Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review: Highfell Grimoires by Langley Hyde

Title: Highfell Grimoires  
Author: Langley Hyde
Information on series: Not part of a series
Audience: Adult
Rating (scale of 1-10): 5  - I wasted too much time trying to pick between 2 and 3 on a 5 point scale
TL;DR: In a steampunk-fantasy world of flying ships and ancient spells, a young man discovers his place in the world (and quite a bit of romance too).

Longer review:
When his parents die deep in debt, Cornelius ‘Neil’ Franklin and his sister Nora find themselves cast upon their uncle’s generosity.  For Nora it means an introduction to society as a prelude to being married off; for Neil it means a menial job teaching other orphans at Highfell Hall, a charity school owned by his uncle.  Raised to assume a position in the highest strata of society, and recently graduated from the finest of boarding schools, Neil keenly feels his loss in station but begins the book resolved to make a go of his new life.
The world of Highfell Grimoires is entirely fictional, taking place in an invented country, but is functionally Dickensian.  Imagining Victorian London as a starting point makes the author’s lack of world-building (for a fantasy novel) easier to handle.  Layered on top of this familiar world is a veneer of steampunk and fantasy elements.  Emanating from various spots in Hyde’s world is the magical aether, a substance that can be harnessed to power spells or machines.  Familiar steam-punk contraptions are powered here not by steam or clock-work, but by spell-infused engines which harness the power of the aether.
While lacking a bit in depth, the world of Highfell Grimoires does have two very interesting aspects.  The aether, with help from enchanted turbines, keeps gigantic ships floating in the skies.  These aetheria (the plural of aetherium) add a very literal, vertical stratification to the socially stratified society.  I thought it was a nice touch that the richest estates and best schools occupy grounds that aren’t just socially out of reach of the lower classes - they literally float high above the poorer sections of town.
The grimoires of the novel’s title are the second unique element Hyde brings to her world.  Each family keeps a book of spells passed down through the generations and sealed by a bloodlock, which only opens with a drop of blood from a family member.  Spells are written in metallic ink over pages embedded with wire.  When traced by a finger in the presence of the aether, a spell is cast.  Neil’s interest in spell-casting is largely academic.  He enjoys learning the ancient languages they’re written in more than actually performing magic, and unfortunately only two spells are actually cast during the entire novel.  The author really misses an opportunity to exploit her inventiveness in creating a cool system of magic.
Highfell is a lower aetherium, and though Neil tries to keep his expectations low, he doesn’t think nearly low enough.  His students are unusually smart, but are kept underfed and live in near-squalor.  He shares a dingy room with Leofa, a gruff and well-muscled man that identifies himself as the gardener (though there is no garden).  The school’s care-takers, the Nobbsnipe family, though they are clothed in the vestments and manners of the upper-classes, are immediately recognizable as one-note villains (to the reader, but not Neil, who is frustratingly slow to catch on to too many things throughout the novel).
As Neil begins to piece together some of the mysteries of Highfell Hall, he also begins to notice just how handsome he finds his roommate Leofa.  In fact, readers interested primarily in romance will find much to like in Highfell Grimoires despite its shortcomings elsewhere.  Neil, though naïve, is intelligent, pure of heart and endearingly dorky, while Leofa begins gruff and mysterious, and only later reveals unexpected vulnerability.  Both of these characters, and their relationship, evolve convincingly and satisfyingly through the novel.
The plot moves quickly, but predictably.  Neil usually takes an extra chapter or two to catch onto things that the reader has already guessed.  The novel’s resolution is exceptionally clean.  Everything is tied up too neatly, and every character, good and bad, seems to get exactly what they deserve.  This makes the novel feel as if was written for a younger audience, even though Neil and Leofa’s relationship culminates in scenes too graphic for most YA readers.  Hyde’s writing is concise but descriptive.  She proves especially adept at describing Neil’s thoughts, and the conflict between his feelings for Leofa and his upbringing in a society that deplores homosexual relationships.  Unfortunately, Hyde’s editor did her no favors.  Sentences with obviously missing words are commonplace enough to be detrimental to the reading experience.
I chose to read Highfell Grimoires after seeing it listed as a starred review in the fantasy section of Publisher’s Weekly.  Perhaps these expectations made me rate the book lower than I should have.  Highfell Grimoires might not be an especially good fantasy novel, but it really functions well as a sort of new adult romance in a fantasy/steampunk setting.

