Patricia Briggs, Smoke Bitten (2020)

Author: Patricia Briggs

Title: Smoke Bitten

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 352

Series: Mercy Thompson #12

Were I in the habit of creating titles for my reviews, this one would be Smoke Bitter or The Too Long Goodbye with Mercy Thompson. At 12 books the series has long outlived its merit – at least for me. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear to me that Briggs’s flagship series should have ended with Fire Touched, book #9, or even Night Broken, book #8. To be honest, the last one I really enjoyed was number 7, Frost Burned, and afterwards the series became a slippery slope of ever less imaginative plots and lamer jokes. And more fawning over oh-so-beautiful Adam. Well, whatever else I can say about Smoke Bitten, it had these three elements in spades.

If you know Mercy Thompson series, you know it’s an urban fantasy set in the more rural part of Washington (the state), and the main protagonist is a young woman with complicated parentage – her father is the Coyote, Native American spirit of mischievousness (which by book 12 has been elevated to “chaos”) and she’d been raised by a werewolf pack in a remote part of Montana. But even if you don’t know anything about it, you can easily pick up book #12 and start reading, because about a half of the novel is a detailed rehash of what had happened before. I realize that authors of long series are always faced with the dilemma of keeping their books streamlined and focused on the new plot lines while keeping the readers in the loop. I’ve seen many solutions to the problem, all slightly imperfect – from not making it easy and believing that by book N-th the readers are already invested enough to know what’s going on, to a short synopsis at the beginning, to a list of characters with descriptions, to info-dumping at every opportunity.

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Daniel Polansky, The Seventh Perfection (2020)

Author: Daniel Polansky

Title: The Seventh Perfection

Format: E-book

Pages: 176

Series: –

Daniel Polansky is known mostly for his Low Town grimdark trilogy. I read, and admired, his 2015 novella The Builders; a gritty and incredibly bloody tale of a group of small animals hell-bent on revenge. Think The Wind in the Willows x Reservoir Dogs (yes, I know. And yes, it works!) In The Builders I found that Polansky has a perfect feel of the limitations and opportunities inherent in shorter literary forms – though, frankly, almost 200 pages used to be a full novel, not a novella 😉. Suffice to say that when I saw The Seventh Perfection available on NetGalley, I jumped on it headfirst (or maybe teethfirst?).

And that’s the best way to approach this novella, in my opinion: don’t read blurbs, avoid spoilery reviews (yes, it’s self-defeating, but this one doesn’t contain spoilers, so it doesn’t count! :D) and be prepared to be surprised. But also, be prepared to shoulder at least some of the burden of understanding what in the world is going on – because Polansky surely and gleefully doesn’t make it easy for his readers. The Seventh Perfection is a reading challenge. A very welcome, and an extremely rewarding one, I might add. It’s written exclusively in the second person perspective, and each chapter presents a new point of view (there are very few recurring characters) – which might be overwhelming, but is also immensely enjoyable: all characters have their own peculiarities and their own unique voices, and, most importantly, their own agendas.

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Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red (2002)

Author: Orhan Pamuk

Title: My Name is Red

Format: E-book

Pages: 335

Series: –

“To avoid disappointment in art, one mustn’t treat is as a career. Despite whatever great artistic sense and talent a man might possess, he ought to seek money and power elsewhere to avoid forsaking his art when he fails to receive proper compensation for his gifts and efforts.”

The Turkish 2006 Nobel Prize Winner in literature, Orhan Pamuk has gained popularity in the West mainly through two books: My Name is Red (first published in 1998) and Snow (first published in 2002), but by that time he was already very well-known – and quite controversial – in Turkey. Pamuk, born in Istanbul in a multicultural family (his grandmother was Circassian), explores in his books the liminal space between cultures and religions, where ideas, aesthetic preferences and beliefs clash and mutually influence one another. In the case of My Name is Red, that exploration is enriched by deeply philosophical musings on the nature and essence of human perception – both of the reality, the outside world, and of the idea and existence of God. The aesthetical angle of the novel, presented through many-voiced conversations on seeing, imagining, painting, change, and style, and on the nature and purpose of art, constitutes a fascinating examination of cultural differences between East and West, Islam and Christianity.

