Friday, September 09, 2016

A Harvest of Mini Reviews for the Fall

Harvest season: fat, orange moons lumbering along the horizon; a crispness in the air that warns no matter how hot the days may still be, winter is coming; the crackle of leaves of a million colours underfoot; and the bounty of the fields coming in. What better time to collect a bushel of books read over the summer and serve up a feast of mini reviews.

On the table for your consumption:

League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
The Dinosaur Knights by Victor Milan
Enter the Janitor by Josh Vogt
The Dragon and the Stars edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi
Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Saint's Blood by Sebastien de Castell
Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


As always, the spoilage warning is in effect.


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League of Dragons
by Naomi Novik

The closing chapter of the Temeraire alternate history series, League of Dragons, opens with Napoleon's army in full retreat from Russia, but the British-Russian-Prussian-Chinese allied forces are still unable to capture the French emperor. As if dealing with food shortages and battle isn't enough, Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, have to contend with duels with cruel nobles, challenges to Laurence's authority by other British officers, and the imminent hatching of Temeraire Junior. But the question of dragons' rights (spearheaded by Temeraire) becomes the pivotal issue. Napoleon may still gain the upper hand because of his policy of extending full standing as citizens to his dragons. He already has the unswerving loyalty of his own dragons and those of the Inca (through his marriage to that empire's leader), and many feral dragons as well. And his league of dragons may soon win over other powers, including the Tswana in Africa (who succeeded in pushing European colonizers and slavers off of their continent), Japan, India, and some First Nations in North America. The equality issue even threatens to undermine the loyalty of dragons in the UK. As Laurence and Temeraire try to organize a final decisive attack against Napoleon, their hopes are pinned on dragons winning equal rights in Britain in time to gain enough support to win the war in Europe.

Like the other Temeraire novels, League of Dragons is a lot of fun and a good, fast read (if you have the time, you could probably get through it in a day or two). Novik's characters are well-rounded and believable (I know Temeraire is probably supposed to have an English accent, but for some reason, right from the start, I've always imagined him sounding like Henry Gibson as Wilbur in the 1973 animated version of Charlotte's Web), and she's done a good job of portraying British and European societies of the early 1800s.

My only problem with the story is that in the final act, Novik denies the audience the chance to see the head-to-head fight where Napoleon is at last captured. One minute, Laurance, Temeraire, and their air crew are closing on Napoleon and his rogue Chinese dragon, Lien, and the next the battle is over and everyone's preparing to bundle the former emperor off to his exile while they decide how France will be run. For several novels, Novik has been building towards the collision between Temeraire and Lien: the white dragon has launched schemes and intrigues, insulted and threatened Temeraire and Laurence, helped Bonaparte enhance his air corps and recruit feral dragons, and forged his army into a nearly unstoppable juggernaut. The whole time, Temeraire has fretted about her threat and set himself on a course for revenge. And then 'League comes along, with plenty of blow-by-blow bloody scraps with other dragons throughout the plot, but no account of the final reckoning between the opposing Celestial dragons. It's one thing to tease the audience; it's one thing to leave the audience wanting more; but to give us nothing of what the series has been building towards, that's a mistake — no, a failure — that even the 2014 Godzilla avoided (and that flick was bogged-down with dragon-sized plotting mistakes). Does this omission ruin the novel? No. But it does take away some of the lustre from what should be a gem of a story for any dragon-lover's hoard of books.

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The Dinosaur Knights
by Victor Milan

When The Dinosaur Lords hit the shelves last summer, I couldn't get through it fast enough. It was a savage, fun mashup with interesting characters, great action, a cool world (well, pretty hot and muggy, actually), and wonderful yet simple art accompanying the chapter headings. I tore through it like an allosaurus slicing through a duckbill haunch. And I wanted more.

A couple of months ago, volume two, The Dinosaur Knights, finally arrived, and I giddily gorged on it, and it was every bit as sticky sweet tasty as the first book.

