Since I have nothing to say again about this week’s Tough Traveling, I shall go through my most recent reading! This time I have two four-star books, though both come with caveats.
Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
As a library worker, I don’t often purchase books; there are just too many crying out at me from our shelves. However, when I stumbled across the fourth book of this series (Salute the Dark) on our shelves, it looked interesting enough that I checked our catalog for the first…and found that we didn’t have it. So I had to buy it.
(Also, I like Salute the Dark’s title. I want to steal it. Curse you, Mr. Tchaikovsky, for thinking of it first!)
Anyway! The book starts out in the past — but not figured as the past, not a flashback but the experience of one of the main characters, Stenwold Maker. That one short chapter really nabbed me, with the battle for Myna and meeting all his companions in a rush only for there to be treachery and death, so by the second chapter I already felt like I was reading a second book — something I was suspicious might be inferior to what I’d just read. Because it went from this fraught war-story to a more pedestrian kids-training-at-a-college storyline, and my interest level dipped.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the treachery-and-death from the past to find Stenwold Maker again. I liked that even though Stenwold has been preparing for the advance of the Wasp Empire for years and years, when it finally arrives he feels like he hasn’t prepared at all. It’s very real, that emotion. And his initially hapless group of students certainly get thrown into the turmoil as they run from an assassination attempt straight into a spy mission.
Now, while I appreciated the percentage and skill of female characters, et cetera, I think my main problem with this book is that I didn’t attach to anyone. Cheerwell Maker a little bit? If only for the fact that she’s a slightly bumbling, well-meaning, fairly clever young woman… But I felt a lot of distance between myself and the characters, even though they had well-detailed inner lives and personal struggles. With some books, I find myself clinging to certain characters as if they’re kin, but this was more like watching Lord of the Rings — it’s interesting, but it’s, in its way, emotionally remote. Or maybe that was just my experience of these characters and not what the story will be like going-forward.
Additionally, the stuff with Captain Thalric… Normally I like his kind of character. I write that kind of character a lot. But it just felt like there wasn’t character enough to him. Again, it may be first-book-in-long-series syndrome (and I’m looking at myself and my Sarovy when I say this) but he only barely interacts with the main story, instead having his own mission which really has no bearing on the rest. I’m sure he’ll be important later, either as a friend or foe, but I’m not sure I liked him and I don’t know if I care to see more.
That aside, the world is great. I love the schism between the Apt and inApt, the different insect kingdoms, the questioning about magic and dark ancient forces, the sort of clockpunk technology (not entirely sure how to characterize it) overlaid on a world that was once straight-up fantasy. I like the hints of history and the various kinds of people and how their insect traits are expressed despite them all being, at the base of it, human. To me, the world is definitely the most interesting character on display.
I did have a bad Fridge Logic moment about the climactic battle over the transport train, though. One of those fly-the-ring-to-Mordor moments where you go ‘why couldn’t they have done this the easy way?’ I shouldn’t state it here because it’s a spoiler, but it’s one of those things that could be easily addressed by the author: a character brings the option up, and the others give a quick reason to smack it down. My problem is that the characters apparently didn’t think of it at all, whereas it wasn’t so much Fridge for me as it was the first thing I thought of.
So that was annoying.
With some character disappointments and that climax hiccup, you’d think I’d mark this lower, but no: I enjoyed it throughout, and it’s a really interesting world. I’ll be reading the second one, just not immediately.
4 out of 5 stars.
Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, by Kim Newman.
This book…. This book.
If I’d known that I should have read six other books before it in order to get any of its references, I might not have picked it up. Granted, the magnificent Buffy sort of mentioned that when she posted her own review (which is what prompted me to buy this) but I didn’t expect quite so many things to fly right over my head.
Six may be an exaggeration, or it might be a diminution; I’m not sure. All I know is that Kim Newman apparently scoured the Sherlock books and various other texts about various other similar shenaingan-prone individuals in order to stick minor characters, plot points and easter eggs from them into these stories. I admit I enjoyed the book plenty without knowing any of his sources, but I feel like I would have gotten a few chuckles and satisfying ‘oh that’s from there!’ moments out of it if only I’d known.
All that being said, this was a fun book. It’s put together as a collection of stories from good ol’ Sebastian “Basher” Moran, a sort of tell-all autobiography about his time with the Professor. I loved how unapologetic Moran is about everything: he’ll shoot anything (or anyone) that’s a physical challenge but has no patience for petty power-brokers; freely acknowledges that he’s been carved up by more than one woman but still womanizes (or attempts to) in all directions; and generally marinates in this kind of seedy anything-goes hunt-or-be-hunted worldview that eventually comes back to bite him. His insights into Moriarty’s obsessions (petty, academic, criminal or otherwise) are great, as is his slow realization that he’s just a tool in this man’s hand.
I think the best moment in the book was the surprise birthday party. It really hit Moran as a character and me as a reader: here’s a man with a shambles of a life, for all his bravado. The swift decline into the rest of the book and the eventual moment of choice wouldn’t have worked without it. And even though it’s the precipice of the end, it’s also very poignant: they remembered his birthday!
I don’t know. It just really got me.
The first parts of the book didn’t hook me so much; the frame story was dry, even though it explains the origin of the Basher manuscript. Meh. I believe each of the sections started off as a short story, and this is actually them collected and edited and put into some order? So a frame story isn’t unwarranted, but it was just a bit of a snooze. Set the tone, I suppose, but it took me until The Red Planet League to really buy into the collection.
Still, by the end, I felt for Moran and wanted him to make the right choice — for him as a person, not a lackey.
Now I guess I should go read some Sherlock Holmes…
4 out of 5 stars.