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Jim Butcher – “Codex Alera” series, #1 – #4

18 Sep

I picked up the first book in this series by chance. I was looking for something fantasy to take with me on my vacation. I’d never heard of this series but I’d heard of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series and knew that many readers love it. So I thought “Why not?”

It was a good decision. Jim Butcher’s “Codex Alera” series looks to become one of my favorite fantasy series.

The Story

The story that connects the separate books in this series is that of an older (and weaker) getting High Lord (~ king) without an heir. A war of succession is looming and this situation causes two Lords in particular to think they should take a shot at establishing themselves as the next High Lord, preferable by not waiting for the High Lord to die of a natural cause.

That’s the background, and a boy, his uncle and aunt (they are brother and sister) are unwillingly drawn into this whole mess by the arrival of Amara, one of the High Lord’s agents who are called cursor, in their remote valley. Events are set in motion, other races, like the Marat and the Canim (I picture the Canims like this, a creature I first encountered in the PC game Baldur’s Gate) show up, and the series follows the boy and his uncle and his aunt as they have to leave their valley and struggle to do the right thing in a world that goes crazier and more dangerous with each year that passes.

All this is staged in a world with armies modeled after Roman Legions and a society that’s based partly on slavery, mostly in the south (rings any bells?). The magic in this world comes from furies, some kind of elemental beings. As people grow up, they show an affinity for certain elemental furies, usually one or maybe two, and kind of bond with one of those furies. Lords and Ladies can bond with stronger (and more) furies and the High Lord is overall the strongest fury crafter. Amara has a strong wind fury for example, and the aunt is a strong water crafter and the uncle strong in earth and flora crafting. Some crafters give names to their furies, and the kind of fury you bond with determines what you can do. A water crafter is a healer for example. A lot of things in this world rely on the ability to direct furies and a person without any furies at all is unheard of.

But one such person exists. It’s the young boy in the valley who’s fifteen at the start of the series and who’s called Tavi.

Furies of Calderon, Codex Alera #1

I actually wrote a short comment about this novel here so what follows is nothing new. This book sets the stage and introduces the characters. It’s also the book where the Marat first show up, a people similar in looks to the people who live in Alera except that they bond with animals and know nothing of fury crafting in the way the Alerans do. Plus the first hints at slavery and its problems show up.

I was really surprised by how much I liked this book. I went and bought the next in the series right away. The only “complaint” I had was that I thought the pace a bit too relentless: the characters stumble from one bad situation to a worse situation all the time.

Acedem’s Fury, Codex Alera #2

It’s about two years later. Tavi is in the capital at the Academy (think a bit Harry Potter), his uncle Bernard is heading the Garrison in the valley that’s guarding the way into Marat land, and Tavi’s aunt Isana is now a Steadholder in her own right, the only woman in that position in all Alera (a fact that makes her an important play ball in political matters).

At the start of the novel Bernard receives a warning from the Marat that an old enemy of the Marat has shown up, the Vord. The Vord come in different forms and sizes and are headed by a queen (think bees). There are spider-like creatures and there are small entities that can infiltrate another being and take over, making the infiltrated being a zombie-like creature (there are quite a few horror films based on that premise). And for some reason I picture some of the Vord creatures as looking like the aliens in the movie Alien.

So, the Vord are threatening Alera. They multiply at a rapid pace so time is of the essence, especially because fighting against them means HEAVY losses. The Marat took out one queen already but there are two queens remaining. Bernard sets out to destroy the one that hunkered down in the valley while Isana races to the capital to give warning, especially because it looks like the third queen is beelining for the capital itself.
So in Academ’s Fury, there’s the series’s ongoing political backstabbing for the position of the High Lord and there’s the thread of the Vord. Tavi, Isana and Bernard are drawn ever deeper into all this and on top of that all, the Canim come into play. They, of course, also pose a thread against the stability of the realm and mix things up.

I thought this book better written than the first in terms of pacing and characters’ development but funny enough I enjoyed the first one a tiny bit more (probably because I was so happy to have found a new fantasy series I thought I could like).