'Knights picks up more-or-less where 'Lords leaves off: Voyvod Karyl continues to gather and train an army to defend the territory of Providence — ostensibly run by a commune of "Gardeners" dedicated to beauty and truth — from attacks by cruel neighbouring nobles. This, despite the fact that some of the ruling council of Gardeners are becoming increasingly strident and narrow in their definitions of beauty and truth, undermining their leader, putting Karyl on trial, and taking a greater degree of control over the lives of their region's citizens. Dinosaur master Rob Korrigan continues to support Karyl, acting as spymaster even as he tends to his stable of monsters — whose ranks are swollen by the arrival of a squad of huge triceratops and their fighting crews. Soon the army is joined by imperial princess Melodia (still fleeing the brutal intrigues of the court), who has to survive the hidden dangers of Garden politics, as well as the challenges of becoming the leader of Karyl's light cavalry. But fending-off scheming Gardeners and attacks from local nobles is the least of Karyl's worries: the imperial crusade, under the command of Melodia's lover, Jaume, has now been ordered to scour Providence of the Gardeners. To do this, Jaume has to deal with fanatical priests, the presence of his court rival, Duke Falk, and the on-site supervision of his unpredictable emperor. And it gets worse: one of the feared Grey Angels of legend has re-appeared, raising an army of mindless servants to raze humanity as punishment for supposedly sinning against the gods. Karyl, Melodia, Rob, and their people are caught between the hammer and the anvil as they flee the growing, ravenous horde towards the imperial army.

I really can't say enough about how much I loved The Dinosaur Knights. As popcorn reads of science fiction and fantasy go, this is a huge popcorn ball covered in bourbon-spiked caramel with chunks of toffee and macadamia nuts dipped in fine chocolate. Great characters, a lush, well-built world, and fucking knights riding fucking dinosaurs!!!

This book was so enjoyable that it pains me to say something bad about it. But it has to be said. While there's nothing wrong with the story, the proofreading job done in this book was a mess: glaringly obvious mistakes all over the place that show the proofreader really wasn't paying attention. The problems were so bad that they frequently pulled me out of the story. And a story this good shouldn't suffer because the editing staff dropped the ball (and let it roll right off the court and into the grease catcher beneath the chip wagon in the parking lot).

That said, Victor Milan has told one hell of a tale with The Dinosaur Knights, and I'm waiting eagerly for the next instalment.

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Enter the Janitor
by Josh Vogt

Is it wrong to review a book when you've only read less than half of it? Some might say so. Not me. If the book was bad enough to make me give up on it after 14 chapters, I ought to be able to tell you so. And I will.

Think of Men in Black, or RIPD, or any other science fiction or fantasy story using the trope of the kid who doesn't know what's really going on with the world who suddenly has the curtain pulled back, signs up for the Weirdness Law Enforcement Bureau or whatever it's called, and is taken under the wing of the crusty veteran. Hijinks ensue. Evil is defeated. Add hints of "the chosen one" plot device (or, at least, I was picking up a little of that vibe by the time I got as far as I did), and wrap the goodguys in the guise of janitors fighting evil/chaos/whatever-is-represented-by-dirt-grime-and-all-that-is-gross, and you've got Enter the Janitor.

In this case, we have Dani, a college student who is nearly incapacitated by her germ phobia, in the role of rookie/chosen one, and Ben as the gruff, wizened master. Who lives in his van. And is depicted on the book's cover as looking somewhat like Bruce Campbell, but within the pages is more reminiscent of Scruffy Scruffington, the janitor at Planet Express on Futurama. Dani's in the vicinity when Ben slugs it out with a drain clog demon or whatever in the library washroom and then, well, you know the rest because the plot (at least as far as I got) is standard fare, more-or-less.

