In this instalment of the mini reviews, let's take a look at a trio of books that offer murder and mayhem across a multitude of worlds — some of them off the mark; some dead on target. For your consideration: Sebastien De Castell's Knight's Shadow, the new addition to The Greatcoats series; Dan Simmons' recent offering, The Fifth Heart; and an anthology from a few years ago, edited by Jaym Gates and Erika Holt, called Broken Time Blues — Fantastic Tales in the Roaring '20s.
WARNING: SPOILERS (of course!)
Knight's Shadow, by Sebastien De Castell
Sometimes for one of your summer reads, you want a nice, easy, rollicking story that you can blast through in a couple of days and enjoy the hell out of. It doesn't have to push boundaries or explore deep concepts, it just needs to be a straight-up good story. Knight's Shadow, book two of Sebastien De Castell's The Greatcoats series is just that — more Three Musketeers-inspired goodness packed into a fantasy world of murder, deceit, and just a little bit of magic.
The story picks up where Traitor's Blade left off: Falcio, Brasti and Kest have seen the resurgence of the Greatcoats (their disgraced order of former travelling magistrates/police created by a deposed, and now dead, king), the defeat of an army belonging to one of the corrupt dukes that despoil the land, and one of the trio has levelled-up to become the patron saint of swordsmen. But good hasn't triumphed in the tired and beaten land of Tristia yet. The dukes still hold all the power, civil war is brewing, someone is inciting the peasants into uprisings that will only result in their massacre, and the dukes and their families are being assassinated one by one. And our trio of heroes and their new-found sidekicks have to try to put a stop to it all... while constantly under threat of being framed for the murders and sedition, evading arrest, facing an uphill battle to try to build alliances with the nobility and knights (the knights especially being problematic as the Greatcoats' long-time enemies), and, you know, generally avoiding being killed.
Overall, Knight's Shadow is a fun read, and a worthy follow-up to Traitor's Blade. De Castell knows how to write action scenes, easygoing banter, and interesting characters. Where the story suffers is in its somewhat predictable ending. Most of the signposts pointing to the major betrayals are fairly visible long before the end of the novel. Also, the suspense during Falcio's capture and torture is robbed of its energy by the first-person narration. Falcio's telling us the story of his suffering, so we know he must make it out alive. If the narrative style sucks the energy out of the suspense, it's flat-out crippled by the over-the-top melodrama of the assassin who's captured Falcio. Every time Heryn the assassin opened his mouth in those chapters, I kept picturing the captain of the prison guards in Spaceballs saucily examining Vespa and Lonestar and braying "What a pity. What a pity. So, Princess, you thought you could outwit the imperious forces of..." You get the idea. That said, if you're looking for a good book to enjoy on a rainy day at the cottage, Knight's Shadow is a good pick, and I'm certainly looking forward to the next instalment in the series.
The Fifth Heart, by Dan Simmons
There was a time when you could pick up a new Dan Simmons book and you'd know, sight unseen, that it would be good. Maybe not great everytime, but at least good. Those years seem to be gone, as his new novel, The Fifth Heart proves — lost to a pattern of hits and misses.
The Fifth Heart unites real-world author Henry James with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in an adventure that draws the two out of their respective seclusions and across the Atlantic to America to solve what could be a murder, and prevent a political assassination. The two meet one night in Paris, when both have gone down to the Seine to kill themselves: James giving in to melancholy over family tragedy and career stagnancy (and, one suspects, as the novel unfolds, a general feeling of lack of fulfillment in life and the cumulative, dragging effects of denying/suppressing his sexuality); Holmes in a fit of existential angst. Somehow as a result of the meeting, suicide falls by the wayside, and Holmes drags James (nearly kicking and screaming, at some points, if that behaviour wouldn't have been so unbecoming to one so uptight as James) across the Atlantic to Washington, DC, to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the author's friends — a death that might have a more sinister cause. While there, Holmes also works on a mission to foil an assassination at the Chicago World's Fair. Professor Moriarty, Irene Adler, and Samuel Clemens all make appearances, and there's even a mention of Hercule Poirot. And, even when willingly stepping out of his shell, James steadfastly continues to be uptight.
If the intent in writing The Fifth Heart was for Simmons to create a masterpiece of utter tediousness, then he's succeeded brilliantly. In his later years, Simmons has become a fiend for worldbuilding minutia, cramming his stories with absurd amounts of detail on the technical aspects of whatever's being done and wherever the plot is unfolding. Sometimes, as in the case of The Terror, it's the perfect tool to make the world he's presenting all the more real. At other times, such as The Abominable, the intricacies of something like mountain climbing techniques teeter on the fence, helping the reader to understand what the characters are concerned with in certain scenes, but occasionally running the risk of slowing down the plot unnecessarily. Then there are times like the entirety of The Fifth Heart, where the sheer load of minutia on every single thing encountered in the story makes the book top-heavy, boring, and distracting. I found myself wondering if this was an author's trick — if Simmons was doing this deliberately to put the reader in the shoes of Holmes, who sees every detail of every thing, and has to deliberately condition himself to forget people, places, and incidents, for fear of overloading his memory. If this is the case, then he's succeeded with executing an experiment in having the reader empathize in a very small way with Holmes (a generally alien personality in his emotional distance), and yet has inflicted on himself an abysmal failure in terms of story execution. There's no point in pulling off a technical stunt of writing if the success of that experiment is detrimental to the movement and enjoyment of the story overall. In fact, it runs the risk of making the story so completely off-putting that some readers might just toss the book aside. Really, the only reason I bothered slogging through to the finish was the fact that my past enjoyment of most (but not all — Flashback was a complete piece of shit) of Simmons' books left me hoping that he'd pull something out of his storytelling hat that would make this ponderous experience worth while. But he didn't. Not only was the story dull, it was incapable of making me care what happened to James, Holmes, or any of the other poor souls trapped in Simmons' world.
Here's hoping that with his next book, Simmons will follow his pattern of recent years and flip back to the other side, and write something that's actually worth reading.
Broken Time Blues — Fantastic Tales in the Roaring '20s, edited by Jaym Gates & Erika Holt
As an anthology, Broken Time Blues is like a Tommy Gun hosing-down a jalopy full of gangsters: sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses, but ultimately it gets the job done. The title is pretty self-explanatory, encapsulating a group of tales about speak-easy dwellers, noire-ish dames on the run, shine runners, tough guys, and others (Like birds. Yes, birds.).
In terms of the hits, my favourites were "Semele's Daughter" by John Nakamura Remy, "The Automatic City" by Morgan Dempsey, "Button Up Your Overcoat" by Barbara Krasnoff, "Jack and the Wise Birds" by Lucia Starkey, and Robert Jackson Bennett's "A Drink for Teddy Ford".
The book's about four years old, and from a smaller publishing house, so it might be harder to get a hold of than the secret password to a back-alley speakeasy, but if you can find it, it's worth picking up.