Cursor’s Fury, Codex Alera #3

Again, it’s a few years later. Tavi is send to a newly formed Legion as a cursor together with his friend Max. One of the aspirants to the High Lord’s position makes his move, Bernard is on a mission together with Amara to rally support for the High Lord so that the High Lord can win against his opponent, Isana is drawn ever more into the political intrigues, the Canim attack and Tavi finds himself in the midst of that battle.

Of course, there’s again development on the personal level, this time mostly Tavi’s as this book mostly follows him. While interesting, that actually made the pacing a bit odd, IMO. Bernard’s story line for example is mentioned in the beginning and then again near the end. It made sense because it involved lots of traveling and why recount that in between? But it made the whole a bit less well-rounded. I think that’s what “bothering” me. But nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it quite a lot.

Captain’s Fury, Codex Alera, #4

Again, lots of things going on (the war against the Canim come to a head, for example) and of course it’s again a few years later. It’s also the first book I thought there wasn’t an ethical problem mixed into the story. Before, quite a lot of what happens and the actions of the characters could be viewed as part of an ethical problem. In this book it’s much more subtle although it’s nowhere near one of the main elements in the novels before either. But still, I missed it a bit. What this novel does have is a world-changing development for at least two characters and what was white now actually now longer looks quite so white for one of the characters.

Once more, I really liked the novel and I’m looking forward to reading the next.

What I like about this series

  • The premise of the series (High Lord without an heir) implies several ethical questions which I find quite interesting and which are more or less addressed in the novels. Questions like what are you willing to do for the good of the realm, for example.
  • The series itself feels like a potpourri of history and popular culture elements. While there is nothing original about the world, the story or the characters, I really like how Butcher manages to make the well-known elements his own and turn it into something interesting and new. Well, I find the mix rather enjoyable to read.
  • I like that the different races (Aleran, Marat, Canim) have different views of things, things like honor for example, and that these views are set against each other and question and illuminate each other.
  • I like that nearly nothing is mentioned without a reason. Something you find odd can be resolved a few paragraphs later (like Isana reminiscence about her past in the middle of an action sequence). Something you think fell down by the wayside can get picked up later in the novel/series again. And then there are the little details that add up to a larger picture in the end (like the meaning of rings in a certain context, for example).
  • Last, but certainly not least, I really enjoy the way Butcher handles political intrigue and battles. I think that’s something the series is really good at.
  • Oh, and I like the things Kitai, a Marat girl, says, especially when she wonders about the differences between her people and Alerans and think the Alerans act stupid.

What kept me reading

The Codex Alera series is clearly an action-driven story. Characters do change and develop, world views are shattered and there are probably no completely black and white characters, but overall it’s the action that sets the pacing and character development. So what kept me reading when I usually prefer character-driven stories?

  • Isana’s story. I wanted to find out about her past and I hope for a good future for her
  • the ethical questions
  • I plain think that the author is good at what he does

~ * * * ~

And OMG I just realized that my copies don’t look the same even though they are by the same publisher. I’d always thought the books felt different but I’d also thought I’d imagined things (“it’s the same publisher!”). But oh, their size is different…

Me don’t like.

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Larissa Ione – “Snowbound”

15 Feb

GENRE: Romance / Contemporary
PUBLISHED: Samhain Publishing, 2007

SERIES:

WHY THIS NOVEL: I had a gift certificate for an online ebook shop, this was available for a reduced price.

Passion hot enough to melt the slopesand their hearts. Thanks to a devastating medical diagnosis, ski patroller Sean Trenton has endured two years of celibacy. Two long years that have chipped away at his confidence. Now, with the career opportunity of a lifetime on the line, he’s ready to remedy the celibacy situation, and sexy snowbunny Robyn Montgomery is just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, the last thing reliable, intense radio station manager Robyn Montgomery wants in her suddenly turbulent professional and personal life is a thrill-seeking former Olympic skier even if he is a total hottie. Shes had it with guys who hog the spotlight and leave her in the shadows. So why is it that even an icy blizzard can’t temper the combustible heat between them?