In short (because it's just not worth while to go long with ETJ), the story's boring inside its well-trodden concept, the characters are uninspired, it tries like hell to be funny but fails completely, and it comes off as prissy when it (frequently) makes reference to the fact that the characters aren't allowed to swear. Dani tries, but rather than allowing her to get in some cussing in italics to show what she's thinking rather than saying, we're treated to a row of asterisks. It's not like this is the Victorian era, where swearing just wasn't allowed in print. Unless this is a YA book (and I don't see any such branding on my copy), we're all adults here and I think we can handle a "fuck" or "shit" or two. Worse, for some reason it takes Dani a couple of pages before she realizes that nothing's coming out of her mouth when she tries to swear, which makes no sense. I don't know about you, but if I was good and mad and launched into some creative metaphors, I'd realize right away if the desired foul language didn't actually make it out of my mouth when everything else did. Characters should either be allowed to swear or not, but don't go dancing around the issue in chapter after chapter like some smarmy brat needling the kid next to him in a Sunday school class.

Maybe Enter the Janitor cleans up its act in the rest of the book, but with the first 120-odd pages being as lacklustre as they are, I can't be bothered to find out.

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The Dragon and the Stars
edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi

Six years ago, this is the book I'd thought I'd wanted to read. I've mentioned previously that I love short story anthologies showcasing talent from a given country or cultural group. They provide a window into the minds of a people, allowing us a glimpse of their history, the issues that are important to them, and their dreams, aspirations, and nightmares. Ideally, you also get to read some cracking good science fiction and fantasy stories, some of which may have perspectives you haven't considered before. Back in 2010, my wife and I were travelling in Asia — we had to attend a friend's wedding in Bali, and since we were flying all the way over there, we scheduled a couple of weeks in my wife's home of Hong Kong, and tacked-on an extra week to see the sights in Beijing. The whole time we were in Hong Kong, I scoured every bookstore we came across that had an English section to see if it had any anthologies of translated Chinese sf short stories. After all, if we were going to be travelling in the region, it would have been nice to read its particular flavour of nerdity. Sadly, I was out of luck. I was only able to find the usual American and British sf offerings in English. Nothing from the home team (the stores might have had stuff in basic or traditional Chinese text, but that wouldn't have done me any good — my Chinese is limited to speaking a few words and phrases in Cantonese, nothing written).  Fast-forward to 2015, where I stumbled across The Dragon and the Stars at a bookseller's stall at a convention. An anthology devoted to showcasing authors from the Chinese diaspora? I thought it would be exactly the kind of collection I was looking for!

Unfortunately, it didn't meet my expectations in terms of quality.

To be fair, there were a couple of very good stories in it. Tony Pi sets the bar high, starting the collection with the excellent "The Character of the Hound", about a man who allows himself to be possessed by a dog spirit (although perhaps "possessed" is too strong a word, it may be more accurate to say that he plays host to, and partners with, the entity) to help him chase down a thief. "Threes", by EL Chen, is about a woman feeling somewhat adrift in life in part because of the disappearance of her mother years before, who comes home to a pair of squabbling sisters and a father who may be losing his mind — or who may just realize that his lost wife may be returning in an unusual way. A sensitive, well-crafted story that's worth the read. Brenda W Clough's steampunkish "The Water Weapon" was funny and had some punch. And Ken Liu's "Beidou" was a smart, solid read.

That said, the bulk of the contributions to the anthology were mediocre and forgettable, and two entries were flat-out terrible — so bad that it's not worth any time complaining about them in detail.

I'd really hoped for a stronger collection, but The Dragon and the Stars just didn't deliver. And so, while I won't say I'm back to square one where I was six years ago, my search for a really good anthology of Chinese sf (whether it's from people of Chinese heritage from around the world, written in English, or whether it's something that's been translated from contributors living in China) continues.

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Thunderbird
by Jack McDevitt

Several months ago, I was sent an ARC of Jack McDevitt's Thunderbird to review for SF Signal. While I read the book soon after receiving it, admittedly I procrastinated on writing the review and didn't send anything to the 'Signal before the site took its final bow. So, now I'm finally getting around to it.

