REVIEW: Minotaur

Minotaur by Phillip W. Simpson

The summary of this story is obvious: it’s a retelling of the infamous Creteian Minotaur’s life. The minotaur, Ast, meets Ovid, the famous Roman poet, and recounts the details of his life over a thousand years after the events of the labyrinth occurred. I love mythology and ancient history, and that’s what drew me to this book initially. This novel was a quintessential For Want of A Nail story for me,  and if you love stories from the monster’s POV (think the classic Grendel), then Minotaur is going to be a net positive read for you (it was for me). There’s a lot of good in this novel, but the format of the retelling weighs it down and limits how connected I felt to this story at any given time.

Ast retelling his life to Ovid is an interesting premise. The narrative retelling format makes sense for this story, and it lends the story a mythological feel. However, after reading a couple stories that relied on this narrative retelling format, I think there’s some major draw backs in telling a story this way. Because Ast tells you a lot of things, this makes some of the other characters in the story seem under developed. Pheadra suffers the most from this, and that’s a shame because it would’ve been a better story if I understood her more or had a better feeling of her as person.

I love mythology retellings and reimaginings, but this story didn’t quite do it for me. How you feel about this retelling will likely depend on how engaged you are with Ast’s narrative voice. It’s not bad, and the style is purposefully archaic, but that does mean that it’s a bit dry. Still, I liked Ast as a character; he’s a purposeful gentle giant, and his treatment during his childhood, his encounters with bandits, and his events in the labyrinth turn on the foil between Ast’s appearance and his true personality. We rely on Ast for most of the story–and solely during the retellings–to form opinions on the characters. All their actions are filtered through his perspective, which causes the characters to lose a bit of their own agency and personality. At the same time, Ast is a reliable narrator, and there’s no reason given why he’d be anything but honest with Ovid. In some ways, this creates a more boring story–Ast has clearly developed some emotional distance and perspective on the events of his childhood.

Ovid isn’t much of a character, and that’s a shame because a more developed character could’ve helped this story. Ovid is a drunken old man with three divorces, and he serves mainly as a personality foil for Ast. There are also a lot of ‘genius bonuses’ for readers who know a bit about Minoan society and Greek mythology. Icarus makes an appearance; of course Theseus does, and his characterization stands out a bit stronger than most. King Minos comes across as a mustache twirling villain, but this hardly matters as the story needs a strong antagonist, and he fits that role.

Notes:

  • I did end up sympathizing with Ast. I mean, it’s hard not to after all the kick-the-dog moments in this novel.
  • This is one of my favorite myths. I mean, this is catnip to me.
  • The ‘twist’ ending is telegraphed pretty hard; Ovid seems like a  moron for not figuring this out, but I guess he’s drunk.
  • There’s a pet rat in this novel! Glacaus was an adorable character, but once again, this my me being a sucker for animal companions. Rats are the cutest. Videos of pet rats:

Einstein and Darwin

Baby rats (bonus dog)

Rating: 3 stars:

The minotaur is my favorite myth, and I love monster POV retellings. However, the style of this story was too dry for me to ultimately love the book. The narrative retelling hampered my ability to connect with other characters beside Ast.

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REVIEW: Grey

Grey by Christi J. Whitney

Sebastian wants to be apprenticed to his tattoo artist brother, Hugo, when a whole lot of weirdness steps into his life. Sebastian finds out that his brother is a part of the Corsi gypsy clan, and he’s made an honorary member. This is around the time the Romany clan and their performing circus comes back into town with the alluring Josephine, who Sebastian feels a strange urge to protect.

This is a story that was, for me personally, was a bizarre read. This isn’t because the book was bad, but because it did several things that ultimately make it difficult for me to judge a book (more on those below). By about ~25% of the way through a book, I ask myself what I’d rate the book. At about ~2/3 of the way through the book, I check back in and ask myself if that rating still holds. For most books, it does, and to me, the ending is usually inconsequential if the set-up works. (An ending has to be horrendous for me to rage-quit a book.) However, I knew whether I loved this book or found it ‘meh’ would hang solely on the ending. I vacillated between finding this book tedious and being unable to put it down within the same freaking chapter.

