Magic Binds is the ninth—and penultimate—novel in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. It’s been one of my favorite ongoing series since reading the phenomenal third and fourth volumes, and I was particularly impressed by how the author(s) balanced plot and action with character development and relationships. The world mythology and the mystery and revelations surrounding Kate’s power and family were also quite well done. However, I’ve been disappointed in the series since book seven, and this trend continues with Magic Binds: despite a thoroughly entertaining first half and a lot of new developments, I found myself underwhelmed by it in the end.

Kate’s wedding day is rapidly approaching, but flower arrangements, cakes, and bridal gowns couldn’t be further from her mind. Roland has been building what he calls a “small residence” on the edge of her territory (I suppose when one has been alive for thousands of years and lived in palaces, thirty thousand square feet may seem small), but Kate goes from aggravated to furious with her father when she learns he kidnapped Saiman. She cannot let him take whomever he wants any time he pleases, especially a resident of her territory, and she decides that she must confront her father.

Kate sets out after being warned not to burn any bridges but returns declaring that there is no longer a bridge. Not only did Roland refuse to free Saiman but Kate also learned that he’s been trying to influence her kid and has a field full of people he had crucified, and Kate let her fury fly without mincing any words about what she thinks of her father’s tyranny. To make matters worse, the Witch Oracle summons Kate about her visions of the future, all of which show a battle in which Atlanta is destroyed and Roland kills someone Kate loves—and the only person who has even the slightest chance of altering the course leading to this outcome is Kate herself.

Magic Binds had its moments—like world domination!—yet I thought that its more entertaining qualities masked a lot of problems. It does contain plenty of Ilona Andrews™ dialogue that made the first half fun to read, but I was bored throughout much of the latter part. The plot and characterization are uninspired, the pacing is rushed, and worst of all, it just didn’t make me care despite what should have been high stakes.

Earlier parts, especially the first chapter, are immensely entertaining. There are some hilarious, memorable lines, largely aided by the return of Roman and the prevalence of Roland. I did love the focus on Kate and Roland’s relationship and that it’s not simple: Roland is proud of Kate and does seem to love her in his own bizarre way, and Kate’s surprised to discover she does have affection for her father despite his being a tyrant. Kate also struggles with her power and the fact that she is her father’s daughter, which is a great personal conflict.

However, I was let down by the lack of actual character development. Though Kate does face some obstacles that make her seem less one note than she did in the last couple of books, they don’t actually end up showing much about her personality that we didn’t already know. On the one hand, it seems fitting with her character and I do love her spirit and drive to do what’s right, but on the other hand, she does seem rather stagnant, especially when compared to her growth earlier in the series. Recent books have mainly been focusing on her traits that have already been established, and though this novel is chock-full of revelations, they tend to have more to do with background and history than anything new that cuts to the heart of who any of the characters are as people. The secondary characters once seemed vibrant and fresh, but it’s starting to seem as though it’s just more of the same old snark and attitude whenever they show up.

This may be related to another issue I had: the pacing. There is so much packed into this book that it’s incredibly rushed, and that includes some of the character moments (although there were some I liked, such as Mahon’s change of heart). It flits from scene to scene without taking time to breathe, and some major revelations are conveyed in a brief conversation that came across as a way to fit in an infodump before dashing into the next scene. In particular, the ending was anticlimactic because it was so brief after all the buildup leading to it—but then, the main plot was rather unexciting.

Plots revolving around preventing a terrible future are difficult to make compelling, and even with the high stakes, I found this one rather dull. There’s been enough of an ongoing pattern of playing it safe lately that I just don’t feel any tension when a major character may be in danger anymore, and even aside from that, this was a lazy method of plotting since the visions sometimes propel the actions. Although Kate does at least have her own idea about how she can attempt to change the future, she executes some details based on what the oracle sees. There’s also another time she ends up in a specific place only because of a vision, and this is such a frustratingly transparent way to move characters from point A to point B without actual motivation beyond “it was seen.”

