The last three months have been filled with good books. I’ve found three excellent new (to me) authors, started a great new series and had fun visiting old friends: traveling through time with Max at St. Mary’s in “Lies, Damned Lies and History”, facing new enemies with Lex in “Boundary Born”, seeing Kate Daniels’ world through Andrea’s eyes in “Gunmetal Magic”, being a werewolf in London with Kitty Norville in “Kitty Steals The Show” and reluctantly leading a GI revolution with Cassandra Kressnov in “Operation Shield”.
Hmmn, I’ve just noticed that everyone of those has a strong female lead. Either I have a weakness for powerful women or fantasy fiction is a little short of male leads just now.
Best Read of the Quarter
“The Wolf Road” is told as first person account of events through the eyes of Elka, a seventeen year old woman who is almost feral. She lives in the wild by becoming part of it not by trying to tame it. She is another predator in the forest, moving soundlessly, killing efficiently, hiding her tracks and building shelters and making fires to keep herself safer at night. It is only when she has to deal with people and their rules and their written-down words that Elka is vulnerable.
In Elka, Beth Lewis has created something quite rare: a character with a unique voice, who, in telling her story frankly, sharing her thoughts and emotions and cursing her own mistakes and failings, makes us rethink how we see the world and the choices we make.
On the surface, the book is a picaresque novel, following an outcast as she makes her way across the country, running from her enemies and constantly under threat from the people she meets.
Underneath, the structure of “The Wolf Road” is more complicated. It isn’t about Elka’s adventures. It’s about Elka coming to understand who she is and how she got to be that way.
Elka has a childhood she only partly allows herself to remember. The man who raised her isolated her, shaping her to be a weapon in the wilderness. He set her on The Wolf Road, being more predator that person. Elka has to come to terms with her past and decide for herself the Road she will walk. She knows herself well enough to understand that the man saw something of himself in her that was already there and that it is an essential part of who she is. She doesn’t accept that that is all she is.
Elka is not a hero. She’s not a devil either. She is a brave young woman who bears the scars of a life hard-lived, who knows herself to be capable of doing terrible things, who expects no mercy and who, if she allows herself to hope at all, wishes for nothing more than a peaceful life.
It’s some weeks now since I read “The Wolf Road” and Elka’s voice is still in my head. I think it will stay there for a long time.
Best New Finds of the Quarter
“The Life We Bury” is a thoughtful, well-written novel, with a main character who has some depth, wrapped around a satisfying mystery, that delivers an emotional punch as well as moments of tense drama.
The frame of the story is that college student, Joe Talbert, while seeking someone he can interview for a college assignment to write a piece of biography, meets a dying old man, who has spent the last thirty years in prison for the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl. As Joe captures the old man’s story he begins to wonder if the conviction was valid.
A lot of novels would have stopped there. It’s one of those promising premises, offering twists and turns and flashbacks, that Harlen Coben has built his career on and kept huge numbers of readers very happy with.
Allen Esken uses the mystery as a starting point to explore other questions. How should we live with the things that we’ve done that we are ashamed of? When we are trapped in circumstances that drag us away from what we want and who we want to be, what should we do? What do we owe to family, to friends, to strangers and to ourselves? At its heart, this novel asks us to consider what it means to live an honourable life and how far that is compatible with living a happy one.
After I’ve forgotten exactly how the details of the mystery worked out and why I thought which person did what, I will remember the main characters in “The Life We Bury” with fondness and compassion. What more can you ask of a mystery novel, any novel perhaps, than that?
“The Scorpion Rules” is a beautifully told story about really bad things.
The basic premise is that 400 years before the story, a (formally human) AI, Talis, took over the world, to save humanity from destroying themselves, and made war illegal. Talis takes a “Child Of Peace” from every ruler and holds them hostage. In the event that war is declared, the lives of the hostages of the warring parties are forfeit. The story is told from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old Crown Princess Greta, who has been held hostage since she was five and who will continue as a hostage until she is eighteen.
At this point, you might think you know where this novel is going. Greta is the victim of an evil, despotic, AI. A new hostage, Elián arrives who, to quote the publishers blurb “refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught” disrupts everything and who constantly tries to escape. Next, we’d expect some kind of “Hunger Games”, “Divergent” rebellion in which our girl and boy hero struggle to free the world from evil.
Yeah, well, that shows you the wicked sense of humour that Erin Bow has. She’s not going there. She’s going somewhere new and exciting and difficult and constantly surprising.
This is a book about power and responsibility and obedience and sacrifice and dealing with the reality that people will always find a way to go to war and that other people than the ones who took that decision will pay for it in blood.
Greta is a wonderful creation. She lives each day knowing that today she might be asked to walk calmly from her school desk, abandon her studies of languages and politics, and submit with dignity to her death in the Gray Room. She is deeply afraid that she will fail and dishonour herself. She holds on to her sanity through rigorous study and discipline. She is so focused on this that she does not understand her power over her peers, does not see how she is loved, does not take in the struggles of the people around her. Until things change.
“The Scorpion Rules” is a book of strong emotions and a good deal of violence. Not the blow ’em up and count the bodies video-game sort of violence, but the slow, vicious, cruel kind of violence that changes everyone touched by it.”Scorpion Rules” made me think. It made me angry and it twisted my emotions around the writer’s little finger.
Best New Series of the Quarter
“Blood Of The Earth” is the first in a new “Soulwood” series by Faith Hunter. Nell Ingram, the complex young woman at the heart of this series, lives in the Appalachian mountains on a farm she inherited from her (much older) husband after he and Nell’s sister-wife died.
Nell was born and raised in the “God’s Cloud Of Glory” church. She’s not in the church anymore but she owns land that neighbours it and, thanks to the assistance she gave to Jane Yellowrock in the short story “Off The Grid”, she knows that some members of the church want to reclaim her and her land by force.
I enjoyed the way this book cut its own path rather than going by the well-travelled Urban Fantasy routes. Nell is not a typical kick-ass Urban Fantasy heroine. She doesn’t have fur or fangs or tote a sword of power. She avoids conflict when she can and mostly she wants to be left alone with her land and her trees. Yet she carries a shotgun when she works in her garden and is prepared to do what she can to repel the attack she knows is coming from the church.
Although “God’s Cloud Of Glory” is initially presented as a polygamist cult that is starting to curdle on internal strife and misogynistic violence, it turns out that this is too simple a view on many levels. That made the book and Nell a lot more interesting.
“Blood Of The Earth” is a very well written book, packed with interesting, believable characters, great dialogue and some first-rate scenes, like the conflict in the church, that have “make this into a movie” written all over them.
As a stand-alone novel, it would have been a very satisfying read. As the start of a new series, it’s doubly exciting.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
The audiobook edition of “The Profiler’s Daughter” runs for a little over nineteen hours. I made it to the end of the first hour and decided life was too short to listen to the rest. It rarely gets more disappointing than that.
My misgivings started with the Prologue, where a child, out with his younger sister in the woods at night, discovers the corpse of a freshly killed woman and takes the opportunity to fondle her breasts. I almost stopped then. I don’t find under-age necrophilia entertaining.
Reluctant to abandon the book after only a few minutes, I persisted. What finally persuaded me to stop listening was the quality of the writing, which managed to be simultaneously underwritten and riddled with cliches.