Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Virgin Widow by Anne O’Brien

Historical fiction tends to fall into two categories — adventure and romance.  As indicated by its title, The Virgin Widow firmly falls into the latter category.  It doesn’t disappoint in that area, and actually surprises the reader with an English-based historical romance that doesn’t take place in and around the reign of Henry VIII.  The author, Anne O’Brien, also appears to have done her research and written a book that feels true to the times.

The best thing about this book is the setting.  I don’t know a whole lot about the War of the Roses.  It was great to read a book that takes place during the power struggle between the families of York and Lancaster.  It starts off with Anne and her family, the Nevilles, on a boat from England to Calais, with Anne’s sister, Isabel, in labor.  Anne’s father, the Earl of Warwick, was adviser to the Edward IV, the King of England, but the two have had a falling out over the Queen, Elizabeth, and the amount of influence she has over the King’s decisions.  The plot of the book goes on to follow some of the events of the war, which, to me, is great.  I can learn while I read?  Fantastic!

I also think that Anne is an admirable character, for the most part.  She is smart and spirited, and, since the book is in first person, we get to follow her thought processes. I suppose this is probably standard for romance novels; being in the person’s shoes allows for a more complete fantasy.  I still liked it.

O’Brien gives Anne’s story a nonlinear structure to discuss Anne’s childhood, which is also nice.  I liked the excitement of the opening chapter with the quiet storytelling of the next couple.  It wasn’t an obtrusive way of making a book both grab the reader and tell the character’s story fully.

The Virgin Widow does, however, have a couple of flaws.  The first is how Anne, for such a strong girl and, later, woman, comes to believe she  has to rely on a man to protect her.  I’m guessing this is part of the romance, but I found it off-putting.  Why on Earth would a widow, an independent person with her own rights, have to stay in a household with a man in it, for example?  She shouldn’t need safe-keeping.  This bothered me quite a bit.  I don’t know how O’Brien justified Anne’s passivity with regards to her decision-making and personal safety, but I didn’t care for it.

My other issue is with the writing itself.  I’ve rarely seen so many ellipses in a book.  It was a bit distracting.  Not everything a woman says has something else implied at the end or is a half-finished thought.  The men usually get full sentences; why don’t the women, too?

Overall, I think that The Virgin Widow is a historically-accurate romance, which counts for a lot.  I’d like to see a more forward woman in Anne when it comes to men, since she’s bold in other ways, and a bit more polish on the dialogue.  Other than that, it’s a fine light read.

Rating: 3/5.

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Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

I’ll admit it:  I’ve become rather fond of Harry Dresden, the hero of The Dresden Files series.  He’s always off fighting something interesting — rogue wizards, werewolves, toad-monsters … they’re all problematic creatures Dresden has to face.  Grave Peril, the third installment in the series, covers a new type of supernatural creature — the ghost.  The results are spooky and good at the same time.

Jim Butcher starts off the book with Dresden and a friend, Michael Carpenter, going in to a hospital to stop a ghost from smothering the babies in the nursery.  Michael is some sort of paladin — faithful, honest, strong, and steadfast — and his sword is an instrument for smiting evil.  A surprisingly difficult battle with the ghost ensues after they pursue her to The Nevernever, as does a visit from Dresden’s godmother, Lea, who apparently owns his soul and wishes to collect as soon as possible.

Added into this mix is the Nightmare, a sentient ghost-like creature that takes some of Dresden’s power, incapacitates Karrin Murphy, the head of Special Investigations for the Chicago Police Department, and enjoys taking people over when they sleep.  We’ve also got significant vampire activity and the involvement of some back-story that provides for clever surprises with the plot.

One of the attributes I like about Butcher’s series is the humor.  I’m a sucker for puns, so I got a kick out of Dresden’s joke about the vampiress on a diet (“Make hers a Blood Lite”), among others.  Yet this book felt darker to me than the previous two, and I wonder if some of that is because we’re getting to know Dresden better.  It’s harder to joke around with characters when they’ve become established and people have developed attachments to them.  The change toward a more serious tone isn’t bad, and Butcher still keeps his tongue in his cheek a good bit.  This installment is just a little less so.

