The Conformity

February 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

conformityThe Conformity by John Hornor Jacobs


In the previous two books in Jacobs’ trilogy, he borrowed heavily from existing horror stories, but made his stories unique partly through Shreve’s voice. In The Conformity, he mixes up his formula, and I question if it works as well as he thinks it does.

For one thing, what he borrows from horror is a little too distinctive to borrow: He adopts the giant-person-made-up-of-regular-people idea that Clive Barker used in “In the Hills, the Cities”. I’ve never seen that trope used in any other horror story, namely because it’s so distinctive, an author wouldn’t be able to get away with it without looking like a copycat. It’s not the point of Jacobs’ story like it was in Barker’s, but still, it was impossible to read this book and not think of Barker’s story.

For another, Jacobs goes outside of Shreve to narrate parts of the story, and I don’t understand why he broke that formula. In regards to the story, it makes sense — Shreve is knocked unconscious for several days, and it’s up to others in the Society of Extranaturals to continue the story — but since Shreve can now jump into anyone’s head and experience their lives directly, I question why Jacobs didn’t use this as a way to show what the other characters are doing.

The pacing of the novel feels off, too. The ending comes rather suddenly, when Jacobs spends pages and chapters showing us a side-quest that never serves a purpose to the overall story. It feels like Jacobs was padding the story to get to a certain page-count, which is still odd, when he could have spent more time drawing out the ending of the book instead.

I didn’t thing The Conformity was bad, but I can’t deny I was disappointed, either. Jacobs started out telling a unique, if familiar, story, and then ended it in a way that was weaker than the first two books. I still liked the trilogy enough to want to read more of his fiction, and I would still recommend the series to readers looking for a unique take on a coming-of-age story, but I feel like the author didn’t quite stick the landing here. Consider this book a 7.5 performance from a 9.8 athlete.

Started: December 8, 2017
Finished: December 13, 2017


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The Shibboleth

February 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

shibbolethThe Shibboleth by John Hornor Jacobs


A shibboleth is, according to Wikipedia, any custom or tradition that distinguishes one group of people from others. In the case of Shreve and Jack, our main characters for this sequel to The Twelve-Fingered Boy, this is the power they have. These powers are important to a group called the Society of Extranaturals, which is the group for which Quincrux, the antagonist from the first book, is trying to recruit the two boys.

Jacobs takes a risk with this novel, separating both Shreve and Jack at the start of the book. It was their relationship that carried the story, and the first half of the novel is just about Shreve. Luckily, Jacobs still uses that relationship to define Shreve’s state of mind, even though he’s not present; in fact, it’s his absence that drives Shreve’s character. Eventually, the two characters reunite, but this series continues to be a coming-of-age story, and one of the risks of growing up through the teen years is friends growing apart.

The story will likely remind most readers of X-Men, and fans of Stephen King will see some influence from The Shop, the secret agency that recurs throughout his middle-era books. Like The Twelve-Fingered Boy, though, the book does its own thing with borrowed themes, and stands on its own well enough. It’s much darker than either influence (yes, some parts are even darker than Firestarter), and Shreve’s voice stands out to make the book unique.

Since this is the middle book of a trilogy, it ends at the darkest moment for the main characters, leading us to the final showdown in the third book. Jacobs sets up the events well for the conclusion, even going so far as to play with our expectations for how it will develop. Following the tone he’s created with the first two books, the third should be just as impressive.

Started: December 4, 2017
Finished: December 8, 2017

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The Twelve-Fingered Boy

February 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

twelveThe Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor Jacobs


Shreve Cannon is a big-wig in juvie. He’s the connection if you want candy, and he knows how to use people’s sweet teeth to get what he wants. That all changes, though, when Jack, the new kid, shows up. He seems to be the usual newbie, crying at night and keeping to himself, but Shreve figures he’s something special because of his twelve fingers. And then there’s the thing that happens when Jack gets angry.

The premise isn’t anything new, but Jacobs brings a new voice to this kind of story, through Shreve. He’s a standard juvie/jail tough guy, at least as much as his front will allow. He winds up being more compassionate and sympathetic than one would expect, since his tough guy image is related to his position as the candy supplier. He still talks like a tough guy, though, and he serves as the narrator, which makes it a little difficult to get into the story, since his voice can be off-putting.

Jacobs also makes the story bigger than just Jack and Shreve, but what sells the story is the relationship between the two boys. It’s a coming-of-age story set against the background of developing powers, those powers serving as a metaphor for developing into the adult they will become. It’s a compelling story, with strong characterization, and even if parts of the story seem like they’re heavily borrowed from Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort, it’s unique enough to stand on its own.

