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Katherine

I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!

St. Johns, FL, United States | Member Since 2014

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  • Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners

    • UNABRIDGED (10 hrs and 54 mins)
    • By Ellen Kushner
    • Narrated By Ellen Kushner, Dion Graham, Katherine Kellgren, and others
    Overall
    (829)
    Performance
    (737)
    Story
    (739)

    On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless--until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye.

    Stacy says: "What a beautiful book..."
    "Mannerpunk"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Originally posted at FanLit. Come visit us!

    Set in a fictional Georgian-era-type society, Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners is a "fantasy of manners" or "mannerpunk" novel. In contrast to epic fantasy, where the characters are fighting with swords and the fate of the universe is often at stake, mannerpunk novels are usually set in a hierarchical class-based society where the characters battle with words and wit. There may or may not be magic or sorcery involved and, in many ways, this subgenre of fantasy literature is more like historical fiction that takes place in an imaginary universe. The focus is on societal structures and social commentary. Characters may not be changing THE world, but they're changing THEIR world. If you like Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse, mannerpunk may be just your thing.

    In Swordspoint, the infamous swordsman Richard St. Vier is a tool of the upper class. Those who can afford his exorbitant rates may hire him to challenge a lover who's spurned them, kill off a rival, or just make a party more exciting. Perhaps Richard wouldn't have taken that last assignment if he'd known how the nobles were scheming before the next election. Now he's been dragged into their business, and it's quite a quagmire. On top of that, he has to deal with the eccentricities of his lover Alec, a university dropout. Meanwhile, playboy Michael Godwin is pursuing the widowed duchess, trying to evade the amorous intentions of an important councilman, and secretly pursuing his desire to be a swordsman like Richard St. Vier.

    Swordspoint is somewhat original considering that it's one of the first "mannerpunk" fantasies and features several bisexual characters (unusual for a book published in 1987). The book is highly recommended by Neil Gaiman and is part of his new Neil Gaiman Presents audiobook collection. For this reason, I guess, I was expecting more.

    The story is diverting -- a nice enough way to spend a few hours -- but that's really about all I can say. All of the characters are unlikable, nastily plotting and scheming against each other, abusing each other, or being abused. Richard St. Vier could have been a great character, but his love for Alec was incomprehensible. Alec is boring, sullen, selfish, possibly crazy, and completely without any noticeable value other than his good looks. Why is Richard willing to kill anyone who messes with Alec, a man who's always trying to provoke situations in which Richard will be forced to fight a duel? Not a convincing love affair. I also didn't think that Swordspoint, supposedly a comedy of manners, which relies on witty and clever dialogue, was particularly witty or clever. The plot, though diverting, was not exciting or clever either.

    In its favor, the book is well-written, with smooth prose and excellent pacing. I really liked Riverside, the low-class area where Richard lives. The storyline in which Michael Godwin leads Lord Horn on, changes his mind, and then tries to evade Horn's advances, is funny. I was just expecting more.

    The audiobook version is narrated by Ellen Kushner herself (who you know, if you've heard her on NPR, has a nice voice) with the addition of a "full cast" who reads some of the dialogue some of the time (sometimes Kushner reads the dialogue). Kushner's tone is light and breezy and better with the narration than the dialogue. When she reads the dialogue, her breeziness and lack of variation in tone doesn't help her characters' personalities. However, the actors who occasionally do the dialogue (Dion Graham, Katherine Kellgren, Robert Faas, Nick Sullivan, and Simon Jones) are excellent. The sound effects that are occasionally added to the background are atrocious. For example, when the nobles are drinking tea from fine china cups and saucers, it sounds like they're in a downtown diner. Fires crackling and clocks ticking disturb the narration. It's ludicrous, but fortunately the sound effects are infrequent.

    I'm eager to try one of Ellen Kushner's other mannerpunk novels. Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners was just okay, but I like Riverside and plan to try the sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, which takes place years later and features a female protagonist. It's also available from Neil Gaiman Presents and I've already purchased it. I'll let you know.

    15 of 16 people found this review helpful
  • The Knight and Knave of Swords: The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

    • UNABRIDGED (12 hrs and 39 mins)
    • By Fritz Leiber
    • Narrated By Jonathan Davis, Neil Gaiman
    Overall
    (89)
    Performance
    (44)
    Story
    (45)

    Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's journeys have taken them from one side of Nehwon to the other, facing life-risking peril at every turn. Now, in a set of stories that feature the adventurers on their own and together, they will face some of their most challenging obstacles. Against assassins, angry gods, and even Death himself, the duo must battle for their very lives.

    Katherine says: "Goodbye, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser!"
    "Goodbye, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser!"
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    Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.