Thunderbird is the sequel to McDevitt's 1996 novel Ancient Shores, about the discovery of an ancient boat — and then a star gate — of unknown origin in North Dakota on traditional First Nations territory. In Thunderbird, the local Sioux band council has maintained a tight control over the star gate, even as pressure mounts from the US government and the rest of the world to gain access to the device and the planets it's linked to, while others are calling for its destruction. While the Reserve's chairman recruits scientists (and a local talk show host) to join his people on their explorations of the garden world Eden, the tunnels of the Labyrinth, the derelict space station adrift beyond the edge of the Milky Way, and the other destinations each of these connects to (some of which prove to be inhabited), residents of a couple of surrounding communities begin to have encounters with a mysterious, telepathic cloud creature that's made its way through the gate to Earth.

I'm on the fence about Thunderbird. Didn't love it. Didn't hate it.

On one hand, it kept me reasonably interested and entertained during a six hour plane flight at the end of November that had no seat-back TV/movie service. The story has a solid opening that piqued my interest, and it wasn't hard to get up to speed in a world and set of circumstances already set in motion by a first novel that I hadn't read. In terms of characters, Sioux Chairman James Walker is a thoughtful, even-keeled, personable guy who's so well crafted that he reminded me a lot of a couple of Chiefs, elders, band councillors and treaty negotiators I've met over the years. I also liked the detail that McDevitt puts into his worlds, and the fact that not all of them are safe to just walk into. And there are what look to be a couple of quick references to Farmer's Riverworld and Clarke's Childhood's End that work nicely.

On the other hand, there's a lot about the book that's problematic. The dialogue is often clunky. There are also frequent references to the amount of security staff guarding the stargate site and escorting the exploration teams, but we don't see any signs of decontamination procedures when people come back from their expeditions, or security monitoring of the departure room, or even cameras taken to document the trips to other planets. There's a lot that could go undetected and undocumented, and if the worst that happened was that Louie the cloud creature managed to slip through from the Labyrinth world and cause a few car accidents, these people got very lucky.

Aside from the lack of even a cheap GoPro camera on the expeditions, the staffing is a little weird. Sure, I can understand that April the chemist, who's been the Band's go-to scientist for a while, might be kept on as the scientific lead for a while, but you'd think that when the bridge was discovered on Eden the team would pull back until they could get an anthropologist on board to take over. Especially when the bridge leads them to a first contact situation with the "gorilla" aliens (let's call a spade a spade: the author's brought Big Foot into the story, so now all we need is either Steve Austin or Wild Boy to make an appearance) and their culture.

In terms of the science teams, I was disappointed that on a couple of occasions, McDevitt describes two of the scientists as being overweight and unhealthy. Fat shaming? Really? Just because someone's overweight, doesn't mean they're unhealthy. Describing one character this way would be fine, because not everyone carrying extra weight is capable of going on a hike, but both heavy characters (when only two people in book are described that way)? That's unfair, ignorant, and just plain lazy writing.

Speaking of lazy writing, the story could have done without the President's Chief of Staff, Admiral Bonner. Sure, this is a story that, in some ways, suffers from a lack of antagonists, but Bonner is more of a caricature than a real character: a stereotypical, narrow-minded military man who's only contribution to the stargate discussion is to insist that everything has to be blown up just to be safe. While his role was limited to brief walk-ons to harass the President about the need to make things go kablooey, he was just so ridiculously single-minded as to be unbelievable, and that detracted from the overall believability of the story.

