Review – The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass24876258

(The Cinder Spires, book #1)

Jim Butcher

Published September 29th 2015

Score: 6/10

Warning: minor spoilers ahead

 

Okay, the fact that this book only got nominated for the Hugo because it was on the Rabid Puppies slate meant I came in expecting not to like it that much. Which of course, is hardly fair. Jim Butcher is a well-respected author who wrote The Dresden Files. I haven’t read that series, but I hear good things. Besides, just because I dislike the Puppy movement, doesn’t mean that they are incapable of nominating decent books. After all, they nominated Seveneves. I tried to come into this book with an open mind.

Then we get this first page. The book opens with dialog, but the quotation marks at the start of the dialog are missing. Yes, there was an error in the very first sentence. The very first character is wrong. That put me in editor mode rather than reader mode. Now, I noticed this error occurred in another chapter that opened with dialog, so I suppose it is quite possible that this is a formatting error on the kindle edition rather than laziness by the author and editor, but it still did not make a good first impression.

Okay, enough with the first few sentences. There are a number of other poor writing decisions I could point to (At one point a cat has a ‘catlike’ expression. One description of a battle scene is followed by the words ‘That was terrifying.’ You know, stuff like that) but there are a few things the book gets right, and I would like to talk about them.

So um… I like the cats. If you’re not a cat person, you’ll probably hate them, but I love cats. The cats in this story are sentient, have thumbs, and can talk. The main feline’s characterisation was really on point. The right balance between loyalty to his human, and general cat contempt for everything. I found the scenes from the cat’s perspective to be very entertaining and funny. I wish some of the human characters were as entertaining.

The magic system was also interesting, and the characters who wielded this power were my favourite humans. I just wish it was more fleshed out. The war also needs to be more fleshed out, but I appreciate that the characters actually have to act like they’re at war. Gwen fires on an enemy soldier at point blank range, and after every massive airship battle the airship captain talks about how many men he lost. The good guys don’t get to avoid killing people just because they’re the good guys, and they have difficulty coming to terms with what they’ve done.

I should also add that this is the first steampunk novel I’ve ever read. I like the steampunk aesthetic, but just haven’t had any good stories from the genre recommended to me. Due to the lack of description in parts, it never really felt like a steampunk setting until 33% of the way through the book, when all the characters were boarding the airship. That was a pretty cool scene, but I think overall this book has put me off the steampunk genre.

Okay, I can tell what you’re saying. “It put you off the entire genre? But it has talking cats, and quirky magic uses, and a cool airship. Are the small bits of bad writing really that bad?”

Well, it’s not just a few of sentences here and there that put me off this book. The characters were for the most part really boring. The only one I connected with was the cat, and maybe Folly. The big bad was cool, but then the big reveal made her seem less cool. Plus, the plot… well, it’s a bit contrived. Let me make a list of all that needs to happen for us to get to the climax. Skip this if you want to avoid spoilers.

  • Main characters get sent off on super special mission, despite two of them only having four weeks’ military training.
  • The big bad manages to find half of the hero’s party despite efforts taken to prevent that from happening. She also attacks at the same time the other half of the party is off fighting monsters elsewhere.
  • A character with some knowledge of magic crystals is seriously injured during this attack.
  • The big bad shows up at the scene of the attack for no reason. Not only that, but the airship captain meets her at the scene of the attack, recognises her as being dangerous (and his instincts tell him that being rude to her would be dangerous… that’s mighty specific) and still tells her his name and the name of his ship.
  • The other half of the party get abducted by the big bad’s soldiers on their way back to the ship; despite the fact that the humans of the party have just obliterated a bunch of monsters, and that the cat in the party was previously able to warn them they were being followed on another occasion.
  • The cat is able to follow the abductors back to their base, but not get in. Just as he is trying to come up with a plan, a cat friend of his from the other side of the spire shows up to help.
  • The big bad turns up to incapacitate the quirky magical man after he has cured Gwen of her poison. Oh yeah, the quirky magical man seems to be the only one with the ability to heal the venom of the monsters they happen to be facing. In fact, the big bad shows up just as they were talking about her. From her two meetings with the airship captain, she is able to discern that he is super-competent and a potential threat, so she goes back and orders her soldiers to start their attack early; without the airship attack they’re waiting on for support.
  • The cat is able to single-handedly conquer the local cat tribe and get them to go into battle with him.
  • Everyone arrives at the battle to save the girls that were abducted at the most dramatically appropriate time despite minimal co-ordination. Though, I suppose this is nothing too out of the ordinary in fiction.
  • Gwen wakes up from being unconscious in time to help the ship’s engineer get everything working. By comparison, I once had a brain injury after a car crash. Unlike Gwen, I was not unconscious or close to death, but I was still out of action for two weeks. For the first few days – especially in the few hours after the attack – I was throwing up a lot. I found it completely unbelievable that after getting such a severe concussion, in addition to the poisoning, that Gwen would be able to do what she was doing as soon as she woke up.
  • The enemy forces make their move without the airship support they were counting on; and everything goes perfectly for them regardless. The characters in this book seem competent only because the local authorities are utterly incompetent. You’ll see more of this in a sec.
  • When the enemy ship is shooting up the docks, it purposely targets the hero’s ship last.
  • Earlier in the book, characters complain that the spire’s navy is taking a defensive position; that all their ships are surrounding the spire. Despite all the ships surrounding the spire and there not being the big air battle the enemy forces were planning on, the enemy ship is still able to fly away after shooting up the docks. The only ship to give chase is the hero’s one, and Fleet ships only show up later because the airship captain set off flares.

