He’s back…

Title: A Master of Djinn
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Alternate History Fantasy
Pages: 400
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

For me, good worldbuilding covers a multitude of sins, and this book has excellent worldbuilding. This first novel in P. Djèlí Clark’s djinn universe continues and expands on his fascinating alternate history from the first two novellas (A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015). While you could enjoy this book without reading the novellas, I would strongly suggest reading at least A Dead Djinn in Cairo which introduces most of the major characters, their world, and some important plot points.

This world was irrevocably changed in the mid-1800’s when a Soudanese mystic, Al Jahiz, bored a hole into the kaf, allowing djinn and assorted other supernatural entities to freely enter our world, bringing with them their magic and technology and transforming Egypt into one of the “Great Powers.” Now (in 1912) as Europe is teetering on the edge of conflict someone claiming to be Al Jahiz has reappeared sowing discord and mayhem. It’s once again up to Agent Fatma el-Shar’arawi (one of the few women working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities) to figure out what is going on and save the day.

Like all of P. Djèlí Clark’s work, the storytelling deals with moral/social issues (feminism, post-colonialism, LGBTQ+, etc.), in a pretty heavy-handed fashion. Depending on how much preachiness you are willing to put up with in your fiction, this may affect your enjoyment of the book to some degree.

I was a little disappointed in the mystery aspect of the plot as I thought that certain parts of it were painfully obvious and Fatma was much too slow to figure them out (given how brilliant she is supposed to be). That said, the overall plot was engrossing, entertaining, and revealed fascinating new details of this alternate world. I am looking forward to further installments in the series!

Witcher Series Review

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Number of Books: 8
Total Pages: 3,404
Rating: 3 of 5

If you enjoy grimdark fantasy and don’t mind moderate amounts of profanity, sex, and gore, this is probably right up your alley. Personally, I swung back and forth on how much I enjoyed it depending on the book and my mood (but enjoyed it enough to finish the series).

Our hero, Geralt the Witcher, makes his living by slaying monsters with his magically, genetically, pharmacologically enhanced fighting ability…kind of. He actually spends the bulk of his time bedding sorceresses, navigating political intrigues, and attempting to rescue/protect the Child of Destiny. I enjoyed his character’s sense of responsibility and overall decency in a dark world, but his need to sleep with every attractive woman he comes across (especially if she’s a sorceress) got really old (especially since he’s supposedly so in love with Yennefer).

The first two books (The Last Wish & Sword of Destiny) are short story collections that mostly involve monster-slaying and fairytale mashups, but also set up a few characters and situations for the main Witcher Saga. Once the Saga starts (in Blood of Elves), monster-slaying largely falls by the wayside and we are treated to a complex swirl of rebellions, invasions, pogroms, court intrigue, and any other nasty human behavior you can think of…most of it centered in some way around the remarkable young woman, Ciri, to whom Geralt (and various companions met along the way) are bound by destiny.

The plotting of the Saga is impressive, but the farther you go into it, the more depressing it gets. Even when a character survives a dangerous situation, Sapkowski often feels the need to jump ahead and describe the pointless/ignominious way in which they will die in the future. The Lady of the Lake ends the saga ambiguously enough that you can kind of decide for yourself how sweet or dark you want it to be. The final book (Season of Storms) is a prequel to the Saga that goes back to being more monster-slayer oriented, but it should not be read first since the ending would make little sense without having read the other books.

As far as narration, large parts of the story are told in flashback with a wide variety of framing stories. One chapter will be [Character X] catching [Character Y] up on what has happened since they last met, and the next chapter will be a storyteller recounting events surrounding Geralt as legends from the misty past or a historian researching “what really happened” with Geralt and company several centuries ago. It’s odd and a bit disorienting, but I think it works to give the sense of these being legendary events of which there might not be a “definitive version.” Bolstering this impression, there are frequent references and parallels to fairytales, Arthurian legends, Shakespearian plays, etc.

I listened to the audible versions read by Peter Kenny, and he did an excellent job providing character voices and accents. To me, the audiobook format made it a little more difficult to keep track of the many, many characters involved in the various intrigues, but it was worth it.

Overall, I don’t know if I would ever read or listen to these again, but that probably has more to do with my personal taste than any deficiency in the author’s writing style. I think that the Black Company novels are about as grimdark as I can comfortably go in the fantasy world.

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?!

