Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Beautiful Ones (2017/2021)

The Beautiful Ones is out today

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: The Beautiful Ones

Format: E-book

Pages: 320

Series: –

Another of recently re-published novels, with a new (very sumptuous and eye-catching) cover, The Beautiful Ones has been my first unsolicited NetGalley book – hurray! 😊 I’ve received more titles since then (and I’m still struggling with saying no), but that old-new Moreno-Garcia’s novel definitely caught my eye. Having read and enjoyed Mexican Gothic, I expected The Beautiful Ones to be similarly dark and unsettling. The blurb promised secret bitter truths, magic and telekinesis, so I envisioned a fin de siècle vampire story, somewhere along the lines of Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (no, I haven’t read that one, I’ve only watched the movie 😉). Alas, I should’ve listened to the reviewers who claim that no two Moreno-Garcia’s novels are alike – because this one turned out to be a very straightforward historical romance, or novel of manners, with a slight fantasy twist. To be honest, I felt that the fantasy elements were mostly decorative, and I had a distinct impression that they were there for a single purpose only – for one scene at the very end.

Let’s be clear: I don’t read romances. Not because I’d never touch them with a ten-foot pole (though I’m getting there) but because I have already read a few, mostly historical ones, and my observations to date indicate that 1) they are generally following a very simple formula; and 2) I just don’t like them. I don’t find myself interested or even slightly invested in the daring adventures of hearts, in the usually contrived obstacles between star-crossed lovers, and in the dramatic resolutions. No, not even Austen (gasp!).

Imagine my conundrum with The Beautiful Ones, then – which is as simplistic in terms of cast and as baroque in terms of plot convolutions as it can get away with. The plot especially seems like something taken straight from numerous Latin American soap operas, with multigenerational families, secrets from the past, and beautiful, cold women. I was close to DNFing this one despite the evocative, trademark Moreno-Garcia’s prose, because veritably all characters seemed to be ready-made by the same romance-churning machines: walking stereotypes engaged in predetermined actions. Charming, sure, but not even considering not toeing the line of romance conformity. And yet, I’m glad I persevered and finished this book, because even if it didn’t change my opinion of romances as a literary genre, I was still pleasantly surprised by the feminist twists on the age-old patterns.

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R.J. Barker, Call of the Bone Ships (2020)

Author: R.J. Barker

Title: Call of the Bone Ships

Format: Paperback

Pages: 528

Series: The Tide Child #2

Phew, this one has been waiting for its review for a good while now, about three months, give or take a few weeks 😉. I blame NetGalley, the reviews for NG books usually have a “best before” or a “best by” date I need to abide by… But I’m also responsible – to put it simply, I enjoyed Call of the Bone Ships a lot, but still less than book one, The Bone Ships. The reasons for this development are many, but the most important of them all is the worldbuilding. It seems to me that the author did all the heavy lifting already in the first installment, creating a unique universe filled with le Guin-inspired world of islands and seas, gender-reversed roles, tall ships and dragons. As a result, the second book is focused predominantly on character and plot development, and while both are laudably consummate (oh all right, character development more than plot, but more on that later), nevertheless the lure of the uniqueness can no longer apply and the new worldbuilding details are too few to keep the mood of discovery afloat.

But ab ovo: in Call of the Bone Ships the crew of the Tide Child must deal with the revelations left in wake of the first installment. And here I must insert the unavoidable spoiler alert, because the second book grows organically from the first, building upon the foundation formed in The Bone Ships, and there’s no way to talk about Call of the Bone Ships without mentioning The Bone Ships (well, there’s a hint in the title) 😉. So, the arakeesians swim the seas again. In the never-ending war between Hundred Isles and Gaunt Islands the sighting of a water dragon whose whole body can be disassembled and used as a source of various lethal weapons, from ships to spears, is a call for a hunt. Whoever finds the means to kill the dragons and get their bodies will obtain a staggering advantage over their enemy – one that can end the war for good with a crushing defeat of one side. No wonder then that both sides scramble to action, absolutely convinced both of their own righteousness and the truth of the old adage that ends justify all means. Blood flows freely, unspeakable atrocities are committed in the name of greater good, and the noose around the Tide Child gets increasingly tighter. And for the Tide Child’s crew, caught between the warring sides, the whole situation just gets a whole lot more complicated – and deadly.

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Joe Abercrombie, The Trouble with Peace (2020)

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Trouble with Peace

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 506

Series: The Age of Madness #2

The Trouble with Peace is the second installment in Abercrombie newest trilogy, The Age of Madness – playing out approximately two decades after The First Law trilogy in the Circle of the World. I’ve read the first installment, A Little Hatred, back in 2019 – but never gotten around to reviewing it. Suffice to say, it was pretty good: slicker and sharper and funnier than The First Law, with the added benefit of hosting a less likeable crew of protagonist – which, in Abercrombie’s books, is actually a real benefit, as most of them will most probably meet their gory, humiliating and depressing ends long before the trilogy’s conclusion. I rated A Little Hatred 8/10; and I’m happy to say The Trouble with Peace is even better.