    The Knight and Knave of Swords is the last collection of Fritz Leiber’s LANKHMAR stories about those two loveable rogues, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I had read all of the LANKHMAR stories up to this point but it took me a while to open this book because I just wasn’t ready for it to be over. Neil Gaiman says something similar in his introduction to The Knight and Knave of Swords and I’m sure that most of Leiber’s fans feel the same way. I know I can re-read these stories at any time, but it’s just not the same thing. It’s sad to know that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s adventures are over.

    The Knight and Knave of Swords, which has also been titled Farewell to Lankhmar (sniff!), contains these previously published novellas and stories: “Sea Magic” (1977), “The Mer She” (1978), “The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars” (1983), “The Mouser Goes Below” (1987) “Slack Lankhmar Afternoon Featuring Hisvet” (1988). The stories take place at the end of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s careers and, fittingly, are among Leiber’s final works. The Knight and Knave of Swords was nominated for the 1989 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection.

    Last time we saw the duo, they were on Rime Isle with their current (and last?) lady loves and the men they now command. They had left their beloved and decadent capitol city of Lankhmar and traveled to Rime Isle when their help was requested by two “nubile” girls who asked them to come to Rime Isle to fight off the invading Sea Mingols. The boys and their crews were successful, but Fafhrd lost his left hand in the battle. During his convalescence, they just kind of stayed on and settled down with the two women they met there. Not only is this homey sedentary life surprising to F & GM, who are starting to feel a little restless and bound, but it’s very nearly scandalous! All of Lankhmar is talking about it:

    “It is an old saw in the world of Nehwon that the fate of heroes who seek to retire, or of adventurers who decide to settle down, so cheating their audience of honest admirers — that the fate of such can be far more excruciatingly doleful than that of a Lankhmar princess royal shanghaied as a cabin girl aboard an Ilthmar trader embarked on the carkingly long voyage to tropic Klesh or frosty No-Ombrulsk. And let such heroes merely whisper a hint about a “last adventure” and their noisiest partisans and most ardent adherents alike will be demanding that it end at the very least in spectacular death and doom, endured while battling insurmountable odds and enjoying the enmity of the evilest arch-gods. So when those two humorous dark-side heroes the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd not only left Lankhmar City (where it’s said more than half the action of Nehwon world is) to serve the obscure freewomen Cif and Afreyt of lonely Rime Isle on the northern rim of things, but also protracted their stay there for two years and then three, wiseacres and trusty gossips alike began to say that the Twain were flirting with just such a fate.”

    But it’s not just people who are scandalized; the gods are, too. All sorts of deities, including Loki and Odin (I don’t like the way Leiber tied Nehwon to our world that way), still have plans for the world’s greatest adventurers and F & GM’s retirement is not convenient for these selfish godlings. And so they send various trials and temptations that they hope will tear the guys away from their ladies. Thus, F & GM have to dodge beautiful (nubile) girls, assassins, stowaway princesses, and curses. They get tricked, captured, tied up, shaved, beribboned, and rescued. They even find out that they have children they didn’t know of.

    It’s all quite fun for the first half of the book, but it starts to drag later as F & GM spend less time adventuring and more time reminiscing (again) about all the adventures they’ve had (even the “erotic” ones) and all the (nubile) girls they’ve known. One story (“The Mouser Goes Below”), in which Mouser gets buried under ice, goes on way too long and, regrettably, displays the kind of icky lechery I mentioned in my review of the previous collection, Swords and Ice Magic. It seems that the older Leiber got, the younger and more “nubile” became the girls in his stories. There are numerous mentions (mostly by Mouser) of budding breasts and girls playing erotically with each other while he watches. Just yuck.
    Despite this, Fafhrd is one of my favorite fantasy heroes. He’s a big barbarian with an open mind, an appreciation of beauty, a sense of wonder about the universe, a bent toward philosophy and a pretty way of saying things. We often see him wondering what’s over the horizon, across the sea, or up in the sky. He’s not formally educated, but he’s observant like a scientist. In one scene he’s on a ship and a companion mentions the stars disappearing in the daytime. But Fafhrd, who watches, knows the truth:

    “The stars march west across the sky each night in the same formations which we recognize year after year, dozen years after dozen, and I would guess gross after gross. They do not skitter for the horizon when day breaks or seek out lairs and earth holes, but go on marching with the sun’s glare, hiding their lights under cover of day.”

    As you can see, not only are Leiber’s stories usually fun, but they’re also a delight to the mind and ear.

    “Legends travel on rainbow wings and sport gaudy colors… while truth plods on in sober garb.”

    I listened to the audio version of all of the LANKHMAR stories. These were produced by Audible Studios and narrated by one of my favorite readers, Jonathan Davis. He is at his very best in these productions and I highly recommend them in audio format. They are simply excellent. Each audiobook is introduced by Neil Gaiman (who also narrates his introductions).

