The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty, is the first installment in the Daevabad Trilogy. It follows Nahri, a young woman with a secret even she doesn’t know, and Dara, a Daeva (or djinn, though this is viewed as an insult to the Daeva). Dara has his own dark past from when he lived with his own kind, before he was banished. Nahri meets Dara after meddling in some magic that was beyond her understanding and, as a consequence, gets tangled up in centuries-old intrigue between the Daeva and other supernatural beings.

The city of brass in the title is Daevabad, where Dara originally comes from and where he and his kind once ruled. It is now ruled over by a different caste of djinn, ones that Dara views as inferior. Dara is a throwback to a previous time of warriors and blood-thirsty war. Whether he finds a place for himself in the modern Daevabad is always a question.

Nahri, on the other hand, because of her secret, is of great interest to the current rulers of Daevabad. They alternately welcome her and treat her as a prisoner, unsure if she is a threat or the key to bringing peace. The political intrigue between all of these supernatural beings is really well developed, with the reader never quite sure who has the upper hand or who is in control of events. They are in many ways, despite their immense power, more petty and more frivolous than humans. They are more capricious, and have a very rigid view of place. It is an interesting, if somewhat distorted, reflection of our own world and the way we all treat one another.

The third main character is Ali, the son of the current ruler of Daevabad. He isn’t sure he wants to be part of the royal family. A strict religious fellow, he looks askance at the wayward ways of his older brother and heir to the throne. He is torn by his duty and his beliefs. And, ultimately, he gets tangled with Nahri and Dara.

My favorite line in this novel comes when Nahri’s mentor is discussing the political turmoil rising out of Nahri’s presence in Daevabad. The other woman, Ghassan, asks her:

“In what world do men and women pay the same price for passion?”

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

Vicious, by V.E. Schwab, is another super hero book, another world where people are able to obtain super powers. They aren’t born with them, and the manner in which they get their powers, and what those powers are, is pretty unique. The book centers around Eli and Victor, two college roommates who figure out how people get powers and find a way to get themselves powers. But, their collaboration soon falls apart and they become bitter enemies.

One thing I really liked about Vicious is that there are no heroes. There are no good guys. There aren’t any really evil people either, just regular people suddenly with super powers and their own selfish and egotistical motivations for using them. Eli and Victor are opposite sides of the same coin, both believing in the righteousness of their cause. There is no super villain wishing to control the world. These characters can be petty, they certainly are vindictive, and they can be vicious.

The world Schwab has created leads to an interesting set of super powers, some of which are pretty different compared to other super hero worlds. These characters don’t fit the typical super hero tropes. Their powers are different and their motivations are different.

This is the first book in the Villains series. I enjoyed it enough to come back for book 2.

My favorite line from the book occurs during an encounter between Victor and Eli. Victor has Eli on the ropes, calling him out for his, in Victor’s mind, misguided mission. Eli argues that Victor simply doesn’t understand, to which Victor replies

“When no one understands, that’s usually a good sign that you’re wrong.”

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Imagine that super heroes are real. And that, whatever gave them powers also seems to have created zombies, or the equivalent. Humanity has been wiped out, but there are bastions where super heroes protect them from the advancing zombie hoard. That is the world of Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines.

I really liked how Clines makes super heroes maybe just a bit more realistic, a bit more relatable. He even gives them a credible origin. While many of the heroes are based on standard archetypes, they have unique personalities that give them a bit more depth:

  • St George is the Superman character.
  • Stealth is the leader, a Batman-like character who happens to be an ex-lingerie model.
  • Gorgon can absorb the powers and strength of anyone who looks him in the eye.
  • Cerberus is the Iron Man character, a former military scientist, she feels at home in her armor.
  • Zzzap is essentially energy personified.

There are many others, but the plot revolves around these central characters. In the first book (Ex-Heroes is the first of at least six books exploring this zombie world), the heroes are pitted against a ruthless gang of ex-humans and must defend their home, a converted movie studio, from their constant advances. The ex-humans include some former heroes and villains that have become zombies.

As opposed to the more sanitized Marvel and DC universes, the heroes here are more like real people. They swear, they have sex, they kill when they think they must, and they die. Permanently (at least, in the first book). Given the grand scope of characters and the fact that Clines is willing to kill some off, you never know who might survive. This provides the tension needed to keep the plot rolling and to keep you engaged. Book 2 is certainly on my read list.

