Review of Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic

April 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J. SchwartzGooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib
By David J. Schwartz; Narrated by Janina Edwards
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 21 October 2013[UNABRIDGED] – 12 hours, 11 minutes

Themes: / urban fantasy / mystery / community college / magic / secret agents /

Publisher summary:

Meet the newest professor at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, Joy Wilkins. She may suffer from face blindness, but Joy can still recognize people by reading their auras — a skill that comes in particularly handy for her real work as an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs. Her mission: to discover the source of weaponized demons being trafficked through the quaint school on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and to locate her predecessor, the school’s missing History of Magic professor. But just as her investigation gets under way, the brutal murder of Joy’s handler — and mentor — sets her on the trail of a secret society known as the Thirteenth Rib. With the clock ticking down to the next attack, Joy will have to find new allies and uncover ancient secrets if she’s going to have any chance of defeating a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the entire world.

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib (hereafter referred to as Gooseberry Bluff ) is a book that had a lot of good ideas, but suffered a bit on execution. I was originally attracted to it because it seemed like a cross of modern urban fantasy with mystery–and in many respects, it was just that. The issues I had with it are more about how it wrapped up the various plot lines, and what was left to the imagination.

The premise is simple: Joy Wilkins is the new professor of history at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic (GBCCoM), but she’s also an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs (FBMA). Joy’s job as an agent is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she has face blindness; luckily, she is very good at reading auras, so her disability isn’t the end of the world. Very few people (relatively speaking) are good at reading auras. She is assigned to GBCCoM ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of the previous history professor, Prof. Drake, and to investigate the source of demon trafficking within the school. There are some other side stories in the book, and some character- and world-development that is done through the course of the narrative.

The characters are rather interesting and varied. Schwartz emphasized diversity in his characters, something relatively few authors seem to feel comfortable with, and that’s to his credit. The characters–whether they’re the narrator (Joy, the face-blind African American woman who’s also an agent in the FBMA), Andy (the transgender assistant who is biologically a male but self-identifies and dresses as a female and prefers to be referred to with feminine pronouns), the gay president of the college, the Indian FBMA case handler, or the (apparently stereotypical white male) FBMA case handler, to name a few–are all believable and deeply developed. On the one hand, it felt like Schwartz may have been trying “too hard” to be SO DIVERSE but on the other, the diversity and the character traits opened up by this diversity were well-handled; rarely did it seem like a character was diverse just to be diverse.

The world didn’t need much development in general, given that the book takes place in modern-day “Gooseberry Bluff, MN” (a city on the St. Croix river). The rules for the various types of magic weren’t particularly well-defined, but this book wasn’t as much about the magic as it was about the mystery, so that can be forgiven. When needed, such as when explaining the demon-summoning, the rules were at least internally consistent.

The biggest issue I had with the book is that it had a lot of plot lines, and they weren’t all wrapped up particularly well. In addition, perhaps because of all the parallel plot points, the wrap-up to the main story line felt rushed. Some of the plot lines were:
-The main plot line, Joy trying to solve the disappearance of her predecessor at the school and the demon-trafficking
-Related sub-plots of assassination attempts and trying to determine why Joy’s FBMA case manager is trying to keep her off the job
-The president of GBCCoM’s time away from the school
-A romantic relationship between two other professors at the school
-A student (Margaret) who is very strong, magically-speaking, but very novice
-Another professor at the GBCCoM trying to bring back her sister’s soul

In the end, the main plot line was wrapped up but the sub-plots weren’t particularly discussed. I was left thinking that the case manager is just a jerk (he was certainly painted that way), but a lot of time was devoted to him. The main plot line was wrapped up, though with a lot of things falling into place “at the right moment” or Joy “figuring it out” suddenly at the end. The other plot lines were not specifically wrapped up–in fact, one of them was left wide open (the last one I listed). It seems like Schwartz spent so much time doing the world-building, that by the time he needed to wrap up the story, it felt rushed. I wasn’t exactly sure how Joy connected the dots or what exactly happened.

The narration by Janina Edwards was pretty good. There were a few times when I had to back up my recording and re-listen to a few sentences, but I think that was more attributed to awkward phrasing or unusual words than the actual narration. When I closed my eyes, I could see a confident African American woman as Joy–I actually had the picture of my 7th grade reading teacher in my head (thank you, Mrs. Barrett!). If you’re one who likes to listen at greater than normal speed (1.25x, 1.5x, 2x), you might have a hard time–I did. But the book was short enough that I didn’t mind listening at 1 or 1.25x speed.

It will be interesting to see what (if anything) else Schwartz does with this world. I would like to know how some of the other plot lines wrap up, and why Margaret seemed so “important” in this book. I would hope, though, that in future books, less time is spent on world-building and more time is spent telling the story evenly, so that it doesn’t need to end up rushed as this one did at the end.

