What Janine is Reading: April and May of 2022
The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison
I was a huge fan of The Goblin Emperor but not as keen on The Witness for the Dead, the first book in the spinoff Cemeteries of Amalo series about detective/priest/medium-of-sorts Thara Celehar. Hope springs eternal, though, so I requested book two in that series, The Grief of Stones.
Set in Amalo, the same steampunkish industrial city where its prequel takes place, The Witness for the Dead, The Grief of Stones opens when Thara is called to the home of the elderly Marquess Ulzhavel. Ulzhavel would like Thara to find out whether the death of his wife, Tomilo Ulzhavel, was brought on by a coronary as it appeared to have been or whether she was killed by whoever left the threatening note Ulzhavel recently found among her possessions.
Thara is stumped–Tomilo was much beloved and involved in helping fund and run charities and there doesn’t appear to be anyone who might have wished her harm. Additionally, it’s too late for him to communicate with the dead woman; too much time has passed.
He does, however, have a few people to aid him—his friend Anora, a clergyman at the cemetery, offers moral support; Ulzhavel’s grand-nephew, who happens to be the Master of the Mortuary, agrees to perform an autopsy; and Thara is given a new apprentice, a widow who has recently discovered her calling to speak to the dead, Othalo Tomasin.
(Waiting in the wings is Iana Pel-Thenhior, the opera director Thara befriended in The Witness for the Dead. Thara and Pel-Thenhior are sympatico and could perhaps be more than friends, but Thara is still recovering from the devastating and tragic execution of a lover he was forced to testify against and their society is inimical to queer relationships, so he holds back.)
In the course of his investigation into the marquise’s death, Thara stumbles on another mystery. He is calling on the headmistress of a school for foundling girls when one of the girls slips him a note begging for help.
All this seemed like something that could amount to a good book but my hopes didn’t pan out. Thara is sympathetic but also self-contained; there is a subdued tone to his first-person narration that likely stems from his trauma—his response was to shut down. Unfortunately it made his story seem muted and dry.
Generally speaking, in the hundred-plus pages I read, the characters lacked nuance. The writing is so detailed that the it gives them a lifelike quality and there’s a sense that the author took care with them, but most of the new characters are people Thara either extends his kindness to or whom his gut instinct warns him he won’t like, and they inevitably live up or down to these expectations. There’s very little about them to surprise the reader.
There’s a lot of dense worldbuilding in this series (in my review of The Witness for the Dead, I quoted my husband’s pithy statement “You shouldn’t need a Rosetta stone to read a book”). I feel there needs to be a balance between the complexity of the worldbuilding and how compelling the story is. The more page-turning or satisfying a story is, the more the effort to understand the world is made easier and/or rewarding. Though I was more familiar with the city of Amalo this time (and after reading The Goblin Emperor four times I have a good grasp on the titles and forms of address in this world), the mystery of the noblewoman’s death was less absorbing than the one about the body found in the river at the beginning of The Witness for the Dead. The same detailed worldbuilding I loved in The Goblin Emperor becomes a heavy drag on my ability to focus when I’m less invested in the story arc.
I’ve also realized that in the fantasy genre I want more than a mystery set in a fantasy world. I want to see the main character gain agency, either personal or political (in the fantasy genre the two are often intertwined). If that is happening here, then only at a glacial pace. I read over a hundred pages of this novella and they felt like two hundred. At 42% I decided to call it a DNF.
(If you are interested in a 14-page glimpse of this world and of Thara, Min Zemerin’s Plan, a free short story can be found in the Sunday Morning Transport and I liked it enough to give it a B-. It’s about Min Zemerin, a governess whose charge, an illegitimate twelve-year-old girl, has just lost her father. Min Zemerin must seek out Thara so he can convey an important question to the dead man.)
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
I’ve been wanting to try T. Kingfisher for a while now and this, the author’s latest release, has received favorable reviews (including this one from Jayne). The story is about Marra, a princess of the Harbor Kingdom who is sent to a convent at age fifteen, shortly after her beloved oldest sister, Damia, is married off to Prince Vorling of the neighboring Northern Kingdom as part of a political treaty. Prince Vorling gives off a dark vibe and Marra has an amorphous fear of him.
Marra stays in the convent for fifteen years. During that time, the pregnant Damia and her baby heir die in the midst of Damia’s labor, and Marra’s other sister, Kania, also marries Prince Vorling so the treaty (an heir for harbor access) can be upheld. Kania has never liked Marra (or so Marra thinks; I actually thought the evidence of that was inconclusive), but when Kania’s nine-year-old daughter dies, Marra goes to the Northern Kingdom for the funeral. That’s when she learns that her amorphous fears about Prince Vorling are true—that he beats and abuses Kania. He is not someone you would want your worst enemy to be married to. Marra is haunted by his abuse of her sister after returning to the convent, and decides she must rescue Kania. She sets out on a journey to figure out how to kill the prince.
We first meet Marra when she is thirty, as she carries out the second of three impossible tasks that a powerful dust-wife (a kind of witch) has demanded she accomplish in exchange for her help with her goal. Marra creates a dog out of bones for the dust-wife as the dust-wife requires, but Bonedog ends up being Marra’s pet instead (the dust-wife’s own pet is a demonic chicken).
