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review 2020-05-23 15:47
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow - Natasha Pulley
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow - Natasha Pulley

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which I re-read in preparation for this book and I think actually enjoyed more than when I first read it - at the time, I said I didn't think I'd want to re-read that book but clearly was incorrect, so make of that what you will. It's pretty safe to say that the things I found a little vexing about that book are also present in this one, hence I've given it the same rating.

 

Instead of London, most of The Lost Future of Pepperharrow takes place in Japan - as we start the book, Thaniel Steepleton is now pretty much fluent in Japanese and gets told he's being sent there on behalf of the British government. Meanwhile Keita Mori has been in Russia and his country is more than a little suspicious of what he's been doing, which becomes even more reasonable behaviour on their part when his role as a spymaster starts to be revealed. Mori's knowledge of possible futures is a massive asset to that role and when he and Thaniel end up in Japan, Mori is walking into a trap to try and test and/or control his powers. 

 

The book is set at the time of massive naval expansion on the part of the Russians and the Japanese, with the latter buying a bunch of new ships for their navy from the British. On arriving in Japan, Thaniel discovers that not only has Mori been cagey about his past there, he's also married - struggling with his health, Thaniel decides the best thing to do is leave Mori behind and concentrate on his work. This is a particularly attractive option for Thaniel when it becomes clear that Mori is disturbed by his still being alive, since he can see a number of possible futures where that's not the case. 

 

All of this relationship drama is happening alongside all sorts of electrical experiments which are creating 'ghosts' of past and future events, mimicking what Mori can do with his mind and throwing the local population into turmoil. There's plenty going on here and Mori is at the heart of it, unsurprisingly, having set into motion a chain of events that we later discover is mostly aimed at preventing an all-out war Japan is likely to lose at that point and also helping find a cure for Thaniel. At one point, Mori is believed dead and a former friend of his tries to pin his murder on Thaniel, before fortunately everything is resolved (though not without loss of life). 

 

As with the previous book, the one area in which the author falls down a little is still the characterisation of the women in her stories. While Grace Carrow, who played a major role in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, also appears here, it's Takiko Pepperharrow who is the main female character - she's a little better fleshed-out than Grace was, so it's a shame how things play out for her when there seemed to be other directions it could have gone. Anyway, if you can get past the role of woman as barrier-to-relationship where our protagonists are concerned, then you'll probably like this book as well.  

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review 2020-05-13 23:55
Weighed down by the author's need to show his research
Dominion - C.J. Sansom

Much like American history, British history seems to have a default setting when it comes to alternate history novels. For U.S. history, that setting is the Civil War, for which innumerable stories playing around with different outcomes and their consequences. For British history, however, the default to which authors keep returning is 1940, as they hypothesize how very different things might have turned out had Winston Churchill not become prime minister and fought on. Invariably the outcome is worse for Britain and the world, as the story's protagonists have to cope with the jackbooted heel of the Third Reich pressing down upon the nation's neck.

 

C. J. Sansom's book is just one example of this. Set in 1952, it imagines a world in which Lord Halifax was selected as prime minister in May 1940 instead of Churchill. The result is grim: after the German triumph in France in June, the British agree to a treaty that cedes domination of Europe to the Nazis. With their empire increasingly straining for independence, fascism steadily takes root in British politics. Yet a resistance movement headed by Churchill fights back against the slowly settling authoritarianism of the British government. Among their number is David Fitzgerald, a veteran of the "1939-40" war who supplies intelligence to the Resistance from his post as a civil servant in the Dominions Office. But when a friend from his years at university reaches out to him, Fitzgerald finds himself drawn into far more dangerous work. Before long Fitzgerald is on the run with his friend, with both Special Branch and a Gestapo agent hard on his heels.

 

The best alternate history novels tell gripping stories within a plausible world. Sansom succeeds brilliantly in the latter respect, as he has envisioned an alternative outcome that is distinctively different without being unrealistic. Yet the considerable amount of work Sansom put into detailing his ahistorical setting proves a weakness, as the author succumbs to the temptation to display his research in the text, Few chapters go by without details dropped about recent history or headlines from the contemporary world, all done in clunky bits of exposition. Though it demonstrates the impressive amount of thought Sansom put into his book, the sheer weight of it drags down the text. So too does Sansom's laborious retelling of his characters' backstories, which often drain any momentum from the plot. The combination causes Sansom's novel to collapse from its own weight, making it one of the more disappointing examples of a genre from which readers have an abundance of alternatives from which to choose.

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review 2020-05-10 20:32
Creatures of Charm and Hunger - Molly Tanzer
Creatures of Charm and Hunger - Molly Tanzer

Sometimes, often in the first book of a series, it seems like there's a definite temptation for an author to stick in just a little more plot than that book can handle - if there's one thing to say about Creatures of Charm and Hunger, it's that it's one of those books. 

 

The basic premise is that our main characters, Jane and Miriam, are teenage girls who are both studying to become diabolists - to use a form of magic that involves binding demons and then using their essence to support a pact made between demon and diabolist. There's also something going on here about plants being involved but that kind of didn't quite stick in my mind while I was reading this, so I'm not 100% clear how it works. Anyway, both are about to take their Test (hey, you know it's serious when random capital letters are involved), to see if they're good enough to be allowed to make a Pact with a demon or not. At one point, they happen to discover that if they don't pass, they might be used as materia themselves, so better pass I guess?

