Grac's Never-ending TBR Pile of Doom

Grac's Never-ending TBR Pile of Doom

Mostly science fiction and fantasy, though the odd non-fiction book will crop up now and then...

Review
3 Stars
Beneath the Rising - Premee Mohamed
Beneath the Rising - Premee Mohamed

I'm not sure quite what I was expecting from Beneath the Rising but it wasn't what I got, which was a creepy coming of age story that soon morphed into something about the implications of making deals when you don't have all the information.

 

It's the story of two teenagers, Nick and Johnny, bound together as children by being the lone survivors of a mass shooting and whose relationship from then onwards is completely tangled up with their lives. Nick is struggling to get by, as is his whole family, while Johnny is a child prodigy and responsible for a wide variety of inventions that have effectively helped to change the world. When her latest invention seems to rip apart the barrier between this world and another, Nick ends up on the run with her across a number of countries, in search of a way to close the rift that has opened. 

 

As a plot, the whole concept works well, especially as Nick discovers during their journey together that there's way more going on than he's aware of. He's always thought of Johnny as being brilliant, only to discover that she had made a metaphorical deal with the devil to get that brilliance and is paying for it with her life. While he's in love with Johnny, she doesn't seem to even like him very much, even though again we discover there's much more (from her perspective, at least) to their relationship than that. 

 

Beneath the Rising kept my interest all the way through, though I'm not sure if it really worked for me as a whole - the ending certainly didn't really resolve anything and I'm not sure if it convinced me. I suppose part of the problem was empathising with the two main characters, with both of them being quite self-absorbed even when the world wasn't in jeopardy. So this is probably another one of those books where I'll keep an eye out for more from this author but won't bother re-reading. 

 

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me a copy of this book free in exchange for an honest review. 

Review
5 Stars
City of Lies - Sam Hawke
City of Lies - Sam Hawke

Here it is, my first five star review of 2020! Yes, City of Lies did everything I wanted from a book with only a couple of minor quibbles and I can't wait for the sequel, which is due later this year. 

 

I'm sure we've all read plenty of books where our protagonist is an assassin (I know I have) and that includes the use of poisons as well - here, one of our main characters has the job of making sure the ruling Chancellor of a city does not get poisoned. This involves not just tasting (or preparing) all his food but also building up immunity to certain poisons and being able to detect them by taste. This has been a hereditary responsibility, one which should have gone to Kalini as the older child but her ongoing health issues meant that instead it was her younger brother Jovan who ended up trained for this role.

 

The overall story is told from these siblings' perspective, with both of them having issues that they need to overcome in order to push the storyline onwards. As we first encounter them, they discover that the current Chancellor and their uncle have both been poisoned, forcing them into a responsibility they expected to have years to prepare for, along with the Chancellor's slightly wayward nephew Tain.

 

Alongside this, the city finds itself under siege from an army of its own people, as their dream of a perfect society crashes against the reality of how people live outside the city itself. There's both social and religious divides involved, all of which the ruling elite have chosen to overlook till forced to do otherwise. In the end, all our main characters have to step up and accept their responsibility, using the skills they have acquired and the strengths of their own character to make a difference. There's also the added factor at the end of the book that the much-maligned earthers' belief in spirits was justified and seems likely to have an even bigger impact later down the line. 

 

If I had one quibble about City of Lies, other than the fact that the follow-up book (Hollow Empire) isn't available immediately, it would be that for a supposedly matriarchal society, there's a lot of pairing off on a heteronormative basis. There's a degree of comments about the 'special' relationship between Chancellor and proofer but at the end everyone just turns out straight after all. I'm not complaining too much because Jovan ends up in a healthier relationship and Tain still seems like a bit of a dick, but it could have definitely gone in a different direction without any complaints from me!

Review
3 Stars
The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern
The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern

I feel I should probably start by saying that I haven't read the previous book by this author (<I>The Night Circus</i>) for no particular reason despite its popularity - it just never made it onto my TBR pile. So this is my first experience of this author's writing, characterisation and world-building and that will probably have an effect on my views of it as a book.

