[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.

 

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This month in the mine shaft: May

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  • Nightmare Ink by Marcella Burnard ★★☆☆☆
  • Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks ★★☆☆☆
  • The Invisible Library Series ★★★★★
    • The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
    • The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman
    • The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman
    • The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman
    • The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman
  • Working Stiff by Rachel Caine ★★★★☆
  • Legion Series ★★★★★
    • Legion by Brandon Sanderson
    • Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson
    • Lies of the Beholder by Brandon Sanderson
  • Innkeeper Chronicles ★★★☆☆
    • Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews
    • Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews
    • One Fell Sweep by Ilona Andrews
  • Alex Craft Series ★★★☆☆
    • Grave Witch by Kalayna Price
    • Grave Dance by Kalayna Price
    • Grave Memory by Kalayna Price

 

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(But what’s this, two novels with the same title? Stay tuned for a battle of the Night Lives and their goth protagonists.)

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Book Watching

Onward to June! What’s on your to-read list?

 

 

[Book Review] In which I re-evaluate my bias against magic libraries

 

Book Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Canaries, this is the book I was looking for when I had my ill-fated encounter with The Eyre Affair in 2017 and swore off all book-themed fantasy novels. Little did I know that The Invisible Library was out there.

Two years later, here I am, eating my words. Fantasy books about books can be excellent.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman (and the rest of the series) combines the high stakes of a spy thriller with the shenannigans of fantasy novel, populated with colorful characters, an intriguing and competent main lead, and several series level mysteries that kept me hooked. Continue reading

[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

This month in the mine shaft: April

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  • That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn ★★★★☆
  • A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson ★★★★☆
  • Good as Gold by T.J. Land ★★★★☆
  • Pirate Nemesis by Carysa Locke ★★☆☆☆
  • Origins by Ilona Andrews ★★☆☆☆
  • Penric and Desdemona Series ★★★★☆
    • Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
    • Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold
    • Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold
    • Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
    • The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Cold Days by Jim Butcher [Reread] ★★★★☆
  • Silver Shark by Ilona Andrews ★★★☆☆
  • I Hate Everyone, Except You by Clinton Kelly ★★☆☆☆
  • Magic Stars by Ilona Andrews ★★★☆☆

 

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Onward to May! What are you reading right now?

 

 

Penguin shuts down FirstToRead, and a look at what’s next

firsttoread

I can’t decide if I’m more surprised that Penguin Random House’s FirstToRead early reader access platform is shutting down this July, or that it took so long. I took a dive into FirstToRead’s point and review system in 2016, and even then, the signs weren’t great; the program’s social media accounts had been abandoned, the books on offer were also available on NetGalley, and the site went down for two whole days in the middle of my investigations…

Still, FirstToRead’s system of getting people to read and review its books appeared to be working. From my 2016 math, for every 100 free advanced galleys released per available book, the review feedback rates were in the 20-40 percent range. That review rate seems to be on par with NetGalley review rates for small or coop publishers.

And yet, and yet. For an established publisher like Penguin? The payoff probably wasn’t enough to justify staffing, hosting and maintenance—especially since FirstToRead merely replicated some of Penguin’s NetGalley offerings. 

And so the FirstToRead platform is being officially shut down this July.

Where To Next: Reader Rewards

Even as FirstToRead enters its end days, Penguin is advertising its new program, Reader Rewards, a pay-to-play rewards system in which you register eligible purchases to earn points for a free book.

According to the website’s FAQ, earning “120 points (the equivalent of uploading proof of purchase for 12 books)” gets you “any eligible book(s) on penguinrandomhouse.com for free (up to a $30 value).” Points expire after two years, and code expires within six months of issue.

So, What Now?

If you have a FirstToRead account, check in and use up any spare points on May’s book lotteries. They won’t carry over once the program shuts down in July 2019.

If you’re a regular buyer of Penguin Random House books—and any of its insane number of imprints—then sure, sign up for ReaderRewards and take advantage of your purchases.

And if you’re mostly looking for ARCs, there’s always NetGalley.

Canaries, have you ever used any of these platforms?

What’s been your experience?

 

 

This month in the mine shaft: September

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  • This Is an Uprising by Mark Engler, Paul Engler ★★★★★
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela ★★★★☆
  • Omega Rising by Jessica Meats ★★★☆☆
  • Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox ★★★☆☆
  • If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda ★★☆☆☆
  • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde  ★☆☆☆☆

 

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Onward to October! What’s on your to-read list?

Want to buddy read something?