Classic Weirdness & Satire

The Back to the Classics Challenge is a fun incentive/excuse to mix some classics into your reading for the year (and there’s a chance to win $30 in books, so win-win!). It’s not too late to sign up if you’re interested…just click the graphic to the left. Anyway, I’ve finished two more books for the challenge, so time for a pair of reviews!

Through the Looking-Glass (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Lewis Carroll]

Title: Through the Looking Glass
Author: Lewis Carroll
Genre: Children’s Classic
Pages: 151
Rating: 4 of 5

A few years ago I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was unimpressed. I found it obnoxious and shrill as the whole thing consists of Alice being rushed about and berated for being confused by the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The random nonsense level in Through the Looking Glass was about the same, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Alice’s imagining to herself was charming, the wordplay was a lot of fun, and who doesn’t love the poem Jaberwocky (to say nothing of the classic illustrations)? This classic weirdness is well worth reading.

The Way We Live Now by [Anthony Trollope]

Title: The Way We Live Now
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Satire
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In this satirical novel, Trollope skewers late 19th century British high society. The sprawling story was originally published as a serial, and I think that Trollope couldn’t quite decide (or changed his mind partway through) about which character or plot thread was primary.

No matter which character of plot thread you follow, the overarching concern seems to be the manipulation of other people…usually for money, matrimony, or both. Trollope casts a cynical eye on mercenary marriages, feckless young men, and financial scandals.

None of the characters are pure as the driven snow (except for a couple of the young women who act like complete ninnies for most of the book). Few of the characters are sympathetic, but some of them are interesting. One character particularly caught my attention due to some similarities to a certain orange individual who shall remain nameless: a businessman much fawned upon because of his reputed wealth (despite rumors of past failed businesses and shady dealings) who enters politics as a conservative though having few real personal convictions.

Like a lot of satirical novels, the overall effect of the story arouses disgust more than amusement. Trollope doesn’t often demonstrate the witty turn of phrase that some satirists use to at least elicit a snort of derisive laughter. This makes parts of the book a bit of a slog, but overall it’s readable and insightful as long as you don’t mind a cast almost entirely void of sympathetic characters.

Warhammer Sampler

Title: The Hammer and the Eagle:
Icons of Warhammer
Author: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Guy Haley, etc.
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This anthology serves as a perfect introduction to the most popular characters in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universes. By page count, the split is approximately 70% WH40k sci-fi and 30% Sigmar fantasy.

Some familiarity with the Warhammer history and universes is helpful but not necessary for enjoying the grimdark escapist vignettes of violence (you can always check a wiki if you’re completely lost). Characters run the gamut through space marines, commissars, inquisitors, witch hunters, stormcast eternals, and a massively overpowered dwarf.

Before this, I had not read any books in the Age of Sigmar universe. However, I had read a few of the older Warhammer fantasy books (mostly Gotrek & Felix) and found the characters seriously overpowered…and the new Sigmar version seems to amp that up even more. I doubt I’ll be picking up any books from that side of things, but I did appreciate the chance to sample the universe.

On the 40,000 side, I recognized a handful of the stories from other anthologies, and several of them are a bit unsatisfactory as stand-alones since they were originally written to bridge a gap between two novels. Other than that, they were decent military sci-fi. I still prefer just about any character to the flat, overpowered loyalist space marines, but it’s all good/grim escapist fun with a nice variety of characters (and some variety in storytelling, though there’s only so much you can do in a universe where “there is only war”).

Overall, a decent collection: story-wise I’d give it 3 stars (my usual rating for most things Warhammer) and tack on an extra half star for the broad sampling of characters.

Eternity Ends

Title: The Chronicles of Castle Brass (Eternal Champion Volume 15)
(Count Brass; The Champion of Garathorm; The Quest for Tanelorn)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Trippy Dark Fantasy
Pages: 432
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume concludes the story of the Eternal Champion (so apparently he isn’t quite as eternal as his title suggests?). The three stories contained in the volume focus primarily on Dorian Hawkmoon, but three other aspects/incarnations/versions/whatevers of the Champion play major roles: Erekosë, Corum, and everyone’s favorite emo albino, Elric (complete with evil soul-sucking black sword).

These stories would make little sense without reading previous volumes in the series that deal with these four aspects of the Champion. In the Orion/White Wolf volume numbering that would be volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, & 12 (and possibly 13 which I haven’t read). Other volumes seem to have little or no bearing on the overall story arc (and many of the stories in them seem to have been clumsily reimagined/rewritten as Eternal Champion stories simply to lengthen the series).