One of the many revelations in Magic Binds addresses an issue I’ve had with the series since Roland’s introduction in the seventh book: how someone as powerful as Roland tried but failed to kill Kate. However, I didn’t feel that the explanation made it more sensible. Since he’s human, I can absolutely understand the matters of the heart involved that led him to make a mistake in the first place, but I find the reasoning given for why he merely tried rather weak. It sounds as though this being (who is, after all, thousands of years old) doesn’t understand how his own magic works, and this just doesn’t fit with the way Roland has been portrayed at all.

Despite some promise and some thoroughly entertaining parts, I thought that Magic Binds fell flat overall. The authorial hand is too obviously hemming in the characters and plot instead of letting them flow naturally and it comes across as calculated, especially the “subvert the prophecy” story and the unconvincing depiction of Roland as extraordinarily powerful unless it suits the need to keep him from defeating Kate before she has a chance to level up. In my opinion, the books were much stronger when teasing the mysteries than they’ve been at providing answers and I found Magic Binds sometimes fun but mostly disappointing.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

A couple of books showed up this week: one of which looks quite interesting and one that I’ve already read and loved!

I did start catching up on some reviews last week with All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s quirky and difficult to describe, and I enjoyed it a lot!

Now, for the latest books!

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

Cloudbound (Bone Universe #2) by Fran Wilde

Cloudbound, a companion to Fran Wilde’s debut novel Updraft, will be released on September 27 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The publisher’s blog has an excerpt from Cloudbound.

Updraft won the Andre Norton Award for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy and the Compton Crook Award and was also nominated for a Nebula Award. Tor. com has an excerpt from Updraft.

 

After the dust settles, the City of living bones begins to die, and more trouble brews beneath the clouds in this stirring companion to Fran Wilde’s Updraft.

When Kirit Densira left her home tower for the skies, she gave up many things: her beloved family, her known way of life, her dreams of flying as a trader for her tower, her dreams. Kirit set her City upside down, and fomented a massive rebellion at the Spire, to the good of the towers—but months later, everything has fallen to pieces.

In Cloudbound, with the Towers in disarray, without a governing body or any defense against the dangers lurking in the clouds, daily life is full of terror and strife. Naton, Kirit’s wing-brother, sets out to be a hero in his own way—sitting on the new Council to cast votes protecting Tower-born, and exploring lower tiers to find more materials to repair the struggling City.

But what he finds down-tier is more secrets—and now Nat will have to decide who to trust, and how to trust himself without losing those he holds most dear, before a dangerous myth raises a surprisingly realistic threat to the crippled City.

In the sky-high city of living bone, to fall beneath the clouds is to be lost forever. But Nat Densira finds more in the grey expanse than he ever expected. To survive, he must let go of everything he believes.

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Crosstalk will be released on October 4 (hardcover, ebook). The publisher’s website has an excerpt from Crosstalk (the link is below the cover image).

I already featured this book toward the beginning of July and normally wouldn’t include the cover and description again, but I couldn’t resist since I just finished reading the ARC shortly before this finished copy showed up and LOVED it! After reading the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like it but soon I was hooked and found I quite literally could not put it down. (Seriously, I still have lots of unpacking that needs to be done and yet I had to spend every spare moment reading this until I was finished!)

Since it’s not out until next month, there are some other books I’m going to try to review first so I just wanted to take this opportunity to gush about how much fun this book is!

 

Science fiction icon Connie Willis brilliantly mixes a speculative plot, the wit of Nora Ephron, and the comedic flair of P. G. Wodehouse in Crosstalk—a genre-bending novel that pushes social media, smartphone technology, and twenty-four-hour availability to hilarious and chilling extremes as one young woman abruptly finds herself with way more connectivity than she ever desired.
 
In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. And Briddey Flannigan is delighted when her boyfriend, Trent, suggests undergoing the operation prior to a marriage proposal—to enjoy better emotional connection and a perfect relationship with complete communication and understanding. But things don’t quite work out as planned, and Briddey finds herself connected to someone else entirely—in a way far beyond what she signed up for.