The voice of Sebastian is engaging. Sebastian’s personality isn’t particularly original in YA, but it kept me hooked. The ‘I-want-a-normal-life’ plot works because it’s obvious this story is careening into crazy, and the horror of Sebastian’s transformation drives this aspect of the story. I felt bad for Sebastian for 100% of this story, but some people might find aspects of his self-depreciating personality grating.

The secretive element of the gypsy clans are played up early in the novel, and that slows it down. However, I didn’t want to stop reading this piece because I hoped those secrets would pay off. The risk of  using secrets is that they can make/break an ending. I’m not sure all of these secrets paid off, specifically in the case of Josephine and her past, but the ending didn’t end up relying on the gypsy clan secrets to make it work. This was a massive relief for me because the ‘we can’t talk about this now’ moments early on made me wary that there was going to be a half-baked plot drop at the end. There’s not! It’s more of a straight-forward action climax with a surprise, low-key coda ending, which paid off the main, emotional plot elements well, ignoring the vaguely defined gypsy mysteries that could’ve bogged down this ending.

This story reminded me of Horns, but in a good way, in that it kept the focus on Sebastian and his struggles.  Josephine is underdeveloped as a love interest, but this doesn’t destroy the story because it’s apparent that this relationship is designed to be unrequited and one-sided. This means that Sebastian’s longing for Josephine doesn’t rely on her being developed or returning his affections. Most of Sebastian’s friends didn’t get a lot of novel time, but Katie stood out as a solid choice for a best-friend. Katie didn’t feel like a stereotype. None of these characters did, which is refreshing in YA, and this novel never descends into high school cliche verses high school cliche.

Didn’t particularly care for the gargoyle characters. They could’ve been fleshed out more. They seemed out of place, which was weird, considering the rest of the cast felt like they fit into the story well. They’re basically there to serve as mooks at the end, but being that this is the first book in a trilogy, I’m sure their leader, Augustine, is going to play a major part in the next part(s) of this series.

Notes:

  • Liked the tattoo parlor. It’s an original setting, and it grounds Sebastian and gives him goals in this story.
  • All the teasing about Sebastian’s changes worked to propel the story, but damn it if they weren’t slow, too. This might ruin the novel for you, but the tense pacing kept me reading, and the ending paid it off.
  • I hated most of the chapter titles, so I pretended they didn’t exist after about chapter 10.
  • This is one where the ending determined how I viewed the entire book. I didn’t love it all the way through, but boy, that ending rested on the right elements of the story and pushed the weaker points into the background.
  • I wanted more of the scenes between Hugo and Sebastian. That part of the ending was heart-wrenching and heart-warming.

Rating: 5 stars

I kind of wanted to give this 4 stars for questionable pacing, but I ended up loving this story. It’s a unique entry into YA fantasy and paranormal, and it ultimately focused on the strongest elements in the story. I’m excited–and a little bit afraid–of how the series is going to continue, but if you can get 1/3 of the way through this book, it’s worth it and pays off all the right emotional moments.

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REVIEW: Saint’s Blood

Saint’s Blood by Sebastien de Castell

(Note: Saint’s Blood is the third book in The Greatcoat’s series. This was the first time I’d heard of this series, and I’d highly recommend you start from the beginning at Traitor’s Blade because these books are worth it. The Greatcoat’s series has gotten a fair share of comparisons to The Three Musketeers. Tristia has a Spanish (Castilian if you want to be technical) feel to it, which sets it apart from the clear Dumas influences that inspired the series initially.)

There’s so much about this book to love. It’s a quality swashbuckler tale, and every time I thought I had this story figured out, it kept going and changing the rules. With less competent narration, this wouldn’t work, but Falcio’s blend of humor, stubbornness, and world-weariness ground this fast-paced story in a depth of human emotions. Falcio, the First Cantor of the Greatcoats, starts the story in a duel. The entire novel revolves around duels, which works well because the fight scenes are all well-paced and authentically fun. That’s another thing about this series that I loved: the humor between the characters (especially the three friends Brasti, Kest, and Falcio) fits with their personalities and helped me get into the story. I love humorous fantasy, but it’s so rare to find quality humor mixed in with gory action scenes and have it work.

