Book Review: The Alchemist of Souls

Whenever I hear the words “historical fantasy,” I confess one name tends to leap to mind: Guy Gavriel Kay. Having only recently (geologically speaking) been introduced to the cult of this literary great, I confess that he has given the genre new life in my eyes, and laid a rather hefty level for other participants to aspire to.

This said, The Alchemist of Souls is one of these aspirants, being set in the Elizabethan era—an era utterly ripe for adventure, politicking, or general miscreantism of any sort. This being a stand-alone (another oh-so-glorious rarity amongst its kind), it’s not a book that can stand to waste any time; nor does it. It puts us at the time of the grand American discovery, in the shoes of the unfortunate Mal, a (well I suppose that’s pretty standard) once grandiose swordsman reduced to mercenary work, chiefly as the bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador—a people discovered in the aforementioned New World.

The Skraylings are also where the magical/fantastical elements come in, as these folk are possessed of some rather strange capabilities therein. Unfortunately, Mal discovers those abilities may provide some hazard rather contrary to the whole…ambassadorial thing. Join him with another classic trope of a scheming girl masquerading as a boy, and some all around plotting, and the recipe is set for some fine adventurous dining.

In spite of some traditional elements, however, The Alchemist of Souls proves that a dash of “cliché” need not mean an instant rolling of the eyes—it constantly takes those traditional elements and turns them on their head. It plays with the classics and brings them to delightful ends; cliché does not become a lack of detail, for it is a world of details. The ending is satisfying, the world and the characters alike breathe with human life—which is to say, they feel natural. They can also be biased as hell—because, well, history and all that.

Which is, when you think about it, par for the course. We see the Elizabethan Age as a golden one, and in many regards, it was. However, even the shiniest of beacons come with their flaws—seedy plotting, crafty intrigue, bigots, violence. Nothing’s perfect; nor does our author attempt to paint this world as such, and it rings all the truer for it.

Essentially, you have a vibrant historical setting, injected with a touch of the magical, intricate characters, and some pretty solid surprises. In other words? It’s good. It’s very good. It’s a delightful addition to the historical fantasy genre, and should not be missed by any fans of that genre.

Book Review: Halting State

This was my first involvement with a Stross novel—to the chagrin of some of my more varyingly read friends—but after this unique little stepping off point, I think there’s potential for some trail prodding down his road after this. Halting State is a near-future Sci-fi novel set in a post secession Scotland (relevancy and timeliness points!). That, however, is not the point of the novel—that lies in the crime.

A crime, you ask? Egads, who lies at the heart of this madness? Well, that’s the question. The crime in question is a digital caper, one that has left Hayek Associates—economists for online games—robbed, in a way that suggests someone’s making use of cryptographic keys. Enter the cops, panicky insurers, and an ex-game developer filling the role of partner and consultant to the aforementioned cops. These take the form of three different protagonists, sent to tackle a robbery that only seems to form the first piece in a very large puzzle.

To begin, I would be remiss if I did not address the POV, as it will no doubt put a lot of people off—and very nearly did to me—in the manner of its approach. From the earliest days of English class it was beaten into all of our heads that second person POV—let alone second person POV for THREE different branches of a novel—is bad. Very bad. So bad you want to whack it with a stick.

Naturally, Stross broke that stick and threw it in the woods, before proceeding to mix his language with a whole bunch of technobabble. It’s daunting, and it’s off-putting, but my one assurance here is that to stick with it is to break free—as the novel goes along, its pacing and enjoyability increases quickly.

Unfortunately, I’ve got to pick a little more before I praise. The character-loving soul inside me was not satisfied. Surprisingly, the panicky insurer was the most entertaining and engaging of the heroes; of the others, one seemed utterly unnecessary to the greater mobility of the plot, while the other manages to bring some good twists into the mix. (Full disclosure: I adore the Song of Ice and Fire saga. This should indicate the level of twist snobbery that is involved in that analysis.)

All this said, if the first bit of the book is pressed beyond, what remains is a well-paced, well-penned mystery that knows enough not to dwell on any one point too long before a new piece of the mystery arises and the plot as a whole tumbles forward. There is sufficient action for entertainment, a delightful course of thrill, and enough detail to leave you bobbing your head along in understanding when the reveals do happen.

