BLACK SWAN, WHITE RAVEN, Edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

22910783Black Swan, White Raven
The Snow White, Blood Red Anthology Volume IV
Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Published by Open Road Media, 30th September 2014
(Originally Published June 1997)
ISBN: 1497668603 – 368 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley

“The Flounder’s Kiss”, by Michael Cadnum
“The Black Fairy’s Curse”, by Karen Joy Fowler
“Snow in Dirt”, by Michael Blumlein
“Riding the Red”, by Nalo Hopkinson
“No Bigger Than My Thumb”, by Esther M. Friesner
“In the Insomniac Night”, by Joyce Carol Oates
“The Little Match Girl”, by Steve Rasnic Tem (Poetry)
“The Trial of Hansel and Gretel”, by Garry Kilworth
“Rapunzel”, by Anne Bishop
“Sparks”, by Gregory Frost
“The Dog Rose”, by Sten Westgard
“The Reverend’s Wife”, by Midori Snyder
“The Orphan the Moth and the Magic”, by Harvey Jacobs
“Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs”, by Don Webb
“True Thomas”, by Bruce Glassco
“The True Story”, by Pat Murphy
“Lost and Abandoned”, by John Crowley
“The Breadcrumb Trail”, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Poetry)
“On Lickerish Hill”, by Susanna Clarke
“Steadfast”, by Nancy Kress
“Godmother Death”, by Jane Yolen

While I adore fantasy, retellings of myths or fairy tales aren’t the flavor that I’d first go for. Other than a handful of really well known classics, I’m not generally familiar with the source material, leaving at least one level of a retelling inaccessible for my appreciation. But, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to try something a bit different from my favored norm, particularly when Ellen Datlow’s name is attached as editor. Terri Windling is just as respected, but I am far less familiar with her work. Probably because of this branch of fantasy in which she specializes.
And I was just enraptured from the moment starting this classic collection. Though I hadn’t heard of it before, Datlow made a comment on Twitter regarding how she was glad it was available again and in eBook form for those (like me) whose radar didn’t pick it up in the late 90s. After reading this I’ve since picked up all the other volumes from the series during an Open Road Media sale and look forward to enjoying them all.
The stories in this volume at least vary nicely in style and tone from the more serious to the light-hearted, and mix up the genres from an expected fantasy to something closer to science fiction or mystery. Beyond even the stories, there are also a couple of poems. Try as I might, I still can’t manage to get much appreciation out of poetry. I have gotten better, but still a long way off. So I didn’t read the poems in this. Nonetheless I’m glad they are there because I think the art form would give great opportunities for briefly retelling the cores of fairy tales. And these fairy tales, already existing ‘classically’ in myriad form, really are about some general ‘core’ elements rather than any given specific details of the plot.
While some of the stories stick to classic messages, perhaps in a new setting or from a new point of view, a large number serve to invert or recast elements that in this era would be considered problematic due to things like race or gender, or use the existing shell of a classic tale to create something wholly new that empowers and speaks to a group of the population that the tales of old rarely did.
For me personally on the two ends of the spectrum I cared least for “The Trial of Hansel and Gretel” and “On Lickerish Hill”. I found the former, casting the eponymous characters into a courtroom drama, to simply drag, and for the Clarke they style of the language was too much (though I managed her Strange & Norrell novel just fine).  My most beloved readings here were “Godmother Death”, “The True Story”, “The Dog Rose”, “No Bigger Than My Thumb”, and “The Black Fairy’s Curse”. Many of those I enjoyed most fall into that category where a basic assumption from the original tale is taken and inverted to show a novel perspective or truth previously hidden or, within the confines of the story, ‘suppressed’.
Honestly I could list even more of the contents that I enjoyed, but the simplest thing is to let you find this and discover them all for yourself, if you haven’t already. Or perhaps to discover them all again. Whether this volume or (it is probably safe for me to speculate) any of the volumes of the Snow White, Blood Red series, you’re sure to find a good deal thought-provoking and entertaining.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Sound of Broken Glass, by Deborah Crombie

The Sound of Broken Glass,
by Deborah Crombie
Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James Series Book 15
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0061990647
384 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Normally I don’t sign up to win books that are in a series because I try to use this to discover authors and works that I otherwise wouldn’t discover or read anytime soon. So if it’s a series, I probably haven’t read any of the others. Even if novels are supposed to be ‘stand-alone’ I’d much rather read them all, in order, or not bother reading any of them. This makes getting into mystery novels hard though. So I must’ve read the description for this and decided my interest was worth giving it a try. I’m glad that I did because it was an enjoyable book, but I’m not sure if it is a series that I’d rush to find more of over the others I have in queue.

