Lizbeth “Gunnie” Rose is back, in The Russian Cage, the third book in this quirky dystopian urban fantasy series by Charlaine Harris. I reviewed the first two books here. This one was published in late February, but I’m just getting to it now, mostly because I have been well and thoroughly distracted by about 6,000 pages of the Farseer saga by Robin Hobb! But I’m happy to check back in with this interesting world that could be our own with just a few divots gouged out of our history. Well, maybe minus the magic.
Lizbeth’s half-sister, Felicia, is now living in the Holy Russian Empire (HRE), which extends down the west coast of the former United States of America where Oregon and California used to be. The capitol city is San Diego, where she is going to school (and training as a grigori, a magician) while making herself available as a blood donor to the Tsar, Alexei, who suffers from Russian royalty’s fatal flaw of hemophilia and can only maintain his health by periodically receiving transfusions from the descendants of Rasputin, of whom Felicia is one.
Lizbeth, back home in Texoma (the former Texas and Oklahoma plus a few other territories) receives an exceedingly cryptic letter from her sister, and it takes her a little while to figure out that it’s a secret message telling her that her former lover and partner in magical shenanigans, Eli Savarov, is in prison; Felicia is hoping that Lizbeth can come up with an idea to break him out. Lizbeth immediately packs her bags and her weapons, borrows money from her stepfather, and hops on a train to California, er, Russia-in-exile.
The HRE is completely foreign territory to Gunnie Rose, and at first she is helpless to imagine how to help Eli. But with support and collusion from her sister, Eli’s family, and Felix, a grigori wizard she knows only slightly but has to trust as an ally, a plan comes together. She’s up against a lot—a seemingly impenetrable foreign system of bureaucracy with which she is unfamiliar; enemies masquerading as friends; the impulsive actions of Eli’s younger brother, Peter, who keeps making everything worse; and her own inability to carry weapons openly as she can at home in Texoma. But Gunnie Rose isn’t to be deterred, so she has to work all these things out, and it’s big fun to watch.
You definitely need to have read the first two books to understand at all what’s happening here and to whom, especially as regards the historical setting and background of this western urban fantasy. It’s a crazy hybrid, but once you get all the details down, it just works, somehow. And I love that at the center of it all is this 20-year-old gunslinger, tough and nearly humorless but with a tiny gooey center she shows to nearly no one. I have included a tag for (among a bunch of other things!) young adult fiction because, although it’s not written as such, high school-age teens would love this series.
The conclusion of this book could signal the end of the trilogy…but I’m hoping Harris has more adventures up her sleeve for Lizbeth and her Russian prince.
So, on the Facebook page “What Should I Read Next?” a lot of people have been touting the book The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, as a really good read. I took note because, as you know if you read this blog, I love books about books and reading, plus I’m a former librarian. Also, the description sounded intriguing! So the next time I had a break in my reading schedule, I remembered that there was a book about books that I wanted to read, and…I somehow ended up with The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix.
It’s on my Kindle, which The Midnight Library is not; but I’m pretty sure that I have a physical copy of that book floating around my house somewhere (although I may have confused it with The Librarian of Auschwitz, which is definitely in my living room pile), so I will get to it. But in the meantime…Garth Nix!
I have several friends who are huge fans of Garth Nix, particularly of his Abhorsen series that begins with the book Sabriel, and also the series containing The Keys to the Kingdom. I have picked up the book Sabriel several times meaning to read it, and then put it down again, because the whole necromancy theme doesn’t, in general, appeal to me. But people whose reading tastes I trust have consistently raved about him, so last year I purchased his YA book Newt’s Emerald as a remainder from Book Outlet. The description roped me in because Nix said he was inspired to write this historical fiction based in Regency England by one of my absolute faves, Georgette Heyer. And he got all the details right, plus he added magical elements, but…there are some books that—no matter how much you enjoy them in the moment—are just not memorable. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the book, but the things that were right with it were not quite enough. I liked it, it was cute, it was mildly entertaining, and…that’s it. So I wasn’t sure, when I started Left-Handed Booksellers, of what my experience would be.