Halting State is a book with its share of troubles, but in all, it is an entertaining, well-plodded mystery set in a uniquely built world. It’ll steal some hours away before you know it—you just have to stick it out.

Book Review: Endurance

(Before I begin, I want to give the same warning I’d give to anyone reading its predecessor, Green: TRIGGER WARNING! this book heavily features child trafficking, implied prostitution, physical/emotional/psychological abuse, and some pretty general sexual tones overall.)

Endurance, by Jay Lake.

It’s tragic when you can sense a shift as such, but…these books are going in the wrong direction. I don’t mean story-wise; I’m generally not one to criticize as such. Yet you know what they say about movie sequels? Apply here.

Endurance is the sequel to Green—an unusual book in and of itself in the mainstream fantasy genre for its frank sexual (alright, very and uniquely sexual), furry and BDSM tones—continuing the journey of the titular Green as she struggles to find a place for herself in a world that is just…really unkind to her. In so doing, however, Endurance tragically fails to evolve from its predecessor—it’s marred by similar issues, and fails on its own merits to materialize into anything truly hard-hitting.

But let me be frank: it’s good, and it’s quick, it’s just not great. If you want something to read on a goodly-lengthed airplane flight? This one is your book. The action scenes are well-written and entertaining, and there are still characters (alright, in my case, one character) that will amuse, if also baffle.

We get more of the gods in this book than we got even in the last one—it deals with their machinations (hi, Green!) and desires; along with a very steady dichotomy of male vs. female. Some rather chauvinistic baddies want to turn the world to a male god-dominated bachelor pad, while the female goddesses obviously want to preserve the status quo and keep people on their rightful, equal footing. Factor in restless Pardines, a city that can’t seem to get a sense of itself, and a new divine order for people to grow accustomed to, and my oh my, the troubles do abound.

People in the worlds of Jay Lake—well, they’re not very nice.

But I’m not about to be in describing that world just now either, so, deep breaths everyone. For one thing, while I’m no prude, the sexual quality in these books continues to be just…odd. It’s downright implausible in some of the situations in which it comes up, unnecessary to the extent it goes for (I.E. we’re not advancing plot here), and the language used in its description—well, I’ll give Lake creativity points for the last, at least. Also: Green is horny. All the time. Which is just as well, because apparently so are the female gods she follows. Oh dears.

The delivery of the novel itself is also oddly rendered. Several before me have poked at the POV—and I must lend my voice to that crowd. I can understand reflection. It lends things to a novel—pointed, powerful insights into the character we’re following. Not so, in Green’s case. She bemoans, certainly, but as she herself is not a terribly caring or overly thoughtful character (she’s an impulsive ninja, alright?), her “insights” achieve little more than to tell me what I just read of her actions were obviously poor choices on her part. This does little more than to UNDERCUT the moment of those failures, essentially being someone standing just off to the side of the screen saying: “Well, that was dumb of me. Oh my.” It breaks our involvement IN the action, IN the moment, IN the decision.

What’s more: the whole pregnancy detail. It should be a hell of a game changer. Yet right up until the very end, it only proves a conflicting issue at the most convenient moments. Green is always presented as far above and beyond your average woman—and she’d have to be, because if a real woman did half the things she does quite freely here (flipping over rooftops, knife fights, and leaping through windows, to name a few), there is no way her baby would survive to the happy day. She talks ABOUT the pregnancy as an issue a lot—but practically speaking, it rarely is one. She’s still fighting her way to glory right up until the end.

While Endurance has risen above the pacing issue that Green suffered from—no sudden, three book splits in this puppy—and solid attempts are made to craft some intricate plotting, most of the twists and turns end up being pretty predictable, and pretty much all cured by another high octane fist fight or two. Why are people doing the things they’re doing? Well, that’s still not gone into depth enough. People’s motives, even when explained, are not the most intricate or necessarily sensible or reasonable in and of themselves (and there’s always the: “We sensed these two were assassins, so we sexed the urge to kill out of them!” moment…urgh), and while many of the actions and reactions are all coming back on things that Green has done or caused, given her own impulsive nature, this whole series of events can seem somewhere…frustrating.

