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The Duke in His Castle & Dead to Me

I'm not a fast reader, but I seem to be an even slower reviewer. I'm going to try a twofer and see if that works. So let's chat about two very different books, The Duke in His Castle [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] by Vera Nazarian (norilana) and Dead to Me [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] by Anton Strout (antonstrout).

The Duke in His Castle [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is a fairly short (118 pages) book about Rossain, the Duke of Violet. Like the other dukes in this land, Rossain has been cursed to never leave his castle ... but there is one hope for escape. When the dukes were cursed, each was said to also receive a secret power. If any one duke learns the powers of all the others, he or she will be free. While the others plot and scheme, sending messengers to try to pry secrets from their counterparts, Rossain seems uninterested in playing. He simply wanes away, his life empty and relatively meaningless until a messenger from the Duchess of White arrives at his palace bearing a box of bones and asking him to restore them to life.

Like most of Nazarian's work, this is a richly written world of depth and complexity. The references to various colors (White, Violet, etc.) made me wonder if this story tied into her book Lords of Rainbow, but they seem to be separate. Indeed, there are hints that this is set in some version of our own world: a reference to the lost library of Alexandria, for example. I'm afraid those lines bumped me out of the story. This doesn't feel at all like our world, but there were just enough hints to make me wonder how it could possibly be our own. Hints, but no answers.

That's a minor complaint, probably more from Jim the writer than Jim the reader. The larger problem I had was that I simply didn't like Rossain. In the beginning, he's essentially given up. He's rude, lost in self-pity, and not someone I want to read about. That changes somewhat as Lady Izelle arrives -- their game of magical hide-and-seek is wonderful. But as the story moves on, one of Rossain's later actions undoes any sympathy I've developed, and then some. (No spoilers in the review, but ask me in the comments if you're curious.)

The story itself is a complex one, with several unexpected twists. Izelle herself is a marvelously deep and tormented character. Her story is easily the most engaging, and the most tragic. I've yet to read one of Nazarian's stories that settled into the typical fantasy mold. This is another very original tale, and at times very powerful. I will admit that I didn't completely understand the ending, where we discover the nature of Rossain's power (oh, right -- like that's a spoiler). But that might be me being a little slow.

In some ways, Strout's book is the flip side of Nazarian's. Dead to Me [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is a light urban fantasy about Simon Canderous, psychometric newbie in New York City's secret Department of Extraordinary Affairs. Simon meets (and develops a bit of a crush on) a beautiful ghost, which leads him into a mystery involving cultists, a wooden fish, a killer bookcase, zombies, and all sorts of fun.

In case you can't tell, this is a book that doesn't take itself too seriously. Turning to a random page gives this line: "All undead are subject to a $10.00 cleaning fee after using the Reference Room." If you follow Strout's LJ, you know he's an entertaining person, and that comes through in the book. Simon's a likeable fellow, a former petty thief trying to make good while wading through the (somewhat exaggerated ... but only somewhat) bureaucracy of government agencies. If there's a problem with this one, it's that the humor keeps me from taking the stakes as seriously as I might have. Balancing humor and conflict is hard (and I don't claim to always get it right myself, either). In this case, I think the humor keeps the tension from rising as high as it might have otherwise.

I think one of the most powerful aspects of the book was the way Strout examined the effects of Simon's power on his personal life. Psychometry means Simon can touch an object and see into the minds of those who have owned or used that object ... which tends to play havoc with relationships, among other things. The use of his power leaves him with a blood sugar crash, so we go through a lot of Life Savers in this book. (Side note -- the night I started reading the book, I had just come back from karate where my own blood sugar dipped low (damn diabetes), and was replenished by half a roll of Life Savers. So I had a lot of sympathy for poor Simon.)

All in all, it's a fun book and a good first novel. I'm always up for more fun SF/F, and I'll be curious to see what happens to Simon in book number two.

What I'd really like to see is a collaboration between Nazarian and Strout. (Maybe something involving were-jaguars.) Both are skilled authors. Nazarian brings beautiful language and amazing world-building depth. Strout brings a fun character and more humor. Combine these two writers and their strengths, and you'd get ... okay, I don't have a clue what you'd end up with. But I'd pay to read it!



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 31st, 2008 02:11 pm (UTC)
A killer bookcase? I'll have to get me that one. :)
Aug. 31st, 2008 03:11 pm (UTC)
Makes me wonder if it was built out of sentient pearwood...
Aug. 31st, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
I owuld too--though Vera Nazarian can write rollicky and bawdy humor with the best of 'em.
Aug. 31st, 2008 04:30 pm (UTC)
I don't know that I've read bawdy Nazarian, but there's a fair amount of her short fiction I haven't read yet.
Aug. 31st, 2008 02:59 pm (UTC)
Ooh, thanks for an awesomely thoughtful review, Jim!! :-)
Aug. 31st, 2008 03:00 pm (UTC)
And LOL about combining my style with Anton's! ;-)
Aug. 31st, 2008 03:11 pm (UTC)
Well, you've already got two people interested in buying and reading it! :-)
Aug. 31st, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the intriguing and thoughtful reviews, Jim! I love readings well-done reviews, almost as much as reading well-done books!

I should really not try to read anything before my second cup of coffee, though. When I came to "a mystery involving cultists" I thought it said "a mystery involving cutlets." Which would be an interesting mystery in itself, wouldn't it?
Aug. 31st, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC)
I think that's the sequel :-)
Sep. 1st, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)
I just changed the title from Deader Still to Dinner Still.

I live to serve...
Sep. 1st, 2008 05:13 pm (UTC)
I had no idea your book was comic until I read this review. I admit to avoiding it until now because of the cover and this terrible sinking "just like the Dresden Files" feeling.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
I mentioned your book on one of the fantasy lists I'm on. Just saw an e-mail on that list that someone picked up the book, is 100 pages in, and is really enjoying it.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC)
Yeah, with your few mentions I took a nice jump on Amazon too.. thanks!
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 31st, 2008 04:29 pm (UTC)
I've got a great big bag of M&Ms at work, but the Life Savers fit into meter when I head out to karate. Plus it's nice to vary the medicinal candy a little, ya know? :-)
Aug. 31st, 2008 04:29 pm (UTC)
Into "the" meter, even...
Sep. 1st, 2008 02:35 am (UTC)
Also, chocolate I'm told processes the sugar slower when converting to combat low blood sugar, but the Life Savers are a better mainline boost.

Not that I turn away from chocolate....
Sep. 1st, 2008 05:19 am (UTC)
I just finished Dead to Me on a plane on the way home from vacation. Great book! :)
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines

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