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Bearing an Hourglass by Piers Anthony

Bearing an Hourglass, the second in the Incarnations of Immortality series, follows the pattern of the first book pretty closely. I liked On a Pale Horse fairly well, so it was nice to return to a set way of writing. I would say that, even though I enjoy Piers Anthony’s stories, I found a bit of the language and attitude a little dated, and, with this one, the time travel a tad confusing.

One of the best things about this series is that you know it’s setting up for something good. As opposed to the last book, where we meet the new Thanatos (death), we this time get to see the story of the origin of Chronos (time). It establishes a pattern of the reader meeting the Incarnations at the beginning of their service time, which will be nice if that’s how the rest of them go.

Norton, our hero, manages to stumble into his new line of work by meeting up with Gawain, a ghost, and serving as a surrogate father for him. This leads to some discomfort on Norton’s part, and, to make up for it, the ghost arranges for Norton to become Chronos, able to go forwards and backwards in time as he pleases.

There’s some love interest for Norton with a couple of women, but he seems to understand that his new life (and, really, his old one, too) doesn’t allow for relationships. His fondness for being on the move, both through time and space, don’t allow for it. Satan takes advantage of these aspects of Norton’s personality to confuse him and to get him out of the way of his plot. This is where having read On a Pale Horse becomes important.

Luna, the beloved of Thanatos, is fated to become a powerful politician who will thwart, once and for all, Satan’s takeover of the world. By playing games with Norton, Satan manages to make Luna’s rise to power disappear. The rest of the book involves Norton setting things right and realizing that the power of manipulating time comes with huge costs.

I liked this book, but I think it’s mainly for the fact that it’s part of a larger story that I’m really interested in. I liked Norton, but he wasn’t the most compelling of characters to me — he’s a drifter, and I’ve always been more interested in those who at least have a goal of settling. And his reaction toward situations in any way sexual were a little embarrassing, although maybe the books were intended for young adults and Anthony didn’t feel it appropriate to make things more explicit.

The one other main problem I had with the book is I got confused with a lot of the time movements. I forgot what some of the more exotic sand colors meant in the hourglass (I had red, blue, and green down, though), and I had a hard time remembering which way was forward and which way was backward.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. Bearing an Hourglass has a lot of entertaining moments, and I’m looking forward to seeing the full story when I read the rest of the books in the series.

Rating: 4/5.

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Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

After a break, I’ve gone back to the Dresden Files.  My fiancé has nearly caught up to me (he’s on the third book in the series), so I felt the need to keep ahead of him.  What a good thing it is that he’s indirectly pushed me, because Summer Knight goes beyond the first three books in the series into creating an actual Dresden mythos, rather than being more reliant on traditional folklore to tell the tale.  I think this stretched Butcher more as an author, and the result is an engaging and eminently readable book.

The book starts off where a Dresden Files book usually starts off — with Harry in dire financial and emotional states.  Instead of being offered a well-paying job by a desperate woman, however, he gets a shock.  His faerie godmother has traded her claim over him to the Queen of Winter, Mab.  She offers to release him from all obligations to her if he performs three jobs for her.  The first she tasks him with is to clear her of the murder of the Summer Knight, the guardian of the opposing faerie court.

Not so bad, right?  Well, he is also tasked with passing a test from the White Council of Wizardry, which also involves the faerie courts.  If he isn’t able to pass the task, he’ll get turned over to the vampires (whom he started a war with in the last book).  This would not be a good thing.  No pressure, but Dresden has a lot riding on his shoulders — and the return of an old flame makes things even more complicated.

Summer Knight brings something completely new to the Dresden Files series.  We get an actual second world to explore.  There are some old characters making a return, but something feels really fresh and new about what Butcher is offering the reader.  It may be that I just haven’t read enough in the topic area, but, other than the names, I think a lot of what he delivers is out of his imagination in a different way from the other books.  It feels creative in the most basic sense — he’s making a new world for us to explore, with new characters and situations.

I really think that Summer Knight is the best of the Dresden Files books.  There’s a lot to keep track of, so it keeps the brain working.  Dresden’s path in this book is by no means predictable, and the fact that we’re taken on a wondrous trip through both Chicago and the Nevernever makes it special in a different way from the books that precede it.

