Monday, September 19, 2016

September Treats: New and Forthcoming Books

Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins 

Fantasy literature seems to have entered an age of multi-volume series that either demand the reader be familiar with all the previous books or else inundate the reader with backstory. It requires skill and subtlety to create a sequel that works just as well as a stand-alone book. Kim Wilkins is such an author and Sisters of the Fire is such a book.

Australian Kim Wilkins is one of the best writers of fantasy today. I adored her The Autumn Castle for its rich, complex characters and a setting that was familiar enough so I was never confused and startlingly innovative enough to hold my interest at every turn. So it was no accident that even without reading Daughters of the Storm, I found Sisters of the Fire every bit as entrancing, dramatic, and rewarding.

Almost immediately I found myself immersed in a world reminiscent of Arthurian England. An island is divided into small kingdoms, some of them so marginal but it is not worth the trouble to conquer them. Of course, there are stronger kingdoms, and one of these is ruled by an aging monarch whose grown daughters have made their own ways through the world. Ash has followed her dream to become a magician by apprenticing herself to a strange, ultimately villainous man. Lovely Rose has fled an unhappy marriage at the cost of exile from her young daughter and her beloved. Ambitious Ivy, married to a man she does not love for the sake of a political alliance, plays a dangerous game that threatens the safety of not only her kingdom, but her father’s as well. Willow’s hatred of the old religion leads her to a perilous alliance with the head of the Viking-like northern raiders. And my favorite: Bluebell who despite the whimsy of her name is a fierce warrior and intrepid leader, more than capable of taking over for her aging father.

This story moves from moments of tenderness to passion to intrigue to breathtaking action. Never did I feel at a loss because I had not read the first book. Nevertheless, I was delighted to learn that that this will not be the end of the sisters’ adventures. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing where Wilkins will take the story, and while I am waiting I will go in search of the first volume.

Murder with Majesty, by Amy Myers (Auguste Didier), Endeavor Press. This charming, quirky
historical mystery was my introduction to the work of British author Amy Myers. First released in 1999, one of ten adventures of intrepid chef and not-so-intrepid detective, Auguste Didier, it’s now available as an ebook from Endeavor Press.  The year is 1905, and already rumblings of war have reached even the placid English countryside. Didier, a distant relation-by-marriage to Edward VII, has been summoned to an ancient manor house to cook for a wedding. Only the groom posing as the lord of the manor in order to impress his American heiress bride no longer owns the estate and the man who does bears an uncanny resemblance to Didier’s sworn enemy, a ruthless Russian spy. What could have been a sedate whodunit confined to a single household quickly spins into a much broader tale that eventually leads to the Paris catacombs (I’ve been there – they’re just like that!) and back to England. Action and character are handled with a delightful wit and wonderful use of language that left me wanting to run out and find all the other volumes.

The Tale of the Dancing Slaughter Horse, by Victoria Shade (Oct 2016) 
When adolescent Victoria meets Moonshine, an ex-racehorse saved from the slaughterhouse and abuse, she despairs at having to ride such a difficult horse. She trains him in dressage, a sport that tests the unity of horse and rider as they engage in what can only be called dancing.  As she comes of age, Victoria teaches Moonshine to trust her, and Moony teaches Victoria the importance of heart and perseverance. Together, they master many trials and compete in the Junior Nationals in this inspiring and compelling true story of how a girl and her horse changed each other’s lives forever.

This is a lovely book, not only for horse fanciers (and anyone who has ever been one) but as a simply told, heart-felt memoir of an extraordinary young woman and the healing power of horses. Like many other teenaged girls, I fell in love with horses, and although my own mare was nowhere near the stature of Victoria Shade's Moonshine, her tale of how dressage helped her to grow, and learn patience, diligence, and honesty, had me nodding in agreement every step of the way. The simplicity and directness of her prose transforms what could have been a melodrama into an inspiring, utterly truthful story. Well done!

The Dream Protocol: Descent, by Adara Quick 
This book offers intriguing twists on the usual dystopic YA novel, with its economy based on the creation, sale, and control of dreams. I particularly liked the use of dreams as work incentives, and nightmares as punishment, plus the addictive nature of dreams to the point that people cannot sleep normally. However, the work is marred by heavy-handed exposition, telling repeatedly instead of showing, the lack of world-building beyond the dream economy, and simplistic characters. I do not believe this novel would have been publishable by any major house, as it certainly has not been professionally edited. I hope that with more attention to craft, the writer will become better able to justice to her ideas.

Shadowbahn, by Steve Erickson, Blue Rider Press (Feb. 2017)
Premise: the Twin Towers mysteriously appear on the Badlands of South Dakota, from them comes a stream of music, and everyone hears a different song. Isn’t that a cool idea? I thought so when I requested a review copy. I imagined something of the order of a Tim Powers novel, with flights of wacky imagination resolving into a story that moves me, with characters I care about. Alas, it turned out that I was exactly the wrong reader for this book. Reviews, even “not my cup of tea” style, can help readers pick books they will love, so I offer the following:

At first, the story drew me in but midway through I grew frustrated. The music, as it were the uniting theme of all the various characters and adventures, turned out to be exactly the kind I have almost no knowledge of (I have heard of a few of the songs and recording artists but could not recognize them) or interest in (not even a passing nod to Chopin!), and the text was laced with long stream-of-consciousness diatribes that became ever more tedious. I found the characters unbelievable and pretentious. I kept hoping to find some saving point of sense, but it never appeared.

If you like Jonathan Lethem’s work (he praised this one highly), this might be the book for you. I imagine that if you love rock music, jazz, and blues, you will find special delights here. But if you, like me, prefer sympathetic characters and clear plot, logic, and emotional arcs, then you might want to pass on this one.

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