A couple of things about this particular book made it a little more difficult to like.  The first may seem petty, but it drove me nuts:  Dresden says “Hell’s bells” a lot in this book.  This is the first time I can recall him ever using this term.  He says it, on average, one time per chapter.  That would make for thirty-nine “Hell’s bells”.  It’s not just the term, which I find mildly annoying; it’s also that I don’t think it’s something that the Dresden I knew from the first two books would say.  Maybe I just overlooked it, but, in Grave Peril, the abundance of the comments jarred me out of the narrative each time I read it, which I’m pretty sure isn’t what Butcher was aiming to do.

The second is that quite a bit of time, series-wise, has elapsed between the previous book, Fool Moon, and this one.  That means that there’s a lot of back-story we only have filled in part-way — Michael has been his partner on the exorcisms, but when did they meet?  How?  What’s the full story on the big event that involved Special Investigations?  Is it in a short story somewhere?  Couldn’t it have been part of the story of this book?  That would have been fantastic, and I wouldn’t have spent part of the book wondering why something was the way it was until it was explained through a narrative about past events.

The Dresden Files is an awesome series.  Grave Peril is a fine addition, but not quite as good as its predecessors.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Believe it or not, I was aware of this book series before the television series.  I just didn’t get around to reading it.  I have watched the series, though, and liked it.  This book, the one that started it all off, demonstrates that Dexter the television series is faithful in tone.  Darkly Dreaming Dexter has a significant amount of wit mixed in with its gore, with a more nuanced and compelling plot than the first season of the series.

The book starts off with Dexter stalking and eventually killing a priest who had been killing orphan girls.  It’s a definite shock to the system.  I know it’s a relatively common strategy on the part of thriller and mystery writers, but Dexter’s murder gives us insight into what exactly drives his homicidal tendencies — his Dark Passenger.  This component of Dexter’s psyche is essential to understanding what he does, and I think it’s a part of his personality that gets pushed aside in the television series, much to its detriment.

Dexter’s Dark Passenger is a torment for him in a way that is difficult even for him to effectively describe, even to his trusted father Harry.  Having to feed the urges of a part of yourself that seems so foreign in order to drive it back for respite — that must be extraordinarily difficult.  The work is something he enjoys, but is it truly something he would have chosen to do if it weren’t for that Dark Passenger?  That question is raised toward the end of the book in a rather painful, but well-done, way.

I found the choice of first-person narrative here really effective; I don’t think Darkly Dreaming Dexter would work any other way.  We need to be in his head in order to understand, for sure, but we’re also being tricked into sympathizing with a serial killer.  He’s shown to be witty, smart, and scrupulous.  He’s also naïve in an almost child-like way about interpersonal relationships; he’s had to study to figure out how to be a normal person, and the gaps in his education are both awkwardly painful and oddly endearing.  Lindsay does an excellent job of making the reader root for someone who, in another author’s hands, could well be the villain.

My only issue with Lindsay’s book is that it is sometimes too clever or too cute.  There’s a lot of alliteration, which I got tired of after a while.  It’s a good technique for a slogan; it’s not so great as part of the narration.  It almost always jarred me out of the story, which is not a good thing.  I wanted to be engrossed, and this just made it impossible for me to fully immerse myself in the plot.

The bottom line, though, is that Darkly Dreaming Dexter is an excellent example of a thriller with humor.  Lindsay gives us an original idea and follows through extraordinarily well.  I’d be happy to read the rest of the series; I think there must be a lot more to Dexter’s story that the television show just can’t provide.

Rating: 4/5.

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Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Having read The Curse of Chalion, the first in the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold, I expected that Paladin of Souls would be a continuation of the story of Lupe dy Cazaril, or, perhaps, of the new rulers of Chalion.  What it is, instead, is the story of Ista, the mother of Iselle, the current female ruler of Chalion-Ibra.  It is a surprising, and rewarding, turn of subjects, yet still provides the reader with the best of what The Curse of Chalion offered, as well:  a sturdy and compelling fantasy that asks the reader to think through its mysteries and confront real philosophical questions.

Ista, a woman who used to be under the grip of a familial curse released a couple of years ago, chafes under the constant watch of her ladies-in-waiting, her brother, her counselor … everyone in her home treats her with kid gloves and doesn’t allow her any leeway, despite her return to relatively normal behavior.  Determined to extract herself from this oppressive environment, she takes on a pilgrimage to the capital city to visit her daughter, son-in-law, and her grandchild.  Added to the façade is her claim to wish to perform pilgrimage on the way to pray for a son for Iselle while secretly pleading for absolution for a former heinous deed.

