What I Read in August ‘14

I did a lot of reading in August. Fresh off of reading the latest Outlander volume, I decided to go back and quickly read through the series. I was really lost for the first half of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood and I wanted to jog my memory. I also continued with reading Sayers’ Wimsey books, which I’ve just about run out of at now, as well as some nonfiction and knocked another tome off of my stack of unread fantasy novels. It was a good month.

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The Office of Shadow

Matthew Sturges

I mostly liked Sturges’ Midwinter. Its good parts were really good, but it was all around sort of uneven. Office of Shadows is of similar quality, though it is steadier; it doesn’t have the highs and lows in quality of its predecessor, but I’m not sure I liked it as much. Instead of being a fantasy Dirty Dozen, this is more of a fantasy spy thriller. Except in Midwinter the supposed suicide mission got started pretty much immediately, where the thriller stuff here takes a long time to get moving. The cast is also less enjoyable. Returning character Silverdun is still an interesting character, a man of many talents but filled with self-loathing. His new allies feel like missed opportunities. Sela is a girl trained from birth to kill and Ironfoot is lowborn soldier turned scholar who is plucked from his studies to become a spy. They are at least theoretically interesting characters, but the book doesn’t explore them and their motivations as well as they could. Ironfoot is almost ignored at times and Sela spends her time dealing with a completely uninteresting romantic subplot.

The big danger the Seelie elves, the “good guys” country, face is a weapon being developed by the Unseelie that could tip the balance of their Cold War. The thriller part of book is just too abbreviated. Too much of the book is taken up with the training. It takes just way too long to get the three agents to be agents. Then their spy mission is somewhat short and conspiracies and plots that precipitate the coming conflict are dealt with almost perfunctorily. The biggest problem is that the political situation between these two warring countries is not very well explored. It is hard to get a read on the stakes when the make-up of the conflict is so vague. Still, while I’ve spent most of my time complaining, I actually liked The Office of Shadow quite a bit. Silverdun is a great character, one who has already grown significantly in the last book and grows further here. And the world of Faerie here is interesting enough that I wanted to know more. The Office of Shadow is almost a great book, but it has enough flaws that it ends up being merely interesting.

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Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn

Diana Gabaldon

I sped through books 2-4 of Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I’ve read them before; this was a speed reread just trying to jog my memory for what was going on heading into Written in My Own Hearts Blood. Plus, my interest in this series was rekindled by the TV Adaptation (see post coming … sometime soon). I do like each of these books, with Voyager likely being my favorite in the series.

Dragonfly in Amber is interesting because it is the one true tragedy, meant in the sense of genre and not judgment, in this series. It starts by letting the reader know that the happy ending from the first book did not last, then slowly showing how everything went wrong. It also feels like the end of the first chapter of this extensive saga. Most of the characters introduced in the first book are out of the series after this one, with the next book building up the supporting cast again. The sense of inevitability as things go wrong really helps it feel all the more tragic. Still, since it is tragic, it also tends to be an entry in the series that I am not too eager to revisit.

The third book, Voyager, is a pretty big shake up. The book ranges all over the place. It starts with a really neat section where in the present (actually 1968) Claire, Roger and Briana search for records of Jamie surviving Culloden is intertwined with Jamie’s first hand experiences in the 18th century. Once they track him to 1767, Claire does the inevitable and goes back again. After meeting Jamie in Edinburgh, Claire and Jamie’s adventures take them from Scotland to the Caribbean. It is a far reaching adventure that introduces a host of new characters to replace all the ones lost in Dragonfly in Amber. It is a long book, but one with several separate stories going on, starting with the search for Jamie, then Claire and him getting to know each other again and then their experiences in the New World. It is really just a load of fun.

Finally, Drums of Autumn is Briana and Roger’s book. It does have Clair and Jamie settling in the North Carolina wilderness, but the most compelling story is the romance between Briana and Roger. At first it is just her adjusting to living without either of her parents. Eventually, inevitably, Bree ends up also going back through the stones, followed closely by Roger. Drums of Autumn is not as tight a narrative as the previous three books. Aside from the first bit of Voyager, they each covered a relatively short time period. Drums takes place over the course of several years, time enough for Jamie and Claire to turn a bit of North Carolina wilderness into a thriving community. This is the first part of the American part of the series and the first where my memory of the order of events starts to get shaky.

Next month I hope to get through the next two. I am already at the point where I can’t remember what happened in which book, so the next few should be slower going than the more familiar ones.

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The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved the Greece – And Western Civilization

Barry Strauss

This was an interesting look at the Battle of Salamis between the Persian Empire and the Greeks. It is a good primer to that conflict, giving the reader a good introduction to the big players in that fight and the political set up that lead to not only the war but the two sides’ manner of prosecuting it. It is hard to say much about nonfiction when you aren’t that familiar with the subject, and I’m not here. That is why one tends to read nonfiction, to gain understanding, which this book does a good job of imparting.  The writing style, though, is good. It is informative, but not dry. It tells it like a story, albeit one with research behind it. While there is enough uncertainty is events that long ago, The Battle of Salamis does a good job of presenting what happened along with a few likely scenarios for how it happened. In all this a good read.

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Have His Carcase

Dorothy Sayers

Yet another Peter Wimsey mystery, this one being the second to feature Peter’s love interest Harriet Vane. Have His Carcase is one of the most enjoyable Wimsey stories. It starts with Harriet stumbling across a body while talking a walk along the beach during her vacation. Being a mystery writer and fairly versed in the ways of murder and murder investigations immediately gathers relevant details, which is fortunate since by the time she makes it to the police and the get back to the scene the body has went out with the tide. With Harriet involved in a murder, Lord Peter Wimsey is not going to be far behind. He shows up to help her investigate and renew his attempts to woo her. The two of them work together to get to the bottom of a case that involves a disappearing body, an uncertain time of death and victim with absurd Ruritanian notions.

While I’ve enjoyed Ms Vane’s other appearances, I think this one may be her best. She was mostly just the victim/suspect in her first appearance and in the later Gaudy Night she works separate from Peter almost the entire time. Here the two of them actually work together. They do have some nice chemistry. You can see her appreciation for his talents and exasperation with his idiosyncrasies. He has to try to help her without overwhelming her; to convince her that he is not just there to rescue her. I liked the contrast between their fledgling relationship with the sad and dysfunctional ones of the victim and her gigolo fiancé.

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