This is the first book in a trilogy, though, so be forewarned that the story Jacobs is writing is larger than the one that exists in this book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but just know going into the story that you won’t get all your questions answered here. Jacobs raises a lot of them, so it’s best to be prepared going forward.

Started: December 1, 2017
Finished: December 3, 2017

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January 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cloudboundCloudbound by Fran Wilde


There are a lot of things Wilde does right with Cloudbound. For one, the first couple of chapters serve as a nice summary of what happened in Updraft, the first book in this trilogy, which is useful, since I last read that book over a year ago. Like that book, Cloudbound also wraps the story around some fascinating ideas and themes, which help to elevate what is, to me, a mediocre story, to something a little more interesting.

The book picks up a few months after the events of Updraft, and this time Wilde shifts the narration from Kirit to Nat, one of her oldest friends who wound up fighting her to help save the towers. To say their relationship is strained is being generous; there’s a tremendous loss of trust between the two, and it drives their characters for the bulk of the book. Unfortunately, the characters didn’t spring to life for me. Kirit is mostly a background character, with the focus shifting back to the troubles between the Spire and the towers, neither to which she belongs. She’s an outcast, despite her role in bringing the corruption to the towers’ attention, so she gets very little page-time in the book.

I don’t find fault with Wilde shifting attention from one character to another. There are a lot of people in her Bone Universe, and it helps broaden the universe to show that it takes more than one hero to keep that world going. It’s just that none of the other characters are as interesting as Kirit. She does a good job of creating a diverse cast of characters, and gives them proper motivations, but I couldn’t get interested in them.

The other weird thing about the story is that it ought to have engaged me. Plot-wise, it was interesting, and expanded on what the Bone Universe is, but somehow I felt disconnected with it all. It reminded me a lot of the Craft Sequence, in that the narrative itself couldn’t engage me, despite the wealth of great ideas within.  I also noticed how Wilde uses sentence fragments a lot, I’m guessing for effect. Or because she felt it provided a narrative punch. (Yes, that’s my attempt to show how she was using them.) For me, they were more distracting than anything else.

I’m not sure if reading Updraft would have made me more aware of these issues, since I listened to the audio production for that book. I get the feeling the sentence fragments would have been less obvious, but I’m not sure about the rest. I do know that I remember pieces of Updraft fairly vividly; time will tell if Cloudbound will stay with me as well.

As I was reading this book, I figured I might have been done with the series, but then she went and ended the story the way she did, and I get the feeling I’ll be back around for book three. I know it’s already out, but the stories didn’t strike me as good enough to buy the books in hardcover, so I’ll likely wait until the paperback is released to get caught up. If my library carried a copy, I’d get it from there, but as it is, I don’t mind waiting. I have a lot of other books I’m more interested in reading right now, anyway.

Started: October 19, 2017
Finished: October 27, 2017

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The Red Threads of Fortune

January 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

threadsThe Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang


Rumor has it, you can read the two books in Yang’s Tensorate series in any order. Based on that rumor, I picked the order in which Goodreads has the books ordered in the series and started there, with The Black Tides of Heaven. I made the right choice, because if I had started with The Red Threads of Fortune, (a) I would have been lost, and (b) I’m not sure I would have continued with the series.

The focus of Tides was on Akeha and Mokoya, twin children of the Protector, and their early life. Threads shifts away from the twins to a degree, showing us what they’re like as adults. By now, the characters have grown into the different personalities they became at the end of Tides, and have moved on to life, not without each other, but at least focused away from them. The main focus of Threads is Mokoya, as she hunts a rogue naga that threatens the city where she lives.

Threads is less interesting, since it shifts its focus away from the relationships. The character Mokoya is now isn’t as sympathetic as the one she was in Tides, and what relationships she does have in the novella feel more forced. Her development feels authentic, but where she goes in this book with that development simply isn’t as interesting. The story does have more of a plot than the previous book, but when Yang writes the first book to focus on character, it’s jarring to then shift over to a book that’s primarily plot.

How much you like this book may depend on where you start with the two books. Chronologically, Tides comes before Threads, and gives us more insight into the characters than the latter book. Those readers who start with Threads, though, might be disappointed by the shift from plot to character, but I still feel like they would be confused by events in Tides. Yang is still a strong writer, and I’m in it for their next two books, but I’m hoping the attention will shift back to the characters and their relationships for those books.

Started: October 16, 2017
Finished: October 20, 2017

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Phoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm

January 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

unicornPhoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm by Dana Simpson


I discovered the comic strip Phoebe and Her Unicorn over two years ago. It’s fantastic. It’s about a precocious young girl who befriends a unicorn, and how they become best friends. It’s about a lot more than that (friendship, diversity, acceptance, and family), but the relationship between Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils (no kidding) is the real draw. There’s a sincerity and maturity about the strip that reminds me of Calvin & Hobbes, but with much less snark.