 

This is very much a book about books, one where there are secret worlds fought over by different factions who protect or destroy books that are dangerous. Our protagonist once found a door which he could have used to enter these realms and would have been recruited then but chose not to do so. We meet him again when he comes across a mysterious book in the university library that nobody else seems to know about and discovers one of the stories is about him. This leads him on a quest to discover the truth about his own past experience and also what he could have done if he'd only had the courage to embrace his opportunity at the time.

 

There's plenty going on in this story, most of it described in adjective-heavy detail, and that's both this book's virtue and its curse. If you like that sort of writing, this will probably be a book you'll enjoy, while others will struggle with it because it's just so very wordy in parts. The writing also distracts from the thinness of the characterisation, especially as there are two romantic sub-plots and one of them just <I>happens</i> with no forewarning. It's not massively convincing at all to me that our protagonist will suddenly be in instalove with someone he's met once (and vice versa, though we discover there's been a degree of stalking on the part of the other member of this pairing).

 

In the end, this book just ends up being another one of those I'm happy to have read but it doesn't make me want to chase up her previous book or desperate to read anything else she's written. There are plenty of other writers doing much stronger work out there at the moment and I'm pretty busy with them and their works...

Review
3 Stars
The Resurrectionist of Caligo - Wendy Trimboli & Alicia Zaloga
The Resurrectionist of Caligo - Alicia Zaloga, Wendy Trimboli

The last of my books for 2019, The Resurrectionist of Caligo falls firmly into the category of books I am glad to have got from the library, since I would be really annoyed if I'd spent actual cash money on this. It's not bad, just very clearly a first novel where the writers haven't quite figured out what they want to do, not to mention falling into some horrible tropes that really grind my gears when I keep coming across them.

 

So, to begin with, the plot - it's essentially a two-hander with our protagonists being respectively Roger, the eponymous resurrectionist making a living from selling corpses for dissection and hampered by his past from making any progress in his would-be career as a doctor, and Sibylla, princess who when we first meet her is living in isolation because she is objecting to her marriage to one of her numerous awful cousins. Their stories are set in a world where there is genetically-related magic and the royal family are subsequently worshipped as gods because of it (which doesn't make a great deal of sense to me but I rolled with it). Roger and Sibylla were involved with one another when teenagers, as he worked in the palace at the time, but fell out after she saw him kissing someone else. 

 

Alongside their personal traumas, there's a storyline involving serial murder of women and this is where things get tricky for Roger - already convicted of graverobbing, he's a prime candidate for a frame job as the murderer and his life is only saved by him unwillingly entering into a weird blood-pact with Sibylla. She will essentially enslave him by making him drink her blood (yes, I know...) while at the same time dealing with the appearance of a rival for her hand in the shape of the emperor of a distant country. This whole scenario is underpinned by heavy handed feelings between Sibylla and Roger, which really didn't convince me in the slightest. 

 

To be honest, The Resurrectionist of Caligo would have benefitted from an editor who could have stopped the writers from using dialect for Roger's speech (I don't think I've seen many books where this works well) and by also getting rid of the whole teenage romance plotline. The best characterisation in the book belongs not to the main characters, who are by turns annoying or bland, but to Roger's pre-pubescent sidekick Ada. All in all, not the worst thing I've ever read but it could have been so much better!

Review
4 Stars
The Future of Another Timeline - Annalee Newitz
The Future of Another Timeline - Annalee Newitz

Two time travel books in one week, that has to be a record! Normally I try to avoid reading books with similar themes at the the same time, as they tend to compare unfavourably with one another, but somehow it just happened this time around.

 

The Future of Another Timeline is a more straightforward time travel book than the previous one I reviewed, if you'll pardon the description. It's all about a world where time travel is normal, due to the existence of various Machines which have always been present in different parts of the world - using these, it's possible to travel into the past and back again, and the book itself is partly set in two different times, the 1990s and 1890s.

 

In the former, our protagonist Beth is struggling with living in an abusive family while also discovering that her best friend Lizzy is a bit of a psychopath. After becoming involved in the death of Lizzy's rapist, Beth keeps getting herself in difficult situations where her friend is involved, only to be visited by someone called Tess who says she is Beth's older self using the Machine to travel back and give her advice. 

