Review: Shards of Time, Lynn Flewelling

Note: I received this ebook from the publisher, via Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.

These days, I don’t read much high fantasy. It’s not that I’m ashamed of the many hours I spent reading Mercedes Lackey books in middle and high school; it’s just that I rarely, rarely feel like returning to that type of fantasy. But I’ve never been able to quit Lynn Flewelling. I looooved The Bone Doll’s Twin (you can always get me with gender stuff and a healthy dose of creepiness), and I get a kick out of seeing the Seregil and Alec doing their political machinations (Traitor’s Moon is my favorite of that series, because it’s full of machinations). So when I saw that the Nightrunners series was coming to an end this year, I had to get a copy as quickly as possible. Naturally.

At the request of young Queen Elani, Seregil and Alec have been asked to investigate a suspicious death in one of Skala’s possessions, a sacred site called Kouros. The governor of Kouros and his wife were brutally murdered, but their doors were locked from the inside, and there was no sign of forced entry. Several witnesses also swear that they saw ghosts outside the governor’s room before the event. Seregil and Alec, along with Micum, Klia, Thero, and Thero’s young apprentice Mika, set off for Kouros to investigate. BAD TIMES ARE AHEAD.

First things first: They should have left Micum home. Just leave Micum home! Apart from the historical resonances (they’re four dudes fighting black magic now just like there were four dudes fighting black magic in Stalking Darkness), there’s nothing really for Micum to do in the book. Leave the guy home! He deserves a good retirement. We’ve hit all the character beats with Micum that we’re going to get, at this point.

Second things second: I crazy love a locked-door mystery, and I crazy love a ghost story. That the final Nightrunners book incorporates both of these elements was a source of great joy to me. We pretty quickly discover that the ghosts are coming from some other place, a place where dark magic rules. Only the dead can walk with the dead, the group keeps hearing. This becomes even more ominous when Alec and Thero’s apprentice Mika begin to disappear for hours at a time, finding themselves in some alternate version of Kouros where water doesn’t feel wet and fire doesn’t feel warm.

When I say that Shards of Time is the statistical average of all the Nightrunner books that have come before it, I hope you won’t think that I didn’t enjoy the book. I did! The statistical average of a bunch of things I quite liked comes out to another thing I quite liked — as you might expect. There weren’t a ton of political machinations (which I love), but there was nevertheless some jostling for position under the new regime at Kouros. Without getting into the messy mysticism of the whole Sebrahn plotline (bleh), the magic aspects were pleasantly creepy and felt like a genuine risk to our heroes.

But I’d have loved to see Flewelling taking a few more risks in this book. The crucial thing to keeping a long-running series alive emotionally is ruthlessness on the part of the writer. (Spoilers to follow.) One of my favorite sequences in the book is when Klia is kidnapped by a necromancer, who threatens her and her new pregnancy if Klia refuses to help. Despite the surprise magic baby (Klia’s lover was supposed to have been sterile, as wizards are), Klia is immediately willing to sacrifice herself and her future child to thwart the necromancer’s wicked plan. GOOD. That is the correct moral decision, and it is also a pleasing display of ruthlessness by Klia in pursuit of what she wants. Even if everything is going to end happily, I like to see the characters making bold plays, stuff they do because it’s all they can think of, because their backs are against the wall, like that time Elena Gilbert stabbed her own damn self in the stomach to get what she wanted. Everything here felt a little too planned.

Still, my primary feeling was to be very, very fond of this book, and of Lynn Flewelling, and like, the younger versions of me who read this series over the years. If I were trying to talk someone into Lynn Flewelling, the book I would give them would be The Bone Doll’s Twin. But Shards of Time is a very nice coda to a series I’ve enjoyed lo these many years.

Now I am going to go reread The Bone Doll’s Twin. That book is some scary business.

I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.

Review: The White Road, Lynn Flewelling

Two things I enjoy in fantasy books: Chicanery.  And political machinations.  Preferably at the same time, like when people use their wits to effect the toppling of regimes or noble houses.  I have no particular books in mind when I mention this, of course, although now that I mention it, I do seem to recall that there is a series of books by one Megan Whalen Turner that possess both of these elements.  IN SPADES.

Two things I tend not to enjoy in fantasy books: Lots of made-up words.  And fuzzy-edged pseudo-mystic religions.  And look, it hurts me to say this more than I can tell you, but Lynn Flewelling’s newest Nightrunners book, The White Road, has fewer of the enjoyable two things, and more of the less enjoyable two.  Moreover, it has a creepy little critter in it.  I don’t like creepy little critters, and I have a hard time believing that any of the characters would like them either, ALEC.

Alec and Seregil are dealing with the fallout from Shadows Return, trying to decide what’s to be done with the creepy little critter made from Alec’s blood.  Alec’s people, a weird and violent branch of the Aurenfaie, are trying to track it down themselves, for what reason we don’t necessarily know; and an old enemy of Seregil’s, Ulan, wants the books that explain how the critter was made, plus of course the critter itself.  Altogether too much focus on the creepy little critter.