Then there's Brad Hollister, the local radio talk show host. I have no problems with the way Brad is portrayed as a person — as the non-expert on the off-world expeditions, his character is perfect for the reader to identify with. But the descriptions of Brad as a professional broadcaster just don't match with the real world. There's a section where Brad is described as feeling out of place when acting in a news capacity, and doesn't think of himself as a journalist. As a former radio news journalist, I've met several talk show hosts in my time, and none of them would ever feel out of place gathering or presenting the news — or anywhere near a mic, story, or potential audience for matter — and they certainly wouldn't think that they weren't journalists, especially if they were involved with an event as significant as a stargate and exploring other worlds. Talk show hosts are a pretty confident bunch when they're doing their jobs. There's also the bit where Brad returns from an off-world expedition and proceeds to hold a news conference outside the stargate building. Um, no. No self-respecting reporter — or talkshow host, for that matter — especially one working for the local radio station, would ever come back with that kind of a scoop and just start sharing with the other media outlets. A real reporter, anchor, or talkshow host would step off the stargate pad, go to a corner, take out his/her cell phone, and file live to his/her own station first, before coming out and dealing with the competition — and dealing with the competition would at best involve giving details only after first filing for his/her own station, and, at worst would be to smile and say "You'll hear everything on our 4:00 (or whenever) newscast on KLYM!" because being a nice guy is fine as long as your station gets the story first, or you won't be working for that station for very long. Given the attitude of Brad's boss, this approach should be as true in the book as it is in real life.

Then there are the problems with Chairman Walker. For starters, he seems to do a lot of unilateral decision making. Now, I know, different First Nations have different governance policies and traditions, but you'd think he'd consult with his Band Council or a few elders before making half the decisions he does over the course of the book. Especially when it comes to his final choice (super mega ultra spoilage here) to permanently disable the stargate by tossing one of its components into Lake Superior. I just don't buy it that he'd do something that drastic on his own. But, really, I don't believe he'd do something like this at all. Right from the start, Walker is written as a smart, careful guy who makes sure he has a good sense of what's going on around him. The reality is that with a technology this advanced, important, and controversial, the stargate and Walker (and probably everyone else involved with the artifact and science teams) would be heavily monitored by human surveillance teams and electronics (including spy satellites) from every intelligence gathering organization within the US, as well as by other governments, and probably more than a few corporations and other NGOs. Walker wouldn't be able to sneeze without it being documented in detail by several agencies. So there's no way he'd be able to get a piece of stargate equipment out of the artifact, off the Reserve, and into the lake without it being known and without his every movement being tracked to within a metre. He might be able to dump the thing in the lake — for about a day until a recovery expedition was mounted by someone else. And the thing is, until the end of the book anyway, Walker's smart enough to know this, so he wouldn't waste time on a corny and ineffective scheme like this. Again, lazy writing. The book also says at a few points that Walker is feeling a lot of pressure to do something about the stargate, but it doesn't do a very good job of showing the reader how that pressure is manifesting. Sure, there are a few phone calls/enounters with the President, but the President is such a nice guy about it that there's no feeling of urgency to back up his words. There's a single meeting with the Band Council, and a meeting with a corporate CEO, but that's it. There are a lot of better, more visual and thus visceral ways that "pressure" could have been illustrated: new people suddenly showing up in town and following Walker and other Band members around, something to show that his phone was being tapped, or that his email was being intercepted, or government helicopters patrolling the local airspace constantly, or any number of things that would do a better job of illustrating an increasing level of attention from outsiders and an urgency about the future than simple complaints from the Chairman.

And that's a problem with the story as a whole: there really isn't any urgency to any of it. Maybe for a moment when one of the science expeditions runs into a scary creature on a desolate planet, but only for a moment. Then the pacing eases back to its normal, gentle flow, and the plot continues to meander back and forth between different characters and different situations that are interesting without being compelling. In essence, the story wanders like Louie the cloud creature, and, like it, may generate a little excitement from time to time, but mostly is just inoffensive and just kind of there. I certainly didn't mind reading Thunderbird, but I just can't see myself ever picking it up again.

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Dark Eden
by Chris Beckett

I stumbled across Chris Beckett's Dark Eden entirely by accident back in 2014. Apparently, it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2013, but I didn't see it at any of my local bookstores. In '14, I was in London for WorldCon, and one night, after having dinner with some friends, had been wandering the streets of Soho in the rain (no, we hadn't just gone to Lee Ho Foot's for a big dish of beef chow mein, although that would have been tasty) when we ducked into a bookstore (can't remember which one), and Dark Eden caught my eye up in the sf section. And I'm so glad it did.

