thing standing in the way of the Canim running riot. He establishes a front line in a fortified town, and holds the line. Kitai helps immeasurably by riding the land as a spy, at times taking Tavi to show him curious and vital secrets.

One of these secrets is that the Canim have a warrior leader and a spiritual leader, Sarl, and the spiritual leader has a magic of his own. He uses this magic to turn the sky red, and he plans to use it to strike down Tavi when he meets with the warrior leader, but his plan fails, because Tavi has possession of Lady Antillus's Bloodstone which prevents the Canim magic from destroying him. At the start of the novel, Tavi was playing chess with the warrior Cane who is now leading the Canim. During a truce, he's invited to play a game again with this Cane, and he does so, listening carefully as the Cane, who is not at all a friend of Sarl's, passes important information to him in a coded way, which helps him to understand why the Canim came here.

Tavi, of course, holds the line and repels the invaders, and kills Sarl after discrediting him to show the Canim that he, Tavi, was far stronger than their best magician, even though he really isn't. The novel ends with Kitai suggesting that Tavi let her bring in some Marat horsewomen to act as spies and scouts. She, of course, would lead them. She already has her hair shorn with a crest, in the tyle of the horse tribe of the Marat, and she has been at Tavi's side the whole time, so his army is used to seeing a Marat helping them.

Tavi considers this, and reacts by pushing her against the wall in his quarters and kissing her passionately. He forces himself to stop, complaining that the fury-crafted light in there is a signal to his officers that they can come in any time with issues and concerns. He needs to have Max put out the light, but as he says the words, the light goes out, and he discovers that he can command it to turn on and off at will. Kitai is not impressed with this, and at the very end of the last chapter, she tells the light to go out, and it does! A great read!