 

Meanwhile, another part of the book is about people's efforts to edit the timeline. The majority of this storyline is set in Chicago at the 1893 World's Fair, where another of our protagonists is studying the battle for that city's morals and the impact of it on the rights of women through the subsequent decades. Attempts are being made to alter the timeline so that women never get the vote and abortion remains illegal, right through to the present day. There's also a significant role played by another character who has come from an even more oppressive future, who has to learn to embrace freedoms to do simple things that she has never experienced before.

 

This is another of those books that I'm glad I read but can't see myself re-reading. It's not particularly graphic but the body count is fairly high and I especially have a thing about eye trauma, which nearly led me to nope my way out of the book quite early on. The amount of research done to set up the whole thing is clear from the outset, as the settings feel realistic, but without a heavy-handed approach to demonstrate the time it must have taken to gather all the information required. Many authors could learn a lot from the fine balance taken here, as well as the ways in which the story moves, even if the end is not quite the end and left a little uncertain. 

Review
3 Stars
This is How You Lose the Time War - Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
This Is How You Lose the Time War - Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone

I can't say I'm massively surprised to discover that this novella, which a lot of people I know have raved about, is another of those books which just didn't quite work for me. I suspect that This is How You Lose the Time War stands a reasonable chance of picking up next year's Hugo but it left me cold - this happens more often than you'd think!

 

Anyway, the main plot is about time travel, two different authorities sending agents into the timeline to mess with things in the hope that they'll come out on top. Two particular agents, referred to as Red and Blue all the way through the novella, start a correspondence alongside their efforts to mess with each other's plans and end up falling in love. That's a very bare bones recital of a much more twisty plotline that really can't be explained without spoiling the whole thing. 

 

In the end, I think for me the problem I had was that I liked the time travel aspect but really couldn't care less about the romance storyline, and then the whole thing was told in language that was at points intentionally opaque. If I wanted verbiage I needed to untangle, I'd stick to literary fiction, so I'm really not the audience for this novella. Best of luck to both authors, whose individual works I've really enjoyed, but this book just makes me have to work way too hard and I'm not here for that. 

Review
5 Stars
A Conspiracy of Truths - Alexandra Rowland
A Conspiracy of Truths - Alexandra Rowland

This is one of those books I've been wanting to read for ages but have been looking at how expensive the paperback was, shaking my head and walking away for months. Until finally, it dropped in price and I snapped it up. I knew just from the blurb it would be a book for me and my reading it has proved that correct, even if it took me forever to finish it - that was more about me and where my brain is at than the book itself. 

 

Anyway, on to A Conspiracy of Truths. I absolutely loved this book and maybe that's part of the reason why I didn't rush through it, that I was chewing it over as I read it? It's definitely not quite like anything else I've read, as far as I can recall. It's told in first person, which is usually not my favourite thing, but there would be absolutely no other way to make this story work. Our protagonist is Chant, one of many who do that job and take on that as their name, leaving their true name behind. His job is stories, listening to them, collecting them and telling them - as we first meet him, he's ended up in jail for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and things are not looking good.

 

The city-state where he's imprisoned is run by a group of leaders, all jockeying for power against one another, and Chant is passed from the hands of one to another while he's trying to figure out just how this particular society works and how he can save himself. The only things he has in his favour are his teenage apprentice, who falls in love at the drop of a hat, his advocate, who has never lost a case but doesn't really give a crap about the people she represents, and his own prodigious catalogue of stories. It's those stories Chant uses to manipulate the people who hold him captive, to essentially cause a civil war in the hope he can use it to escape. 

 

We know, as we're going along, that Chant is recounting all of this as past events and thus he's been successful in his plans, but it's still intriguing enough to keep the reader travelling with him. Chant himself is unscrupulous, playing on the personalities of those around him like an expert, but is also as unflinching about his own flaws as he is about theirs. I get the feeling this is going to be one of those books I'll get more from on the re-read, as I also wait for a paperback copy of the sequel, A Choir of Lies (written by the teenage apprentice, no less), to fall into my price range or turn up unexpectedly in my local library. 

Review
4 Stars
The Blue Salt Road - Joanne M. Harris
The Blue Salt Road - Joanne M Harris

Another library book review, this time of The Blue Salt Road, which I have to lead with praise around the overall design of the hardback - both back and front covers have some stunning embossed silver design work and the interior also has some lovely artwork throughout. So even if the story wasn't all that great (and that isn't the case), it looks beautiful.

