Monday, April 11, 2016

March 2016 Reading Roundup

Yes, I know it is mid-April and yet here I am posting about March, but hey. Better late than never, right? After experimenting for a while with posting monthly reading round-ups over on my tumblr, I decided to start posting them directly here instead. I hate tumblr's search function and I want to be able to look back more easily at what I've read. 

Anyway! I read a bunch of good books last month:

The Second Death (Teresa Frohock)--dark fantasy

This third and final installment of the Los Nefilim novellas provides an excellent climax and satisfying conclusion to the story arc, but oh goodness, I hate to say farewell to Frohock’s world of angels and daimons locked in complex intrigues!  Not only is the setting rich with possibility, but I adore her characters. Half-angel, half-daimon Diago, struggling to overcome a painful past and accept friendship and trust; his lover Miquel, gentle yet fiercely competent; Rafael, the young son Diago wants so desperately to protect…Frohock does such a wonderful job portraying their deepening bonds, and each character’s individual growth and change as they face new threats and agonizingly difficult decisions, that I could happily read many more novellas (or novels!) following their story. Also, for those wanting to read more stories featuring positive portrayals of LGBT relationships that do not end in tragedy or death, take note: this series is for you! Los Nefilim may be dark fantasy, but that darkness is complemented by a glorious blaze of tenderness and hope.  Honestly, I cannot recommend these novellas highly enough. Tightly plotted, beautifully crafted, deeply affecting—this is fantasy at its best.

Fugitive Prince (Janny Wurts)--Epic fantasy with a capital E

Fourth book in Wurts's epic Wars of Light and Shadow, and the start of a new story arc. One of my favorite things about this series continues to be the incremental, accumulating reveals of the world’s backstory and the motives of the various magical players. The character work in Fugitive Prince is excellent just as in previous books; I was particularly impressed by Jieret and Mearn, who are my new favorite characters. (Oh, how I am praying that neither of them die horribly. The series isn't grimdark, but Wurts also does not pull her punches. I've already mourned a few characters I really liked.) The machinations of the Koriathain Order and the Fellowship Sorcerers are getting quite interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing where all the plotlines set up so carefully in this book will lead in future installments. Anyway, an excellent if dense and challenging read. (These aren't the sorts of books that are good to relax with when you’re braindead after a long day at work. Wurts requires a reader’s full attention.) Onward to Grand Conspiracy (#5) I go.

The Keeper of the Mist (Rachel Neumeier)--YA fantasy

Ever since I read and loved House of Shadows, Rachel Neumeier has been on my “insta-buy” list. I snapped this up the moment it released, and devoured it nearly as quickly! Neumeier writes both adult and YA novels; this is one of her YA offerings, a standalone. (Or at least, it can be read as one; I don’t know if Neumeier intends any sequels). Keri, the illegitimate daughter of the Lord of Nimmira, is shocked when the country’s ancient magic decrees that she will take his place as the protector/ruler of the country, instead of his three legitimate sons. Keri, a baker, has no training or knowledge of how to run a country—her predicament reminds me of Maia’s in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, and anyone who loved that book should definitely try this one. Like Maia, Keri remains resolutely goodhearted in the face of treachery and political maneuvering, and it’s her practicality and her ability to see the best in people that are her greatest assets. As always with Neumeier’s novels, I loved the magic, which is wonderfully unique and lyrically described, particularly in some of the climactic scenes. While I don’t think this one has beaten out my favorites of Neumeier’s work, I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy full of hope and likable characters.

Demon Drums (Carol Severance)--sword and sorcery

It always makes me a little sad when I think about how many talented fantasy authors (especially female authors) from past decades have vanished off the radar, their works seemingly forgotten by all but a few. I had thought I was fairly well-read in 90s fantasy, but somehow I never heard of Carol Severance, who won a Compton Crook Award for her first SFF novel Reefsong (1991), and followed that up with her Island Warrior series, of which Demon Drums is the first installment. It was only when I did a search on fantasy novels with Pacific Islander/Polynesian settings that her name came up. Severance drew on her experiences living in Micronesia and Hawaii to inform the environments and cultures of her novels—a nice change from the more common pseudo-European settings common to so many fantasies. Not only does Demon Drums feature coral atolls and island jungles instead of forests and castles, it has a not-so-usual protagonist: a middle-aged, jaded female warrior suffering from a type of PTSD after she abandons fighting in a neverending war. The portrayal of Iuti’s reluctance to make connnections is skillfully handled, as is her slow-developing bond with a young woman she’s trying to protect. The main plot, a struggle against an evil sorceress, is solidly written as well, and the magic both interesting and entertaining. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and I hope more people discover it.

Spirit Caller (Krista D. Ball)--rural contemporary fantasy

Short, sweet contemporary fantasy set in Newfoundland. This edition is a compilation of the first three novellas in the series. I’m glad I read it as a compilation, because otherwise I think the individual entries would have felt too slight and the endings too abrupt. (But perhaps that is my bias showing as a lover of epic fantasy, which is usually anything but short!) Reading all three novellas together provides a decent arc of plot and characters.  My favorite part was protagonist Rachel’s neighbor, the smart-mouthed, elderly Ms. Saunders—every time she was on the page and part of the action, I was smiling wide. I also enjoyed the various supernatural shenanigans, which start off relatively tame but soon get more threatening. I wasn’t quite as fond of the romantic arc—Rachel is in love with her best friend, Jeremy, whom she believes doesn’t love her back, and she spends a LOT of page time agonizing (and crying) over this.  Just not my particular cup of tea, even if it's realistic. (Dithering drives me crazy, both in books and real life.) But the rest of it was a fun read—if you enjoy lighthearted rural fantasy, I’d recommend giving it a try.

