Murder by suicide

Review: The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced magical Victorian mystery with an unwilling earl and a clever magician spiced with some steamy guy on guy romance.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 204

Publisher: KJC Books

Series: A Charm of Magpies

From the publisher: A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

This book was so much fun that I’m raring to read the next one. The protagonists are adorable: tall, rebellious Lucien Vaudrey and short, clever Stephen Day. I wouldn’t say this is a cozy mystery because there’s some quite a bit of swearing and some graphic sex in it, but it’s next door to one. 

K.J. Charles manages to make everything feel fresh in the story, even though she’s riding some well-worn tropes—the unwilling heir with the terrible family, a gothic house, possible madness, and hereditary curses. Part of it is the completely frank attitude of her new earl, who has completely lost any concern for Victorian sham, and part of it is the simple joy she seems to take in the love story.

As a CIS, hetero female, I can’t say how the romance will affect those who identify more with the sexuality of the protagonists, but from my point of view, it was completely absorbing, and, dare I say it, hot. It reminds me of the tone of Gentleman Jack; the story has similar sensibilities, but without Anne Lister’s conformity to her class.

Completely irrelevant side note, but did you know magpies are classified as one of the most intelligent animals in the world? They don’t live by me, so I’m fascinated by them, but I guess they could be a nuisance if they did.

At any rate: Run and get a copy of The Magpie Lord now. You’ll thank me later.

I don’t need no stinking prophecies

The 19th Bladesman is the first installment in this series and has my least favorite component of a book in a series—it simply ends, rather than really resolving much of anything. I’m fine with outstanding storylines, but I do like to feel like I’ve gotten to a stopping point. That’s a trait it shares with many other series that I have stuck with, so it’s not a fatal error, just an annoyance.

S.J. Hartland has done a commendable job with her villains. I would snarl at them as I was reading, which is always a sign that I’ve gotten involved with them. I’m not as enamored with the protagonists, though, as I didn’t get nearly as upset as they encountered travails along the way. A part of that is because she oversold some aspects: Kaell’s desire to please his lord, Val Arques aka Vraymorg; Vraymorg’s fight with his own feelings; and Heath’s emptiness. When you get to the point where you’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, move it along,” you know that your compassion is not being touched.

However, if you weren’t bothered by repetitions in the Wheel of Time, you might like it. Like that series, the book does touch the familiar points that many readers of epic fantasy want to see. There are big battles and small ones, an evil lord lurking about, gods with murky motives, various kingdoms with different desires, monsters, magic, questionable deaths, betrayals, secrets, beautiful men and women, and some really nasty people with power. 

The series has promise, and the groundwork has been laid so that you aren’t completely sure whom you should root for and Hartland has successfully started a labyrinthine plot. I just haven’t decided yet whether I’ll take the time to find out how it all works out. 

Poe gets an antiracism lesson

As a teaser for a future series, or to get me to read more of April White’s books, this succeeds. As a standalone, I have some issues with it. However, the author earned brownie points from me for giving an afterward that gave the historical record. 

Let me start with my bias: I’m not fond of novellas generally, and this one is representative of why.  I like what is there quite a bit. Ren, the protagonist, is a woman you want to know more about. The author does a stunning job of adapting known facts about Edgar Allan Poe into this time travel book and the prose is well paced and easy to fall into.

What gives me problems is that it feels like so much is missing,. Perhaps this novella is meant more for readers who have already invested in the prior Immortal Descendants series, in which case many of the unexplained background may be obvious to those readers. But as someone new to the world, there isn’t enough world building. And even then, that background wouldn’t help me understand the murky motivations of the prime villain of the piece–or maybe it would. 

The other issue for me is that everything happens too quickly. Characters change their stances too fast and  believe the magical parts of the magical realism novel much too quickly. The plot is resolved almost instantaneously, which left me with a “Wait, did I miss something?” feeling.​

​This feels like it could have been a novel with a little more fleshing out, but it does its job well as an ad, because I know I’m going to read more of the series. 

Ghostbusting, dystopia style

The world of Archivist Wasp is unrelentingly bleak. Abuse, alienation, hunger, cold, poor medical, dying children: check. No apparent infrastructure: check. Malevolent religion to control behaviors: check. It all adds up to not much to live for, so the ghosts are understandably more interesting than the living.

Categorizing this book as children’s completely floors me, and the YA designation is a little misleading. For children, the swearing is a bit too much, but that’s not my objection so much as the dark tone and subject matter–I know kids can go through some bad shit, but it’s a bit much for a child who hasn’t.

As for the young adultiness of it…I get why the publisher would want to position it as YA (a hot market). But I think that’s a little limiting, as this novel doesn’t have the tropes that stamp it as YA only. Yes, the protagonists are teens. Yes, the book deals with a theme of interest to adolescents: how do you deal with a difficult past? But aside from those things, there’s none of the overwrought high school drama that tends to turn off some adult readers. 

But I noted “Chosen” as a descriptor. Isn’t the “Chosen One’ a YA trope? Yes, but Archivist Wasp does not follow the rules of the Chosen One that you’ve seen over and over.

My only gripe about the book is a tendency to keep hitting the same note. There were times where I thought, “I get it, it’s bad. You don’t have to keep telling me it’s bad.” Of course, I felt that way about Tor‘s Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey—the repetition there was about the character feeling she should have had a different life over and over. Aside from overstating the obvious at times, though, the writing served the story well.

