Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

watchmaker_filigreeRating: 3 stars

1883. Thaniel Steepleton returns home to his tiny London apartment to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow. Six months later, the mysterious timepiece saves his life, drawing him away from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard. At last, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori, a kind, lonely immigrant from Japan. Although Mori seems harmless, a chain of unexplainable events soon suggests he must be hiding something. When Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist, unwittingly interferes, Thaniel is torn between opposing loyalties.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a sweeping, atmospheric narrative that takes the reader on an unexpected journey through Victorian London, Japan as its civil war crumbles long-standing traditions, and beyond. Blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, it opens doors to a strange and magical past.

Review: This one is frustrating, because I went into it so full of hope and there was so much potential here, but somehow it fell flat. It’s not terrible, but it’s not brilliant, and I was expecting something…more, although I can’t articulate how. It felt like a book with all the elements to be special–interesting world-building, characters I wanted to like, good plot potential–and somehow they didn’t quite come together. It’s not quite “I’ll never get those hours back” levels of not great, but it didn’t leave me wanting to recommend it to everyone I met. Not bad, not great, but entertaining enough that I finished it is probably the best I can say.

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Review: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

stone_skyRating: 5 stars

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS… FOR THE LAST TIME.

The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.

Review: I’m sure everyone has already raved about this, but I can’t resist: I loved this. Absolutely loved it. A completely satisfying conclusion to the series in a way I didn’t expect. She stuck the landing, guys! When a series is this good, and this heartbreaking, I always worry the writer won’t be able to finish well, but thankfully Jemisin is far too skilled for that. And what I really loved was the way so many themes and ideas came together as the narratives converged.

The interweaving narratives and POV-styles are a big part of what has made this series so good for me, and Jemisin once against got that spot-on. What could be viewed as stylistic trickery is actually one of the elements that makes these books so strong. She could have written them all in flat third-person and that would have been fine, I guess, but the story would have lost something if she’d done that. The third-person/second-person/first-person combination was necessary to tell the story with the strength and depth it needed.

The characters are the other element that really made this book and the whole series. Over the course of three books, I came to care about these beautiful, flawed, fascinating people. They didn’t always do the right thing, they got things wrong, they were incredibly broken, but that’s what made them into people I cared about. Even Nassun, who did terrible things, was someone I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for and loving by the end because all her actions had causes. That’s something Jemisin got very right–nothing her characters did was senseless, there was always a logical or emotional reason behind their actions. They felt real and vibrant to me.

I think this is one of the best series I’ve read in the last few years (and Hugo voters agree–Jemisin joined the tiny group of people two win the best novel Hugo two years running a few weeks ago) and this concluding part was as strong as the preceding parts, leaving me feeling exhausted but satisfied. Highly recommended.

Review: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

three_parts_deadRating: 4/5 dead gods

A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.

Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.

Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.

When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.

Review: I tried to read one of the books in this series–Two Serpents Rising, I think–a couple of years ago and bounced off it pretty hard. I don’t think this is a series that’s particularly readable out of order. Or at least, I don’t think it’s readable without having read this, the first one. Because instead of bouncing off it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were characters I really liked (Tara, Abelard), characters I thoroughly disliked, and a host of characters who are too complicated to put into simple like/dislike buckets.

The world-building is top-notch, but it’s also the reason I think this one needs to be read first no matter what order you pick after. Gladstone does a great job of explaining enough of a very strange world fast enough to keep the reader invested without providing obvious info-dumps, but he leaves enough unknown for the reader to want more at the end. There is a sense of a world that’s too vast for one story, with too much history behind it, but its history is also an important part of this story. Gladstone doesn’t try to explain all of it, though. He fills in the details of what we need, sketches in the rest, makes sure we understand the rules, and then trusts us to keep up.

The story in Three Parts Dead is given a satisfactory ending, but he doesn’t tie up everything in such a neat bow that it leaves the reader uncertain how an entire series can be maintained. If anything, he pulls off the neat trick of writing a satisfying story and leaving it open, which is a difficult thing to do.