The Magic Storm is the sixth book featuring the characters, but the first five were collections of the strips. I don’t usually record or review those, since there’s not as much narrative structure to a strip (save for the few extended storylines), but this book is the first self-contained, extended story featuring Phoebe and Marigold. It also features the other main characters (Phoebe’s parents, her friend Max, and her frenemy Dakota), as well as introducing a couple of new characters. It’s probably not the best place to start with the strip, since the background between Phoebe and Dakota is better developed through the strip, but all that means is you get to read the first five books. (Trust me: This is a Good Thing™.)

The story opens with Marigold sensing something strange about her magic, while at the same time Phoebe is receiving severe weather alerts on her phone. The two, of course, are related, and it takes the two of them working together with their friends and the goblins to determine the source of the problem. It’s peppered with the lighthearted humor of the strips, and shows the positivity of the relationships of the characters. There’s a particular feel to the strip, and Simpson has captured that same feel here.

The Magic Storm isn’t the most tightly plotted story, but it’s intended for younger kids, and the lessons of the story are important ones. Given the choice between strip collections or self-contained stories, I would likely choose the strip collections, but if Simpson wants to keep telling these tales, I will keep reading them. Any chance to revisit the charm of her characters is one to take.

Started: October 18, 2017
Finished: October 18, 2017

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The Black Tides of Heaven

January 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

tidesThe Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang


I’m a sucker for a novella, and for a novella that’s getting lots of positive buzz. is doing a great job with them (and with promoting the non-male, non-cis, non-white authors and stories), so it was a no-brainer that I would be reading Yang’s contributions to the line. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Black Tides of Heaven is a book that pairs with The Red Threads of Fortune, and I waffled over which to read first. In the end, I decided to follow the series as Goodreads had cataloged it, so Tides it was. It introduces us to a handful of characters, like the Protector (think Mommy Dearest with wizarding powers and a ruthlessness that would make Cersei Lannister sit up and pay attention) and Head Abbott Sung (Atticus Finch with magical powers), but the two main characters are the twins, Mokoya and Akeha, who are birthed by the Protector to honor a debt she owed the Head Abbott, and also to manipulate it so he didn’t get what he expected out of the deal. At the age of six, the twins are adopted into the Grand Monastery and are taught how to use the Tensorate magics.

Yang is a talented wordsmith. They create scenes effortlessly, imbibing them with all the senses to ensure you feel immersed in their world. Their characterization is deft, as they develop the twins to be more complex than first appearances would suggest. The Head Abbott and the Protector run the risk of being cliches, but Yang adds a few twists and turns to their development to keep you guessing. The story develops out of the relationships among all these characters, so the plot feels natural, and no development ever feels forced. The characters in their world are born sexless and adopt a male or female persona whenever they feel comfortable, so “they” is used to refer to single persons, as well as groups. It takes some adjusting to flow with the story, but this is more a limit to the English language, and not a problem with how Yang tells the story.

My only complaint about the story is that it feels rushed. The first half of the book takes its time to show and reveal the characters, but the second half feels like Yang was rushing to get to the end and still be able to call the book a novella. As I mentioned, the development isn’t forced, so nothing strikes me as Yang cheating the reader, but I would have liked more time spent with the characters as they make their significant decisions. The good news is Yang doesn’t sacrifice the emotion of their story, but since they develop the characters so well, that’s no surprise.

Yang’s style has shades of Sanderson in it, but their voice is all their own. The good news about this novella is it’s the first of four, and I can move straight into the second one. I’ll be paying attention to Yang’s future books, and I know I’ll be reading the second pair of books as soon as they’re released.

Started: October 12, 2017
Finished: October 16, 2017

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The Two of Swords: Part Nineteen

December 28, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

swords19The Two of Swords: Part Nineteen by K.J. Parker


The way this chapter flows, it feels like it’s the end of The Two of Swords. Things are wrapped up (and, finally, explained) in a way that leaves me satisfied, with major characters reaching the ends of their arcs and machinations seemingly concluded, so this feels like the place to end the story. The thing is, I ordered all of the remaining parts of the book back in April, and those show four chapters to go. Granted, that was April, and who knows what could have happened between then and now?

I think I would have gone into this chapter with a different mindset had I known this was going to be the final chapter. Instead, I went in thinking things would be drawn together in anticipation of the conclusion, so I never felt like that was going to be it. By the time I finished it, though, it was pretty clear this was the end of the story.

