[Book Review] Consulting sorceress and alternate universes

LetterBook Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

I’m a bit of a Sherlock alt-canon completionism. If it’s a Sherlock Holmes-inspired story, I’ll read (or watch) it. So after a long hiatus from NetGalley, of course The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall was the first thing I requested.

Imagine this: Consulting sorceress Shaharazad Haas (Sherlock) and ex-special military John Wyndham (Watson) end up as flatmates in a crazy world of necromancers, aliens, vampires, and alternate universes. Haas’ ex-flame needs her help; she’s being blackmailed to break off her engagement, and who best to get to the bottom of it all but the world’s foremost consulting sorceress?

It’s a clever take on the Sherlock story, with the narrative “written” by Wyndham (Watson) as if for a weekly serial in a magazine in John’s world. Because it takes manuscript form, littered with dry asides aimed at Wyndham’s editor, the story gets to use some excellent foreshadowing: how does Haas (eventually) die, who of the many characters we encounter ends up being Wyndham’s husband…and so on.

But wait, you ask, does this mean you liked the book?

No, not really. But if the ratings are anything to go by, it seems most folks are loving it. So first, the positive! Here are a couple reasons you might dig The Affair of the Mysterious Letter:

  • Man, this universe. It’s a vast, expansive world in which all gods, magic, and science exist simultaneously, realities overlap, and magic powers can be arbitrary and limitless.
  • All the callbacks. Fans of Sherlock will enjoy the many nods to the original. There’s a superbly fun take on Mrs. Hudson (Ms. Hive, in this universe).
  • Representation! The easy, full acceptance of different gender identities and relationships in this world: Haas’ has romantic entanglements with the most dangerous of ladies, adventuress Viola’s engagement to the charming Miss Beck is the crux of the mystery, and there’s that casual blink-and-you-missed-it mention that Wyndham grew up female…
  • Wyndham is the best. Speaking of Wyndham, he’s the unquestionable star of this book. I came for the Sherlock sorceress, but stayed for Wyndham’s formal (yet) amusingly prudish, wit and dry style. In fact, much like in my recent reading of the (unrelated) The Rook, I fell in love with and wanted to hear more about our narrator’s past self and adventures.

Okay, so that seems pretty great. What’s the catch?

Well, the catch is that the character Haas was (unintentionally?) the worst.

See, the thing is, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter relies on you to know the Sherlock world. In that world, of course John and Sherlock (Wyndham and Haas, in this case) would bond immediately. Of course Haas has a charming, magnetic personality that transforms Wyndham’s life and makes him willing to risk life, sanity and reputation.

Unfortunately, because the story accepts these as given, it never shows the moments that built the foundation on which the characters then interact and go off adventuring. Taken as a standalone novel, Haas and Wyndham’s relationship comes across as rather one-sided and abusive, from Haas endlessly belittling Wyndham, to Wyndham ending up doing Haas’ laundry.

As a consulting Sorceress, Haas researches, consults on sorcery, and occasionally helps friends with cases by threatening (and killing?) people until they tell her what she wants to know. This isn’t a great look.

Without that core relationship, the rest of the story struggles. This book is lucky to be standing on the shoulders of canon, so if character dynamics are your jam, proceed with caution.

But if you’re here for a crazy world with backdrop of a posh historical (Victorian meets Mardi-Gras meets Venice) style sensibility, this could be your next favorite read.

Rating: Five stars for concept and style, two for characters and story.

 

Canaries, have you read this book?
What did you think?

 

Review copy generously provided by the publisher.

 

[Book Review] Why Consider Phlebas did nothing for me.

Book Review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Culture 1.jpg

So. After everything I’d heard about the AI-driven utopian world of “The Culture” in Iain M. Banks books…I was expecting a bit more, well, utopia in my Science Fiction read.

Instead, Consider Phlebas delivered a gritty military science fiction: A disconnected protagonist, rotating cast of loosely sketched out supporting characters, relationships based on alienation, violent conflict, lots of slow-build tension and suspense, and a loosely connected series of action sequences. Oh and a bunch of exposition on democracy vs theocracy (life vs AI, systems vs chaos, the meaning of being alive, etc etc) that I grimly power-read my way through.