On the world of Eden, a planet that doesn't get sunlight, where the only light comes from the glowing fruit of geothermal-heat-fed trees and the animals that live among them, the members of the Family live, more-or-less, in contentment. Descended from two ship-wrecked astronauts (one, a cop, the other, a thief), these 530-odd people live a hunter-gatherer existence in a couple of different tribes spread out across their forested valley, practicing a kind of free love semi-matriarchal society and worshipping the artifacts left by their progenitors. Some are normal, while others have deformities no doubt caused by their limited gene pool. One of the hunters, a young man named John, isn't content with their life. The rituals ring hollow to him, the tribal elders seem small-minded and petty,  he wants to explore beyond their valley, and he's becoming more concerned about how the Family keeps growing, while their food sources are becoming scarce. And John isn't the only one: Tina's interested in John, but she's dissatisfied with aspects of the Family's life as well, and concerned with an increasingly ugly turn its politics is taking; and Gerry the crippled genius has reasoned that things will change whether anyone wants them to or not. When John causes a scandal at the Family's annual religious gathering, he's exiled, and Tina, Gerry, and a few other youths and children join him. But living on the fringes of the valley isn't enough, when a thuggish "batface" (someone suffering from a severe hare lip) named David forms a gang that uses intimidation and violence in a growing bid to take over, John, Tina and the others have to undertake a dangerous journey into the cold dark wilderness to try to find another home.

Dark Eden is a superb piece of writing. Its beautiful, dangerous, fairy light world of gloom (like a rave without the uninspired techno music, or a gym light only by Christmas trees, or a bunch of kids playing with flashlights and glowsticks in a dark basement — that is, if a basement or gym or rave warehouse was also populated by six-legged reindeer, and singing black panthers were stalking everyone and everything) is a fresh setting that's detailed and believable. The story taps into elements of Genesis and Exodus — with a generous dash of Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome flavouring — and doesn't pull any punches about what would happen to people and an ecosystem in this kind of situation. Beckett's characters are well-rounded, evolving, and believable. While John is at times Adam, Moses, a kind of Cain, a great hunter, something of an inventor, and a visionary, he's also (as Tina takes note) stubborn, deliberately emotionally distant, and sometimes manipulative and arrogantly single-minded. And yet, even he grows, learning that sometimes it's best to run rather than fight. Tina changes from a moon-eyed girl chasing after her would-be boyfriend to an astute leader in her own right. Even David, the cruel boss of the Guards, changes from merely being a dismissible asshole in the tribe to an up-and-coming tyrant who cunningly realizes that what's really a simple scandal with a rebellious teenager can be his vehicle for taking power, changing society, and getting pretty much anything he wants.

I can't wait to get into Dark Eden's sequel, Mother of Eden (which I ordered a little while ago and, having arrived, has now moved to the top of my to-be-read pile), and the upcoming conclusion to the series, Daughter of Eden.

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Saint's Blood
by Sebastien de Castell

A couple of months ago, I was offered an early copy of Saint's Blood — the newest instalment in Sebastien de Castell's Greatcoats series — for review, and  I jumped on it like a fat kid on a Smartie (Okay, admittedly, I am the fat kid, and I would, in fact, jump on a Smartie if it fell out of the box onto the counter or a clean floor — within the 5-second rule limit — in front of me. I mean, come on... Smarties! They're better than M&Ms and you can make the box into a single-note harmonica!). I've greatly enjoyed the first two books (Traitor's Blade and Knight's Shadow) and would have snapped this one up anyway. The fact that it was free was nice, but that's not enough to influence my opinion of a book. So what did I think?

Loads of fun!

