Book Review: The Invisible Library

Book Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

One good way to introduce a new fictional character or world is to start off with a short adventure where the character gets to show off their competency and special abilities.  Usually this is at most loosely connected to the main plot which will show up after the mission is complete, being there to establish a baseline for the character’s normal behavior.  Thus when we first meet Irene, she’s infiltrating a Harry Potterish school of magic as the cleaning lady to steal a book.

The Invisible Library

Irene (a codename) is an acquisitions agent for the Invisible Library, a mysterious organization that collects rare and unique books from parallel Earths.  Her title of “Junior Librarian” is somewhat misleading; she was born to two Librarians and made frequent visits there in her youth (and you do not age while in the Library) so she has years more of experience than she looks like.  Also, she suffered a career setback about a decade ago that made her look incompetent and gets her underestimated.

Irene’s primary advantage besides her vast knowledge base (particularly in the field of books) is the Language.  Only those bound to the Library can use this paranatural ability; if Irene knows the right words to use, she can cause objects to do her bidding.  There are some severe limitations on what she can do with the Language, and using it tends to blow her cover, so Irene hesitates to solve her problems this way.

Upon returning to the Library from the first chapter mission, Irene has no chance to rest before being sent out on another case, this time with trainee Kai in tow.  Kai is impossibly handsome and has several secrets, some more obvious than others.

They’re sent off to a world that has vampires, zeppelins, the Fair Folk and Great Detectives.  It’s normally off-limits due to high Chaos contamination, so the Grimm variant they’re after must be important.  The local Library agent explains that the book went missing after the previous owner’s murder, presumably at the hands of notorious cat burglar Belphegor.

Complications soon heap upon each other.  Irene must work out which of the people involved is the real threat.  Is it Kai, who really does have too many secrets?  The deadly thief Belphegor?  Silver, the Fae ambassador of Liechtenstein?  The mad science-oriented Iron Brotherhood?  Rival Librarian Bradamant?  Earl Peregrine Vale, noted detective?  The renegade codenamed Alberich?  Or is it the Library itself?  And just where is that book?

This is a fast-paced adventure story with some neat worldbuilding and mostly likable characters.  The Language, chaos-spawned magic, draconic powers and technology all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  There’s some “meta” stuff as well; a chaos-contaminated world tends to have things happen as they would in fiction rather than in “real life” with plenty of coincidences and narrative tropes.

There is one clanger of a scene in which Kai pressures Irene to have sex with him and has difficulty taking “no” for an answer.  It’s meant to show that 1) Kai isn’t quite as familiar with modern customs as he lets on and 2) Irene has had plenty of sex, thank you, but not with the person her colleagues think she did.  There could have been other ways of showing these things.

There’s also the thing where everyone including Irene has a mysterious backstory, but we never get more than hints for most of them.

Primarily for folks who like the mashup of steampunk and fantasy.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

 

Book Review: Snuff

Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Blackboard Monitor, has been aware in a general way that his wife Sybil owns some property in the countryside.  But now that their son Young Sam is six, Sybil has decided that it’s high time that the family take a holiday to visit the ancestral manor.   And she’s somehow convinced Sam’s boss, Lord Vetinari, to sign off on this.

Snuff

So Sam Vimes finds himself on vacation for the first time in ever, stranded far from the smell and sounds of the city he knows so well, and at a loss how to handle himself in a rural area where he’s not got jurisdiction as a cop.  But as Sherlock Holmes remarked in “The Copper Beeches”, the countryside is not free from vile sin.  When Vimes discovers that there’s been a murder on his land and the oppressed cry out for justice, he’s willing to bend the definition of jurisdiction to bring the villains to heel.

This is one of the last Discworld books (only two after this one) and the last of the City Watch sub-series.  While Vimes is front and center for most of the story, we do check in with many of the other continuing characters for at least a sentence.  (This is one of the few Discworld books to miss out Death as a character, but that does not mean that no one dies.)

Over the course of the series, Ankh-Morpork has advanced from a parody of generic sword-and-sorcery cities that happened to share some geographical features with London to more or less a fantasy version of Victorian London–and most of this progress has happened within Sam Vimes’ lifetime.  Indeed, Vimes can be said to have facilitated much of this by his dedication to law enforcement that does what is right rather than what is convenient.  Another running theme of the books has been that people are people, regardless of their shape, odd customs or biological weirdness.  Dwarves and trolls and even vampires have become people, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that description.  And now it is the turn of the goblins.