The dust-wife agrees to help Marra and along the way she, Marra, and Bonedog pick up a couple of other accomplices—Fenris, a man they rescue (he becomes Marra’s love interest) as well as someone else. But can the five of them kill the heavily-guarded, suspicious and cruel Prince Vorling? That’s a tall order.
This was a frustrating book for me. I wanted to like Marra but I was thwarted by her naivete, which bordered on self-delusion. She read like a fourteen-year-old rather than a woman of thirty. She became a bit braver during the story, but considering the limits of her ingenuity (it was her friends that came up with the solutions to the problems that they faced, nor Marra), it wasn’t very satisfying. In fact, Marra was the most hand-wringing main character I’ve come across in years. She did manage to do a few things through plodding on, but only in the same way a turtle succeeds in getting from point A to point B, or a that a cow eventually accomplishes digesting grass.
It was particularly unfitting because by the time Marra was thirty, she’d been assisting the convent’s apothecary-midwife for nine years, not only with births but also with preventing pregnancies. Even though she knows that the prince keeps impregnating Kania despite Damia’s death and Kania’s horrible pregnancy experience, Marra still manages to be utterly shocked when Kania tells her he is responsible for the bruises on his wife’s arms.
Marra stared at her. The words fell into her like stones into a well, and she could hear them rattling down into her mind, but they did not seem to make any sense. They could not possibly make sense.
Marra also doesn’t ask the dust-wife for salve or bandages after coming back from a cursed land with injured hands—the dust-wife has to think of it herself. In a thirty-year old woman who assisted an apothecary for nine years, that seems slow-witted and utterly incompetent.
The book would have worked much better for me if the backstory had a more compressed timeline and Marra was sent to the convent around age twelve and was seventeen or so when she found out what was happening to her sister. On top of all I said above, her ability to produce an heir to the throne is a factor in the story and kings don’t marry women in their thirties for that purpose.
The worldbuilding was disappointing, too—place names like Northern Kingdom, Eastern Kingdom, and Harbor Kingdom? Really, author, you couldn’t do better than that?
A third issue was that I’d heard there was a romance in this book but Marra’s love interest took a long time—36% of the book—to show up.
Fortunately the secondary characters in the book were much better—unique, interesting, and best of all, effective—and their mission was certainly worthwhile. Also, the book had some quirky humor, mild but enjoyable. I really liked something that happened and involved two godmothers, the ending the dust-wife got was good.
There were a few threads left hanging.
My main takeaway here is that I would rather read about a character who isn’t self-deluded, who has more competency and effectiveness, and whom I can respect. At least the side characters were engaging and the villain compelling and believable. Overall, though, the book read like a weak knockoff of Graceling by Kristin Cashore. C- at best.
Dark Horse by Michelle Diener
This is an older science fiction romance novel that was reviewed here by Jane back in 2015. It’s been recommended to me multiple times since then and I finally read it in April.
Rose McKenzie was kidnapped from Earth by the Tecrans and is being held prisoner and abused on their ship. Dark Horse begins as she and Sazo, an alien artificial intelligence aiding her, are about to execute their escape plan. Some earth animals are held captive and Rose wants to rescue them; however, Sazo arranges the death of a lion to make their getaway easier.
Rose and Sazo board a small craft and make their escape. Rose carries Sazo in a crystal that is linked by some means to another small device in Rose’s ear, so that they can communicate even when she leaves her ship. Sazo has selected Harmon, a nearby uninhabited Grih world, as their destination. The Grih are a species of aliens very similar to humans and Sazo thinks Rose will be happy with them.
As Sazo anticipated, the Grih ship that was confronting the Tecrans when Rose escaped lands on Harmon. Dav, the captain, offers Rose shelter aboard his ship. Rose is attracted to the kind Dav, and he in equally if not more drawn to her, but still, it’s not entirely clear to Dav or his crew if Rose can be trusted. They are not aware of Sazo’s existence, and unbeknownst to Dav, Rose is loyal to Sazo and has made him a promise—a promise that could force her to betray Dav. Sazo comes to dislike Dav and it’s not clear if Sazo poses a threat to him and his crew.
Dark Horse wasn’t bad—except for a short slow patch in the middle it held my attention pretty well. There was an interesting plot and I’d describe the worldbuilding as better than that of the average SFR (I usually prefer the more detailed worldbuilding of science fiction with romantic elements to that of straight up science-fiction romance).
The main problem for me was that Rose’s (non-romantic) relationship with Sazo was more interesting than her relationship with Dav, and was just as much the focus of the book if not more. And Sazo was the most complicated and interesting character in the book. Between those two factors, Rose’s interactions with Sazo overshadowed her romance with Dav.
As I said before, the worldbuilding was strong for the SFR subgenre, but it still wasn’t enough so to fully work for me. It’s harder for me to buy into an oversimplified version of the future; it’s an issue I often have with SFR and I had it here. I found the worldbuilding too softened and romanticized, and this was particularly true of the way the political roadblocks to happiness melted away. This book was an okay way to pass the time but I’m not going to continue reading in the series so I think I’ll give it a B-/C+.