I can definitely say that I liked it much better than I did Newt’s Emerald. There were several things that made it instantly appealing. First, it’s a “quest” book. The protagonist, Susan, is enrolled in art school for the fall semester in London, but decides to come a few months early, for several reasons: She wants to scope out her new surroundings, having visited London before but never lived there; she wants to try to pick up some work waitressing in a café to put some extra spending money by for the school year; and, last but not least, she wants to find her father. Her mother, an exceedingly vague lady whose manner most assume is the result of an excessive intake of drugs during the 1960s, has never told her who her father is, and in fact Susan isn’t positive Jassmine even knows for sure. But Susan, with a keen desire to find out, has written down a list of men her mother has mentioned over the years, and has collected a few artifacts that might be related to him in some way, and she is fully prepared to play detective.
Unfortunately, her first research foray is not only unsuccessful, but lands her in the middle of a situation with which she is not prepared to cope. The first man on her list was a vaguely gangsterish fellow named Frank Thringley, who used to send her a birthday card every year, but before she can question him, he is turned to dust by an exceedingly handsome young man wearing a glove on his left hand like Michael Jackson. Merlin turns out to be a left-handed bookseller, and explains to Susan that along with the right-handed ones, he is part of an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world, in addition to running several bookshops. This is the second thing that makes the book appealing: It is full of beguiling concepts and characters that all hang together to make a plausible, if not entirely logical, alternate London, offering constant surprises as you continue to read.
Susan has drawn unwanted attention from the wrong people, both human and otherworldly, with her mere presence at the death of Thringley, and discovers that her best bet is to stick with Merlin and his sister, the right-handed Vivien, to gain some protection and some aid from the booksellers, while trying to find her father and, incidentally, helping the siblings with a quest of their own.
Although the main and two subsidiary protagonists in this tale are all around 18 years of age, I would not necessarily characterize this book as Young Adult, although I’m sure it would appeal to any teenager who likes fantasy. But I think it would equally appeal to any person who likes fantasy, regardless of age. It’s briskly paced and intelligently written, and immediately engages you in the story, which is full of fanciful descriptions of all the old-world denizens. There are lots of adventures, mysteries, and surprises contained within its pages, and it comes to a satisfying conclusion while leaving the door open for more possible stories about the booksellers of London, which I, for one, would welcome.
I don’t know how it stacks up to Sabriel, but based on my enjoyment of this book, I may decide it’s worth my while to find out someday.
I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.
Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES
Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).
The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.
The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.
The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!
I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.
These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.
As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.
Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.
And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.
Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.
Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.
Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.
Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.
The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.
The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.
These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.
I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?
Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.
I’m struggling with how to convey my reaction to this book. It’s Chosen Ones, by Veronica Roth, her first “adult” novel (she’s famous for the Divergent YA series). It’s almost like there were three books contained within this one, and I really liked one of them, I mostly liked but was confused by the second one, and about the third one I was quite ambivalent. (Not in that order.)
I like the concept, which is, What happens to heroes after their mission is complete? They have done their job and defeated the evil force, and now what will life look like? But the concept is also part of the problem: Because the book is being written 10 years after the central event—the defeat of the Dark One—that was the major turning point in the five Chosen Ones’ lives, we get a confusing and contradictory look at those events, depending on to whom we are listening. It’s obvious that the trial had a devastating effect on at least some of these people, but a couple of them—Matt and Esther—seem to have recovered just fine and are using their fame to good purpose. The others—Ines, Albie, and Sloane—seem permanently stuck. Albie and Sloane, who were held and tortured by the Dark One, suffer cruelly from PTSD and are awash in misery and guilt. When the book opens, Sloane has just requested some top secret documents from the government about the events in question because, even after all these years, she feels like she doesn’t know either the truth or the scope of what happened, and she needs to make sense of it so she can move on. The documents do add to the narrative (and it’s fun to have them inserted into the text), and they do explain some things, but they bring up as much as they explain.
Anyway, the Dark One has been vanquished, the five are trapped in their celebrity stereotypes, doing the rounds of public appearances for such things as anniversaries and dedications, and everyone is in a holding pattern. Then, a tragedy brings them together, and they are suddenly being challenged to do battle again, with a foe possibly even more powerful and terrifying than the first.
