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REVIEW: The Silicon Mage by Barbara Hambly

REVIEW: The Silicon Mage by Barbara Hambly

Computer programmer Joanna Sheraton must rescue an imprisoned wizard to save the universe from destruction.

There was a time when Joanna Sheraton knew nothing of the Void. She was an ordinary computer programmer, toiling in a cubicle in air-conditioned Southern California comfort, unaware that sinister forces had penetrated her universe. But from across the interdimensional divide, an evil mage had put in motion a scheme for eternal life, by transferring himself into a computer that feeds on Earth’s life force. Called upon to help by the wizard Antryg, Joanna could do nothing more than delay. At the end of her first sojourn across the Void, Antryg was imprisoned and their task seemed hopeless.

Now she must depart from Earth once more, to rescue Antryg and save humanity. She is friendless, and the dark mage’s forces hound her every step. But a good hacker is not easily deterred.

The Silicon Mage by Barbara HamblyDear Ms. Hambly,

Last autumn I read two of your classic novels. First was “Bride of the Rat God” which I loved. This was followed by “The Silent Tower” which I didn’t adore quite as much but which ended with a cliffhanger which made me glad that the next two books in the series were already written so that I wouldn’t have to wait – hate waiting! – in order to find out what happens next. I had some other books I’d already committed to read and thus it’s taken me until now to dive into “The Silicon Mage” to discover how Joanna plans to save Antryg from the certain torture he’ll endure at the hands of the Council. Oh, and she also needs his help to save her world and his.

The opening line is a great one but I won’t quote it so that people who haven’t read “The Silent Tower” won’t have things spoiled too much for them. Because I strongly advise newbies to the series to start at the beginning since this book takes up right where that one left off, jumps straight into the action and doesn’t cut much slack for people who either don’t know what happened in that book or who don’t remember the finer details. You do provide some background stuff but no great heaping info dumps.

Joanne’s initial quest is to save Antryg from the place where she’s pretty sure he will have been imprisoned – that is if he’s still alive after a six week delay she was forced to endure as she made her plans, downloaded the information she thought would help them save the world and stuffed a nifty backpack with all kinds of doodads which eventually come in handy along the way. Joanne is, I think, like a lot of us in that she’s not especially brave, isn’t a kickass badass heroine ready to take names and karate chop booty. She really is a mild mannered computer programmer who has to nerve herself up, and quiet that little inner voice telling her to just go home and forget all this, to do what she knows has to be done. A lot of people will no doubt identify with that. But she’s also got an inner core of decency which helps her to stifle that inner voice and jump into the formless, and may I say intensely scary sounding, Void knowing that if anything goes wrong, she may never emerge from it or be stuck on the other side, alone and friendless, for life. That takes guts.

Her arrival shows her that things really are as bad as she was afraid they’d be. People she thought she might be able to rely on turn out to either not believe her or are eliminated. The new friend she makes is a touch convenient yet Pella turns into a fascinating character who, along with Joanna, grows in strength and character across the course of the book. Another return person from book one, Caris, is initially suspicious of Joanna with good reason. It takes some concrete evidence to sway him but given his profession and training, it’s the only way his change of belief makes sense. I had to laugh at how the rescue takes place and yet, as with Caris’s change of heart, what occurs is perfectly logical given Antryg’s brilliance and knowledge gleaned from previous years of imprisonment.

And thus begins, or rather should I say continues, the cat and mouse hunt as Antryg, Joanna and Caris once again become the intrepid band on the run trying to thwart the evil mage. One thing that ends up annoying me is the almost constant Weather Channel reports on how cold it is, how wet it is, how miserable our protagonists are, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I didn’t need to keep being hit over the head with this as the weather doesn’t seem to change and I already understand how gawdawful the conditions are. There is also a deviation subplot-lette which made me wonder why on earth it was there. It’s gross, it’s nasty, and at the time it only seemed to show Antyg’s humanity. Later on it becomes clear why you included it but at the time, it had me scratching my head.