Robyn is the successful music director of a radio station in Chicago. That’s probably as far as you can get from the fat, teased and scorned teenage girl she’s been in high school in a famous ski resort where everybody expected her to never leave town and just take over her parents’ bakery. But in this story, she’s going back for a high school reunion. She intends to show them all how far she has come. For that, she’s planning to bring along a (semi) celebrity (her ex) and she’s also volunteered to organize the traditional charity auction.

Only, it doesn’t work out as planned. Her ex cancels at the last possible moment which doesn’t only mean she has to show up at the reunion alone, it also means she has no celebrity to emcee the charity auction. She’ll look like a bungling idiot again. Her best friend Karen urges her to worry less and instead take the time to enjoy herself and “find some hunky ski guys to play hide-the-mitten with.”

Sean Trenton seems to fit that bill. Instant attraction, sexy hunk, a ski patroller (no celebrity!), fun and easy to talk to – the perfect material for a fling for the time Robyn stays in her former home town. That is, until Robyn realizes who Sean exactly is: a former winner of an Olympics medal (skiing). And just like that, Sean is out of the running. Robyn doesn’t want another involvement with someone famous because when it’s over (as a fling tends to do), there’ll be constant reminders of their time together thanks to the celebrity status.

Sean is at a crossroads in his life. Two years ago, he had to leave behind his life as a very successful and famous skier because of an accident. He settled into his life as a ski patroller fairly well but he’s looking for a change to spice things up and make them more like they had been before. For that, he contemplates a career in media as a sports announcer which would give him back some of his former life, he thinks – fame and an easy access to women. Of course, for the women part to work out it would help if he could work up a real sexual interest for the first time in two years. On top of that, or possibly the reason for it, there’s also something mysterious going on which makes Sean afraid to go horizontal with women.

So Sean is on the lookout for a likely candidate to get him over his anxiety concerning bedroom activities. For that, he’s at a bar after work together with his friend Todd. Sean sees a woman who is exactly the type of woman he went for before his accident – and who looks like a “sure thing” – and nada. He sees Robyn, he takes notice and things perk up. Robyn’s very different from the type of woman he went after before but Sean isn’t about to complain or question his attraction.

And that’s only the beginning. Robyn’s and Sean’s reasons for getting involved with each other and what they want from each other change again and again as they get to know each other better. Paralleling this, they also figure out who they are and what they want for their lives. Robyn faces her past and Sean faces his future. I liked that their problems partly revolved around the same issues (like the question of fame, for example). Both Robyn and Sean deal with their problems in a slightly immature way in the beginning (Robyn wanting to show off, Sean more or less hiding from it) but this changes. I also liked that they get to know each other (translation: they talk), their attraction and chemistry, and the dialog in general.

Todd leaned back in the booth and threw an arm over the back, blocking her. “Come on. Take pity on the guy. His dry spell has lasted longer than the Sahara’s. Help him get the ball rolling again.”
If Sean could have crawled into a hole and died, he would have. The heat in his face now had nothing to do with Robyn or the fire crackling nearby.
Robyn’s lips quivered with the need to smile, and her husky voice dripped with laughter. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in rolling Sean’s balls.”
“Sean’s ball,” Todd corrected, “I said he’s trying to get his ball rolling, not balls.”
“You know,” Sean said in the lightest tone he could manage, “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this conversation about my balls.”
“Or lack of them.” Todd grinned. (ch. 2)*

If I would be asked to come up with something to complain about, the only thing that comes to mind is that it’s rather predictable in what will be the big conflict. You know the stumbling blocks on their way to their HEA the moment they’re mentioned the first time in the story. You know that it’s coming but before that you’re treated to watching two people trying to figure out what they want from each other and what they could mean to each other. You see them making a connection and building a relationship, as unlikely as that might have seemed at the beginning.

Nearly in the same vein, predictable but not really bothering, I see the reason for Sean’s reluctance to get intimate with a woman and the way Robyn’s former tormentors at school act today. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, that’s too strong a word, but maybe resigned because it wasn’t the big deal I was lead to expect based on the way he behaved (which seems to be the case rather often with romance novels). But then again, Sean’s story is about finding himself and growing, so it fits. And the way Robyn’s former high school tormentors treated her after all these years…let’s just say I have the impression that in this kind of story, romance novels are peopled with characters who don’t grow up by obligation. Or as Sean says:

“Yeah, it’s amazing,” he said and Janice and Gigi exchanged looks of mutual satisfaction. “Amazing that ten years later, you still act like you’re in high school.” (ch. 11)*

Snowbound is a nice, fun, warm and heartfelt straight contemporary romance with two likable and well-drawn protagonists who share a strong attraction and have good chemistry. I really enjoyed reading Snowbound and I would love to read more contemporaries by Ione.