 

 

This book reads like a fairytale, with language to match - it's about the selkies who live near an island populated by people who live from killing whales and seals, but where our main character is also fascinated by them. Leaving his skin behind, our selkie hero starts a relationship with one of the humans, not realising that her family has all sorts of legacies when it comes to the selkie people. When she manages to get hold of his skin, he essentially becomes her slave and is forced to go into the family business - hunting the local sea-life with his new father in law. 

 

As someone who loves cetaceans very much, there's a whole series of scenes I found hard to deal with and had to push through to the rest of the book. In the end and following an act of revolt that's long in coming, the whole horrifying scenario comes to light, of a family which has lived a lie for many generations. To be honest, I can only recall hearing this story told before from the perspective of the female selkie and that's just as horrific as this version. This is another of those books where I'm glad I've read it  but I can't see myself wanting to re-read it any time soon. 

Review
5 Stars
Magic for Liars - Sarah Gailey
Magic For Liars - Sarah Gailey

I wasn't 100% convinced I was going to enjoy Magic for Liars but I knew that I'd liked stuff by this author before and the local library had a copy, so it was a win-win situation all round. Of course, unlike their previous novellas, this book doesn't contain people riding domesticated hippos (check out River of Teeth if you don't believe me) but it does address an often missed point of view from fantasy books: what do you do if you're not the magical one?

 

The basic premise of Magic for Liars is that our protagonist, Ivy, is the non-magical one of twins and this knowledge has blighted her life, impacting on her relationship with everyone in the family. The final nail in the coffin of her relationship with Tabitha, now working as a teacher in a magical school, was when their mother was diagnosed with cancer and Tabitha refused to even come home to visit.

 

Ivy is now working as a PI, making a living following scumbags who cheat on their partners, so she's more than a little surprised to be approached by the head of said school to investigate a murder. While trying to figure out who killed the school guidance counsellor in an extremely-magical manner, Ivy daydreams about what her life would have been like if she had possessed the same abilities as Tabitha. The majority of the people she meets don't know she doesn't, her sister excluded, and Ivy makes all sorts of bad choices as a result of riding that daydream as far as it will take her.

 

She also discovers, to no-one's surprise, that she's not the only one lying about who she is and what she can do. There's even a convenient Prophecy with a capital P in the mix, a Chosen One waiting in the wings to be revealed. I've tagged this as urban fantasy, though it's not the usual kind with vampires or werewolves, since it's more a situation where magic is just a part of some people's day to day lives, with all that entails. With limits too, ones that Ivy tries to understand even as she envies the very real power that magic gives the people she meets.

 

I really enjoyed Magic for Liars and am looking forward to this author's next book too - Upright Women Wanted, which is all about a post-apocalyptic delivery service.

Review
4 Stars
Borne - Jeff VanderMeer
Borne: A Novel - Jeff VanderMeer

I picked up Borne completely by chance at the local library, not being completely sure what I was getting myself into - the only other book I'd read from this author was Annihilation, which I enjoyed (though I preferred the movie, if I'm being honest). 

 

This is post-apocalyptic stuff, set in a world where biotechnology has gone unchecked and the remaining survivors are menaced by the creatures it's created. Most powerful among them is a giant bear called Mord, which used to be a man before biotech got involved with him, and who menaces the landscape as well as having followers of his own. Our protagonist is Rachel, a scavenger who finds another biotech creature (the eponymous Borne) and brings it into the world she shares with fellow-survivor Wick. 

 

From then on, Rachel and Wick have a love-hate relationship with Borne as it grows and learns, with Wick in particular wanting to dissect and experiment on Borne. As Borne learns and begins to communicate, the question becomes whether Borne is a creature or a weapon - it can, in the end, be both. Rachel and Wick find themselves running for their lives as Borne continues to change and other threats to their tenuous survival ebb and flow. 

 

I wasn't completely expecting to stick with this novel but it kept me carried along, bleak as the world the author describes turns out to be. There are also secrets along the way, things Rachel doesn't know about herself or her companion, but in the end it's actually quite a hopeful story. There seems to be another book coming out soon (Dead Astronauts) that's set in the same world but it's not immediately clear to me from the blurb if it's a sequel, a prequel or just shares the same universe. Not sure I'll buy it, but I might check it out if the library can oblige...