This deeply philosophical essay is deftly hidden in a complex love story, which in turn comes neatly packed into a murder mystery. Taking place in turbulent times, in wintry Istanbul in 1591, My Name is Red offers a kaleidoscopic view of a multitude of diverse, sometimes contrary perspectives; a plethora of unreliable narrators;  tongue-in-cheek play with other literary and artistic works – and  with itself, twisting and turning and changing rules of the game mid-play; instances of breaking the fourth wall, and plenty of other postmodern literary devices – all employed in service of a cavalierly conventional story.

“Doubtless, you too have experienced what I’m about to describe: At times, while walking through the infinite and winding streets of Istanbul, while spooning a bite of vegetable stew into my mouth at a public kitchen or squinting with fixed attention on the curved design of a reed-style border illumination, I feel like I’m living the present as if it were the past. That is, when I’m walking down the street whitewashed with snow, I’ll have the urge to say that I was walking down it.”

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Brent Weeks, The Black Prism (2010)

Brent Weeks seems to have as many die-hard fans as critics; and the number of both is not insignificant. His bestselling Lightbringer series, of which The Black Prism is the first instalment, consists of five books. And what books these are! Each is over 600 pages long, and the last reaches nearly a 1000 pages 😉. In other words, a huge time investment for busy bookworms such as us. Is it worth reading? Or at least starting?

The short answer is yes, but it is not an unequivocal yes. It’s not a game-changing literature, or a piece of art that will forever alter your understanding of reality. It’s not without its faults. And yet, The Black Prism is a well-written book, with a creative, complex magic system, a rich set of believable (well, mostly 😉) characters, and some highly enjoyable plotting. There’s lot of action, and plenty of blood and gore and cruelty, steeped in a thick sauce of political intrigue, treachery, side switching, heroic efforts, and spiced with variedly successful attempts at humour – generally, all what you have come to expect from epic fantasy.

So, what is it about? In a land ravaged by a civil war, in which brothers fought against each other with sorcery and sword, a tenuous peace is threatened once again by discontent, ambitious princes. In the world of Lightbringer the power comes with magic. And magic comes in many different colours. Literally; magic is dependent on the perceived light spectrum, and magic users are divided into groups based on their colour affinity: which hue can they harness to create luxin, a versatile substance exhibiting different properties depending on its base colour. There are as many types of luxin, and its creators, as there are colours in the rainbow – plus both ends of the spectrum, ultraviolet and sub-red. As magic is an indispensable element of the world of Chromeria, magic users are widely sought after and respected, increasingly so when they can use more than one colour; and a person able to wield all seven hues is called Prism.

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Madeline Miller, Circe (2018)

Author: Madeline Miller

Title: Circe

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 393

Series: –

Madeline Miller, of The Song of Achilles fame, decided to return to tried and true formula of retelling, embellishing and altering Greek myths to suit modern audiences. Armed with sharply evocative, melancholy writing style and selective empathy, Miller chose to tackle the story of Circe, daughter of Helios, one of the very few witches of Greek mythology, and one famous mostly for her encounter with wily Odysseus.

One thing I cannot deny this book is its ambition. It takes a lot of ambition, and plenty of guts, to take a third-rate character and from their point of view present – or rather rewrite – a huge portion of Greek mythology, its gods and its heroes. It’s a shrewd move, for who can say what Circe was really like? We know her only from the words of others – as a sorceress, a mistress of manipulation and transformation, and a cynical enemy of men, who in time is tamed by an even greater schemer, the cunning legendary trickster Odysseus. She is the maker of Scylla, the six-headed man-eating monster. She is the sister of Pasifae, who gave birth to the terrible Minotaur. As Helios’s daughter, she is counted among the Titans; as Perse’s daughter, she is often demoted to nymphs. Circe is a rare creature; only few in Greek mythology are known for magic as not an innate limited power but something akin to alchemy: dabbling in potions and herbs, speaking incantations, waving wands. Mythological Circe is proud and powerful; an absolute ruler on her island, served by a host of dryads and naiads.

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