It is almost more than she can handle—especially when the stress of managing her all-too-eager-to-communicate-at-all-times family is already burdening her brain. But that’s only the beginning. As things go from bad to worse, she begins to see the dark side of too much information, and to realize that love—and communication—are far more complicated than she ever imagined.

 

Charlie Jane Anders has written several science fiction and fantasy short stories plus a Lamda Literary Award-winning novel (The Choir Boy), but All the Birds in the Sky is her first speculative fiction novel. It’s a quirky, thoroughly absorbing story, and although I thought the first part was stronger than the second, I found it quite readable throughout—in fact, when I looked through it again to prepare for writing this review, I found myself rereading much of it because it drew me in all over again!

All the Birds in the Sky follows two main characters whose lives collide at a young age: a witch named Patricia and a technological genius named Laurence. It’s the story of how their lives intertwine beginning with their childhoods and resuming after the two meet again as adults.

Patricia discovered she had the ability to communicate with animals when she was only six years old. She sought to protect a sparrow with a broken wing, and after finding he could understand Patricia, the sparrow informed her this meant she was a witch. The bird instructed her to take him to the Parliament of Birds, but this congregation was concerned that the sparrow broke the rules by leading an ordinary human to them—and decided it was necessary to prove she was indeed a witch by making her answer the Endless Question: “Is a tree red?” Flummoxed by the riddle, Patricia barely had time to consider it before she was found and harshly punished by her parents, and it’s not until she’s older that she rediscovers how to speak with animals and learns about her witchcraft.

Laurence has always been gifted with technology, and even some rocket scientists found it impressive that he was able to make a two-second time machine at a young age. To his great chagrin, his parents were not so thrilled with his proclivity for computers and forced him to do activities involving nature, concerned that he was spending too much time indoors staring at screens. After he and Patricia literally ran into each other at school, Laurence learned that she loved these types of activities and convinced her to make up stories about all the amazing experiences they had in the great outdoors after they had actually been hanging out at the mall. Both social outcasts without anyone else to talk to, Patricia and Laurence became good friends until they were split apart by the plotting of their new school counselor: an assassin who foresaw that these two children would grow up to play central roles in a terrible battle between nature and technology.

All the Birds in the Sky is a unique book that covers a lot of ground, making it quite difficult to summarize. It’s largely about two people—one gifted at magic and the other gifted at science—and the impact they have on each other and the world, but it’s also about relationships: the longing for connection and the struggles to achieve it. There’s some ethical and philosophical discussion and problems caused by climate change. Plus, there are witches, scientists, conversations with animals, an AI, and an assassin. This may sound like a lot, and it is absolutely scattered and hard to describe, but it works. Although I did have some issues with it, All the Birds in the Sky is an extraordinarily readable, compelling, memorable story.

The earlier part focusing on Patricia and Laurence’s childhoods is more cohesive than the later part, and it balances between lighthearted and difficult situations. There are some fun moments, such as Patricia’s encounter with the bird who realizes she’s a witch, and there is a good dose of narrative humor, but their classmates are cruel and both are misunderstood by their parents. In particular, Patricia’s family is terrible: her parents lock in her room for extended periods of time as punishment and her sister deliberately tries to get her into trouble. Laurence also has a lot of problems that make him a sympathetic character, but he’s not as loyal to Patricia as she is to him so I found her easier to like during their childhood years, especially since she is compassionate through and through.

After the two are reunited as adults, there is still a focus on their relationship but it’s also about how they’ve integrated into their respective groups: Patricia with the witches and Laurence with the scientists. Of course, the beginning foretold of a battle between these two and the science/technology vs. nature/magic trope is not one I particularly like since it can be simplistic and too black and white. However, I think that summarizing it as a book about science vs. nature would be overlooking the point when there were so many examples of people discovering those they thought of as opposites were in fact stronger together. I actually quite liked what Charlie Jane Anders did with this trope in the end.