Verdict: I liked it. (strong 4/5)

* the page wouldn’t tell you much because I read it as an ebook

Recent Reads

23 Dec

Pairie Moon by Maggie Osborne

Living on a rundown farm at the edge of a small Texas town, Della Ward is haunted by the bittersweet life she once lived with an adoring husband who died too soon. Once a laughing, carefree soul, Della is now a widow with only guilty memories for company. Until the day she sees a rugged stranger riding across the prairie toward her house. His presence awakens Della’s heart, but she can never imagine the ways this man will forever change her life.

Lawman James Cameron believes in settling debts and living by honor. It may have taken him ten years to arrive at Della’s door, but he’s finally here and is determined to tell her the truth about the day her husband died. But one look at the woman whose picture he has carried with him for years and he knows that the truth may destroy them both. For Cameron will have to face the past and force Della to do the same before either of them can have a future . . . or each other.

Prarie Moon is a poignant story of two lost people finding each other. It’s also a slow-paced story that follows Della and James on their way to Atlanta where Della wants to look for her daughter whom she had to leave behind when she came west several years before.

I loved the first two thirds of the novel. I loved how Della slowly fell for James, how they had time to get to know each other, and how their attraction grew stronger and stronger. And as an added bonus, James had been halfway in love with Della for years just based on a photograph he had of her. So when he realizes that Della is actually attracted to him, too, he nearly can’t believe it. Only of course, there is a big obstacle on the way to their HEA, one that seems unsurmountable. Knowing you could have what you longed for for many years and knowing if you tell the truth, it won’t happen…lots of angst.

But I only liked the last few chapters. I don’t know, I just had the impression that the story fizzled out and the way Della’s quest for her daughter ended left me feeling “huh?” I thought it more a deux-ex-machina device than really part of the story. I guess I needed more explanation there to really buy it. (4/5)

~ * * * ~

Dime Store Magic by Kelley Armstrong

Paige Winterbourne was always either too young or too rebellious to succeed her mother as leader of one of the world’s most powerful elite organizations–the American Coven of Witches. Now that she is twenty-three and her mother is dead, the Elders can no longer deny her. But even Paige’s wildest antics can’t hold a candle to those of her new charge–an orphan who is all too willing to use her budding powers for evil…and evil is all too willing to claim her. For this girl is being pursued by a dark faction of the supernatural underworld. They are a vicious group who will do anything to woo the young, malleable, and extremely powerful neophyte, including commit murder–and frame Paige for the crime. It’s an initiation into adulthood, womanhood, and the brutal side of magic that Paige will have to do everything within her power to make sure they both survive.

I’m rather sure this is my favorite novel in the Women of the Otherworld series so far. I liked the bigger world in this novel and thought the characters interesting. Paige’s life is losing track fast and most of the time, all she can do is react but there is one thing she’s determined to keep at all costs: Savannah. I thought her brave that she didn’t just roll over and gave Savannah up. Savannah seemed like a fairly typical teenager although at times she seemed to have more of a clue than Paige. And Lucas…I really liked him. A nice difference from most male characters in romance novels. And I love that Armstrong’s characters sound different from each other.

Two problems: the way the Coven is represented in this story…I just can’t see it as “the world’s most powerful elite organizations” and I don’t understand why it’s so important to Paige to be its leader expect maybe because she inherited the position from her mother. Second, the romance between Paige and Lucas – talk about undeveloped. There’s nothing and then one evening, they jump into the laundry and that’s it. I was surprised because based on what went before I actually thought there would be no romance in this story, maybe in a later novel. And it actually was not a realy problem because I don’t read this series looking for a romance but now that it was there, I was bothered by the the lack of build-up (there’s one small hint that Lucas might be interested). (4/5)

PS: I’m already halfway through Armstrong’s Industrial Magic.

