Review

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Spoilers Ahead)

Even before going out to see X-Men: Days of Future Past, I had seen some rather mixed reviews. Some people called it one of the best superhero movies since Avengers. (And one reviewer described it as better than Avengers.) Others found it sexist, convoluted, and/or disappointing…

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Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie‘s debut SF novel Ancillary Justice [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] has gotten a lot of buzz since its release. The book won the Clarke Award, the BFSA Award, made the honor list for the Tiptree Award, and is a Hugo Award finalist for Best Novel. I’m pretty sure it was also a Nebula finalist, tied for an Oscar, and won this year’s Super Bowl.

It’s an ambitious book, spanning centuries of future history. The protagonist Breq is all that remains of the Justice of Toren, an artificially intelligent ship with thousands of ancillaries — human bodies all controlled by the ship’s mind. Justice of Toren was essentially a single entity with thousands of bodies, and Breq was one of those ancillaries.

This isn’t a Star Trek-style Borg hive where individual personalities are subsumed into a collective; the host bodies are basically dead, without minds or personalities of their own. They’re “corpse soldiers.” Justice of Toren is one being who gets caught up in political crossfire and finds herself reduced to a fragment of what she was: a lone human body, limited and alone.

The first part of the book alternates between present and past, plunging the reader into the story and slowly providing the background. This is not a book you should try to skim. After I finished reading, I found myself wanting to immediately go back through the opening chapters again and pick up on everything I’d missed the first time.

I love the way Leckie plays with identity. Anaander Mianaai, the long-lived Lord of the Radch, is similar to Breq in that Mianaai has many human bodies, all linked. I won’t spoil things here, but I really liked the revelation of where the ongoing political conflict originated, and Mianaai’s role in it.

A lot of the conversations and reviews I’ve seen focus on Leckie’s treatment of gender in the book, both as a cultural construct — gender is treated differently depending on which culture Breq is immersed in at the time — and as a source of personal confusion. What is gender for a being with hundreds or thousands of different individual bodies? Breq often stumbles over gender identification and pronoun use.

It creates an interesting effect when a character Breq has referred to as “she” is then described as “he” for the next part of the book. I found myself rethinking their interactions, the dynamic between them, and more.

I don’t know that the book does anything truly new or revolutionary with gender, but it certainly does more than most mainstream SF these days, and I appreciate the way Leckie thought about it throughout the story.

Leckie also examines colonization, the destruction and assimilation of cultures, the drive for continued expansion and conquest, and more. It’s powerful and often painful. Aspects of that cold, calculating cruelty are what eventually launch Breq on her quest for vengeance.

I have mixed feelings about Breq’s mission. She’s out to kill as many of Anaander Mianaai as she can, but she also knows she probably won’t be able to take out more than one or two of Mianaai’s bodies before being caught and killed herself. Given that Mianaai has hundreds or thousands of bodies, I kept wondering what’s the point? Given the setup, that’s like avenging yourself on someone by cutting her fingernail.

It may be that Breq was simply lost and knew full well that this was a pointless mission, one that was little more than suicide. But if so, I wish that had been made a little bit more clear. (Or maybe I just missed it.) I do like that the ending went in a different direction, and how that set things up for the next book.

I should also mention the character of Seivarden Vendaai, who ends up accompanying Breq. Vendaai undergoes a powerful transformation as well, being a soldier a thousand years out of her own time. She’s a snob and a drug addict, completely burnt out and bitter. I very much appreciated seeing her growth — and at times, her backsliding — over the course of the story.

All in all, a thoughtful book with strong worldbuilding, and a particularly impressive debut. Ancillary Justice is book one of a trilogy. Book two, Ancillary Sword, comes out in October of this year. You can read an excerpt of the first book here.

I haven’t read all of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels yet, and I wouldn’t presume to pick a winner, but I think Leckie is a strong contender.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Spoilers Ahead)

We went out to see Amazing Spider-Man 2 over the weekend. I was nervous going in. Partly because the previews suggested we were getting Electro, Rhino, and Green Goblin. (Because overloading the story with villains has worked so well for other Spider-Man movies.) And the reviews I’ve seen have been iffy, at best.

It wasn’t a perfect film, but I enjoyed it. Andrew Garfield opened the movie with wise-cracking, web-slinging Spider-Man. Watching him take care of low-level bad guys was just fun. I like Garfield’s Spider-Man (anyone else now visualizing a fat orange cat in a spider-suit, going on about Mondays and lasagna?) a lot better than the last incarnation. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised.

