Tag Archives: book reviews

Death of a kingfisher

Death of a kingfisher / M.C. Beaton

I don’t generally read a ton of mysteries anymore. It’s not that I have some problem with the genre, it’s that as I’ve grown up I’ve come to occupy a cultural headspace that makes the value structures seen in most mystery novels seem baffling. I don’t know if this is a generation thing or a philosophical thing or what, but I tend to find that mystery novels assume a set of perspectives on the part of the reader that I don’t share. 

I still do read them though. Partially because I think it’s important that I don’t get too wrapped up in reading lots of the same types of books, partially because I’m occasionally in the mood for something stupid and can’t find anything to read, and partially because I either hope it will make sense finally or that this one will be different. It’s similar to my experience with The adventures of Menahem-Mendl but more embarrassing as I’m supposed to have all the cultural context here. 

Sometimes these things are easier to pinpoint than others. With M.C. Beaton it’s fairly self-evident what the issue is.

So, Death of a kingfisher is one of the Hamish Macbeth novels, featuring the misadventures of a folksie constable in an exceedingly rural part of Scotland. They’re not quite cozy mysteries, being a bit longer than something like Miranda James, but in terms of structure and complexity they’re firmly in the cozy camp.

Plot summary

When a tourist in town for a fishing class does mysteriously, it’s up to Hamish Macbeth to bring the culprit to justice!

So how is it?

Perfectly serviceable. The plot follows more or less the same structure as your average mystery novel (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – I say this as a reader of both epic fantasy and wuxia novels). There’s nothing really here to distinguish it to those outside the genre aside from the setting.

Now to go on an extended tangent. I feel like the mystery novel is an inherently conservative genre. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at superheroes before, which is true to some extent, but there’s a very active group of authors who are trying to subvert that, which is aided to some extent by the fact that while superheroes may be agents of the status quo most of them are also vigilantes and not the exclusive tools of “the system”. When it comes to mystery novels it seems like there’s less of a counterculture, or if there is that it’s less visible. Gun machine and Crooked little vein are the only English-language example I can think of at the moment.

Here’s an example from Hamish Macbeth: at one point he complains about how rediculous it is that he’s expected to take it easy on people found with small amounts of marijuana whereas he’s supposed to actively prosecute people who drive drunk.

Yeah, complaining about not being allowed to let people get away with driving drunk is not a way to endear me to the series. It’s a really easy example of what I mean by the inherent conservatism of the genre though. Marijuana use is a priori worse than drinking and driving not because it has a more negative impact on the people doing it or others, but because it doesn’t conform to the expected societal norms. It would be one thing if there was any justification presented for why one was somehow worse than the other, but there isn’t. It’s seen as self-evident. The idea that failure to conform to “proper society” is somehow a bad thing independent of the (real or imagined) negative impact of a given activity permeates mystery novels. This was just one example that immediately jumped out at me.

But as I’ve said it’s a perfectly serviceable mystery series with a quaint rural setting. It’s pretty quick reading – I finished this one during the downtime of a reference desk shift. It’s just not quite my thing.

Recommendation

I do and have recommended this series before. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for older mystery novel readers that are looking for something new that isn’t too edgy. It works pretty well for that.

Advertisements

The traitor spy trilogy

The traitor spy trilogy / Trudi Canavan

The traitor spy trilogy is an exemplar of what is (to me, at least) a relatively new sub genre of fantasy. It takes many of the normal high fantasy trapping but redressed them in a more intimate, focused story. Instead of saving the world from the evil sorcerer, they’re saving the town, stuff like that. I enjoy it because it gives more room for the story to focus on character development and plot without having to devote as many pages to exposition describing all of the places the heroes travel. Karen Miller and Irene Radford’s books arguably fit that mold as well. I’d put the Imager series there too but Moddessitt doesn’t rely as heavily on the Tolkien via D&D fantasy tropes so the feel is very different.

It’s also a time when I’ll actively encourage to read things out of order. The traitor spy trilogy is the direct sequel to an earlier series by the same author. I enjoyed both, but I highly recommend reading this series before the other one for reasons I’ll go into below.

