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review 2017-03-16 00:38
I didn't get this PhD for nuthin
The Silver Skull (The Elemental Web Chro... The Silver Skull (The Elemental Web Chronicles Book 2) - Anne Renwick
The Golden Spider (The Elemental Web Series) (Volume 1) - Anne Renwick

The Golden Spider and The Silver Skull are both fairly paint-by-numbers steampunk: it's vaguely Victorian-ish, with the ton & the peerage and all that, but there are Babbage cards and steam mechanicals and such too. 

 

The Golden Spider is probably the better novel, following a girl scientist trying to stop a killer and cure her brother and also there are spies.The Silver Skull relies on one of those "we have to pretend to be married so we might as well bang" scenarios, which I find tedious, and I didn't buy the reasons for the lovers to be apart anyway. But bonus points for pteranodons that the evil lady saddles up so she can have sky battles with airships. That was fresh. 

 

What I really wanted to say about this series, the thing I found utterly charming, was the epically nerdy science behind both of these plots. A science that was lovingly detailed with so much legit scientific terminology that I would just start skimming at points as the principals breathlessly talked chemistry at each other. The author's bio states that Renwick has a PhD in chemistry, and it shows: she loves this shit; she's not going to dumb it down; and she's going to work out the science plausibly, even if it's fictional. 

 

Hard science is very rarely my thing. I simply do not care about verisimilitude, unless you wrap it up with some actual characters, which doesn't happen as often as I'd prefer. And generally I'm not reading steampunk for the articles, but because I like the dash-punk pulp aspects: I want to see me a fucking kraken, or an airship battle that crashes, burning, into the sea, or some automata struggling with sentience. But here, in books where the steampunkery was wan and drab, I lived for the nerdy stuff, in a weird reversal. It just goes to show that the enthusiasm of the writer towards the subject, be it chemistry or krakens, goes a long way toward my enjoyment of a novel. 

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review 2013-07-05 00:00
The Silver Skull - Mark Chadbourn This is not the fault of the author, but my enjoyment of this book was marred by one thing - I kept wondering what it would have been like if written by another author.

This book is a fantasy set in Elizabethan England. It is about the Fae and their interactions with humans. Kit Marlowe is a minor character.

Elizabeth Bear, who I love, has written a book I have not yet read (although I've read another in the series) set in Elizabethan England. It is about the Fae and their interactions with humans. Kit Marlowe is the main character.

And so, although The Silver Skull isn't bad, I kept wondering what Elizabeth Bear's take on these common elements would be, fairly confident that it would be better. Because this is okay, but not great.

Will Swyfte, England's famed greatest spy ever, works for Walsingham, and he, and the others in Walsingham's employ, know the secret - the greatest foe facing Elizabethan England is not the Spanish, but the horrific ravages of the Unseelie Court, who have been preying on humans for millennia. Except that John Dee was able to recently erect some defenses in England that stopped them from...wait, what did it stop them from?

No, seriously. Dee theoretically erected defenses against the Fae that they are mightily pissed off about, but we don't actually see their activities hampered. They still wreak horrible magical trickery on people. They kidnap someone out of a royal residence.

So what was that defense anyway? H0w does it work? I hadn't realized it until I was writing right now, but that's kind of a major plot hole.

At any rate. England is now "defended" and the Unseelie want to crush it under their heel, so they're manipulating Philip of Spain to attack with a mighty weapon they liberate from the Tower of London.

The Fae are so devastatingly evil that the awareness of their existence and few words in the ear of anyone who didn't know about them are enough to drive humans to suicide. This is interesting, that humans are shown as so frail, but I didn't entirely buy it. At very least, we need to hear what evil things they say once, so that I'm convinced it was enough for a single sentence to cause utter despair. 'Cause, you know, we're kind of hardy stock when we need to be. You have to convince me that finding out there's a powerful malevolent force out there would be enough to kill people. I wasn't.

So, Swyfte goes to Spain, tries to free the sister of the woman he loved, tries to keep people from finding out about the fae.

And it just doesn't add up to as much as I would like. The plotting isn't that tight, I was never heavily invested in the characters, it didn't go into the depths I hoped it might. It was a fine fun read, but nothing to write home about. It wasn't the book I hoped it might be.

Which reminds me, I really should read that Elizabeth Bear book.
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review 2011-10-29 00:00
The Silver Skull - Mark Chadbourn A fascinating fantasy take on Elizabethan England.

The story centres around Will Swyfte who is the most famous spy in all of England. Only the title is a facade. He never went on any of the quests the stories about him refer to. The truth is he is a spy who fights against unseen arcane forces that threaten England's existence with the aid of the Spanish. They creatures he fights are referred to as the Enemy, demons, the Unseelie Court or the faery and they have preyed on humanity for centuries. But now as they hunt for something taken from them they have unleashed a deadly weapon in the shape of a silver skull mask. A mask that causes its victims to suffer death by disease. In short however there are a ton of various plot twists, hidden agendas and motives and no one is fully trustworthy.

The 'hero' of the book is an enigmatic character full of darkness and various underlying currents. Far from being a typical hero he is a man of loose morals, who does what he does to protect England and to protect innocent people. In that regard he is a man of contradictions and a very realistic and gritty being. To add to that he is driven by his haunting past and what the Enemy did to him. Which all adds to the intrigue of the novel.

I will read the sequel just to find out what happens next and because it was a well constructed novel. Even if it did take a few liberties with history. But it was all worth it in the name of fantasy.
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review 2010-08-16 00:00
The Silver Skull - Mark Chadbourn This was a really fun read on the whole. I liked the mix of fantasy (Unseelie Court) and history (Spain's attempt to invade England) and the non-stop action sword fighting action meant the pages were turned fast. I wish it was shorter, the endless sword fights are fun, but they are not enough to hold the weight of a 500 page book. All the characters were cliches, but the women were particularly annoying, and I hated the italicized flashbacks. A more sophisticated story would have integrated those bits of past history into the narrative.
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