Although I thought the outcome was fantastic, my main issue with All the Birds in the Sky was the conclusion. The novel is wrapped up quite hastily, and I also felt like it didn’t provide satisfactory explanations for the recurrence of the question “Is a tree red?” throughout the story. As I mentioned earlier, the second part of the novel doesn’t come together quite as well, and I think this is largely because it feels like there are some gaps after spending so much time on their childhood and then skipping over their time actually becoming a witch and a scientist. Enough information on the past is provided that it didn’t bother me as much as the rushed ending, though.

Despite these quibbles, I found All the Birds in the Sky to be an utterly charming book with a delightful narrative voice and blending of fantasy and science fiction, and I especially appreciated how it handled a common trope that often irritates me. I’ll be very surprised if it isn’t still one of my favorite 2016 releases by the end of the year!

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

It’s been a very, very busy few days since I spent last weekend and the end of the week before moving and there is still a lot of unpacking to be done (despite getting a lot unpacked already)! Due to that, this covers a couple of weeks, but first here are the new posts that went up after the last one of these:

Now, the latest books in the mail!

A Night Without Stars by Peter F. Hamilton

A Night Without Stars (Commonwealth: Chronicle of the Fallers #2) by Peter F. Hamilton

This sequel to The Abyss Beyond Dreams will be released on September 27 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). This new series is set in the Commonwealth universe, and the publisher’s website has excerpts from both books (excerpt links are below the cover images):

  1. The Abyss Beyond Dreams
  2. A Night Without Stars
 

The planet of Bienvenido is on its own, isolated from the rest of the universe. And it’s waging war against the ruthless Fallers, aliens which have evolved to conquer whole worlds. Kysandra is leading an underground resistance, aided by biological enhancements that give her a crucial edge. But she fears she’s fighting a losing battle. This is especially as the government hampers her efforts at every turn, blinded by crippling technophobia and prejudices against enhanced ‘Eliter’ humans. However, if the resistance and government can’t work together, humanity on this planet will face extinction – for the Fallers are organizing a final, decisive invasion. Bienvenido badly needs outside help. But the Commonwealth, with all its technological expertise, has been lost to them for generations. Desperate times will call for desperate measures, or humanity on Bienvenido will not survive.

Additional Books:

Once again, I wanted to get some books that weren’t published in the last couple of years into the mix so September’s Patreon poll theme was simply books by authors I’ve been meaning to read for awhile. The choices were as follows:

The September book is…

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

A tale of contention over love and money—among dragons

Jo Walton burst onto the fantasy scene with The King’s Peace, acclaimed by writers as diverse as Poul Anderson, Robin Hobb, and Ken MacLeod. In 2002, she was voted the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Now Walton returns with Tooth and Claw, a very different kind of fantasy story: the tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, of a son who goes to law for his inheritance, a son who agonizes over his father’s deathbed confession, a daughter who falls in love, a daughter who becomes involved in the abolition movement, and a daughter sacrificing herself for her husband.

Except that everyone in the story is a dragon, red in tooth and claw.

Here is a world of politics and train stations, of churchmen and family retainers, of courtship and country houses…in which, on the death of an elder, family members gather to eat the body of the deceased. In which society’s high-and-mighty members avail themselves of the privilege of killing and eating the weaker children, which they do with ceremony and relish, growing stronger thereby.

You have never read a novel like Tooth and Claw.

I’ve heard this is wonderful and am quite looking forward to it!

Andre Norton’s Forerunner, first published in 1981, is not her first book set in this universe, but it is the first of two books following the character Simsa. Although Forerunner was re-released a few years ago, Forerunner: The Second Venture was not, but both of Simsa’s stories can be found together in the omnibus The Forerunner Factor.

The old city Kuxortal contained a variety of peoples, but Simsa never met another like herself. She does not know where she came from, and for as long as she can remember, she’s lived in the Burrows with Ferwar, an elderly woman who is not her kin. Those who live in the Burrows are the poorest in the city, making their homes out of the ruins of old buildings, and much of their earnings come from unearthing and selling the artifacts found there, particularly popular with visiting starmen. With her dark blue-black skin and light silver hair easily disguised with soot, Simsa is especially well suited to the task of blending into the night and finding relics for Ferwar.