Brief plot summary

A healer finds herself in an uneasy alliance with her former bully. Her son discovers signs of what his late father might have been doing during the period he mysteriously disappeared. An underworld leader seeks to protect his family from a mysterious foe. A man must decide if his relationship is worth saving. A country struggles to maintain peace with an old enemy.

So how is it?

I was really pleasantly surprised. It’s a solid series with a diverse cast that is very much driven by its characters.

The biggest praise I can give it is how “mature” the older characters behave. (I was going to say “adult” but that has too many other connotations when it comes to fantasy.) Characters have relationship struggles that aren’t entirely predicated on the Hilarious Misunderstanding (or its cousin, Refusing to Listen and Automatically Jumping to the Worst Conclusion). People face their assumptions and sometimes change. Old grudges get reconsidered and adolescent squabbles don’t necessarily become adult feuds. Difference of opinion is not a sign of evil intent. It’s wonderfully refreshing and there wouldn’t be space for it in a more epic story without a massive increase in the page count.

Another thing to love about the characterization is age related. All too often in fantasy teenagers are indistinguishable from adults, and adults rarely act their age. This is endemic to fictional media as a whole. It frequently feels like 99% of interpersonal conflict in any given show or movie stems from a supposedly adult character throwing a tantrum. Considering the mailings I get from my Republican State House representative it seems like there are plenty of adults who do act that way, but it doesn’t reflect what is normally considered mature behavior nor my lived experience.* Even if it is atypical adult behavior, it’s nice to see patterns of interaction that more closely resemble my lived experience. This goes both ways: Canavan’s adults feel like real grownups but her younger characters also behave more like “real” young people.

*I’m willing to accept that my experience may be atypical. Other expats banned me from answering questions about American culture while I was in Japan because my perception of U.S. culture is apparently nonstandard.

I really can’t stop heaping praise on Canavan’s characterization, and I feel like a big part of my enjoyment was due to reading this trilogy first. It’s not that the earlier books are bad, but Canavan’s writing is vastly improved in the Traitor spy trilogy and because all of the events of the first trilogy are long past there’s a sense that these people existed before the book started and had a full complement of life experiences. It also helps to make the parental characters more well rounded. 

I continue to praise the characters. I like that many of the characters have adult children but the portrayal is balanced so that neither parent nor child feels like an afterthought or a plot device to motivate the other. I like that there are LGBT characters and that they do face discrimination but that’s not all they’re there for. I like that characters in relationships make mistakes and the principals involve actually listen to each other when these things come up. I like that not everybody has the same ethnic or cultural background and that these differences are not just superficial (“these people wear red, but these other people are so different they wear blue!”) but at the same time there’s not a sense of ethnic and/or cultural determinism. (“Abcders love shoes and think that all V should N but Zyxers love sandals and think that only E should N”)

So it’s a good series and very readable.

Recommendation

It’s good for fans of the high fantasy series (Robert Jordan, Rothfuss, etc.) but its appeal outside of that is probably limited. It’s not exactly an action packed series so readers looking for something like Brent Weeks or David Dalgish will probably be disappointed. It’s also good train for people looking for fantasy novels that aren’t “young straight white man saves the world”. There are major characters who fit that mold, but the series does a good job of giving other characters equal time in the spotlight. There are characters who aren’t white, who aren’t young, who aren’t straight, and who aren’t men. Some characters aren’t two or more of the same thing, even! I realize that “not every heroic character is a SAWCASM” is a pretty low bar, but so few books seem to manage that that it’s worth mentioning the books that do.

The lies of Locke Lamora

The lies of Locke Lamora / Scott Lynch

It’s not uncommon to label something “genre fiction” as a way of dismissing it. When somebody who does this then comes across a “genre” book they enjoy, they are faced with a choice: do rhetorical somersaults to justify why it’s not really a science fiction novel or rethink their assumptions about conflating descriptive labels and value judgments.