Rating: 5/5.

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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I think the first warning about A Discovery of Witches should have been that I heard about it in “Parade”.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with “Parade”; I like to read it on Sundays as much as the next person does.  But it’s not really known for being a reliable source for literary insight.  I read their little blurb about this book, though, and I thought it sounded pretty good.  Then my mother said she was getting it for my cousin for her birthday, and I thought it would be nice for us to have both read the same book around the same time.  Unfortunately, I’m now in the awkward situation of knowing that my cousin’s going to get a book that is not spectacular, to say the least.

A Discovery of Witches starts off with our protagonist, Diana Bishop, establishing that she is a witch, but that she refuses to use her powers.  She’s a researcher, interested in the history of science — in particular, alchemical manuscripts (so, really, she’s interested in the history of pre-science).  She’s an American professor who’s younger than thirty, yet has earned a sabbatical year so she can study at Oxford.

While looking at old alchemical texts, she notices that one is enchanted.  She manages to open it, pretty much ignores what’s inside, and returns it.  After that, all hell breaks loose, and “creatures” (Harkness’ term for daemons, vampires, and witches) come out of the woodwork to threaten Diana in all manners of ways.

But this is all okay, because she quickly runs into Matthew Clairmont, a vampire on a mission to protect her.  Then Harkness spends four hundred pages ruining the premise she set up in the first thirty by making Diana completely dependent on Matthew for her physical safety and personal well-being.  He does everything from guard her from other creatures to making sure she does yoga.  This is extremely irritating.  Don’t create a character that you call strong and brave and then have her be completely clueless as to how she’s supposed to behave without a man to reference.

I will say that Harkness’ writing flows well.  I found it a pleasant read, language-wise, and would love to read something that isn’t so pseudo-feminist and, frankly, insulting to independent, strong women.  I’d love for her to either write something that doesn’t involve a strong romantic theme or, conversely, something that is open about the fact that it’s a romance and embraces the genre.  At least then the work would be honest.  One of the worst things an author can do is lie to the reader within the book’s own text.  I feel disrespected and betrayed, and feel almost that I should give my copy back to my mother so she can return it and recoup her money.

As it stands, however, A Discovery of Witches falls flat for me.  It doesn’t even end satisfactorily; planning on two more books to come, Harkness made this one end in a cliffhanger.  Sadly, this is just another turn-off for me, and I won’t be seeking out Diana and Matthew for another go-around.  Unless my mother buys me the sequel.  Then I’ll be duty-bound to read it, and most likely much more grumpy for the return trip.

Rating: 2/5.

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Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

I’m a bad Terry Pratchett fan.  I don’t read the DiscWorld books within their subseries; I read them as he published them.  I was, then, a little rusty on what happened during the last book that dealt with the witches — I vaguely remembered it had to do with a fairy godmother and travel on the witches’ parts.  Once I got back into their world with Lords and Ladies, though, I slipped right back into their storyline, and it’s a superb one.

The story is relatively simple — Granny Weatherwax is still a grumpy witch, but this time she’s being challenged by the Queen of the Elves, who wants dominion over Lancre.  This is one of the things that makes Lords and Ladies so good — it’s a more serious, high fantasy-like story, while maintaining a good sense of humor.  The plot is solid, without some of the meandering that occurs in earlier Pratchett books.

Mixed up with the story of the elves trying to take over is the story of Magrat Garlick, the meek, youngest witch of the trio living in Lancre.  She is to be wed to the King of Lancre, Verence II, which came as a surprise.  Magrat is, as Granny is fond of saying, a little drippy and soft.  She holds to a more New Age type of witchcraft, which is not where Granny and Nanny Ogg practice, so they think she’s fairly naïve — which she is.

The two stories collide on the days leading up to the wedding.  Magrat’s entire kingdom is put in jeopardy by Granny not telling her about the elves.  Granny’s having difficulty defeating the Queen.  Nanny is distracted by Casanunda, a blast from the past, and only gets into the action just in time.

One of the best aspects of this story is that Magrat grows as a person.  She becomes stronger in her struggles against the elves, and she becomes, in actuality, quite the impressive woman.  It’s easy to imagine her ruling a kingdom at the end of the story, which is really nice — you just knew that she couldn’t remain a dope forever.