The Chomolungma Diaries (Mark Horrell)--mountaineering

Interesting account of a successful guided Everest expedition from the point of view of a client. It’s fashionable among the climbing community to sneer at the “yak routes” on Everest and bemoan the commercialization of the peak, especially after Krakauer’s Into Thin Air provided such a harsh critique of the inexperience of some clients on guided trips. “If you haven’t the skill to climb the mountain on your own, you shouldn’t be there,” is a sentiment I’ve heard many times at a crag. Talk got even more heated after the 2014 avalanche in the icefall that killed so many Sherpas. I read many a rant about uncaring westerners exploiting and endangering their hired Sherpas, all so a bunch of rich wanna-bes can brag about ticking off an item on their bucket list. 

Horrell provides a view from the other side. He’s not some rich surgeon or CEO, he’s just a regular guy who started off trekking and hiking and grew to love climbing big mountains. He’s oriented his life around going on expeditions; working to save up money (not too hard with good computer skills and no family to care for), then heading out on his next trip. He didn’t just leap onto Everest, he climbed a bunch of lesser peaks first (all on guided expeditions), gaining skill and confidence until he felt ready to tackle Everest. The Chomolungma Diaries is his account of his climb from the north (Tibetan) side of the peak. It’s a good read; Horrell has a dry, self-deprecating humor that makes him quite likable as a narrator. He details quite thoroughly his thoughts and fears, without succumbing to the temptation to overdramatize or glorify his experiences. Looking at the book as a travel narrative, the one flaw is that he’s not quite as good at conveying the character of his fellow climbers. They feel like thumbnail sketches rather than real people, perhaps because Horrell didn’t want to offend anyone by being too vivid in his portrayals.

Looking at the book as a defense of guided Everest climbing...I am not sure it quite succeeds, though Horrell spends a fair bit of time discussing the issue in a thoughtful manner. But what it succeeds excellently at is providing a “regular guy’s” view of what a commercial expedition is really like. I enjoyed the read enough that I went on to buy and read Horrell’s more extensive account of his experience with trekking and climbing, Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. Besides, as of this writing, The Chomolungma Diaries is certainly a good value: it’s free on Amazon. I’d recommend it for anyone with an interest in mountaineering.

Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest (Mark Horrell)--mountaineering

I read this after enjoying Horrell’s The Chomolungma Diaries—the latter covers only his guided ascent of Everest, and I was curious to read about his experiences on other guided ascents leading up to the Everest climb. The book certainly delivers on that score, and I continued to enjoy Horrell’s self-deprecating humor and “regular guy” narration. (The flaws of the narration also remain the same: Horrell does well at portraying his own character and thoughts, not so well at memorable portraits of his fellow climbers.) Like The Chomolungma Diaries, I’d recommend the read to anyone with an interest in trekking and mountaineering.



The Last Step: The American Ascent of K2 (Rick Ridgway)--mountaineering

A brutally honest account of the 1978 American expedition to K2. Ah, mountaineering! Lots of egos, lots of drama, lots of interpersonal conflict in which hardly anyone comes off in a good light. (It’s particularly interesting to read this one after Jennifer Jordan’s Savage Summit, which looks at the first five women to climb K2, and discusses the misogyny and difficulties they faced from fellow mountaineers. I’d be quite curious to hear expedition member Cherie Bech’s side of the story Ridgway tells.) The struggle to reach the summit makes for a gripping read, and it’s a fascinating window into a lost era of mountaineering, when siege-style rather than alpine-style climbing was the norm, and climbers had to carry loads and fix ropes without help from trained locals. (For a look at modern climbing on K2—in which the egos and drama remain, just with a different focus—try Freddie Wilkinson’s One Mountain Thousand Summits, or Zuckerman and Padoan’s Buried in the Sky.)

The Duchess War (Courtney Milan)--romance

A lot of discussion has been happening recently about biases that many SFF readers have against romance, which has challenged me to examine my own attitude toward the romance genre.  I’ll admit upfront: I’ve never been much of a romance reader. A lot of the common tropes either do nothing for me or actively bother me. That said, I would never write off the entire genre as somehow lesser than SFF; rather, it’s a genre aimed at readers with different tastes than mine. But I don’t like to keep making that assumption, either. I know how broad and diverse the fantasy genre is, and how frustrating it is when people make assumptions based on a limited selection of the big-name popular novels (which often tend to a same-ness). I’m sure romance is no different, and I’m always willing to try new things. So when I saw Courtney Milan’s novels recommended in the online discussions as examples of romances that don’t have “alphahole” male characters (a character type that I personally detest), I decided to give her work a go. And, well…once again, we come back to taste. The Duchess War is well written. It indeed has a mostly-likable (not alphahole) male lead. Its female lead is both likable and clever. It does have one of my un-favorite romance tropes (insta-lust), but there’s also an exploration of worker’s rights and women’s rights and a plot that has to do with the same. I can certainly see why so many readers enjoy Milan’s work…yet I never got beyond mildly interested. But! That just means Milan isn’t an author I love, not that she somehow represents the entire genre. I will keep trying romance novels I think might work better for me.