Review: Soulminder

Posted on December 16th, 2014 @ 20:24
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SoulminderSoulminder by Timothy Zahn

My rating:

Summary:

For Dr. Adrian Sommers, a split second of driving while distracted leads to tragedy—and obsession. His family destroyed, he devotes his entire being to developing Soulminder, a technology that might have saved his son as he wavered on the edge of death. Sommers’s vision is to capture a dying person’s life essence and hold it safely in stasis while physicians heal the body from injury or disease. Years of experimentation finally end in success—but those who recognize Soulminder’s possibilities almost immediately corrupt its original concept to pursue dangerous new frontiers: body-swapping, obstruction of justice, extortion, and perhaps even immortality.

Review:

(I got a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

3.5 stars.

Mostly I liked the dilemmas that the Soulminder invention itself presented: a tool born from a dream, from a ruined family, in the hopes of helping other people, but whose use quickly gets perverted for recreational or even oppressive means. The aime behind the Soulminder project was almost too innocent, so much that I could only see it getting twisted at some point or other.

The novel explores some of those aspects (there would be more) through a series of “chapters” that read more like connected short stories. Soulminder and its creators, especially Sommer, remain a connecting thread, but they’re not necessarily the main protagonists. This structure was surprising at first, but I quickly got used to it, as it allowed me to see the whole project through different sets of eyes: its scientists’, its doctors’, its patients’, those of people trying to abuse it, too…

The downside was that a lot of characters felt flat, not developed enough. Perhaps understandable for minor characters who did not appear a lot; less forgiveable when it was Sommer and Sands themselves, as red threads, who did not manage to make me more invested. At times, their duo may have read too much like a convenient device, one unknowingly opening doors to abuse so that the other could point out what could go wrong (and was proved invariably right). On the other hand, I took quite a liking to Frank Everly, whose take on security matters and efficient, though jaded views made more vivid in my opinion.

Soulminder is also one of those weird kinds of books that you quickly get tired of, in that you don’t feel like reading more than a few pages at once… and then you find yourself getting back to it half an hour later, wanting to read more no matter what. I have no idea what this is called, or if it even has a name, but it’s how it felt for me.

This said, I still enjoyed it as a whole.

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Review: Prince of Thorns

Posted on December 13th, 2014 @ 00:33
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Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1)Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

My rating:

Summary:

Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath at 9 was hung in briar patch to watch his mother and young brother slaughtered by Count Renar’s men. At 13, Jorg led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By 15, he intends to be king. Life and death are a game where he thinks he has nothing left to lose. But treachery and impossibly great dark magic power await him in his father’s castle.

Review:

I thought I’d have liked this book better. I wished I had. But mostly I’ll file it in my “OK” category.

The ruthlessness of the world depicted here was quite appealing (despite being appaling, yes that’s so totally intended, and I’m not even ashamed). One may despise the protagonist and his band of “brothers” for the raping, pillaging and other acts of violence, but the fact is, the whole lot kind of fits. I also liked not being completely sure what world it was set in: alternate history? Post-apocalyptic? The “Builders’ Sun”, the books, the strange talking “spirits”… definitely hint at a more technological past, and this is something I tend to like, plain and simple.

The reasons why I didn’t warm up more to this novel were mostly:

1/ A lot of events and decisions felts seriously disjointed. The prose is easy to read, so it’s clearly not a matter of “but that’s just because your grasp on English is bad!” (it isn’t) or “stop reading at 6 am in the tramway when your brain is still all mushy” (I was off work). More than once, scenes and chapters would roll after each other in a way that made me feel something, some additional scenes, were missing. Jorg would make a decision, and I’d have to read back a few pages to see what I had missed, only to conclude that I hadn’t missed anything: his train of thought just wasn’t explained. Which would be all right, this being a first person narrative, but on the other hand, considering his decisions and actions in general, they clearly demanded more thought than mere hunches.

For instance, one specific plan rests on Jorg’s sudden understanding of something in a book whose contents don’t make sense to people in general (himself included)—the concepts are too far removed from their era’s scientific knowledge. So it struck me as really odd to see him go about how this is all technobabble one moment, to understanding-leading-to-a-plan the next.

2/ The protagonist was developed enough, but sometimes he was just too skilled, too lucky, too… everything. What should have been challenges made me think that whatever happened, he’d find a way out, and in turn, the tension eased too much. I guess I expected more cunning, and less rushing headfirst with the certainty that some deus ex machina would happen.

3/ The whole cast around Jorg, all the other characters, felt too flat. It fitted the “pawns theme” (this war’s a game, people have to be sacrificed in the end, etc.), yet it didn’t make for a pleasant reading, with everybody being disposable, from random peasants in villages to Jorg’s oldest companions. I wouldn’t have wanted Jorg to be more humane towards them; but I would have wanted them to feel more like actual characters, with lives of their own, and desires/goals that would’ve made it easier to understand their actions.

I may or may not read the next book. I haven’t decided yet.