And now, on to the spoilers…

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Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

I finished reading Nnedi Okorafor‘s YA fantasy Akata Witch [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] on the flight to Colorado last week. I then recommended the book to a number of different people at the conference. It’s fun, interesting, fast-paced, and just plain good. From the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing — she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?

I’ve seen a few reviews that describe the book as being inspired by or too similar to Harry Potter. Both are coming-of-age stories about children who discover they have magic. Both protagonists explore a hidden magical community, and ultimately, they both have to face a rather terrifying Big Bad. But none of these elements are new or unique to Harry Potter, and Okorafor’s story and worldbuilding are a refreshing change from most “magical teenager” stories.

I loved the characters, all of whom have distinctive personalities and voices, from Chichi’s bluntness to Sasha’s rebelliousness and American sensibilities to the different mentors and teachers Sunny meets. I also appreciated the excerpts from Fast Facts for Free Agents, a rather condescending but informative book about people like Sunny, who have non-magical parents. The book-in-a-book does a nice job of helping orient the reader while doing the same for Sunny.

It’s not all magic and soccer and fun, of course. Sunny’s world is harsh and unforgiving. The artistic wasp who creates a new sculpture each day will also sting you if you’re not suitably appreciative. Sunny risks being caned for disobeying the rules of magic, and her lessons are potentially deadly. At home, Sunny lives with an abusive father (making this the second YA book in a row I’ve read with an abusive father.) And then there’s Black Hat, a man who’s been murdering children, and whose magic is far stronger than that of Sunny or her friends…

The book is steeped in Nigerian culture and folklore, and recognizes real-world tensions and conflicts without ever feeling preachy. There’s a brief reference to 419 scams, acknowledgement of racism and prejudice in Nigeria and the U.S., and more.

My only nitpicks would be that the final confrontation with Black Hat felt a little quick, and I was disappointed to not see more of a resolution between Sunny and her father. But neither of these things took away from my enjoyment.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, I recommended this book a number of times over the weekend, and I’ll recommend it again. It’s a good story, well-written, with great characters and magic. And I’m happy to say that Okorafor has confirmed there will be additional books in this series.

Also recommended: A review of Akata Witch that discusses the cultural context and references in ways I’m not able to do.

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

I will be totally, absolutely honest with you here. I wasn’t really expecting to like Mary Robinette Kowal‘s Shades of Milk and Honey [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy].

It’s nothing to do with Kowal or her writing. I’ve adored other things I’ve read by her. I’ve nominated and voted for some of her work for various awards. She’s a good writer. But this one just didn’t look or sound like my kind of book. The description, “Like Jane Austen wrote a fantasy novel” didn’t hit any of my buttons, and I’m afraid the cover art didn’t help. (The newer editions of this series have different and much improved artwork, in my opinion.)

I tend to prefer more action in my plots, more humor and fun in my fiction … which I’m sure comes as a tremendous shock to anyone who’s read my stuff. So it took me a while to pull this one off of Mount ToBeRead…

…at which point I devoured the story, finishing the book in three days, and sacrificing a bit of sleep in the process.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

…an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right—and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

There are a few action-type scenes toward the end, but for the most part, this is a relatively quiet book. And I loved it. I loved the characters. I loved the relationships between them, and the way Jane’s insecurities crashed into those of her sister, and the conflicts that ensued. I loved the language, which was careful and formal without ever feeling stilted or stuffy.

The magic was particularly enjoyable. In a genre that includes Gandalf and Dumbledore, the glamours of Kowal’s world are relatively limited in scope: the manipulation of light and sound to craft illusions. It’s seen as a lady’s skill, like painting watercolors or playing a musical instrument. But Jane is very skilled and passionate about her art, and it draws you in until a scene about crafting an illusory birch grove is as thrilling as any battle between heroes and goblins.

Certain elements and twists in the story felt a little predictable, but I wasn’t reading for the plot twists. I was reading for the sheer enjoyment. And I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner.

You can read the first two chapters at Kowal’s website, and I strongly encourage you to do so.

Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis

Otherbound [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the debut YA fantasy novel by Corinne Duyvis, and comes out in June of this year. From the official summary:

“Nolan doesn’t see darkness when he closes his eyes. Instead, he’s transported into the mind of Amara, a girl living in a different world. Nolan’s life in his small Arizona town is full of history tests, family tension, and laundry; his parents think he has epilepsy, judging from his frequent blackouts. Amara’s world is full of magic and danger — she’s a mute servant girl who’s tasked with protecting a renegade princess. Nolan is only an observer in Amara’s world — until he learns to control her. At first, Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious. But to keep the princess — and themselves — alive, they’ll have to work together and discover the truth behind their connection.”