    Goodbye, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. I’ll miss you.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • River Secrets: Books of Bayern, Book 3

    • UNABRIDGED (7 hrs and 21 mins)
    • By Shannon Hale
    • Narrated By Mark Allen Holt
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (28)
    Performance
    (25)
    Story
    (26)

    Bayern has triumphed in its war with Tira. But though the war is over, simmering anger remains among the Tirans and new hostilities could erupt at any moment. In a desperate attempt to maintain the peace, King Geric sends an ambassador to the Tiran capitol. Of course, an ambassador needs a military guard. Razo - short, impish, and not at all skilled at combat - longs to be among those selected to go, but thinks he has no chance. So he is astounded when Captain Talone taps him to join the group. He’s even more astounded when he discovers the secret reason for Talone’s decision.

    Katherine says: "Razo gets center stage"
    "Razo gets center stage"
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    3.5 stars. Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.

    Shannon Hale writes excellent children’s fantasy. River Secrets is the third book in her BAYERN series. It follows The Goose Girl and Enna Burning and focuses on one of readers’ (and the author’s) favorite characters from these books, Razo of the forest.

    In the previous books, Razo’s friend Isi, who has wind magic, became queen of Bayern and his friend Enna, who has fire magic, helped Bayern win a battle with Tira. Now Bayern and Tira are swapping ambassadors and opening diplomatic relations. The people of Bayern are not popular in Tira because of what Enna, the fire mage, did to their army. Enna isn’t happy about her role in the battle, either, so she asks to go to Tira with the ambassador, hoping to redeem herself by doing something constructive instead of destructive with her magic.

    For some unknown reason Razo has been chosen by the captain of the Bayern guard to accompany the Bayern ambassador to Tira. This is surprising because Razo feels like he’s only at court with Isi and Enna because he’s their friend. He doesn’t feel like he has any sort of skills or smarts that make him worthy on his own. Razo is kind of short, he has no magic, and he’s not a great fighter, so his self-esteem is a little low when he compares himself to his accomplished friends. He has no idea what he can do to help his country.

    When Razo, Enna, and the ambassador get to Tira, they encounter an entirely new culture. While Razo is trying to find his place in Tira, bad things start happening. Burned bodies are showing up around the capitol city, making it look like the Bayern fire mage is terrorizing Tiran citizens again. (They don’t know that Enna is the fire mage.) The daughter of the Tiran ambassador is obviously keeping secrets. Razo is worried about both of these things because he’s not sure that his friend Enna isn’t the one burning bodies and he has a bit of a crush on the Tiran ambassador’s daughter. Razo will try to solve the mysteries and solidify the peace before the Tiran people kill the Bayern ambassador and her entourage. In doing so, Razo may discover that he has his own particular talents and skills.

    Anyone who liked the previous BAYERN books will almost certainly enjoy this one, too. Razo’s a likeable boy with a nice personality, a good heart, and a pleasing sense of humor. He cares for friends and strangers alike. It’s hard to imagine that young readers won’t be drawn to him. He’s also easier to relate to than Isi and Enna because he has no magical powers. In River Secrets we see him start a new clothing trend, become friends with a prince, navigate a royal court, confront terrorists, and deal with his own personal grief and doubts. Razo develops both physically and personally in this novel.

    I liked River Secrets a lot better than I liked Enna Burning but not quite as much as I liked The Goose Girl. I thought Enna Burning was too dark and disturbing for a children’s story. Some of that same darkness is in River Secrets, but it works better here because Enna is not the main character, and because she’s trying to control her desire to burn by channeling it in appropriate directions. You could read River Secrets without reading The Goose Girl and Enna Burning first, but you would be missing some of the history.

    The audio version of River Secrets is 7.5 hours long and narrated by a full cast. One or two of the narrators feel stilted at times, but most of them do a great job. I recommend this Full Cast Audio production.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Falling Free

    • UNABRIDGED (8 hrs and 43 mins)
    • By Lois McMaster Bujold
    • Narrated By Grover Gardner
    Overall
    (894)
    Performance
    (662)
    Story
    (673)

    Leo Graf was just your average highly efficient engineer: mind your own business, fix what's wrong, and move on to the next job. But all that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat, where a group of humanoids had been secretly, commercially bioengineered for working in free fall. Could he just stand there and allow the exploitation of hundreds of helpless children merely to enhance the bottom line of a heartless mega-corporation?

    Kelly Howard says: "if you want the books in order..."
    "An early stand-alone Vorkosigan book"
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    Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.

    Falling Free is an early stand-alone story in Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA. It takes place before the events we read about in the other books and tells the story of the Quaddies, those genetically engineered “mutants” who have four arms and no legs and who, therefore, make good workers for zero-gravity situations. They were created in secret by a corporation who is using them as free labor.

