Book review: The Hike

The HikeThe Hike by Drew Magary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a delightfully nutty story.

A man goes to a seedy hotel to conduct a business meeting and gets there early. He decides to go on a short hike before the meeting and follows a nearby path into the surrounding woods. Then things get terrifying and weird and weirder still.

The Hike is probably better without knowing too many details before going in–even the illustrations on its cover (well, the busier version of the cover) are a series of mini-spoilers. Without going in too deeply, The Hike finds the protagonist Ben on a path that he is warned to stay on, under penalty of death. From there, he begins a long journey that tests his sanity, mental and physical strength, and resolve to keep pushing forward in the hope of seeing his wife and three children again.

The overall tone is light and at times quite amusing, despite the horrors sometimes visited upon Ben, and while you might be able to poke holes in the logic of this strange universe if you look closely enough, doing so is going entirely against the spirit of the book.

The Hike is silly and weird and I was entertained throughout. If you’re looking for a surreal take on the hero’s journey that never takes itself too seriously, The Hike is an easy recommendation.

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Book review: And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope

And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope (Dark Collections Book 2)And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope by Ann Christy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ann Christy’s second collection of six stories covers an eclectic mix of time travel, super powers, far-future doom and alternate history. Some spoilers ahead, so be warned.

“Sedge” puts together a young man and woman on a newly-settled world, each of them not quite fitting their own culture. There is an abrupt tonal shift due to a rather significant event happening right at the end, and I felt it was glossed over a little too readily, but it’s still charming to watch these two flirt on this new world before that happens.

“The Mirroring” is a weird story about a new counselor investigating some very strange self-worth issues some students at a private college are experiencing. A strong (and agreeable) Twilight Zone vibe here.

“Life/Time in the New World.” Alpha male business guy gets frozen for 300 years, pops out of his capsule and continues being an alpha male business guy in the future, which is part paradise, part sneaky Twilight Zone hell. All the pieces are here, but the story felt a bit perfunctory at times, and the character’s growth as an individual almost seems deliberately undercut by the ending.

“Unnatural” imagines an alternate history where Pope John Paul I doesn’t die after only 33 days and basically announces that births as a result of in vitro fertilization are A-OK, resulting in a future where natural birth is…illegal? Again, all the pieces here are put together well, but the basic premise, while a fun “What if?” exercise, doesn’t seem that plausible. Maybe this is just a reflection of the world we live in now.

“Yankari” tells the story of Olisa, an eight year girl in Africa who has some very potent abilities that she struggles to control and use to protect wildlife from poachers. I felt the ending broadened out the story in a way that was unnecessary, but this is still a tight, enjoyable tale of a little girl learning to harness some amazing abilities to do the right thing.

“Lulu Ad Infinitum” is an SF piece about a colony ship that suffers a catastrophic failure, forcing its lone survivor, the titular Lulu, to survive by cloning, then learning to live with, herself. Despite the grim backdrop, the tone remains surprisingly light as Lulu grapples with a possibly untrustworthy AI, the process of raising her clones and more. Christy does an excellent job here with the setting, fleshing it out in satisfying detail.

Overall, even the lesser stories were eminently readable and I enjoyed all six, just some more than others. An easy recommendation if you’re looking for a blast of SF/fantasy variety with a (mostly) hopeful theme.

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Book review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t read a lot of fantasy. Sure, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That’s about 95% of it right there, the remainder being short stories or books I’m not recalling at the moment. I’ve seen more fantasy movies–they’re quicker to consume–but generally while I am aware of most of the cliches, stereotypes, tropes and such of fantasy, I am not well-read on the genre.

This is my way of saying my opinion of A Darker Shade of Magic may come across as naive, or uninformed or kind of dumb. Because when it comes to fantasy I am kind of dumb.

Still, I’ll start by saying my strongest criticism of the book was its occasional lapse into twee language, passages where the author’s voice intrudes by phrasing something in a way that draws attention to the narrator. This can work if the entire novel is presented as a story being told by an unseen narrator (Mr. Norell and Jonathan Strange comes to mind in this regard–and hey, that’s another fantasy novel I read) but here it pops up only a few times, so it draws unnecessary attention. This is a very minor criticism, though.