 

Yeah…, as you can see, I was not a fan of this book. At times I really had to force myself to keep reading, especially at the start. The action is good, but given how contrived the plot is, it is hard to enjoy it. This book is also the first in a series, and like The Fifth Season, it leaves a lot of things unanswered. Unlike The Fifth Season though, I have no interest in continuing the series. I don’t care enough about the world or these characters to return. Most annoyingly though, is that whilst this book is somewhat okay, it is certainly not Hugo Award worthy. I could have been reading a book of the same quality as Ancillary Mercy or The Fifth Season, but I was stuck with this instead.

I want to score this 5.5, however I’m bumping it up to 6 to compensate for any bias I may have bought with me from the ebook errors and the Hugo nominations.

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Review – Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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By Naomi Novik

Published May 19th 2015

Score: 7.5/10

 

This book got me hooked straight away. It’s not my usual read, but I was taken in by its charm and the whimsical, magical way Agnieszka and her world and her valley were portrayed. The story basically starts with Agnieszka explaining how this powerful wizard called The Dragon protects the villages in her valley from the evil magic Woods. As payment, the Dragon takes a girl from the valley to live in his tower for ten years at a time.

I was really getting into this story. Agnieszka describes her friendship with Kesia, the girl everyone believes will be picked by the Dragon. Then we see the choosing, where the Dragon surprises everyone and picks Agnieszka! Once trapped in the Dragon’s tower Agnieszka finds the Dragon to be rude and controlling. Her chronic clumsiness causes great annoyance to the Dragon, and often results in the two of them falling into a heap on the ground, on top of each other.

It was after the second such instant where the Dragon fell on top of Agnieszka that I stopped and went ‘oh shit; abusive man much older than the clumsy, plain, female protagonist. Is this going to be a Young Adult version of Fifty Shades of Grey?’

I kept going and found that unlike Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight, this book did actually have a good plot. But, it also had a really terrible, terrible “romance”. There was absolutely no chemistry between Agnieszka and the Dragon. Hell, he doesn’t even apologise for being an arsehole. When they first kissed, I was like ‘hello, where did that come from?’ even though I’d already recognised the signs of a poorly written romance and knew it was coming.

So, enough about the romance. The less said about that the better. Let’s talk about the characterisation and the magic.

Agnieszka starts off awesome. Once she learns she has magic, she becomes a somewhat apathetic student. My favourite part of the book was when a barely competent Agnieszka realises her village is under attack by the Woods, while the Dragon is away. Knowing that she needs to act despite her incompetence, she grabs the four potions whose functions she knows and goes to help. She struggles to help her town, and fails in some areas… but she does okay. Her rescue mission is exciting, and about as successful as I’d imagine it to be. It was my favourite part of the book, and it made me feel more invested in Agnieszka; she wasn’t just an infallible Mary Sue, she was flawed, but she was trying and often succeeding despite those flaws.

As the story went on though, Agnieszka lost some of that appeal for me. Just by applying herself to the study of magic she becomes unrealistically powerful. I get that some of that power increase is that she has a different type of magic to other wizards in this world, but after only a few months of study, she becomes one of the top magical users in the Kingdom. She fights alongside – and against – wizards who have been doing this for centuries. A lot of the tension in the later parts of the book was lost, because I just knew Agnieszka and her super special magical powers would be able to fix things somehow.