Even folks like Nancy Pearl (who as a librarian should know better) are guilty of this. Pearl did it with The sparrow. It seems to be a universal phenomenon with The handmaid’s tale. People frequently treat Octavia Butler that way as well (although her works are also at risk of being exiled to an “African American interest” section featuring a jumble of books whose only link is the color of their author’s skin).

People seem to think that if it deals with serious issues then it can’t be sff. Considering the genre’s roots in Shelley* (also a victim of “it’s important therefore not sf”) it’s an attitude I don’t really understand.

*yes, sad/rabid puppies, science fiction is literally the child of feminism. Chew on that.

It’s more common with science fiction than with fantasy, as it’s easier to dismiss fantasy as “fairy stories” (although with the popularity of Game of thrones it’s starting to happen with Martin). It also helps that many of the stories that get this “not sf” label are dystopian.

So what does this have to do with The lies of Locke Lamora? If you haven’t guessed by now, this is one of those books. I’m not sure why, as it’s very clearly a fantasy novel. Secondary world, wizards, impossible alchemy … It’s not even a book that addresses serious issues in any great depth. Still, the library were I worked when I read it kept it in the regular “fiction” section, and the blurbs in the mass market copy I own now claim that it is more than just genre fiction.

I assume that people read it who “don’t like fantasy” and then had to justify their enjoyment somehow.

A propos of nothing, I didn’t read this book for quite a while because I kept misreading the title as “The lays of Loch Lomond” and thinking it was historical fiction. It wast until I saw the cover art for the third book in the series and realized that this was something I would enjoy. 

Yes, I judge books by their covers all the time.

Plot summary

Locke Lamora is an orphan taken in by the priest Chains and trained to be one of his “Gentleman Bastards”, robbing from the rich in the name of their god and consistently flouting the underworld’s “secret peace”, an unspoken agreement between the city’s criminals and its government that allows criminal syndicates to operate more or less openly as long as they refrain from targeting the wealthy or law enforcement.

So how is it?

I really liked it. It’s fast paced, fun, and never loses sight of the fact that as lovable as the Gentleman Bastards are they are still ruthless criminals.

The Gentleman Bastards series draws equally from Ocean’s 11 and Rififi in a fantasy setting more than a little bit reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. The best film comparison is probably French cult classic Man bites dog – it’s humorous but still quite dark. It’s not quite as intense as Game of thrones and its sequels or the Sword of truth series, but it’s not far.

One thing that helps temper the brutality is that there are consequences. Committing atrocities is a great way to turn allies into enemies and that goes for heroes and villains. (See also: Rififi)

This book isn’t written in a noir style, but thematically it’s noir through an through. The questionable means used by the protagonists, the emphasis on revenge, etc., etc.

One of the blurbs compares it to Dickens. I’m really not seeing it, unless all it takes to be Dickens is a group of orphans being taken in and trained to be thieves.

It’s a good book that’s only mildly disturbing while managing to maintain a sense of humor while telling a surprisingly dark story.

Recommendation

This is a great crossover novel, especially for fans of Game of Thrones. It keeps the emphasis on the characters and off the magic and tells a recognizably human story rather than a cosmic one.

It’s also good reading for fans of heist films and books about loveable rogues in general.

Memory

This is one review I’ve been both dreading and looking forward to. I’ve been puttin it off for a while now because it’s one of my favorite books and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice.

Memory  / Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory is more or less universally acknowledged to be the best Vorkosigan book. It manages to maintain the humor of the series while dealing with the fallout of the events of Mirror dance in an appropriately serious manner. It’s an emotionally demanding read if you’re the type to get invested in the characters when you read. It’s less dark than Mirror dance but tackles issues of personal responsibility and the potential costs of actually getting what they want. 

Memory is a book that I’ve heard more than one person describe as their favorite book that they’ll never read again. Others have said they love rereading it but always skip the first few chapters. It’s a point if view I can understand. While Memory is the “best” of the series it’s not my favorite (that would be the combination of Komarr and A civil campaign). I reread it about once a year but I look forward to finishing it so I can get to Komarr. I’m not sure my spouse appreciates that since I can’t even describe the plot of Memory out loud without crying. It’s that powerful. (Although I also cry every time I see or think about that ASL Wells Fargo commercial so keep that in mind).