Read alikes:
Boneshaker (and the rest of the Clockwork Century books) by Cherie Priest:  Readers who enjoyed Neal and Leofa as characters will like Priest’s main characters.  They tend to be interesting, multifaceted and non-traditional types cast as heroes.  Boneshaker’s Briar, a middle-aged widow and single mother with a checkered past, is a good example.  The series takes place against the backdrop of the American Civil War in a steampunk universe that has none of Highfell Grimoires’ magic, but does add zombies.

Leviathan (and the rest of the Leviathan trilogy) by Scott Westerfeld:  This young adult series throws together two very different teens on the verge of the First World War.  Westerfeld’s steampunk world is amazingly deep and original.  Fans of Highfell Grimoires may enjoy that much of the action takes place on an airship, and will certainly enjoy the romance (albeit a heterosexual, chaste one) that develops between the main characters.

Other Blind Eye Books:  Blind Eye Books, publisher of Highfell Grimoires, apparently specializes in sci-fi and fantasy titles featuring gay and lesbian characters.  While I haven’t read any, it seems likely that there are other titles in their catalog that will appeal to fans of Highfell Grimoires.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Title: Boneshaker
Author: Cherie Priest
Information on series: The Clockwork Century:  Book 1
Audience: YA, with adult crossover
Rating (scale of 1-5, with 5 being highest:  4
TL;DR: A fast-paced and character driven fantasy with steampunk, alternative history and zombies.

Longer Review: Set in the Pacific Northwest. In the early part of the civil war inventor Leviticus Blue is commissioned by Russian prospectors to build a machine that drills through ice. On the first test run Leviticus drilled through the foundation of several buildings down town, destroying them and unearthing a gas which causes those breathe it to turn into zombies.  Sixteen years later, the city is walled up.  Leviticus’ window, Briar, who has a tarnished reputation, is living in the outskirts.   Her son, 15 year old  Ezekiel has decided to sneak back into the city to prove that his Father that he never met wasn't such a bad guy after all.  Briar goes in after him and they both encounter wild inventions, a mad scientist, zombies and pirates along the way. 

This is well written.  Fans of fantasy will find lots here.  The emphasis is more on steampunk and less on the zombies.  The book  gets bogged down in detail in spots, so the reader may have to slow down to take it all in.  Most of the book is pretty action packed and it has strong characters.  Briar is a strong female protagonist.    There is a bit of a mystery element as to if Leviticus was really the evil person everyone thinks he was and Briar knows more than she is telling everyone including Ezekiel. 

The Six Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher: For the reader who wants to read more steampunk, zombies and alternate history. This takes place in an abandoned mine in Nevada.

The Havoc Machine by Stephen Harper: This is a fourth book in a series but can be read as a stand-alone. This has zombies, a mad scientist and a dangerous machine.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Title:  Red Rising
Author: Pierce Brown

Information on the Series:  First in a planned trilogy

Audience: Adult, with YA Crossover

Rating: (on a scale from 1-5 with 5 being the highest)  4

TL;DR:  A tale set in a bleak future society torn by class divisions follows the experiences of secret revolutionary Darrow, who after witnessing his wife's execution by an oppressive government, joins a revolutionary cell and attempts to infiltrate an elite military academy.

Longer Review:  Pierce Brown’s debut novel Red Rising has drawn comparisons to The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones.  Full disclosure, I read The Hunger Games trilogy and thought it was okay, and I never finished Game of Thrones.  After reading the book I can see similar themes and story elements in Red Rising, but I feel that the book stands on its own merits. 

Brown has created a richly detailed fantasy world that takes place in a dystopian future, on Mars.  There is a distinctive class system, based upon colors.  Darrow is a Red, the lowest class on Mars.  The twist is that Darrow doesn’t actually live on Mars, he lives in Mars.  Reds are miners, they were sent to Mars to work below the surface in an attempt to make the planet habitable for humans because Earth is dying.  This process has been going on for generations.  The majority of Reds have been kept in the dark about the fact that there is a thriving community on the surface, they still believe that what they are doing is important for the future of colonization on Mars.  The life expectancy of a Red is very short due to the dangerous nature of their jobs. As a result, Reds marry quite young.  Darrow, and his wife Eo, are teenagers, 15 or 16 years old. Through a series of events, including the execution of his wife, Darrow ends up living on the surface with a rebel organization called the Sons of Ares. This organization is determined to bring down the elite Gold ruling class by any means necessary.  Darrow is reinvented and gains admission to the Institute, an elite military academy where the Gold families send their teenagers. 

