Book Review

Summer Round-Up: Books What I Read While On Summer Vacation, Pt. 1

Y’all, I managed to get more leisure reading done in the past three months than I have in the past two years combined. It’s amazing what being stuck on a plane or a bus will do to one’s reading time, not to mention the one month I spent laid up in bed from a one-two whammy of a really nasty summer flu, followed by strep throat. (Lymph nodes the size of ripe plums, dudes. It was amazing.) In any case, I looked at the backlog of books I wanted to talk about, and realized I was never, ever going to write about them if I had to write my usual 1,000-1,500 word review. So what’s a girl to do? Why, review all of them at once, of course, in abbreviated blurb form. Everything’s more fun when it’s bite-sized!

So here, in approximately chronological order, are the first five of the ten books I’ve read so far this summer, and what I think of them:

Ilium by Dan Simmons (Science Fiction), HarperTorch 2005
Grade: A-
I loved this book. Loved it. Nobody does cracktastically fun space opera like Dan Simmons, and this book is even more cracktastic than his last epic space opera (the Hyperion series—Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion are probably my two favorite far-future space operas of all time). It mashes together: sentient robots; resurrected classics scholars forced to watch and document a re-creation of the Iliad (and I do mean that in a literal sense); quantum mechanically savvy ancient Greek gods; a terraformed Mars; and humans struggling to regain lost knowledge while freeing themselves from mysterious machines that both serve them and imprison them in a life of indolence and luxury. All this is liberally doused liberally with the finest quantum mechanics gobbledegook this side of an Einstein-Rosen bridge and then deep-fried till crispy. The book jumps between at least three different major storylines, and those major storylines often break off into mini-storylines of their own, but Simmons keeps the pacing incredibly tight. It’s an enormous book, but like Schwarzenegger of old, there’s almost no fat on it; Simmons clearly had as much fun writing this as I had reading it. If you like your science fiction epic, action-packed and kinda schlocky, then look no further.

Olympos by Dan Simmons (Science Fiction), Eos 2006
Grade: C-
And then Simmons lost control of the story. When I finished Ilium, I was on tenterhooks: dear God, how could he resolve all the craziness he’d kick-started? The last book ended, not so much with a bang, as a world-shattering boom. But alas, in this follow-up, things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the worlds of Earth, Ilium-Earth and terraformed Mars. We rocket crazily from storyline to storyline, jumping between the sentient robots known as moravecs, the resurrected human scholar named Hockenberry, the various characters from the Iliad (Helen, Menelaus, Achilles), and various “old-style” humans who find themselves facing bloody sieges. In short: Simmons piles on MORE stuff instead of working on resolving existing storylines. When bits of backstory create holes in plot and worldbuilding, never fear: they’re spackled with copious amounts of quantum gobbledegook. Tsk. Also: the resolution wasn’t so much weird, as it was dropped while only half-finished. To add insult to injury, the sentences and editing reflect the slapdash plot, with typos and just plain bad sentences dotting the book like soft spots on a peach. Reading Olympos, I was overcome with the strongest urge to grab the editor and copyeditor by their scruffs and yell “Bad puppy! No cookie for you!” In short: disappointing. Incoherent. Loose. (And look! I just set the foundation for a Your Mom joke!)

Sebastian by Anne Bishop (Fantasy), Roc 2007
Grade: C+
I had been assured that Anne Bishop was an amazing author I needed to try if I liked romantic fantasy with dark, complicated characters, so when I was laid up at @HeatherOsborn’s apartment with the beginnings of strep throat, I decided to pull her copy off her holy shit AMAZING shelves. (This woman has more books than I do. I don’t know whether to be turned on, or scared, or both.) It turned out to be pretty disappointing: the world-building was really interesting, but the characters were mostly meh. The world, Ephemera, is a world that responds to the deepest fears and desires of its inhabitants, and A Long Time Ago, it was literally torn apart by magic in an effort to save it from the Eater of Worlds. (Here’s a strategy for you: shatter your world into bits, then wall off the Big Bad Magic Monster into an unconnected shattered bit. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this plan! Like, say, somebody POKING A HOLE IN THE WALL WITH A POINTED STICK.) The various bits of world are kept healthy and sane by Landscapers, and they’re connected by bridges built by, uh, Bridges. Some of the bridges act the way you expect them to: they connect one landscape to another. Other bridges, however, are resonating bridges, which means that they take you to landscapes that resonate with your heart’s deepest desire, so you a) never know exactly where you’re going, and b) you have no guarantee of getting back to where you came from. Which I thought was kind of dippy (is this a book written for emo twelve-year-olds?), but kind of fascinating, because you could have a lot of fun with this sort of thing (hey, I was an emo twelve-year-old once upon a time). The characters, though, are just plain flat. The hero, Sebastian, is an incubus with a heart of gold (he can’t help but fuck! Like, a lot of women! Really! Otherwise he dies) and the heroine, Whatserbucket, is a generic fresh farmhouse ingénue who is abused and unappreciated. And then they get sucked into the battle to save Ephemera because Sebastian’s favorite cousin, Glorianna, is also the Most Powerful Landscaper Evar, with Stupendous Powers of Mary Sue in her steely yet sorrowing fingertips, and she’s pretty much the only one who can take care of Big Bad Eater Daddy. The romance is thin, because the characters are mostly familiar caricatures, but the world-building is interesting enough that I may pick up the sequel, Belladonna, some time in the future.