    The story starts when Leo Graf, an engineer, is hired to train students on a distant planet. Leo doesn’t know, and isn’t told, that his new students are Quaddies, so he’s quite surprised and repulsed when he first meets them. Despite their strange anatomy, though, the Quaddies are just as smart as other humans and their four arms makes them better at some mechanical tasks. Soon it becomes apparent that the Quaddies are really just children and teenagers who want to be as normal as they can and don’t even realize that other humans would find them hideous. The corporation gives them no privacy and tries to keep them ignorant of other cultures, but the Quaddies have found ways to smuggle in trashy romance novels and videos. Leo struggles with the ethics of what the corporation is doing, but he initially decides not to rock the boat…. until a new technological advancement makes the Quaddies suddenly obsolete. Now Leo has to decide whether or not to help the Quaddies escape the fate that their owners have decided for them. If he does, he’ll ruin his illustrious career.

    All of Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN stories are fast paced, fun, and amusing, and Falling Free is no exception. On the surface it’s an entertaining adventure that’s often funny, such as when a Quaddie couple is trying to escape with their baby and worried about the trail of dirty diapers they’re leaving behind like breadcrumbs. It’s hard not to adore the Quaddies — they’re clever and sweet — and it’s easy to be outraged at their circumstances. The stakes are certainly high.

    Falling Free is a story about revolution, and who doesn’t love a good revolution story? It’s also about the seduction of power, the difference between free time and freedom, what makes us human, how doing nothing can be morally wrong, and how just one person really can change the world.

    Falling Free is not as wonderful as the other VORKOSIGAN books. The characters aren’t nearly as well developed. Leo, the hero, has little personality and the villains are obvious and one-faceted. Bujold fans know that characterization is what the author does best and that is missing here. Also, the humor isn’t quite as clever, which is disappointing because I love Bujold’s sense of humor. But Falling Free is still a fun story that’s worth your time, especially if you’re interested in the history of the Quaddies.

    Falling Free won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1989. I listened to Bernard Setaro narrate the excellent audio version produced by Blackstone Audio. It’s 8.75 hours long.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Taltos: Vlad Taltos, Book 4

    • UNABRIDGED (6 hrs and 14 mins)
    • By Steven Brust
    • Narrated By Bernard Setaro Clark
    Overall
    (172)
    Performance
    (147)
    Story
    (148)

    Lord Vlad Taltos returns in the prequel to Jhereg, Yendi and Teckla. In this fantastic adventure, listeners learn what really happened when Vlad found himself walking the Paths of the Dead.

    Ron says: "Vlad's begining in the Organization"
    "Lots of backstory about Vlad"
    Overall
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    3.5 stars. Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.

    Taltos is the fourth novel in Steven Brust’s series about Vlad Taltos, a human crime boss in the fantasy world of Dragaera, where humans are short of stature and lifespan compared to the species that rule the world. Taltos is actually a prequel to the previous novels (Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla) in which Vlad tells us about an incident that happened years ago while he was solidifying his reputation as a new crime lord. One of his lackeys tried to cheat him, so Vlad went after him instead of letting the guy get away because he didn’t want to seem weak to his rivals. The man fled to Castle Black, an elusive floating castle owned by the Dragonlord Morrolan. Vlad followed. This is how he met some of the main characters who we already know from the previous novels, including Morrolan, the powerful sorceress Sethra Lavode, and the Dragon Heir Aliera. Together they have a grand adventure which involves stealing magical artifacts, walking the Paths of the Dead, and performing a dangerous bit of witchcraft.

    While Vlad is telling us about this adventure, he also provides flashbacks which describe his childhood with his family, how he eventually left home to begin a career as another crime lord’s minion, and how he rose in the organization by being clever and daring. We learn a lot about Vlad’s father and grandfather, and the fact that Vlad doesn’t know who his mother is (which is bound to be important later). In this timeline we also witness when Vlad met, for the first time, Kiera, the thief who is Vlad’s friend, and Kragar, his current partner in crime.

    Brust does a great job of interweaving these separate plot lines and giving us a lot of backstory about Vlad as well as much of the information about Dragaera that I felt like I had been missing so far. Also, the story gives us further hints about why Vlad, who’s merely an Easterner human, may be important to the Dragaeran society.

    Vlad Taltos has a great voice and he’s a fun character, as is his familiar Loiosh, the jhereg. They make a great team and it’s fun to listen to them banter with each other. Brust’s prose is easily readable and each book I’ve read so far (the first four) are quick action-packed reads. I’m listening to the audio versions produced by Audible Studios. I love Bernard Setaro Clark in this role. He’s got just the right voice and pace. The audiobook is 6.25 hours long.

    You could easily read Taltos before reading the other novels. If you’re the type of reader who would rather go in internal chronological order, I’d suggest picking this up first. Taltos is a must-read for fans of the VLAD TALTOS series because it gives us a lot of backstory while being just as much fun as the previous books.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Phoenix and Ashes: Elemental Masters

    • UNABRIDGED (15 hrs and 18 mins)
    • By Mercedes Lackey
    • Narrated By Michelle Ford
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (202)
    Performance
    (144)
    Story
    (148)

    In this dark and atmospheric rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale, an intelligent young Englishwoman is made into a virtual slave by her evil stepmother. Her only hope of rescue comes in the shape of a scarred World War I pilot of noble blood, whose own powers over the elements are about to be needed more than ever.

