Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!

Thirdhand Lovecraft

Title: The Last Ritual
(An Arkham Horror Novel)
Author: S. A. Sidor
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 352
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/20 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review.

I have never played any of the H. P. Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Horror cooperative games, so I have no idea how well this novel ties into the characters and mechanics. However, I have read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction and 1920’s detective fiction and, to be perfectly honest, this comes across as a watered down version of both.

There are some decent moments of surrealistic horror and creeping dread, but outside of those moments the writing and plotting did not impress. The investigation is desultory, characters react to disturbing events with unbelievable sangfroid, and the only real indication that we’re in the 1920’s is the presence of prohibition and bootleggers. Even “witch-haunted Arkham” seems watered down, deriving its sinister reputation primarily from prohibition-related crime and corruption rather than the sorts of things that Lovecraft et al. wrote about.

The horror set pieces saved this from being a complete waste of time, but its thirdhand nature (novel based on a game based on a writer’s works) weakened it to the point where it nearly slid into Scooby-Doo territory at times. If you’re a fan of Arkham Horror games you might want to give this a try, but if you’re just looking for Lovecraftian cosmic horror you can do a lot better elsewhere.

Robot Noir

Title: Made to Kill
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 1)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Science Fiction Noir
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

First, a huge thank you to The BiblioSanctum for hosting the book giveaway where I won this (and its sequel)!

I love both science fiction and detective/noir fiction (of the 1920’s-50’s variety – especially Raymond Chandler). This excellent book is a mashup of the two, and to make things even better it intentionally follows the style of Raymond Chandler. The author pictures it as the sci-fi novel Chandler never wrote and prefaces it with this quote from one of his letters: “Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this…”

Our first person narrator protagonist is the last robot on earth. He used to work as a PI, but now uses that as a cover for his new profession of hit man in an alternate 1960’s Los Angeles. His rechargeable battery and 24 hour memory limit are a challenge, so the room-size computer, Ada, is his boss and the real brains of the operation. The only part of the worldbuilding that felt a little “off” was that he didn’t get more attention from average people on the street, what with being the last robot on earth. I don’t want to say much about the case due to spoilers, but you can expect a lot of the kinds of elements you’d find in the pulps (of both the Amazing Stories and Black Mask varieties).

The narration is delightfully snarky like Chandler, though not rising to the level of cleverness found in his Philip Marlowe stories. The one narration things that got on my nerves after a while was how often he commented that when he smiled, raised an eyebrow, etc. it was only on the inside because his face is immobile. It got a bit repetitive (kind of like how Harry Dresden mentions his duster every few pages in the Dresden Files series). The ending was a little abrupt and some of the characters’ actions/motivations were a bit confusing, but that’s pretty par for the course for this kind of detective story (e.g. in Chandler’s The Big Sleep we’re never told who committed one of the murders). Overall: a fun mashup, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one (though I’m putting it off until I finish a couple other books I’m in the middle of so that I can make it last).

Meet the Continental Op

Title: Red Harvest
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Noir/Detective Fiction
Pages: 215
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I first read this book five or six years ago, and I was hooked. Since then Noir / Hardboiled Detective pulp fiction from the 20’s-50’s has been my go-to escapist genre. With the possible exception of Raymond Chandler, nobody writes this kind of story better than Dashiell Hammet.

This first novel-length adventure of the Continental Op (whose name we never discover) has everything you would expect from the genre: bootleggers, gamblers, blazing guns, widespread corruption, murder, mayhem, moral ambiguity, 1920’s gangster slang, and a femme fatale or two. The unnamed Continental Op (basically a Pinkerton detective) is tasked with cleaning up the corrupt town of Personville/Poisonville and, well, the book’s title pretty much says it all.

This book serves as a good introduction to the Continental Op, who also appears in The Dain Curse and a slew of short stories. He is short, stout, and incredibly stubborn. His modus operandi for solving cases consists mostly of verbally poking at suspects and piecing things together from their (often violent) reactions. By the end he has a working theory of how everything fits together and everyone guilty is dead, under arrest, or otherwise out of the picture. Dashiell Hammett seldom reveals whether the Op’s reconstruction of events is entirely accurate, but it’s good enough to get things done and in Hammett’s murky world that’s good enough.

Philip Marlowe in Fantasyland


Title: 
Introducing Garrett, P. I.
(Omnibus containing Sweet Silver Blues, Bitter Gold Hearts, Cold Copper Tears)
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Hardboiled Detective / Fantasy
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Glen Cook’s wisecracking private investigator fits right in with Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and the rest of the hardboiled detective crowd from the Dime Detective and Black Mask era. The only difference is that he lives in a world inhabited by elves, trolls, sorcerers, vampires, and such. Before I got this book for my birthday I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but thought that it might be something in the satirical farce family (something along the lines of Discworld).

It turns out that Cook plays the story pretty straight. The humor comes mostly from Garrett’s smart mouth and quirky associates as it does in most decent detective fiction. The world is well-constructed with its own politics, religions, etc. that (mostly) do not ape the real world in a ham-fisted satire kind of way. The plots are fairly messy with the occasional loose end, but mostly in the way that characterizes pulp detective stories rather than being due to poor writing.

Garrett’s womanizing and cynicism toward faith made me cringe occasionally, but overall I greatly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more in the series.