Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Diamond Conspiracy, by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

Today I'm looking at the fourth book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, The Diamond Conspiracy. I think the biggest issue I had was I let there be a considerable gap between the time I listened to the last book, Dawn's Early Light, and this one because I had forgotten a few details and found myself struggling to catch up with plot points. I'm mentioning this now because it's not really a critique of the book more than a failing on my part. However, this series in general has left me feeling ambivalent at times or just not really sure what to think about the series.

The Diamond Conspiracy begins with Wellington Books and Eliza Braun heading back home to England after foiling an evil plan of Thomas Edison in America. On the way back, though, Books and Braun discover that the Ministry has been disavowed by Queen Victoria and her government and a rival organization, the Department of Imperial Inconveniences, has been sent to eliminate all Ministry agents. Worst of all it appears the Maestro, the alter-ego of the Duke of Sussex, is entering the endgame of his master plan which will come to fruition at Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Books, Braun, and the other survivors of the Ministry will have to team up, on the run and with limited resources, to rescue the queen and the Empire.

Overall I though the plot had some promising points. The agents being disavowed and fighting their own government is an interesting plotline. If nothing else it gets our agents out of London and relying on their own resources rather than the Ministry's. I do felt like this book was maybe, maybe just a little too long. I think Ballentine and Morris did enough groundwork that you could fully guess where the last quarter or so of the book was going to go, and their detours and explorations just dragged out the conclusion further than necessary. I kept finding myself thinking, ''Dang, is there still more of this book?'' So I think there was a little bloat, yes, but it doesn't really get noticeable until the end.

I think the biggest issue I had was the introduction of preexisting characters, both historical and fictional, into the story at this point in the series. Having Queen Victoria be in the series makes perfect sense. She is the queen, and the Ministry is a government agency that reports to her, so she's going to show up. And I didn't mind Thomas Edison showing up as a villain in the last book. He definitely seems like the sort of person who would collaborate with a shadowy organization like the House of Usher to build superweapons. Also Edison's a jerk. So it makes sense.

No, the issue I have is the introduction of other people who I didn't think made the plot better. For example, H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer, gets a cameo as an operative of the House of Usher. Basically he shows up, is creepy, and then leaves. Maybe he'll show up in later books and have more of a role, but it just felt gratuitous to me. The authors also introduce H.G. Wells which makes the universe feel a lot smaller than it was and it doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense to me why he'd keep going by a different alias every decade. And then there's the introduction of John Carter (of Mars) who really exists just to supply a War of the Worlds style Martian Walker for the final epic showdown between the Ministry and the Maestro and his forces. And while a battle between a Martian tripod and steampunk battle mechs would in theory be really awesome, by the time the book got to the battle I was so bored I just wanted it to be over, which was a real shame.

So I'm left not sure what to think about this book. On the one hand, there are interesting concepts and cool secret agent adventures. On the other hand, the book does feel like it could be trimmed down and I'm not sure how much I like the references to other works by the inclusion of other characters. (And it's definitely possible there are other references in the other books that I just missed.) The result is I feel like this book is okay, but definitely not among the best things I've ever read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Catalyst, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at a book called Catalyst set within the new Star Wars universe after the reboot/realignment/whathaveyou after the Disney purchase of the franchise. Catalyst takes place over several years, starting during the Clone Wars and ending sometime before Rogue One begins. The book is mostly about Jyn Erso's parents, Lyra and Galen, as well as Orson Krennic. (The guy with the white uniform in Rogue One if you weren't sure.) As you might also guess from the cover, the book has a lot to do with the Death Star project and Galen Erso's initially unknowing cooperation in the development of the Death Star's planet-killing superlaser.

The book begins with the Ersos being on a remote planet of the galaxy involved in research of kyber crystals, the crystals used in lightsabers, and their incredible energy potential. Unfortunately for them, the Clone Wars results in a shift of planetary government and Galen finds himself imprisoned on suspicion of being a Republic spy. Fortunately Krennic, an old school friend of Galen's and involved in the highly secret Republic superweapon project, puts together a rescue team. However this proves to be a mixed blessing because Krennic's real motivations for helping the Ersos is to get Galen, even somewhat indirectly, to start working on crystal technology that can be applied to the superweapon.

My overall opinion of the book is it was okay, but not really worth the effort of reading or listening to. It has that major problem of prequels in that we know the main characters are going to survive to the point where they started in Rogue One so there's not a lot of tension for bad things happening. Despite all the setbacks Krennic suffers, we know he's going to survive to be an antagonist in Rogue One with CGI Tarkin. Despite the horrible discoveries into Imperial plans the Ersos make, we know they're going to make it to their farm. As I've said before, a good prequel manages to make you doubt how it's going to end, even though you already know the ending, and I think that was the biggest strength of Rogue One. Even knowing that the Death Star plans were going to get to Leia by the end of the movie, I still wasn't certain that Jyn and Cassian would get the message through in time. Catalyst just lacks that same tension which makes it a bad prequel.