    R. Jones says: "One of the Best books offered on Audible"
    "A Cinderella story about PTSD"
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    Originally posted at Fantasy Literature. Life's too short to read bad books!

    Each of Mercedes Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS novels is a stand-alone fairytale retelling. Some of the novels have overlapping characters, but you can read these books in any order. The fourth book, Phoenix and Ashes, is a mostly pleasant Cinderella story set in England during The Great War. Maya, the Indian doctor from The Serpent’s Shadow, is a minor character. I listened to Michelle Ford narrate the audio version of Phoenix and Ashes (Audible Studios). She is perfect for this tale.

    Unlike some of the other ELEMENTAL MASTERS stories, Phoenix and Ashes stays pretty close to the source material; you can tell this is a Cinderella story. Eleanor Robinson’s father is killed during WW1 and Eleanor is left living in the house she grew up in with her socially-climbing evil stepmother and two stepsisters. They cast a spell on Eleanor and make her their slave while they attend teas and balls. Eleanor’s “fairy godmother” is a local witch who helps Eleanor develop her own magical skills. Her helpful woodland creatures are the salamanders that usually accompany fire mages in Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS books. Most interesting is Prince Charming — a young soldier who was sent home with “shellshock.”

    Lackey does a nice job of portraying the horrors, the deprivations, and the massive amount of death that The Great War caused. We see an England that is nearly devoid of healthy adult men within a certain age range. Women were running the farms and businesses. German submarine blockades of merchant ships meant that people were hungry. So many of the English soldiers never came home, and those who did were maimed and/or afflicted with PTSD, a brain disorder that people didn’t believe in until recently. Lackey shows us the scorn that the military held for those who suffered from “shellshock” and also the way they were slow to adapt to the Germans’ technological advances. A few times Lackey attempts to bring in some socialist opposition to the war, which could have been really interesting and informative, but this is dealt with so quickly and superficially that it was of no value.

    As in the other ELEMENTAL MASTERS books, the evil villains are totally over-the-top sadists, making them seem like caricatures rather than real people. Eleanor’s stepmother is so hilariously bad that it’s hard to take her seriously. In contrast, the protagonists always display surprisingly modern ideas for their time. They’re always progressive feminists who despise the class structure they were born into. A little more diversity and nuance to Lackey’s characters would be nice.

    Still, for a fluffy fantasy read, Phoenix and Ashes is mostly entertaining. It’s easy to sympathize with Eleanor’s plight, cheer when she manages to win little victories over her evil stepmother, and feel excited knowing that she’ll triumph in the end. Unfortunately there is a long odd section in which Eleanor learns about passion, balance and responsibility from the creatures on Tarot cards in some sort of dreamland. This was bizarre and boring and didn’t feel like it fit in an ELEMENTAL MASTERS novel since, I think, Tarot has not been mentioned as related to this magic system before. The ending of the story, when Eleanor gets revenge, was also abrupt and not especially satisfying. Sort of like my ending to this review.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • The Wizard of London: Elemental Masters

    • UNABRIDGED (11 hrs and 44 mins)
    • By Mercedes Lackey
    • Narrated By Michelle Ford
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (234)
    Performance
    (148)
    Story
    (149)

    Isabelle Benson has learned that an Elemental Master is behind the attempts on her students' lives-and the would-be murderer is someone very close to her former flame, the "Wizard of London".

    CatBookMom says: "Pleasant but...."
    "Strangely jumbled"
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    Originally posted at Fantasy Literature. Life's too short to read bad books!

    The Wizard of London is the fifth of Mercedes Lackey’s stand-alone novels in her ELEMENTAL MASTERS series of fairytale retellings. It’s so loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” that you probably won’t even notice the few similarities. There’s an ice queen, but the theme of The Wizard of London (if there is one, which I doubt), has nothing to do with the theme of “The Snow Queen.”

    The story starts when a little girl named Sarah arrives from Africa (where her parents are missionaries) at a London boarding school that is known to educate and train the children of Elemental mages. There she finds an ethically and religiously diverse cast of excellent teachers and attendants. She also befriends a young street urchin named Nan whose mother is a neglectful drug addict. Together Sarah and Nan have various girlish adventures such as acting in plays, doing chores and school projects, visiting the country, solving little mysteries, acquiring avian familiars, practicing some magic, and producing a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a big nod to Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill here). Their headmistress, Isabelle, often has special tasks for them such as attending a séance to help debunk the local medium.

    Eventually the story gets on with it and we meet the “Ice Queen.” She is Cordelia, an Elemental mage who mentors David, the man who suddenly dumped Isabelle (the headmistress) without explanation years ago. Gradually we learn that Cordelia made a deal with an ice elemental and has certain disturbing magical skills that she uses to try to gain power over others, especially David. When she’s not doing evil stuff, she is lamenting the fact that she’s a woman and, therefore, forced to gain her power in such an unethical way.

