Han Solo: Rebel Dawn

October 20, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

rebelHan Solo: Rebel Dawn by A.C. Crispin


With Rebel Dawn, Crispin gives us a Han Solo with which we’re familiar. It makes sense (this is the closest we get to the events in Star Wars, so he ought to be by now), but in the previous books, we only see hints of him. Still, Crispin is showing us Han’s development, so seeing hints in the previous books is to be expected.

Rebel Dawn also takes us back to the plot that started this trilogy: Bria; and the drug trade on Ylesia. More to the point, we finally get closure on the relationship between Han and Bria that began in The Paradise Snare, while we see what becomes of that drug trade some ten years later. We get to see characters who have featured in the other two books, and we also get to connect this story with some of the events that are mentioned in Star Wars. Specifically, we see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, and we see the events that led to Han dumping the spice that put him on Jabba’s bad side.

The thing is, Crispin moves so quickly through those events that if you blink, you might miss them. These are seminal moments in the world of Star Wars, and I would have liked to have seen more time devoted to them. Instead, we get a lot of backstory for other characters, enough so that Han doesn’t feature for a good third of the story, save for a few interludes to keep us posted on what’s going on with him. Near the end of the book, we do get a definitive answer about the apparent misuse of the word “parsec” regarding the Kessel Run, which is nice. If anyone tries to raise that argument with you again, just point them to this book for clarification.

I noticed in this book that Crispin tells a lot, which hurts her characterization. The characters were still drawn well, but some scenes felt emotionless, when they should have been key moments where the reader should have felt something for the characters. Instead, we get a sense of their feelings, even when we should be feeling grief or anger over what’s happening.

The trilogy is strong, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been so much more. Crispin spins a good tale, and I powered through the last half of this book in one day, but it lacked the OOMPH that would have made this a great series. Still, it ranks among the better books in the Expanded Universe, and I’d recommend it for folks wanting to delve outside the movies to see what else the EU has to offer.


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Down Among the Sticks and Bones

October 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sticksDown Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire


So far, the only works I’ve read by McGuire/Grant are her novellas. They’ve been fine, with intriguing ideas and near-perfect language, but they haven’t been great. In a way, they feel like they’re not quite long enough for the ideas they contain, despite being so well written that I want to gush about it; Down Among the Sticks and Bones, however, is the perfect story for its length.

The novella is about Jacqueline and Jillian, twin sisters whose parents raised them under strict rules: Jacqueline (never Jack) to be a tomboy to make up for her not being the son her father wanted; and Jillian (never Jill) to be the pretty princess her mother desires. This book is the sequel to McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, so we know ahead of time that the two sisters will find their way into a fantastical world, tinged with darkness, where they grow to become themselves.

The story McGuire tells here is wonderful, in so many ways. Her characters are lively, her settings are vivid, and her atmosphere bleeds through every page. Her language sings, and the emotions she conveys in the story are real. It has true heartbreak and grief, frustration and joy. These are all traits that have been present in her other novellas I’ve read, but here everything comes together perfectly. It has a fatalistic tone for the ending, most likely due to it being a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway and me knowing how it would ultimately end, but that could be a projection on my part. The story felt stand-alone and self-contained.

McGuire was already on my “authors to watch” list, but knowing that she can write a five-star story like Down Among the Sticks and Bones, I can now add her to my “authors to read” list. Given how prolific she is, it’s going to take a while before I can get caught up.

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Hell Hound

October 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

houndHell Hound by Ken Greenhall


Like Elizabeth: A Novel of the UnnaturalHell Hound has a clue buried in its title, though it’s not as obvious as its predecessor. The story is about a dog, yes — a bull terrier — but the “Hell” of the title isn’t. It refers to the one who keeps him.

The story is told partly from the dog’s perspective, so we see how he — Baxter — thinks regarding the people around him. It’s dark, not because the dog is evil, or possessed; he’s simply a dog, driven by his own desires outside of society’s constraints. His identity is wrapped up in power and control, and he chooses to use it to his own advantage. We can’t blame him for his nature.

Hell Hound is chilling partly because Greenhall toys with our assumption that dogs adore us. We view them as pets, but we forget they’re animals. Hell Hound reminds us of what they are, beneath the trappings we put on them. He also reminds us how close we are as animals, paralleling Baxter’s motivations with our own. We can’t blame Baxter for his nature, because he’s a dog; humans, though, have evolved beyond that. Or so we believe.