Another big issue I had was this book started raising some serious questions about the Death Star. I know that it's kind of silly for me to say the Death Star is unrealistic. I mean, it's a giant moon-sized space station capable of destroying a planet, as well as travelling through hyperspace. It's inherently a ridiculous notion. The problem I have is how under wraps the entire project manages to be successfully kept secret for two decades. Sometime during the Clone Wars the Republic actually begins construction of the Death Star, called the Ultimate Weapon. In the book it's implied that a whole government committee is involved in overseeing the project and getting regular status updates on it as well. And there are two things government committees spawn, regardless of the universe they're in: paperwork and more committees. I don't think Luceno exactly states how many people are involved in these committees but I got the impression it was fairly large, which would make it nearly impossible to keep everyone from talking about it.

And then there are the sheer number of resources involved as well. The Empire is literally stripping planets bare to come up with the resources to build the Death Star, along with their Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, AT-ATs, and who knows what else. In the book it's stated that all the Death Star resources get hidden in the huge ledgers of materials the Empire is using, but considering the Death Star's being built at Geonosis and there are no major shipyards or other factories there, you'd think people would start wondering. I could see the Death Star being built and kept secret over a period of three or five years. That makes sense to me. But two decades stretches my suspension of disbelief, even for Star Wars.

We also sort of get the religious elements of kyber crystals, and yet not really. We do see Lyra being a Force...devotee I guess? Like she believes in the Force as a religion but I got the impression she wasn't actually Force-sensitive. Space magic is weird. And it's mentioned that other people worship the kyber crystals as well sort of like what we saw on Jedha in Rogue One. But aside from sort of a vague explanation that the crystals are magic, we don't really know why people hold them to be sacred. I kind of wish there had been more of an explanation for this because it still seems really odd to me.

We also get an environmental message in the book through Galen Erso's quest to find ''sustainable energy'' from kyber crystals, and seeing how the Empire is strip-mining Legacy Worlds to build its Death Star, basically the equivalent of strip-mining a national park. The sustainable energy bit doesn't make a lot of sense to me because it's already established that the Star Wars universe has fusion power, currently something of a holy grail in the sustainable energy. So if you have fusion reactors, why the heck do you need more sustainable energy? Are you running out of hydrogen? It just raises too many questions. Second, the Empire strip-mining nature reserves is played for shock value when honestly that's one of the less evil things they've done. Don't get me wrong, it's bad, but corporations would do the same thing if there was money in it. Considering the Empire enslaves people and destroyed Alderaan, I think we've firmly established that the Empire are the bad guys. Seriously, remember Alderaan? And how they blew it up? And were going to blow up any other planets that resisted them? They're evil! Of course they strip-mine planets! They probably kick puppies too.

The result is a book that it honestly doesn't feel worth the effort of reading. If I really, really want to know how the Death Star was constructed, I could probably just look it up on Wookiepedia, and get several different versions of the story. The Ersos and Krennic don't feel very well developed as characters so I found it difficult to care about what happens to them before Rogue One. Add some issues like the heavy-handed but out of place environmentalism and it just makes the book feel worse. I think I can honestly say you're not missing a whole heck of a lot by skipping this book.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

Today I finally come to the (as of writing) end of the Dresden Files series with the novel Skin Game. I actually liked this book quite a bit and I think part of it was it went a little outside the rut that I'd felt the series had fallen into. There's some big world-ending emergency and Harry has to go save the world, which we've been seeing a lot in the series lately. In this book the stakes are much lower, so it feels like a breather and we're back to Harry having awesome magic adventures.

Dear and gentle readers, as I have said before with this long-running series, it is basically impossible to speak coherently about this book without going into some spoilers. If you wish to avoid such things please turn back now. 

The problem for this book is the parasite in Harry's head that's been growing and causing the migraines he's been suffering. Unfortunately for Harry it's getting very close to the point the parasite will burst straight out of his head and kill him. Mab is willing to help Harry with his problem, but as always with fairies there is a price. And since Harry's the Winter Knight, he's not in much of a position to say no either. It turns out that Mab owes a debt to Nicodemus, leader of the fiendish Denarians, and she intends to repay that debt by loaning Harry and his services to Nicodemus. Harry, understandably, is not exactly thrilled with this idea but Mab being Mab she's put him in a position where he can't exactly refuse.

The job that Harry is obligated to assist Nicodemus with is a robbery of a treasure vault belonging to Hades, lord of the Underworld. Yes, that Hades, the Greek god. Obviously the treasure vault of one of the most covetous and powerful figures out of mythology is going to be absurdly difficult, if not impossible, for anybody to break into. Hence Nicodemus has assembled a team of top criminals from the magical underworld including a fire mage, a shapeshifter, a spirit binder, and one of the best ordinary human safecrackers to pull of the heist of the millennium. Now, ordinarily I don't go around watching, reading, or listening to heist stories, but they can be fun from time to time. And since this is a magical heist story, where the characters have to break into a vault protected by more than just mundane defenses, it makes the story all the more interesting to me.