Review
3 Stars
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City - K.J. Parker
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City - K.J. Parker

I've read some of this author's books before and happened across this one at the library while I was browsing - to be honest, I was attracted as much by the fact that it was a standalone novel as the plot itself.

 

The basic premise: our protagonist, Orhan, is an engineer who is now in charge of a regiment for an empire which is mostly made up of people who don't look like him. He was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, learning a trade during that time which he has subsequently capitalised on to acquire a relatively good life but is constantly reminded that he's an outsider. This book is about how he gets called upon to help defend the capital city against raiders who have decimated the empire's army and are about to roll over the capital as well. 

 

As you'd expect if you've read a K.J. Parker book before, there's plenty of detail around how exactly Orhan does this and the various schemes he comes up with. He's a bit of an unreliable narrator, even when we're inside his head, saying one thing and then often doing something that counteracts that statement. It's an interesting enough book, with a couple of twists along the way - the identity of the military leader Orhan is up against, for example, and what that means for him personally - but it didn't quite grab me. 

 

There were a couple of reasons why, I think, and they're all to do with identity. First off, one of the problems with being inside someone's head is that you don't necessarily get a real look at the characterisation of others within the story, as they're all skewed by your perspective. This is particularly true of the female characters in this book, both of them. Yes, in a cast of lots there are literally two women who actually do something and the exact nature of Orhan's relationship with one of them is meant to be one of the plot twists. 

 

Secondly, the heavy handed way the author approaches the racial differences between Orhan and the majority of the population around him. An experienced author like Parker should surely have been able to come up with subtler ways of expressing this, even in Orhan's own head, than he does. It just felt very laboured and obvious, which bounced me out of the plot at times. 

 

So, all in all not the worst thing I've ever read but glad I picked it up from the library as I won't want to read it again. 

Review
3 Stars
The Mutual Admiration Society - Mo Moulton
The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women - Mo Moulton

I don't read a great deal of non-fiction, but every so often I need some as a bit of a palate cleanser between books - usually I turn to something historical at this kind of time, then this caught my eye because of its subtitle. I've been a massive Dorothy L Sayers fan for many year and didn't really know much about her other than the Wimsey books, so it seemed like a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

 

DLS, as she is called all the way through The Mutual Admiration Society, is the most well-known of the group of women who this book is about but also possibly the most difficult to understand. These are women who first met at Somerville College in Oxford, arriving there at a time when the university was grudgingly accepting women as students (with many criteria for how they should then behave) but not to the point of actually giving them a degree at the end of their studies. Being self-selecting, these are predominantly middle class women who have the luxury of pursuing their interests even though very few options will be available at the end of their studies: pretty much the choice is teaching or marriage and most of them go through both at some point in their lives. 

 

The book does the best it can with the difficulties posed by people's desire not to have their private lives talked about after their death, as at least one member of the MAS requested that her private papers be burned. At least one was engaged in a same-sex relationship and there was also some polyamory going on too, though the book rightly states that sticking current labels on previous generations' behaviour is always tricky and problematic.

 

In the end, I think it was still DLS who remained the focus of the book for me. I had little idea of the influence of her life on the characters she wrote, so to some extent that was interesting to see. I remain unconvinced of the accuracy of the subtitle of this book: the only one of their number who possibly had the effect suggested on others was heavily involved in public health matters, especially about women and birth control. Beyond that, did the others actually affect women's everyday life to the extent this subtitle suggests?

 

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review
2 Stars
The Glass Magician - Caroline Stevermer
The Glass Magician - Caroline Stevermer

This is one of those books where the basic premise is interesting but the way in which it's developed fails to bear it out - in short, it's just a clunky, talk-heavy bit of a mess. 

 

The Glass Magician is set in turn of the century New York for the most part, but a New York where there are 3 distinct groups of people - Solitaires, Traders and Sylvestri. Traders are the most financially powerful of the three, as well as being able to change (or Trade) between human and animal forms at will. They look down on the Solitaires for not having that ability, even though they seem to make up the majority of the population. Meanwhile the Sylvestri are the (less-defined) outsiders, a mixture of Native Americans and everyone else not accepted by polite society but with control over the West of the country.