Plot summary

On a routine hostage rescue mission Miles has a seizure and ends up severely injuring the rescuee. Miles is force to choose between admitting that the events of Mirror dance have left him medically unfit to continue to serve in the field or falsifying his report to Simin Illyan in an attempt to hide his condition. Miles makes his choice and lives with the consequences.

Also there’s some intrigue going on and a plot and stuff but this book is really all about Character.

So how is it?

It’s great. If it wasn’t about space-faring mercenaries it would be widely recognized as a Great Work of Literature. It’s the culmination of ideas that have been building for a long time across the series. I recently reread most of the earlier novels and it’s amazing how well these events are foreshadowed. Cordelia has repeatedly remarked that her son must eventually choose between being “the little Admiral” (excellent Napoleon reference, by the way) and “Lord Vorkosigan”. Here, Miles is forced to make that choice, and while at one point it seems like that choice has been made for him ultimately he does decide.

It’s a book about making hard choices, where you pay a significant cost no matter what you do. The finale is amazingly powerful. 

Memory’s biggest drawback is that it requires the reader I have read the rest of the series for maximum impact. The vast majority of the Vorkosigan books are completely modular, but without having read Mirror dance at a minimum you won’t get as much out of this one.

The way Bujold deals with mental health issues continues to amaze me. Other characters have been pointing out for a few books now that Miles is not exactly sane. The way Mark* processes the events of the previous book hint that the situation with Miles’s “cover identity” is more complex and deeply rooted than it might first appear. Bujold is one of the only authors I can think of who can successfully write mentally ill characters as regular people.

*this character’s identity left intentionally ambiguous to avoid spoiling earlier installments

Memory is a major turning point. Not only do characters make decisions that have permanent effects, but Memory also marks a significant shift in genre for the series. This is partially because one of the major subtexts to Memory is that Miles is solidly an adult now and partially because of choices that various characters make.

Recommendation

It’s a great book and I’d recommend it for absolutely everyone if getting the most out of it didn’t require investing in the series as a whole. As I mentioned above, I call it the best of the series but my favorite is Komarr and A civil campaign taken as a single novel (à la Miles in love omnibus ed.). A civil campaign was by far the most fun Vorkosigan book until the publication of Captain Vorpatril’s alliance, which comes close even if it’s not about Miles.

It probably says something about me that my favorite installments in a series that’s usually called space opera are a Regency romance (in space!) and a screwball comedy (in space!).

I’ve long considered doing a “reading guide” type post on the series. Now that I’ve reviewed the major turning point that’s probably what I’ll do next.

Working stiff (Revivalist novels)

Working stiff / Rachel Caine

The most disturbing book I have ever read was Maxime Chattam’s Prédateurs. Rachel Caine’s Revivalist trilogy comes in second.

Also, it’s a romance?

Plot summary (in which a first chapter plot twist is revealed)

Bryn David, ex-military, is the new funeral home director at a fancy (possibly Californian*) funeral home.

Unfortunately for her, after discovering that her new employer is selling a mysterious drug out of the basement. After being murdered to keep the secret she discovers that she has been brought back from the dead by the drug, but there’s a catch: if she doesn’t get a fresh injection every 24 hours, her body will start to rot.

Joining up with the dashing Patrick McAllister, Bryn must now fight back against a major pharmaceutical company’s sinister plans while trying to find a cure for her condition.

*whaaaa? To get there, you gotta take the 405 to the Brigadoon and them take a u-turn to get on I-96 to go past Plaga Arroyo and then you head west on the North-South tollway. /joke

So how is it?

Disturbing, but not consistently so. There’s some over the top action and some graphic violence, but the way the people who go without their injections start to decompose while still fully conscious is the part that almost made me give up on the series. There’s a reveal towards the end of the first book that was especially hard to take.

