A Book Report: Recent Reads

Very rarely do I read a straight-up bad book. I spend enough time researching on Goodreads and other sites to get a feel for whether a title will give me what I seek in reading matter. If by chance I stumble onto a book that is unequivocally bad, I don’t bother to finish it. I don’t enjoy hate-reading, and as they say, life is too short. So I can say with some confidence that every book I read and finish, I either like or love or somewhere in between.

Some books leave a more lasting imprint on my memory than others. Usually, though not always, they’re the ones that fall on the “love” end of my scale; sometimes, however, they leave their mark because despite being entertaining, they have some flaw that troubles me and/or makes me think. Here I highlight a few books I’ve read recently that have stayed with me, for different reasons.

1. The Alloy of Law

Brandon Sanderson’s books just do it for me, and I’m not even certain why. The prose isn’t exactly the most lyrical or breathtaking ever. The concepts are not especially challenging or thought-provoking. Yet I find his books immensely and wonderfully readable. I am not an uncritical fan. (Do not get me started on the climax of Warbreaker, though I think the reason I’m still angry about it is that I’d been enjoying the book so much up to that point.) But when a new Sanderson book set in “the Cosmere” — the alternate worlds he has created — comes out, I’m always keen to get my hands on it as quickly as possible. I can see myself camping out in front of my nearest Barnes & Noble sometime next fall so that I can buy Oathbringer, Book 3 of The Stormlight Archive, the second it hits the shelves. In the meantime, I’m tiding myself over with another series of his, popularly known as “the second Mistborn series,” of which The Alloy of Law is the first volume.

The book as the feel of a Victorian gaslight fantasy merged with a Wild West shoot-’em-up, and the combination works better than we might expect. Featured in the cast are a hero who is a badass supreme, whose tragic past and rigid adherence to his ethical code lend him an aura of admirable melancholy (I keep picturing a young Liam Neeson), a best friend who offers ironic commentary on the proceedings while being badass in his own right, and a heroine whose courage and skill surprise both her and the reader. All three are vividly drawn and worth rooting for, and all get their chances to shine in the course of the narrative. (Heroine Marasi’s participation in the climax almost makes up for my ongoing disappointment about Warbreaker.) And there is no question that they are heroes whose goal is to do what’s right and protect those who cannot protect themselves. At a time when grimdark anti-heroes are all the rage, I treasure the honest-to-goodness (though flawed) heroes that Sanderson creates.

Rating: Unqualified joy.

2. The Aeronaut’s Windlass

Jim Butcher is best known for his urban fantasy series The Dresden Files, and he’s also written epic fantasy in the form of Codex Alera, a sort of “Pokemon set in ancient Rome” (it’s better than that description makes it sound). The Aeronaut’s Windlass is his first foray into the fantasy subgenre known as “steampunk,” in which steam-powered technologies are injected into a quasi-historical setting. Not being into urban fantasy, I’ve never read the Dresden books, but I did like, with reservation, the first four volumes of Codex Alera, so I was curious to see what he might do with steampunk, and I tackled this thick book this summer. The good news: it’s a rollicking adventure, full of daring rescues, hair-breathed escapes, dashing heroics, nefarious villainy, and absorbing world-building. It’s also a fast read, despite its thickness, because it’s darn hard to put down.

The bad news (for me, anyway): I had an issue with Butcher’s writing of women, at least of heroines, in the Codex Alera books, and that issue persists here. To his credit, he eschews the Smurfette Principle and puts three women on Team Good, yet I can feel him holding them back, keeping them from living up to their full potential for awesomeness, making sure that they don’t become too competent to need occasional (or even frequent) rescue. Bridget, my favorite of the three, is physically big and strong, blessed with common sense, and able to communicate with cats; Gwen is a crack shot with a gauntlet, a steampunk firearm (and, regrettably, has a nigh unbearable personality); Folly is an etherealist whose crystals hold power. These strengths should equip them for full participation in the dashing heroics, right? Sadly, at this point in the series their only real knack seems to be for getting into trouble and needing some male character or other, even the male cat Rowl, to bail them out. The two villainesses, by contrast, hold authority. They get to be confident and capable. I guess to be a genuinely badass female character in Butcher’s world — at least, here and in Codex Alera — you have to be evil. Disappointing.

My rating: Qualified enjoyment.

3. The Guns of Empire.

I’ve mentioned it in previous posts, but it bears repeating: Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series hits nearly every one of my reading-pleasure buttons. Stalwart heroes of both genders? Check. Warrior women fighting on the side of Good? Check. Compelling political intrigue? Check. A female authority figure depicted sympathetically? Check (twice)! Friendships between women? Check. Friendships between men and women? Check. Effectively drawn romance (both straight and gay)? Check. I’m hard pressed to think of anything I desire in a fantasy series that this one doesn’t have, and its fourth volume, The Guns of Empire, doesn’t disappoint.

Well, maybe it does, just a little, but it’s not the book’s fault. If I enjoyed the previous two volumes, The Shadow Throne and The Price of Valor, a tiny bit more, it’s because I find political maneuvers more engrossing than military ones, and this book, like the first book The Thousand Names, is very battle-heavy. Those battles are nonetheless stirring, and a reader can feel the bitter cold as our heroes march through Murnsk, this world’s equivalent of Russia. Generals Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass and their liege lady, Queen Raesinia, are as engaging company as ever, and they’re backed up by a diverse and colorful array of supporting characters. The threats are dangerous and palpably evil, and some of my favorites don’t make it to the end, felled by demonic possession or enemy soldiers’ bayonets. A riveting read, but be warned: while the previous volumes each had something resembling a conclusion, this one ends on a cliffhanger — and the next book doesn’t even have a title yet.

My rating: Just when is Book 5 coming out? I really need it.

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