 

This is all going on with a backdrop of the later stages of World War 2, which is where the slight overload of stuff going on starts to happen. There's a raid spearheaded by Jane's aunt Edith, which goes spectacularly wrong and doesn't seem to have all that clear a reasoning behind it in the first place, and also Miriam uses forbidden magic to try and discover the fate of her parents. Meanwhile, Jane has failed her Test and is also dabbling with powers beyond her control and sets off a disastrous chain of events in the family home. 

 

There's also quite a lot of exposition, which means the pace of Creatures of Charm and Hunger drags at times. There's a lot going on here that's interesting, especially the stuff around Jane's choice of very stereotypical witch behaviour (enchanting a broomstick, cackling etc.) but the denouement around what happens to Jane's mother falls quite flat. Jane herself seems to just shrug and walk away, which is convenient for the continuation of the series but didn't ring true. So, all in all, an interesting enough book but not one where I'll be looking that hard to read any further. 

 

On an unrelated note, I wish the author would stop giving her books very similar titles - this is the third book with 'Creatures of [something] and [something]' and they're not really a series as such as far as I can tell. 

 

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a free copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

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review 2020-05-05 19:49
Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
River of Teeth - Sarah Gailey

I downloaded this audiobook because I was hoping for a fun ride. I mean, how could it not be? Feral hippos have overtaken parts of the Mississippi and there is a gang of gunslingers running around on hippos. This should have been like a B-movie creature feature! I wanted blood and revenge and dismemberment by hippo! Unfortunately that is not what I got. 

 

This is a pretty short novella, the audiobook was only 4 1/2 hours. But honestly it felt like I was listening for 45 hours. The first three hours are a long and tedious introduction to the members of Houndstooth's gang. One or two of the characters also use non-binary pronouns for some reason. I am not opposed to this being used in a book but since it wasn't explained or introduced it was very confusing. And the character's name is Hero, which isn't really a name at all. I had a really hard time following that because you have a not-name and a not-pronoun being used constantly. The history was tedious, I really want to get to something interesting and it seemed like it was never going to happen. It took three hours just to find out what job the gang had been hired for!

 

When we finally did get to the action it was abrupt and didn't make much sense. The author shows a very strong lack of knowledge about how dams and rivers work. The lack of knowledge about hippo physiology I can excuse since it was a creature feature. But you don't know that water naturally runs downhill? And that dams are built upstream to create larger, still bodies of water? Dams don't have gates for boats to travel through, that is a loch. All of these questions quickly took me out of the story. It all ended with not much blood, not much gore, and a shocking lack of hippos. This was supposed to be about hippos and I feel like we hardly saw them in action.

 

Also, there was a short history of how hippos came to be so rampant in Louisiana at the end of the book. It explained what "The Harriet" was, which frankly I was not able to piece together through the whole novella. It might have been better to have that at the beginning. This history says that in this alternate history that Lincoln never got around to the Emancipation Proclamation because he was busy with hippo legislation. So, if the Civil War never happened and the slaves were not freed, then how did you have so much acceptance of such a wide array of people in Louisiana (which was a slave holding state)? We have Hispanic people, African American people, non-binary people, bisexual people, feminists...all in this gang and everyone accepts it, doesn't mention it, and remembers everyone else's pronouns flawlessly. That is a head-scratcher right there. Slavery is still a thing but we're embracing non-binary pronouns. It was weird and nonsensical. The best alternate histories need to make sense.

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review 2020-04-28 14:00
The Angel of the Crows - Katherine Addison
The Angel of the Crows - Katherine Addison

It would be fair to say I was delighted when I was approved for an ARC of The Angel of the Crows, as this author wrote one of my favourite fantasy books of the past couple of decades (The Goblin Emperor, in case you've been living under a rock). I knew this wasn't set in the same universe but was, in fact, a story set in Victorian London - I was still looking forward to reading it.

 

It's in this context that I start to try and review The Angel of the Crows, while trying to get my thoughts straight about it. I suspect, like many of the books I bounce off, this will be one that some people will absolutely rave about - for me, it was the afterword that told me everything I suspected as I read it, that this started life as Sherlock Holmes wingfic. The basic premise, after all, is that this is a world where angels and other creatures live alongside humans, so our Watson-surrogate who is the narrator comes back from Afghanistan after being injured encountering a Fallen one and with an unexpected aftermath in addition to a bad limp. 

 

The setting itself holds most of the interest for me, as for the story the author chose to recycle both a number of the most well known Sherlock Holmes stories and the actual crimes of Jack the Ripper. Unfortunately, these are both things I know quite a bit about and that took some of the shine off the plotting. The character of Doyle, our narrator, is fairly well fleshed out but the same can't be said for Crow, who is an angel who stands in for Holmes himself. I think it was partly the frequent use of the word 'giggled' to describe this individual laughing, which always makes me think of small children.

 

In the end, The Angel of the Crows just didn't work for me: too much unanswered for me about Doyle's choices and also the relationship between Doyle and Crow. Oddly enough, it seemed to be the places where the story diverted from the original (for example, Holmes not turning up unexpectedly when Watson thinks he's in London) that left me feeling like there were missed opportunities. 

 

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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