Dragon Coast (Daniel Blackland #3) – Greg van Eekhout

Dragon Coast (Daniel Blackland, #3)Dragon Coast by Greg Van Eekhout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read books one and two, don’t read this review!

Throughout the Daniel Blackland series, van Eekhout explores interesting angles of familiar heist story tropes. Heist stories often build up the crew as a found family, and also often have a protagonist who eschews their blood family for the one they created, leading to a confrontation between these two groups to resolve the action or emotional plot (or both). There is often, but not always, a romance between the protagonist and another member of their found family.

Daniel Blackland was orphaned and abandoned. He built a family from other orphaned and abandoned children. He briefly had a romance with a member of his found family. His found family and his blood family come into conflict to resolve both Pacific Fire and Dragon Coast, but not in the ways you might expect. None of these things are the emotional core of the story, for Daniel or his foil Gabriel.

I was consistently pleased throughout the series, and especially in Dragon Coast, with van Eekhout’s exploration of responsibility and consequences, particularly those that characters willingly embrace. When Daniel rescued Sam at the end of California Bones, he knew what he was taking on—a life on the run, the fight to protect Sam from power-hungry enemies. When he killed his golem brother, Paul, at the end of Pacific Fire, he did it to protect Sam, even though he knew the immediate consequence was the destruction of his blood family and the potential to ever repair those bonds. He did not know the long-reaching consequences, and he faces them in Dragon Coast. Not only must he pretend to be his doppelganger in enemy territory to acquire a rare bone he needs to rescue Sam from the firedrake, Daniel is confronted with the legacy of his actions that will follow him for the rest of his life. And he chooses to take it on, because he just can’t stop himself from being a strangely honest thief. When he has stolen something he didn’t mean to, he owns up to it, even when, by doing so, he creates a trap he can’t escape.

Heist stories often contain themes of consequences, but rarely are they so nuanced as what I found in these novels. Where Daniel shrugs off the consequences of messing with the powerful, he is willingly ensnared in the consequences of his responsibilities to his own family. Gabriel is such a well-crafted foil, as he grapples with the yoke of responsibility and consequences he willingly took on and then unexpectedly finds himself chafing under. He, too, creates a found family with Max, and also faces the responsibility he owes to that bond.

I love the development of these characters. Daniel grows in each book, as he gets older, and becomes a father, and confronts what’s left of his blood family from behind the safety of his brother’s face, which is really no safety at all. He sees a life that could have been, is tempted by many possibilities for a life that could be, and in the end makes the same choice he always does: sacrifice. Not every character needs to fundamentally shift personality to show change and growth. There’s also something satisfying about the capacity to stay true to yourself through increasingly difficult circumstances, and to make peace with who you are in your bones.

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Pacific Fire (Daniel Blackland #2) – Greg Van Eekhout

Pacific Fire (Daniel Blackland, #2)Pacific Fire by Greg Van Eekhout

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many follow-ups to tightly-focused first novels, Pacific Fire expands the story started in California Bones into a larger landscape and a larger problem. To avoid telling the same story again, escalation is necessary. Unlike many sequels in the bigger-and-better tradition, Pacific Fire doesn’t get too large and unwieldy. It keeps an intimate focus on a small number of characters, and keeps the scope of the plot reigned in on the objective.

Sam is a great character, his arc very different from Daniel’s, and I enjoyed following his story. However, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first. Sabotage stories are good, but heist stories are better. California Bones is suffused with a kind of wicked joy, where everyone in Pacific Fire is weighed down by guilt and the feeling that time is too short.

I’m intrigued to see how book three’s con job stands out in the line-up.

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A Local Habitation (October Daye #2) – Seanan McGuire

A Local Habitation (October Daye, #2)A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“ . . . and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

I love the epigraph, and the way the theme carries through the characters in this novel: the employees of ALH trying to form a community, Quentin trying to establish himself as a foster in a House that’s not his own, Toby still feeling the absence of her own comfortable habitation, lost and yet to be re-established; and also how bad ideas and problems and illness can take up residency in a person or a community and sow ruin.

There is a lot more to love about this book, and I will make a list for you before I start talking about the things that didn’t work for me. Awesome things in A Local Habitation: humor, discussions about consent, Toby and Quentin as buddy cops (more please!), loads of faerie, and Tybalt.