For me, the plot was a little light on complications and I felt like it was dragging at times, so there’s the three instead of more stars.

In sum: Want to feel like your world isn’t so awful? This novel might do the trick.

Female detective in 1907 Japan. -Ish.

Sara Keefe’s debut novel introduces us to the world of the admirable Helen Motosu, an alternate early 20th century Japan that will challenge your preconceptions of time and place. Helen’s strength as a sleuth is mainly her ability to read people, and as much of her time is spent in navigating social norms, managing her “help,” and working through her grief as in solving the mystery.

The mystery is charming, but what stays with me are those piercing moments when Helen’s first steps to reorient her life, coming almost a year after her husband’s death, are so authentic they glow. Those gems are uncommon in literature generally; I cannot recall ever having had the pleasure of that experience in a cozy murder mystery.

The world of Motosu differs from ours in some significant ways: far more advanced technology than was available in 1907 and more freedom for women than I would have expected (despite the obstacles she faces). I was struck by how much more open to Westerners her Japan was than I believed was the case at the period, but I’m certainly not an expert in Japanese history. But I still wondered if the Meiji Restoration didn’t occur as it did in our world, or if the Hibaya Riots of 1905 didn’t happen. Perhaps the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War had different terms, as it serves as the backdrop to the story, but isn’t fully explained.

Although the book blurb describes itself as steampunk, I saw very little steampunk sensibility in the novel but for one isolated instance that doesn’t bear on the main plot at all.  

Keefe is definitely an author to watch. I look forward to more world-building in the following Motosu Mysteries books as there are so many unanswered questions about how this Japan came to be, and how Helen found her place in it.

The elusive definition for “independently published”

“Independently published” is a fairly broad term. The Independent Book Publisher’s Association seems to define it as a state of mind, and includes basically any publisher other than the Big 5.  You know the Big 5, right? They each have bunches of “imprints,” other names they use for certain types of books (and this is not a exhaustive list of all the imprints):

​Whew! Yes, you can probably read nothing but books from the Big 5 for the rest of your life. But since I tend toward the view that megacorps are not healthy for the world, I prefer to look elsewhere when possible (not to say I don’t read their books–that’s not happening). (Sidenote: What is HarperCollins trying to pull, having imprints with Facebook sites rather than regular websites? Trying to look all indie?)

I’m looking for independently published books (including self-published) whose publisher has not yet cracked that New York Times Best Seller List, but whose books should have.

Anyway, the IBPA definition is overly inclusive for my purposes. I’m looking to help those worthy books that aren’t yet mainstream. Reedsy, among others, distinguishes independent publishers from self-publishing. Self-publishing is definitely a different animal than having a separate entity publish your book on the traditional model, but I tend to use the terms “small press” and “self-published” to make that distinction and use indie publishing to include both. If I were a small press, I suppose I might object. to including among my peers those with self-published books (which includes publishers set up just for one author as well as those using what we used to call “vanity presses”). 

Aside from that, I basically agree with Reedsy’s definition: “An independent publisher is a publisher not affiliated with any big corporations or conglomerates — meaning they operate independently.”

But I’m focusing on the smaller denizens of that community, not those who already have the size or prestige to draw attention to their books. For example, Kensington Publishing Corp., with six imprints and a backlist of 5000 titles, calls itself “America’s independent publisher.”  However, Kensington has already managed to place books on the New York Times Best Seller List. So Kensington’s books are probably not going to end up being reviewed here. I will refer to the group of publishers whose books I don’t review as “Big5plus.”

I’m looking for independently published books (including self-published) whose publisher has not yet cracked that New York Times Best Seller List, but whose books should have.

Arbitrary? You betcha. Clear? Probably. It’s a bit of a hassle, checking out each books publisher, but it’s worth it to me.

How I review

Let’s get this straight: I despise spoilers. Nothing ruins a movie for me more than a trailer that is a summary of the plot. So there will be no plot summaries here. There will be a brief teaser at best–enough to give you an idea of the premise, but probably no more than the book blurb will give you. Any comments containing spoilers will be removed.

However, it’s very aggravating when you’ve completed a book and have no one to discuss it with. So there’s a Spoilers Forum here for each reviewed book where you can talk about anything. I will have a post in the Spoilers Forum that supplements the review with any spoiler-laden comments.

My biases (at least the ones I’m aware of) are that I prize characterization over almost anything and I like internal consistency. I don’t like being preached at, but I don’t mind a book that’s trying to make a point. I’m tolerant of a wide range of writing styles, literary or popular. I don’t subscribe to the notion that just because something’s popular means it can’t be art. However, I don’t care for self-consciously  artistic books that seem to elevate technique above story-telling. Techniques should always been in service of the story, not the other way around (I’m looking at you, James Joyce). 

​So here’s how my ratings work:

  • A five-star book is one where I long for and grieve for the ending at the same time, one that I can’t seem to shake, or one that affects my worldview in some way.
  • A four-star book is one that I could escape into with pleasure and will read again.
  • A three-star book is one I liked well enough, but wouldn’t read a second time.
  • A two-star book is one that I struggled to finish or just didn’t like.
  • A one-star book is one that I couldn’t make myself finish or hated.

You may agree; you may not. But any book here, one-star through five, will meet the minimum standards of being sufficiently well-produced and competently written so that our differences will be matters of taste rather than basic quality. Of course, we may disagree on what constitutes “competently written,” but where’s the fun in a review without the possibility of debate?