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Review: The Accidental Alchemist

Posted on December 7th, 2014 @ 14:26
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The Accidental AlchemistThe Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian

My rating:

Summary:

When Zoe Faust–herbalist, alchemist, and recent transplant to Portland, Oregon–begins unpacking her bags, she can’t help but notice she’s picked up a stow away: a living, breathing, three-and-half-foot gargoyle. Dorian Robert-Houdin is no simple automaton, nor is he a homunculus; in fact, he needs Zoe’s help to decipher a centuries-old text that explains exactly what he is. Zoe, who’s trying to put her alchemical life behind her, isn’t so sure she can help. But after a murder victim is discovered on her front porch, Zoe realized she’s tangled up in ancient intrigue that can’t be ignored.

Includes recipes!

Review:

(I got an ARC through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

1.5 stars. An interesting premise, but one I had trouble stayed focused on, and I just could never push myself to read more than a chapter or two before switching to something else.

The first chapters, with Dorian popping into Zoe’s life, his predicament, the book that needed deciphering, hinted at a good modern fantasy story. Unfortunately, the mystery that followed was too flat, and took too long to properly unveil. It could have been more of an adventure, yet it wasn’t. There wasn’t even that many alchemical concepts and knowledge to munch on.

I’d chalk a large part of this to the main character going around in circles about some things, always recalling her ability with plants, how she was not a night person, needed her healthy foods, etc. There was more cooking and vegan recipes than actual alchemy here. I know they say alchemy kind of started in the kitchen and all that, but the metaphor didn’t bring much to the story for me. I mean, it’s the Accidental Alchemist, not the Accidental Cook, so…

In turn, the sense of urgency got lost somewhere along the road. After a murder and another murder attempt, with Zoe having the potential to be seen either as the culprit or as the next victim, I would have expected more tension. When clues finally started appearing, and Zoe at last started taking them into account, I was past caring, and just wanted to finish the novel to see if Dorian could be saved.

The ending, by the way, was too rushed to my liking. I don’t have anything against McGuffins and McGuffin-plots used to introduce deeper, larger stakes; but I tend to feel frustrated when a story begins with such a plot, goes on reminding us regularly that it’s important, then brings a quick resolution after having focused on something completely different. It just makes me stop caring. (I’ll be honest, though, and mention that while I was reading this book, I was also reading another one that suffered from the exact same problem of “rushed ending”; I suppose they slightly “tainted” each other for me in that regard.)

(A minor quibble as well regarding Dorian’s speech patterns: speaking as a French expat living in the UK, seeing bits of French thrown in the middle of sentences is definitely weird. Whole sentences or exclamations, all right—it’s only natural to start speaking in your own language, before remembering you should switch to another one. But in my own experience, when this happens, we usually tend to stop and start again in English. For instance, I haven’t heard any other French expat finishing an English sentence with “n’est-ce pas”, so when the character did it, it kind of felt like “Hey, here’s a reminder I’m French”. Not needed in my opinion.)

On the bright side, I still think the basic idea was great, and I liked Dorian’s character in general, as well as the questions his existence raised: how he came to be, sure, but also how other people perceived him. When he recounted having to pass for a disfigured man who only worked for blind cooks and refused to let anyone else in the room, so that he could do what he loved without people freaking out, that was awfully sad—and a bit reminiscent of relationships such as the ones between Frankenstein’s monster and De Lacey. I always like when similar themes arise in a story (even though it was underexploited here).

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Review: The Dark Victorian: Risen

Posted on November 29th, 2014 @ 15:04
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The Dark Victorian: RisenThe Dark Victorian: Risen by Elizabeth Watasin

My rating:

Summary:

“Way will open.”
 
She is Artifice.
A resurrected criminal and agent of HRH Prince Albert’s Secret Commission.
An artificial ghost.
A Quaker.
 
He is Jim Dastard.
The oldest surviving agent of the Secret Commission.
An animated skull.
A mentor to newly resurrected agents.
 
In a mechanical and supernatural London, agents of Prince Albert’s Secret Commission, their criminal pasts wiped from their memories, are resurrected to fight the eldritch evils that threaten England. Amidst this turmoil, Jim Dastard and his new partner Artifice must stop a re-animationist raising murderous dead children. As Art and Jim pursue their quarry, Art discovers clues about her past self, and through meeting various intriguing women—a journalist, a medium, a prostitute, and a mysterious woman in black—where her heart lies. Yet the question remains: What sort of criminal was she? A new beginning, a new identity, and new dangers await Art as she fights for the Secret Commission and for her second life.

Review:

(I got a copy courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

This novel is quite a short one—too short, in fact, for the scope it seemed to want to reach. Maybe it’s a case of “first book in a series syndrome”. Anyway, I found the premise interesting, but kept wishing it went deeper into some of its aspects, and developed things more than it did.