It’s always proper to end on a high note, though, and I’ll let Lake have that. What this book does have is spirituality, alongside its action. The spiritual aspect—the creation, destruction, and inherent questions that come along with the divine—is in full bloom here, and now more than ever being used to showcase gender issues. Endurance continues THAT tradition that Green set, and while it does not go into quite the expanded depth on that front that I would like form a sequel, it continues to present a rather in-depth world, which I always appreciate.

With Green, I could say I adored the early bits and came to face palm, a lot, over the later bits. With Endurance, the path is set from the very beginning, and it’s consistent all the way through—but the journey remains an entertaining, but not an overly engaging or substantial one.

Review: Theft of Swords

(Prefer to get the audio version of this review? Click here!

Hello, my name’s Chris and I’m—

Wait, we’ve covered that before? Bloody. Well, I’ve mentioned I’ve frolicked through the fields of self-publishing, right? Right?

Trust me, it’s relevant, because today, that very fact should make this man one of my living, breathing modern literary heroes (although it does, in truth, have very little bearing on the review to follow—hypocrisy!).

s-typeopts13Drawing it back: today, I’m undertaking a review I have put off for some time—that being an analysis of Michael Sullivan’s Theft of Swords. The first installment in his incredibly popular Riyria Revelations, it follows the misbegotten adventures of partners-in-crime Hadrian and Royce. Naturally, when one job goes terribly (terribly) wrong, the pair of master burglars and swordsmen, unfortunately, get charged with regicide. Real party-killer, that. Yet they, being the determined lot that they are, persevere and set out to prove their innocence (alright, and maybe get a little revenge along the way), inevitably kicking off a chain of events that will echo changes throughout their whole wide world.

Here’s where I take a breath.

The Theft of Swords is, first of all, what you would call an omnibus—a combination of the first two (rather short) novels in the series, being The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha. It’s a distinction they earned through Riyria’s proven success, having started out on the self-published scene and transitioned into the small presses, before gaining one of those shiny bigwig contracts from Orbit. (You’re starting to see why he should be my hero, right?) Not only have these books, and their series at large, stood out in a crowded room of self-published creations, but they have managed to garner such acclaim that even the fancier folks down the block have invited them to the party.

But I digress. The book. We are focused on the book.

What do you notice first? Well, for one, the fact that Sullivan outright bucks the more typical trend in current fantasy undertakings (which I can count my own Haunted Shadows series among), which is to say, it shakes the adult, the dark, and the violent for elements I for one consider lighter or more classical fantasy. Sure, there’s character deaths, there’s setbacks, but the mood is lighthearted, the scenes move quick, and the victory of the heroes is never really in doubt.

It’s easy to read and pretty straightforward in its delivery. There’s no struggle for deeper meanings or intricate deceptions to be found here—and I mean that not just in terms of plot or character, but the writing itself. It’s not what I would call bland, specifically, but while you might smile at the interactions or personalities of some of the characters, there are few scenes or quotes that will really stick out. The characters are fun, but not as memorable as, say, a Tyrion, or a Corwin, or a FitzChivalry Farseer, because that depth and level of characterization simply isn’t there.

Continuing the traditional fantasy trend: you have your elves, your dwarves, your thee-and-thou throwing wizards. They’re exactly what you’d expect them to be, growing up as a child in the swirl of fairy tales (and, if you’re like me, Lord of the Rings), so while it may appeal to your inner child, adult you is not going to be hit with any terribly original surprises on the racial front at least.

Did I mention there’s a prophecy (Revelations, remember)? Guess who the chosen one is. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Done? Ok, good. Wish I’d had time to make my popcorn, though.

Anyhow, what all this grinds down to is this: it’s a predictable, amusing book that does little adhere to modern traditions but likewise does little to break the classic themes, either. Originality should always be key, but there’s really nothing here that will strike as particularly individual. Particularly unique. In truth, it’s not hard to see why the individual pieces of this one were originally published separately: it’s a series that lends itself to short readings, a flight, a road trip, etc. There are other authors out there that produce better works while still adhering to his same goals, but all this said, is Theft of Swords a bad book?