I did read all three, and they are interesting for the way they don’t use many of the traditional urban fantay trappings. There’s no magic, no paranormal activity of any kind. It’s all about the nanites here (which amounts to the same thing but at least it’s not another vampire book).

At its core, Working stiff is a slow building zombie story where the zombies are fully conscious “living” things. Most of the classic zombie tropes appear at some point, but each one gets enough of a twist that the series does feel unique.

It’s an interesting series but not for the easily disturbed. 

Below I reveal a later plot twist so skip the next sentence if you want to be surprised

It says something, either about the series or about my own weirdness, that the introduction of the “flesh eating ravenous cannibals who are compelled to spread their affliction” was a relief because cannibalism in protagonists is less disturbing than other things that were going on.

(Yeah that was a long sentence)

Recommendation

Because of how disturbing I found it it’s not a book I’m likely to recommend. If I did, it would pretty much only be to people who enjoy both paranormal romance and incredibly violent horror movies. Fans of Antichrist could certainly handle this (although it lacks the “arty” aspects). 

The only time I’d recommend it is for fans of Nalini Singh, who seems to do the hardcore horror/romance genre blending fairy well.

Spider’s bite (Elemental assassin series)

Spider’s bite / Jennifer Estep

The Elemental assassin series occupies the middle ground between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Set in a vaguely defined southern town, the series features intense action, scenes of cookery described in vivid detail, and fairly graphic violence.

Plot summary

Gin Snow, alias “The Spider” juggles her career as one of the south’s most highly sought after assassins with working in her adoptive father and handler’a barbecue restaurant.

Betrayed by her employer on what was supposed to be her last job (at least for the time being) Gin embarks on a quest for revenge that will last for several books and that will eventually reveal the true identity of her parents’ murderer.

Also people have magic powers and there are the obligatory vampires.

So how is it?

It’s fun in a totally disposable kind of way, despite the terrible name of the series. It’s one of those series that I’ll grab whenever I can’t find enough books at the library, but it’s not really something I’d actively seek out.

I find myself coming back to it significantly more often than I do similar series, in part because despite the body count the series never gets really stressful. It’s dark but not disturbing and the presence of magical healing powers goes a long way to reduce the sense of peril.

These are books I’ll finish in a day on my commute. I’m five or six books in at this point, having just finished the “parent murderer” story arc (the identity of whom was painfully obvious from the beginning).

Estep does a decent job of inserting the sequel hooks gradually, where elements that go relatively unremarked in earlier books are built upon over time to make the whole thing feel more connected than some series. It’s not exactly a monster of the week series – more like the mythos episodes of the X-files, where the monster of the week is there but is a lieutenant or other relation to the Big Bad. 

The romance element is present but follows the urban fantasy arc of building over the course of the series rather than the historical romance method of each installment featuring a different family member. I’d still call it urban fantasy but some of the romance novel writing style and plotting is definitely there.

The violence isn’t as graphic as, say, Nalini Singh’s work, but the romantic elements also aren’t as intense. The Elemental assassin books are plot driven first and foremost, so while it has definite crossover appeal paranormal romance purists would be better off reading Singh.

Recommendation

It’s a perfectly serviceable series but not a first line recommendation. Worth reading, even if Gin’s competence level varies wildly from scene to scene. Definitely a go-to recommendation for crossover paranormal romance/urban fantasy fans but not one with much appeal outside the genre.

For those who don’t mind the violence but want more romance/character development I’d recommend Nalini Singh’s Angel’s kiss.

For those who would prefer less emphasis on the romance I’d recommend, as usual, the October Daye series. 

For those who like the tone of this but are less thrilled by the magic, I’d recommend Rachel Caine’s Revivalist trilogy

Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon / Neil Stephenson

Going to break things up now for a book that is (arguably) not sff at all.

Cryptonomicon is really two books in one. The first book is a story about cryptographers during World War II, while the second book is set during the 1990s and features the descendants of the characters from the first book as they attempt to set up a data haven.

The two stories are connected in many ways but Stephenson leaves it to the reader to figure out what those connections are.

Plot summary

See the previous paragraph.