As I stated before, one of the best things about Lords and Ladies is that it feels more serious.  To me, the danger Lancre faced seemed very real, indeed, which is not something I necessarily expect from a Pratchett novel.  There were fewer footnotes, which made the story flow better and turned it into something I liked better.  I never thought I would say that I like a Pratchett novel without large numbers of footnotes, but I really did.  It helped with the flow of the story immensely.

I think it also helps that these characters are ones he’s written about many times in the past.  He didn’t have to establish much in the way of character development before getting straight into the story.  I think that forced him to really think about the plot, which made for a better book all around.

Overall, I think a new Pratchett reader would want to read the other books in the Witch subseries first, and just know that it’s well worth it.

Rating: 5/5.

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On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

On a Pale Horse

On a Pale Horse, the first in The Incarnations of Immortality series by Anthony, is an interesting mix of speculative fiction and fantasy.  The modern-day world has cars and computers, but also has magic.  Ghosts are an accepted part of society; well, you don’t mix with them, but they’re a part of the neighborhood.  Most importantly, the world is freely acknowledged to be a neutral battleground between God and Satan for the souls of the occupants.

The book starts off a little slowly, with our main character, Zane, in a magic stone shop looking for something that can rectify his financial situation.  In exchange for a money-finding stone, he agrees to use a lovestone to help out the magician behind the counter.  He gives up the woman he would have met and fallen in love with in exchange for … a rock that finds pennies.  Not exactly the treasure-seeking wonder he was hoping for.

Behind on rent with nothing to eat, Zane decides to kill himself.  All of a sudden, his door opens, Death walks through, and Zane accidentally shoots him.  Then Fate shows up, informs him that now he’s Death, puts him in the garb, and sends him on his way.  Zane, through trial and error, with a little help from Mortis, his car-cum-horse, figures out his position.  Then love gets in the way.

Luna, the daughter of a powerful and tainted magician, is offered by her father to Zane before he dies.  Luna’s father has unloaded some of his evil onto her so that he can go to Purgatory rather than Hell, not knowing that her soul can’t take it on without becoming weighted toward evil due to some behaviors of her own.  Zane is intrigued by her, and they start seeing each other.

Unfortunately, Luna is a linchpin in the fight against Satan twenty years from now, and has thus attracted his attention.  That’s when things start to get interesting.

Most of the book, other than the last seventy pages or so, are about Zane getting used to life as Death and adjusting to doing the job.  This is quite entertaining — I almost always enjoy the parts of books when a newly-initiated magical or mythical character learns about his powers.  I don’t know why.  It’s just cool.  Anthony writes it in a realistic way, having Zane mess things up that he later figures out, but he’s not a dumb character.  He doesn’t need others to inform him what to do, for the most part.

The adventure at the end is pretty good, too.  It involves a lot of thinking on Zane’s part, which is fantastic.  He’s not there for beat-’em-up action (at least, not totally); he’s there to figure a smart way out of the problems he faces.

The only issue I have with the book is that I was able to guess at the solutions to some of Zane’s conundrums before he does, but that’s not a big problem.  It doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the book, which I would guess depends more on whether someone likes the genre than about the quality of the plot and characters, which is excellent.  Overall, On a Pale Horse is a quick, clever book with an original story.  There’s not much more a reader can ask for.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

After having read Storm Front, the first book in the Dresden Files series, I promptly put the rest of the books on my to-read list.  I’m one of those people who isn’t happy unless she’s reading through at least one series; I think it’s because recurring characters and a familiar world is easier to lose yourself in.  Anyway, Fool Moon is the second book in the series, and it is certainly just as thrilling as the first one.

We meet up with wizard Harry Dresden six months after the end of Storm Front.  He’s healed up, but most of his business has dried up.  Chicago’s Special Investigations unit isn’t using him much anymore, since he caused all kinds of problems for them the last big case they had him work on.  So it’s not surprising when he’s willing to talk to Kim, a woman he’s been mentoring in the wizardly arts, about something she’s stumbled upon in exchange for dinner.

He recognizes the power of what she’s messing with, and warns her away.  Then Karrin Murphy, the head of SI, asks for Dresden’s help, and we’re on our way to another supernatural adventure.