The duel transitions to a palace attack, and the fearful attacker is the Saint, Birgid, who’s controlled by powerful magical mask. The main plot launches here, and the Greatcoats have to figure out who is killing the Saints of Tristia before said murderer can kill Ethalia, the newest Saint of Mercy and Falcio’s on-again-off-again-it’s-complicated lover. If you’re new to the series, there’s a lot of back story with the dead King, Falcio’s daughter Valiana, and Falcio’s dead wife Aline that consume the beginning chapters of the story. You can get into the series here, but it’s going to be a bit of a tough go for several chapters until they get to the church and try to save Saint Birgid.

The tension between the various factions drives this story. If you like the political elements of A Song of Ice and Fire, these political intrigue plots are for you. It can be a bit hard to keep track of them, but the general gist of who they support is well-defined. The church and what their end game is won’t be apparent until later in the novel, but the tension between Aline, the future girl queen, and the nobles is clear the entire time. Valiana, in particular, is an interesting character, and her duty to uphold the laws of the crumbling kingdom of Tristia and her personal struggle throughout the story is poignant.

This is one of those reviews where I feel that I can’t say a lot because there are so many plot twists in the story, and the layers of plot build organically upon each other. The God’s Needle cult is terrifying, and every time they appear, their importance is intensified. Their introduction is brilliant, too, and the way the cult and religion are used to try and control the kingdom felt realistic.

The world building blew me away. I kept wondering when the author would run out of plot twists or when something would fall flat, but none of the build up into the finale did. There kept being more, but the narrative is so solid that this doesn’t feel fast or clunky. Maybe, if I’m pressed, I’ll say I didn’t care about the resolution after all of the amazing layering of the plot leading into the final battle. The world building is powerful, and after we meet the real villain (WAY further into the novel than you’ll be expecting), it becomes difficult for the resolution and climax to live up to the phenomenal story that leads up to it. That’s not to say the ending is bad–it’s not–but this isn’t a book you read for the ending but for the thrilling, poignant, and occasionally humorous journey that takes you to it.

 

Notes:

  • I know a little about fencing, and the fight mechanics during this story always work. There’s no cheap moments during the fight scenes, and if you like a nice mix of realistic fighting with a little sprinkling of fantasy thrown in, this is the book for you. I can’t stress enough how great the actions sequences are.
  • Inconceivable—got to get that sweet, sweet Princess Bride shout out.
  • Bless fantasy that makes me laugh. I’m serious. There’s not enough of that out there, and it’s one of the main reasons I love heroic fantasy. Bring me joy, damn it, and then SMASH IT. Thanks. 🙂
  • “They’re never expecting the Spanish Inquisition.”
  • The diversity of weapons used by the Greatcoats is fantastic. It helps define their characters, but in heroic fantasy, that works well.
  • I’ve laughed more times in this novel than I do with most. That made the relationships between the character feel real.
  • Blood moths. Glad someone tapped into the natural horror that is moths.

Rating: 5 stars

This is a strong entry in an already strong series. If you like swashbuckling fantasy, this is the story for you. There’s a nice blend of humor, action, and world-building that’s underpinned by a unique narrative voice.

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REVIEW: Crown of Ice

Crown of Ice by Vicki L. Weavil

Thyra Winter is the Snow Queen, her powers gifted to her by Mael Voss. Her fate is bound to his task of assembling a magic mirror before she turns eighteen or else she’ll become one of the disembodied wraiths that haunt her frozen castle. Thyra suppresses her emotions to deal with the oppressive nature of living with Voss and with the seeming impossibility of her task. The premise is interesting, but the focus veers away from all of that and delves into Thyra immediately trying to recruit a local yet somehow brilliant boy, Kai, to help her construct the mirror. This is a problem because Thyra’s struggle with Voss and his old mentor, Sephia, could’ve made an interesting story if it would’ve been the focus.

Spoiler: it wasn’t. Instead of this more interesting book, we get Thyra chasing a boy, Kai, and adopting a puppy, Luki. I ended up enjoying Luki as an animal companion, but the fact that the dog is the most interesting character in the story says something for how shallow the remaining characters are. Thyra’s character veers into Frozen fanfic territory. No, really, it’s Frozen fanfic. She uses the phrase ‘Let it go’ too many times for this to be a coincidence. This served to limit Thyra as a character for me, and she doesn’t step beyond being a shadow of Elsa’s (more vibrant and fleshed out) personality.