Posted by terpkristin.

LibriVox: The Hollow Of The Three Hills by Nathaniel Hawthorne

March 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Online Audio 

SFFaudio Online Audio

The Hollow Of The Three Hills - illustration by Esteban Maroto

If you’re a fan of good narration, and creepy short stories about witches, check out Bob Neufeld’s reading of The Hollow Of The Three Hills by Nathaniel Hawthorne. He’s a veteran narrator, with good taste is stories, and a terrific voice.

There is an “excellent” and extensive German Wikipedia entry on The Hollow Of The Three Hills – sadly, an English Wikipedia entry does not even exist.

LibriVoxThe Hollow Of The Three Hills
By Nathaniel Hawthorne; Read by Bob Neufeld
1 |MP3| – Approx. 13 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: LibriVox.org
Published: 2012
First published in The Salem Gazette, November 12, 1830.

And here’s a |PDF|.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Geomancer by Ian Irvine

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

GeomancerGeomancer (Well of Echoes #1)
By Ian Irvine; Read by Grant Cartwright
Publisher: Bolinda Audio via Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: July 2013
[UNABRIDGED] – 23 hours, 47 minutes

Themes: / fantasy / magic / crystals / visions / aliens /

Publisher summary:

Two hundred years after the Forbidding was broken, Santhenar is locked in war with the lyrinx – intelligent, winged predators who will do anything to gain their own world. Despite the development of battle clankers and mastery of the crystals that power them, humanity is losing. Tiaan, a lonely crystal worker in a clanker manufactory, is experimenting with an entirely new kind of crystal when she begins to have extraordinary visions.

The crystal has woken her latent talent for geomancy, the most powerful of all the Secret Arts – and the most perilous. Falsely accused of sabotage by her rival, Irisis, Tiaan flees for her life. Struggling to control her talent and hunted by the lyrinx, Tiaan follows her visions all the way to Tirthrax, greatest peak on all the Three Worlds, where a nightmare awaits her.

The start of this book was promising, but things went off the rails. Then, just as they seemed to be recovering, I found the end to be awful. I think my main problem this book is the characters and their dialogue. In part one of the book Mr. Irvine introduces us to several characters that I despised almost immediately. In part two he seems to be trying to elicit sympathy from the reader via self-pity from internal monologue and sympathetic back story. It might work for some readers, but not for me. At best instead of coming around to like the characters as complex and flawed, I find myself mostly indifferent about what might happen to them.

The main character is mostly likable, although some of her thoughts rubbed me the wrong way. I assume this is another attempt to give her depth through flaws instead of being a hero trope. Maybe my dislike of almost all the characters is just an inability for me to understand their society, but I doubt it. The most likable characters are minor ones who don’t seem to stick around very long. It’s really hard for me to enjoy a book when I don’t like the people I’m reading about.

The main story is interesting. The world is at war with much more powerful alien creatures. Humanity have built machines called clankers in order to be able to fight back, but they are still mostly outmatched. At first this seems more like sci-fi than fantasy, but the clankers are powered by crystals and there a mostly unexplained magical system based on them and their connection to power nodes around the world. So really it’s some sort of mix that has more of a fantasy feel than science fiction.

There are a lot of political and social issues that play into things. With so many young men dying in a seemingly endless war, everyone is expected to produce children to essentially provide the next generation of fodder. Anyone accused of a crime is sent to one of two places depending on their gender. Males are sent to the front lines where they will likely die in short order. Women are sent to “breeding factories” which are exactly what they sound like. Entirely too much time was spent on the breeding factories, and the notion of a society so desperate to survive they force women to sleep numerous partners in the hopes of producing the most helpful offspring as frequently as possible is downright horrifying to me.

This is apparently the second series of Mr. Irvine’s Three Worlds sequence. Having never read the first (The Mirror Quartet), I’m sure I’m missing some references to things from that series. My understanding is this is set hundreds of years later, and possibly on a different world. I never felt lost but it’s possible I would understand more about the crystals and their powers if I had read that series first.

Overall it wasn’t a very good book and it was not as well executed as I would have liked. I found myself cringing at some of the writing in places, especially the dialogue. The ending of the book really was really off-putting – it felt like a bad soap opera on television.

Grant Cartwright, the narrator, is the only bright spot of the book, and a large part of me being able to get through the worst parts. I’m not sure if he exclusively reads books targeted at an Australian audience, but if so that’s a shame. He does a good amount of voices for the various characters and his normal reading voice is clear and easy to understand. Some of his voices are grating, but I think that’s fitting for the characters he is portraying. Maybe this partnership between Bolinda and Random House will bring more of his work to North America. I’d like to see what he does with a better book.