The First Law trilogy was written with the ingenious leading thought of “What if Merlin was evil?” The Age of Madness continues to build up on it and I’m very encouraged by the signs of an equally pitiless Nimue in sight. But most importantly, with his Age of Madness series Joe Abercrombie seems to be stepping into Sir Terry Pratchett’s shoes – if (and that’s a big if) Pratchett were cynical to the core, ruthless, and constantly angry. Sure, at the moment these shoes are still way too big, and at times clearly uncomfortable, but I’m pretty certain Abercrombie will grow up to fit them quite well.

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E. J. Beaton, The Councillor (2021)

Author: E. J. Beaton

Title: The Councillor

Format: E-book

Pages: 448

Series: ?

Soft-BDSM LGBT+ YA Court Intrigue (and not the “feminist Machiavellian political fantasy” it’s marketed as, at least for me)

I just thought I’d get it out of the way first.

Now that’s done I can start with the proper introductions 😉. The Councillor is E.J. Beaton’s debut novel, published today by DAW. It takes place in a fictional world bearing strong resemblance to our world’s Italy in Renaissance times and all this time and place entailed: separate city-states, feudalism, a ruling caste of cutthroat nobles, condottieri and the constant warring they made their fortunes in, and even something of an Italian League (not the football one, this one). The main character, Lysande Prior, is an orphan foundling who through sheer talent (she translated an ancient poetry artifact, Silver Songs, at the age of twelve) became a protégé of Elira’s Iron Queen, Sarelin. When the queen is murdered, our poor scholar must take the position of a Councillor – a sort of an interrex, responsible for choosing a new ruler from among the four remaining city-state rulers. The decision is urgent, for the person responsible for Sarelin’s murder is no other than Elira’s nemesis, The White Queen: Mea Tacitus (more on that masculine suffix later) who over two decades earlier set the realm aflame (quite literally, being an elemental able to control fire). The White Queen wants to conquer Elira for good this time, and won’t take “no” for an answer. So it falls to our hapless and seemingly mousy protagonist to make the right decisions under mounting pressure and successfully defend the realm. Lengthy discussions, banquets, balls, tournaments, and sightseeing trips abound, and there’s even one short battle.

The book is written in an assured, flowing style, imaginative and lush, bordering on purplish – all the more remarkable considering this is a debut novel for the poet Beaton. The exposition is done deftly, the intricacies of the world explained in small bits and pieces, allowing the plot to flow naturally. The cast of characters is sizeable but managed effectively by the author: while their characteristics are mostly limited to the bare minimum allowing the reader to recognize each without trouble and focused mainly on physical traits – with the exception of the dead queen and the main protagonist, who were given a bit more depth and much needed ambivalence – the characterization seemed adequate for the task of differentiating the various persons of interest. Beaton’s writing holds a promise, and her broad literary knowledge can be glimpsed in the myriad of references to various texts, from Machiavelli to Marx. The introduction of magic as a discriminatory trait in a feudal post-war society was an interesting decision and resulted in the lion’s share of my enjoyment of the book. I wish the novel lived up to the marketing description and actually focused on politics of the realm; however, after a promising start it shifted its attention toward romantic/sexual fantasies and relationships of the main character couched in the glittery cloth of court intrigues – and left me feeling increasingly disgruntled.

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Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016)

The Paper Menagerie

Author: Ken Liu

Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 453

Series: –

Ken Liu has been known as the translator to Cixin Liu’s critically acclaimed Hugo award winner, The Three-Body Problem. He is also known as the author of a “silkpunk” epic fantasy book, The Grace of Kings. But the readers of short stories know him predominantly as a talented SFF author with his own unique voice and unerring focus on humanity’s past and future, cultural diversity and a peculiar vision of transhumanism. His works won multiple awards, Nebula, Hugo, Locus and World Fantasy Award among them, and I must say that, at least with regards to the collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, he deserves quite a lot of the praise 😉.

This review will vary slightly from my usual posts; as each story or novelette forms a separate whole, I will review each in turn and give score to each separately in short paragraphs.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species 5,5/10

Not a great start to the collection; a showcase of interesting ideas, but nothing really stands out in this fanciful enumeration of how various species in the universe might create/perceive books. It’s a fun exercise, and an invitation to the readers to think about the idea of a book, but nothing more.

State Change 10/10

One of two best stories in the compilation, based on an outlandish and very compelling idea that every person is born with their soul manifested as a concrete, tangible item – and that the form of that item directly affects their personality. A really sweet, light, yet thought-provoking story on how we create our own limits and then learn to transcend them.

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