We get a lot of Thyra chasing after Kai and not so much of Thyra trying to build the mirror puzzle early on. There’s a lot of talk about equations and math involved in sovling the mirror, but this is never fleshed out; it’s poor world building and lacks convincing details. There’s a bit of burying the conflict early in story, which could’ve been helped if the setting and world buliding aspects stepped up to fill them in, but they don’t. For example, a scene with Mael Voss transforming the reindeer would’ve done a lot to make him scarier. The earlier portion of this book, up until Sephia’s addition, probably shouldn’t have involved any of the weaker characters like Kai or Gretta at all. I would’ve been completely okay exploring Thyra and her limited world; it would’ve made her seem more lonely instead of fixated on some boy.

 

This story was boring. The writing isn’t bad, but I kept asking myself why I was so freaking bored reading this. A large part of it, I think, has to do with the setting. Thyra’s setting–the uniqueness of her world and situation–should’ve been explored in depth. Instead, there’s a fixation on Kai, who adds nothing to this story. Thyra and Kai had no chemistry, and the story hangs so much on that element. I found myself hoping that this wasn’t a romance because it lacked romantic tension or any type of special spark between the characters.

There are other characters, but there’s always something lacking in them. Everything feels one-dimensional, and this snowballs throughout the story. By the time Thyra hunts for the shard, I was bored for so long that even the mid-book climactic moments couldn’t save this book for me. This story has one note, and it’s not an exciting one. If you like the first two chapters and can tolerate Kai, this might work for you, but the fairy tale retelling aspect wasn’t enough to hook me.

 

Notes:

  • There’s nothing wrong with fanfiction or taking story ideas from it, but without the fleshed out world of the movie, the Elsa expy characterization falls flat here.
  • Bae the reindeer is great. I liked all the animals in the novel, which adds to the fairy tale feel, and I’m a sucker for animal companions. They were the best characters.
  • Was that the most boring ball in the history of paranormal fantasy? TVD wants a word with you.
  • Greda is supposed to love Kai. If I felt anything about these two other than cardboard cutouts, I might care.
  • Kai beats Bea. I have a feeling for him now: dislike.
  • Kai likes math, but all we get is ‘equations’. It’s hard to convey a love of math and make it part of the world when it’s so vague. This might be a sci-fi bias speaking, though.
  • The real relationship in this novel is the one between Thyra and Luki, the wolf pup. It might’ve been a better story with just the two of them.

Rating: 2 stars

There’s so much in this premise for a unique retelling, but very little of it delivers. Something in this story needed to be stronger (characters or setting) to elevate the basic plot into something special and exciting. Still: magic animals.

REVIEW: King’s Warrior

King’s Warrior (Book 1 of Minstrel’s Song) by Jenelle Leanne Schmidt

Writing one star reviews is a drag, but this isn’t even ‘so bad it’s good.’ It’s just a slog of a story. Any elements that might have potentially been interesting are lost in the mess. This should’ve been about a third of the length with a narrower scope. There’s simply too much description, and if you’re going to pack your story with that many words, you’ve got to earn them. Spoiler: this story doesn’t.

Kamarie is a princess, but she can go off riding without guards or assistants because she’s a badass. We’re also going to discuss a prince. There’s a lot of characters discussing other characters, which is never a good sign. It usually means that none of the characters have a life of their own, so everyone has to talk about each other in place of actual interests and character development. Kamarie’s emotions on Prince Elroy are confusing, too. He’s at war with her people, and she’s still mad that he’s not courting her?

Unfortunately, Kamarie isn’t a strong character. She has all of the trappings of one, but her emotional state is all over the place when she’s not having tedious conversations with the squire that accompanies her. Seriously, this story feels like none of the characters know anything, and I know introducing readers to an epic fantasy world can be confusing, but this isn’t the way to do it. This story needed to pick a freaking character because the end result is a mess between Kamarie (weirdly inconsistent, which makes her annoying), Yole (boring), and Brant, which is probably who the main character should’ve been, even if he is the more predictable of the three.

