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Newsletter #109 March May, 2015

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey is one of the best space opera series being written. For the first three books (Leviathan Wakes (#1, $17.00), Caliban’s War (#2, $17.00), and Abaddon’s Gate (#3, $17.00) the action takes place in the Solar system, as the politically divided human race tries to deal with a very powerful alien artifact that had been orbiting Saturn for the last billion years. In the fourth book, Cibola Burn ($27.00, $17.00 trade pb due early May), the humans use the alien technology to gain access to one thousand planets scattered through the galaxy. A group of miners from the asteroid belt have claimed one of those planets and started mining it. The UN has awarded the same planet to a huge corporation for exclusive exploration and exploitation (as if the UN had any right to give away planets without the consent of the other governments scattered through the Solar system). When the huge corporation’s colony ship arrives, the miners and the corporate security forces are ready to kill each other to protect their respective claims on the planet. When the artificial planet starts to wake up after a billion years, things turn even more deadly for both groups of humans. Meanwhile, the politicians back in the Solar system are far more concerned about maintaining their power than they are about the lives of the humans out on the frontier. And what managed to kill off this astonishingly powerful alien empire a billion years ago? The series is now contracted to go to nine books, and Syfy Channel will be doing a TV series based on the books sometime in 2015. The trailer for the TV series can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8X5gXIQmY-E (but all I got from the trailer was that they are going to be spending some serious money on special effects). I highly recommend the books.

        I’m a big fan of the Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan. In a world with various magic systems, guns and black powder were eventually developed, and some people who were not able to use the other magic systems were able to use black powder in magical ways. The powder mages could use black powder to increase their strength, their vision, their hearing, and they could control a bullet to hit a target a couple of miles away. When a group of powder mages overthrows the king of Adro and his team of traditional magic users, the other kingdoms are not pleased. Neither are the gods. The first two books, Promise of Blood (#1, $16.00) and The Crimson Campaign (#2, $17.00), are outstanding, full of interesting characters, interesting situations, and lots of action. The final book, The Autumn Republic ($26.00), just arrived and I put aside the book I was part-way through in order to read the conclusion of the series. It didn’t grab me quite as thoroughly as the first two volumes (meaning I was able to stop reading after 200 pages per day instead of staying up all night reading it), but it does a nice job of wrapping up the trilogy.

        Prudence by Gail Carriger ($20.00, due mid-March) is a continuation of the wonderful Parasol Protectorate steampunk fantasy series (Soulless (#1, $8.00), Changeless (#2, $7.99), Blameless (#3, $7.99), Heartless (#4, $7.99), and Timeless (#5, $8.00), but jumped forward about twenty years. Prudence, the daughter of the main characters in the first series, is given a dirigible, names it The Spotted Custard, and heads off to India in it. Unforseen adventures (many humorous) ensue. A few of the characters for the first series make brief appearances very early in the book, but when Prudence (“Rue” to her friends), heads for India we are introduced to a new set of characters. But the reader is expected to recognize the names and interconnections of the characters from the first series. I found the characters in the first series more entertaining than the new batch of characters, but still enjoyed the new volume.

        A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall ($26.00, due mid-April) struck me as being Joe Abercrombie Lite. Much of the book is dark, but not quite as dark as an Abercrombie book; most of the characters are ruthless, but not quite as ruthless as Abercrombie characters tend to be. If you like Abercrombie (as I do), you’ll probably like this book; if Abercrombie’s darkness is a little too intense for you, you may still like this book.
        Twenty years before this book began, General Zosia led her Cobalt Army of revolutionaries, mercenaries, and devils to overthrow the Crimson Empire and seize the crown. She had great plans to change the power structure in the empire, giving a break to the common people. She soon learned that wearing the crown did not give her the ability to bring about the changes she thought were needed. The bureaucracy and the lower nobility kept twisting her edicts, or mis-interpreting them, or dragging their feet, or just ignoring them. She eventually got so fed up that she picked somebody else to wear the crown, faked her own death, got married and went to live the quiet life in a small village far from the capital, along with her pet devil that disguises itself as a large dog.
        At the beginning of the book, a military force from the Crimson Empire comes to her small village, kills her husband, slaughters everybody in the village, and tries to kill Zosia. Zosia and her devil instead kill the colonel in charge of the troops and set out to find the five captains of her army of 20 years ago, planning on revenge on the empire and everyone involved in the death of her husband and her village. But life has moved on for the five captains, each in a different way, and most are not eager to re-fight the war from 20 years ago.
        As the story line weaves all over the empire and beyond, following a lot of subplots and providing a lot of background on the empire, the church of the Burnished Chain, the devils, what the captains have been doing for the last 20 years, etc., the plot slows down quite a bit. Once all the pieces are in place, the book becomes hard to put down. Then you reach the end and want to know when the next volume will be available.