Not at all. I would rather say: it simply is. Sit back, put a little music on, and enjoy. It will entertain for a few hours, and there’s something to be said for a book that can do that alone.

Book Review: Lexicon

Or, The Power of Words

[Today’s post is going in conjunction with another resource out there for you fellow literary sorts, by the by, so let me just give a shout out and say: I use Grammarly – the best plagiarism checker out there – because every time an author is scammed, a Sad Panda is born. And really, what do you have against Pandas? They are fuzzy (also like some writers) so any counter-argument is invalid and anti-cute. Thank you.]

As a writer, Max Berry’s Lexicon comes predicated on a notion dear to heart: the (mystical) power of words. Because who among us has not read and wished to see a true glimmer of magic in their scribbles? But with power (yes, I know you’re expecting “responsibility”, but this is where I say: psych!) comes the shape and capability of a weapon. Since the dawn of time, men and women have used words as shields and spears both, but in Berry’s entertaining new novel, poets are literally walking, talking weapons.

The power, you see, is in the suggestion. Poets’ power has always been in the rhythm and rhyme, the melody and the makeup of their works, and for Berry’s organization of manipulators on display here, the right sequence of sounds can actually pop the cork on a whole person. Suggestion, destruction, domination…all of these things become possible, without any pesky interference from the logical bits of the brain.

Unless you’ve built up something of an immunity to that sort of thing, but that’s neither here nor there.

Lexicon, you see, takes us down the trail of languages lost and tensions raised by crazy people and somewhat megalomaniacal figures empowered not by radioactive superpowers, but words themselves. A town has gone silent: Broken Hill, Australia, is no more. In this science fiction tale it seems certain wild cards from a group known as the “poets” are likely responsible—people taught to manipulate and coerce, and to generally be the best of the best.

Enter Emily Ruff and amnesiac Will—the former, a sharp-tongued youth from the streets; the latter, a survivor of Broken Hill that may have the answers everyone’s seeking. Between them? A boarding school, a lot of secrets, and a manhunt from not only a former poet, but the current leader of the poets as well. Both want Will’s memory. The only question, really: who will be quicker on their toes?

It’s a fast-paced contemporary adventure, it certainly must be said. The idea it’s built around (if I might partake of the recap rap) immediately winds up this little scribbler’s heart because of the fact that words are already magical for me—but how Berry’s engage the idea is, more generally, fascinating in and of itself. Like the kid in school that always said he couldn’t be hypnotized, you have to start to wonder: just how durable is the human mind and what lies behind our decision-making process?

The book is told through alternating viewpoints, with each chapter bouncing between the aforementioned Emily and Will. Together, they piece the whole of the story together, with more than a few twists and turns along the way, but it’s structured well. As Will is in the dark, so are we, and there is the sense that we are piecing it together with him.

Launching Berry into action-based sci-fi, however, has its own share of thorns. The action, while genuinely exciting, can be a bit scattered—not only in how your sense of acceptable reality must be adjusted, but more generally, his descriptive qualities can leave the scenes a little muddled or vague at times. He is, in general, not the most descriptive, or intricate, but his ideas are sound and engaged in a creative display. Some of the characters could probably stand a little more humanization to them as well—i.e. a little more depth, if you please—but the main characters, the focus, are well-flushed out and there are some genuinely moving moments contained in their threads.

Overall, it’s a relatively quick read that, if you’re looking for something to engage and charm for a few days, will do the trick. It’s sophisticated without being overbearing; suspenseful without maddening; entertaining without losing focus. It won’t tax the mind or leave you contemplating deep truths as to the nature of man or the future of mankind, but it will dazzle you with a magical wink, demand smiles and frowns in equal measure, and manipulate your heartbeat with some rather explosive displays.

Now, vartix fintign nabula karepsis: and remember, friend, when you get me that hot cocoa, I like it with little marshmallows. Thanks!

Put to the stars? 4/5

Book Review: The Son

To begin, let me get this out of the way: I won a copy of “The Son” through a giveaway on Goodreads. Despite that, this review has not been bought and paid for, nor is it in any way anyone’s opinion but my own.

Well. That gets the nitty-gritty out of the way. So let’s get down to business, shall we?