I enjoy mystery stories, but locked room mysteries are hard, because the reader either knows they’ve already met the killer or is expecting that trope to be subverted in an interesting way. While McGuire plays her hand well by keeping us guessing about the extent of April’s involvement (which also serves as a distraction from identifying the culprit), in the end I wanted the subversion, not the killer I’d already met. I wanted the big surprise, and I didn’t get it. While locked-room mysteries are often lauded for how they master the genre under the constraints of a closed system, the closed system is often what I like least about them. I like stories that move around. McGuire does a lot with the form, and subverts it by having a huge “locked room” for the characters to move around in, but in the end, they ran in circles and the futility of it became oppressive.

A Local Habitation is the second book of the series, but feels like the middle, with familiar characters even though so many of them were new. Reading it felt like a new season of a favorite show. On the other hand, the book was less satisfying than Rosemary and Rue. When I finished this book and put it down, I did not remember positive things. I remember Toby’s constant state of pain and injury and hopelessness. The shadow of loss and grief hangs heavy over this book. If it is a new season of a show, it is the season where everyone goes through the wringer and triumphs feel small. I can only hope things look a little brighter as I read further into the series. I’ve given up on shows that became joyless slogs, but I’m not giving up on Toby Daye just yet.

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Wisp of a Thing (Tufa #2) – Alex Bledsoe

Wisp of a Thing (Tufa, #2)Wisp of a Thing by Alex Bledsoe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wisp of a Thing draws us into a tableau populated by very different characters with very different troubles than its predecessor The Hum and the Shiver. Ron Quillen has not lost his connection to his music as Bronwyn Hyatt had in book one, and Rob is not a Tufa (although he is alternately mistaken for one or accused of being an inauthentic hanger-on to the Tufa’s history and community throughout the story), but he is in Cloud County for a reason: to find a powerful and magical song to heal his broken heart. I admit to some very slight eye-rolling as I started reading, until, as always, Bledsoe cut to the heart of the story and I realized that Rob’s heart wasn’t broken in the ways he was willing to admit to himself and others. He had more serious wounds to treat.

Book two of a series can often suffer under the weight of reinvention or a lack thereof, but Bledsoe neatly sidesteps this by making Rob the ultimate outsider, and yet his status as an outsider is not entirely a stand-in for the reader. It can be, if you missed book one and jumped right into this one, but rather than an unfolding of the Tufa’s secrets, Rob barges in and demands knowledge at every turn, while the natives treat us to a very different flavor of “don’t tell the outsider” than the previous book.

Rob is a wonderful parallel and foil to Rockhouse Hicks, as their tales of ambition and destructive pride echo over the mountains surrounding Cloud County. My one gripe is that Bliss Overbay was positioned as such an important character with a lot of attention in the story, but she didn’t have as strong of an arc, and what we got wasn’t really resolved. Bledsoe didn’t tie her to Curnen as elegantly as he tied Rob to Rockhouse. I actually felt she functioned better as a secondary parallel/foil to Rockhouse, but that wasn’t fully fleshed out or resolved either.

Regardless of these flaws, Bledsoe’s writing is a delight, even when it veers into slightly purple prose or stumbles over a slightly awkward phrase. His stories are compelling because they’re so human, populated by flawed characters who, while sometimes not human at all, still ground us in authentic and passionate feelings and troubles.

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The Hum and the Shiver (Tufa #1) – Alex Bledsoe

The Hum and the Shiver (Tufa, #1)The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been interested in, and put off, reading this book for years. I regret not picking it up when I first saw it, because it’s so good. Appalachia, magical music, clan feuds, fairy-folk–so many of my boxes checked off. Bledsoe cuts directly to the heart of his stories; he did the same in The Sword-Edged Blonde, which I discovered later but read first. I appreciate jumping right in to a good action-oriented story that still keeps characters at its heart.

Bledsoe has a great ear for dialogue, a keen sense of people, and delivers a great tale. Even when he’s being coy and revealing things slowly to the readers, the characters aren’t falsely coy in their thoughts and actions as a substitute for good writing. Bronwyn isn’t hiding things from the reader; she is locking things away from herself or admitting that she isn’t ready to deal with them yet. Her feelings and actions are, in a very real way, often sideways to the truth of things until she’s ready or forced to confront the problem. She also lives in a closed society where speaking openly of these secrets is taboo, so we’re treated to a lot of aborted conversations and warnings about responsibilities and consequences that ratchet up the tension and make the little pieces of the story behind the story that much more satisfying when we finally uncover them.

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