urban fantasy

Review ~ A Study in Silks

This book was provided to me by Del Rey via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway

Cover via Goodreads

Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, is poised to enjoy her first Season in London’s high society. But there’s a murderer to deal with—not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer, and a talking mouse.

In a Victorian era ruled by a council of ruthless steam barons, mechanical power is the real monarch, and sorcery the demon enemy of the empire. Nevertheless, the most coveted weapon is magic that can run machines—something Evelina has secretly mastered. But rather than making her fortune, her special talents could mean death or an eternity as a guest of Her Majesty’s secret laboratories. What’s a polite young lady to do but mind her manners and pray she’s never found out?

But then there’s that murder… (via Goodreads)

There is a lot going on in this book. Steampunk London. Forbidden magic. Sherlock Holmes’s sister’s daughter whose father was part of a traveling circus. To her credit, Emma Jane Hollaway eventually does a good job juggling all that.

While the novel is 500+ pages, and the beginning of a trilogy, most of these elements are introduced in the first chapter in the background while Evelina Cooper, our magic-using tinkering heroine, sneaks around her friend’s house. It’s a lot. Add to that a scrambled timeline at the beginning as we catchup with other events that are going on at the same time as the murder of a house maid. I’m not sure it’s the most elegant way of organizing plot. Thankfully, the rest of the book isn’t as loopy. After about the 45% mark, the action picks up and the story starts moving.

I’m not much of a fan of YA, which this is. Much time is spent on Evelina’s presentation into society and a love triangle between her, her “aristo” friend’s brother, and a guy she grew up with in the circus. All of the above are concerned about their places in the world. It’s all very emotional and tortured, and is an aspect that felt was over-wrought. I would have been happier if the story was more firmly about the murder, the forgeries, and the blackmail. You know, the good stuff.

Most of those plot elements, while secret from our protagonists, are unraveled rather quickly to the reader. We’re given enough points of view to see pretty much all of the story. Most of the suspense in the book is about *how* Evelina will figure things out more than *if.* While the first of a trilogy, A Study in Silks ends in a fairly satisfying manner. The main mystery is solved, other threads are left loose.

I’m always very dubious in YA stories of young people that are very competent at many, many things. At age 19, I knew pretty much nothing about every thing. Even if she is Sherlock Holmes’ niece, Evelina is an accomplished acrobat, well-read, and able to machine tiny animal automata. If she were in her 30s, I could buy it. That would be a steampunk story I would read. Apparently, her magical talent is substantial as well, a hook into the next book.

Uncle Sherlock does put in an appearance, but he’s a pretty bland Holmes. Evelina worries often that Holmes will accidentally ruin her friend’s family due to connections with a crime. That is a flaw that is out of character for the Holmes of Doyle canon.

The world-building was decent, for as many irons as there are in the fire. Occasionally, though, I felt like Hollaway was trying to be a little too clever with the cogged-out inventions. A paper shredder made of multiple flourishing Edward-Scissorhand-style shears isn’t practical. At all. Ever. There is a reason most objects are designed the way they are regardless of how they are powered.

I’m not enough of a fan of YA or of urban fantasy steampunk to read the rest of this series. I found A Study in Silks to be a fairly serviceable book, which I did enjoy in parts, but it didn’t sell me on the next 700 pages.

Genre: Mystery, Steampunk, Urban Fantasy
Why did I choose to read this book? Was willing to give it a try.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes, though it took a while to get going.
Format: Kindle eBook
Procurement: NetGalley

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Carniepunk

This book was provided to me by Gallery Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Carniepunk, featuring Rachel Caine, Rob Thurman, Seanan McGuire, Jennifer Estep, and Kevin Hearne

Cover via Goodreads

The traveling carnival is a leftover of a bygone era, a curiosity lurking on the outskirts of town. It is a place of contradictions—the bright lights mask the peeling paint; a carnie in greasy overalls slinks away from the direction of the Barker’s seductive call. It is a place of illusion—is that woman’s beard real? How can she live locked in that watery box?

