This Week, I Read… (2021 #33)

#92 – The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

  • Mount TBR: 74/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

While I’ve read a fair bit of Lovecraft, I don’t believe I’ve read the exact story this is based on/rebuttal to. If I have, it must have been long ago, because I don’t remember it clearly enough that the story synopsis sounded familiar.

With that in mind, I was reading this more as a generalized rebuttal to Lovecraft’s rampant, vitriolic, baked-in racism, and I feel the story is quite successful at using the broader mythos without buying into the deeply problematic meanings behind much of it.

As a complete work on its own…it was choppy, and I never felt like I “got” Malone as a POV character with the same depth as Tom, who I liked as a just-getting-by con man, and loved to be terrified by after he’d made the switch to evil. But Malone’s story perspective felt weaker, even as I realized it was a necessary shift.

The ending felt too fast and neat for me, but I remember that being true at the end of several Lovecraft stories as well, like “there was the cosmic horror but it’s over now, so let’s just dust up real quick like nothing happened.” So this criticism may be more reflective of the author echoing the source material, and not a new flaw.

I’m glad I read it, and I continue to be glad that creators are spinning Lovecraftian nightmares of their own, divorced from the original author’s intent, because I dig the vibe. But I think I might have subconsciously been expecting something a little bit more amazing than what I got.

#93 – The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole

  • Mount TBR: 75/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Barely worth two stars, but there was just enough that I liked to save it from the worst rating.

What works: I loved Twitch, and Clodio’s “intro to wizardry” chapter in the woods. I was both impressed and surprised by the inversion of a classic trope midway through the story, though I wish it was in a better setting with better characters so I actually cared about its results. And even if I didn’t like the plot that got us there, I actually do sort of like the ending–Heloise displays a radical level of acceptance of her new situation that may not have been earned by her development up to that point, but definitely makes her a different brand of “hero” than your more standard teenage-girl fantasy protagonists.

What didn’t work: the writing style is repetitive and so devoid of subtlety I felt like I was being talked down to by the author. “Hey, did you get it? Did you see what I did there? Let me say it again in a slightly different way (or not) three pages later to make sure you didn’t miss my Big Message.” Heloise is a terrible protagonist, because she is the cause of literally every problem in the book that’s smaller than world-building level stuff. She isn’t believable as a sixteen-year-old almost-woman, no matter how many times the narrative claims she’s nearly an adult; she acts like a toddler by never doing as she’s told and constantly running away, literally, from the messes she’s created. Especially in a fairly standard low-tech fantasy village setting, sixteen year old girls really should be “almost adults” with the level of working responsibility that puts them nearly at running their own households–even more so, given that this is also a fairly standard patriarchy, so a woman’s place is in the home.

But Heloise rejects that in an extremely standard “I’m not like other girls” way, she wants to have adventures, or at the very least work outside the home, though I’m not convinced she really wants that because she doesn’t actually seem to help out at all with her father’s trade, as we see her friend Basina doing.

Moving on to other less than ideal stuff: I see many reviewers lauding the queer rep here, but I’m not one of them. There are two canonically queer characters and one Confused Love Interest; only one of these three characters survives, so Bury Your Gays is rearing its head here, even if this is supposed to be good, allowable rep that doesn’t have to skirt outdated content standards.

And back to the writing style, the action scenes are just awful. Which is especially bad because the entire climax is one long, improbable, unearned gauntlet of supposedly heroic action. I simply do not believe that Heloise, our whiny baby of a heroine, is going to endure the apparently agonizing pain of her injuries and manage to actually fight a demon under any circumstances. Her injuries as described are so severe that I genuinely think most people would just pass out, at least once any initial surge of adrenaline wore off. But the fight sequence takes ages and constantly repeats how much pain she’s in, which parts of her body are no longer remotely functional, and how she’s digging for determination to manage it. What determination? What reserves of mental and emotional strength have we ever seen this overgrown three-year-old display prior to this? And now you suddenly want me to believe she’s an action hero?

Whatever promise this story idea holds as a fantasy world, it suffers for lack of good execution, because basically every moving part of this machine has been mishandled.

#94 – Opal, by Maggie Stiefvater

  • Mount TBR: 76/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

As it’s been several years since I read The Raven King, I’ve forgotten at least some of the details that would have made this make more sense to me than it did. But since this is just a brief interlude between the end of that series and the beginning of the new one, and it’s told from Opal’s perspective, it’s also okay that it didn’t entirely make sense, because she’s a goat-dream-girl-thing and she pointedly doesn’t understand a lot of things about the “real” world.

I found that alien perspective, combined with the ethereal nature of Stiefvater’s prose, enchanting. It also helps that Adam is my favorite character in the series, with Ronan being a close second–as the books moved farther along, my interest in Gansey and Blue waned as the Pynch ship picked up speed.

For what it is, a little teaser, it’s good. I maybe wish it was a little less deliberately obscure about a few things, but I understand (or at least assume I understand) the reasoning behind leaving some of the important stuff vague.