Welcome to The Son: historical fiction at its finest. A vibrant picture not only of characterization, but of the history and personification of the Lone Star state itself, this work is an engaging saga that carries across generations, and through them, unveils the cultures and people that helped to form the true uniqueness of the American south.

Our guides are four-fold: Colonel Eli McCullough, patriarch of the McCullough clan and the first male child born in the Republic of Texas; his son, Peter, in which morality finds a foothold; and Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne, whom expands the McCullough empire to new heights. No, that is not a mathematical error, by the way–there is a fourth character, but unveiling them would in turn prod too deeply into the plot for a review. Apologies.

This book is not your average Western. If you go in expecting that, you will be sadly disappointed. There is violence, tragedy, and unsettling portrayals of family–but it is captured in an authentically real voice and narrative; one will find cowboys, but they’re not roaming the prairie with the easy heroism of “The Duke.”

It also delivers what is, in truth, a captivating portrayal of the Comanche Indians, from the height of their dominion to the devastating about-face a flip of luck’s coin can bring. The effect this tribe would have on the generations to come, and viewed through the eyes of Eli McCullough, a white man raised in this world, positively resonates through the soul of the book.

Each character has a unique voice, fraught with its own foibles and virtues; yet the book itself shines through Philipp Meyer‘s own voice, originally rendered to us in the equally powerful novel, American Rust. Here, it captures the untamed wild and brings it under modern inspection; he breathes emotion into history and shows why it is so important we should never let the past die. In some ways, it can come back to haunt you; yet, in others, the peril is so much greater for those that turn aside.

It can be jarring initially. If you go in without any foreknowledge of what you’re getting into, the character shifts and settings might leave you a little off-balance–but once you settle in, you won’t be able to put it down. There is power in the voice, humanity (in all its shades of grey) in the characters, beauty and terror in the setting, and a sweeping breadth of life in the cultures and landscape it covers. And the dialogue is none-too-shabby either–a fact that is paired with enough twists and turns to keep even the most suspicious fellow on their toes.

Taken to the stars? 4/5

Book Review: Seed

Seed by Rob ZieglerPremise? Solid. World? Intriguing. Execution? Stumbles.

Seed, by Rob Ziegler, is a book with a lot of promise, but unfortunately, it fails to live up to all of it. Let me begin by saying: don’t mistake me. It’s a good book, it’s simply not a great one.

As a exercise in ideas and potential, it is absorbing, and there are a lot of directions it could have taken. As a stand-alone novel, I think it went in the right direction story-wise, but the problem in its execution was two-fold: poor editing and unfortunately shallow characters.

Seed is post-apocalyptic sci-fi centered in a world where climate change has run amok and brought about a second dust bowl. It’s the 22nd century (so, first of all: hurray! We made it to the 22nd century!), and as the residents of America struggle through a perpetual migrant existence, a corporation has risen to the top of the food chain (literally). Satori manufactures climate-resistant seed to feed humanity, while doing predictably darker things behind the scenes.

The nomadic life and particularly the incorporation of many Hispanic and other multiracial characters and themes (characters and themes tragically skipped over in many fantasy and scifi works) lends a unique air to things that immediately piqued my interest. Mexican slang and a decent amount of the dialogue is in (pretty easy to figure out) Spanish. These characters also come with, what appears to be, a rich amount of background to draw from: a special-needs brother, traumatic family situations, military backgrounds, partner/love interests.

Unfortunately, while many of the characters seem to think “about” these things, we rarely get any depth to them. We get quick glimpses, but much of the writing style is just that—quick-paced, never seeming to want to dwell too long on any one particular point. In that regard, at least there’s no “bog down,” but we also sacrifice an emotional and sensory complexity that might have otherwise pulled us deeper into the depths of Ziegler’s world.

If you want action, you will have plenty. That is one thing that is never sacrificed, and generally speaking, if there’s going to be an action scene, there are going to be consequences. You will feel for the characters therein; largely because you may be about to lose some of those you quite liked. The character Doss is typically the star of these particular scenes, and while she could have been something more, unfortunately, her role largely is to be the “action star” of the book, while the character Brood gives us the more human angle of things, as well as experiences some actual growth.