TBR Challenge: “A Reason To Live” By Maureen McKade

16 Dec

tbr-challenge-2009

Info: TBR Challenge 2009

Theme for the month: not sure if there is one
In my TBR pile since: May 2007

Genre: western romance
Published: Berkley Sensation, 2006

Availability: oop

Monthly theme?: ?

Why I bought this novel: lots of other readers like this novel

How could I refuse the wish of a dying man?

May 30, 1865: During the War, I watched over too many young boys in the hospital, comforting them as they cried out for those they loved, as they whispered their final thoughts to me. Keepng a record of their names, families, and last words seemed a small tribute to their sacrifice — until the war ended, and I found a new mission in life.

I would visit the loved ones of those poor soldiers and deliver their messages so that some comfort could be found even in grief…

But Laurel Covey never expected to find a man like Creede Forrester — an ex-gunslinger who rode all the way from Texas to Virginia in the hope of finding his son and ended up saving her from a band of ruffians. It pains her deeply to tell him of his boy’s death, and she believes that in his heart, Creede blames himself for driving his son away. But there is something more to this rugged, weary man. Something that draws Laurel closer to him … something she cannot resist…

[word in bold were in italic in original]

A Reason to Live is my first novel by Maureen McKade so I don’t know if it’s typical for her. What I know is that it’s not a typical fluffy romance. A Reason to Live is aptly named. It tells the story of two people who are both not sure for what, how or why they should continue to live.

Laurel Covey is a widow and was a nurse in the Civil war. Now that the war is over, the only thing that keeps her going is her promise to deliver the last messages of soldiers to their loved ones. She’s estranged from her family because of her marriage, her husband is dead, and her sanity is slowly giving way.

Creede Forrester is an ex-gunslinger who reformed when he met his wife. But his wife is now dead for some years and his son, who signed up as a soldier in the war, seems to have died. The only thing Creede has left is his farm and he now no longer cares. He leaves to find out what happened to his son. That’s how he meets Laurel.

Laurel is an intensely caring woman. As a nurse, she was given the task to decide which wounded soldiers had the best chances to live and therefore were the first the doctors would look at. This and all the other things she saw during the war is haunting her more and more now and she fears she’s slowly but surely losing her mind. She wants to keep her promise to the dead soldiers and then she doesn’t care (and knows) what will happen. There isn’t room for something or someone else.

This is why she isn’t happy about Creede’s insistence to accompany her on her journey. But accompany her he does and slowly he falls in love with her. And Laurel, despite her best intentions to keep others out and her fear of her growing insanity, starts to care for Creede, too.

I liked the slow development of the love story. Both Laurel and Creede are people deeply scarred by their experiences. They are both different now from what they were like when they were twenty. But it’s this difference that gives them a chance to fall in love with each other.

Although handsome, Creede was someone she wouldn’t have looked at twice five years ago, but after everything she’d gone through, she’d learned to see beyond a man’s appearance. And she’d come to respect and appreciate Creede’s kindness and integrity. (168)

By the way, isn’t it nice that the heroine isn’t so blown away by her attraction to the hero’s appearance that she can’t think straight? Equally nice I thought the fact that they could sleep beside each other without giving in to their attraction all the time.

So yes, I liked the love story and thought it convincing. But I also thought it suffered a bit under the frame of the story. The frame of a journey was fitting for Laurel’s (and Creede’s) character development but it also made the different stops of the journey appear more episodic in that each stop showed a different facet of how the war had ravaged the land and its people. Laurel and Creede meet ex-slaves, ex-soldiers, women who lost their husbands and had to fight for themselves, and so on. Each encounter added something new to Laurel and Creede’s character development but still, it also seemed slightly too episodic and educational in a “let’s mention/show/check off this” kind of way to me.

But as much as I thought the portrayal of a war’s impact on the population too educational in that way, it were these parts that touched me the most. In these parts, A Reason to Live isn’t easy to read. War is horrible. But it also shows that amidst all these horrors it’s possible to find love and a reason to live.

As did both Laurel and Creede in the end.

Verdict: A very strong 4/5.