This series has many good things going for it.  Butcher writes well, with a good mix of narrative and dialogue.  There’s a good amount of humor in both, which is probably the biggest draw for me.  Literary fiction, almost by definition, takes itself seriously, sometimes to the point of tedium.  Genre fiction, whether it be science fiction, fantasy, romance, or mystery, gives the author so much more room for exploring that essential part of human experience.  Butcher gives the reader plenty without overdoing it, which I really like.

I also enjoy the first-person point-of-view.  I don’t get to read many that stick with one character and also has him “narrate” his own story, and I like that.

There were some stumbling points for me with the book, however.  It felt, to me, that we missed some things in the six months between Storm Front and Fool Moon, and that’s a bit unsettling.  I like to feel like I’m getting the full story in a series like this, and dislike it when the author leaves a good amount of information out.  This is probably just me, but I would have liked a little bit more about Dresden’s life in-between the end of the evil wizard of Storm Front and the beginning of the bad werewolf of Fool Moon.

Butcher also stretched my ability to suspend disbelief with the amount of abuse Dresden is able to take.  I mean, sure, a main character can withstand more than the average person, but not even a Timex watch made of titanium and Teflon could make it through what our hero is forced to endure.  I hope future books give him a little more healing time between beatings.

Overall, I find Butcher’s writing to be fun.  Everyone needs their fiction to be something they can immerse themselves in with no hesitation, and the Dresden Files is definitely a series that I can sit back and enjoy with relish.

Rating:  4/5.

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Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front isn’t a book that I normally would choose to read on my own.  I’m not a huge mystery reader and I’m not all that enthralled with the urban fantasy genre.  My fiancé got me interested in The Dresden Files when he picked up Storm Front last year from the library, telling me that he thought the books would be good.  He wasn’t able to get into it, due to work-related craziness, which is to his detriment.  Storm Front is a rather good story with a compelling main character.

Harry Dresden is a wizard living in Chicago.  He most likely is the only one who is listed in the phone book and offers his services to the public for a fee.  He is an unusual wizard in many other ways, as well.  Having to defend himself to the death from his apparently evil former mentor, he is being monitored closely by the White Council, the administrative body overseeing wizards.

This causes problems for him when a disturbing double-murder occurs and the Chicago Police Department’s Karrin Murphy, in charge of Special Investigations, calls him in to investigate.  Dresden knows just from the look of the crime that incredibly powerful magic had to have been used to kill the two people.  Murphy asks him to figure out how.

Meanwhile, Dresden is also investigating a missing-person (even though he doesn’t typically do that type of thing).  Monica Sells’ husband is missing.  She basically tosses money at Dresden — who appears to be perpetually broke — then desperately calls the whole thing off, which piques his interest.  So he decides to investigate anyway.

Mixed into these investigations is the Mafia boss Johnny Marcone, who doesn’t want Dresden looking into any of this mess.  One of his henchmen was one of the victims of the double homicide, and it also happens that the murders are related to his struggle to control the drug trade in the city.  Dresden has some challenges.

Author Jim Butcher has mixed into all this a good, healthy dose of dark humor.  Dresden has a skull-inhabiting spirit who can tell him the ingredients for just about any potion he needs.  The characters have good banter, which I think is essential for a mystery novel.  I found it to be a book that I actively looked forward to reading; most I really enjoy, but don’t get the energy to read them outside of exercise and waiting rooms, simply because I’m too tired.  The fact that I had a cold while reading this and still wanted to read it is a true feat.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that I liked Storm Front.  I have read and enjoyed Stephen King in the past.  To my shame, I even read Christopher Pike when in late elementary and middle school — my only defense is that I had no taste at the time, and that it was better for me to be reading something than nothing at all; my mother would not have appreciated a delinquent teenage daughter.

My only issue with the book is that some of the prose was either awkwardly written or not edited in the best fashion.  Some of the prose fell a little flat for me, so that took a little of the joy out of reading it.  Still, the story was well enough crafted, and Dresden well enough developed, for me to truthfully enjoy the first book in The Dresden Files.  I’m taking a trip to the library later today; maybe Full Moon will be on the list of books to get.

Rating: 4/5.

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