Goblins are the lowest of the low, considered filthy creatures with no visible culture, and treated as vermin.  Enslaving them, taking their sacred objects, killing them–none of these are considered crimes by the majority of people or the written law.   But Commander Vimes’ previous experiences give him some unique ways of seeing the “humanity” of goblins.

And while his efforts do yield results, Sam Vimes would not be able to fully achieve the goal of bringing goblins under the protection of the law without the aid of his socially-connected wife, an author who has her own insights into goblin culture, and several goblins who step out of their stereotype to show their worth.  (Although there is some question whether Stinky is really a goblin…or something more.)

Much of the “humor” this time revolves around bodily excretions, as Young Sam has discovered the scientific wonders of poo.  For those of us not keen on toilet gags, this gets a bit tiresome.  There’s also a fair amount of swearing, and a discussion of “the dreadful algebra” of what to do with an infant that’s been born in a time of famine.  And not all sins are forgiven.

The general quality of the writing is excellent as always, but Sir Terry’s sentimental side perhaps overwhelms the sharper edge of social satire, particularly in the ending.

Recommended to Discworld fans; newbies should probably start with Guards! Guards! which is the first of the Watch sub-series.

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau

Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Edward Prendick, a young man of independent means, decides to take a natural history sea voyage (ala Charles Darwin) aboard the Lady Vain.  Somewhere in the Pacific, that ship crashed into a derelict and was lost.  Prendick and two other men managed to escape in a dinghy, but after a disastrous attempt at cannibalism, he was the only survivor.  Prendick was found by the tramp ship Ipecacuanha, which happens to be carrying a passenger named Montgomery, who nurses Prendick back to health.

Bela Lugosi as "The Sayer of the Law" in "The Island of Lost Souls", a movie based on this story.
Bela Lugosi as “The Sayer of the Law” in “The Island of Lost Souls”, a movie based on this story.

Montgomery, as it happens, is a former medical student who had to leave London in a hurry a decade ago (for reasons never fully explained.)   He and his odd-looking manservant have engaged the ship to deliver a supply of animals to a certain island, including a full-grown puma.  At the island, the animals are delivered to also odd-looking but differently so boatmen, and Prendick is not invited ashore with Montgomery.  On the other hand, the ill-tempered, alcoholic captain of the Ipecacuanha won’t let him stay on board either.

Thus Prendick is dumped back in the dinghy.  After some parley, Prendick is reluctantly allowed to land on the island by its master, the highly antisocial Doctor Moreau.  Prendick recognizes the name as someone who also had to leave England in a hurry under a cloud of suspicion.   After some initial misunderstandings, Prendick learns the secret of the island…which I am fairly certain you already know.

This 1896 novel by H.G. Wells was the second of his book-length (but just barely) speculative fiction works.   It still stands up as literature thanks to the multiple levels it works on.   It’s a chiller about a man stranded on an island of beast people who are rapidly going feral, a warning against cruel/unnecessary animal experimentation (Prendick is not opposed to vivisection per se, but becomes even more disgusted with Moreau once he realizes the doctor has no actual goal beyond turning an animal into a human being to prove he can), and an allegory about the animalistic behavior lurking beneath the thin veneer of human civilization.

Prendick, like the Time Traveler, is a bit of a stumblebum.  He has a smattering of scientific education which allows him to follow along when Moreau and Montgomery give explanations, but not enough knowledge in any given field to be useful in survival.  He also burns down Moreau’s lab entirely by accident, and is repeatedly bad at making rafts.  Prendick only eventually escapes when he stumbles across the Ipecacuanha‘s lifeboat, with the captain’s corpse inside (which is never explained either.)  On the other hand, Prendick turns out to be an excellent shot with his very limited ammunition.

Montgomery is the most nuanced character, a man who lets his weaknesses (primarily alcohol) guide his actions, but with frequent decent impulses.  We learn that it is in fact, he, not Moreau, who came up with the Law that the Beast People follow, in an attempt to help them not regress to the animals they once were.   He also shows small kindnesses throughout the book until his death.