And while many are tricked by sleight of hand, there are hints of something truly magical going on. One must remain alert and learn quickly the unwritten rules of this dark show. To beat the carnival, one had better have either a whole lot of luck or a whole lot of guns—or maybe some magic of one’s own.

Featuring stories grotesque and comical, outrageous and action-packed, Carniepunk is the first anthology to channel the energy and attitude of urban fantasy into the bizarre world of creaking machinery, twisted myths, and vivid new magic. (via Goodreads)

As a fan of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, I was intrigued by an anthology that endeavors to collect carnival stories with an “urban” fantasy bent. Carniepunk contains fourteen stories. Half are stand-alone stories and half are set within the worlds of recent, popular urban fantasy series.

The best of the anthology are from the former category. We start with Rob Thurman’s “Painted Love,” which provides a creepy nod to Bradbury’s Illustrated Man. Hillary Jacques’s “Recession of the Divine” is also a standout, mashing up Greek myth and carnivals with a dash of murder mystery. The best, though, is saved for last. The anthology closes with the exquisite “Daughter of the Midway, the Mermaid, and the Open, Lonely Sea” by Seanan McGuire. The story isn’t very “urban” but it is beautiful and bittersweet.

The other half of the stories, the ones set in preexisting urban fantasy worlds, would probably be better appreciated by someone wider read in that genre than me. While most do an okay job of bringing a new reader up to speed, the occasional exposition gets a little tiring. It also felt like many of these stories relied on the set up, “Favorite character from your favorite series goes to the carnival! Hijinx ensue.” Again, this is probably a lot of fun for readers that follow those series. For someone that doesn’t, the stories don’t seem to take enough advantage of the carnival setting.

One exception is “The Three Lives of Lydia” by Delilah Dawson. It is a “Blud Short Story,” but Dawson doesn’t bother explaining what that means, at least not at first and not at length. The main character and the reader are both thrown into the story, float or swim. Her steampunk world and theatrical characters seem utterly made for a mystical carnival.

The best stories of this anthology are very good. Even if you’re not a heavy reader of urban fantasy, this anthology is worth a look.

Carniepunk is set to be released July 23, 2013 by Gallery Books. (Reviewed early due to travel next week.)

Genre: Urban fantasy
Why did I choose to read this book? Carnivals? Urban fantasy? Sounds good to me.
Format: Kindle eBook, Adobe Digital Edition
Procurement: NetGalley

#31

This book was provided to me by Prime Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores by Greg Ketter (Editor)

If you’re a reader, you probably have a favorite bookstore. Or maybe several favorites, as Neil Gaiman admits in his introduction to this collection. Or, if you’re me, maybe you’ve loved every bookstore you’ve ever walked into including big-box chain stores and, the biggest “bookstore” of them all, Amazon.com. In the end, for me, it’s less about the store more about the books. Each store has a different selection. I’ve found things at Barnes & Noble that I never caught a wiff of at A Novel Idea*.

This anthology has some great stories in which the bookstore is the star. P. D. Cacek’s “A Book, By It’s Cover” is an interesting take on the concept of the golem–the golem as building. I really wish there was a current Twilight Zone-esque anthology series on TV because I’d love to see a screen adaptation of this story. “One Copy Only” by Ramsey Campbell features a bookstore full of books never written. This is the store where you might find the Harry Potter book that J. K. Rowling never writes. Of course, such a bookstore has measures in place to protect itself from surly writers. The anthology is topped off by “The Cheese Stands Alone” by Harlan Ellison. If the Fates had bookstores, what books would they “sell”? One yuppy finds out.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of things that really annoyed me about this book. First, many of the stories were about books, rather than bookstores. Don’t get me wrong, some of these stories are good, but the bookstore is only the setting. Despite its somewhat outdated technology, “Pixel Pixies” by Charles de Lint is a fun story about Dick, a hob, and the pixies that invade his neighborhood though the bookstore’s computer.  It could have been any computer. The creepy “Non-Returnable” by Rick Hautala is about a book ordered by an employee of a bookstore. Cats are the stars of “The Hemingway Kittens” by A. R. Morlan. It’s a cute story, but more about the power of story-telling and literacy. Given that these are the things I value above actual stores, I don’t know why its inclusion bugs me so much.