The writer is obviously skilled, with a lot of ideas, but the editing is not great. I mean this in several ways.
1. While post-apocalyptic settings aren’t necessarily grounded in the scientific, sci-fi has a strong tradition of bearing up that undertone, and particularly where we are getting into genetically modified crops, seemingly organic cities, and clones, we somehow weave through them all with very little explanation. There was no “grounding.”
2. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to happen across things like “souls of their feet” and skin “pealing” off, grammatical and spelling errors, as well as a great many reused bits of language to describe certain happenings. A solid editor could’ve corrected many of these, and while taken individually one might say, “Things happen,” the fact that there are so many really does add up over time.

In all, this book can be choppy at times and it’s nothing that’s going to knock your socks off, but for a couple days’ entertainment, it’s a fun and active stroll through the wasteland. It has its issues, but Seed is worth a read.

Taken to the stars? 3/5

Book Review: Blood of Dragons

blood-of-dragonsI have indulged in the intricate weaving of character development that is the Rain Wilds Chronicles much as I have engaged all of Robin Hobb’s other works: from the beginning. Hobb is a master storyteller, but where she really shines is the molding of characters, pounding out personality with emotion and pulling them along in such a way that leaves us all not merely intrigued, but attached. Her heart is in it, and she wants our hearts to be in it as well—and one can feel it here in Blood of Dragons as surely as any other.

Let me begin by saying this is not a book of intense action. They tell me the devil’s in the details and Robin Hobb loves details. They pour out of her into a rich, beautifully developed world. Unfortunately, this also means a slower pace—but if you enjoy character-driven narrative and worldbuilding as much as I do, that won’t be the problem for you. And that said, this book is quicker than its predecessor, lacking that “middle” book syndrome that unfortunately seemed to plague it.

But first of all: welcome to Kelsingra! If you read the last book (and why are you reading this if you haven’t? Bad reader, bad!), this will pick up right where you left off, with our weary group of outcasts struggling to achieve that final dragon dream: flight. Of course, this leads into another hunt, as the dragons begin to crave a substance from the deepest of their memories: the mysterious Silver that was once the lifeblood of the city and its many, fancier properties. Meanwhile, with Chalcedean assassins on the loose and the bumbling, vindictive Hest still stalking about, danger has not yet passed.

Also: Elderling baby. And the continuation of the birdkeeper plot that’s started off chapters from the beginning.

Suffice to say, there’s still a lot of wrap up. The sheer wealth of characters the series has pulled in has guaranteed that. And in that regard, I will give Hobb this: she definitely wraps things up with a tidy bow. The conclusion to several of the character arcs were genuinely enjoyable—and for me, at least, so were the opening developments with Alise, which, let’s just say: it’s about time. I’m still not entirely sure why Hobb felt the need to toss in the part of Selden into the mix later in the game, but it does help with the coming together—and probably sets up potential for more adventures later (I.E. more series).

My genuine befuddlement, however, comes from the fact that as slow, laboriously paced as these books could sometimes get, the ending, the grand conclusion herein, felt so utterly rushed. Without committing any sort of spoiler death here, I’ll suffice to say it was startling to observe just how off-screen and minimalized the whole matter was, particularly when Hobb spends so much time building everything else up. While her primary focus is (and always has been) her characters, I think this particular short-change to the action was a touch off-putting.

That said, I will keep this review going to make one more point—the main point of the series itself, in all honesty: the Dragons. All along, I have found the development and characterization of the dragons the most unique and intriguing piece of these novels. From their own growth as outcasts and malformed “rejects,” as it were, to prideful longing, and the sometimes subtle ways more human characteristics have been leaking into their psyche. Each has their own personality, rather than falling back on the classic, “Dragons are mean!” or alternatively “All Dragons are good!” mindset. They come to us as a bizarre mirror of ourselves—like humans with a lot more weight and more than a few neat tricks up their sleeves.

But in the end, I have to say: if put to a matter of “stars,” this one earns a 3.5/5. The story and character development are rich, but things truly can drag their heels from time to time. These books take a certain brand of fantasy lover to fall in love with them, but for those that know and enjoy the style, Blood of Dragons will not disappoint.

