Monday, December 22, 2008

Genre-Hopping Lightning Reviews

Apprentice Writer's reviews have been thin on the ground lately. In the interests of playing catch-up to start the new year with a blank (or, at least, blanker) slate, some less than exhaustive thoughts:

THE VIRTU by Sarah Monette
Dark Fantasy

'The Virtu' is Book 2 of the Doctrine of Labyrinths series (Book 1, 'Melusine' glowingly reviewed here earlier). It continues where the first left off, with the dual protagonists on an island famed for its healing sorcerers, across the Empire from their magical city-home of Melusine. The story tells of their journey and what happens when they return to a place where many are, to put it mildly, unhappy with them. This very bare description (vague to avoid spoiling the gradual discovery of readers who have not read Book 1) can't begin to convey the deftness with which the author juggles first-person narration of the two heros, so very different from one another in background, personality, status, and skills, and how numerous details from the first book turn out to be puzzle pieces for the second rather than simple window-dressing.

Protagonists, secondary characters, plot, villains of various intensity and world-building are all rich and convincing. But the single most impressive element is that AW could never, ever predict what would happen next. She abandoned her usual practice of reading half a dozen stories at once to devour this one non-stop, and needs a break to breathe and digest all the amazingness before plunging into Book 3, 'The Mirador' (Book 4, the final installment, will be published mid2009 as 'Corambis').

Was the book flawless? No. The extreme power imbalance between the two heros was overdone (something that will hopefully even out in the next installment), there was a big logical break in one of the labyrinth scenes, and the almost complete lack of basic gratitude in this world became increasingly irritating: Felix not only solves an ancient puzzle but performs a monstrously huge act of magic that no one else could - and receives only a few bland notes of congratulation in recognition. Mildmay's streetsmarts and hardwon combat experience saves his entourage over and over yet he receives no acknowledgement and almost all characters feel free to continue to boss him around as a dull-witted thug. These annoyances weren't deal-breakers, though, and didn't stand in the way of the flying pace of the story.

DRIVEN by Eve Kenin

'Driven' is part of the 'Shomi' imprint of speculative fiction designed to appeal to youngish readers with cutting-edge, genre-bending themes and manga-type covers. It is set in a post-apocalyptic Siberian world with an all-controlling economic power that rules the transportation corridors, miserable have-nots clinging to the fringe of survival, rebels living in secret cells, ice pirates preying on everyone, and a few in-betweeners trying to negotiate their way among the rest. The heroine is one such, a trucker with special capacities trying to stay a step ahead of remnants from her difficult past. The hero (or is he a villain?) is equally mysterious. The flavor of this fun, quick read reminded AW a little of the also enjoyable 'Grimpsace' by Ann Aguirre.


This debut novel is tagged as urban fantasy romantic suspense girl power comedy. After that kind of buildup, AW expected a whole lot. Sadly, it went partially unfulfilled, leading to a question of whether the story may be the victim of its own cover promises.

Apart from the Tolkien oevre, AW has read very little elf-oriented literature, so she looked forward to this story. And in the end, it was the elf portions of the tale that were most interesting; their capabilities and limitations, traditions and adaptations to urban sprawl crowding out their natural woodland habitat (as though they are some kind of tall, long-haired raccoons).

The parts that didn't work so well for this reader included the relationship between the first-person heroine and the hero elf. He was intriguing, but it was never quite clear what drew him to her so powerfully. Perhaps the fact that she was his very first human contact was enough? Also, the only funny detected were the brief running gag bits related to a taxicab driver's mistaken impression that the heroine is a terrorist. Call her stringent, but AW believes that one running gag does not a comedy make. Finally, the suspense portion was tied to a fascinating rogue elf who didn't get nearly enough screen time. He was by far the most interesting character, and AW wished he had been explored more fully (as well as the hero's elf parents, not at all welcoming of a potential cross-ethnic daughter-in-law).

UNTOUCHED by Anna Campbell

AW very much wanted to like this book due to enthusiastic recommendation from a friend, and the author's likable online persona. It was not to be. This contributed to AW's long-held suspicion that she is simply not the audience for 'pure' romance.

The newly-widowed and destitute (but of very old and influential family) heroine is mistaken for a prostitute and kidnapped, taken to a remote estate and left bound on a table for the hero to discover. He has been imprisoned here for many years since childhood episodes of what was interpreted (and brutally treated) as madness, but may have been food-allergy related reactions. His evil uncle now controls the family fortune in his stead, and is naturally loath to give it all up for something as inconvenient as returned sanity. Yet he must keep his nephew alive or lose control to the hero's heir - hence the female companionship now provided. How the pair fall in love and overcome the odds to break out of their prison forms the rest of the story.

The premise was interesting, the hero sympathetic, the bond between the protagonists genuine, their ill treatment vivid. Yet the heroine felt increasingly irksome (culminating in a TSTL moment in the big crisis finale scene), AW skimmed longer and longer portions (including the lengthy, multiple love scenes), and matters reached the point where she was just plain not entertained enough to suspend disbelief on some points she would have let go under other circumstances (How did the hero manage to become a leading botanist if he was imprisoned and neglected from the age of thirteen? If he was able to have his scholarly articles published in scientific journals, why would he not have been able to figure out a way to communicate with outsiders about his situation? Why would the uncle have allowed him to own a dog that responds to his commands alone and can attack henchmen? If he is such a deadly marksman, why would he have not used that rock-throwing skill and his attack dog to escape the two jailers before? etc.)

Many other readers were pleased with this book, as well as the author's first, and count the days till the third is released at the end of this month. AW believes her reaction proves that if she is going to pick up a title with 'romance' in the tagline, she should make sure there are other ingredients in the mix (suspense? action-adventure? comedy?) to increase the chances of a no-holds-barred happy review.

Gentle Reader - Have you liked or loathed any of these titles? Please share.

1 comment:

Wylie Kinson said...

Hey M,

I enjoyed Driven. There's a sequel called Hidden - also very good. Best in the SHOMI line, imho ;)