Second, I found some of the attitudes in the stories off-putting. This anthology was originally published in hardback in 2002, at the very early beginning of ebooks. There is definite tension in most of these stories between big chains and small bookstores with a dash ebook and ecommerce worry. I’m not a fan of bashing chain stores or bashing “soulless” books or bashing someone who might run a bookstore but isn’t a “book person.” Only one story gets a pass from me concerning these issues and that’s ” ‘I’m Looking for a Book’ ” by Patrick Weekes. Gorhok the Immitigable is looking for a tome of power. At a Boundries Bookstore. If you’re going to push my artificial dichotomy button, make me smile while you do it.

*If I had to pick one store, A Novel Idea would be it. Yes, even over the two-floor block-long wonder of Powell’s.

Format: Adobe Digital Editions
Procurement: NetGalley

Book #24

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories edited by Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant

It took me a little while to warm up to this anthology. To me, steampunk is a very specific thing: science fiction of the Victorian era. That is, what kinds of technologies could you extrapolate based on steam power? The stories in this anthology stretch the definition of steampunk in a lot of different directions, not many of them sticking to the steaminess of steampunk.

For example, Libba Bray’s “The Last Ride of the Glory Girls”  revolves around one very high tech gadget being used in a traditional Old West setting. “The Summer People” by Kelly Link is contemporarily set and fae centric. These fae have a tenancy to create clockworks. Once I stopped saying “Well, *that’s* not steampunk,” I enjoyed myself a whole lot more.

My two favorite stories are both homages to other, er, sub-genres.  Ysabeau Wilce’s “Hand in Glove” reads very much like a slightly skewed sequel to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” With a little Frankenstein thrown in for good measure. I would love to spend at least a novel-worth of time with Detective Wilkins in dreary Califa. “Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks is a love letter to cinema cliffhangers with the brilliant and beautiful Steam Girl as our perpetrator of derring-do. Or maybe Steam Girl is just the alter ego of a young girl trying to make the best of her ugly situation… Either way, Dylan Horrocks (better known as a comic writer and artist) presents a great debut story.

Format: Kindle Cloud Reader
Procurement: Greater Phoenix Digital Library

Book #22

Soulless by Gail Carriger

As I said on Monday, in the past when I considered reading this book, I was dubious. Vampires and werewolves in steampunk London with a parasol wielding heroine? There are so many ways this can go horribly wrong. But for the most part, it doesn’t.

I”m going to compare this book to most Joss Whedon projects. There is a gap between how plausibly good the average Joss Whedon project should be and how much fun it really is. (This analogy does rely on one believing that Joss Whedon has a few good project to his name. If you don’t care for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, or even Firefly, you’re probably not going to be inclined to read this book anyway.) Even The Avengers shouldn’t be as much fun as it is, but it comes down to characters. Give me characters I like and I’ll forgive quite a few sins.

I also might be a little softer on this book because I’m (relatively) new to steampunk and not overly jaded when it comes to bodice-ripping romance novels. I’ve somewhat accepted the fact that no writer is going to handle steampunk world building as well as I’d like. It is, basically, science fiction set in the 19th century. Going back and rebuilding the world with new technologies (and supernatural aspects) and the ramifications of those things is a task. I’m certainly not saying that I could do it well. I maintain that the best policy as an author in regards world building is to either be exhaustive* or shut up. Gail Carriger present her world, but doesn’t over-explain. I’m okay with that…

…because I’m too busy enjoying myself. The situations have a level of absurd comedy that I enjoyed. The characters were maybe a little too stereotyped, but there is a lot going on in the book. If your world is already quirky, it might be okay to lighten up on the character eccentricities. The plot did a decent job of presenting one story as well as setting up the series.  The language sparkled. Occasionally, there was too much attention paid to clothing, but that fits more with (my preconceptions about) the Victorian setting. I didn’t feel the epilogue was particularly needed, but I can see where the romance novel fans might want that sort of thing.