    The Wizard of London is marketed to adults, but a lot of the time it feels like a children’s story since it frequently focuses on the two girls and is often simple and told in short cute episodes that end with the girls being praised for being nice, smart or brave. These parts of the story are quite sweet and childish. But then, as she does in every ELEMENTAL MASTERS book that I’ve read so far, Lackey throws in that super evil villain that reminds you that you’re not reading a children’s book. The story flip-flops between these two tones — sickly sweet and pathologically violent — and also can’t seem to settle on a particular main character or story line. It jumps around all over the place. The disparate plot elements are also strangely jumbled. They don’t feel like they go together organically or fit into the story of “The Snow Queen.” I think I would have left out Robin Goodfellow, the Morrigan, the Wild Hunt, and Aleister Crowley completely, and I won’t even mention the weird part where the headmistress (quite the proper lady) shows up garbed in merely a scrap of chemise and wielding a spear. That was really odd. It also seems to me that Lackey keeps changing the rules to her elemental magic system. It’s never consistent.

    As usual, all the protagonists are unfailingly wonderful all the time. They’re smart, they’re nice, they’re brave, and all of their ideas are correctly 21st century American even though they live in Victorian England (all of Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS protagonists are like this). The villains, or course, are all on par with Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy.

    Michelle Ford does the narration for Audible Studio’s version of The Wizard of London. Her voices are wonderful, but she has a few mispronunciations, including twice mispronouncing the word “sidhe” which she pronounces as “seed-hay” even after Nan misunderstands it as “she” and has to be told that how it’s spelled.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Reserved for the Cat: Elemental Masters

    • UNABRIDGED (10 hrs and 44 mins)
    • By Mercedes Lackey
    • Narrated By Mirabai Galashan
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (197)
    Performance
    (147)
    Story
    (148)

    Based loosely on the tale of Puss in Boots, Reserved for the Cat takes place in 1910 in an alternate London. A young dancer, penniless and desperate, is sure she is going mad when a cat begins talking to her mind-to-mind. But her feline guide, actually an Elemental Earth Spirit, helps her to impersonate a famous Russian ballerina and achieve the success she's been dreaming of.

    Erzebet says: "A Great Book, But Unimpressive Narration"
    "A Puss in Boots story"
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    Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.

    Reserved for the Cat is the sixth stand-alone novel in Mercedes Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS series of fairytale retellings. As the title might suggest, Reserved for the Cat is a “Puss in Boots” story and it’s actually recognizable as such (unlike some of Lackey’s other retellings that go too far afield from their sources).

    Ninette, our heroine, is an orphaned ballet dancer who has lots of talent but is fired from her gig with a famous Parisian ballet company after inadvertently evoking the jealousy of the company’s reigning diva. Unable to get more work in Paris, she is about to prostitute herself when a talking cat appears and promises to make her a superstar. The cat leads her to a seaside town in England where she impersonates a famous Russian dancer and joins a local troupe of entertainers. Things go well until she attracts the attention of the real Russian dancer whose body has been absorbed by a shape-shifting troll. Her new friends, including the cat, must defeat the troll.

    Lackey’s best fairytale retellings are the ones that stay close to the source material. It’s fun to recognize elements from the original fairytales and admire how Lackey re-works them into a new, more modern, story. Reserved for the Cat is fun that way, but the characterization in this novel is weak. Ninette, while she is likable and easy to feel for, doesn’t exhibit much of her own agency. This is, of course, mostly due to the Puss in Boots premise, but it doesn’t make for an engaging heroine. Her personality is as small and delicate as her body. Unfortunately, the people in her supporting cast seem even paler and are nearly interchangeable.

    The story includes a couple of Lackey’s over-the-top sadist villains, her usual man-hating cynical commentary about women’s roles in 19th century European societies and the deplorable state of orphanages, some sloppy plotting, and a quick and unsatisfying ending. I have no idea why all of the characters except Ninette are told who the cat actually is. And why, if the villain is such an awesome mage, is it so hard for her to kill Ninette? She’s like a James Bond villain; she keeps constructing these elaborate traps for Ninette instead of just finding and killing her. It wouldn’t be that hard — Ninette is on a public stage every day and the villain is a shapeshifter. Duh. And why are Ninette’s own powers inconsistent, random, and convenient? And why is the magic system never consistent among the ELEMENTAL MASTERS books? Oh well. I did like the cat.

    The audio version of Reserved for the Cat is 11 hours long and nicely narrated by Mirabai Galashan.

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  • King of the Dead: Lens of the World, Book 2

    • UNABRIDGED (9 hrs and 37 mins)
    • By R. A. MacAvoy
    • Narrated By Jeremy Arthur
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (3)
    Performance
    (3)
    Story
    (3)

    An attack by paid assassins sets diminutive philosopher Nazhuret and his lady, Arlin, on the road to Rezhmia, a fearsome neighboring kingdom to which Nazhuret is tied by ancient blood.