The book’s main theme is that of sociopathy, not just in Baxter, but in the people near to him. The way Greenhall reveals the animals in humans, he’s suggesting that were we to remove the safeguards of society and civilization, we would be as sociopathic as a dog. As he presents his characters in the book, this isn’t hard to believe.

Also like Elizabeth, the story is told with an economy of words, but a wealth of atmosphere. Greenhall places words like a watchmaker places a gear: Everything is significant, and nothing is out of place. He uses a dispassionate voice to create dread, and he creates his plot in such a way that nothing is unexpected. We know where the story is going; we’re simply along for the ride until we get there, expecting the worst. As another reviewer put it, we’re dragged along by “the madness of pure unfettered rationality”, and it all happens in 150 pages.

Greenhall makes some astute observations along the way. They’re not reassuring, but they have a ring of truth, enforced by the events of the story. One particular example:

Carl had taken on an affection and a responsibility, but Sara was not sure there was virtue in that alone.

These gems are buried throughout the story, there to evoke the same sense of dread and nihilism as the plot itself.

Hell Hound is a fantastic book, but it’s dark. Readers looking for easy answers and happy endings should look elsewhere. Those who don’t mind a walk through graveyards and junkyards late at night, though, should seek it out.

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Elizabeth: A Novel of the Unnatural

October 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

elizabethElizabeth: A Novel of the Unnatural by Ken Greenhall


I’m not one to worry about subtitles, but in the case of this book, it’s important. It’s not “strange” or “weird” or “occult”; it’s “unnatural”. It’s a specific word, used to evoke a specific feeling, enough so that it feels like it’s part of the proper title, and not an attempt to classify the book.

That “unnatural” is such a specific, evocative word isn’t a surprise; Greenhall was apparently the kind of writer who took his time to find the perfect word for every sentence. Elizabeth reflects this, as he tells his story with an economy of words. A lot happens in this brief (152 pages) novel, but it never feels like it moves quickly, or that the author is skimping on the details. Instead, he creates mood and atmosphere in as little as one sentence:

In the night I would hear the slopping of the lake against rocks, and half-awake, I sometimes mistook it for the sound of someone choking.

Greenhall’s imagery is unsettling, as is the story. It’s not a graphic, in-your-face kind of horror, nor is it the quiet horror of Bernard Taylor or Charles Grant; it’s the kind of story that creeps under the skin and stays with you long after it’s finished.

The story won’t be easy for everyone. Its main character, Elizabeth, is fourteen, and involved in a sexual relationship with her uncle that she initiated. This isn’t a spoiler, though; aside from being made clear in the early part of the novel, it’s a central part of the story. The story is sensual, sex being an important part of it, but it’s never explicit. Greenhall suggests the activity, and by doing so shows off his talent for showing, not telling. That a fourteen-year-old woman and a late-thirties man maintain the relationship suggests that the “unnatural” in the title is about more than just the supernatural.

The point of the story, though, isn’t the sex. It’s important to the plot, but what Elizabeth is about is power. Elizabeth recognizes that she has power through sex, and isn’t afraid to use it. For her, sex isn’t about love or intimacy, it’s about strength.

Elizabeth is our narrator as well as our main character, and it presents an interesting dilemma: Is she reliable? Near the beginning, it’s easy to think that what she’s telling us is only in her head. Later in the story, it’s harder to tell. Knowing is important, though, since it determines if Elizabeth is the antagonist or the protagonist.

Greenhall isn’t as well known in the canon as other authors from his time, which is a shame. Elizabeth proves that his writing is precise, his horror suggestive, and he understands how to unsettle instead of scare. Valancourt has done a great job republishing these lost classics, and I look forward to more by him, as well as other authors in their catalog I have yet to discover.

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Forever Free

October 16, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

freeForever Free by Joe Haldeman



Let me repeat: UGH.

Forever Free is a bit of a hot mess of a book. It’s supposed to be a sequel to The Forever War, but it actually feels less like one than Forever Peace, which isn’t even tangentially related. Like Forever Peace, it starts off as one story and then shifts into something else. Also like Forever Peace, it feels like Haldeman started writing with one idea in mind, but with no clear direction, and just wrote to see where it would take him. The results are less than impressive.