This is an ambitious story. Not only does Duyvis create a believable fantasy world (inspired in part by the Netherlands) with its own messy history, politics, cultures, geography, and rules, but she also grounds Nolan’s story in our own world, then successfully ties them both together. In some ways, Otherbound is a portal fantasy, but it’s a portal fantasy with a lot more challenges and complications.

For one thing, when Nolan’s mind is with Amara, his body remains here with no one at the helm. As a child, he slipped into Amara’s world while crossing the street, which resulted in an accident that cost him his leg. Now, Nolan not only has to deal with his missing leg, but in many ways, his connection to Amara is presented as a neurological disability, one he’s constantly working to manage.

Amara’s tongue was cut out as a child, part of her “preparation” to become a servant. Later, she developed the power to heal from any new wounds, and uses this power to protect her princess … a girl Amara can’t decide if she hates or loves. In the meantime, they’re constantly on the run, guarded by an abusive drunk of a man.

Reading through the past few paragraphs, it sounds like this is a grim, gritty, potentially depressing book, and it’s not. There’s plenty of darkness, but Duyvis presents it all without ever wallowing in despair or hopelessness.

I was particularly impressed with how she handled the growing connection between Nolan and Amara. At first, Amara isn’t aware of Nolan at all. But eventually he learns he can control her. The first time this happens, there are layers of assumptions and misunderstandings on Nolan’s part. Without going into details, Nolan is simply trying to communicate with this person, to try to do something about this connection that’s cost him so much. But in the process, he takes total control of Amara. It’s a violation that has echoes of sexual assault, both in the way Amara loses control of her own body, and in her reactions afterward.

That’s Amara’s first introduction to Nolan, and it’s a hard thing to move past. Duyvis doesn’t shy away from the pain and difficulties there, but she does a good job of making both characters sympathetic and understandable as they try to negotiate and learn to work together.

I did get a little disoriented in the beginning as we were going back and forth between worlds, and I would have liked a little more grounding in Amara’s world, but overall I’m very impressed with everything Duyvis accomplished in this book. There’s plenty of action to keep things moving, along with romance, a diverse cast of characters, and an interesting magical system.

It’s a good book, and doubly impressive for being Duyvis’ debut. I especially liked how she chose to end it … which I can’t really talk about without spoiling things. So you’ll just have to read it for yourself.

My Zombie Hamster, by Havelock McCreely

My Zombie Hamster [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Havelock McCreely, is … well, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the box. There’s this hamster, you see. And he’s a zombie…

Naturally, there’s more to it. Let’s start with the official synopsis:

Matt Hunter and his buddies are looking forward to Christmas — actually, they’re looking forward to receiving the latest sword-and-fantasy video game. But Matt’s parents have other thoughts — they give him a fluffy little mammal, a hamster called Snuffles, for the holiday. And his grandmother makes it worse by giving him a hamster cage and wheel. But the hamster isn’t all that cute — at least not after part of its cheek and belly fall right off — without bothering it a bit! And why is it staring at Matt with black beady eyes and a lean and hungry look?

Say hello to Anti-Snuffles, the zombie hamster! Or better yet, run!

This is a middle grade book set in the very near present. The zombie apocalypse has led to a society of walled cities and towns, but aside from the zombie-hunting cops wandering around to make sure you’re still alive, and the presence of life chips that go off when you expire (alerting said zombie-hunting cops to come and dispose of your potentially brain-hungry corpse). On the other hand, Matt still has to go to school, still references present-day pop culture, and still lives a life that’s in many ways pretty similar to most kids these days.

Similar except for the never-named-but-clearly-hinted-at ex-movie star who’s come to town to take charge of zombie security, of course. And the mayor’s big pet contest. And of course, Anti-Snuffles, who may or may not be building an army of undead critters…

It’s a quick read, one the author describes as “a cross between Shaun of the Dead, The Goonies, and The Diary of Adrian Mole.” The short, daily chapters are interspersed with Matt’s lists of things to do, whether it’s his plan for breaking into [SPOILER] or the things he plans to do once he becomes a megamillionaire.

Despite the undead hamster, the book isn’t particularly gross or scary, so it shouldn’t give young kids nightmares about the family pets. On the other hand, reading it as a not-quite-40-year-old, that also meant the stakes didn’t feel quite as urgent to me.

One of my favorite parts was a subplot with one of Matt’s friends, something I can’t really talk about without spoiling things. But it was an unexpected development, and I really enjoyed the way the characters handled it.

It’s a light-hearted story about a boy vs. his undead hamster. What else is there to say?

The book comes out on July 8, 2014.

