Book Review – The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

The blurb says:

Venice in the early fifteenth century is at the height of its power. In theory Duke Marco commands. But Marco is a simpleton so his aunt and uncle rule in his stead. Within the Serene Republic, their word is law, but for all their influence, Venice’s fate still lies in other hands . . .

Lady Giulietta is the Duke’s cousin. She enjoys greater privilege than many can even dream of, but her status will demand a terrible price.

Atilo Il Mauros is head of the Assassini, the shadow army that enforces Venice’s will – both at home and abroad.

Prince Leopold zum Bas Friedland is the bastard son of the German emperor and leader of the krieghund – the only force in Venice more feared than Atilo’s assassins.

And then there is Atilo’s angel-faced apprentice. Only a boy, Tycho is already stronger and faster than any man has a right to be. He can see in the dark, but sunlight burns him. It is said that he drinks blood.

My introduction to Jon Courtenay Grimwood was the Arabesk trilogy (PashazadeEffendi and Felaheen) which I enjoyed immensely.  I didn’t find any of the rest of his books as enjoyable, but I keep giving them a try in case they are.  This book was’t another home run, but it was pretty good.

I enjoyed the unusual setting of Venice, although my knowledge of that part of history isn’t good enough to tell how much research was done versus liberties taken.  In any case it reads rich and deep.

One thing I found annoying is that from the beginning of the book (even before that, from the blurb) it’s obvious that Tycho is a vampire, and yet much of the the book is spent with characters trying to work out what sort of creature he is.  When the characters are discovering things I already know it feels like the book’s wasting my time.

At several points in the book it sort of yadda-yadda’d past things, as if I was supposed to somehow know what a character was thinking or what happened between paragraphs.  If the whole book was written that way then at least it could be attributed to the author’s style, but when it’s mixed in with sections of the book that explicitly explain minutia it feels unfair.

The middle of the book wallows a bit, but the ending was good and leads into the sequels without feeling incomplete.

Book Review – Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

The blurb says:

Warbreaker is the story of two sisters, who happen to be princesses, the God King one of them has to marry, the lesser god who doesn’t like his job, and the immortal who’s still trying to undo the mistakes he made hundreds of years ago.

Their world is one in which those who die in glory return as gods to live confined to a pantheon in Hallandren’s capital city and where a power known as BioChromatic magic is based on an essence known as breath that can only be collected one unit at a time from individual people.

By using breath and drawing upon the color in everyday objects, all manner of miracles and mischief can be accomplished. It will take considerable quantities of each to resolve all the challenges facing Vivenna and Siri, princesses of Idris; Susebron the God King; Lightsong, reluctant god of  bravery, and mysterious Vasher, the Warbreaker.

After reading a few books by this author, he seems to be a bit obsessed with magic systems.  The magic system from this book has a bunch of rules that get info-dumped in the prologue, but there are fine points that aren’t revealed until later and some that even most of the main characters don’t know.

A problem that this book shares with Sanderson’s successful Mistborn series is that the middle 50% of the book seems to drag on forever.  I’m not sure why it feels that way because things are always happening, but there’s something about the pacing that feels slow.  There are a couple of cool twists which make it feel worth the wait, but it was still a slog for a while.

Speaking of Mistborn, there are several similarities between the books – god kings, forgotten history, men becoming gods…  I don’t dislike it, but I think the author should explore some new ideas.

The book is a stand-alone story, but right at the end it opens the door for sequels.  I don’t have a problem with this because the book has a self-contained story arc.  If the author wrote more books in this series I would probably read them.

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Book Review – Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

The blurb says:

It’s 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man gets caught in between

Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.

When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities—a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present—Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.

Alan Furst meets Alan Moore in the opening of an epic of supernatural alternate history, the tale of a twentieth century like ours and also profoundly different.

This book is very dark.  It starts off dark immediately and never really brightens up.

A lot of the descriptions are very rich and poetic, which does a lot to immerse the reader in the settings.

The book takes place over the course of World War 2, and you can tell that the author did a lot of research.  His descriptions of historical people, places and technology are so detailed and natural that it feels like using a time machine.  Some of it is so specific that it makes you wonder if he interviewed people who lived through those times.

Having said that, the author’s characterizations could be better.  The characters are capricious and sometimes seem to act at random with no real justification for their actions.

There were some odd errors that I’ve seen in other Kindle books – words split between syllables as if the text was converted from a version laid out for a paper book.

My biggest annoyance is my pet peeve – there is no real resolution to the plot because it’s the first book in a trilogy.  As well as being annoying on its own, this makes it difficult to tell if some plot points happened for a larger reason to be revealed at a later book or whether the plot is missing a layer to give the events meaning.

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My fourth Chrome extension – Shelfari Helper for Amazon

Shelfari Helper for Amazon

Shelfari Helper for Amazon

I’ve created my fourth extension for Google Chrome – Shelfari Helper for Amazon!

Shelfari has a lot of information that isn’t on Amazon.  For me the most important is information about what series a book is in – for example if I just finished a book, what’s the next one in the series?  Amazon sometimes has the next book listed in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” area, but not always and not in the right order.

This shortcoming is especially surprising since Amazon owns Shelfari, so they have access to the data.  Perhaps it’s because Shelfari is user-editable so it’s possible that the information isn’t authoritative, but I don’t know why they don’t get series information from the publisher in the first place…

Anyway: Shelfari has information about books that Amazon doesn’t have, but although there’s a link to the Amazon book from Shelfari there isn’t an easy way to get from a book page on Amazon to the corresponding page on Shelfari.

Until now!