I can’t decide, though, if visiting this tiny addition to the Raven Cycle world makes me want to jump right along to Call Down the Hawk, or revisit the original series, because it has been a while since I read them, and I haven’t read any of them more than once. Which is a shame, really.

#95 – Prince in Leather, by Holley Trent

  • Mount TBR: 77/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is one of those reads that was so disjointed, I hardly know where to start unpicking the tangle of my thoughts about it. So let me try a point-by-point list format.

World-building: Sucks. Even if we set aside the weird grafting of pseudo-Irish fae onto a biker gang (hey, genre-mixing is fun sometimes, I applaud the creativity if not the end result) there’s a slapdash quality to everything, curses and goddesses and fairy mythos piled together without anything resembling a plan. I admit my paranormal fantasy reading is limited to one big-name author and several lesser-known indies, so pardon my comparison to the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews: but this story is like the first KD book, only with even less explanation for anything. (I loved the whole series ultimately but I did feel the world-building in the first two novels could have been clearer.)

Characters: Too many and too shallow. And I mean waaaaay too many. There’s the main couple, fine, but they’ve also got a third wheel grafted onto them, sort of. And that third wheel has two fated mates, apparently, and part of the story involves them, and also like six other characters surrounding them. And there’s twelve members of the gang total, which isn’t unreasonable in theory, but taking a whole chapter to randomly assign two more of them their mates from among the heroine’s incredibly tiny circle of friends felt excessive and clunky. And there’s a subplot about figuring out the heroine’s fae lineage, which introduces several of her family members, and the first one we meet (her grandpa) is kind of entertaining and probably justified his place in the story, but everyone else shows up for ten seconds and acts like they own the place (story.) But I know nothing about these people! Why are they important?

Plot: what plot? No, seriously, what happens? There is no overarching story line beyond the romance, it’s just a bunch of hooligans freeing the heroine from her curse (sort of) before the end of the first act, when I was under the impression that was a serious obstacle in her life, and then they just spend the rest of the book gallivanting around picking off minor bad guys and getting a tiny bit roughed up by Queen Bitch’s guards. Which I guess was supposed to be the main plot, that the romance is putting the heroine in danger from her lover’s mom? Only it never felt imminent enough to make it an actual threat, and so much else was going on that had nothing to do with it. Or nothing to do with anything, as far as I can tell.

Romance: blarg. Fated mates is not my favorite trope, but this wasn’t even trying to pretend the protagonists had any chemistry, or reason to be together beyond “he says so,” or even the slightest bit of sexual tension. The hero is just a gross man-child who steamrolls the heroine in nearly every way possible, including making his second-in-command a part of their sexual proceedings, not explicitly against her will, but definitely with a lot of coaxing to get her comfortable with the idea. I’m not at all against kink in general or threesomes in particular, but all of this felt like it was entirely out of left field, and not justified in any way by their personalities (what little they have) or any sort of thematic necessity.

When I got to the end matter and found out this book is the first in its duology, but not the first in the story universe, the shoddy world-building and vague feeling that I’d somehow been dropped in the middle of something unfamiliar became more understandable. But either it should be able to stand on its own anyway, or there should be some sort of indication in the front matter that this isn’t the beginning of the story, and I should not start here.

#96 – A Thief in the Nude, by Olivia Waite

  • Mount TBR: 78/100
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Wow. I just love finding nuggets of gold unexpectedly from old freebie bundles, I had no idea I was sitting on a novella this charming!

I love so much about this–the artsy-craftsy vibes of both leads, the descriptive language, the palpable chemistry, the subversion of so many tropes I couldn’t begin to list them all, the unconventional happy ending. Just about the only thing I would have liked more if done differently was the pacing–this is a novella, it was a whirlwind sort of romance that jumped to “I love you” after very few days of story time–but even that has its charm, because it comes naturally from the intensity of this secret fling and the extra layer of muse/painter to their relationship.

This author was actually on my TBR already for a much more recent novel, but I’m glad to see an older work so good, it gives me hope that they’re all going to be worth reading–the bundle included the other book in this series, I’m going to read that next.

#97 – At His Countess’ Pleasure, by Olivia Waite

  • Mount TBR: 79/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Not as good as its predecessor, mostly because it felt unbalanced as a story. The beginning started off with a not-love-match marriage gradually turning passionate, which was great, I was hooked. But then partway through the subject matter turned extraordinarily heavy as the heroine dealt with infertility issues. (Which, to be fair, their was a content warning about for those who wish to avoid it.) I have no problems reading about it, but I was disappointed by how that’s the only thing the story became about, and everything else bent to make infertility the main plot line–which sacrificed the more dynamic and lighthearted “married first, falling in love second” story that it seemed we were promised in the beginning.

I think there would have been room for both of these plot if this had been a full novella rather than a novella, and if the second half of the story had given the hero more to do than show up for a sex scene but be almost entirely absent otherwise.

And the epilogue…honestly, it felt trite, because this is by no means the first story where the infertile heroine contrives some way to fill her life with “replacement” children, and this result for this story felt like it hadn’t been foreshadowed properly–again, a lack of space in such a short narrative, I’m assuming.

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