So how is it?

It’s pretty good if you can get through it. I’ve read it several times and each time I’ve enjoyed it for different reasons.

Both stories are largely about highly intelligent but socially awkward people. The book does a good job of being about technical issues without reading like a tech manual (I’m looking at you, Kim Stanley Robinson). There’s one section that features a couple of pages of code, but it’s not necessary to have any understanding of what that means. 

Most of the technical stuff is techbro in jokes and in no way integral to understanding or appreciating the book.

The World War II segments are funny and present a side of the conflict that frequently goes unnoticed. Alan Turing appears, as does Reagan and MacArthur. It’s kind of a Forrest Gump situation. It’s a fun story featuring viewpoint characters on both sides of the conflict.

The 1990s segments are a little trickier. They are considerably less focused and at times it seems like a serie of unconnected events. There is a coherent narrative here but it’s mostly buried under an exploration of 90s techbro culture.

I initially felt like the 90s half of the book was an extended paean to techbro types. There are plenty of swipes at academics and others who “don’t get” technology and/or engineering. It’s somewhat off putting and the stereotype of the effete bleeding heart professor who tries to save the world but is incapable of understanding people who do “real” work is so tired it needs a bottle of. Klonazepam and a couple decades of sleep.

So on my second read through I really didn’t enjoy the 90s segments. The third time around I saw them in a different light, as the dotcom heroes aren’t exactly portrayed entirey positively either. What’s interesting is that the forerunners of a lot of modern techbro culture are here: weird love of guns, technocratic ideals, naïveté about the groups most likely to invest in a data haven, even nofap shows up.

So I enjoyed those segments more when I viewed them from that angle, that they were foreshadowing a lot of the coming problems with the tech industry. The caricaturization of academia is still somewhat grating but bothers me less now than it did then.

The ending comes out of nowhere and draws on a minor plot point mentioned early on and then never referenced again. It’s a mess but the rest of the book is pretty good.

Recommendation

This is a good crossover novel. Historical fiction aficionados will like the WWII narrative and sff fans will appreciate Stephenson’s obvious geek cred and affection for the community.

I still hesitate to recommend it sometimes because of the number of stories I’ve heard about people struggling to finish it. It’s also a book that gets better with a second reading. 

So I recommend it to patrons who like all those war stories since it’s the closest thing I’ve read, an occasionally recommend it to parents of teenagers frustrated that their kids won’t read “real” novels.

It’s length is intimidating, which is the book’a biggest stumbling block. It’s a great vacation read and a go to for fans of Dan Brown and Clive Cussler. It’s less intellectually dishonest than the former and less racist than the latter.

The hum and the shiver (Tufa books)

The hum and the shiver / Alex Bledsoe

Still without a computer so things will continue to be somewhat bare bones.

The hum and the shiver is one of those books that I came to with virtually no expectations. It had been recommended to me by a family member but it took me a whole to find it (mostly because I kept forgetting to look for it). Once I did get ahold of it, all I could remember was that it was set in Appalachia and focused on an isolated ethnic group. And music was involved somehow.

I think that coming in with no idea of what to expect was an important part of why I liked it so much, so I’m going to be a little more cryptic here. I’ll be taggin more sparsely as well to avoid revealing any secrets.

I read it in a single night while my spouse was out of town, listening to Tre Lux on repeat and periodically interrupted by a cat who is obsessed with curling up in the pages of hardcover books.

Eventually, I grabbed a decoy book so I could read in peace.

I think at least some of my enjoyment of this book stems from the really pleasant reading experience. I’ve been wanting to reread it lately but have been putting it off until I have the house to myself for the night.

Plot summary

In an isolated Appalachian county, a war hero returns home after injury and imprisonment. A young pastor attempts to get to know the strange people living there. A tabloid reporter comes looking for something he can’t really define.

So how is it?

It’s really good, if I haven’t made it clear enough already.

The hum and the shiver is a different kind of contemporary fantasy novel. The setting makes calling it “urban fantasy” inappropriate, even if that is the more common term.