Classics Book Review: Cat’s Cradle

cats

In a temporary break from the cover art extravaganza of the week, I’m taking a few moments out for a book review, to shift my literary mind back into neutral. And who better to sate that appetite than the eternally wonderful Kurt Vonnegut?

While I think any of Vonnegut’s works would be hard-pressed to surpass Slaughterhouse-Five’s mastery in my mind—a bias I maintain, likely at least in part because it was my first exposure to the insight and wonder that was Vonnegut’s mind—Cat’s Cradle continues his tradition of blending wry, at times absurdist humor with sharp, flexible insight into the real world. Easy and interesting to indulge in, it is populated with personality and serves, at its core, to be the very best of social commentary. It’s philosophic, satirical, and plods along exceptionally written lines of truth, lies, and that ever so upbeat topic—mankind’s own self-destruction!

Er, upbeat. Yes. Well. Anyway…The story centers around the first person narration of a would-be reporter, seeking to learn more about the Hoenikker family, whose patriarch was the father of the atomic bomb. His journey carries him from small-town America and tales of midget love (no, really) to the peculiar shores of the island republic of San Lorenzo, where love, religion, and a surprise career advancement await.

But summarizing the plot of Vonnegut novel hardly stands to do his work real justice. Without losing a beat or slowing down (it really is a quick read, mind you), it pricks, at every step along the way, at the (often absurd) building blocks of society that hold us all together, and the dependencies we weave—as well as the fact that lies, told over and over, often become our truth. With irony, humor, and a sense of terror that rings down through the ages, this delicate and intricate exploration of mankind’s foibles picks not merely at the absurdity of existence, but the very substance of belief. Even the abrupt ending, while jarring, is foreshadowed well—and seems all too appropriate for the snappy style of the book’s tale.

Review: The Wolf’s Sun

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: there are too few quality historical fiction narratives yet lodged among the hall of trophies on the indie side of literary manor. Karen Charbonneau`s marvelous delivery is surely among them.

But first, a summary, in the book’s own words:

In this sweeping historical novel of 17th century France, the wrath and power of Louis XIV are felt all the way to Keltic Brittany near the Bay of the Dead.

Born into the peasant culture, a mixture of ancient pagan beliefs mixed with Catholicism, is the girl Anna, a bastard looking like no one in her parish – her mother would not tell who her father was. Taught the use of herbs by the women of her family, she also has the gift of healing – a power also attributed to French and English kings who were said to heal scrofula with their touch. This ability will cause one man, a physician, to attempt to use her for his own glorification, and another, a Jesuit, to work to send her to a fiery death.

The Wolf’s Sun is a beautifully crafted, richly detailed rendering of 17th century France, peppered with a cast of colorful characters and historical tidbits that leave us with a book I can describe only as “sweeping” in scope. And it is at that. This is a long read, but well worth it. Not only does one become engrossed in the mechanisms and doings of the characters, when you emerge again from the captivating narrative, you find yourself pondering how much you have actually learned, actually pulled still fresh and gleaming from the fertile wealth of that rich French soil.

To say it plainly: this book is well-researched, and planted easily among the boundaries of its period of history. It also helps that it is well edited, and professionally delivered–I doubt you shall ever feel stricken by any sense of “amateur hour” while in the midst of this book.

But I caution thus: it is slow to get going. You will likely ponder, in the first 10% of the book or so, just what the point is, and where it is going. Because this is not just a story, it is the telling of a life, and the lives around it, and for that, that central crux takes some getting to. While in later chapters the multiple viewpoints structure gives us a great deal of insight into the characters, and to the events surrounding, in the beginning it has something of a muddled effect, pulling us this way and that without seeing the why, or even, who shall be our inevitable fixing point. When this shifts, however, you will know it, and Wolf’s Sun truly hits smooth sailing from then on.

Through Charbonneau’s writing we see a vibrant world, carefully honed and crafted, with figures and scenes that are strikingly realistic…and captivating for it. It puts us, as well, in a unique scandal–the Affair with Poisons–and delivers it to us in a way that, in spite of its breadth, never feels bogged down by its details, but rather, enhances its portrait. This is not a quick read by any means. But for the patient, and the great fan of history, it is well worth the investment of time.

I definitely recommend it.