The primary strength I see in “The Sound of Broken Glass” is atmosphere. Crombie’s characters each exude particular British regions or classes, and the city itself is used almost as a character in defining the roles of the others, their pasts and how those circumstances now collide in the present. These past events are conveyed through italicized, flashback, passages, rather than in-time. This method seems largely employed to keep the secrets of the mystery hidden to the investigators in the novel until the last possible moment. The reader therefore has a greater, though still very vague sense, of what lies behind the murders than the protagonist does. Yet despite revealing more to the reader, Crombie still keeps the mystery unsolved and identities unclear through red-herrings, convolutions, and reader mis-assumptions.

Thus, it stands an effective mystery. The downside as I saw it, was that the structure of the novel with its flashbacks takes away significantly from any procedural aspects. The case is ultimately unveiled not completely through the investigator’s skill, but rather in large part due to chance coincidences and shared acquaintances, well-crafted connections on the part of the author between her characters that leave the entire events partially artificial in feeling. Crombie also uses the story and its themes to try to wedge in side plots involving the protagonist and her family, all of which seem highly tangential and never actually brought to conclusion. I suspect these aspects of the story relate more to the overall series as opposed to the novel itself, highlighting that a series novel never can really be ‘stand-alone’.

Three Stars out of Five

Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight,
by Laini Taylor
Daughter of Smoke and Bone Book 2
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
517 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2012
Source: NetGalley

The first book in the series left me impressed even with heightened expectations from glowing recommendations. I really had no idea what to expect from the second. Could it keep feeling fresh, or would it rehash the same themes? Would the characters remain engaging? In what directions would the plot be taken and would its emphasis focus on the romance angles or not? It is easy for a series to unravel after a well-received introduction.

Thankfully, Taylor makes this middle volume and its characters go places, focusing more on the battles and larger scale conflicts between the ‘angels’ and ‘devils’ side of the war. Where the focus of the first book was on the development of protagonist Karou and her personal relationship with Akiva, this focuses on the larger issues of what that relationship now means within the historical context Karou has uncovered by the end of volume one. The scale here is larger, and the themes transfer from being centered on personal or ‘destined’ romance to ones of war, what situations of conflict do to influence lives and how prolonged conflicts can enter into never-ending cycles of loss and retribution.

If these are changes you weren’t expecting, and leads the stories into directions you don’t care to go, this may frustrate you. Liking the first book won’t mean you’ll like the second. But, if you find yourself appreciating the broadening of scope with new characters, new relationships, and most certainly new complications, I think you’d still love this.

Despite continuing to love the story here and the characters, and appreciating the evolutions Taylor writes to avoid simply repeating the same story again, her style of writing begins to get old. Specifically, Taylor tends to forward the plot by ending a chapter with a sudden revelation or occurrence (often in cliff-hanger fashion) followed by starting the next chapter well ahead in time. She then goes back and fills in the missing details of how the character or plot got from the end of the previous chapter to the start of the next. This technique really maximizes reader interest, but when used continually over the course of the two novels it begins to lose its charm.

I’m eager to see where this story and its characters go in the presumably last novel of the series. I would expect a merging of the first two novels and the battle between these two races entering fully into our Earth. I suspect the events will surprise me and the underlying themes of individuals struggling to connect humanely amid horrific conflict will continue to prove interesting.

Four Stars out of Five

Honor Among Thieves, by James S.A. Corey

Honor Among Thieves,
by James S.A. Corey
Star WarsEmpire and Rebellion Book 2
Publisher: LucasBooks
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published March 2014
Source: NetGalley

Years upon years ago I read several of the early ‘expanded universe’ Star Wars novels, but haven’t picked up many since then. Partially this was from general disappointment and disinterest caused by the prequel films, but it also was a result of simply falling behind on the many publications that came out. For newer novels the characters now had significant history I was unfamiliar with. It just seems daunting to catch up, particularly knowing these shared universe, media-tie-in novels can be hit or miss.

What’s really nice then about this novel is that it is straight up Star Wars enjoyment that can be approached with knowing nothing more than the original movie. Additionally, although this is the second in a series, I haven’t read the first and the novel works perfectly fine as a stand-alone. The novel has few aspirations and the story has little frills. It is a simple action/spy story with a lovable feature character, Han Solo. Constrained by the existing films and novels the threats facing the characters will not appear realistic dangers at any point. Instead, the story here is about watching Han Solo thrive in those conditions that make us love him. The authors (writing under a pen name) put the most interesting touch on the novel in their writing of Solo’s thought processes, taking advantage of this point of time in the grand story as Solo begins to move from selfish, conservative scoundrel to someone who has begun to care about others and reconsider his social positions. Han rings conflicted, but true to our vision of Harrison Ford’s performance and the film directors/screen writers characterization. Finally, the novel also includes an interesting female foil for Han in the form of a character that shares a bit more personality with him than Leia, which works nicely and isn’t overworked. While this novel isn’t aiming to be a significant lot in terms of fiction or even Star Wars fiction, a ‘minor’ tale like this could easily be treated as a throwaway and go south rapidly, but instead this one is kept respectable and entertaining for an easy read for those that like Star Wars and those that particularly would look for a story set in the familiarity of this time period in the mythology.