Moreau, conversely, is very much the mad scientist.  He starts with the knowledge that body grafts are possible on a small scale, and decides that turning an animal into a human being would be a really cool achievement.  There’s no scientific method involved, he doesn’t bother with anesthesia, and he loses all interest in his creations once they fail to live up to his expectations.   Like Victor Frankenstein, he’s so busy sculpting his new humans that he fails to step back and look at the aesthetics of his creations until he’s already done.  Unlike most real scientists, he fails to apply any ethical standard to himself or his work,  although he does feel that he is religious and that the pain he inflicts is meaningless in light of his higher nature.

The Beast People are victims of Moreau, animals carved into humanoid shapes (and sometimes blended for fun, like the hyena-swine), given limited speech and intelligence, yet just human enough to realize that they are not fully human and never will be.   Yes, they are dangerous, and a couple of them may actually be evil by human standards.  But they never asked to be made or abandoned; for them death is a kind of mercy.

It is nigh impossible to re-create the experience the original readers might have had, not having seen anything like this story before.  I note, however, that the trope of deformed, degenerate sub-human tribes of natives tucked away in the depths of Africa or the Pacific was common in adventure literature of the time, and the first readers might have believed they were getting such a tale from the early chapters.

The framing of the story is old-fashioned; there’s an introduction by a nephew of Prendick’s, explaining that this manuscript was found among his uncle’s effects, and while the shipwreck part is true, and Prendick was found a year later in a lifeboat that might have been the freighter’s, nothing else can be verified.  The only island in the area of pick-up shows no sign of the events of the story, and Prendick claimed traumatic amnesia regarding the missing year during his lifetime.  (Prendick explains in the story proper that he did this to avoid being locked in a loony bin.)

This is a good read for both horror and science fiction fans who can handle the old-fashioned vocabulary and slow start.  The vivisection theme makes it more suitable for junior high on up, and parents of younger readers may want to discuss proper scientific ethics with their wards.  One of the classics.

“Not to go on all fours, that is The Law.  Are we not Men?”

Book Review: The Curious Case of the Jeweled Alicorn

Book Review: The Curious Case of the Jeweled Alicorn by Michael Merriam.

We open in media res, as Arkady Bloom’s assignation with Countess Moretti takes a dangerous turn.  It seems that in addition to being a minor court poet, Bloom is also an agent of the Crown’s Supernatural Intervention Agency, and the Countess has stolen the key to a valuable secret formula.  Bloom survives the encounter with the aid of his African valet Chillblood, and goes on to accept his next assignment.

The Curious Case of the Jeweled Alicorn

This turns out to be attending a house party by the Baron de Blackmere the coming weekend.  The Baron will be showing off some artifacts to his eccentric guests, one of which might be the elusive perpetual energy device.  Several unpleasant parties would like to get their hands on that, I dare say.  Bloom’s assignment becomes more complex when the sidhe (the Fair Folk, his mother’s people) approach him with a request to obtain a severed unicorn’s horn (the alicorn of the title) which they need to restrain a rampaging monster.

Bloom must navigate his multiple goals and loyalties, while trying to figure out which of the Baron’s guests are after what–and perhaps have a little romance on the side.

“Steampunk” is a subgenre of speculative fiction set roughly in the Age of Steam (1770-1914) when rapid industrialization and steam engines changed the face of civilization.   It generally involves the use of steam power to do things that the technology  was not used for historically, and may indeed be impossible, such as clockwork dragons or spaceships.

This novella is in a smaller subgenre that adds fantasy elements.  This can be a difficult balancing act  as the author must build the world almost from scratch, and there are no established boundaries what magic can or cannot do.  The author does a reasonably good job of limiting the effects of magic in this case.

With a dozen plus important characters, multiple agendas and slam-bang action, there isn’t a lot of time for character development in this short book.  It’s a light confection and a fast read.  This is a small press book from Sam’s Dot Publishing, and there are a couple of typos.  You may want to bundle this with another book from the same publisher to beef up the reading time.

Comic Book Review: Bodies

Comic Book Review: Bodies written by Si Spencer; art by Dean Ormstom, Phil Winslade, Meghan Hetrick, & Tula Lotay.

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  No other compensation was involved.