Of course, things don’t go as planned.  What fun would a fantasy novel be if everything were easy and simple?  Instead of having a Mother’s dedicat, Ista receives dy Cabon, a man dedicated to the Bastard instead.  Her party is small and is attacked by foreign forces — they are split up, with some ending up in Porifors.  There, Ista finds that she is thrust back into the world of the gods, re-granted second sight and entrusted by the tricky Bastard how to best help in a situation desperate in ways both physical and spiritual.

To me, Bujold’s writing is almost perfect.  Her understanding of people and their reactions, and the ways she chooses to depict them, are spot-on.  The dangerous parts are exciting, the mysteries contained within are challenging but approachable, and her exploration of fate and what it would mean to have something like a constrained free will is very interesting indeed.

Especially compelling to me was the fact that the heroine, Ista, is not a high-spirited young lady.  She’s middle-aged, used to being thought of as mad, and, quite frankly, is ruthlessly efficient in what she does.  She’s not your typical fantasy heroine, and I like that very much.  She has experience with the gods and doesn’t want to have more, necessarily, but is thrust into it anyway.  Seeing the advantage she has been granted, she uses it.  She’s a thinker, as well, which endears her to me.

But perhaps the best part about her journey is a comment Ista’s character makes toward the end of the book to a man she has restored and who doubts his ability to start afresh:  “‘I offer you an honorable new beginning.  I do not guarantee its ending.  Attempts fail, but not as certainly as tasks never attempted.'”  This resonates with me for a number of reasons.  I think it’s the most honest piece of advice I’ve seen in a book in a while.

Paladin of Souls is simply a beautiful book.  Ista is a character of character — she has struggles with herself as to what the right thing to do is, but once she’s figured it out, she doesn’t let anything stand in the way of performing her duty.  An awesome role model whose tale is masterfully told, and whose story is worth reading.

Rating: 5/5.

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Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion, the first book in the Hyperion Cantos series by Dan Simmons, is simply brilliant.  It has all the normal features of a science-fiction book, yet Simmons manages to give the reader more than that — he flexes his writing muscles and provides a book that melds literary traditions to create a work that is beyond a “mere” piece of genre fiction.

The book starts out with the beginning of pilgrimage to Hyperion, a planet at the edge of the system of worlds underneath the interplanetary governing body Hegemony’s reach.  No one seems particularly happy to be going; after all, the creature-god they are going to appease will most likely just kill them all.  This doesn’t make for the happiest of groups, but they manage to get along well enough without real violence.  In fact, it is suggested that they spend their evenings telling each other their stories.

This is part of Simmons’ particular cleverness — he has incorporated the basic structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Each man or woman tells his or her story, and how they are connected to Hyperion and its bloody Shrike, an inhuman killer made of both flesh and metal.  The creature has a church dedicated to him, the locals fear and have a mythology that revolves around him, and these pilgrimages typically don’t go well for those who partake.  Thus it is comforting for our seven travelers to hear everyone’s stories and to attempt to connect them together.

Our first story, that of the priest, is a standard sci-fi horror story of a foreigner put into a culture he does not understand until it’s too late.  The second, that of the military man, was also horrific, but in a different way — it’s an almost-sad tale of a man allowing his loneliness to lead to the release of both lust and bloodlust — and to becoming, for a time, the tool of the Shrike.  The third story, that of the poet, is disturbing in its candor in disclosing the mind of a madman.  He needs the Shrike in a way that others in the group find abhorrent.

The fourth tale, about the Wandering Jew, is sad — it’s a family and medical drama that is both touching and desperate.  The fifth, that of the pilot who brought them in, is mysteriously absent.  This is because the man is mysteriously absent.  The sixth story is a detective story through-and-through, very well-crafted and very well-told.  The seventh and last one, that of the consul, exposes the most about why events have turned out the way they have.

I just love the structure of this book.  There’s the Chaucer element, but the material about their actual voyage is also fantastic.  There are power struggles, the interactions of the people fit the characters they expose through their stories, and the actual trip is interesting, instead of being a mere vehicle for the pilgrims’ stories.

I’m happy that there are more books to read in the series.  Simmons has proven to me how inventive and effective a writer he can be, and I can’t wait to read another of his works.

Rating: 5/5.

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