I suppose the true test might be, am I going to read the other books in this series? There are four more. I’m not sure. I’m certainly not going to do it now. While a few hours of fun and a nice break, I’m not up for more fluff just yet.

*If you go the exhaustive route, you don’t need to share every last detail with your reader, but you do need to know all the details.

Format: Kindle Cloud Reader
Procurement: Greater Phoenix Digital Library

Short Stories #14 & #15

“Requiem Duet, Concerto for Flute and Voodoo” by Eugie Foster

Read this back in September and didn’t get around to posting about it. That shouldn’t reflect on this story. In fact, part of the reason I didn’t post about it immediately is that it touches on a sensitive thing going on in my life.  It’s a lovely tale; urban fantasy, I suppose, but not in the usual way one might think. As always, Foster does a fantastic job of dropping us within the setting and a culture.

“Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes” by Michael Bishop

I’m shooting to read a short story daily during November. I have a fairly long to-be-read list and the internet is absolutely bursting with free fiction if you know where to look. Heck, right at the top of this page is a story from DailyScienceFiction.com!

Bookmarked “Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes” because I confused David G. Hartwell with John Hertz. It was the beanie that threw me off. While enjoyable enough, I’m not sure that I really get this story. I can see some symmetries, but I”m not a fan of switching POVs. For me, it just gets in the way of telling the story. Maybe I’ll give it a second read in the future and see if time gives me some perspective on it.

Book #15 & Short Story #13

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

I wasn’t sure what to expect from War for the Oaks. Over the course of several genre writing conventions and online discussions of urban fantasy, I knew that it was considered An Important Work. Which means that if you’ve immersed yourself in studying the genre, you can see a breaking point in what came before it and what came after it, and a casual reader might have to take your word for it. This is not to say that War for the Oaks isn’t An Important Work; I just can’t comment on that. I suspected that it was not Buffy/Angel-like, which is (right or wrong) my default standard of what urban fantasy is. I also had a vague notion that it involved the Seelie and Unseelie courts.

I’ve never been a fan of the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Unlike the regimented Greek and Roman mythologies, fairy lore always seemed to me to be nonsensically political and vaguely allegorical. No doubt, my opinions are based on the fact that the “classical mythology” taught in schools is Greek/Roman. (Forget about covering the myths of non-European cultures, we don’t even cover all of Europe!) Regardless, I’m not a fan of the fae. So, it had that against it.

Happily, the book surprised me.  It’s a fast, enjoyable read. Bull obviously knows Minneapolis and imparts its beauty in a manner that avoid Tolkien-esque exposition. Speaking of Tolkien and traditional tropes of the fantasy genre, Bull obviously loves music and incorporates it into the book, but instead of lute-and-lyre  poetry, Bull’s bards are rock musicians. That was probably the aspect of the book I didn’t expect and was somewhat dubious of at first. A protagonist that might save humanity through rock music is both cheesy and culturally appropriate for the late 20th century. Bull pulls it off. The characters are likeable and Phouka might make my top ten of favorite characters ever for his goofy swoon-worthy charm.

I do have two criticisms.  Occasionally, the romantic relationship aspects of the story are too drawn out. I felt myself skipping a line of two to get back to the good bits. Secondly, I still don’t quite grasp the preoccupation in urban fantasy with clothing. Outfits are given way too much time. Sure; clothes make the man, are sometimes functional, and affect self-esteem, but I think more than three noted clothes changes in a book is way too many. (As a writer, I’m sure I’ll annoy readers with my preoccupation with food…)

Also read lately:

“Booth’s Ghost” by Karen Joy Fowler – Interesting story, though sometimes exhausting in its litany of names. I will assume the historical details about the Booth family are correct.