At this point in the book, right after a major transition, things kind of come to a halt. There’s a lot of talk-talk about the sitch, multiple training scenarios for new techniques to vanquish the enemy, and the narrative gets a bit turgid. Then Sloane, ever the curmudgeonly rebel and loner, decides to step outside the box, and in Part Three, things finally get lively.
I have read many books in which it is necessary to set up a past, to explain current scenarios, and then move into the present-day action. This book doesn’t do a great job at that. Part of it is that we are too much inside people’s heads (mostly Sloane’s) and it’s a mess in there. Part of it is that there is not much focus—no linear story-telling here, you’re supposed to pick it all up on the fly as events and people jump around, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
I did end up liking the book, mostly because of two characters (Sloane and another I won’t mention because it’s a spoiler, but he’s way cool). When they finally begin to figure things out, plan, and interact, the pace accelerates and we get not only some action but also some surprising information that causes the rest of the story to suddenly make more sense. But it seems to me it’s way too long in coming,
and a less motivated reader might give up before arriving at this point in the book.
There were also some inexplicable things: In mystery writing they always tell you, Don’t mention a gun unless it gets used in the next scene. The same goes for characters, and one person in this one who you rightfully expect to be major (or at least present!) simply disappears from the action, with no comment or explanation, despite her supposedly central role. There are also some “reasons” for various phenomena that are patently absurd, but…it is a sort of a comic book of a story, after all. Still, it’s nice when science fiction actually adheres to some consistent form of science, even if it’s invented.
Finally, this book is numbered “Chosen #1” in Goodreads, which would imply a sequel; but there is no cliffhanger or any sign at the end that a sequel will be forthcoming or even necessary. Perhaps that’s a good way to handle it—since there is no foreshadowing, the sequel could be literally anything the author pleases. It just seemed weird not to have at least a few ominous threads left dangling.
I would recommend the book, because the ideas are ingenious and at least two of the characters are compelling, ironic, and occasionally darkly humorous. And I will read the sequel, because this one engaged my curiosity sufficiently about where the story will go next. But it’s definitely a mixed bag.
Also, similar to Leigh Bardugo’s “adult” book Ninth House, this feels more like NA (new adult) than anything more mature.
As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a huge fan of fantasy writer Robin McKinley. I reviewed my two favorite books of hers, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, here. I think she has inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. A friend and I recently discussed, however, how unpredictable she can be—we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one of them. Shadows, one of her lesser-known books, is one that I like.
But how to describe this book? In a weird way, it’s a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge of it. But it’s also a fantasy, because it’s all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.
Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it’s been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can’t deal. There’s his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that’s the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody’s shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in “science world” being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that’s where you have to “suspend disbelief” and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.
As I said, in Newworld, where Maggie lives, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In fact, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against “cohesion breaks,” or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It’s a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie’s worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he’s living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he’s shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie’s family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back—or was it?
Things I loved about this book: all the characters—her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird—incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn’t feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book—but I didn’t care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.
The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world; it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will ever be one is anybody’s guess, since McKinley mostly doesn’t do sequels. I hope so, because I grew fond of these characters.
So–would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.
I’m tagging this with the YA Fiction category because it reads as if it could have been written specifically for teens; but as with most fantasy out there, if you are a fantasy reader you don’t discriminate between teen and adult fantasy, it’s all just fantasy!
I just finished the first two books in what I hope will be a longer series by Charlaine Harris, the author best known for her Sookie Stackhouse vampire books later immortalized as the TV show True Blood.
Harris has had a checquered history for me, with some of her books striking a major chord while others just struck out. I hated her cozy mystery series featuring Aurora Teagarden—I don’t know why, but I found the protagonist irritating and the plots excessively weird. I liked the vampire novels a lot for about the first five, and then they became increasingly silly and kind of desperate. I liked the Lily Bard mysteries that take place in Shakespeare, Arkansas, but they are grim and dark for recreational reading. The Midnight, Texas books are only okay, although I have a soft spot for the protagonist, psychic Manfred Bernardo. I tried a couple of her stand-alone novels from her early writing days but couldn’t get through them.