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of A Discourse in Steel by Paul S. Kemp

February 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

A Discourse in Steel Cover ArtA Discourse in Steel
By Paul S. Kemp; Read by Nick Podehl
10 hours 11 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Angry Robot on Brilliance Audio
Published: 2013
Themes: / sword and sorcery / magic / adventure / fantasy city

My first encounter with the sword-and-sorcery genre came when I discovered Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, neatly packaged into audiobooks at Audible with introductions from no less a figure than Neil Gaiman. How could I refuse? While Leiber’s world-building was top-notch, though, I found fault with his lack of any real character development. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Seth, characters in a sword-and-sorcery novel aren’t supposed to be developed!  While I agree in principle that the genre is supposed to thrive on antiheroes like Michael Moorcock’s Elric, there’s a vast difference between making an intentional authorial decision not to develop characters, or to develop them in an unconventional way, and simply neglecting the care and feeding of a protagonist. Of this I found Leiber guilty. So I set the genre aside in hopes of finding a specimen more suited to my predilections.

Enter Paul S. Kemp’s Nix and Egil series. The eponymous heroes (it’s almost impossible to call them antiheroes) are, respectively, a sprightly little man of craft and cunning from the slums of Dur Follin, and a hulking, hammer-wielding priest of Ebenor, the momentary God. At first glance, you would be forgiven for mistaking this pair for Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, or, perhaps if you squint, Terry Pratchett’s Bravd and the Weasel. But where Leiber’s adventurers are often gray as the Mouser’s name, Kemp’s likable rogues flash and sparkle like a colored prism, reflecting and refracting their personae as the wheel of the story turns. And speaking of the city of Dur Follin, its twisting alleys, Low Bazaar, taverns, and guild houses are every bit as well-realized as Leiber’s Lankhmar.

I rediscovered fantasy in my teens through reading David and Leigh Eddings’s mammoth epics. While I now recognize that much of their work was middling at best, I still admire their capacity to write charming, amusing, and at times poignant dialogue. Kemp has honed this particular skill to a keen edge. The playful, good-natured banter between the two unlikely companions will have you laughing out loud one moment and pondering the mysteries of life itself the next. Their friendship is deep and genuine in the way that so many fictitious friendships simply aren’t. Nix and Egil each have their own past, present, and (it is to be hoped) future. Their hopes, fears, and regrets are writ large in the story’s pages, and this emotional element propels A Discourse in Steel beyond the mark of mere adventure into territory that far too fantasy novels explore.

You’ll notice I’ve said nothing of the plot. This is partly because I cordially dislike plot regurgitations in reviews, but also because the plot is, in a sense, unimportant. I don’t mean to suggest the plot is bad. In fact, it’s well-paced, intricate for a novel of this length, and not without its little surprises. But one comes away from reading this book with a sense that the plot served mostly as a backdrop for exploring these two remarkable characters, like set decorations in a theater performance. Of course, if all this emotional and philosophical discussion makes your eyes glaze over, and you just want to read fun stories of swashbuckling adventure, fear not, A Discourse in Steel has them in spades, or hammers. As you can probably tell by now, I am more captivated by the character development, and sometimes felt the plot barged in on a real moment of heart, but I confess that most readers will find the novel’s plot and pacing perfectly measured.

The novel isn’t without its faults. Nix and Egil are masterfully developed, but the book’s other dramatic personae, with a couple no notable exceptions, lack that same fit and finish. The villains, in particular, come across as fairly one-dimensional, even though they get a lot of stage time. Rusilla and Merelda, the tale’s damsels in distress, fare slightly better, especially towards the end, but as the series title suggests, this is the Nix and Egil show. The novel also flags a bit once the plot maneuvers the characters out of the stress of Dur Follin, which as a city is complex enough to be a character in its own right. To paraphrase one of the characters, Nix and Egil seem to belong in Dur Follin, and watching them out of their element, like fish out of water, takes a moment’s adjustment. The book’s last fault, if you could call it that, is that it ends too soon, leaving several key questions unanswered, questions about Egil and Nix, questions about the city of Dur Follin, and questions about the wider world beyond.

The audiobook is narrated by Nick Podehl, who, to me at least, has become synonymous with epic fantasy in audio, thanks in no small part to his narration of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. His bag of vocal tricks just seem to be a natural fit for the genre. He is able to glide smoothly between Egil’s rumbling curses and Nix’s falchion-sharp witticisms, and during the action sequences his sense of timing is impeccable. Podehl is the narrator equivalent of what’s called in Hollywood a character actor. He lacks the star power and name recognition of a Simon Vance or a William Dufris, but if you’ve listened to many audiobooks recently, you’ve probably heard his voice. He certainly does justice to Kemp’s work.