It’s been an interesting journey. Throughout the story, it was difficult to determine what was truth and what wasn’t. The layers of subterfuge are many, and so interconnected that it almost takes a spreadsheet to keep up with what’s a double-cross or quadruple-cross. I may have been able to keep up with the characters more had I been reading the story in collected formats, and had I been able to read them back-to-back from start to finish. I was actually surprised I could remember enough details from chapter to chapter to keep up with everything.

Before this book, my exposure to Parker was through his novellas, and those tend to read as stories that lead up to an unseen conclusion, sort of like The Sixth Sense, but with fewer ghosts and more humor. I didn’t expect him to follow that structure here, so I was excited to see how his longer stories would develop, and I wasn’t disappointed. I plan to read the rest of his fiction within the next year or so, and I hope I haven’t messed it up by starting with his most recent works and then going back to the beginning. At the very least, I look forward to seeing him develop the shared universe of these books.

Started: September 26, 2017
Finished: September 26, 2017

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The Two of Swords: Part Eighteen

December 25, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords18The Two of Swords: Part Eighteen by K.J. Parker


We’re reaching the point of the story where things are winding down, but where things are also fraying in the usual Parker style. It’s hard to tell what’s actually going on, not for lack of clarity, but because there’s so much intrigue happening through the Lodge that it’s hard to tell what’s happening at their command and what’s being said to happen through their command. Telamon is caught in the middle of it all, struggling to figure out where her loyalties lie. Axio and Oida, of course, don’t help her understand it much, since they’re as much at odds with each other as the Belot brothers.

This is a lengthier chapter, namely because we learn more about the instability of the Lodge as the war appears to be drawing to a close. I’ll admit I got a little lost in the telling of this chapter, partly because of the way the story bobs and weaves, but also because I kept thinking I should remember more details about parts of it. The story revisits old settings, and I felt like I was missing some significance of some appearances and references, since it’s been so long since I’ve read the other chapters. I’m not willing to go back and re-read them again at this point, but I do plan on getting the printed volumes when they’re released. When I do re-read them, I’ll try to take notes so I can keep everything straight.

For such a complex plot, the chapter-by-chapter release isn’t ideal. I’m surprised I remember as much as I do from the earlier chapters, but that disconnect doesn’t help, especially when so many months have passed between parts two and three. I’m eager to see this through, to see exactly how the Lodge plays in to the plot, and to see how the events ultimately play out. Parker’s novellas bring his plots together well, and if he can bring those same deft skills to The Two of Swords (and why couldn’t he?), I won’t be disappointed. I’m just ready to get there.

Started: September 19, 2017
Finished: September 19, 2017

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The Wind Through the Keyhole

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

windThe Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King


It’s time. Time is the wind through the keyhole. King mentions this in the center story (because this is a story within a story within a story), and I’m still not quite sure I understand what it’s supposed to mean. We look in a keyhole, but feel the wind blowing through it, and that’s time? Mkay.

I waffled over when to read this book in the overall series. At first I thought I would read it within the chronology, which is after Wizard and Glass but before The Wolves of the Calla, but in the end I figured reading it in publication order made more sense, since chances were, King would try to retcon something else.

The middle story (“The Wind Through the Keyhole”) is a fairy tale or legend, but it ties in with the larger story in which it appears, since another “RF” appears within. Clearly, within the world of the tower, it’s supposed to be real and not fiction, which is sort of annoying, but not so much as this story being shoehorned into the larger Dark Tower saga. The framing device of the story (the ka-tet takes shelter from a starkblast — a severe cold front — and Roland tells the story of him and Jamie taking on the skin-man, which in turn contains the story of the legend) doesn’t advance the story of their quest at all, so why include it at all? The front of the book tells us this is “A Dark Tower Novel”, not a part of the series proper, so why force it? Why not just have it be a story of Roland’s earlier days and leave it at that?

The second story (“The Skin-Man”) is short, and serves as the framing device for the legend, and doesn’t serve much purpose other than that. It gives us an additional look into Roland’s character after the events of Mejis, but it doesn’t tell us anything more than what we already know. It feels like the whole book was written just to tell the tale of “The Wind Through the Keyhole”, which winds up being the largest percentage of the book anyway. King admits in the foreword to the book that he wrote these stories intending them to be the start of a collection of stories set in Mid-World, but instead crammed them together into this one book. It’s a compelling story, told in his usual style, and it puzzles me why he didn’t just save it for a later release.

(I lie. I know why he did it: $$$.)

“The Wind Through the Keyhole” is the best story here, but it doesn’t add anything to the larger mythology of Roland and the tower, so I don’t see it as a necessary read, even for fans of the series. It just adds a few pieces of fan service here and there, and force-fits it into the larger series. If King ever does get around to publishing a collection of stories set in the world of the tower, I would hope he divides the two central stories apart, and removes the framing device of the ka-tet altogether. I think I could appreciate the stories were he to do that.

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