Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Book Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing by Jo Walton is a little bit of a different read for me. I went into it not knowing anything about it; I never even bothered to read the summary. Turns out Farthing is alternate history, which as a rule I usually don't read, but it's also a murder mystery with strong political overtones. The events that unfold in Farthing continue eight years later in Ha'pennyand conclude with Half a Crown.

So what's Farthing about?

It's alternate history and takes place in the 1940's. In this version of history, the United States never enters the war against Nazi Germany (there's no mention of the Japanese, so I guess the reader is left to assume that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor never happened). As a result, England is left to fend alone against Hitler. But Hitler isn't interested in England. Turns out he's more interested in making peace with the British so he can turn the fullness of his attention on Russia. This is what happens. The story begins at a country estate where the orchestrator of this peace accord, Sir James Thirkie, is found in his room, murdered. What follows is a Scotland Yard investigation led by Inspector Carmichael where everyone—servant and noble alike—is considered a suspect.

Farthing garnered a lot of excellent reviews on Amazon. It's written well and has a style that is easy to read while holding the reader's attention, but ultimately I just didn't find enough going on here. The pacing is rather slow at times, with lots of tea and lunches and not enough intrigue or suspense for my taste. What Farthing really amounts to is a peek into a sort of Marvel Comics What If? scenario where Nazi Germany's influence (in particular their bias against Jews and homosexuals) begins to influence seemingly benign countries like England where such hatred becomes a convenient excuse for certain parties to impose their will upon their nations. It's a scary possibility, but scary only inasmuch as one thinks alternate history is scary. It didn't happen, so I, for one, am not particular scared.

The Alchemist's Pursuit by Dave Duncan

The Alchemist's Pursuit by Dave Duncan is the third of his tales involving Nostradamus and his resourceful and daring apprentice, Alfeo Zeno. This time the Maestro is called upon by Violetta, courtesan and friend to Alfeo, who informs the pair that a dear friend of hers has been murdered. An impossible case—the woman was killed weeks ago, there are no witnesses, and the body spent considerable time in the water—turns into something much larger as the murders of other courtesans come to light and soon intersect with the guilty party in an eight year old patricide long thought solved.

So begins the latest installment in Duncan's Venetian fantasy/mystery series. The story follows the basic path set in the previous two novels, with Nostradamus being called on to solve an unsolvable crime and Alfeo, our narrator as always, charged with the elder Maestro's legwork. In this novel, however, we see Alfeo grow in new ways we’ve not seen before. Not only does he demonstrate an increased aptitude in the working of magic, but he also displays a newfound ability to navigate the perils of Venetian society and its politics. Descended from nobility, Alfeo's name is written in the Golden Book, though the family fortune long dried up and so he employs himself as an apprentice and assistant to Nostradamus.

Trained in the "dark arts," it is a fine line master and apprentice walk, for Venice is a Christian city, and so witchcraft is outlawed and its practice punishable by death. Yet the magic in Duncan's Alchemist novels is very subtle. In The Alchemist's Pursuit, besides for the usual divinations for which Nostradamus is famous, much of it culminates in the presence of a cat which assists Alfeo at times, though Alfeo suspects he may have attracted the attention of a demon who is helping him only to gain his confidence. It is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous unfolding in which we finally learn the true purpose of this feline spirit.

As for the murders themselves, we soon learn that not one but three courtesans have been slain. A divination by Nostradamus shows that they are only the beginning, and so Alfeo must track down witnesses, avoid the law which has expressly prohibited Alfeo from investigating the crimes, and protect the woman he loves, Violetta, before she becomes the next victim.

All in all, The Alchemist's Pursuit is yet another gripping tale set in Dave Duncan’s (mostly) historically accurate Venice of yesteryear. Duncan's style is top-notch and his prose worthy of study (not in the literary sense so much, but more in the 'this is how modern fantasy tales should be written' sense). While I've had limited exposure to Duncan up to this point, it's books like The Alchemist's Pursuit that make me want to seek out other novels by the author. Also, I hope this is not the last we've seen of Alfeo and his irritable master. With such a marvelous setting and intriguing characters, I think Duncan has many more tales to tell in this world.

Blood Engines by Tim Pratt

Blood Engines is the first of the Marla Mason urban fantasy novels by author Tim Pratt. While urban fantasy isn't my usual thing, I'd previously read The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl and liked it, though what got me to try Blood Engines was the fact that Pratt is serializing a new Mason novel called Broken Mirrors. I wanted to support that effort, but since I wasn't familiar with the main character or her exploits I thought I'd start with the first book and see how I liked it.

While I can't say I didn't enjoy the book, there were parts I could have done without, and what really bothered me the most is that for all Mason's purported and often spoken of ability to kick butt, she never really does.

Blood Engines begins in San Francisco (Pratt makes his home in Oakland, just on the other side of the bay; I grew up in the Bay Area, so I'm more than a little familiar with the lay of the land) where Marla Mason has come in search of a Cornerstone, an ancient magical device whose power is to enhance and make permanent the effects of any spell. Mason hopes to work some magic to defeat a rival back in her own city of Felport. A wrench is thrown into her plans when the contact she'd come to connect with, and who also knew the location of the Cornerstone, is murdered. Feeling obligated to seek out the murderer, and because that path also intersects with her own immediate goal, Mason sets out to bring the perpetrator to her sort of justice.