The Grey King by Susan Cooper (Young Adult), McElderry 2007
Grade: B+
Though I’d heard of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series ever since I was a wee ‘un, I had never picked up one of the books until last December—when Snowpocalypse was befalling Portland (we got almost two feet of snow where we were, which is unheard-of in Po-Po), which certainly made reading The Dark Is Rising extra super special creepy. I was hooked, and have been kicking myself for not having picked it up twenty years ago. The Grey King, the penultimate in the five-book cycle, starts with Will, Our Intrepid Protagonist, going to Wales to recover from a bout of hepatitis. His brains have been a bit battered about because of the sickness, and he knows there’s something he needs to do while there—something about a prophecy regarding the malevolent Grey King, and awakening the Sleepers, but he’s not sure he can remember everything in time to fulfill his quest. This book also introduces Bran, an albino boy with mysterious origins who befriends Will and has a significant part to play in the coming battle against the Dark. In all, the novel is engaging and beautifully-written, though it does a little bit too much of the “Oh, the young ‘uns aren’t in too much danger because there are Forces Working to Put Things In Place” hand-waving to resolve certain conflicts in parts of the story, and oftentimes, the readiness of the Light to sacrifice anything to win its battle against the Dark makes (in my opinion) the separation between Light and Dark pretty damn thin. If you have a young ‘un, or if you’re young at heart, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas (Historical Romance – European), Avon 2006
Grade: B
Lisa Kleypas novels are the equivalent of mashed potatoes for me: when they’re good, they’re amazing and filling and satisfying, and when they’re bad, they’re bland and gummy and kind of gross. Either way, I seem incapable of not finishing them. Devil in Winter, the third of the Wallflowers series, is competently written and pretty fun to read, but once I put it down, I had a hard time remembering what it was all about because it started blurring with all the other Kleypas novels I’ve read. There’s a cynical hero, and he’s hot and kind of a dick. There’s a shy heroine, and she’s the daughter of Ivo Jenner, the owner of one of the most notorious gambling houses in London. The cynical hero marries the heroine for cynical reasons (he likes living a rich life with minimal exertion), only to discover both his deeply-buried work ethic and that he’s actually besotted with his stuttering bride. There’s a suspense-ish side plot in which the Heroine Is In Danger, but the solution is quite glaringly obvious. In all, decently fun, but not something I’m ever going to re-read.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Zumie says:

    I thought Belladonna was actually a weaker book than Sebastian, unfortunately, because I had actually liked the first one a lot, and the second is filled with Cousin Mary-Sue. But I highly recommend her other series, the Black Jewels Trilogy. Much darker, but much more interesting characters, I felt. There’s also a couple of stand-alone books set in the same world after the trilogy, but they contain kind of massive spoilers for the previous books (obviously) so read with a caution. :)

  2. 2
    Tina C. says:

    I was just going to recommend the Black Jewels trilogy but Zumie beat me to it.  I thought Sebastian was meh (a C, also, for me) and I’ve never really been able to get into her Pillars of the Earth series, but the Black Jewel trilogy is well worth the effort to track down and read.  The books are very dark and incredibly well-written.  The initial three books are the best, though Invisible Ring (first stand-alone set in the world) is very good, too.

  3. 3
    Jody says:

    I read the entire Dark is Rising series (pentology?) last week and IMVHO a couple of the books, Grey King was one, were weaker than the others. Read all together though, they are the very essence of Magicrack!