        I recently read a bunch of books that I missed when they first came out. John Levitt has a four book urban fantasy series that began about 8 years ago with Dog Days ($7.99) and continued with New Tricks ($7.99), Unleashed ($7.99) and Play Dead ($7.99), set in modern San Francisco. Most of the population don’t believe in magic, but there are a few who are practitioners. Some have a little ability, some have much more. Mason is a jazz musician who has a bit of ability, and could have a lot more if he were willing to work at it. But he cares more about jazz than about magic, so he doesn’t work very hard at improving his magical ability. A few practitioners have familiars, which look like various animals but are much more, and nobody knows why some have familiars and most do not. Mason has Louie, who looks like a 12 pound doberman (with a blue aura on 3 of the book covers and a green aura on one cover), and sometimes acts like a dog and sometimes shows his true powers. Victor is an independently wealthy powerful practitioner who has appointed himself as the chief enforcer over the area practitioners, trying to keep them from doing things that are too evil or that would cause the average person to realize that there are magic users in their midst. Victor likes to use Mason as one of his enforcers, partly because Mason’s use of magic is more improvisational than any other practitioner Victor has ever encountered. Mason doesn’t like working as an enforcer, but he has to pay the rent and sometimes the jazz gigs don’t pay enough to cover his bills.
        This series is somewhat less dark and somewhat less violent than most urban fantasy series, and I really enjoyed Mason, Louie, and some of the other characters. It took me less than a week to go through the entire series. Given the ending of the fourth book (from 2011) I suspect there won’t be a fifth book, but I’d be happy to read it if it came out, and not just to find out how they got out of the problems at the end of the fourth book.

        Jennifer Fallon is an Australian author who has written many books that I’ve enjoyed, but I just got around to reading her Second Son Trilogy from about a dozen years ago. It consists of Lion of Senet (#1, $7.99), Eye of the Labyrinth (#2, $7.99), and Lord of the Shadows (#3, $7.99).
        The story takes place on a world in a star system with two suns, and this results in frequent earthquakes and volcano eruptions. The human civilization level used to be much higher, but has now been reduced to a medieval level. Antonov, known as the Lion of Senet, has gained considerable influence over the other kingdoms on the planet due to events going back decades before the beginning of the novel. The people of the planet are used to having one or the other sun in the sky at all times, but decades ago the complex stellar system resulted in only one of the suns being visible, with resulting cooling of the atmosphere and failure of crops. A ruthless priestess with great ambition made use of orbital mathematics discovered in the ruins of an ancient city to determine when the second sun would become visible again, and used that to claim that the Goddess had told her what sacrifice was necessary and when it should be performed in order to bring back the second sun. When Antonov sacrifices his infant third son as the priestess commands, and the second sun comes back, the priestess takes over the church and demands human sacrifices be performed at the annual Landfall Festival (which have been going on for over 1000 years, but nobody remembers the significance of it).
        The story starts about twenty years later. Antonov and High Priestess Belagren go to the small dukedom of Elcast to force the people to join in the bloody Landfall Festival that has been forced on much of the rest of the world for the last couple of decades. During the visit, Antonov’s second son Kirsh becomes friends with Dirk Provin, second son of the Duke of Elcast–a friendship that will be repeatedly tested throughout the trilogy as Dirk tries to overthrow the rule of Antonov and Belagren. And Belagren takes as an assistant a young woman who is even more ruthless, even more ambitious, but far less bright than Belagren, with unfortunate results.
        I thought this was an excellent “lost colony” science fiction novel, but all the references I checked claim that it is a fantasy trilogy. Although there is not a speck of magic in the trilogy, the writing style is closer to most fantasy writing than to most science fiction writing.