My extension detects amazon.com book pages and shows a  page action icon in the address bar (see screenshot).  If you click on the page action it opens the relevant page on Shelfari.  There is an option to choose whether you want the extension to open the page in a new tab or the same tab.

It slices, it dices, it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!

Actually, no, that’s about all it does.  It’s pretty simple, but it’s something I wanted and since it didn’t exist I created it.

Book Review – The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

The blurb expounds:

Three hundred years after the events of the Mistborn trilogy, Scadrial is now on the verge of modernity, with railroads to supplement the canals, electric lighting in the streets and the homes of the wealthy, and the first steel-framed skyscrapers racing for the clouds.

Kelsier, Vin, Elend, Sazed, Spook, and the rest are now part of history—or religion. Yet even as science and technology are reaching new heights, the old magics of Allomancy and Feruchemy continue to play a role in this reborn world. Out in the frontier lands known as the Roughs, they are crucial tools for the brave men and women attempting to establish order and justice.

One such is Waxillium Ladrian, a rare Twinborn, who can Push on metals with his Allomancy and use Feruchemy to become lighter or heavier at will.  After twenty years in the Roughs, Wax has been forced by family tragedy to return to the metropolis of Elendel. Now he must reluctantly put away his guns and assume the duties and dignity incumbent upon the head of a noble house. Or so he thinks, until he learns the hard way that the mansions and elegant tree-lined streets of the city can be even more dangerous than the dusty plains of the Roughs.

I would expect most people reading this book to have read the Mistborn trilogy.  If you haven’t, this book is still readable, you just won’t notice some of the nods to the original story.

Speaking of which,one of the things that I found most enjoyable about this book in the beginning was that since it’s set 300 years after the original storyline, the characters and events we know are now legend and only remain in the world as history and religion.  So when you recognize the name of a city or street as the name of a character from the other books it makes the world feel familiar, like returning to the neighbourhood you grew up in.  Everything’s different but it still feels comforting.

Something from the original trilogy that’s carried over is gender equality – there are a lot more women soldiers etc. than there would have been in the real world back when we were at that level of technology.  I think this is the author’s attempt to make the world a better place.  It’s not completely successful (I’m pretty sure the book still fails the Bechdel test) but at least the author’s making an effort.

Going forward in time 300 years brings the level of technology up to a place that makes this book basically a western.  There’s still magic etc. but people are riding around on horses, wearing wide-brimmed hats and carrying six-shooters.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a western and I wouldn’t generally seek them out, but I enjoyed this one.

One of the most fun things that I found about this book was the buddy dynamic between the main characters.  It’s probably not at all realistic to be cracking wise while fighting for you life, but it’s enjoyable to read.

In all of the marketing for this book I don’t think I saw anywhere that it was anything but a standalone novel, but the epilog opens up several plotlines teasing a sequel or perhaps a trilogy.  I’m actually fine with that, since the book had a self-contained plotline and was satisfying even without wrapping everything up.  I’m also fine with it because I’d like to return to the world of the book.  The unfortunate thing is that although the author is prolific, he’s working on a lot of projects at the same time so it may be a while before we get the next installment.

The criticism I had for each of the books in the original trilogy was that the characters spent a lot of time waiting around and planning, but this book doesn’t really suffer from that.  On the other hand the original trilogy had the highest possible stakes and so far the new trilogy is a lot more modest.

The idea of a book set 300 years after a successful trilogy reminded me of Avatar: The Last Airbender – a successful TV series.  Instead of making a direct sequel the creators followed it up with The Legend of Korra – a series set years later.  This series also explores the incrementally improved technology and the passing of events the viewer witnessed into legend.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test

Book Review – The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido

The blurb deduces:

After his grandfather dies, avid scholar and budding forensic investigator Cí Song begrudgingly gives up his studies to help his family. But when another tragedy strikes, he’s forced to run and also deemed a fugitive. Dishonored, he has no choice but to accept work as a lowly gravedigger, a position that allows him to sharpen his corpse-reading skills. Soon, he can deduce whether a person killed himself—or was murdered.

His prowess earns him notoriety, and Cí receives orders to unearth the perpetrator of a horrific series of mutilations and deaths at the Imperial Court. Cí’s gruesome investigation quickly grows complicated thanks to old loyalties and the presence of an alluring, enigmatic woman. But he remains driven by his passion for truth—especially once the killings threaten to take down the Emperor himself.

Inspired by Song Cí, considered to be the founding father of CSI-style forensic science, this harrowing novel set during the thirteenth-century Tsong Dynasty draws readers into a multilayered, ingenious plot as disturbing as it is fascinating.

I don’t expect much from Kindle Owners’ Lending Library books and I don’t usually get much (although there are notable exceptions).  Another strike against this book was that it was originally written in Spanish – a book in English, written in Spanish, set in China?

So given the two strikes against in my pre-judgement, I was pleasantly surprised.  The translation from Spanish doesn’t hurt the writing except in some of the dialogue, and that could easily be attributed to the fact that the setting is archaic China.

A lot of bad things happen to the main character, which could be depressing except that for whatever reason you expect everything to turn out all right which gives you hope as you read it.  There are some awful things to do with the contemporary judicial system and the dark side of Confucianism, but that just gives the book local flavor and sounds fairly realistic to a layman.

Not everything is explained by the end of the book, but that just conveys an impression of realism – sometimes we just don’t get the answers we’re looking for.

It was interesting to see forensic techniques as they could have been in a completely different time period.  At first I was doubtful that people would have had an awareness of some of the details back then, but since the the real Cí Song basically invented forensics maybe it isn’t so inaccurate.