  4. 4

    Before I was published, I read on my agent’s blog website that she was seeking to represent SF authors like Dan Simmons.  So I got ILIUM and started reading and went OMG, this is so effing great.  I liked it so much that I made the secondary H/H in PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS both experts in the Trojan War.

    But ugh, OLYMPOS.  I didn’t get beyond 50 pages of it.  And when I read the reviews on Amazon, it seems I was quite right to abandon it when I did.

    Have you read the Hyperion quartet btw?  I thought the two Endymion books were a great romance.

  5. 5
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    The Dark Is Rising sequence is one of my all-time favorites, which I first read in the late Seventies when my brother returned from a trip to England with the entire series, (I believe it had not yet been published in the US.)  Thirty years later, I still re-read The Dark Is Rising every winter solstice (masses of snow and a nice cup of tea definitely help.)

    I have to say, though, I think Ms Cooper got her medical facts a bit confused in The Grey King, where Will’s symptoms are closer to those of meningitis than hepatitis (and isn’t hepatitis an STD?  Will is kind of a precocious kid, but he’s not THAT precocious.)

  6. 6
    Randi says:

    I with everyone on Ilium vs Olympos. LOVED Ilium; Olympos was meh. But Simmons’ Hyperion series was THE AWESOME.

    I wasn’t too enamored of Sebastion either. Very meh. However, Bishop’s Black Jewels series rocked my world. I never got into her Pillars of the Earth series, either.

    Since we’re all sort of on the same page with our likes/dislikes, has anyone read Sara Douglas’ ‘The Troy Game’ series? Very very very complicated and cool. I’m not into Douglas’ other stuff-but The Troy Game books are fan-fucking-tastic.

  7. 7
    Mhlia says:

    The Dark is Rising series is by far one of my favorites from my childhood… to the point where I purchased new copies to replace my (old, worn, stained, pages falling out) copies both for myself and my as yet un-created future child(ren) just in case they went out of print.  That is how much I love that series.  However, the first and last books are by far the best; the ones in the middle are good filler.

  8. 8
    Gwen says:

    Another reader of the Dark is Rising from kid-dom.  I’m slowly collecting them again, because the story has stuck in my head for years.  Especially the first. 

    (don’t remember Will’s symptoms, but hepatitis is contagious in different ways depending on which one it is.  I never remember which is which – A, B, C and I don’t remember how many more.  Blood or fecal-oral the usual choices.  Sorry.)

  9. 9
    ghn says:

    I can only join the chorus of those who love the Dark is Rising books. I love them all – especially the first book in the series.
    And I rather like the Dark Jewels books, too.
    I am also very fond of a number of books by Diana Wynne Jones. And there are two books of hers that I will reread often: The Dark Lord of Derkholm and the follow-up The Year of the Griffin. A word of warning: Do not read or drink while reading either of those books!!!!
    other57 – I am sure there are at least 57 other books – or series – that I can recommend

  10. 10
    Christina says:

    Some authors peak early. Anne Bishop was one of these.

    The Black Jewels Trilogy was amazing.

    Everything else she’s done is substandard (notably one of her most recent books, “Tangled Webs,” in which the plot began on page 82 and mostly had characters strutting around, gossiping, playing with puppies, and decorating a haunted house—seriously.).

    Please try the trilogy, though. It was definitely worth it!

  11. 11
    Lostshadows says:

    I’d like to add another recommendation for the Black Jewels Trilogy, but with one caveat, while the trade is convenient, it’s both heavy and floppy which can make reading it in that format annoying.
    I also enjoyed her most recent one, Queen of the Shadows.
    I think I might be the only one here I liked the Pillars of the Earth series, but I thought it kind of fell apart in book three.

  12. 12
    Kathleen says:

    I find Lisa Kleypas pretty addictive. I actually really liked the Wallflowers series, in part because I found the friendship among the four girls really believable in context (which can be a problem for me sometimes in series). But I also really enjoyed the emphasis in each book on the changing economy and how the nobility is going to have to drastically shift their money-making traditions in order to keep themselves afloat.

  13. 13
    Candy says:

    @Sherry: I really didn’t like the Endymion two-fer. Didn’t like what they did with Kassad, and I felt like the story suffered from a toned-down species of Olympos’ incoherence.