        The Bloodbound by Erin Lindsey ($7.99) is the first of a new fantasy series. On her webpage, the author says she “is on a quest to write the perfect summer vacation novel, with just the right blend of action, heartbreak and triumph”, and she’s come pretty close. The romance element was a bit strong for my tastes in a few spots, but the action is fast, the characters interesting, and there are some funny scenes (I particularly liked the scene with the wolfhound puppies).
        Lady Alix Black is serving as a scout in the army of Alden as it fights the invading army from Oridia, when the king’s brother turns traitor and refuses to allow his portion of the army to join the battle as planned. When Alix sees that the battle is lost, she leaves her post and plunges into the battle and manages to save the king. She ends up as the king’s bodyguard and a political advisor, as the king tries to cope with both the invading army and his brother’s attempt to become king. By the end of the book, some things are resolved (including Alix’s wedding) and some are left hanging for the sequel, coming in October.
        The author also has a fantasy mystery series under the name E. L. Tettensor, Darkwalker ($7.99) and Master of Plagues ($7.99). I enjoyed The Bloodbound enough to pick up Darkwalker, and the writing style is totally different.
        Inspector Nicolas Lenoir was once a legend in the Metropolitan Police, but he has become disillusioned. He no longer believes that catching criminals will improve the world. There are always more common crooks to replace the ones that are locked up, and the aristocracy are immune from the law. He apathetically puts in his time, but really doesn’t care if he solves any cases. Then Zach, a 9 year old orphan, Lenoir’s best street informant, is kidnapped, and black magic is involved. Lenoir is determined to save Zach, even if it costs Lenoir his life.
        Darkwalker is a dark, gritty book, better written with more vivid descriptions than The Bloodbound. But I found The Bloodbound a lot more fun, with its fast action, more enjoyable characters, and humor.

Recommendations
by Elizabeth LaVelle

        Foxglove Summer ($7.99) by Ben Aaronovitch sends Peter Grant way off his manor - and outside his comfort zone - to a village in rural Herefordshire. Two eleven-year-old girls went missing there, their cell phones found hours later near a local monument, and Nightingale wants Peter to make sure their disappearance isn't connected with any unethical use of magic, and that 'certain individuals' in the vicinity aren't involved - the individual in this case being Hugh Oswald, a wizard who returned from Ettersberg, but retired due to PTSD. A quick interview makes it clear that Oswald wasn't involved, but with the search for the girls going critical, Peter volunteers to stay and help out the local police any way he can. He's thinking of routine police work, but the local police are so desperate for a break in the case that they request a full Falcon assessment. Peter's review of the operation's action list turns up an interview note about one of the girls having an invisible friend, and the chips from the girls' phones show all-too-familiar damage - definitely magic involved. To find out exactly how and what and why, Peter gets some help from Beverley Brook (deputized by Nightingale) and local DC Dominic Croft. Dominic makes a great sidekick for Peter - he combines local knowledge with a view of local life that meshes nicely with Peter's sense of humor, and he adapts really well to working on a case that turns out to involve some very 'weird bollocks' indeed. When things get spooky, and Peter mentions that Dominic doesn't have to help him, Dominic's response is: "My patch, my village. Probably my folklore. So, yeah - actually, I think I do." Peter provides his customary snark (on architecture, police procedure, the rural environment, foodie restaurants, race relations, and more), sends a dead sheep off to London for Dr. Walid to autopsy, comes up with a cunning plan or two, and repeatedly demonstrates solid policing skills while dealing scientifically and/or creatively with uncanny events. And from Hugh Oswald we learn more about the terrible battle at Ettersberg. I'm looking forward to seeing what Ben has up his sleeve for book 6. (Hope it's back to Belgravia nick, I really miss Seawoll and Stephanopoulos!)

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