    Katherine says: "It's more about the journey than the destination."
    "It's more about the journey than the destination."
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    3.5 stars. Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.

    This review will contain a few spoilers for R.A. MacAvoy’s previous book, Lens of the World. You’ll want to read that book before beginning King of the Dead.

    King of the Dead is the second story in R.A. MacAvoy’s LENS OF THE WORLD trilogy about Nazhuret, a man who is writing his life story for his friend, the king. When we met Nazhuret at the beginning of Lens of the World, he was an ugly orphan who had been raised in a government military academy. Upon reaching his majority, he left and became an apprentice to Powl, a man who is much more than the lens grinder he pretends to be. Powl thoroughly educated Nazhuret in a multitude of subjects and disciplines. Only toward the end of that first book do we realize why Powl took an interest in an ugly orphan — he recognized Nazhuret’s unknown bloodline and realized that the orphan has an important destiny. At the end of the book, Nazhuret and Arlin (the girl he loved as a child who ran away from home and has been masquerading as a man) perform a noble deed that earns them the love and trust of their king forever.

    King of the Dead begins a few years later when Nazhuret and Arlin are living in obscurity because Nazhuret is the rightful heir to a duchy that was conquered when his parents were killed. Nazhuret has no wish to rule, but he needs to stay out of the way of the current duke. When someone sends an assassin to kill Nazhuret, Arlin, and their unborn baby, they are uprooted and thrown into the midst of political turmoil. Can they, once again, use their special skills, wits, education, and family ties to save their kingdom from invasion?

    Readers who enjoyed the slow leisurely pace and the beautiful prose of Lens of the World will enjoy King of the Dead for the same reason. Readers who are in the mood for lots of fast-paced action should look elsewhere. This is a slow moving story in which not a lot actually happens. It’s more about the journey than the destination. We spend a lot of time in Nazhuret’s head — he’s introspective, curious, and thoughtful. He has interesting observations about the world and the people who inhabit it. We might spend a week with Nazhuret as he’s riding a horse across a barren wasteland, but somehow he manages to keep us entertained just with his thoughts. A lot of this has to do with R.A. MacAvoy’s writing style. It’s so lovely and absorbing that I hardly notice that nothing is happening. This is a story for readers who like to linger over a sentence and admire its construction, for every single sentence in King of the Dead is lovingly crafted.

    It’s hard to compare this series to anything else you may be familiar with because it’s unique, but the best comparison I can make is to Robin Hobb’s FARSEER series. There’s a lot less plot here, and the characters aren’t as endearing (and there are few of them, especially women), but its protagonist is similar (an introspective coming-of-age young man who isn’t what he seems and is completely misunderstood) and there’s a similar sense of tragedy and cosmic injustice. Also, the writing styles are comparable — first person POV with elegant but succinct sentences. I’d recommend the LENS OF THE WORLD trilogy to Hobb fans who love her style and wouldn’t mind a fairly slow plot.

    The audio versions are produced by Audible Studios and narrated by Jeremy Arthur. I thought he was the perfect narrator for this story. King of the Dead is 9.5 hours long.

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  • The Belly of the Wolf: Lens of the World, Book 3

    • UNABRIDGED (6 hrs and 45 mins)
    • By R. A. MacAvoy
    • Narrated By Jeremy Arthur
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (4)
    Performance
    (4)
    Story
    (4)

    Living in exile with his daughter, a now aged Nazhuret learns of King Rudof's death and journeys back to his homeland to intercede in a rebellion led by an old rival.

    Katherine says: "A slow, deliberate, contemplative work"
    "A slow, deliberate, contemplative work"
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    3.5 stars. Originally posted at Fantasy Literature

    The Belly of the Wolf is the third book in R.A. MacAvoy’s LENS OF THE WORLD trilogy. My review will spoil some of the events from the first two novels, Lens of the World and King of the Dead, so you might not want to read it before reading those books. If you have already read and enjoyed those two previous novels, I feel certain that you’ll like The Belly of the Wolf, too. It’s similar in style and tone and there’s a little bit more action in this one.

    It’s been many years since the events of King of the Dead, in which Nazhuret and Arlin (again) saved their country from tragedy. Now Nazhuret is 55 years old, Arlin is dead, and their daughter Nahvah is a grown woman with a fascination for pistols. Father and daughter are living a quiet life in a university town where Nazhuret practices as an optician and a teacher and Nahvah studies medicine. But world events just can’t leave them alone, especially after someone has published Nazhuret’s philosophies without his permission, and the author wasn’t even accurate about Nazhuret’s ideas. Now everyone knows about Nazhuret the philosopher.