The stories in this volume a pretty much par for the course. There’s plenty of trippy jumping between planes of the multiverse, some repetition of previous stories from a slightly different point of view, some escapist swords and sorcery style action, a lot of moping and whining from the Champion about being the pawn of fate, and quite a bit of preachiness from the author.

The series ends appropriately for the direction it has been taking since the beginning. It wasn’t actually as unremittingly dark as I was expecting, which was a nice surprise. However, it did turn into a paean to atheism (and disparagement of theism) that echoed somewhere between William Ernest Henley’s Invictus and John Lennon’s Imagine. While not entirely surprising, this is diametrically opposed to my own worldview of a sovereign, loving God, so this somewhat curtailed my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, if you’ve read all about Erekosë, Corum, Elric, and Hawkmoon this is worth your time to round out the storyline.

The Serpent Slayer

Title: The Serpent & the Serpent Slayer
Author: Andy Naselli
Genre: Biblical Theology
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/2020 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.

Who doesn’t love a tale of dragon-slaying? This book traces the theme of serpent/dragon-slaying through the Bible from the first promise of a Savior who would “crush the head” of the serpent (Genesis 3:14-15) to the final defeat of “the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the devil” in the book of Revelation. Along the way, the author also draws comparisons to other serpent/dragon-slaying stories, both mythical and popular fantasy.

I love the idea of this book, and the theme is definitely there in Scripture and in popular stories. Naselli does a decent job of tracing the thread, quoting extended passages from the Bible throughout the book. However, I do think that some of his examples are a bit of stretch, particularly in the passages pulled from the eras of judges and kings (and points made from The Lord of the Rings which does not in fact feature any dragons or serpents even though it has a strong biblical good overcoming evil vibe).

In areas related to the fulfillment of prophecy and the role of national Israel, the author’s theology is quite a bit different from my own. While these aren’t issues over which we should call each other “heretic,” they do significantly affect how we understand some of the passages he highlights. Someone who is a bit more amillennialist, preterist, and/or supersessionist than I am will probably have a greater appreciation for certain parts of the book than I do.

Overall, this is a pretty cool little biblical theology book. It speaks to me as a theology nerd, fantasy geek, and follower of Jesus Christ who is the ultimate dragon-slayer.

Endless Flooded Halls

Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy?
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

The author of the character-driven alternate-Regency-era fantasy tome Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has finally written another novel! In style and subject matter it differs significantly from her previous work, but it does not disappoint. Clarke continues her mastery of fantastical worldbuilding that leaves you with a sense of wonder and light narration that sparkles with humor.

The setting is an airy, seemingly endless house, swept by tides and filled with statuary but largely devoid of people. As with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the dreamlike setting is one of the book’s main attractions.

The narration takes the form of journal entries that have a slightly stilted or childish feel to them. At first I worried that the author had completely lost her touch, but the farther you go into the book the more it makes sense. And that’s all that I’m going to say about the plot, because this is the kind of book where the slowly dawning understanding of “what’s going on” (both in terms of figuring it out yourself and then watching the characters figure it out) is the plot. Like her previous book, I think that the strange, low-action, meandering story is going to make this very much a “love it or hate it” read for most people.

Overall, I found it to be enjoyable and thoughtful. The author explores the nature of reality, identity, and more. There are even a few fun “Easter eggs” scattered around, including references to Narnia and Doctor Who.

My one criticism is that there were a couple times where the book skated pretty close to my pet peeve of characters acting a little too stupid/clueless/random to be believable just to keep the plot going. However, within the story it made enough sense that I felt like I could overlook it, and I ended up loving the book. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 15+ years for another book from this talented author!

Music from Narnia

I haven’t finished any books worth reviewing in the last week, so I decided to do something a little different and review a (book-related) music album. Like my other favorite group, The Gray Havens, this artist is heavily influenced by my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

Into the Lantern Waste

Title: Into the Lantern Waste
Artist: Sarah Sparks
Genre: Folk
Length: 36 minutes (10 songs)
Rating: 5 of 5

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favorite series of all time, second only to Lord of the Rings (see my full review of Narnia here). It works as both a set of charming fantasy stories and a theologically rich exploration of the person and work of Jesus Christ. C. S. Lewis viewed these books as a “supposition” of what it would look like for Jesus to appear in another world.

