Book Review – THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley

There was a lot of pressure, riding on the shoulders of this book. Hype surrounding it was everywhere, on all of the review blogs that I follow, on Twitter, on podcasts–pretty much everywhere. And I was worried. I’m not going to lie. I didn’t make it through GOD’S WAR, by Kameron Hurley. Maybe I was a different reader, then. Maybe I didn’t give it a chance. Or maybe it just wasn’t for me, but I just couldn’t get into it.

THE MIRROR EMPIRE felt different, right from the first page. And I don’t just mean different from GOD’S WAR, which it obviously is (SF vs. Epic Fantasy, etc.). No. I mean that this book was different from anything I have ever read, before. The world was truly (TRULY) unique, the sociological aspects were incredibly diverse and fresh, the characters were unlike any that I’ve ever read, before. Except, of course, that they weren’t. What Hurley does with gender and the flip that she does to genre tropes is nothing short of astonishing. It is breathtaking. It is brilliant. It is… a bit daunting.

To be honest, I couldn’t have gotten through this book, even a year ago. I am a better educated reader than I was, then. I couldn’t have gotten through this book, before I read “We Have Always Fought,” Hurley’s Hugo Award-Winning Essay about gender in narratives. I couldn’t have gotten through this book before I read ANCILLARY JUSTICE. I’m still, even now, digesting the depth and breadth of what Hurley has done, here, with THE MIRROR EMPIRE, and maybe I will be, for a long, long time.

And maybe that’s the point.

The story–at it’s very heart–isn’t one that we haven’t heard, before. An orphan must become the Chosen One. A stern, military hero must soften, and find their heart. A person, unsuited to rule, must do just that. These are things that we have seen, and read, countless times, before. But Hurley makes you question everything you know about this story. She makes you doubt your memory of those narratives. She makes you want better.

Are there things that I’d change about this book? Yes. I found it dense, and in some places, confusing. I (ridiculously) didn’t like some of the names, and I had a hard time keeping them straight. I could remember their actions and their story line, but for me, their names didn’t fit. That’s a personal, stupid thing that I didn’t give any bearing to, in this review, because that’s my brain, working against the story line. I’d have liked more of some story lines, and less of others–but again, all personal tastes.

What I wouldn’t change–what I found amazingly fresh and inventive and beautiful–was the world building. I just want to wallow in Hurley’s notebooks, where she’s plotting out the plant-based public transit, developing the carnivorous species of plants that walk the forests, laying out the many genders and societies and governments and religions. I want to flip through the card file with the information about the different worlds that mirror the one that most of the story is told in. I want more, because it is clear that Kameron Hurley has been living in this world for a good, long while, and she must have volumes of glorious, intricate detail. I wouldn’t change the uncomfortable scenes of sexual dominance, where our militaristic, matriarchal character literally “manhandles” her kept husband–a man who is pampered so that he’ll remain soft and desirable. A man who is later treated quite horrifically, in ways that we have seen female characters treated innumerable times. I wouldn’t change the physically disabled protagonist, who despite her body, uses her mind to solve dilemma after dilemma. I wouldn’t change the relationships and the tenderness, the violence and the betrayal, and I wouldn’t change the feeling that I had at the end–

Which is to say, “There must be more, and I want it, now.”

This book isn’t for the faint at heart, and it isn’t for the occasional fantasy reader. This book is hard core, but it is beautiful in its hardness, and it is well worth the time and effort and occasionally feeling as if you are stupider than everyone else in the world, as you work your way through it. And for what its worth, if she hasn’t won the award, already, I’m voting for Kameron Hurley for smartest person in the room.

Next up, I’m reading CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Book Review – HOUNDED by Kevin Hearne

I haven’t read much Urban Fantasy, and as such, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. HOUNDED might have spoiled me, since it was absolutely hilarious. A fun, quick, incredibly engaging and entertaining read, I devoured it in about a day and a half. 

Atticus is old–21 centuries old, in fact. But he looks like a 21-year-old hipster playing at magic in his occult bookstore. Seriously, that might be the best, simplest premise I’ve ever heard. Add to it his Irish Wolfhound who is laugh-out-loud hilarious, a healthy dose of pop culture references, and some pissed off Celtic gods and you have a story that sucks you in and keeps you reading.

I liked everything about this book–the depth of the setting, the obvious research that Hearne put into it, the humor and juxtaposition between Old World and New-all of it. EXCEPT I didn’t love Hearne’s treatment of his female characters, and that kept me from giving HOUNDED five stars. I felt as though every woman (mortal or not) got the “super sexy movie star” treatment, and that Atticus had a hard time concentrating when they spoke because all he wanted to do was jump their bones. We’re talking about seriously powerful women, who can manipulate your perceptions of them. Why would they all choose sex as their manipulation of choice–Why not intimidation? Why not terror? Why not groveling respect? I’ve got no problem with a sexy female character, but I felt like it was a little one-noted.

I look forward to reading more of the IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, as the story was clever and funny and greatly entertaining, and I hope that Mr. Hearne has found a way to flesh out his female characters in later volumes.

Next Up: THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley. You know I’m excited about this one. 🙂

Book Review – ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb

 

 

In an effort to broaden my horizons in Fantasy, I have been keeping my ears open for recommendations from authors that I respect and admire. A few months ago, Chuck Wendig posted on Twitter that ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE was a must read, and (I’m paraphrasing) a beautiful, brutal book. If you’ve read anything by Wendig, you’ll be interested to know what he sees as brutal. So, I put it on my to-read list and (when I couldn’t find it locally) ordered it online. 

