November 2009

This is the first in the historical mystery series set in the Roman Republic. It’s also part of my 1st in a series –challenge and 9 books for 2009 –challenge.

Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger has been recently elected to the Commission of Twenty Six which essentially makes him the chief of the police in his own district and apparently the only investigator. So, when a man is found strangled in his district, Decius’ duty is to investigate the death. The victim turns out to be a former gladiator who had since been freed. During the same morning another murder victim is found: this time a foreigner, a Greek importer of wine. However, the Greek was suspected of being a spy as well and so it’s made it clear to Decius that second case should be investigated very quietly. The Greek’s records have been sealed so Decius suspects that the reputation of someone much higher in the Roman hierarchy is at stake. Still, he does his best to investigate both deaths because it’s his duty. Things take an uglier turn when he is attacked in his house.

The book is written from the point-of-view of an older Decius who writes his memoirs. Often, Decius refers to things to come during his lifetime. This might annoy some people and jar the reader out of the story. On the other hand, it gives nice historical perspective. If the book had been longer, it might have annoyed me, but it’s okay in a relatively short book.

Roberts gives about equal consideration to characters and the historical setting. Decius goes about his daily routine pondering about the case which gives Roberts an excuse to show us the life of a middle-class Roman. Decius’ father is the Urban Praetor for the year and his family is well respected. So, Decius meets with quite a few historically important people such as Caius Julius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Titus Annius Milo, and Publius Claudius Pulcher. I don’t think it was required to put them all in the book but they were handled well.

The plot is quite simple; we’ve never really given good red herrings or even a major suspect.

Overall: I liked Roberts’ style and will continue with the series. Audible has the first two in the series and hopefully they will continue with the later books.

Edited to add: This book doesn’t contain romance. Frankly, I find this to be very refreshing because currently almost every book seems to have a courtship romance in them.

Booking Through Thursday

What books and authors are you particularly thankful for this year?

To answer the question I looked at the list books I’ve read this year. I read pretty awesome books this year! I’m always thankful of my favorite authors but this year in particular I’m thankful of:

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Retrieval Artist -series. I discovered it last year and just went through all of them. (I guess I should also be thankful for for selling them as audiobooks.)

Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody -series which is always delightful

Lynda Robinson’s Lord Meren -series.

Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker and his Mistborn-series.

Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog.

I’m also very thankful of all authors who decide to give away a short story or even a novel for free.

Part of my 1st in a series –challenge and the first in the Chanur –series.

Pyanfar Chanur is the captain of the merchant space ship the Pride of Chanur. The last thing she needs is a stowaway on her ship; a creature whose species is unknown to her. However, the naked-hided, blunt-fingered, blunt-toothed creature is alone and afraid, and Pyanfar decides to take it with her. That’s, of course, when the trouble starts. The Kif demand that the creature should be returned to them and accuse Pyanfar of theft. She doesn’t like their immediately hostile attitude and leaves from the Meetpoint Station as soon as she can. That’s when the Kif start to fire on her ship but hit another ship docked on the station.

Pyanfar and the crew are people from an alien species called the hani who seem to be close to lions in both appearance and behavior. Her crew is all related to her; they are her nieces and cousins. The hani have all-female crews because they don’t let their males leave the planet. Pyanfar herself has grown children although they are at the home planet. There are many hani clans, some who hate the Chanur clan and some who are allies or neutral to the Chanur. The hani culture is quite different from humans but we got only a brief glimpse of them is this short novel.

This universe has a lot of other alien species. Some of them, such as the mahendo’sat, seem to be traders and so want to keep good relations with their neighboring species. On the other hand, the Knnn seem to be so strange that no one else understands them at all. The merchant species seem to some what understand each others’ languages and there’s also a translation program which can be programmed with the meanings of words so that it can produce a rudimentary translation. (Of course, this relies on each word in each language having only one possible meaning…)

The characters are well developed. Pyanfar has a crew of six women plus the newcomer who is called the Outsider. While the more experienced crew members aren’t very distinct from each other, there’s Hilfy who is Pyanfar’s young niece and on her first voyage. She’s eager to explore the universe and to prove herself. There’s also Goldtooth who is the captain of a mahendo’sat ship and looking for new opportunities to trade. The bad guy, of sorts, is more prideful and full of the need to keep his status than really evil.

The plot is fast-paced and the story focuses most on characters and not really on technology. Also, unlike in most space opera Cherryh uses time lag with communication and the various ships’ sensors don’t seem to be powerful at all. A ship seems to be more likely to be located by the communication going back and forth from and to it than just generally scanning space (like Enterprise does).

I have the omnibus which contains the first three books in the series, so I will continue with this series.

Part of my 1st in a series –challenge.

This is the first, and so far the only, book in the historical mystery series centered on Niccolò Zuliani, a Venetian explorer and merchant.