ETA: And the author has confirmed a sequel is in the works, set about six months after the events of book one.

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], is Wesley Chu’s first novel, and I kind of hate him a little bit for that. I picked up and started reading the book because I had met Wesley a while back, and he seemed like a pretty cool person. I finished reading it because it’s such a fun read.

Tao is basically a symbiotic life form, one who requires a human or animal host to survive on Earth. His people crash landed on our planet ages ago, and are now at war. Tao and the Prophus want to peacefully encourage humanity’s evolution until our technology is advanced enough to help them get home. The Genjix are believed to have similar goals … minus the “peacefully” part.

After a mission gone wrong results in the death of Tao’s human host, he’s forced into the body of an unambitious, insecure IT technician named Roen. This is the time, when he’s stuck in an untrained host, that Tao is most vulnerable. He has to keep Roen alive long enough to get him trained, and eventually to try to figure out what the Genjix are really up to this time.

Like I said, the book is a lot of fun. Tao is a great character, one who has existed in some of the greatest hosts in human history. (Genghis Khan, for example.) Tao tells Roen dream-stories about some of his past lives at the start of each chapter, which gives him (and us) the background of both Tao and his people.

Tao has tons of experience and knowledge, but upgrading Roen to superspy status isn’t as easy as simply plugging him in. There’s plenty of banter, entertaining training scenes, lots of action, and characters you want to keep reading about.

The only real complaint I have isn’t about the writing so much as it is one of the tropes Chu uses in the book. He’s created a world in which many of the wars and tragedies of human history were actually engineered by the Genjix. While it makes sense in the context of the book, I’ve never liked that particular trope, since it would seem to excuse us for our own atrocities. I know it’s fiction, but it still bugs me. Humans are capable of amazing things. We’re also capable of horrible, evil things. Pretending otherwise feels like lying about human nature.

Like I said, it’s a personal peeve.

There’s a twist in the ending that I saw coming pretty early on, but overall, it’s a good ending, one that wraps up the events of this book while making it clear there’s more to come in the series.

You can read an excerpt of the book at Tor.com. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Deaths of Tao.

Reading Roundup

I’ve fallen a bit behind in book reviews, so I’m going to do a quick threesome to get caught up.

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Let’s start with Chuck Wendig‘s Under the Empyrean Sky [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], a dystopian YA novel with genetically engineered super-corn. The stuff will grow pretty much anywhere and on anything … including people.

Cael is a young scavenger, sailing over the endless sea of corn, searching for anything they can sell to bring in a few extra bucks. Life in the Heartland pretty much bites the wax tadpole, but the Empyrean government in their floating cities are the blaster-wielding Goliath to the Heartland’s slingshot-carrying David, making it difficult for folks like Cael to do anything beyond grumble and survive the best they can.

This is book one of a trilogy, and there’s a lot of worldbuilding and groundwork being laid out. It’s fast-paced, gritty, and dark. (I did mention it was a dystopian story, right?) There are some very cool ideas here, from the corn that can infest and grow into people’s bodies to the different ways people attempt to rebel against their rulers.

A little grim for my personal taste, but a lot of creativity and plenty of action, and it ends with the promise of even more to come in book two.

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Next up is the award-winning God’s War [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Kameron Hurley. This one’s even grittier than Wendig. Here’s a quick summary from the Publishers Weekly review:

On a planet settled by Muslims and ravaged by constant war and pollution, Nyx, a former government-sponsored assassin or “bel dame,” gets by as a bounty hunter. Her assistant is the foreign magician Rhys, who can control the ubiquitous insects that drive the planet’s technology.

There’s a lot I really liked about this one, starting with the bugs. Hurley creates an entire world that runs on insect-based technology, from glowing bugs in lamps to carefully-bred beetles that can be used to deliver injections or draw blood to organic vehicles that run on bug-powered engines. The whole biological and genetic technologies are fascinating and engaging.

I also appreciate the central role of religion in the story, and the different perspectives we get from devout characters like Rhys and characters who appear to have turned their backs on God, like Nyx. That said, it bothers me that we have a planet colonized by Muslims that’s spent the past 3000 years fighting a religious war. I don’t know if this is something that will be addressed in the next books, if we get a broader view of the universe, but for now, this struck me as problematic.

The society Hurley creates has become dominated by women, in part as an effect of the neverending war. It was fascinating to see the reversals and changes.

Overall, not an easy book to read: it’s dark, different, at times troubling, and often thoughtful. Despite my reservations, I’m curious about the larger universe, and will probably be picking up the next one to see what happens.