In the meantime, several other authors and reviewers that I follow brought up the glory that is ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, and I learned more about Robin Hobb. Here’s the thing–I love Fantasy. I think it, and write it, and breathe it, and worship the very ground that it bleeds on. But I didn’t find it until I was an adult, really. So I am behind the times. This book–I should have read it almost 20 years ago. I should have, by this time, been wrapped up in an obsession with this series, and the others that follow it, for most of my adult life. I should have already been as obsessed with this world as I am with Westeros. Hell–even GRRM blurbed about ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, “Fantasy as it ought to be written.”

Those are great big words from a great big author, and I doubt that I have anything to add that others haven’t already said, but I’ll try.

The first thing that drew me into this book was the age of the protagonist, Fitz, at the opening of the novel. He is six years old. I have a six year old, and as Fitz went about some truly life-altering experiences, in my mind, he was my little guy. And that’s where the brutality of this book lies. Fitz, throughout this first book, is a child. This is not the gruesome, bloody savagery of Martin’s Westeros. This is the terrible alone-ness of a little boy, thrust into a world that will only ever see him as a tool.

Hobb is brilliant in her weaving of the tale. Not too gentle, yet not too barbaric. We are dipped, lovingly, into the Six Duchies. Cradled in the warmth of the stables, drawn out, into the intrigues of Buckkeep. We, as readers, are granted the indulgence of seeing the adult characters through adult eyes, while simultaneously viewing them through the hooded, shadowed lenses that Fitz sees them through. Fitz is a remarkable child–observant and kind, intelligent and gifted. But he is also a child. We are given the gift of seeing those around him as he cannot–the silent, secretive protectors, the adroit handlers that do all that they can, including risking themselves, for the love of Fitz’s father who cannot acknowledge his bastard son.

Because I know, so intimately, a six year old boy–I instantly fell in love with Fitz. As he grew, in my mind, he became my older son (now twelve) and full of his own ideas of what a man is. Fitz is flawed in only the way a child can be–beautifully. Brutally. 

In the end, the story left me gasping for more–so clearly is there so much more to tell, and I am infinitely grateful that the next books are readily available. This is a hero’s quest, flawed and damaged as our hero may be, and it has become clear to me that I have only scratched the surface. Robin Hobb has done something stunningly complex–building a man from the skin and bones of a tiny boy. Fitz comes to life, on the pages. Her words breathe into him the stuff of life. Not just the heroics, the kindness and the brilliance, but also the failings, the weaknesses, the hubris. 

I also ADORE the gentle gender-politics that play out, throughout its pages. Certainly there are women that are mistreated and abused, dismissed and ignored. But also, there are men, just as maligned. Beautifully entwined, are women of power and strength. There are leaders among them, there are teachers and masters and Queens. There are petty women, women of integrity, and every sort of women in between. Just like the men. And not a damsel in distress among them.

There was truth to what Wendig said. The book is beautiful and brutal, but it is much more than that. It is not the grim darkness that we’ve come to expect from Martin and Abercrombie, nor the bantering heroics of Rothfuss. It is something different. Something special, a vicious hopefulness. With this book, I have come to understand why Robin Hobb’s name is spoken amongst the greats of Fantasy. She has certainly, in my estimation, earned every fair word.

Review – SHIELD AND CROCUS by Michael R. Underwood

Last night, I finished reading a new novel by relative newcomer, Michael R. Underwood. Shield and Crocus.  Below is my Goodreads review.

 

This book was hard to quantify, for me.

Called New Weird (which is a genre I am not well-versed in) by the author, I didn’t really know what to expect, and that turned out to be a good thing. In many ways, this book was unlike anything that I had ever read, before. The setting–a city built within the bones of a fallen Titan–is amazingly ingenious, and I found myself, over and over again, staring at the map, saying, “God, I wish I’d thought of that.”

Pulling together aspects of Fantasy (magic and distinct, fantastical races), Sci Fi (robotics, human experimentation), and Comics (superheroes) and binding them all together in a densely fleshed out world with solid, interesting and believable characters, I found myself in a sort of Geek-topia. Here, all elaborately braided together, were many of my favorite things in one, tasty morsel. And that part of it was really well done.

What I find myself somewhat disappointed in, was the ending. In so many ways, through the first two-thirds of the novel, this book had me thinking that here was a story unlike any I had ever seen before. It had me charging, full speed, toward the ending, because I just knew that Mike Underwood had something new and unpredictable in store for me… There was a moment when I saw two possible outcomes. One predictable and somewhat traditional–the sequel prep ending–and the other, new and shocking and unpredictable and full of a finality that we don’t often get in Fantasy books. And I guess, because I was so blown away by the freshness of the rest of the story, I really got my hopes set on a fresh ending.

Don’t get me wrong. The ending was satisfactory, and if you asked me if I would recommend the book, I would say, “Yes.” I will read whatever Underwood puts out, next, and I will continue to drool over his genius setting and that beautiful stunner of a cover. BUT–I wanted something more. I wanted NEW–the very thing that I enjoyed most about the book got lost, in the final pages, and that, for me, was a bit disappointing.

I also (and I REALLY hate to sound so nitpicky) found some of the editing misses (typos, misworded sentences, odd shifts in a character’s location, etc.) to be somewhat jarring, drawing me away, momentarily, from the flow of the story.

Because of that, I would have honestly given the book a 3.5 star rating–but I wanted to give Mr. Underwood the benefit of that extra half star. I was fortunate enough to have met him, briefly, at a convention and he was gracious, friendly, and funny to talk to, and I wish him the very best of luck with his career, and I look forward to more forays into the New Weird, both from him and others.