    Re: hepatitis in The Grey King: Hepatitis is essentially inflammation of the liver. Most of the time it’s caused by a virus (A, B & C), but sometimes it’s due to an autoimmune issue (isn’t it fun when your own immune cells start attacking your major organs?), and sometimes it’s just plain idiopathic. Alcoholism can cause it, too, though obviously it’s not a problem with Will, unless he’s been tippling with Merriman Lyon on the sly while learning about the Powah of the Light. And symptoms can vary; if Will had hepatitis due to some kind of idiopathic infection, high fever and other typical symptoms of infection wouldn’t be out of the question.

    Also: I’ll check out the Black Jewels trilogy from the library. ‘Cause why not?

  14. 14
    Overquoted says:

    I agree…The Black Jewels trilogy is one of those series that pulls you through the ringer. I think I raged, sobbed, giggled and whooped through the whole thing. But they are very, very dark. There’s also a stand-alone in the series (quite good) called The Invisible Ring which kind of gives you a better feel for the world from the male perspective. That said, I haven’t been very attached to the follow-ups. I’ve desperately wanted to be…I own them…but they just ain’t got it.

    The Ephemera series is basically the lightest thing she’s ever written. The Black Jewels make Sebastien and Belladonna look like cute, fluffy kittens. Maybe it was editorial pressure? Lighten up so it’ll sell more?

    It’s been so long since I read the Pillars trilogy…I may have to pull it off the shelf this week to reread. (Providing I can scrub the nightmare of the intro out of my head – it’s been there for a good oh…seven, eight years?) My SR505 had an accident. I was out swimming at Eisenhower State Park (gorgeous rock formations) and had it in a bag on a high rock…only to have some asshat in a speedboat buzz as close to the swimming area as possible, creating huge waves that knocked me into the rocks and my bag (with my SR505) into the water. My own fault for taking it with me. :’( I’m already experiencing withdrawals.

    Seriously…I’m sunburned to purple in some places and have cuts in odd places…and it’s the SR505 that’s making me miserable and snappish. I only bought it in MAY! *sobbing*

  15. 15

    Your Mom! (someone had to do it)

    Whoa, I dig me some Yeats quoting in a review. You are teh awesome.

    Black Jewels trilogy is the WAY to go with Anne Bishop.

    Susan Cooper, love of my childhood. They are making The Dark is Rising into a movie, aren’t they?

    Thanks for the mini reviews~

  16. 16
    Sybylla says:

    They are making The Dark is Rising into a movie, aren’t they?

    They did already.  It’s called “The Seeker” and it is perhaps the worst abomination of an adaptation ever.  Ever, ever, ever.  It is jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly, blood-pressure-raisingly, rip-off-your-own-arm-and-beat-yourself-unconscious-with-it-ly horrendous.  The only reason for seeing it that I can think of is to engender gratitude that other books you love have not been turned into movies.

    But that’s just my opinion.

    That said, I have to agree with SBCandy et al.‘s verdict on Ilium/Olympos.  The first book was made of awesome, the second a frustrating let-down.  (And yeah, Hyperion was vastly better than Endymion, IMO).  Has anyone read Simmons’s The Terror?  That one blew me away.


  17. 17
    AQ says:

    Lone voice out.

    I found the Black Jewels a simplistic but compelling read that completely pissed me off. Janelle was the peak of Mary Sueism and that whole man/woman dynamic was a tad too misogynistic for me and the last half of the final book…let’s just say I was extremely put out.

    That said, I don’t regret reading them. They were a quick and compelling. Interesting universe.

    I’d love to participate in a discussion on them, especially the final book in the trilogy. Hell, I’d even re-read the whole thing again. Who knows maybe I’d have a different reaction the second time around.

    spamword: Game44
    I’m game if anyone else is. If not, that’s okay too.

  18. 18
    Sarah W says:

    I love Susan Cooper.  I read The Dark is Rising series in fifth grade, and did a book report on the first book, with diagrams.  I also wrote my first ever fan letter to Ms. Cooper that year, and she wrote back, endearing her to me forever.

    When my nephew finished the Harry Potter books, I gave him Cooper’s set.  He finished them all in a week—and this kid just doesn’t do that, even for Harry.

  19. 19
    Diane says:

    Oh, Anne Bishop.  She seems to have such a yen for virginal Mary Sues and the dark, brooding manwhores who love them.  I’m surprised so many people recommended The Black Trilogy here: the world-building is lovely.  But the characters…?  Oh boy.  Not very sophisticated or engaging, in my opinion – stock characters and Mary Sues ahoy!  I just hated Janelle, with a passion.

    Sybylla: Has anyone read Simmons’s The Terror?  That one blew me away.