There are a few other interesting developments in the book which I thought really showed how the series had grown. Waldo Butters, originally the timid polka-obsessed medical examiner, has become something of a magical vigilante, making use of low-magic devices and the help of Bob the Skull to help make the mean streets of Chicago a little safer. (And without spoiling it, Butters gets a truly epic moment towards the end of the book. Seriously. It's awesome.) Harry also finds out that the ''parasite'' in his head is actually a spirit of intellect that he and Lash, the shadow of the fallen angel Lasciel, created and has been growing in his head. The migraines have been because she's getting too big for Harry's head (not a surprise) and needs more room to grow. Granted, she's only very, very barely in the book, but I'm actually looking forward to seeing her in future books. Although I sometimes wonder how smart a spirit of intellect that comes from Harry's head really can be.

Overall I liked this book and I think it was because it was a change of pace with some awesome tidbits. Because the stakes are lower, only robbing the vault of the lord of the underworld opposed to saving the entire world, it feels like a little breathing space and we can have some more fun with the adventure. However, the overarching plot does get advanced at least slightly and we get to see Harry continue to develop, as well as quite a few other characters. Hopefully I'll get to see where the series goes from here.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey

Today I'm looking at the first book in a new series by Mercedes Lackey, Hunter. I have talked about Lackey a few times on the blog before, specifically her book Gwenhwyfar, which I consider to be hands-down the best Arthurian retelling I've ever read. Lackey also wrote several stories for the Bolo series and I thought they were pretty good as well, so I was eager to try something else from this author from my public library's audio book collection.

Hunter is set in the distant future, some two hundred and fifty years after an event known as the Diseray when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld were broken and all the monsters of folklore managed to come back and invade our world. Things were falling apart all over but fortunately humans had a few things going for them. First, the military was able to scavenge equipment and utilize modern weaponry to take on some of the worst monsters, as well as develop barriers that Otherworld monsters couldn't cross. Second, magic also entered the world and about one to two percent of the population developed magical talents which they could use to fight the monsters. Most important of all, a portion of those with magical abilities became Hunters, forming a psychic bond with Otherworld creatures known as Hounds. With a pack of Hounds to aid them, Hunters are the greatest weapon humans have in their fight for survival.

The book focuses on Joyeaux Charmand, a Hunter who grows up in mountain villages near a monastery in the Rocky Mountains. Life seems to be going okay until her uncle, head of the police, tells her she needs to report to the capital city of Apex, to join the teams of Hunters located there. When Joy arrives she discovers the Hunters are actually a form of entertainment for the civilian population of Apex, with each Hunter getting their own video streaming channel, and the most popular Hunters with the most fans get the best benefits. Joy also very quickly gets told everything is not as it appears in Apex and she may be used as a hostage against her uncle in a mysterious shadow political struggle.

As much as I hate to make the comparison, this book reminded me a lot of The Hunger Games, and not necessarily in a good way. I think partly this was because Joy and the other Hunters were a form of entertainment for the civilian population. They may be competing with each other indirectly, but they're still involved in fighting for people's entertainment and to distract the civilian population from how things have actually been getting worse in Apex and there are more monsters than ever. Plus there's the whole dystopian nature of Apex, with people apparently being jailed for sedition and a large gap between the haves and have-nots. There are elements where it definitely feels like this book is trying to cash in on the dystopian theme that's been running around fiction, especially young adult fiction, for quite some time now.

The biggest problem is I don't feel like it's done terribly well. Lackey doesn't do a great job in this book of showing us how everything is a dystopia. We're told about people being jailed for sedition, treason, homelessness, and other crimes, but we never really see police rounding people up or the inside of one of the prisons or anything like that. The Hunters patrol the slums for monsters, but they don't seem to interact with the poor segments of the population all that much, spending all their free time in the pleasant, gilded center of Apex. That at least is where Hunger Games shone, in my opinion, was by showing the dystopian nature of the government and its pervasiveness. Here it just doesn't feel quite the same.

Joy also kind of suffers from designated protagonist syndrome in this book. She has seven Hounds, meaning she has more hounds than almost everyone else, as well as being super-strong magically speaking. Before she even gets to Apex she faces down a magician of the Folk (basically fairies) and manages to get him to leave an entire train alone. I didn't track exactly how long the events of the book took, but it definitely felt like the entire book took less than a month in story time and that feels like far, far too short a time for everything that goes on. I will grant you that Joy is an experienced Hunter with several years of fighting monsters under her belt, but even with that taken into consideration it feels far, far too generous. And as a result the book just feels rushed, in my opinion.

So I'd say this book is okay, but I wouldn't say it's great. There are some good ideas in here and Lackey is a very good writer, but it feels like it's borrowing far too much from the current trend of dystopian sci-fi/fantasy novels. Obviously those books are popular because people are really digging that sort of thing right now, but after a while I do feel like it becomes more of the same thing. If this seems interesting to you, I'd say check it out, but don't expect too many great or new things to come from this book.

- Kalpar