My favorites up until now have been a four-book series about Harper Connelly, a young woman who was struck by lightning as a teenager and survived it, only to discover that it had given her the power to know how people had died. She couldn’t see who killed them, but she could stand on her grave and reliably tell you if your wife accidentally drowned in the bathtub or if someone had pulled her under. Having no other skills that would earn her a living, she and her step-brother, Tolliver, team up (he acts as her manager) and hire her out to police departments and individuals who want or need to know cause of death. It’s an interesting lifestyle, to say the least, and the most enjoyable part of it is the sheer banality of their daily existence contrasted with the use of Harper’s particular gift. I have read the series three times.
I say they are my favorites up until now because they may have just been aced out by some “new” books I didn’t even know she was writing. The first Gunnie Rose book, An Easy Death, was published in October of 2018, and the second, A Longer Fall, came out this past January. There is a Goodreads note for a third one on the way, no date indicated.
Although I shouldn’t be surprised at the extent of Harris’s imagination (especially after the cast she developed for the Sookie Stackhouse novels), I was so taken with the concept for this book. Perhaps it is conditioning from all the dystopian teen fiction I have read during my 10-year career as a teen librarian, but I do love an alternate history, and this one really delivers.
The setting is the former United States, but one event—the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has significantly altered the history of the country. Without Roosevelt’s guiding hand during the Great Depression, the crippled country fractures, and various states were either absorbed into surrounding countries, taken over by former rulers, or banded together to form small nations. The original 13 Colonies pledged fealty to the British Empire; a few of the “top” border states became part of Canada; the south-eastern states are now “Dixie” while Texas and Oklahoma and a few others formed “Texoma”; the “flyover” states remained “New” American territory; the rest of the southwest was annexed by Mexico; and the biggest surprise was California/the Pacific Northwest, which was taken over—by a combination of invitation, treaty, advantageous marriages, and magic—by the tsar Nicholas and the remains of the Holy Russian Empire, which is now its new name.
Yes, magic is what I said: This dystopia is not only an alternate history, but also includes wizardry, mastered primarily by the Russians, who value it, and the British, who don’t, so many British wizards have migrated to the new HRE on the Pacific coast, inter-
mingling with their Russian counterparts to maintain the rule of the Romanovs. Readers of history will remember that the Romanovs had a fatal flaw in the male bloodline—hemophilia—and it is this flaw around which Harris has built this first story about Gunnie Rose.
It seems that only the blood of Rasputin (and his descendents) can keep Nicolai’s heir, Alexei, alive, and now that Rasputin is deceased, the hunt is on to find the descendents who can help the Russians maintain their hold. Two wizards travel to Lizbeth “Gunnie” Rose’s home in Texoma, seeking an illegitimate granddaughter rumored to live in the state, and hire Gunnie to protect them while they make their search. Gunnie Rose is between jobs and desperate for cash, so she packs up her arsenal and takes them up on their offer, despite her distrust of Russia and wizardry. But Gunnie is nothing if not brave, and she has ample opportunities to prove this as people intent on preventing the wizards’ mission keep trying to take them out.
This series is pure delight, from the elaborate world-building to the laconic Western flavor of Texoma, and the characters are so alive they could step off the page. Harris has written this with just the amount of detail you crave, without drowning you in either description or explanation, and the pace of this mystery/adventure story is perfect. The minute I finished the first book, I jumped without hesitation into the second one.
The second book takes Gunnie Rose and the reader on a train trip into Dixie with a crew new to her, guarding a crate with mysterious contents and not even knowing its ultimate recipient. The mission is quite literally derailed, along with the train, and Gunnie is left, once again, with most of her crew dead or disabled, wondering what could be so important that the people who wanted the crate’s contents would kill that many people by blowing up the train to get it. When her former partner and lover, Eli the grigori wizard, shows up, she begins to winkle out some answers, but the truth is stranger than anyone could imagine.
What a fun and imaginative read. I hope she doesn’t take too long to produce the third volume.
(I loved the cover on this one, showing Gunnie Rose basically sulking because in Dixie she has to appear ladylike by wearing blouses and skirts and petticoats and stockings—and foregoing her gunbelt—in order to fit in. I greatly sympathized with her sigh of relief when she could finally resume the jeans and boots of her everyday wear.)