As for the magic system in this book, let’s just say I really loved it. Enchanted swords, fancy incantations, potions, a bestiary that turns the reader into beasts, all really fun stuff. The Woods and their evil magic, being able to corrupt people plants and animals, were also great. The Woods made a good enemy, and the descriptions whenever characters went in there was spot on.

As much as I loved the Woods and Agnieszka’s valley, I will admit that I was disappointed when the action left the valley and we were shown more of the world. There’s nothing wrong with the worldbuilding that I can put my finger on, but it just didn’t seem as magical.

Another thing I had a problem with was the ending. There was this big awesome final battle, beautifully described and with a bloody confrontation with the big bad at the end… but that wasn’t where the plot got resolved. After this big climax we go back into the Woods for a few chapters, leading to a confusing and anti-climactic finish.

So all in all, I found Uprooted to be a mixed bag. Mostly positive; I liked the magic and the plot, but there were some little problems (and big ones) that kept this from being an amazing book.

~Lauren

 

 

 

Review – The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season19161852

(Broken Earth Trilogy, book #1)

N.K. Jemisin

Published August 4th 2015

Score: 10/10

 

It’s been a while since I’ve read fantasy. Strange really, since I got into fantasy before I got into Science Fiction. Obviously Harry Potter played a role in that, but the boy wizard’s adventures weren’t my only taste of fantasy. Magician by Raymond E. Feist was one of the first more adult aimed books I ever read, and I quickly begun exploring the world of Midkemia. I read The Lord of the Rings books, some Shannara books and The Eyes of the Dragon was my first Stephen King book. However after a while fantasy started to feel a bit samey and I lost interest. Therefore, I wasn’t really that excited to read The Fifth Season.

But I am so glad I got to read this book. This wonderful book that I wouldn’t even know existed without the Hugo Awards.

At first glance, The Fifth Season seems to have a lot of the familiar, but it also feels very new, very different, and very awesome. This story takes place in the ironically named land called The Stillness, which constantly has earthquakes and volcanos causing trouble. It is ruled by an ancient empire and the social structures are based on Comms; walled towns designed to be able to survive on their own during the frequent apocalyptic events (so frequent they’re called fifth seasons) that plague the land. The landscape is littered with the remains of dead civilisations and while there is technology such as electric lighting, it is a rarity.

Already you can see The Fifth Season isn’t your standard fantasy world. To top it off, the craft that went into this story is also unique. There is a strong, intriguing narrative voice and a large portion of this book is told in the second person. Yes, second-person, the perspective favoured by the choose-your-own adventure books. “You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember?” This takes a bit of getting used to, but I advise you to stick with it; the story is well worth it.

The Fifth Season follows three characters with an ability called orogeny. Orogeny is a magic power that can control the earth. People with this ability – called orogenes – can use these powers to cause earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or stop such geological activity. As you can expect, regular people are terrified of these powers and resent the orogenes. However, in a world plagued with earthquakes, such powers are useful. One of these orogenes is Essun (that’s you, remember?) who lives in the present, during the current fifth season, and then we also follow two other orogenes living in the past, under the control of an institution called the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum exists to use orogeny in a safe, useful way, and to control the orogenes in any way possible.

By now you may be getting the feeling that this is a pretty sad story. It is. In this story, Jemisin shows exactly what prejudice looks like. Children are rejected and abused by family members for being orogenes, adults with this power are not allowed basic freedoms, and the Fulcrum has a number of ways to break the orogenes it employs.

This book is dedicated to ‘those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question’. The orogenes are not a fantasy culture counterpart of any particular group in reality, but their oppression shows the many ways prejudice affects people in our world. I love the way this book tackled oppression and prejudice, even if it was absolutely tragic at times.

This book also features a few LGBT characters, including a transgender character. I mention this because despite the number of LGBT people in the world, we don’t get to see them too often in fiction, and I love when such characters do appear. A polyamorus relationship is also depicted quite well in this story. There were a few sex scenes, so if that isn’t your cup of tea, then be warned.

It’s hard to find much wrong with this book. It’s thought provoking, written in a unique and engaging way, with an interesting, fleshed out world and amazing characters. It’s a book where you have to be really paying attention, but it rewards you greatly for doing so. A lot of times things aren’t really explained, but you can figure out what is happening through the context. This was exactly what I needed after reading Seveneves. However, I should point out that The Fifth Season is book one of a trilogy, and does not wrap up the story completely. In fact, it leaves it on a cliff-hanger with much unresolved. Book two in the series – The Obelisk Gate – will be out in August and I will be grabbing it as soon as I can.

~Lauren