Another mild criticism is how it feels like some of the character development happens very slowly, perhaps because this is the first book of a series, so by the end of the book it only feels like some parts of the story are getting started. The character of Lila is the best example of this, a cutpurse with grand plans for adventure and little care for anyone else who only just starts to show a more human side by the end of the story.

The story itself presents a plot with far-reaching implications–the fates of three parallel versions of Victorian-era London are at stake–but feels intimate because it focuses on a small number of characters, primarily the two Antari (powerful wielders of magic), the good-but-somewhat-naughty Kell of Red London, and Holland, the bad and beholden servant to the throne of the amoral White London, along with the aforementioned Lila Bard and assorted kings, queens and a royal brother.

The world building is likely to draw in a lot of readers, as Schwab does a fine job of laying out the different versions of London and how they and the magic within each, operates. Into this comes Kell, whose habit of trading trinkets from the different Londons, using blood magic that allow him as an Antari, to slip between the worlds while few if any others can, ends up with him coming into possession of something Very Bad from Black London. Black London, as you might guess, is also Very Bad and is sealed off from the other Londons to prevent its corrupt magic from spreading and possibly destroying the other three versions of the city.

There is a lot of vicious magic, swinging of swords and the occasional report of gunfire at play as things speed toward an increasingly bloody conclusion. While the story does achieve a certain level of closure, it’s still obvious by the end that there is more to come.

Why do I keep swearing off series and then find myself reading them? I’m not yet sure if I will read the follow-up to A Darker Shade of Magic, but I’m reasonably certain that anyone not entirely tired of stories set in Victorian London will find the story here a brisk and entertaining read. While there are few surprises, there are many small pleasures to be had, whether it be the exchanges between characters who won’t dare admit they like each other, to the showy displays of mages fighting, using wits and, sometimes, anything they can get their hands on.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount CharThe Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t read a lot of fantasy because I prefer my absurd story scenarios to be horror-flavored but The Library at Mount Char had been recommended and has surfaced on a few “Best of 2015” lists so I figured, what the heck, it’s not like it was going to be elves and dwarves arguing with each other.

Instead, The Library at Mount Char tells the story of how an ancient uber-being who may or may not be human has fended off his enemies for thousands of years (maybe longer) while maintaining The Library, a collection of books, scrolls and bric a brac that essentially allows him to rule and shape our universe. He is aided by twelves children he kidnaps at the beginning of the story, using them as apprentices, with each studying a different discipline. One of them is Carolyn, the protagonist, and the story that unfolds deals mainly with her plotting to usurp her “Father” and also how she learns to become human again, sort of, after turning into an emotionless monster for several decades due to aforementioned plotting.

There’s always a goofy plumber/thief named Steve she conscripts for various tasks and an ex-military man named Earwin who is pretty much your typical possibly-crazy-but-smart ex-military guy.

Several times when explaining the various impossible things happening, Carolyn tells Steve “It’s not magic” but it’s magic. Some lip service is paid to “seventh dimensions” and such but if you’re expecting plausible, scientific explanations for everything, you won’t find them here–nor should you, despite the overall realistic tone the story takes.

What you will find is a generally light, sometimes funny and often gruesome tale of long-brewing revenge, world-destroying (rather than building) wrapped up in a modern fantasy shell with a little life lesson tucked in at the end.

And talking lions. And deer. And zombies. And people who love baking brownies.

The general inhumanity of the children (who are in their thirties for most of the story) means you won’t particularly identify with or feel empathy for them, but Steve the plumber serves as a reference point to the reader, a likable doofus who gets in way over his head.

I liked The Library at Mount Char overall, though at times I felt author Scott Hawkins might have committed more fully to a specific tone, as the story swings a bit uneasily at times from Very Serious High Stakes Stuff to irreverence and silliness. But that’s more a personal preference on my part more than it is a significant failing of the book.

As I mentioned up top, I don’t read a lot of fantasy so I have no idea how The Library at Mount Char compares to similar work. It’s a well-written and tightly-plotted novel, though, and taken on its own, I enjoyed the journey of Steve and Carolyn through the woods and bombs and gunfire and weird other dimensional places.

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