This album picks up on many of the theological themes that Lewis wove into his stories. Songs center around major characters and events from Narnia as well as parallel thoughts from Lewis’s other writings (e.g. Mere Christianity) and the Bible. I was pleased to notice that the song order matches the books’ original publication order rather than the chronological order that prevails in newer editions…it’s a small, nitpicky thing, but it made me happy.

The folksy/ballad style and jazzy vocals lend the perfect contemplative air to the album. The haunting Blood for Blood about the redemption of Edmund is especially effective. Occasionally, the vocals may be a bit too soft compared to the music, but overall I highly recommend this to any fans of Narnia and Lewis!

Mixed Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing this year, so to catch up a little here is a handful of mini-reviews (each from a different genre).

Title: Answering Jihad:
A Better Way Forward
Author: Nabeel Qureshi
Genre: Theology/Comparative Religion
Pages: 168
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim) seeks to give an honest assessment of the historical importance and practice of Jihad in Islam. While his assessment is not “politically correct” in relation to the Western narrative of Islam as the religion of peace, Qureshi has done careful, honest research into Islamic history, the Quran, and the Hadith, as well as drawing on his own experience as a Muslim.

He poses the idea of many Muslims coming to a crossroads where they are faced with the violent past of Islam and must decide how to proceed (Endorse jihad/”become radicalized”? Reject some foundational truths of Islam in favor of some new version? Abandon Islam?). His “better way forward” involves interacting with Muslims with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. The final section of the book offers the non-violence and self-sacrificing love of biblical Christianity as an attractive alternative to embracing jihad.

Title: The Landmark Arrian:
The Campaigns of Alexander
Author: Arrian
Translator: Pamela Mensch
Genre: Ancient History
Pages: 485 (plus 75 pages of indices, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

love the Landmark editions of ancient histories. Prior to this one I had read Landmark’s Herodotus and Thucydidesand this one continues to impress. Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns is a bit hero-worshippy, but gives a good basic overview from someone who had access to primary sources no longer completely available to us. The frequent maps keep this from being an incomprehensible catalogue of place names, and extensive commentary explains cultural issues and alerts to important alternate versions of events found in other sources.

System Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 3) by [Zieja, Joe]Title: Communication Failure and System Failure
(Epic Failure Trilogy: Books 2 & 3)
Author: Joe Zieja
Genre: Science Fiction (Humor/Satire)
Pages: 336 & 432
Ratings: 4 & 3.5 of 5

The first book in this trilogy, Communication Failure, was my favorite fiction last year. The second and third books still had plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but book 2 had a little bit of “middle book syndrome,” and I really didn’t care for the way the trilogy wrapped up. I suppose the ending made sense and was humorous in a Monty Python kind of way, but it was surprisingly downbeat and left a lot of loose ends.

Title: Orconomics
(The Dark Profit Saga: Book 1)
Author: J. Zachary Pike
Genre: Satirical Fantasy
Pages: 360
Rating: 4 of 5

The tone of this felt like a slightly less zany Discworld. It’s your typical “unexpected Chosen One and his band of rejects goes on big fantasy quest” fantasy/RPG sendup set in a world where dungeon crawling has become a big commercial enterprise. The story manages to deal with serious issues like racism, market manipulation, economic exploitation, and more without being overly preachy. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, but overall it was enjoyable, and I plan to read the next book, Son of a Liche, sometime this year.

Tales of the Al-Azif: A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology by [Phipps, C. T., Davenport, Matthew, West, David J., Hambling, David, Wilson, David Niall]Title: Tales of the Al-Azif:
A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology
Authors: C. T. Phipps, Matthew Davenport, David J. West, David Hambling, David Niall Wilson
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 264
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror anthologies, and I don’t expect them to be literary masterpieces. The Cthulhu mythos was born in the pulps and remains escapist pulp fiction for the most part. That said, this was one of the least enjoyable collections I have encountered.

The stories were not really to my taste. Most rely far more on insect-inspired horror than the nihilistic dread usual to cosmic horror, and most were of the “monster hunter” variety favored by Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith rather than the original creeping dread of H. P. Lovecraft.

If that were my only complaint with the book I probably would have given it 3.5 stars as “okay, but not to my personal taste when it comes to Lovecraftian horror.” However, the book (I read the Kindle edition) was riddled with typos. The number of omitted, duplicated, and misplaced words was absolutely ridiculous…completely amateur.