The ending took me by surprise, but when I thought back, the clues were there all the way through. This is a mystery at heart, woven into a fantastical story that’s grounded in reality in a way I didn’t expect. I was torn between giving this a four or a five, because it’s really very, very good. But there were also one or two places where I thought Gladstone was a little too clever for his own good and he almost lost me, so I couldn’t call it perfect. He also claims it should be possible to pick this series up at any point, but I’d dispute that based on past experience.  I’ll definitely be going back to read the rest of the series, though, and I’ve been promised that it only gets better. Now that I’ve found my jumping on point (I learned my lesson about starting things mid-series, even if an author says it should be doable), I need to read more, which is the best sign I know of a good first book in a series.

Review: Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

Rating: 4.5/5 grumpy demons

In this NOVELLA set in The World of the Five Gods and four years after the events in “Penric’s Demon”, Penric is a divine of the Bastard’s Order as well as a sorcerer and scholar, living in the palace where the Princess-Archdivine holds court. His scholarly work is interrupted when the Archdivine agrees to send Penric, in his role as sorcerer, to accompany a “Locator” of the Father’s Order, assigned to capture Inglis, a runaway shaman charged with the murder of his best friend. However, the situation they discover in the mountains is far more complex than expected. Penric’s roles as sorcerer, strategist, and counselor are all called upon before the end.

Review: It’s Lois McMaster Bujold, so the writing is excellent: clear, bright, vivid, beautiful. Bujold doesn’t do flowery and over the top, she does compelling and highly readable, but she doesn’t talk down to the reader. She expects us to keep up, and thankfully, we always can. I loved Desdemona (Penric’s demon) and I loved the maturity Des and Penric both show compared to the first novella in this series. I think this can probably be read as a standalone, but it’ll have more depth if you’ve read Penric’s Demon first and that novella is so great, I don’t think it’s a hardship.

In this one, Bujold does a little more world-building and gives us a glimpse of another culture in the world she’s created. The plot is strong and doesn’t go where I expected it to go, but it’s the characters that always keep me coming back to Bujold’s work. Her characters are never one dimensional, never simple, but they’re always people you want to know more about.

The only reason this didn’t quite get a five star is because I think her full-length novels in this world have scope for depth, but that’s such a tiny thing and possibly a symptom of my preference for novels than an actual flaw in the work.

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Stones by Seanan McGuire

sticks_and_bones

Rating: 5/5 portals to strange moors

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

Review

I loved Every Heart a Doorway last year. It was one of my top reads for the year and I felt it was really important because of all the people it represented. An asexual main character is so rare, and it was so beautifully written.

That makes me feel slightly guilty about saying I liked this one even more. I shouldn’t have favourites!

Except I do, and this has become one. Every Heart a Doorway was brilliant, beautiful, and spoke to a lot of people. Down Among the Sticks and Bones spoke to me. 

I didn’t feel like I knew Jack or Jill well at the end of Every Heart and that’s fine. They weren’t the MCs. I didn’t need to know their deepest thoughts and fears, because it wasn’t their story. It was Nancy’s story.

This book is their story and I discovered that I adore Jack, Jill terrifies me, and they’re both amazing characters. In fact, I immediately picked up Every Heart to see how that changes now that I understand these people better!

The big theme in the book is the ways that parents and parental figures can fuck us up but they can also put us back together again. Sometimes they don’t put us back together right, and sometimes we’re too broken to be put together no matter how hard our parental figures try. Sometimes they helps us to put ourselves together exactly as we need to be.

The theme that really spoke to me, though, was about gender. The idea that trying to fit inside rigid definitions of gender can be damaging and that it’s okay to be a mixture of girl things and boy things and it doesn’t make you any less (or any more) a girl or a boy. It’s not about being trans (I think that should be Kade’s story, if McGuire ever writes it), but it is about finding balance and finding what works for us in a world that can put hard lined around gender expression. It’s about the damage that parental expectations and definitions can do and the ways that rebellion against those expectations can be as damaging as the expectations.

I can’t explain why this book felt so much like my book, because my parents were nothing like Jack and Jill’s parents and I didn’t get transported to the Moors, but it did. I think it’s because Jack spoke to me. I know Jack because a part of me has been Jack, is still Jack in places, and that’s what this book connected to.