Continue reading

[Book Review] A dark and stormy night, plus amnesia

RookBook Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

“Dear you,

The body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Myfanwy Thomas opens her eyes to find herself standing in the pouring rain, in a London park, surrounded by bodies, with absolutely no memory of who she is, and a letter in the pocket of her coat addressed to her.

This book had me hooked from that first line.

The mystery is tantalizing – I couldn’t get enough of it. Who’s after Myfanwy? Aliens? Evil scientists? Paranormal? Government conspiracy? The story unspooled its revelations one by one, teasing and keeping the tension taught. Myfanwy starts out as a brilliant combo of practical, cool-headed, and completely lost as she tries to a) stay alive and b) navigate the deadly life of her past self. Continue reading

[Book Review] Magic tattoos, cat familiars, shadowy phantoms

Book Review: Stolen Ink by Holly Evansstolenink

You know that shortlist of back-of-the-book keywords that are krypton to your wallet? One moment you’re browsing the shelf, the next you’re in the checkout isle, and all because the book mentioned a psychic cat familiar or told you you’re about to embark on a urban fantasy romance filled with tattoo magic. Or both.

Definitely both.

Enter Stolen Ink by Holly Evans.

The concept kicks ass. In this story’s alternative modern day, everyone has an animal spirit that’s bursting to come out. This spirit takes its physical shape through a magical tattoo, which, once inked, becomes a psychic familiar (think Pullman’s The Golden Compass). Drawing these critters is Dacian’s job. He’s a tattoo magician who runs a parlor with his elven partner and pretends to be a middling, third-tier tattooist. Except he’s not.

In a world where everyone is magical to some degree, Dacian’s an ink magician, with a direct line to the heart of magic, who spends most of his time in denial, not doing anything about it. Which is fine and dandy, right up till the Big Bad shows up in his city and starts stealing people’s tattoos and killing them. Continue reading

[Book Review] Where no man has gone meta before

redshirtsBook Review: Redshirts by by John Scalzi

This book was talked up so much that almost nothing less than a comic masterpiece could have met my expectations. I was also just coming off reading three Bujold books in a row, so my humor bar was set high.

And so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this book didn’t quite meet them.

In case you haven’t heard about this book, here’s the setup:

In a Star Trekian style universe, Ensign Andrew Dahl joins the Intrepid, a spaceship that explores the universe and fixes problems. He soon realizes something screwy is going on. The crew is acting weird and every Away Mission seems to involve some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces. And while the senior officers always survive, at least one low-ranked (red shirt uniformed) crew member is, sadly, always killed, often in the craziest of ways. As he starts digging into this mystery, the craziest theory begins to make the most sense: Are they characters on a campy science fiction show?  Continue reading

[Book Review] Assassin plus ghost plus girl equals destiny

shadowsunBook Review: Shadow’s Son by Jon Sprunk

You can just about taste the atmospheric Assassin’s Creed trailer on the pages.

SLASH, STAB
GRACEFUL DIVE OFF A ROOF
LOST AMID THE CROWD

That’s Caim for you. Assassin by trade, loner by choice, haunted by the memories of his murdered father and the quite lively and talkative ghost named Kit whom only he can see. Caim goes around murdering folks for money right up until he gets a shady job that sets him up.

Betrayal, mystery, shadow magic, action!

It was all very assassin adventure story…right up until page 25, when the novel’s second character was introduced:

“Wait. What is a sixteen-year-old debutante doing in my assassin action caper?” Continue reading

[Book Review] In which the wild hunt meets cop mechanic

urbanshamanBook Review: Urban Shaman by C.E. Murphy

Oh man, canaries. Hang on to your perches, this is gonna be one of those books. The premise: Half-Irish, half-Cherokee Joanne Walker has just discovered she’s a shaman and that the Wild Hunt has gone rogue and is about to destroy the world. New and old world myths mix. Chaos is unleashed. I was ready and eager to fall in love.

And yet. And yet.

What a mixed bag.

Here’s the good, the bad, and the stuff in between:

The good: An exciting beginning! It’s not every book that starts off on a plane, followed with a race across town in a cab, only to face off against a knife wielding unknown.

The bad:  We need to retire the let’s-sit-in-a-diner-and-TALK trope for good. This is the third urban fantasy book in a row to do so, and every single time I am brain-crushingly bored. Continue reading