alias_sqbr: (happy dragon)
[personal profile] alias_sqbr
The fact that I am reviewing three books from this series after starting the first one a few days ago may give some idea of how much I've enjoyed them!

The flippant summary is that they're slightly grimdark Terry Pratchett. They also reminded me of the Laundry Files, with the Strange Magics And Ancient Gods mixed up with corporations and law/analysis instead of public service and pure maths/physics.

Also: they're on sale on the Kindle and Apple stores (and maybe other places?) right now after being nominated for a Hugo! There's a bundle sale...somewhere, apparently, but I only found out after buying them individually, oops.

The setting is an alternate Earth where the countries and cultures vaguely resemble ours. I forget the exact timeline, but until maybe 100 years ago everyone was ruled by gods, and Craftsmen/magicians had little power. Then the Craftsmen figured out how to harness soul magic, and became so powerful they threatened the Gods. 40 years ago the Gods declared war, and after a horrible conflict the Craftsmen won. Now some countries are ruled by Gods, others by God-like Craftsmen. The world is inherently unfriendly to democracy, but everyone is connected via a form of capitalism based on souls. All the main characters work for corporations or law firms, and the book plays around with the metaphorical soul-sucking nature of these jobs combined with actual literal soul sucking.

They're light and engaging fantasy-horror stories, with exciting plots, interesting worldbuilding, complex moral dilemmas, and satisfying emotional arcs. They're also pretty diverse: afaict the protagonists of all the books are women and/or POC, often both, and there's a few lgbt characters including a trans woman protagonist. There's heaps of morally complex, ambitious, difficult women, and most of them get to be heroic in their own weird, difficult way. Dark things happen, but the books are overall optimistic and (so far!) have happy endings. They're also pretty sexless, even the one with a sex scene, which is a plus for me in a genre filled with long sleazy descriptions of women's boobs.

I was worried my zombie squick would ruin the series for me but thus far it's avoided my buttons.

Unfortunately I've found the books a bit samey. I was surprised a bunch by the first book I read but then recognised a lot of the same emotional beats heading towards me in the second. And despite an obvious attempt to portray other cultures in terms of appearance, food etc (book 2 is set in quasi-Mexico, book 3 in quasi-Hawaii) there's a sameyness to the way people think and speak. Now some of this is because of colonisation and Global Corporate Culture etc, but even my experiences as an Australian feel beyond his narrow vision of What Work And Society Can Be Like. The Gods mostly feel a bit samey too.

While the lgbt characters get to be people, and don't tend to die or anything, their lgbt-ness tends to end up being a plot point, which is a little tiresome. Also his understanding of lgbt only seems to encompass Lesbian, Gay, and Binary Trans. There's also a weird subtext to the way fat characters are treated, not hateful just...idk.

Finally, the constant choice between dedicating yourself to a God and/or to Capitalism rubs me the wrong way as a left wing secular humanist. I feel like the series may be heading towards some third way, but it's kind of annoying that nothing resembling socialism and/or democracy has even been suggested so far. I wouldn't mind so much if they weren't all the same kind of undemocraticly capitalist, like the author thinks that's Just How Things Work, when I have trouble believing the setup even once. Three different countries yet all have the same structure: A church/corporation at the top that seamlessly provides water, roads, electricity, police but zero education, welfare, public transport. A populace who complain and riot but seem to have no internal organisation beyond that, no unions or charities or secular activist groups, they either join a (possibly rival) church/corporation or helplessly rely on them.

The start of Book 4 suggests there may be some political organising going on amongst the populace, but since this is a prequel to Book 2 I know at least some of it is the old church pushing against the new corporation. And I organised charities or welfare?? The only way to help the poor is to improve the overall economy or donate to them as an individual?? When has any human society ever worked that way? I guess I may have missed something in Book 1 but there definitely wasn't anything like that in Book 2 or 3. It wouldn't be so glaring if he wasn't trying to Explore The Nature of Society.

But overall the books are still really enjoyable. I am taking a break then moving on to book 4!

Note: The names have a number theme, but not in chronological order. It goes 32514. My guess is that if there's only one more it will be zero themed, but we'll see!

Book 1, Three Parts Dead, is my favourite so far, partly because it is the first and the author's tricks were fresher to me, and partly because it really is the best. It's about a necromancer lawyer who's first job is helping ressurect a dead god, but things are not what they seem in the God's sprawling city. She's whip smart and ambitious and kind of terrifying and I love her. Note: there is a very creepy forced kiss with the implied threat of worse, I thought it was handled fine overall but some people might find it triggering.

Book 2, Two Serpents Rise, seems to be everyone's least favourite. It's the only one with a male protagonist or a romance plot so far and based on this I hope he avoids both in future. The "male protag falls for mystery femme fatale and is dragged into danger" plot is annoying and unconvincing, he just seemed like a dull but irresponsible dumbass. The "not!Aztec city where people replaced human sacrifice with a corporation" setting is interesting but the protagonist's ethical angst as the coporate son of a priest get a bit repeditive. I was planning on skipping it, since I'd heard it was bad, but am glad I gave into curiosity. I had to roll my eyes a bit to get through but it wasn't grossly unpleasant and has some important plot for the wider narrative.

Book 3, Five Fathoms Deep, would have been more enjoyable if I hadn't read it second, because it has a lot of structural similarity to Three Parts Dead. On the plus side, I enjoyably red herringed myself with a character I'd not have misunderstood if I'd already read Book 2. It's set on not!Hawaii with two female protagonists: Kia, a grumpily self sacrificing creator of quasi-gods used to help people avoid being beholden to the real ones, and Izza, a refugee street kid connected to strange things going on in the forgotten parts of the island. The cultural sameyness bugged me the most here: obviously I don't know what it's like to be Hawaiian, but have some idea what it's like to be from an island that gets buffeted around by larger powers and has lots of foreign tourists gentrifying the beaches, and while the author tried to capture that feeling didn't succeeed as well as, say, Lilo and Stitch. Kia is trans, and is three dimensional and 100% a woman, and her transness usually doesn't come up aside from the odd moment of anxiety when she has to come out to someone. But the author's idea of trans-ness was a bit simplistic, and there's a point where her being trans is vital to the plot, like he'd never write a trans character just because.

Date: 2017-04-08 04:27 am (UTC)
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
From: [personal profile] skygiants
1, 4 and 5 are definitely my favorites so far, in that order (I really liked 4) with 3 and then 2 coming far below. I like many of the characters in the series, but Tara definitely feels like the most embodied and complex protagonist to me.

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