A Discourse in Steel is the second Nix and Egil adventure, but it can be read on its own, though its predecessor, The Hammer and the Blade, is nearly as good. I’m grateful to the efforts of Paul S. Kemp and his creations Nix and Egil for showing me that the sword and sorcery genre can embody both style and substance. Maybe it’s time I revisit Leiber and the other S&S greats; maybe I’ll find they’re not as soulless as I thought.

Reviewed by Seth Wilson.

Review of Flesh Circus by Lilith Saintcrow

February 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Flesh Circus by Lilith SaintcrowFlesh Circus (Jill Kismet #4)
By Lilith Saintcrow; Performed by Joyce Bean
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 7 discs; 9 hours

Themes: / circus / urban fantasy / voodoo / zombies / magic /

Publisher summary:

When circus performers start dying grotesquely, Jill Kismet has to find out why, or the entire city will become a carnival of horror. She also has to play the resident hellbreed power against the Cirque to keep them in line, and find out why ordinary people are needing exorcisms. And then there’s the murdered voodoo practitioners, and the zombies. Jill Kismet is about to find out that some games are played for keeps.

The descriptions in Flesh Circus were memorable and fun, and touched on all the senses. Characterizations really told a lot about each individual and gave information about both them and the narrator. She was really snarky, selling toughness without overdoing it. There was some repetition in the action scenes, with guns and bones popping frequently. The author employs a liberal use of adverbs, and the plot relies heavily on elements that must have been established in earlier books. I could still follow along, though. The magical details were the best part.

Joyce Bean as narrator was great. She had a husky, slightly rough voice with an understated delivery that let the words really shine. Her characterization of side characters was great, making it easy to keep track of who was speaking.

Posted by Sarah R.

Review of Deadly Sting by Jennifer Estep

January 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review
Deadly StingDeadly Sting (Elemental Assassin #8)
By Jennifer Estep, Read by Lauren Fortgang
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours

Themes: / urban fantasy / assassin / museums / magic /

Publisher summary:

Red is definitely my color. Good thing, because in my line of work, I end up wearing it a lot. Most people shy away from blood, but for an assassin like me — Gin Blanco, aka the Spider — it’s just part of the job. Still, it would be nice to get a night off, especially when I’m attending the biggest gala event of the summer at Briartop, Ashland’s fanciest art museum. But it’s just not meant to be. For this exhibition of my late nemesis’s priceless possessions is not only the place to be seen, but the place to be robbed and taken hostage at gunpoint as well. No sooner did I get my champagne than a bunch of the unluckiest thieves ever burst into the museum and started looting the place. Unlucky why? Because I brought along a couple of knives in addition to my killer dress. Add these to my Ice and Stone magic, and nothing makes me happier than showing the bad guys why red really is my color.

Our story starts out with Gin moping …she misses Owen and while she is trying to hide it. Her friends and family can feel her despair. Finn tries to shake things out a bit by manipulating her into attending an event where all of Mab Monroe’s treasures are being showcased…which is awesome because Gin has to get a dress! Finn and Eva also have an ulterior motive of getting Gin and Owen to talk.  Which does not go so well since Owen has a date and then there is a heist by a group of giants. The giants are banding together because they are sick of being body guards and being taken for granted so they are taking their place in the criminal empire…or so it would seem.

As I read this book I kept thinking of the movie Die Hard and in the end it works out, actually I think it more than worked out the book is a lot more fun than some of the others. I listened to it on audio and as always the narrator Lauren Fortgang does a great job bringing the story to life. It is funny I am not sure if they switched narrators that I would continue with the story. Anyway back to the book the story is very succinct and the plot has a good solid pace. This book could have easily been a novella but the plot was strong enough to keep me entertained throughout the entire book. This time around Gin actually felt more like an assassin, even though she was still bumbling around it made much more sense.  It was also nice to see Gin getting mixed up in something where it was not about someone trying to kill her for revenge or an elemental trying to collect power. While she does not get any new powers in this book she seemed to use her stone and ice magic with a lot more finesse. It was also wonderful to see how she choose to deal with Jonah he has been a burr on her butt for a long time.

While I enjoyed the plot of this story I did not care for the lack of growth in the characters. At the end of Widow’s Web one could understand how and why Owen was mixed up and confused. After certain events in this book he should have been crystal clear and even at the end there was a lack of resolution. Add to that Gin still has a need to shoulder everything emotional on her own shoulders almost to the point where it does not make sense. Speaking of things that don’t make sense is Gin can freeze and object and make it animate to a degree so why can’t she just freeze people? The water villain in the last story did it was water so why not ice??

While the lack of character growth was disappointing I did enjoy the overall story. It looks like we have a new nemesis on the scene bringing about a new story arch which could be interesting.

Posted by Dawn V.

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