He had to flee Venice after some pretty severe accusations and ended up in Crimea where he tried to drink himself to oblivion. However, the family Friar Alberoni hires him as a bodyguard and drags him into a long journey. The destination is no less than fabled Xanadu himself. Niccolò thinks that he can get himself a fortune there and agrees to go along. The Friar has a completely different agenda which Niccolò finds out far too late. However, when they finally reach Kublai Khan’s Xanadu, they find themselves involved in a murder case.

The story is told in the first person although it starts with a brief glimpse of the murderer in the third person right after the murder. After that, Niccolò takes over. He’s quite self-absorbed but entertaining enough. He’s always looking for his own advantage and is often drunk. He pines for his lost Katarina whom he left in Venice but gladly beds any willing woman. He learns the rudimentaries of the Mongol language quickly during the journey to Xanadu but has to resort to interpreters a few times.

Morson focuses on the characters and the plot and not so much in the setting. Niccolò is there to tell the readers how exotic and different the Mongol culture is compared to his “civilized” Venice. In addition to many Chinese and Mongolian characters, there’s a merchant from Genoa with whom Niccolò has a fierce rivalry and an Arab doctor.

Overall: entertaining but not great.

Part of my 1st in a series –challenge and the 9 books challenge. It’s the first in the Crossroads fantasy series. I won this one and the next in the series in a contest from Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. It’s written in the third person and has multiple point-of-view characters.

Most of the book is set in a fantasy land called the Hundred which has several lords who reign over a part of the land but no high king or ruler as such. Once the mysterious Guardians kept the justice but they seem to have vanished and now only the Reeves are trying to keep up the peace. The Reeves are people who fly on giant eagles and live in their Halls mostly apart from other people. They serve as judges during town councils. However, lately the ordinary people have lost faith in them.

The book starts with Reeves Marit and Joss who are investigating one place where Guardians are supposed to be. They find only bones and forbidding magic. Joss returns to the Clan Hall to report their finding but Marit investigates a disturbance near by. She finds that one of the local lords is leading a group of savage men and is promptly killed.

Then the story jumps forward 19 years. Reeve Joss is now a legate but he’s also a drunkard and a womanizer. He blames himself for Marit’s death and can’t find peace for himself. Time has only made the Reeves’ position worse; some people now even hunt and kill the Reeves. At the same time, other people demand the Reeves should protect them better. The Reeves’ commander sends Joss and a couple of other men to guard a caravan and also to investigate.

The next part of the book focuses on the young woman Mai. She lives in Kartu Town far south of the Hundred. She lives in a merchant family and sells fruit in the market. She’s engaged to a young man from her town. Mai and her people live in a conquered country. The Quin are a race of warriors and they seem to have conquered her country easily. Mai’s life gets thrown upside down when Anji, a Quin officer, sees her in the market and wants to marry her. Her family has no choice but to agree; at least the officer didn’t just take Mai as his concubine. Mai is, of course, scared and she’s even more scared when she finds out that Anji has been ordered to leave and get new orders. She has no choice but to follow her new husband to unknown lands.

Shai is Mai’s young uncle. Shai is the youngest of seven sons and therefore considered extraneous because he can’t contribute anything to the family. However, he has a secret; he can see the spirits of the dead and hear what they say. Because he would be killed as a witch if anyone knew about it, he keeps his ability a secret. When Mai is sent far away from Kartu Town, Shai’s eldest brother sends Shai along as well. Like most of his people, Shai can’t ride or use weapons because the Quin have forbidden it, so the journey scared him, too.

The next point-of-view character is introduced about half-way into the book. Keshad is a slave who is trusted with his master’s money to go out of the Hundred and into south to buy merchandise for his master. He resents his own status as a slave and is now close to earning his own freedom by selling other people into slavery. He’s traveling with a caravan back from the south.

There are a couple of more POV characters are well, later in book. All of them are pretty distinct from each other.

The book has many different cultures. The Hundred’s culture is perhaps most like our modern Western culture at least with attitudes towards women; men and women work side by side. It has also seven deities. Of them, the Merciless One was most distinct from the others. Her followers (mostly women) are priestesses dealing in sex and death. They seem to be holy prostitutes who can choose their clients. At the same time, at least some of them have been trained as assassins. Some of the people respect them as holy priestesses while others consider them whores.

Also, the Hundred culture places significance to a person’s birth year; a person born is a certain year is dependable while a person born in another year is restless. While slavery is accepted in the Hundred, in theory a person can be made a slave only for seven years and after that he or she must go free. However, in recent years the owners has started to charge the slaves for food, room, and possible education which lengthens the years significantly.

The culture where Mai comes from separates the men and women somewhat more. They each have their own professions and women rarely learn to read. However, even an unmarried woman like Mai can be sent to the market all by herself to sell fruit. Marriages seem to be arranged by the couple’s parents and the eldest male is the head of the household which consists of his unmarried, close relatives. The culture seems quite peaceful.