Three Stars out of Five

The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett

The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett
The Demon Cycle Book 1
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 0345518705
453 pages, paperback
Published March 2010
(Original Publ: 2008, as The Painted Man)
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Somehow I never heard about this series or author until coming across the giveaway for this book, and I am fortunate to have won it, one of the more enjoyable fantasy novels I’ve read in some time.

With any fantasy, world-building has prime importance, as any other element of fiction will be easily ruined by a crumbling facade of suspended disbelief or grow dull in a clichéd, familiar setting. From the opening chapter, Brett’s world of pre-tech (or is it post-tech), demon-plagued night is fascinating. With characters in relative ignorance of the world they inhabit beyond the pressing immediacy of the daily struggle to survive, Brett is able to reveal the world of his series gradually, enticing the reader’s interest, supplying bits of satisfaction, and leaving the tease of deeper revelations still-to-come. Yet nowhere does one feel shortchanged or played with. Brett’s construction of this world shows that he is simply a masterful storyteller with a love and appreciation for fantasy at its simplest.

The novel’s apparent simplicity as entertaining story and comments by others regarding the black/white good/bad dichotomy made me somewhat wary when starting the novel, afraid things would be a little too simplistic. With those expectations I actually was pleasingly surprised to see that the plot did not unfold in the manner I expected, the journey of each of the series’ protagonists did not go straight from A to B without mis-step. Too often in fantasy novels the heroes are presented with challenge after challenger, yet surpass each without any actual deviation from the original intentions, from the original set-up. In meaningful ways, Brett does take the story and his characters in unexpected directions or excursions, even if their broad, ultimate destiny is clear.

Through this all, Brett makes the reader care deeply for each of the three main characters, and enjoy the presence of the various secondary characters, good and bad, who cross their path. Of the trio, Arlen (the Warded Man) is featured the most, and for all of the novel I grew increasingly concerned that he was being made into far too powerful of a hero, a cartoonish superhero that could not fail. While others were in danger, including those he cares about, one never doubts that Arlen won’t be able to face any demon coming out with no more than a mild scratch. However, this is balanced nicely by the vulnerability of the other protagonists, and the novel begins to develop (and hint for further developments) in the true weaknesses of Arlen, not physical, but spiritual, a loss of humanity.

This was a surprisingly satisfying read and I’m eager to read the remainder of the series, always the drawback to finding a fantasy novel that captures the imagination.

Five Stars out of Five

Parasite, by Mira Grant

Parasite, by Mira Grant
Parasitology Book 1
Publisher: Orbit
512 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
Source: NetGalley

Parasite is fairly good mixture of science fiction and horror, but falters in believability and trying to make everything in genre fiction into a ‘series’.

Some readers of science fiction want the science to be hard: a prominent component, full of details that are all consistent and completely believable/accurate. It seems that most work that fails into this category lies in the scientific realm of physics or astronomy. It is rare to find something about biology that fits these criteria.

Here, Grant tries to accomplish this, taking a clever plot that bears elements of “Invasion of the Body Sntachers” and zombie films, and infusing it with scientific speculation on how this could occur. It is a fabulous idea, one I was eager to read, and involves the fictional genetic engineering of a parasite that combines properties of tapeworms with the protist pathogen Toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasma, for those unfamiliar, can be passed to humans through cats, and is the reason why pregnant women should generally avoid cats. Interesting current research has demonstrated that Toxoplasma can be present in a host without causing any extreme illness, per se. But, it does seem to alter human behavior in subtle ways, such as causing the person harboring Toxoplasma to be more risk-prone. Fascinating science that lends itself well to fiction.

Unfortunately this book just generally underwhelmed me. The discussions of the parasite having a mixture of human, tapeworm, and Toxoplasma DNA was very confusing and vague. Lots of DNA is shared between many organisms, so what DNA in particular…encoding what? Grant also discusses drugs targeting the human DNA or the parasite DNA, which was odd and not believably conveyed.

Honestly, I can accept some errors in discussing molecular biology. I can suspend disbelief and enjoy the story. I personally don’t care that much if my fiction is based on hard accurate science if it makes up for errors/vagueness with other strengths. Grant writes good dialogue, has interesting characters and pacing, etc. I can’t point to anything as being poorly done, as much as say there was nothing to lift it above acceptable. There was no magic to the writing, and no particular strong life or memorable traits brought to any of the characters.

In the end I would have rated the book higher as a decent, light, genre read. Were it not for the ending. To be continued. I knew this was the first in ‘The Parasitology Series’ and that Grant seems to write a few series. Series are overdone in genre, but I’m not averse to them per se. Here though, there is no need. The story could have been brought to a better conclusion with further adventures written later. A novel is not an episode of a television series in need of a cliff-hanger. While many questions facing the protagonist are answered, the overall plot and fate of many characters remains unresolved at the end of this, making me hesitant to read anything further from Grant unless a series packaged together as an omnibus.

Two Stars out of Five