This time around, just when Falcio, Kest, Brasti and their companions think they should be closer to restoring the monarchy, order, and justice to the strife-torn land of Tristia, things (of course) spiral increasingly out of control. Someone is torturing and murdering saints, and whipping the peasants into a frenzy of zealotry. Worse: those behind the killings have found a way to drain the saints of their mystical powers and use that energy to supercharge fanatical assassins hellbent on killing Greatcoats — and anyone else standing in their way. Even Tristia's gods aren't safe: the mastermind behind the religious revolution has figured out a way to create a new god, one that will force the land to submit to the new order. And so Falcio and the others, battered, beaten, outnumbered, outgunned, and on the run, have to figure out how to protect their young queen and defeat an opponent powerful enough to make a god. Oh yeah, and there's some cool cane-fighting too.

As usual, de Castell serves-up a story heaped with action and humour, seasoned with heart and intelligence. Reading it, you flinch at every slice of a blade through skin during the duels, you feel Falcio's mind scrabble around like a rat as he tries to figure his way out of one trap or fight or mistake or another, and you feel the confusion and frustration of the Greatcoats as everything they've started to rebuild falls apart and their friends are brutalized with seemingly nothing to be done to help them. You also feel the frustration and sad resignation as two lovers grow apart. But there's the excitement of the chase. There are the smiles as Brasti and the others dig at each other with jibes as merciless as steel. And there's the satisfaction of seeing Tristia move a little closer towards redemption, even if the way it gets there isn't quite how Falcio imagined it would.

The only problem I had with the book was the jarring effect created by the use of first person narration in the chapters dealing with the Greatcoat gang's first encounter with the new god. Normally, riding shotgun with Falcio through this story (and the previous novels as well) works just fine, but when the group has its initial confrontation with the god, Falcio goes out of commission for a while; when he wakes up, the god is gone, and we don't really get a full sense of what was involved that resulted in the god leaving. We're left with the feeling that this newly-minted deity and his handler just kinda wandered off. Granted, that might be sufficient for Falcio in terms of what he experiences as he wakes up to a suddenly much lower threat level, but I don't think so — he doesn't seem like the kind of guy that would be content with waking up and finding out that the big bad has just exited stage left — and it's certainly not sufficient for the reader. In a confrontation like that, it just doesn't seem believable that the god and his handler would say "Well, that pesky Falcio's face-down in the dirt. Kinda takes the fun out of things. Forget about everyone else standing around, let's go get a sandwich or something. Yeah, a sammy sounds good right about now. Maybe liver and onions." and then that Falcio would come back on the scene and not really think anything of it. Admittedly, the bad guy seems to take the greatest amount of satisfaction from tweaking the nose of Falcio in particular, but you'd think that before they moseyed-off into the woods that they'd smite one or two of the other goody-goodies in their path (beyond the damage already done) just for good measure. Possibly a maiming, or even just a wee little permanently-psychologically-damaging snide remark or something. But nope, they just kinda leave, leaving the Greatcoats et al still on their feet just kinda defaulting to fretting over those lying in the dirt without any real questioning of, or explaining, how they're all actually still alive and not still staring down a petulant incarnation of asshattery. It's not a scene that's weak enough to torpedo the entire novel, but it is one that's annoying enough to pull a reader out of the flow of the story for a bit. At the very least, it needs more filling-in-the-blanks/while-you-were-away storytelling from the supporting characters when Falcio's interacting with them again. Certainly more than we're given, which is pretty much nothing. A story this good deserves a little more backstory from the supporting cast to get around the weakness of the first person style when the narrator's attention was elsewhere.

But, like any good duelist, the story shakes off this momentary mistake and gets back to the business of circling in towards its final satisfaction. And it is an immensely satisfying book. The only question is, now that the Greatcoats and their queen have dealt with a god, what could they possibly face next that could be any worse? The way the world seems to like to beat up Falcio, there's no doubt that something worse will be coming soon enough. And, as mean as it sounds, I can't wait to see it.