As ever, you do not necessarily want to read a very good book (or series of books) of a particular kind, and then read another book with the expectation that it will be similar.  That way madness lies, bloggy friends.  I was going back and forth between reading The White Road and rereading The Thief.  (I know, I just read it.  But I felt like I would appreciate A Conspiracy of Kings more if I read the first three books again; and besides, I felt like reading them over again.)  I do not recommend this as a means of gaining maximum enjoyment from The White Road.

I like the Nightrunner books, and I enjoyed the book that came before this one, but I feel like Alec and Seregil have gotten too far from their roots.  At this point, we are hearing far more about their brilliance in secrecy and spying and crafty escapes than we’re seeing.  They’re spies and thieves!  I yearn to see them doing some successful spying and thieving!  I’m mad for spying and thieving, particularly when they are spying and thieving for political reasons.  Lynn Flewelling, I recall from Traitor’s Moon and the Oracle’s Queen books, manages political machinations very nicely.  You know, where there are questions of succession, and warring factions of nobles, and sneaky dudes born on the wrong side of the blanket, and y’all, the phrase “the wrong side of the blanket” – more of that, please.

In short, Alec and Seregil have spent the last two books being reactive rather than active, and I’m ready for them to make some independent decisions about what they want to be doing.  And I would like those decisions to send them in the direction of bringing down corrupt regimes.  They can do it in Skala if that’s what they’re feeling (probably not, at this point), or they can do it in Bokthersa.  I do not mind either way.  I like the word machinations, and I really cannot have enough opportunities to use it.

If you are a fantasy-lover, what things do you like to see in your fantasy?  Dragons, social allegory, ragtag bands of rebels, tall elves, short elves, gender issues?  And what do you wish the genre has played to death and might consider steering clear of for a while?

Shadows Return, Lynn Flewelling

My amazing sister went and bought me a copy of this before it was supposed to come out (which was today, I guess).  Foolish Books-a-Million (not my bookstore chain of choice) put it on the shelves before its release date, and brilliant Anna bought us each a copy.  Joy!

Darling Alec, darling Seregil, I support their relationship so much!  They are so much more satisfying than Ki and Tamar turned out to be (although I strongly supported that relationship also)!  And now they’ve – um.  You know.  Returned.  As the title may have implied to you.

What had happened was: They’re back in Rhiminee, doing all petty thieving, and then, omg, the Nasty Army Chick Queen sends them on a mission to fetch her little sister away from Aurenen, and while they’re off trying to accomplish the mission they are totally kidnapped!  And separated!  And sold into slavery!  Because a very, very wicked man wants Alec’s blood because of how he’s half Hazadrielfaie, and he makes a creepy thing with Alec’s blood, and meanwhile Seregil’s old! wicked! treacherous! lover comes back and is a great big poop to Seregil.

Yes, since you ask, I was looking forward to this more than I realized.  I was enchanted to have Seregil’s old!wicked!treacherous! lover showing up at last, though I would be happier if he seemed in any way lovable (right, right, the younger guy’s flattered by the older dude’s attentions, na na na, but does he have any pleasant qualities at all, ever?), and I was very pleased that people are finally interested in Alec’s creepy ‘faie tribe.  Lynn Flewelling’s been such a tease about that up until now.  People would bring it up, and I’d be like YES LORD WE ARE GOING TO TALK ABOUT IT, and then they’d veer away from the subject, and it was exactly like Cold Comfort Farm at the end when Aunt Ada’s talking with Flora and then she turns around to answer an question about cows.  So I was glad that we’re having some serious focus on that.

I read this book in about an hour and a half.  I actually was having serious difficulty putting it down.  Every time I had to put it down, I felt like I was peeling my eyeballs off the page.  (You’re very welcome; I’m glad I could share that delightful image with you.)  And then I finished it and I felt really sad because it’s going to be another several months before more books come out that are nothing but total pleasure and joy.  I should have read it more slowly and enjoyed it more thoroughly.  Like when I was reading one issue of Sandman a day (until I got too suspensey in the middle of A Game of You and totally abandoned the whole one-a-day scheme).

My one major complaint was that there was not enough chicanery.  I like Seregil because of all the mad chicanery he carries on.  Chicanery!  Also, it’s a nice word.  But this book was not big on the chicanery.  Everyone escaped in the end, but they weren’t doing a bunch of sneaky clever cunning things.

Oh, and I just want to say, for the record, Thero and Klia?  No.  That’s a big fat sack of – NO.  I vote NO to that relationship.  I have it on record and I will not back down, just like that time I said I forever hated Ben on Felicity and the writers would never ever be able to make me like Ben better than Noel with the cute eyebrow tic.  (Er, but then they did.)