    When Nazhuret learns that his friend King Rudof has died, he is once again forced to engage in the political drama and turmoil of their country. This involves assassination attempts, a duel, a voyage on a ship, an elusive sea monster, Nazhuret having his portrait painted, several extremely surly servants, lots of dreams and visions in which Nazhuret gets advice from his dead wife, an igloo, a rebelling duchy, a man who attempts to seduce him (Nazhuret is still a little confused about his sexuality), a horse that’s more like a ghost, and a wolf that’s more like a ghost. A few of these events feel a bit vague and random and the story is a little dreamy at times, but eventually they work out to a satisfying conclusion.
    Once again R.A. MacAvoy give us a pensive reluctant hero on a quest to make things right in his world not with a sword (though sometimes he must wield one), but through negotiation and reason. Though Nazhuret is on the move and must attempt to beat back a rebel army in this last installment, he spends more time philosophizing than fighting. I expect this ratio of philosophy to fighting is why these books have received little attention in the fantasy community. They’re slow, deliberate, contemplative works. In a couple of years I’m probably not going to remember much of the plot of the LENS OF THE WORLD trilogy, but I will remember that R.A. MacAvoy’s prose is a joy to read and makes up for the lack of riveting action. As I keep mentioning, the prose is lovely yet economical, a style that very much appeals to me and makes me put MacAvoy on my must-read author list. I look forward to reading more of her work soon.

    Audible Studio’s versions of the LENS OF THE WORLD trilogy are excellent. Jeremy Arthur, the narrator, does a wonderful job with Nazhuret. The Belly of the Wolf is 6.75 hours long.

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  • Legion: Skin Deep

    • UNABRIDGED (4 hrs and 23 mins)
    • By Brandon Sanderson
    • Narrated By Oliver Wyman
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (2150)
    Performance
    (1937)
    Story
    (1942)

    As the new story begins, Leeds and his "aspects" are hired by I3 (Innovative Information Incorporated) to recover a corpse stolen from the local morgue. But there's a catch. The corpse is that of a pioneer in the field of experimental biotechnology, a man whose work concerned the use of the human body as a massive storage device. He may have embedded something in the cells of his now dead body. And that something might be dangerous.

    B. says: "A Pleasure"
    "Another cool SF novella from Sanderson"
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    Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.

    “I’m not crazy. I’m compartmentalized.”

    Legion: Skin Deep is the second novella in Brandon Sanderson’s series about Stephen Leeds, a man whose psyche has spawned a “legion” of extra personalities that he thinks of as “aspects.” Stephen is the only person who can see his aspects — each is a separate personality who lives with him and can follow him around and help him solve problems. Everyone else thinks Stephen has schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder, but it’s not the same thing. Stephen doesn’t know why he has all these aspects or why he creates new ones when he learns something new. There’s one woman (Sandra) who can help him understand, but she has disappeared.

    When we met Stephen in the first LEGION story (simply called Legion), he was helping a client find a camera that can take pictures of past events. This had interesting ramifications for politics and religion. In Skin Deep, Stephen and his aspects have been hired to find a missing corpse that contains some innovative biotechnology — part of the body might have been used to store some deadly data. If the body is not recovered and cremated soon, that information might get into the wrong hands and could cause a worldwide epidemic.
    Like the first LEGION story, Skin Deep is creative and exciting. In this case, it’s cool to think about the capabilities (and security risks) of biotechnology as scientists work to find more efficient and flexible ways to store large amounts of data. What would happen if we started using the body’s DNA, which naturally holds a vast amount of information, as basically a really big flash drive? Sanderson uses the opportunity to briefly discuss topics such as Open Source and Wetware.

    Skin Deep is also partly a mystery — who stole the corpse, and how did they do it? Where is the keycode? I was in the dark until the last pages, though Sanderson gave me a few clues that I missed (I love it when that happens).

    I mentioned in my review of Legion that the shortness of these stories means that we don’t get to know Stephen’s aspects very well, but in Skin Deep we get to spend a lot of time with three of them — Tobias is a historian, Ivy is a psychologist, and J.C. is an ex-Navy Seal. Ivy and J.C. have an on-again-off-again romance which adds some humor and some extra weirdness. J.C. doesn’t want to admit he’s not real, so he thinks of himself as an inter-dimensional time traveler who comes to help people in need. (Each of the aspects has their own personality quirks and maybe even mental illnesses.) The aspects can eat, go to the bathroom, and talk to each other on imaginary cell phones. I’m not really sure it always works, but it’s entertaining and it does solve the problem for Sanderson of how to make his hero have so much knowledge and skill without making him seem like a god.

    There’s so much more that Sanderson can do with Stephen and his “friends” and it seems clear that more LEGION stories are planned. I’m glad. The print versions are being published by Subterranean Press and the audio versions are produced by Audible Studios. I have and can recommend both. As I write this, the audio version of Skin Deep is free. Oliver Wyman does a great job with the narration.

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