Bodies

A string of seemingly-identical murders baffles London detectives in four time periods.  It can’t be the same killer every time…can it?  And what is the mysterious Long Harvest?  From Victorian times to the too-near future, those involved must seek out the common thread.

Each of the detectives has issues.  In 1890, Inspector Edmond Hillinghead thinks his attraction to other men is hidden; after all, he’s never succumbed.  His closet has a transparent door, however.  In 1940, Inspector Charles Whiteman is a Jew who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland, only to find a niche running the rackets.  He’s blamed a captured German pilot for the mysterious corpse, but his own crimes are about to be exposed.  In 2014, Detective Sargeant Shahara Hasan wears her issue out in the open.  She’s a practicing Muslim, and British to the core, in a time when many think those are contradictory traits.  And in 2050, a woman whose name might be Maplewood and might be a detective suffers from scrambled memories, as does everyone in London–but this corpse seems familiar and important.

The four artists each cover one of the time periods as the narrative cuts back and forth, making it easy to tell when we are in the timeline.  I don’t care for all of them, but it works well.

Each of the detectives must discover things about their own identity (literally in Maplewood’s case) in order to uncover the deeper mystery, and its connection to the theme of England.

This is part of Vertigo Comics, which is well known for its reliance on British writers.  That, and being DC’s “Mature Readers” line.  As such, there’s violence, nudity, sex scenes and some filthy language.  College age and up, I’m thinking.

To be honest, some knowledge of British history and culture is going to go a long way towards making this graphic novel more enjoyable.  Those who haven’t studied such things are likely to find themselves lost.

Anime Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood/Battle Tendency

Anime Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood/Battle Tendency

This 2012 anime series was based on the first two story arcs of the manga by Hirohiko Araki.  The series as a whole deals with the bizarre adventures of the extensive Joestar family, with protagonists having repeated “Jo” sounds in their names, thus “Jojo.”

Jojo's Bizarre Adventures
Dio and Jonathan

Phantom Blood takes place during Victorian times, as Jonathan Joestar, scion of the wealthy Joestar family, gets a new adoptive brother, Dio Brando.  Dio’s abusive childhood has left him charming but utterly evil; he decides to supplant Jonathan as the Joestar heir.  Dio begins a campaign of cruelty and treachery to render Jonathan friendless and broken.

Things are complicated by a mysterious stone mask, which turns out to have the ability to turn humans into vampires.  The second half of the plot has Jonathan learning a special martial art, the “Ripple”, which simulates the effects of sunshine and can destroy vampires.

Battle Tendency picks up the story in the 1930s, with Jonathan’s grandson Joseph Joestar.   Joseph learns that there are more of the stone masks, and in the process of tracking them down, becomes embroiled in a battle against the Pillar Men.  The Pillar Men, it turns out, feed on vampires the way vampires do on humans, and are out to eliminate their one weakness so that they can rule forever.  Joseph must learn how to fully access the Ripple before it’s too late.

The Bizarre Adventure series is well-known for being over the top even by shounen fighting manga standards.  Strange powers, interesting battle poses, unusual fashion choices and clever battle strategies are all part of the charm.  The anime runs with this, often providing stylized versions of key panels from the manga, and visible sound effects.

The two protagonists provide an interesting contrast; Jonathan is an honorable Victorian gentleman who battles in an upright fashion, while Joseph is a wisecracker who uses sleight of hand and dirty tricks to win his fights.  He’s even willing to accept help from a Nazi cyborg (once the Nazi cyborg stops being on the other side, that is.)

The villains are great, too.  Dio plays the charmer in public, while plotting evil secretly (until he turns into a vampire, but still keeps being pretty charismatic.)  The Pillar Men are both amusing and terrifying, arrogant in their overwhelming power, but each with personality quirks that make them individually interesting.

As hinted above, there’s quite a bit of blood and unsettling violence in this series; Dio kills a dog in a horrific way in a very early episode.  Araki feels no compunction about killing off major, minor and incidental characters, even protagonists.  Younger and more sensitive children might find this series upsetting, parental guidance is suggested.

Currently, a new season of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is airing, featuring the third story arc, Stardust Crusaders, set in the 1980s and starring Joseph’s grandson Jotaro Kujo.

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