Quintessence by David Walton

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Coverlust? Coverlust.

First, the horribly truncated summary: An alchemist and a mortician place their trust in a beetle and take a boat full of Protestants to the end of the world.

 For once, I’m not being glib!

This book was provided to me via Netgalley in return for an honest review. I would like to thank Tor/Forge for giving me this opportunity and taking me seriously.

Now, as a fan of fantasy, Tor is a recognizable staple in our household. I hold them in very high acclaim and reverence. With that in mind, I am fully confident that the advance copy I received will be free of formatting errors by the time it goes on sale.

Why mention formatting errors at all? Those errors made the dialogue a chore to get through. Those errors, coupled with a mild start and a sluggish middle, made the book difficult. I was considering putting Quintessence into my unfinished pile and submitting my review thusly.

But, as I am a masochist, I trudged through. The final thirty percent of the book made it worthwhile.

However, that first seventy percent…

We start our story aboard the Western Star, where Lord Chelsey is returning to (Tudor) England with the last thirteen men from his crew. They’ve all been dying off during the return trip and the venture is nearly a failure. The only redemption he has are the barrels full of riches he has brought back. However, the barrels of gold and diamonds have turned into useless pebbles and the miracle water has turned into seawater.

Tough luck.

He’s deemed mad when the boat docks and dies shortly thereafter. The Western Star is condemned and sold off to the only man that knows its value: Christopher Sinclair, the court magician and part-time alchemist.

Before Sinclair can fully investigate the cargo of the ship, he realizes that someone is stealing away the sailor’s bodies. It’s none other than King Edward VI’s personal physician, Stephen Parris. Parris has taken a keen interest in the lack of decomposition and has decided to further his understanding by means of dissection.

Now, cutting up bodies might be all the rage in Venice, but they still frown upon the practice in Renaissance England. Parris has to hide his “ungodly” activities in order to remain respectable at court. His wife, understandably, doesn’t like walking in on rooms filled with human gore, so they’re marriage is held by a very thin thread.

(Funny note: most male characters are referred to by their last names (there are exceptions, especially where you have a father and son on the same boat). All female characters are referred to by their first names. Not sure if intentional style choice based on era or unintentional sexism.)

Well, in order to get funds for a return trip to Chelsey’s island, Sinclair sells Parris out to the sickly king and all the doctor’s money now belongs to the sea voyage. Parris’ wife is a survivalist, so she secures her fate and leaves her husband in the cold. She tries to secure her daughter’s fate as well, but their daughter “decides” (via otherworldly force) to go with her father to the edge of the world.

Oh, and the boat is full of refugee Protestants when they set sail. Why? Tudor England.

I am cutting many of the cool bits out (magic beetle) because explaining everything would exceed my character limit.

Wait a minute! We’re starting in one of my favorite historical periods, our protagonists are a magician/alchemist and a doctor (and the doctor’s daughter), and they’re sailing to the ends of the earth with a boat full of refugees in hopes of finding out the magic behind Chelsey’s voyage? What the hell is my problem? What was so wrong that I nearly put this book down in shame?

Well, I had no emotional connection to any of these characters until the end of the book. Even then, there was really only one character I connected with, and that was the doctor’s daughter, Catherine. The rest, while doing interesting things, were not interesting in and of themselves. Some, like Parris’ wife, came off as extremely annoying.

Also, there was a lot of setup required to pull off the conclusion. I’m used to setup (obviously, as a fantasy reader), but this setup was centered in characters doing scientific experiments during the journey. Instead of action, the characters repeatedly asked questions through interior monologue that, I think, the readers could have asked themselves without author prompting.

Add to that a very stilted dialogue where names were not placed with quotes and you’ve got a very tiring mess during your middle acts. Thankfully, we reestablish a clear antagonist by the end and I was actually pleased with the outcome.

 I just wish I had a better middle to go with it. 3.5 stars.

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The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

First, the horribly truncated summary: The only other time when putting a tattoo on your face is a good life decision.

I don’t consider the above a spoiler because the title spoiled it for you. Now, in the Commonwealth countries, I’m led to believe that this book is called The Painted Man. Not certain if this change was publisher-based or legal-based, but I wonder which title came first.