The plot felt somewhat muddled, rushing in parts, not really going anywhere in others. I’m still wondering what exactly it was about. A reanimator, sure, and a gallery of other characters that looked like they were introduced for later use mostly, because while they helped with things like clothing, they didn’t really do more. But I didn’t exactly feel a sense of urgency, and it was as if some hints and links between events were thrown in, in a disjointed way.

The banter between Art and Jim was likeable at times, definitely weird at others, taking space that might have been better used for more scenes, more plot development. Art’s way of speaking was also rather quirky, the whole Quaker business leaving me perplexed: I didn’t understand to which degree it was relevant. She seemed like an interesting character enough as it was, with a lot of potential, without the need to add such quirks. Maybe reading the sequel would allow me to appreciate them more… or maybe not. I honestly can’t tell.

I would also have liked to know more about this organisation resurrecting criminals while wiping their memories. Not “more” in terms of secrets (every such organisation needs secrets, to be revealed later), but as in “a larger view of its agents”. Who else was involved? How does the Secret Commission operate, since everybody appears to know about it and either respect or fear their badges? There’s some potential here as well, and I’m positive it would have deserved more spotlight in this first installment. Just a few more agents walking around, to make me feel like Jim, Art and Fall weren’t the only ones.

Art’s leaning towards other women was also dealt with a little too strangely to my liking, in that the way it was revealed, the way it unfurled, felt wonky and jarring. It’s probably a pacing problem more than anything else, because I had the same feeling with other scenes, as mentioned above. However, it was also good to see it accepted by other characters as something that just happens, something that “is”. Though Jim makes a few quips about it, it’s in a friendly way, the same kind of way he comments about other situations.

I’m not sure I’d pick the next book. It’s more a 1.5* for me, leaning towards a 2, because there are intriguing elements about which I’d like to learn more, so you never know… But not if it’s as disjointed as in this one.

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Review: The Glass Magician

Posted on November 25th, 2014 @ 00:43
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The Glass Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #2)The Glass Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

My rating:

Summary:

Three months after returning Magician Emery Thane’s heart to his body, Ceony Twill is well on her way to becoming a Folder. Unfortunately, not all of Ceony’s thoughts have been focused on paper magic. Though she was promised romance by a fortuity box, Ceony still hasn’t broken the teacher-student barrier with Emery, despite their growing closeness.

When a magician with a penchant for revenge believes that Ceony possesses a secret, he vows to discover it…even if it tears apart the very fabric of their magical world. After a series of attacks target Ceony and catch those she holds most dear in the crossfire, Ceony knows she must find the true limits of her powers…and keep her knowledge from falling into wayward hands.

Review:

(I got a copy courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

Again, an easy and fast read, much like the previous installment, but had not I already gotten a copy through NG, as mentioned above, I doubt I would’ve read it.

Some parts of the book were still pleasant. I still liked the idea behind the magic, and the more prominent use this time of Gaffers and their powers—seriously, working with mirrors, travelling through them, using them to spy on or find people? That’s awesome! It would have remained awesome if the rules of magic in that world hadn’t been broken in a snap of fingers at the end, and in a way that just any apprentice would probably think of at some point in his/her career. And who got to stumble upon it? Ceony.

Ceony this time just plunged deep into Too Stupid To Live territory, taking actions that a character as smart as she’s supposed to be would have immediately thought twice about. So, sure, she came prepared… but clearly not enough. And she definitely did not think through all her moves and what they may imply for other people. Not wanting to endanger more people is a very fine motive, only not when it ends up achieving exactly that.

As in the first volume, some historical elements were too out of place: she’s supposed to be of a struggling, working class-like background, but her father would take her to fire a gun when she was younger? This doesn’t scream “poor family background” to me, not in London at the end of 19th century. Other jarring elements included Ceony’s take on skirts and other views of women as creatures made to cook and take care of men:

“Langston didn’t seem to notice—he thought the tomatoes alone were a treat, and Ceony determined the man needed to get married right away. She wondered if Delilah could be coerced into dating him.”

This might have worked for another character. Not for a young woman who’s shown to act in daring ways, affirms her right to stay with her current master even though some may disapprove, wants to decide her own fate, and so on. Which is one of the problems I had with the romance in the first book: centered around the man, who was everything.

Speaking of the romance: still not convinced, all the more because of that weird chapter from Thane’s point of view, thrown among all the others narrated in Ceony’s, in which he thinks about his feelings for her. Less cooking this time; more fussing over things that seemed to spring out of nowhere (the allergy, for instance). Also, more blushing.

As for the villains, I found them paper-thin (pun totally intended). Grath and his fellow magicians would have been impressive in other circumstances, and their powers and cunning should have been put to better use. Instead, I never got to really understand their motives. Freeing Lira? All right, but what about a bigger plan, why have they been such targets for years (except for Excision, of course)? And Saraj. Why should the resident psychopath be Indian, and depicted in such a blatant display of “Danger: here comes the tall, dark stranger, so of course he must look suspicious, and of course those suspicions were well-founded”?

Decidedly, this isn’t working for me. (Nor is the cover, which is nice, but doesn’t look like anything that was in the book.)

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