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Finally, there’s Stuart Moore’s Civil War [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], the novelization of the Marvel Comics storyline of the same name. From the overview:

When a tragic battle blows a hole in the city of Stamford, killing hundreds of people, the U.S. government demands that all super heroes unmask and register their powers. To Tony Stark – Iron Man – it’s a regrettable but necessary step. To Captain America, it’s an unbearable assault on civil liberties…

I like the premise of the story a lot, the struggle between security and liberty, the danger of superpowered individuals and collateral damage. Unfortunately, the story didn’t really work for me. I certainly enjoyed watching Iron Man and Thor go toe-to-toe in The Avengers, but during that battle, you never really had the sense they would go so far as to kill one another.

That’s not the case in this book, which turns superheroes into deadly enemies … and that’s where I kept getting kicked out of the story. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to accept that these characters would let themselves get so out of control. I get the urge to make them more human and flawed, I thought it went too far. While there are exceptions, I generally want my superhero stories to feature heroes I can actually like.

There were some good bits, and it was certainly a fast read, but it’s not one I’m likely to reread.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

I brought Rae Carson‘s The Girl of Fire and Thorns [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] along to read on the flight to and from MarsCon. I enjoyed it enough that I ended up finishing the book before I reached Chicago on the flight home. It has engaging characters, plenty of action, interesting magic and worldbuilding, everything a good book needs.

The official description:

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.

Elisa has always felt powerless, useless. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king who needs her to be the chosen one, not a failure of a princess. And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies, seething with dark magic, are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could save his people. And he looks at her in a way no man has ever looked at her before. Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

The book is popular enough that there are a ton of reviews if you want more details there. I want to jump right into an aspect of the book that jumped out at me. Namely, the fact that Princess Elisa is unapologetically fat.

Now when I say that, I don’t mean that the character herself is unapologetic. When we meet Elisa, she knows she’s seen as unappealing, ugly, even grotesque, and she’s internalized those beliefs for most of her life. But Carson doesn’t dance around the fact. She doesn’t try to minimize it, or to soften the descriptions or effects, both physical and societal. At the same time, the narration never struck me as fat-shaming. It’s an impressive and powerful balancing act.

I really appreciate meeting this strong, intelligent, likeable character who happens to also be fat, and I’m very glad Carson chose to write her. I’ve read a lot of epic fantasy, and I believe this is the first time I’ve come across a protagonist like this. (I’m sure there are other examples; my point is that it’s very, very rare.)

As impressed as I am with the writing, there were things I found troubling. Elisa is someone who eats to cope with stress and anxiety and depression. Over the course of the book, as she’s drawn into the middle of a war, she finds herself living a much harsher lifestyle. Less food and more exercise, and within a few chapters, she’s dropped a great deal of weight. She’s never skinny, which I appreciate, but there is a pretty drastic physical change that coincides with her growth into a leader.

This particular narrative thread troubled me as I read it. To her credit, Carson notes in the afterword that she struggled with it as well, and that she even considered not having Elisa lose weight. But she felt that given everything Elisa endures, it would be unrealistic to not show the physical effects. It’s a valid argument, and I’m not sure how she could have done it any differently.

But at the same time, it makes this a story about a character who’s fat because she’s slothful and gluttonous, who loses lots of weight when she has to hike across the desert with very little food, and who suddenly has more confidence, male attention, etc. once she’s lost weight.

It’s not that this narrative is necessarily unrealistic. Sometimes people are fat because they eat too much and never exercise. Sometimes diet and exercise is all it takes. But this is pretty much the only narrative we ever hear. Fat = slothful and lazy and gluttonous, and all those fat people need is a bit of exercise and discipline, and their lives would be so much better.

To be clear, I don’t believe that’s what Carson is trying to say here. In fact, there are places where I believe she’s working against that narrative. For example, one character’s attraction to Elisa begins before the weight loss. But I’m not sure it’s enough.

It’s something that bugs me in the cover art, too. The U.S. paperback shows only Elisa’s face within a blue jewel. Other editions consistently show slender women on the covers. We all know why they do it, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

While I may have reservations about this part of the story, I still appreciate Carson writing and struggling with it. My guess is that a lot of people, particularly those who are or have been overweight in our society, will relate to much of what Elisa experiences.

And it really is a well-written, engaging book. I love the way Carson incorporates religion, how she interrogates it and shows it as a tool for both good and evil. The culture, a loosely Spanish setting, was interesting and new to me. The magic system works well, and the various revelations were wonderful.

It’s a good book, and I think it’s definitely worth reading. You can read a sample at the Harper Collins website.

I would absolutely love to hear other people’s thoughts on this one.

Jim C. Hines