Tuesday, February 28, 2023

New Moon (Luna #1) by Ian McDonald

New Moon by Ian McDonald is one of those titles that I'm not quite sure how I feel about, even weeks after having finished the read. At first it reads like a series of loosely linked vignettes detailing the lives of the Corta family, founded by Adriana who was one of the first to settle there. Moving to the Moon is a one-way ticket for those who wish to make a life of it, since certain physiological changes make it impossible to return to a life on Earth. And depending on where you live, every breath, every drop of water is precious – and those who supply you with the credits to continue with your vital functions are very powerful individuals indeed.

We discover all too soon that politics on the Moon would put Machiavelli to shame, and conflict is resolved in how much blood is spilled.

What I liked about this novel was how Earth cultures are all smashed up, and the norms that we are accustomed to in present times are blatant non-issues. It does make the Moon brutal, but also a space where people are consciously alive – with a deeper understanding of the ephemeral nature of life. Take the moon run that the kids do every once in a while – naked and on the surface of the moon and exposed to a deadly environment. It's a rite of passage and darned dangerous, but they do it anyway. Because they can.

And like the theme of people running, the book itself carries itself at a breakneck pace, with multiple points of view that can make it a difficult read to get a handle on. This is both its strength and its weakness. Look, McDonald can write, and tells a cracking story often with lyrical, tactile prose, but I feel almost as if we don't fully immerse in the characters themselves – perhaps a side-effect of packing so much story into so many different characters. 

Violent and exultant, at times festive and over the top, New Moon is definitely thought-provoking, and will stay with me for a long time. I'm just not sure if I have stamina for the stories that follow.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead by Nick Drake

This is another one of those secondhand bookshop finds. I'm always curious to see how ancient Egypt is portrayed in fiction and take great delight in deciding for myself whether the author has nailed the setting ... or not. Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead by Nick Drake takes us to ancient Egypt during the reign of the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten, and offers us a spot of a murder mystery untangled by one Rahotep, a chief detective among the Medjay. He is called to Akhetaten, Akhenaten's new city, to discover why Queen Nefertiti has vanished. Of course, it's all very hush-hush. No one can know that the beautiful, enigmatic queen has disappeared. Especially not days before a massive festival. The pharaoh cannot be seen to lose face among his people nor the foreign emissaries who have descended upon the city for the celebration.

And, although the city is fair of face, Rahotep soon realises that behind the pretty façade lurks an uglier, darker shadow that will threaten to overwhelm him. As a stranger in this society, he must race against the clock or stand to lose everything that he holds dear. When in service to the ruler, failure is not an option, even when there are forces putting obstacles in Rahotep's way at every turn.

It's not often that I read crime/mystery novels, and will admit freely that the primary reason I picked this up was because of the setting. And, while I feel Drake does a credible job with the setting, there were often moments where I feel he doesn't quite hit the mark with the tone or mood of the culture. Granted, not that I'd know exactly how ancient Egyptians would have thought and behaved but there were moments where things felt a trifle too ... contemporary. For instance, a function where servants were moving between guests with what amounted to trays of canapés. Also, the police work felt more like something modern, straight out of a contemporary setting. Not that the idea of an ancient detective who's struck upon 'modern' methods doesn't have appeal. It's just that here it didn't quite gel.

The novel itself chugs along merrily, but then about halfway through it shifts, and I'm not quite sure what the plan was. The writing is certainly poetic and lyrical, but then the payoff with a tension-filled mystery/thriller plot just falls flat, almost as if Drake couldn't quite figure out where he wanted to take the story past what proved to be a promising start. Characterisation felt a bit flat, even if the setting was well considered, and there were moments when young Rahotep has some enjoyable introspection. Don't get me wrong, this is a well-written novel – it's just that the story seems to suffer a bit of a polarisation at its midpoint, and the tension that should have been there just fizzles out. Nice concept, not so much on the execution.

