This is some of what I’ve been reading lately:
The Legend of Eli Monpress series – Rachel Aaron – I just finished Spirit’s End. If you’re looking for a break from grimdark, you should really check out this series. There’s plenty of death, destruction, and high stakes, but it’s told from a lighter perspective, with characters worth loving and rooting for. There is real loyalty and self-sacrifice, along with some really fantastic and inventive magic. As a random aside, I have no idea why the covers are so different. They’re obviously part of different editions, but I don’t know why. The second and third give a more urban fantasy impression that isn’t accurate; I much prefer the first, fourth, and fifth covers as more accurately representing the stories as well as more appealing to me personally. But I can imagine that the other covers sell books, which is the point of a cover. Anyway, it’s not another urban fantasy series with a kick-booty heroine with emotional baggage fighting the baddies of the inner city. The main trio (thief Eli, swordsman Josef, and demonseed girl Nico) are fun all on their own, and the Spiritualist Miranda and her ghosthound Gin who are pursuing them are great. The series gets a little darker in the middle (as well as more epic and less “fun caper”), but don’t despair… it’s worth sticking it through to the end. Definitely recommended.
A book by an indie author I won’t name – I think this may have been a first book for this author. I’m keeping the author and book unnamed. I like the author and wish her success, so this is meant more as general, hopefully useful comments with an anonymous example, rather than a criticism of this particular book. The book centers on two characters, neither of which I found remotely appealing. The main reason I think was that the author seemed to use physical pain (and resulting emotional trauma) as the primary method of creating emotional connection with the reader. If the characters are suffering, we should sympathize, right? Well, yes, but I’m as sympathetic a reader as there is, and I didn’t get any sense of individuality from these characters. They were blanks… like silhouettes of characters with no individual detail to make their pain resonate. It was just pain. After a while, that gets old and stops working, even for a sympathetic reader like me. I actually lost sympathy for them as the book went on… I gave them the benefit of the doubt at first, and then I just got tired of them and their unrelenting pain and fear and trauma. There didn’t seem to be courage or compassion or anything else to leaven the pain, from the main characters or from anyone else in the book. Tolerance for this is largely a matter of taste, but it didn’t work for me. The second major problem was this: The book was the beginning of a series, and so I didn’t expect resolution on every major story thread. I did, however, expect resolution of some story threads. I didn’t see that. I didn’t see major character growth. I didn’t see the point of everything that had happened, or even the beginnings of a point. The whole thing felt like the first act of a play, but with the last few lines left off… you know, the part where you go OH NO! and then you’re ready to watch the second act, eager to see what happens next. Stuff happened, and some of it was probably important… it just didn’t have any emotional resonance for me. I’m completely aware that some of this is a matter of taste, but the book didn’t work for me. Also, on a more trivial note, I found quite a few grammatical errors and typos, but I know this person uses several copyeditors. I don’t know what the manuscript looked like when she handed it to them, but the final copy wasn’t as clean as I think it should be after shelling out money for multiple editors. If I were her, I might find see if my beta readers can help with this, or consider changing copyeditors.
Another book by a different indie author I won’t name – This one just didn’t work for me at all in terms of characters. If you’ve read my series on characters I love, you know I love good guys. I particularly love characters who are kind, even if they’re flawed in other ways. Malcolm Reynolds works for me because of his loyalty to his crew and his kindness, even when he’s being a jerk. He’ll be an insulting pig, but he’ll still risk his life trying to save yours. I don’t need characters to be perfect, but I need some redeeming part of them to latch onto while I wait for them to grow. These characters had the being-a-jerk part down… they just didn’t mitigate it with hidden or unexpected kindness. To me, it felt like their only redeeming qualities were their brilliance at something (that ended up being useful to the plot). Now, I don’t really have a problem with all four characters being a prodigy at something useful for the plot… I’m willing to suspend disbelief in that way. I just didn’t want to spend time with these characters. Everything about the book was competently done… it was tightly edited, etc. It was just that I didn’t like anyone… I don’t like spending time with self-centered jerks. There was also lots of cursing, which was a turnoff, but I’ll admit that I’m more willing to tolerate that when the rest of the story is sufficiently entertaining. I’ll also admit that my disliking this book is a matter of taste… it worked for a great many people. Just not me.