The final showdown was suspenseful and intense, even if I wasn’t sure what exactly was going on part of the time. It does make sense and again I love that Joanna and her programming skills help save the day. Then comes the afterward and the reason for the earlier inclusion of that seemingly pointless episode which in fact turns into a deus ex machina. Generally I hate deus ex machinas but I’m still pondering whether or not I’ll make an exception here since you have the main characters clearly call it what it is. As the book progressed, I also wondered how much more Antryg was going to be beat up before The End. The man needs his own hospital ward.

I found “The Silicon Mage” to be a good follow up to “The Silent Tower” yet I’m glad it doesn’t wind up with another suspenseful “Who Shot J.R.?” ending. I feel I can take a bit more of a breather before starting “The Dog Wizzard.” Hopefully in that book I’ll discover how Antryg is keeping himself busy and if he likes tacos. B



REVIEW: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

REVIEW: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Dear Ms. Carey,

Kushiel’s Dart, your fantasy novel, is the story of Phedre, who begins life in the Night Court of Terre D’Ange. The Night Court is peopled by prostitutes, known in this world as Servants of Naamah, the goddess of such things.

Kushiel's Dart Jacqueline CareyTerre D’Ange is modeled on Renaissance France, but with some substantial differences, including a religion worshipping an angel/god named Blessed Elua, believed to be a child of the messiah’s blood and the Magdelene’s tears, and Elua’s companions, angels who left Heaven to accompany Elua in his journey and peopled Terre D’Ange along the way.

Young Phedre is “a whore’s unwanted get” and at a very young age, she is sold to Cereus House, one of the Night Court Houses. Although she is brought up and trained there in her early years, the Dowayne who runs Ceresus House does not intend that Phedre remain there. Phedre has a blemish, a red mote in one of her eyes, which makes her flawed, and therefore she is not considered perfect enough for Cereus House.

The Dowayne plans to sell Phedre’s “marque” – her worth, which Phedre will eventually have to earn back and spend on having a design tattooed on her back. When the design (the physical marque) is complete, Phedre will be free, belonging only to herself, but until then she’ll have to work for the house or person to whom the Dowayne sells her marque.

Phedre slips away from Cereus House briefly and meets with a boy named Hyacinthe, whose mother is a fortune telling member of the Tsingani, a nation of travelers. Hyacinthe becomes Phedre’s only friend.

One day Phedre is called before a man named Anafiel Delaunay, who identifies the red mote in her eye as something other than a flaw. It is “Kushiel’s dart” the mark of Elua’s companion Kushiel, and it identifies Phedre as an anguissette, someone who experiences pain – not just sexual pain, but any kind of physical or emotional pain — as pleasure.

Delaunay purchases Phedre’s marque and when she is ten years old, she leaves Cereus House and comes to live with Delaunay as his pupil. Delaunay has another pupil, a beautiful boy named Alcuin. At Delaunay’s house, Phedre and Alcuin learn how to carefully observe, how to think, and also study languages and geography. They have a tutor who trains them in sexual arts as well and in their teens they become prostitute-spies for Delaunay.

Phedre does not know why Delaunay needs the information she learns from her patrons, but she strives to get it for him and sometimes succeeds. Although her patrons know she is Delaunay’s spy, they succumb to her sexual wiles to such a degree that they occasionally forget themselves.

The only one who does not is Melisande Sharizai, a peer of the realm and acquaintance of Delaunay’s whose purposes are different from his. Melisande is clever and seductive, always three steps ahead of Phedre, and Phedre can’t help but love her.

Throughout the early part of the book, a tragedy is foreshadowed, and when it finally comes, the course of Phedre’s life changes. Now Phedre must find a way not only to triumph over what has befallen her, but to save Terre D’Ange as well.

I started out Kushiel’s Dart having several issues with the first hundred or so pages of this long book. The prose, on the flowery side, took a lot of getting used to. My husband and I read the book aloud to each other and for a long while we stumbled over some of the phrasing, and weren’t sure how to pronounce many of the characters’ names.