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Children of Earth and Sky
by Guy Gavriel Kay

A poor, young artist is summoned to the most dangerous commission of his life: painting the portrait of the Khalif of a powerful and hostile empire across the sea. A noblewoman tries to create a place for herself in the world as forces beyond her control tear the ground out from under her feet again and again. A young archer seeks whatever opportunities she can get that will help her avenge her family. A fledgeling soldier tries to decide what is right as he's swept through the challenges of training camp politics, and warfare. And the son of a merchant searches for wealth beyond his coin purse and the next big deal. As two mighty empires in Guy Gavriel Kay's historical analogue world crash into one another, people from the middle and minor powers on the sidelines (his quarter twist towards fantasy renditions of Venice and Dubrovnik and others going about their business in the shadows of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires) do whatever they can to survive, and, if possible, find happiness.

When you read a Guy Gavriel Kay story, you know you're going to get two things: a set of thoughtful, sensitive stories about believable people (sometimes the mighty, sometimes the humble) living amidst interesting times; and a meditation on life. As with Kay's other tales, Children of Earth and Sky has a tidal ebb and flow between the scrutiny of those lives — each like a wave coming in to shore — and a pulling back to a philosophical mediation (sometimes a humorous musing, sometimes a sad reflection) about what it means to be. Making this rhythmic movement in and out of the plot isn't something that's easily done. To pull back and talk in broad terms about life means temporarily sidelining characters we want to see more of (I'd guess all of us have experienced this in novels that follow the points of view of multiple characters: we enjoy or identify with one or two more than the others, and we want to spend more time with them, and when attention shifts to another character, as much as the story may still be good, we none-the-less can't wait to get back to our favourites). It also radically changes the pace of the plot. And yet, Kay manages this deftly, giving us enough time with the characters to grow to love them (mostly), and then pulling back in such a way that we don't resent it, because those general meditations on life become a kind of literary gentle hand on the shoulder, helping us understand how we feel about what's happening and how these events illustrate the way of the world, and telling us it's okay to feel the way we do.

As for the characters themselves, in his usual fashion, Kay teases us with a supporting cast who walk into and out of the story briefly (and yet are three dimensional, believable, and have the power to make an emotional impression on the reader) either to engage the clutch of protagonists and then go about their lives, or, in some cases, to start down important paths, only to die. As much as we may want to see more of some of these characters (Give me more Ambassador Orso Valerii! Who else pictured him as a younger Londo Mollari, still unburdened by a life of political failures and the long, slow retreat of a dying empire?), the richness of their brief appearances makes Kay's world more believable, and gives greater weight to the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the protagonists, as well as the movements of the world they have to deal with. And, of course, the protagonists themselves are as fully rounded as people you'd meet in your life (moreso in some cases). You may not know a Danica who's looking for the first opportunity to go out with a bow and arrow and execute everyone from a certain country/faith that she holds responsible for the deaths of her family, but you probably do know a young person who's driven towards a certain goal and is prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to get it. You may not know a Pero Villani on his way to paint the portrait of a foreign leader who could kill him, but you probably do know someone who's been manipulated by leaders and managers for their own ends, who will suffer even if he doesn't make the wrong move, while the powerbrokers who put him in that position remain untouchable. We learn where these characters come from, see how their situations have shaped their attitudes and goals, and watch as they grow over the course of the story — or beyond, throughout their lives, as each character's story is tied up. Not necessarily neatly — there is real, aching heartbreak in one of the story threads that you wouldn't necessarily expect. But these people's lives are all concluded believably.

I also loved the little throwaway details scattered throughout the book that helped make the world of Children of Earth and Sky feel bigger than just the story, older, and more complete. Things like the little references (in the form of artifacts, and at least one character) to the Byzantine-style empire of the previous era detailed in Kay's other books. There are the two moons. Or the ring of blue fire in the depths of the palace, or the spectral voice in the old temple, reminding us that Kay's world is a place where ghosts are real, where there's still magic (if fading magic at that) and that as much as it might seem like our Earth in the past, it isn't. Not quite.

The success of Children of Earth and Sky is that you don't want it to end, and yet, you find yourself content with its ending. Again, it's that narrative hand on the shoulder giving a reassuring squeeze because endings are a part of life, but another part of life is being able to look forward to the next story from Guy Gavriel Kay.


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