Monday, February 13, 2023

The Veiled Flame by LR Eldr

Every once in a while I'll run full tilt into a review book that makes me ask myself what on earth I just read, and unfortunately this is one of those titles. Look, I'm one of those reviewers who'll read traditionally and self-published works with equal enjoyment, and in general my spidey senses don't often let me down when it comes to saying, "hey, I'll read this" – because I can usually tell if the cover is awful, ten to one the author hasn't bothered to spend money on an editor. Here, they didn't have a half bad cover, even if the typeface is one I'm heartily sick of seeing. EVERY self-published fantasy novel (and some trad-pubbed, too seems to have a wet one for this font. Author LR Eldr clearly blew their budget on the cover that they slapped on this rather unfortunate manuscript that wasn't ready for publication. Not by a long shot. In fact, I would compare it favourably to the immortal The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis. If you know, you know...

I've been agonising for weeks on how I'm going to explain The Veiled Flame to other people who might stumble upon this review, and I've come to the conclusion that I don't really have words. This document needs a developmental editor. And then a thorough bunch of copy editing. And line editing. And proofreading. The whole nine yards, and then some. That's possibly the kindest thing I can say. Beyond the crunchy (and not in a good way) dialogue and the random, inexplicably weird stuff that is weird ... And a story that reads like some sort of gothic psychedelia with rare bursts of half-all right prose, I persevered to the end much in the same way we sometimes rubberneck at a car crash. There really isn't a diplomatic way to express my horror that this manuscript ever saw publication in the first place. 

Generally, I sandwich my reviews, and try to find light and bubbles to lighten the negative, but here I was left utterly gobsmacked. Read this book at your own peril. Or turn it into a drinking game.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

House of Rejoicing by Libbie Hawker

I'm on a bit of an Eighteenth Dynasty kick when it comes to ancient Egypt, for Reasons. So I was super excited to pick up this title through my Audible subscription, and it was, simply put, not quite what I expected, and also a whole lot more than I'd asked for. To give a little background for the peeps who are not on such a major ancient Egypt thing like I am, this is the dynasty that spawned the legendary King Tutankhamen, whose fabulous and intact tomb was discovered by the British archaeologist Howard Carter, amid much fanfare during the early years of the 20th century.

But the Eighteenth Dynasty also gave us another pharaoh who was perhaps a little more on the notorious side – one Akhenaten, who's known for how he did his level best to usher in an age of monotheism into Egypt of the time's polytheistic culture. So much has been written about the time, with many Egyptologists (and authors) taking stabs at putting out their favourite pet theories. Thing is, we have just enough research to allow us to string together dozens of fascinating theories, and the Eighteenth Dynasty certainly has its fair share of intrigue and mystery. Unless fresh finds are dug up from the sands, a lot of what is put forward is mainly conjecture, but hey ... it's fodder for cool stories.

So, to get back to House of Rejoicing by Libbie Hawker, it's book 1 of a series that details Hawker's fictionalising of the events that transpired during Akhenaten's rule. Told from multiple points of view (mainly that of the wives, mothers) this is part murder mystery, part courtly intrigue, and very much a lively imagining of what life in ancient Egypt must have been like during a time of great turmoil.

A small warning, however, if underage shenanigans and sibling love that goes beyond the platonic bothers you, perhaps this is not the book for you. We must remember that Egypt of that era was a rather different place in terms of societal values, and it was common for brothers and sisters to be wed, and often at a young age.

Most of this book, I suspect, acts as a prequel of sorts, putting the players on the stage and introducing us to their complex interpersonal relationships in the years running up to Akhenaten taking his father's throne and getting the bright idea in his noggin that the Aten is the one and only god before all others ... and we all know how well that sort of thinking plays out. However, Hawker does an excellent job subverting my loyalties between the different players (something I quite love, thank you, George RR Martin) and I'm definitely keen to check out the next title.