Yole is a bore, and we spend so much time with him. I skimmed that part because I didn’t care for him, and the first time we meet him, I thought Brant’s family was his family—a vanilla group of people to begin with. Brant’s family dies, and it would’ve been moving if Brant was the main character. In reality, the family gets fridged. The one good thing is that, what plot there is, doesn’t drag out the characters meeting up.

Not only are the characters weird and flat, but there’s nothing there to save the story from their boringness. The world building isn’t original enough to do it, or the parts that are better are buried beneath the same over-wrought pacing that plagues the characters. It doesn’t matter what the plot is at this point because who cares?

Notes:

  • Kill me with info dumpy prologues. It didn’t help set the world. Prologues are difficult, and even when they’re done well, I often find them a grind. The ones that work the best involve the main character in some way, and that connection has to be clear to the reader. Are there authors that break this? Yes, but it’s difficult to do and still have the story make sense.
  • Sending the princess across the land on her own mission. Check. I can’t believe that she’s the only one that could be spared. There’s so much weirdness about who Kamarie is that this doesn’t matter, either.
  • This book has a bit of Attack of The Fantasy Names syndrome.
  • Bloody hell, don’t tell me something is a mystery. When you have to say “Gee, isn’t that mysterious?” that means it’s not interesting enough to allow me, the reader, to ask that question to myself.
  • Quit telling me about the characters and make them believable.
  • Personal rant (and what convinced me this story wasn’t going to have a late book comeback): If you don’t know about cross country travel and you want to write it into your epic fantasy, run your story by someone who knows how outdoor travel works. This section made me want to scream but not with joy. Everyone uses maps or a compass, so Kamarie’s magic ‘know these woods skills’ wouldn’t freaking work. You get lost SO EASILY in the woods. Then, there’s this gem: “How did you learn about firewood?” I could find effing firewood in elementary school, yet she can’t tell upstream from downstream? Has she seen water? She rides horses! She’s had to have seen a freaking stream at some point. This character makes zero sense, and it’s clear she’s vastly under qualified for this mission. Sorry, I’m not suspending my disbelief that much.
  • So. Much. Asking. About. Things.

Ratings: 1 star

I skimmed my way to the end after a while because there’s too much in this story. There’s a lot of things wrong with it. Technically, the writing is fine, but there are inconsistent (or boring) characters, and while there is a plot, there’s nothing to lift this story out of poorly done tropes.

Writer’s Wednesday: An inspired Setting

Setting is something I struggle to write. Not the nuts and bolts of description, but the actual setting of a story. There are so many little things in the real world that bring it to life, and it’s damnably hard to capture those in a novel. Some authors are excellent at it, and I’ve come to believe (more and more) that an inspired setting equals a better book.

There are several basic ways to approach settings. To some extent, all fictional settings are fantastical extrapolation. Historical fiction tends to be less so, and sci-fi and epic fantasy can have entirely fabricated settings. It’s a spectrum of how much or little the author cares to extrapolate or invent or blend the real world into their setting. At some point, though, setting has to be based on something real, whether it be a scientific idea or historical facts.

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I’m currently working my way through the Long Earth series that’s authored jointly by Steven Baxter and Terry Pratchett (RIP). The premise is that humans learn how to ‘step’ between an infinite number of multiverses (Earths, in the first several novels), and the books deal with how this changes the various human societies. The first book is an adventure travelogue, which is a decent stand alone if you decide you don’t want to read the remainder of the series. Both Pratchett and Baxter have this knack of taking scientific and fantastical concepts and creating settings that drive the story forward. (Note: this series feels more in line with Baxter’s work than Pratchett’s, which is understandable.) In The Long Earth, the plot is the setting. The idea of an infinite number of worlds drives everything forward, and there could’ve been a different character per chapter, and it would’ve worked. The thing is, I didn’t necessarily care for the characters in The Long Earth. This is something a friend mentioned about the novel: they didn’t like the characters.

And yet, they finished the novel and loved it.

That seems to dash against the character-centered storytelling wisdom that gets passed around. That doesn’t mean that the characters in The Long Earth series are poorly written characters or that they don’t do the things characters are supposed to do in a novel. They have goals and passions; they’re well-rounded people, but they’re not the main draw of the novel. They don’t drive the plot. The setting does.