In addition, the use of Hebrew names and phrases sounded odd and jarring to me as a native speaker of that language. For example at one point the opening phrase of Jewish prayers is used as a greeting by a Yeshuite (Christ-worshipping) character to another person. This phrase is (A) traditionally addressed to God, and I have never heard it used to address another person or spoken outside of prayers, and (B) is used in Jewish, not Christian prayers. So I was pulled out of the story by this usage, and by the part-Hebrew names.

Some aspects of the religion took getting used to, but I did very much appreciate that there was a religion, since it is something that lends depth to the worldbuilding.

Speaking of worldbuilding, I was confused about how the marque system worked. Phedre’s marque was purchased by Delaunay from Cereus House, and she had to earn the money to buy it back from him by paying to have it tattooed on her back. But Alcuin also had to buy his marque back and have it tattooed, yet Delaunay had never purchased Alcuin’s marque to begin with. Alcuin had been given into his care.

The first hundred or so pages also made for frustrating reading because Phedre was studying sex and spying but not actually engaging in these activities. Once Phedre began sleeping with her patrons, the story improved because she was finally spying, and because I appreciated that unlike in many other fantasy novels, where bedroom doors remain closed, here we got actual sex scenes.

A few of my problems with the book were more significant. I was unsure whether the anguissette premise made sense because wouldn’t an anguissette, as a young child, seek ways to inflict pain on herself that would be dangerous and threaten her survival? The first time she burned herself, would she know to cry out or move away from a flame? It wasn’t clear in the beginning of the book that she would.

I also felt that Alcuin and Phedre’s spying for Delaunay on patrons who knew them to be spies was a contrivance, because if such a scenario happened in real life, I would think that some of Delaunay’s enemies, knowing that Phedre and Alcuin were there to glean information from them, would be smart enough to use Alcuin and Phedre to feed false information back to Delaunay, and Delaunay would never know which information was false and which was true.

An additional issue for me was that Delaunay is portrayed as someone without moral blemishes, but when I looked at his actions in whoring Alcuin, I found that suspect. Phedre would have been a prostitute one way or the other, but Alcuin hated that work and it seemed highly unlikely to me that someone as perceptive and observant as Delaunay would not have figured it out.

Moreover, Delaunay had raised Alucin from early childhood, yet they end up becoming lovers, which struck me as more than a touch incestuous. For both these reasons I found Delaunay’s characterization inconsistent.

Finally, another thing that took away from my enjoyment of the first third or so of the book was the foreshadowing. The beginning of the book is chock full of phrases along the lines of (paraphrasing from memory) “If only I had known what was to come, but I did not.” After a while it felt repetitive and heavy-handed.

But by the one third point, the foreshadowed event took place, and something very bad happened, both to Phedre and to Terre D’Ange. This ended most of the foreshadowing and dissipated many of my other concerns as well.

Even better, at this point Phedre’s fate was intertwined with that of Terre D’Ange, and Phedre and the reader were no longer ignorant of the impact the knowledge in Phedre’s possession could have on the kingdom. The stakes rose as a result, and the book became far more compelling.

Kushiel’s Dart became a story filled with dark deeds, hatred, friendship, romantic love, adventure, battles, and more. The latter two thirds of the book were much, much better than the beginning and I was glad I had stuck with the book.

The worldbuilding was detailed and huge in scope, and Phedre, once her mettle was tested, grew into a heroine well worth rooting for – smart, sympathetic, determined and yet compassionate. There was also a romantic triangle with two men, both brave and loyal in their way, and obstacles facing both relationships. I wasn’t sure who to ship for, so I just rooted for Phedre.

I wish I could go into the later part of the book in more detail, since describing the thing I liked about it would balance out my criticisms, but I try to make it a policy not to discuss later sections so as not to spoil books for readers who have not read them.

Suffice to say instead that Kushiel’s Dart becomes a very exciting and moving novel, and one which, despite its shaky beginning, was well worth reading. B-.



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