The Quin, on the other hand, are a warlike people and they respect strength also in their women. Most Quin women seem to be able to ride and fight as well as the men. Sometimes they buy slaves from other cultures but they don’t enslave any Quin.

Between Mai’s people and the Hundred lies the Sirniakan Empire who worships the fire god Beltan and accept no other gods.

There are also the servitors of the Hidden One who are the only ones who don’t condone slavery at all. However, many of the other cultures respect them and allow them to live in peace even in other lands.

Pretty much all of the characters in this book are non-white. As far as I can tell, there’s only one white-skinned character and she seems so odd to the others that they think she’s a demon. The Hundred are the northern-most country and its people are described having a golden-brown complexion. The others range from brown-black to bronze-red.

I really wanted to like this book. It has many qualities which I like: different cultures (instead of Good and Evil), conflict between cultures who don’t seem evil, lots of non-white characters, actual slavery (not the fantasy slavery seen in most fantasy books), and the reeves. When I was reading the book I was quite entertained. However, when I put the book down, for some reason I didn’t feel compelled to return to it. I started the book in September and I’ve finished quite a few books while reading this one in fits and starts. This is quite unusual for me. Perhaps I’m just still in my epic slump. It did feel slow at times. I also felt that I lost interest every time a new POV character was introduced. They took “screen-time” away from the characters I already knew.

I did have a problem with Marit right at the start. Or rather I liked her a lot and was really disappointed that she had to die in order to further Joss’ story. She does appear a few times as some sort of spirit guide to Joss but it’s too little for my taste. Once again a woman had to die to motive a man’s story.

This is also very obviously the first book in a story because the mysterious interesting stuff which where hinted at, remain a mystery.

I am intrigued by the proposed structure of the series; one trilogy, one stand-alone book, and the second trilogy. I also like the cultures. But I don’t know if I’ll continue with this one. There are other books I’d like to try first.

This is first book in a historical mystery series about Kamil Pasha who is a magistrate in Istanbul in 1886. It’s part of my 1st in a series challenge. A second book has been published and a third is coming out next year.

The structure of the novel is a bit different than usual. One part, written in present tense and in the third person, follows Kamil Pasha’s investigations. Another point-of-view character is Jaanan Hanoum (spelling? This is again an audio book), a young Turkish woman who tells her story in first person and in the past tense. The third POV character is Sybil who is the daughter of the British ambassador. She writes about her experiences in Istanbul to her sister who lives in England.

The body of a young European woman is found from the Bosporus. Kamil Pasha is alerted to investigate and he soon founds out that she was murdered. He asks the British ambassador if he knows the woman and finds out that her name was Mary Dixon and that she was a governess in the sultan’s harem. This makes his work harder because as a man he can’t speak to the Turkish women. However, the ambassador’s daughter Sybil volunteers to find out what she can. Reluctantly, Kamil agrees.

Kamil investigates together with his right hand, the Jewish doctor Michel (spelling?). Soon, they see a connection with a young Englishwoman who was murdered ten years ago. Kamil’s predecessor lost his job because he couldn’t solve the case. Kamil is determined that the same won’t happen to him.

In Jaanan’s part of the book she remembers her life. After her father took a second wife, Jaanan and her mother moved to her uncle’s house and Janaan grew up there. She gets her own female companion and enjoys studies with her tutor. Later, she becomes Mary Dixon’s friend.

Sybil writes to her sister about the investigation and their father who is still grieving their mother who died some years ago. He does his best to do his job but has to rely more and more on Sybil. Similarly, Kamil’s own father is an opium addict. We also see Sybil when she does her own investigations.

Kamil seems to be somewhat atypical character: he believes in science and progress, and he studied in Oxford.

The mystery part of the book is quite slow and Jaanan’s chapters which are set in the past slow it down even more. However, the atmosphere of Istanbul and the old Ottoman Empire are very well done. They are almost a character by themselves. White also describes the Islamic politics and customs skillfully; they seem to be bigger part of the book than the plot. Yet, there aren’t many info dumps at all; mostly there are people holding different opinions or Sybil telling something in her letters.

The book has a very good historical feel to it, however, the mystery seem to be secondary to the setting. That’s not a complaint, though; I love that in historical fiction.

Note to people who don’t want to be surprised by it (like me): there’s one rape scene in the book but it’s actually relevant to the plot and not just titillation to the reader.

Booking Through Thursday

“Life is too short to read bad books.” I’d always heard that, but I still read books through until the end no matter how bad they were because I had this sense of obligation.

That is, until this week when I tried (really tried) to read a book that is utterly boring and unrealistic. I had to stop reading.

Do you read everything all the way through or do you feel life really is too short to read bad books?

The latter. I’m also pretty quick to drop a series which doesn’t interest me. I try to avoid books I know I don’t like by reading reviews first.

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