    Yeah – so good.  The book went on way, way too long in my opinion, but the first 500+ pages were pure awesome.

  20. 20
    Tae says:

    Diane – thank you!  I always feel like I’m the only person who doesn’t like the Anne Bishop books.  I read the entire Black Jewels trilogy plus the novellas, and I was just frustrated with all the characters.

    Sybylla – agree about the movie, wow was that a piece of shit for a movie, and I generally like bad movies.  Loved the books, hated the movie.

    Candy – I have to agree with you about Lisa Kleypas.  I’ve re-read books because I forgot I had read it before.  Reading the blurb on the back of the book didn’t help either.

  21. 21
    Katy says:

    I loved the Black Jewels trilogy as a whole, but I tend to avoid book 1 when rereading – WAY too dark for me.  It took a lot for me to give the second book a chance, but am quite happy I did. 

    Don’t get me started on The Seeker.  Awful, awful, awful!

  22. 22

    I don’t know, Candy, your rating of DIW by LisaK is a deal-breaker for me. We might have to break up. It’s a straight A for me that one. Sebastian. OMG!

  23. 23
    Trix says:

    Erm, didn’t Will have measles in TGK? I can’t dig out my copy right now – it’s a 80’s UK edition – but I feel fairly certain.

    [As for hepatitis in kids, I had it when I was 6 and ended up having two months of school. I still can’t drink too much alcohol.]

    One more quibble – the penultimate book is Silver on the Tree.

    I did like the slight moral ambiguity in The Grey King – it’s interesting to think about sacrifices for “the greater good” – are they really? I also liked the fact that the friendship between Will and Bran was explored – a bit more character development than perhaps some of the other books.

    I’ll also second the shout-outs to DWJ. She rocks.

  24. 24
    Julianna says:

    Silver on the Tree is the ultimate book of the series, unless Cooper has been doing a sixth book… ohpleaseletthisbethecase. 

    The first and last books are the best?  Are you sure you didn’t mean the second and last books?  Unless someone actually does prefer Over Sea, Under Stone to The Dark Is Rising.

    I love that series so much.  It’s like Harry Potter done by Ingmar Bergmen.  I guess, given the order of publication, it would be more accurate to say that Harry Potter is like The Dark Is Rising done by… Disney? But that feels dismissive of HP, which I also love.

    I still love those books.  When the Dark comes rising/ Six will turn it back….

  25. 25
    Fiamme says:

    Chipping in to add my great love for the Dark Is Rising series… and agree, Over See Under Stone is underwhelming compared with the first Will book.  I loved Bran too.

    I really enjoyed Sebastian and Belladonna while reading them—although the constant reference to the adolescent level sexuality was annoying (they subsist on a diet of bread shaped like genitalia dipped in cheese… no really, the Cheesy Dick diet? I’d lose weight on that one through um, never eating again?).

    I liked the first three Dark Jewels novels, but had issues all along with some of the rigidity of the world-building. Black and white. Good and evil. Men and women. Violence and Peace. Y’know there are two kinds of people! Those who divide everything into 2 categories, and those who… oh you’ve heard that joke?  It gets less and less subtle as the series meanders on, and really, Tangled Webs made me re-examine any small pleasure I’d experienced with the first three books and go “wow—the male female dynamic and whole subtle understanding of the other gender is way up there with the guy who wrote the Gor books, and Mr Jordan of the Wheel of Angst series…

    Anyhow. Mary Sues were less my issue (I quite like Mary Sues provided they’re sufficiently misunderstood and loathed by the people around them to get my sympathy gland working) than the black-white thinking and overly rigid rules of the world building.  The jewels stuff especially smacks of someone who likes to pigeon hole people to avoid excessive flights of character development being required.  But there’s something about her style that pulls me in, so I finish it, and in fact can’t stop reading at the time, that’s rather Laurell K Hamilton. I have to put it down before the ‘WTF???’ starts to bug me.

  26. 26
    aninsomniac says:

    Black Jewels trilogy is definitely the better series from Bishop. Of course, the Obedience Rings might freak some, but the world and characters were awesome.

  27. 27
    Janet W says:

    Have you kept reading the Dark is Rising series? I love ‘em. There’s a great chapter in Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend about English fantasy, “Flying High”—an amazing plethora of great books by marvelous writers that continue to stand up, decades later.

    Where you be at Miss Candy, 1/2 of Smart Bees? Hopefully, on vacay after a splendiforous year? Still and all, books to read, reviews to be written eh? LOL

  28. 28

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