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Book Briefs: November 2005

«Disappointing Swarmthief's Dance by Deborah J. Miller»
«Scintillating Southern Fire by Juliet E. McKenna»
«Skillful Circle of the Moon (and Sisters of the Raven) by Barbara Hambly»

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Deborah J. Miller presents an interesting premise in Swarmthief's Dance (Tor UK): swarms of millions of tiny blue dragonflies that can be transformed into a single giant dragonfly entity as part of a planet-wide religion. But a nifty idea or two can't make up for unconvincing characters, inexplicable elements, and lack of a real plot. It's the start of a trilogy, but I don't see a lot of reason to read this volume, let alone two more. (Miller has published a previous trilogy in the UK under the name of Miller Lau.)
[Tor UK. ISBN:1405050748. Sept 2005]

Southern Fire: Book One of the Aldabreshin Compass Series (Tor) by Juliet E. McKenna shares the world of the five books of Tales of Einarinn, but is the beginning of an entirely new series set in the tropical Aldabreshin Archipelago where the many islands are divided into several realms ruled absolutely by warlords. McKenna builds her world by starting with the foundation of the domicile and domestic life of one warlord, Daish Kheda of the Daish domain. Assisted by wives who handle agriculture and trade in the barter-based culture, Kheda rules his domain guided by omens, auguries, and portents he is trained to read. His realm is cast into disorder when inhabitants of the domain to their south, Chazen, arrive with no warning pleading for sanctuary from mysterious invaders from further south -- where there is, as far as anyone is aware, nothing. The refugees claim the mysterious invaders have magic powers; a claim not lightly made in a society that abhors magic and believes it corrupts all it touches. Although Daish Kheda goes to confront the invaders, Southern Fire becomes not a story of warfare and battles but one of intrigue. In order to deal with other threats, Kheda weaves a complex deception that may well taint him with dreaded sorcery. McKenna builds on her foundation then layers the plot in course after rational course until the highly believable whole is built -- although she obviously leaves room for further additions. The initial pace may seem too sedate to some, but this a novel one savors rather than rushes through and the slower beginning allows you to adapt to a second possible hitch: McKenna inserts Kheda's italicized inner thoughts into her third person limited omniscient narrative. It's an unusual style that may take some getting used to, but it is also highly effective and informative. High marks for the interesting island setting and its seafaring culture, graceful prose, solid characterization -- especially that of Kheda who may be ruthless when needed, but is also wise -- and excellent dialogue, a component often lacking in fantasy. There are four points on the compass and in England McKenna has already added Western Shore and Northern Storm to Southern Fire with Eastern Tide to follow. I'm looking forward to them all.
[Tor. ISBN: 0765314118. July 2005]

Circle of the Moon (Warner Aspect) by Barbara Hambly is a sequel and I'm grateful that the publisher sent along the mass-market paperback of the previous book, Sisters of the Raven. The newer novel can definitely be read alone, but it reads even better if you've already become acquainted with the world and characters the author has created. The first book introduces the repressive patriarchal Yellow City of the Valley of the Seven Lakes in which women are considered merely chattel. Magic is the mortar that binds the highly stratified society -- magic that only men can make. Every aspect of the culture is dependent on magic: it brings the rains and keeps the grasshoppers off the crops; it heals and is used for communication. When the men lose their ability to make magic the civilization is in desperate straits, but when a few women suddenly posses magical powers, the men are none too happy. The skillful Hambly writes with clarity and avoids the use of "fantasy-ese"* while steering clear of the heavy-handy women-are-superior trope that masquerades as "feminist" fantasy. Circle of the Moon continues in the same vein, again focusing on Raeshaldis, the young woman who has been trained in male magic, and the Raven Sisters, a mixed crew of Crafty women who are trying to develop their magic. Where Sisters involved the solving of a mystery -- the murders of magical women -- Circle revolves around a battle against both human and supernatural evil. Power is found in a surprising new vessel and both the source of magic and its loss is eventually explained (sort of). Smoothly written and entertaining, Circle of the Moon and Sisters of the Raven are not challenging works, but that doesn't mean they are simplistic or unintelligent.
[Aspect. ISBN: 0446694045. Sept 2005; (mmp) ISBN: 0446615366. Aug 2005]


* Some signs of "fantasy-ese" include badly done pseudo-archaic verbiage; confusing, unpronounceable names with absurd apostrophes; overwrought adjectives (never use the word red when you can substitute crimson, scarlet, sanguine, etc.); insertions of bad poetry recited or sung by characters; and adverbial excess.