My favorite line from the book references one of my favorite characters, Sherlock Holmes. In one scene, Stealth is dwelling on the ex-humans and their sudden appearance in the world. Thinking to herself, she says:

In one of the earlier Sherlock Homes mysteries, Arthur Conan Doyle (not yet a Sir) made an observation on logical deduction. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
There is, however, a specific flaw in that maxim. It assumes people can recognize the difference between what is impossible and what they believe is impossible.

The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

The Quantum Magician, the first part in The Quantum Evolution trilogy, by Derek Künsken. It’s been a long time since I read it — I really should write about the books I read as soon as I finish…

The Quantum Magician is the story of a space con job. The lead on the job, Belisarius Arjona, is what is called Homo quantus, a new species of humans that has been engineered to be able to directly interact with the quantum world. His species isn’t the only new ones, there is a group of people called the Puppets, that are engineered for religion and another group bred for a planet consisting only of water so have bodies that can withstand the pressures of the deep ocean. There are artificial intelligent (AI) beings, some of which are priests. All of this is against the backdrop of worlds that are at odds with one another, with one group holding power over the others. It is in this universe that Belisarius is pulling off the greatest of con jobs.

Behind the plot is a discourse on the future of humankind, the role of evolution in driving us, and the next steps in that evolution. In a world where AI beings can be created that have complete personalities and lives, what is the role of the programming that created them? “Evolution created a set of algorithms that, interacting together, created consciousness in humans. And yet those algorithms still link food and pleasure, hunger and pain. If you were creating a wholly synthetic being, and you programmed them to be happy when they’re fed, how is that different?”

Another theme is the pursuit of knowledge versus the pursuit of power. “They’re struggling for who’s in charge and who has the most money when questions of how the cosmos works are all around them, unanswered.” With all of the resources we have, why do we use them to accumulate more instead of trying to understand the world around us? Is that not a sufficient goal in and of itself? Do we need to strive to be on top, to be above those around us?

Belisarius isn’t the most sympathetic of characters. And some of the ideas Künsken comes up with are very weird and twisted. The whole Puppet society and their weird and twisted take on religion verges on the edge of disturbing. If I have one disappointment, it is that, while the future of people, the next steps of guided evolution, are intriguing, the technology of Künsken’s future is less unique, is less well developed, at least for me. But, the characters are interesting and the plot is an adventure ride, so I’ll be coming back for part two.

In the Night Garden by Catherynne M Valente

In the Night Garden, part one of The Orphan’s Tales, Catherynne M. Valente tells the story of a strange little girl who is hidden in the gardens of a palace. Or rather, the girl tells the stories, to the young prince who, against the wishes of his parents, befriends the girl. The story she tells weaves in and out of other stories, as the characters in her stories encounter others who then tell their stories. The plot weaves through a prince who encounters a witch, leading to the tale of a grandmother, and then a wolf, and then back to the witch, and then to a nursemaid, and so on.

Filled with fantastical creatures, mythical places, and wizards and witches, In the Night Garden isn’t just one story, but is a tapestry of stories that are interwoven, leading to a dense cloth that continually comes back on itself. At times, it becomes a challenge to remember who’s story you are reading, as they bounce back and forth quite often. As perspective shifts from one character to another, we find that one with seemingly evil or nasty intentions actually has their own back story that is rich and full, that they have motivations that drive their actions that make sense. Every character is fleshed out in a way that is unique, giving everyone such depth.

Valente has a nice touch with words. Her characters all have unique voices, which is impressive given how many different characters we get to know from their own perspective. They come alive with utterances like “I loved the changing character of the sea, how it could be choppy and gray or smooth as glass, like the brow of a wife” or “all things built with tax money are beautiful: so we must think or go mad.” Given that a prince is one of the main characters, there is a lot of talk about kings and power:

  • “In fairness, Kings are often quite as dense, calling themselves scared vessels and masters of all things above and below when in fact they command a few patches of lonely dirt with even lonelier houses sitting upon them.”
  • “Only Princes believe in the greater good. Kings know there is only the Reign, and all things may be committed in its holy name.”
  • “That’s how kinds are made, my brush-tailed girl — they pick a place, shove a stick in it, call themselves King and wait to see if someone gets angry about it.”

The girl at the heart of the story, that begins the tale, so far only describes the stories of others. That seems to be her gift. Exactly how she fits in the plot itself isn’t revealed yet. There are a lot of threads that make part of this tapestry and I’m excited to see what pattern they make when put all together.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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