Far from a posh school where students are pampered, the Institute is brutal.  Essentially every child at the academy is fighting to survive.  In order to do so they must create alliances, betray friends, commit unspeakable acts, including killing the other students.  While this is similar to The Hunger Games, it seemed more violent.  Everything that happens at the school is manipulated by the Gold ruling elite.  Politics play a huge role, and power can change in the blink of an eye.  It will take every ounce of strength and wit for Darrow to survive. If his subterfuge is discovered, he will be killed immediately.  Even if he isn't discovered his life is constantly in danger.  Red Rising walks a fine line between YA and Adult.  While the main protagonist (and antagonists) are teenagers, what happens in the book, in terms of violence and political intrigue, is decidedly adult. 

Darrow is a sympathetic hero initially, as the book progresses and he has to make difficult decisions, he becomes less likeable. He has to survive the academy in order to infiltrate the upper echelon of the Gold class.  Along the way he loses pieces of himself and at times even he is shocked and disgusted by his behavior.  The Darrow we meet at the beginning of the book is very different from the Darrow at the end of the book, but I found myself still rooting for him to survive and succeed.  The story starts slow and the transformation of Darrow before he enters the Institute drags on a little bit too long.  Once he enters the school the story moves at a much faster pace.  If you haven’t read Red Rising yet, you are in luck.  Golden Son, the second book of the trilogy was released in January.  You won’t have to wait a year, like I did, to find out what happens after the conclusion of Red Rising.  Given the success of The Hunger Games movies, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that Red Rising has been optioned as a movie by Universal Studios. Whether the project moves beyond the “in development” stage remains to be seen. 

Why the 4-star rating?  As I said earlier, the beginning of the book is slow.  Brown also uses slight differences in language to differentiate between the classes.  At times that was confusing.  Additionally, there are so many characters introduced as the story progressed, I found it difficult to remember who was who, and why they were important. That being said, I can't wait to read Golden Son


Wool by Hugh Howey 

In a future toxic landscape, a community that lives in an underground silo is rocked by the desire of Sheriff Holston, who has upheld the group's rules for years, to go outside, setting in motion events that kindle the fire of revolution. Like Red Rising, the protagonists in this fast-paced, dystiopian science fiction book question the authoritarian government and find out that only through bloody rebellion can they achieve a better world.

Mind Storm by K.M. Ruiz 

Centuries after an apocalyptic nuclear war, the world's survivors compete for dwindling resources as the wealthy secretly plan to depart for another planet, while soldier-slave Threnody Corwin uses her super-powers to rise against a syndicate that is murdering her fellow psions. For those interested in bleak, gritty, far-future worlds where members of the oppressed underclasses challenge the ruling elite.  

Review by: Amy Muchmore, Carnegie-Stout Public Library

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

crescent moon.jpgTitle: Throne of the Crescent Moon

Author: Saladin Ahmed

Information on series: Book 1 of an intended trilogy

Audience: Adult, with probable YA crossover

Rating (scale of 1-5, with 5 being highest): 5

TL;DR: A fast-paced and character-driven high fantasy adventure in a fully realized non-traditional setting.

Longer review: Ahmed has been very successful at a seemingly paradoxical task: he’s written a novel that is at once accessibly familiar and intriguingly unconventional. This book shows exactly why I hate to read debut novels -- I loved it and very much want to read more of his work but there is no more to be found.

The story is set in Dhamsawaat, the greatest city of the Crescent Moon Empire. It is a city of wonders, dangers, opulence, and poverty. While the poor struggle under to rule of a tyrannical Khalif, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood fights more concrete evils. He is a ghul hunter, the last of his order in the city. He battles ghuls, djenn and other magical creatures alongside a small group of allies: a pious swordsman from a holy order of dervishs, an orphaned nomadic tribeswoman with shape-changing powers, and a magus and an alchemist, both old friends of the doctor’s who’ve tried to retire from the adventuring life. As the story unfolds, a powerful new threat comes to light and the heroes are forced to question their hopes, ideals, and relationships. This is definitely more of a fantasy adventure than an epic fantasy. The plot moves quickly, with frequent action sequences. Ahmed does not dwell on politics, armaments, fashion, or cuisine as Tolkien or Martin might.