Yes, you can cheat and say that the setting is a character, but it’s not. (I loved Lost, but ‘the island is a character’ schlock that got thrown around there was equally idiotic.) There are fundamentally different ways a setting and a character are portrayed. A setting doesn’t have hobbies or interests or desires. A setting just is. Characters can’t reason with a setting (most of the time…), and that’s a source of conflict. Characters can reason with other characters (again, most of the time…), which is also conflict, but they’re different. A setting conflict is man verses nature, which makes the story different than man verses man. There are usually elements of both in a story, and that’s certainly true of The Long Earth, but a major focus of the novel is the man verses nature aspect, and the man verses man plots kind of dragged the story down for me.

I love backpacking. There’s something implacable about the natural world that humbles and challenges you. That’s different than how you deal with difficult people in your life. The setting matters. It’s not arbitrary, and if you’re writing fantasy, that’s doubly so. I’ll save my geography and fantasy map rants for another day, but you can have a very small geographic area as your setting and make it feel huge if you understand the realities of a complex setting.

cropped-2037-01-01-19-46-07.jpg

The picture above is my all time favorite hiking photo (my boyfriend took it because he has a better eye for composition than I’ll ever have). Every time I look at it, I feel what it was like to eat lunch in that meadow. I remember the glacial waterfall that’s out of scene. I know how close we were to crossing a mountain pass. The were realities of that moment–exhaustion, relaxation, and wonder–that compose the basis of why I love to go into the outdoors. That picture is like a good setting: it takes something real and turns it into something fantastical.

Ultimately, setting is mood. Adding a character can’t change the entire tone of a novel the way swapping the setting can. This is why things get set IN SPACE. The tone is changed, old is new, and a heightened level of conflict and interest is found.

REVIEW: The Blood Sigil

The Blood Sigil by Kevin Hoffman

I enjoyed the fantasy sci-fi magic blend that’s The Fifth Vertex. This is a sophomore slump in the series. The three main characters, Urus, Cailix, and Goodwyn are still as well fleshed-out as they were in the first book, but there are pacing problems that hampered my interests in this follow up book. The world building is still solid, but some of the new characters don’t work, which is a problem for the plot.

The story starts when Urus is going to a council meeting to determine if he lives or dies. He’s sentenced to death, but he’s saved by another sigilord, Lu (or Luse). Lu wasn’t as fleshed out as the main three cast members, and she had LOVE INTEREST plastered on her from page one. Her relationships with the characters, even Urus, never felt fleshed out enough. She’s a huge character early in the book, which is what I think drags it down.

Cailix starts on an island with the shepherds. She’s bored and sneaking off to use blood magic. She develops a relationship with farm-boy Colin, and their relationship develops more naturally, and her coming to care about Colin worked well to grow her character. Cailix caring about her adopted family and being the most ruthless character is interesting. Anderis returns and gets stabbed with a pitchfork is excellent.

In general, this moves slower than the first book. Having all the characters split up so early on makes it feel fractured. Goodwyn is chasing hellhounds, but these scenes lack the interests of Urus and Cailix’s chapters. Goodwyn felt more relevant in The Fifth Vertex. His scenes feel so disconnected from the rest of the action, which is a shame, because I liked his character so well in the first book when he was more connected to the plot.

The story picks up momentum when Urus gets back to Kest. The first book relied on Kest, and the second book lacks that central thematic location and driving cultural force of the first story. As the characters come together and the plots connect, the story gets new life when Murin and Goodwyn are united. Autar is the best addition to the series, and his arrival automatically engaged me again, but it just takes too long to get there (about two-thirds of the way through).

Notes:

  • The blood magic is back, and it’s still the best. I don’t care for Anderis’s dues ex machina powers.
  • Cailix is the star character of this novel. She’s a well-rounded character this time around, and she has the greatest struggle with her blood magic and the corruption.
  • Lu is a bore. It’s unfortunate so much of the early story hangs on her character.
  • Like it when the space/fantasy elements show up again. Reminds me of Andre Norton a bit.

Rating: 3 stars

The series has some interesting world building elements in it, and those come into play towards the end of the book. However, the beginning of this book drug on and on for me, which hampered the solid characters in the series.