I’m not sure why this was written as a sequel, either, when it could have easily been adapted to be a standalone book, like Forever Peace. There are only a handful of plot points that require The Forever War, and they’re so small that Haldeman, with some effort, could have written them as new points in a new story. Instead, we get Forever Free, which not only isn’t a good book, but it also tarnishes the reputation of its predecessor. I can’t say why without giving away the ending, but trust me: The hand-waving that comes in at the end of the book is its own deus ex machina to get Haldeman out of a hole.

I read the ebook edition of the novel, and was disappointed at the number of typos and OCR errors. The worst was probably “home” appearing in place of “homo” in every instance of the book, but it wasn’t the only one I saw. I wish companies would spend more time with copy-editing their books, but this was a bargain book, so I guess my expectations shouldn’t be so high.

The only thing that saves this book from being one star is Haldeman’s style. It’s clean and direct, and runs the risk of being dry when he’s talking military details, but his characterization is good, and his plots, when he uses them, are tense. The ending to this story, though, is horrible. It’s Son of Rosemary levels of horrible, too, and if you don’t know my feelings on that book yet, let me just say it’s the only book I wouldn’t hesitate to set on fire. Like Son of Rosemary, what makes Forever Free so bad is that it was actually a tense, intriguing story until the author chose to write the ending he did. It’s so disappointing.

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Brilliance of the Moon: Scars of Victory

October 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

scarsBrilliance of the Moon: Scars of Victory by Lian Hearn


After over 1000 pages, the Tales of the Otori comes to a close as Takeo finally fulfills his destiny and exacts his revenge on those who started his journey at the very beginning of the series. As befits the saga, his journey is filled with sacrifice, betrayals, and honor, and it all comes together in Scars of Victory. As the title suggests, Takeo is likely to win, but at what cost?

For the series to be that long, I’m surprised that the story feels less epic than other fantasy stories. One part of it is that the series isn’t a traditional fantasy, but the main part is due to the story being more personal than other epics. A Song of Ice and Fire is a sprawling epic with a large number of characters, but Tales of the Otori is about Takeo and Kaede. Other characters and events play into the story, too, but by centralizing her focus, Hearn gives intimacy to the story, bringing the reader closer to her characters than the events that drive their stories.

It feels like little happens in the series, but Hearn’s style of writing belies how much actually takes place over the span of its 1300 pages. I believe I’ve mentioned her gentle style in each of the reviews preceding this one, but it’s true: Her narrative lulls you into a false sense of peace. I love that style.

It’s hard to think of who I’d recommend read these books. They don’t follow the traditional epic fantasy structure, despite being a part of that genre, and they aren’t strictly historical novels, either. I guess I’d recommend them to anyone who finds their summaries intriguing, and would suggest starting with the first one and seeing if you take to it. I’m not sure what I expected from it, overall, but I was surprised I liked it as much as I did.

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Forever Peace

October 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

peaceForever Peace by Joe Haldeman


Much has been made of this book not being a sequel to The Forever War. Despite its similar title, and despite it appearing in omnibus editions with that book and Forever Free, it exists in its own universe, and covers themes not touched on in The Forever War. The only connection I could find was a town called Mandellaville, but that’s more an Easter egg than an actual connection.

The story is about Julian Class, a soldier in the US army fighting a war in South America. This is a future war, where the soldiers are locked in to battle suits, which in turn control battle suits out on the field. The good news for such a setup is that when a suit in battle is damaged or destroyed, its pilot survives (usually); the bad news is that it creates dependencies and other psychological effects on the soldiers.

The first half of the book is largely a rehash of the themes and details from The Forever War, showing life as a soldier in a future army. With the second half, the true story begins, forcing me to readjust what I was getting from the story. What precedes this shift is necessary, but it makes the novel feel like two stories: a war story; and a futuristic thriller.

Haldeman shifts between first and third person sections in this book (there are no chapters, only section breaks), which struck me as off. Some of those sections allow for a viewpoint other than Julian’s, but most of them could be told from his point of view without much change, and I wonder why the author chose to write the story this way. Even for the sections written outside of his viewpoint could have been included in the first person, since the story references the future in vague ways, suggesting the story is written as a reminiscence of Julian’s. It makes the story feel like Haldeman sat down with an idea and started writing just to see where it would go.