 

Our protagonist, Thalia, is a stage magician whose parents both died, leaving her in the care of their friend who works as Thalia's manager. They make a reasonable living, travelling from city to city, and the part of the story which actually revolved around them doing this was the most interesting part of the book. During an act on stage, Thalia almost dies and is convinced that she partly Traded in order to save her own life, though her friend is sceptical. Unfortunately, it also causes a massive 'as you know Bob' style conversation between them that acts as an info-dump to set up the world building that had me almost giving up entirely.

 

Shortly after their arrival in New York, circumstances force Thalia to stop performing on stage and financial needs mean she agrees to take on the tutoring of a young Trader woman in the art of stage magic. This puts her into close proximity with said woman's brother, who's doubtless being lined up as a love interest in future books, but the time she spends in their house (as a visitor and then later, when her True History is revealed, as a guest) is pretty dull in the most part. There's a sub-plot around the murder of their main rival which is much more interesting but gets sucked into the overall one-note of the book. 

 

There's a lot of talking and a lot of explaining, some of which necessary world-building could surely have been done in some other way? It's ironic that a book ostensibly about a stage magician could have spent so much time with that character not being that. Those were the best bits, shame about the rest of the book. 

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Review
3 Stars
The Mermaid's Sister - Carrie Anne Noble
The Mermaid's Sister - Carrie Anne Noble

I guess we can file this one under 'so much promise, so little done with it' in a lot of ways - a nicely-written story, with a good use of language in keeping with the tone but hampered by a lot of plot ideas and an insistence on tying up the romance sub-plot with a big bow.

 

The basic premise of The Mermaid's Sister is that it's set in a kind of pseudo-turn of the century USA, completely with travelling shows - our protagonist, Clara, is 16 and one of the three adopted children who live (at least some of the time) with their Auntie. Her adoptive brother, O'Neill, gets to go out and explore the world while she and her sister Maren stay home (and that was my first annoyance, Boys Explore While Girls Stay Home). As we first encounter them, Maren is starting to change - she's turning into the eponymous mermaid, though no explanation is ever given as to why she's been left in the care of someone, a long way from the sea. 

 

As it begins to become clear that this process is irreversible, Clara and O'Neill plan to take Maren to the ocean. There O'Neill plans to try and bargain for Maren to be changed back, as there's a bit of an icky sub-plot here - these three, who have been brought up ostensibly as siblings, are stuck in a bit of a love triangle. Yep, technically not illegal as they're not actually related, but still icky. At one point it looks as though things will work out and Clara will realise that what she has is not love but a crush on the only teenage boy she's ever actually spent time with (except for the odious Simon, who wants to marry Maren and to whom Bad Things Happen Offscreen later). This book would have been so much better without the love triangle nonsense.

 

In general, it felt as though the author was a bit uncomfortable with knowing how far to push the fantastical elements of the storyline. For example, we have a resident wyvern who acts as guard dog and protector, with some heavy foreshadowing about the role it will play in the death of a later antagonist. In the end, said wyvern only gets to scare the antagonist to an unspecified death, as if something more violent was too unsettling to write. See my previous comment about what happens to Maren's unwanted suitor. 

 

Likewise, there's an odd staidness about it all. Any possible tension of a romantic sub-plot between Auntie and O'Neill's guardian is waved away by the discovery of a marriage that was cursed so they can't live together. Our protagonists fall for one another and the first thing they do is set out to find someone to marry them - heaven forbid they should actually do anything before being married! 

 

 

In all then, The Mermaid's Sister could have been so much better. Ditch the romantic sub-plot (or let Clara realise that what she has is a crush, not True Love, then grow up a bit) and it would have been so much better. But that would have meant Maren became the centre of the story, while I suspect instead there was a degree of projection into the character of Clara going on from the author. 

Review
4 Stars
The Impossible Contract - K.A. Doore
The Impossible Contract - K.A. Doore

I picked up The Impossible Contract shortly after reading and enjoying the previous book set in this universe, The Perfect Assassin - I suppose it was a little too much to expect lightning to strike twice as, while I enjoyed this book in the most part, it didn't quite work for me as well.