The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastards #1) – Scott Lynch – I finished it, and it was awesome. Horrible, but awesome. Again, lots of cursing and darkness and gruesome horribleness (much more so than the book above), but it was entertaining and inventive and gripping enough that I wanted to keep reading. Despite the darkness of the world and the absolute awfulness of the bad guys (and the good guys could be pretty dark too), there was also a genuine friendship between our little band of anti-heroes, filled up with mocking each other. It actually reminded me a bit of Firefly / Serenity – there was a bit of the same laugh-in-the-face-of-gruesome-death humor, and a similar feeling of loveable anti-heroes against the world (although they were not as loveable as Mal Reynolds and crew). I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. Also, how awesome is that cover art? It’s beautiful and dark and completely appealing. It’s like Venice with Bondsmages and evil magic mafia dons. There’s a much more extensive review here (not by me) that says most of what I would have said. The plotting was the strongest point – very intricate, and never forced, with every character acting for their own purposes. Language warning, not suitable for kids, etc. etc.
Changes and Ghost Story – Dresden Files #12 and #13 – Jim Butcher – Yes, I’m still enjoying this series. I think it keeps getting better, even though I’m not happy with all of the changes. But “I’m happy” and “good for the story” don’t always go together. The story needs certain things to happen, and it takes a brave author to do them sometimes. Sometimes tragedy is necessary, and even though I hate it, I love it too. In a series this long, it’s important for the stakes to keep increasing, and Jim Butcher has done that masterfully. It’s also important for consequences of past books to keep affecting the characters, and not just keep rehashing the same plot over and over. Sure, there’s “Harry has to save someone/Chicago/the world” in every book, but the details of that are always different and interesting, affected by the events of past books. I included all the covers above (from where I stopped including the covers last time) because they’re awesome. Seriously, this is how you do covers for a long-running series. They’re different, but so consistent. I also love that Harry doesn’t wear a hat, but in every single cover he’s wearing a hat. It works visually, and it’s a good reminder (to me!) that a cover is about representing a story, not a photographic representation of a specific character or scene.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter #1) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter #2) – J. K. Rowling – Somehow I managed to never read Harry Potter. I know, I know, I shouldn’t even be allowed to write fantasy without having read Harry Potter, but somehow it happened. It’s not even a prejudice against YA, because I love some YA books. It was popular, so I avoided it. Anyway, I finally decided to rectify that. They were more enjoyable than I’d expected, but I am looking forward to the story getting deeper as it goes on. I’ve heard that Rowling did a really good job of aging the characters and the story as her fan base grew up, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out. I’m not sure how I feel about the covers on these… on one hand, they’re kind of classic at this point, and they definitely show the YA fantasy genre clearly. On the other hand… I’m not sure I would have picked them up if I was seeing them for the first time. I think they kind of made the stories seem a little bit lighter than they were. On the other hand, the books also dealt with some darker themes in lighter ways, so maybe the lightness of the covers works well enough.
The Boggart – Susan Cooper – I really like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, so I tried this book. It’s YA. I like YA – don’t judge me! But this wasn’t my favorite of hers. The boggart was an interesting character, and I liked how she gave it some feelings without making human. The technology is obviously incredibly dated, but I didn’t hold that against the story… it was a fun YA adventure for a time when very few people had much daily experience with computers. Although I do read YA, I think this was aimed at younger readers than most of what I’m used to, so it struck me as very simplistic… but I think that might be an age thing, not a quality thing. Not my favorite of hers, but a fun quick read anyway.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Seth Grahame-Smith – I picked this up from the library as part of a vampire research project. It was much better than I expected. Vampires are presented as thoroughly evil creatures (mostly), disgusting, horrible, and morally repugnant in every way (not at all sparkly). I wasn’t expecting Lincoln’s life to fit into this kind of fiction well at all, but Grahame-Smith did a fantastic job of interweaving real life events with fictional events and fictional reasons for real life events. It could have been badly done in a way that made light of Lincoln’s tragic life, but it was much better and more serious than I’d expected (besides the obvious absurdity of the premise). I might even try that as a writing exercise myself… come up with a truly absurd idea mashup and see how well and seriously I can write it. It was good. I’d recommend it, much to my own surprise. Also, I really like the cover – it captures the feeling really well.