Pratt is a deft storyteller. The writing is crisp and doesn't waste the reader's time with loads of info dumps. There are, however, parts that go off on tangents. The worst of them is a long scene where Mason is looking for her first lead concerning the Cornerstone's whereabouts which leads her into the den of a "pornomancer", a sorcerer whose power stems from the sexual energy around him. What ensues is an elaborate, drawn out orgy scene the like of which I'd never been invited to while living in San Francisco. ;-)

That aside, I had a similar issue with this book that I had with The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl: the main character simply doesn't do enough. Pratt goes to great length to tell us how much of a bad ass Mason is, yet we never see that reflected in the unfolding story. There is plenty of magic, though it is not always cast by Mason. In fact, little of it is. In the final scene, while Mason has set up the pieces to confront one another, she doesn't take part in it herself.

I'm on the fence if I'll pick up the next book after Blood Engines. There’s plenty of more books in the series, so maybe the author finds his stride and Marla as well. Right now, many other books to get to, so this series goes to the backburner.

The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory is book one of The Obsidian Trilogy. It is followed by To Light a Candle and When Darkness Falls.

This first book in the trilogy starts out very promising. Unfortunately, the initial plot which I found quite riveting begins to slow and finally fall flat for me as I gave up reading about halfway through.

Kellen Tavadon, son of the most powerful mage in the Golden City, wants more out of life than the controlled, sanitized life given to him by his father and the other ruling mages of the City. He finds more than he bargained for when he happens upon the three books of Wild Magic.

Wild Magic differs from the traditional magic performed by the City's mages in that it is easier, requires less preparation, is in some ways more powerful, but ultimately was banned long ago by the mages of the Golden City because it exacts a price that is sometimes too high to pay. Kellen soon learns there is even more to it than that when he is discovered practicing this forbidden magic and banished from the City and its utopian way of life. This is all well and fine with Kellen. Others have been expelled from the city and, he imagines, gone on to lead a new, independent existence free from the stifling rules of the mages. He comes to find out, though, that of those previously banished, none still live, for the mages set an Outlaw Hunt in pursuit of him: a pack of stone golem hounds whose only purpose is to kill those expelled from the City.

This is a great premise and the story does well up until the point where Kellen settles into a life free from his father's influence. He begins to delve further into Wild Magic, albeit slowly, and discovers there is an entire world of fascinating people living outside the borders of the City. The problem is that the story settles far too much into the mundane. Meeting new neighbors, attending fairs, chopping wood, observing Kellen's sister, who is a healer, going about her daily routine. In a way, I found the manner in which Kellen settles in with his sister to be a bit… unwholesome; I think the sister character's part would have been better served as a non-blood relation.

I read some reviews on the second book in the series, To Light A Candle. Those reviews claim the second book picks up the pace. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to the end of The Outstretched Shadow, so I won't be getting to see that for myself.

Eleganta by Denny Swartzlander

Eleganta by Denny Swartzlander is my February and first Kindle Pick of the Month. In a way, this is an experiment. First time writers publishing in the Kindle store either (1) couldn't get their novel published by a traditional publisher or (2) didn't submit to a traditional publisher. Either way, the traditional publishing route, which some people feel is pretty important to boosting quality, has been circumvented.

So, the experiment is to see if self-published eBooks meet the same quality standard as traditional books.

Eleganta left me undecided.

The titular character, a garden fairy, has just given birth to a baby, an occurrence not seen in over a decade. It is quickly decided that the baby must be brought to the fairy queen for protection, for an invading army of trolls—and one troll general in particular—is hell-bent on capturing her. Seems that the trolls grow sick and die when ingesting the current crop of fairies, so they're consumed (no pun intended) with creating a line of fairies not toxic to them. For reasons which remain unclear to me, Eleganta's baby is the key to this source.

So begins a journey for Eleganta, her daughter, and a warrior fairy charged with protecting them that should by all accounts be one charged with suspense and danger. There's plenty of danger (though I never really felt anyone was going to suffer from it) but little suspense. Eleganta and company go from one destination to another, sometimes quickly, sometimes stopping to frolic in the forest, so to speak, all the while chased by a pair of monstrous hound-like creatures. That in itself is a problem: the trolls want the baby alive, so why send a couple of creatures who will probably do nothing less than eat it if they ever capture it?

Another point of contention I couldn't get past: fairies fly, yet their villages are walled. Perhaps this is because they've been fighting the army of trolls for some time, so they've simply built their defenses up. But, still, I had imagined a different sort of lifestyle for fairy-kind, one that did not mirror our own so much.

In terms of writing, Eleganta varies from above average to below average. Character descriptions sometimes are info dumps, with too much, too soon and descriptions that are too detailed. I prefer to find out the nuances of a character as the story unfolds rather than having information thrown at me straight off. There are parts of Eleganta that are on par with anything you'd read elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are also other sections I felt could have used a bit more polish.

The storyline is good enough, though pacing was not the best and the characters are all-too-familiar or just flat. There was no one character I really connected with nor any characters I genuinely wanted to see succeed.

Perhaps the most telling sign of all: I couldn't finish Eleganta. I made it halfway. Knowing when to stop reading isn't always easy. In this case, I was having a hard time getting enthused about picking up my Kindle and diving into the story. If that isn't a sign tell me what to do, I don't know what is.

While Eleganta has thus far racked up nine five star reviews on Amazon, I didn't feel it quite met that level. I plan to give it three stars when I post my review there shortly.