The tropes and plot points of this book will be familiar to most readers of fantasy. That familiarity works well here, providing an accessible structure upon which Ahmed can hang his richly detailed world based upon Arabic mythology that is likely to be new to many readers.

The five heroes are very well-imagined, each with their own goals and fears. Ahmed makes the wise choice of switching the focal character with each chapter. This doesn’t generally go so far as to repeat entire scenes from a new point of view, but we get each character’s contrasting views of major plot points and other characters’ actions. Since the characters were such a strong point of the book, I’m happy that Ahmed intends to write more in this world, giving me a chance to spend some more time with them.

As a bit of an aside, I started this as an audio book before finishing it in print. Phil Gigante’s performance was really great and I may seek out more audio books read by him.



Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson: For readers looking to continue with the Arabian setting, this urban fantasy plays with technology and magic against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. Wilson's writing is atmospheric and stylistically complex.

name wind.jpg

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: Like Ahmed, Rothfuss captures the magic and excitement of high fantasy without the gritty mundanity that sometimes creeps into epic fantasy. Charismatic characters and a compelling writing style keep things lively.

Review by: Andrew Fuerste-Henry, Carnegie Stout Public Library

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Title: City of Stairs

Author: Robert Jackson Bennett

Information on series: Not part of a series (EDIT: Has been picked up as the first in a series, second book expected in 2016)

Audience: Adult, though with appeal for some older teens

Rating (scale of 1-5, with 5 being highest): 4

TL;DR: A suspenseful mystery/spy mash-up with colorful characters that tackles complex issues of colonialism in a world where science has overthrown magic.

Longer review: Robert Jackson Bennett’s earlier books combined elements from the horror, fantasy, and mystery genres to create a creepy, bleak alternate early 20th century small town America. In City of Stairs, he presents a more straightforward fantasy novel, complete with imaginative world-building, while still incorporating elements from the pages of spy thrillers and mysteries. The use of a suspenseful mystery plot and a cast of very colorful characters makes this book a great choice for readers who are relatively new to fantasy.

The story is set in a world dominated by the island nation of Saypur, whose technological advancements (on par with the early 20th century) have completely upended the former world order. Saypur used their science to overthrow their former conquerors, the Continentals. The Continent was once gifted with divine magic, until those gods were killed by the Saypuri. Bennett explores the lasting impacts of colonialism and the ways that we define our cultural identities, while still maintaining an action-packed plot.

Shara has spent most of her adult life in exile on the Continent as an employee of the Saypuri Ministry of Foreign Affairs, specifically, as a spy for the Ministry. She is accompanied by Sigrud, her imposing and violent “secretary” with a mysterious past. Shara and Sigrud come to city of Bulikov to solve the murder of Effrem Pangyui, a Saypuri historian whose controversial research earned him no shortage of enemies. Bulikov was once a city of wonders, the cultural and religious center of the Continent, but now wallows in poverty and disease.

At 450 pages, this is not a short book, though the plot moves along so quickly I found it difficult to put down. Another point in City of Stairs’ favor is that it is not part of a larger series, so readers aren’t being asked to commit to three or more books that may or may not have been written yet. By the last pages, most of the plot threads are wrapped up more or less neatly, but between the imaginative setting and the interesting characters (the foul-mouthed female military commander, Mulaghesh, was probably my favorite), I would be perfectly happy if Bennett did write a sequel some day.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, you might also enjoy:

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone: Gladstone’s debut is a mix of fantasy and steampunk with a fast-paced mystery plot. Tara, a first-year necromancer, is assigned to revive a dead god, but discovers a murder.

The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg: First in a series set around the Collegia Magica, the last college of magic in a world where science has gradually gained supremacy. Portier de Savin-Duplais, a Collegia librarian, is asked to investigate an attempted murder that quickly becomes more complicated.

Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara: A gritty work of fantasy, and the first in a series of mysteries. Hawks are the equivalent to police in the City of Elantra, and Kaylin is a new patrol officer out to find a serial murderer of children.

Review by Sarah Smith, Carnegie-Stout Public Library