 

We start this book a few years after the events of the previous one - the protagonist of that book, Amastan, is mingling with guests at a party having been given the order to assassinate one of them. His partner in this is Thana, who we met as a supporting character in The Perfect Assassin, working undercover in the household of their mark for months in order to get things in motion. Their plot goes wrong, forcing them to improvise later and for Thana to take a life for the first time on her own. Remember we're dealing with societally-mandated assassinations here, in this case for someone who's a powerful man accused of sexual assault against women who have no other recourse. 

 

Thana is then approached to take on a contract of her own, to assassinate the ambassador of the powerful Empire which has tried to overrun Ghadid in the past. She's heartened to discover that he's a powerful but ethically-challenged sorceror and enlists Amastan to help her - again, due to circumstances outside her control, things go wrong and Amastan is badly injured, forcing Thana to continue the contract alone. This will force her to leave Ghadid for the first time, travelling to the Empire's capital city and discovering that she has to make a choice between her contract and the future of her people. There's a bigger threat at play here and her mark seems to be the only person who can help her save Ghadid. 

 

As with the previous book, there's a lot to like in The Impossible Contract, not least the dilemma in which Thana finds herself. She's honour-bound to kill the man whose powers she needs to protect her people against a major threat - Heru doesn't help by being pretty callous about what he does, including killing in the name of science, so he's not exactly helping her decision making a lot of the time.

 

What didn't quite work for me was the romance sub-plot. Thana and Heru are travelling with a healer called Mo, who Thana falls into insta-love with on first meeting her and who she lies to relentlessly throughout a good chunk of the book. Heru is supposed to need Mo and her powers but to be honest, a few hours after finishing the book I can't quite remember what the logic behind it was. In exchange for not telling Mo he's a mass-murdering sorcerer with powers over the dead, Heru agrees not to blab that Thana is an assassin. The truth comes out, of course, and equally unsurprisingly Mo forgives Thana a hell of a lot faster than is probably realistic. Except that Mo is more of a plot device than a character here, being a bit two-dimensional for my tastes. 

 

Anyway, overall I enjoyed more about the book than I disliked and happily give it 4 stars. I'm not sure I care enough about Thana to read anything else in which she's the main character though, I guess I didn't really feel like I knew her at all by the end of the book.

 

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review
3 Stars
Frankenstein in Baghdad - Ahmed Saadawi
Frankenstein in Baghdad: A Novel - Ahmed Saadawi

Frankenstein in Baghdad is one of those books where I'm quite glad to say that I read it, and it managed to keep my interest all the way through, but I can't see myself either re-reading it or recommending it to anyone unless they have very specific tastes. I'd picked up a copy in the local Oxfam shop, where it was shelved under SFF but it's very clearly (for me, as a long-term SFF reader) more a literary novel than a genre one. So, if that's your cup of tea then it might work better for you than it did for me. 

 

The basic premise of the book is that it's set in Baghdad during the Iraq War, with US forces in the background of the story all the time as one man initially takes it on himself to try and get some kind of closure for the many people who have been killed by bombs. Hadi, who otherwise makes a living buying and selling secondhand furniture, does this by stitching the body parts together to make a whole person, only for that 'person' to be taken over by the wandering spirit of someone who is killed in a local car-bombing. The Whatsisname, as it's referred to for a good chunk of the book, takes on the mission of killing the people responsible for the death of its body parts, as well as waging an ongoing battle against its own disintegrating body and replacing bits as they fall off. 

 

This is all taking place alongside other stories, one of an elderly widow who comes to believe the Whatsisname is her long-lost son, returned by divine intervention from a previous war many years earlier. There's also the storyline of Mahmoud, a journalist who arrives in Baghdad fleeing the vengeance of a criminal he'd written about, only to get sucked into the schemes his boss has cooked up as Mahmoud writes about what's happening there. There are other stories too, including the use of astrology to predict terrorist acts which seems so unlikely that it's probably true. 

 

All in all, I can see why Frankenstein in Baghdad was nominated for the Booker, as it's a well-written literary work, but as a fan of genre it didn't really strike a chord with me in the same way. There was a little too much navel-gazing going on, which is literary fiction all the way as I see it.