I am surprised in the lack of tattoos in Fantasy literature. There should be more, but I’ve either failed to remember them or not come across them yet.

Any memorable fantasy tattoos out there? Post them to comments. (I now have this book and the Kushiel books)

Oh, the book. The world is a place where people fear the setting sun (*cough* Thenightisdarkandfullofterrors *cough*). Demons come out of the earth at night and feast on human flesh. The only thing keeping people safe is wards they’ve rediscovered from a long-dead past. People paint wards on posts and walls to keep their homes safe in the night. However, sometimes the wards become scuffed and marred (or are drawn imperfectly or out of alignment with the other wards) and the demons are able to move past them.

It’s a problem that strangles travel and trade. People live in fear within prisons of their own making. Only the bravest travel at night, using portable wards to keep the demons at bay.

The book has three separate protagonists: Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer, each talented in their own way. Arlen is gifted with drawing wards (if you weren’t spoiled before, you need only see his chapter headers), Leesha with herbalism/biology, and Rojer with music. Can anyone say adventuring party?

Unlike most adventuring parties (you all meet in a tavern), the protagonists don’t meet up until 74% into the book. Why so precise? Kindle. You have a lot of book to go through before you come to the action. It makes for great backstory and the characters seem real, but waiting for them to grow up is tedious. Worth it (really worth it), but tedious. You also get a few surprises in the mix as the characters deal with basic human nature, which is also refreshing.

In fact, the payoff is so awesome that I’m debating giving this book 5-stars. I think I will. I can’t lower the score on this book for slow backstory and give Kushiel’s Dart and A Game of Thrones 5-stars. I’m looking forward to checking out the next two books in this (unfinished) series.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

First, the horribly truncated summary: Modern-day wizard figures out that a scorpion does not belong in the desk drawer at work.

Seriously, do scorpions even belong in Chicago? I’ve heard that they like it out here in the Mojave Desert, but we are a far cry from Chicago. Needless to say, they do not belong in a work office. Scorpion = wasp + spider + crab. Their poison requires immediate medical attention. One does not mistake them for pencils or a hairbrush.

Oh, it wasn’t alive when he put it in there, you say? You can never trust a dead scorpion. Those things will live past doomsday, feasting on the ever-breeding roaches that call the desert home.

I’m getting away from myself. Harry Dresden is our protagonist who works as a wizard in modern-day Chicago. It’s the epitome of paranormal + crime noir, which is a pretty good combination to have (better than teen romance + paranormal, which is now the thing). In true Noir fashion, he gets two cases that have nothing to do with each other on the same day. The first case is a missing person case, the second is a double homicide where the hearts of the victims leapt out of their chest mid-coitus.

According to the CSI shows I’ve seen, death and sex are often less than fifteen minutes apart, so this is probably common for them. Their hearts shooting like a rocket from the chest cavity, not as much.

Which does Dresden investigate first? Missing person case. Why? Paying customer. Can’t say I blame him, since he lives with a cat on the edge of freelance destitution.

This is a fun, albeit predictable, read. I really do like the idea of a modern-day wizard working with the police to solve the weirder crimes of Chicago. It took me a while to get to this review because of the problems I had with it (besides predictability). First, the writing style was utterly unnerving. It’s akin to cracking a joke to the audience right before each commercial break. I’ve read that Butcher gets better with his style as the series goes on, so I might try for future books. Just not right away.

Also, when one duplicates noir in the modern era, one requires a deft hand. The idea that technology goes haywire whenever Dresden is nearby is a clever means of limitation, but it feels like Butcher is clinging to noir stereotypes for his characters. I saw the misogyny label thrown around by some and, while I won’t fully agree, I can see where it comes from.

Lastly, Dresden’s backstory is alluded to, but never finished. Many things are treated that way, like the Wizard’s White Counsel, the Underworld, and several elements that would have given the book much more depth than the joking one-liners. Perhaps it goes away as the writing improves and the characters have more history to build upon, but I won’t continue this series on that hope.

Three stars. Quick, fun, predictable plot with some surprises (fairies like pizza, who knew?).