The story is thoughtful, and the second half shows that the author can write plot-centric stories as well as military stories, but it feels schizophrenic. I enjoyed it enough to give it three stars, and I would recommend it, but with some hesitation. It’s good, but not OHMYGOSH good.

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Brilliance of the Moon: Battle for Maruyama

October 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

battleBrilliance of the Moon: Battle for Maruyama by Lian Hearn


Tales of the Otori has been about Takeo and Kaede, first and foremost. The plots are complex enough to keep a reader engaged, but the real focus of the books have been the two main characters and their relationship. Their stakes have risen, and the plots against them are circling closer, as we enter the third act of the saga. Given that the last book ended on a cliffhanger of an ending, none of this is a surprise.

Hearn brings in a new point-of-view character here, Shizuka, which felt odd to me. It was necessary to bring her in to tell all the angles of the story, but to bring her in so close to the end of the story feels clunky. I feel like authors should know which characters will be central to their story from the beginning, and use them as POV characters from the start so they won’t be introduced so suddenly later in the story.

Her style continues to enchant, and her characters are intriguing. Nothing stays still as Hearn takes us through to the events that will conclude the series, but there’s still a gentle, susurrating pace here that lulls you into a false feeling of complacency. It’s a strange dichotomy, but it works remarkably well.

Battle for Marumaya isn’t a book to read by itself; you’ll need Scars of Victory on hand to finish this series quickly. Of course, the book isn’t one to start with, either, since if you do, you miss out on Takeo and Kaede’s relationship developing over the previous two books. Take my word for it: start at the beginning.

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Grass for His Pillow: The Way Through the Snow

October 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snowGrass for His Pillow: The Way Through the Snow by Lian Hearn


This book is the end of Grass for His Pillow, the second book in the Tales of the Otori, and it has the same structure as most second-books-in-a-trilogy: It ends without much resolved. Hearn brings a couple of subplots to a close here, but for the overarching, political plot that covers this entire series, the book raises the stakes and takes us to the heart of the conflict, and then steps away and lets us wait for the next book.

Luckily, I have the next book(s) in hand to keep the story going, but this kind of structure annoys me. Unfortunately, this is how trilogies work now. I’ve noticed it ever since The Matrix Reloaded, but I expect it’s been going on since before then. There are exceptions (The Obelisk Gate didn’t leave me hanging as much as I would have expected, and The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect second-movie-in-a-trilogy in that it does all it should for the larger story while maintaining a structure all its own), but lately it seems like those second books have to end in such a way as to guarantee readers will return for the third. I’d boycott them all together if I didn’t get invested in them for two books.

Hearn tells the story in her unobtrusive style, which is wonderful. Stuff happens, but it always feels like you’re along for a gentle ride, even as it does. Takeo and Kaede continue to serve as the central characters, and their relationship defines the story. The third book, I expect, will bring the overarching plot to a close, as all the preparation and setup of the first two books will collect there, but all of it derives from their relationship.

Hearn continues to tell a good story, though it suffers from being book two in a trilogy. Readers who have come this far with the story will want to keep reading, and those who might be interested in the premise should start at the beginning. It takes a little while to get into it, but once you are, it’s hard to quit it.

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Grass for His Pillow: Lord Fujiwara’s Treasures

October 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

lordGrass for His Pillow: Lord Fujiwara’s Treasures by Lian Hearn


Lord Fujiwara’s Treasures begins the second book in the Tales of the Otori, serving as the first act of Grass for His Pillow. If this is confusing, welcome to the club. Grass for His Pillow is the second book, but it’s published in two parts, this one being the first. It’s not even a complete story, since there’s no conclusion here.

The story continues Takeo’s and Keade’s stories, though after meeting and falling in love in the first book, they wind up separated here. Obligations force them apart, and they find themselves as key players in the political machinations in this alternate feudal Japan. Hearn continues to tell a compelling tale through her unassuming narrative, focusing on these two characters and their intensely personal lives. Her style is gentle but insistent; it’s hard to feel like much is happening, but the story winds through several settings and characters in a complicated political plot.

This series is billed as a fantasy, but it reads more like a historical novel than anything else. Fantasy readers might be surprised to find a story atypically fantasy, but readers of historical fiction (especially those with an interest in Japanese culture) should love it. I’m looking forward to seeing this series through.

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