This isn’t one of those series with at least one new entry a year. It’s not a book about saving the world or defeating monstrous evil.

In fact, for most of the book it’s barely recognizable as a fantasy novel. The elements are there, but the magic is closer to the magic of Tolkien’s elves or hobbits. It’s subtle, not even recognized as magic by most, but it’s there.

The hum and the shiver is a quiet book. Like the slow paced lifestyle of its characters, it’s not in a hurry to reach a spectacular set piece with a triumphant showdown.

Bledsoe creates a world firmly rooted in its characters. The major theme is self discovery, where the visitors and inhabitants face truths that they hid from themselves or that were hidden from them. There are no great surprises here for the reader, especially for readers with a background in the proper folklore, but the book isn’t boring nonetheless.

Recommendation

The hum and the shiver is a great book. Still, it serves a drastically different audience than most of the urban fantasy I’ve reviewed here. The sedate pace and lack of two fisted action contrasts pretty seriously with things like The Dresden files.

It’s still worth a read. Bledsoe is an expert at combining “literary” and “popular” entertainment (Dark Jenny, for example, which features a knight named Bob but also delves pretty deeply into an analysis of Arthurian mythology) and so the twitchy video games and action movies type might not get their kicks here but broader minded readers should enjoy.

I write a lot about the appeal of fantasy or science fiction novels to those who “don’t read” that stuff. The shiver and the hum is probably one of the better books for those readers. Tolkien via Dungeons and Dragons is nowhere to be found, and the heavy character focus and introspective tone should appeal to fans of the “white problems” novel. (I think fans of those books call it “the great American novel” but I like my description better)

Disappearing nightly

Disappearing nightly / Laura Resnick

(I am currently experiencing some hardware issues so a link will hopefully be forthcoming)

Disappearing nightly is the first book featuring Esther Diamond, aspiring actress struggling to make ends meet in New York City. It’s one of those series where it’s unclear which book is first and so I accidentally read the second one first not that I’m bitter about that or anything.

Brief plot summary

When the female lead  of the off-Broadway show Sorcerer! disappears for real during the disappearing act, her understudy Esther Diamond is understandably nervous about stepping into the role. When a mysterious stranger appears with dire warnings, it’s up to Esther and an eccentric group of allies including a rhinestone cowboy and a team of enthusiastic drag queens to figure out who is really behind these disappearances.

So how is it?

It’s not that great, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s goofy and fun in a cheap romantic comedy kind of way. Esther is essentially a stock character: Jewish girl comes to New York City to make her dreams of stardom come true. She’s love able and klutzy but finds it easy to make friends with a wide variety of people.

There are a couple of things that distinguish this series from other urban fantasy … series.

First, the basic trope common to most urban fantasy is that the protagonist has some special power. Tobey is a changeling, Harry Dresden is a wizard, etc.  Esther Diamond is just a normal aspiring actor. While the people she interacts with have all sorts of mystical powers, she remains (at least as far as I have read) a regular person who succeeds with pluck and determination.

The second distinguishing trait is the generally irreverent tone. While it’s not totally unheard of in the genre, Resnick’s work is notably sillier than other “light” urban fantasy. Slapstick humor is pretty commonplace, and the plots themselves are pretty goofy. 

One of the things I like about these books is that the jokes are more than just simple wink-wink nudg-nudge references to other media and/or “look at how self aware I am!”

Not that I don’t enjoy that kind of humor, it’s just nice to see something more upfront.

One possible stumbling block for readers is that sometimes Esther falls a little bit too much into the stereotypical romantic comedy leading lady role. Think ice cream and weight complaints territory. She never goes full on Cathy but it’s still worthy of more than a few eye rolls.

In conclusion…

I’ve read the first three books in the series so far and I’ll probably continue to pick it up. I tend to use it as a palate cleanser in between books from more serious series.

As to recommendations, this is one that doesn’t really require any previous investment in the genre and could definitely appeal to readers who don’t normally “do” fantasy. It’s light and silly and there’s a definite lack of convoluted mythology that can be a barrier to entry in the genre.