On one of these searches for treasure, Simsa finds instead a zorsal with a broken wing. She almost instinctively soothes the injured creature and immediately feels connected to her in a way she has not experienced before, never having been especially close to anyone, even Ferwar. Though she suspects there is a substantial reward for the zorsal, Simsa takes her home and cares for the wing to the best of her ability. The zorsal, whom she names Zass, can communicate basic concepts such as “danger” and “hunger” and becomes Simsa’s constant companion during her nocturnal excursions.

Eventually Ferwar dies, and some of those in the Burrows see this as an opportunity to assume ownership of a better home—or even Simsa herself. When one man tries to assert his claim, Simsa successfully defeats him due to her high dexterity and sharp claws, but after that and an attempt on her zorsal’s life, she decides she’d better take action, fearing for them both.

 

Simsa had no gods, and trusted in no one—save herself, and Zass—and perhaps somewhat Zass’s two offspring, who at least would answer her calls. But in herself first and most. If she were ever to achieve any rise above the Burrows, out of this constant state of having to be on guard, it would not be by the wave of any god’s hand, it would be by her own determined efforts.
—pp. 23

So Simsa sorts the artifacts Ferwar collected throughout the years and gathers those she plans to trade. Her timing is fortunate—a star ship lands and one of the starmen is quite obviously interested in purchasing some of her more valuable items. This man, Thom, is also interested in her expertise on these as he’s seeking his brother, who disappeared after coming to Kuxortal in pursuit of knowledge of these artifacts. Simsa is not certain if she can trust Thom despite Zass’ apparent approval, but when he’s in danger she chooses to aid him, leading to a difficult journey and the discovery of mysteries both ancient and recent—some of which may even be related to Simsa herself.

Forerunner is an enjoyable story of adventure and discovery. I didn’t always find it a smooth read since the prose didn’t always flow well and I found myself rereading sections because of that, but I also tended to appreciate this style more after a second read. (Admittedly, this need to reread may have been at least in part due to Moving Brain—I have found it rather difficult to concentrate of late due to the upcoming move.) It’s more focused on the tale than depth of characterization, but I did find Simsa a compelling character and am glad that there is another story about her.

One fantasy and science fiction trope I love is the intelligent animal companion, and it’s no surprise that this is my favorite feature of Forerunner, nor that the account of Simsa finding Zass in the first chapter immediately captured my attention. Simsa felt alone in the world and saw this reflected in this lone hurt creature, and in saving the injured zorsal she gained a lifelong friend. She learns the zorsal is surprisingly clever, able to evaluate whether or not someone else is trustworthy and smart enough to detect poisoned meat. Though Zass can not communicate in words, Simsa is able to understand her to an extent and Zass seems to respond to Simsa’s emotional state. The two forge a deep bond, and while Simsa has trained Zass to help look out for her, she looks out for the zorsal in turn, even sacrificing some of her own scant water supply for the zorsal when traveling through the desert.

Simsa trusts Zass more than any person, which isn’t hard to fathom considering the difficulty of life in the Burrows: after all, she has to be ever vigilant against those who would steal her home or even Simsa herself. When she decides to aid Thom, the spaceman who purchases some of her merchandise, and ends up leaving Kuxortal with him, she struggles with this and expects him to betray or abandon her at every turn (even though Zass has judged him not to be a threat—Simsa wonders if his being from another planet may affect this assessment). At one point, she even tells Thom he trusts too easily and shouldn’t even trust her, and it’s interesting to read about the two of them together.

Best of all, this relationship defied my expectations. Often when man and a woman are thrown together like this, Meaningful Glances, Smoldering Looks, Deep Angst, and perhaps a dose of Hilarious Misunderstandings ensue. While this can be fun, I found it a refreshing change of pace to read a story in which this did not happen. Simsa doesn’t spend time wondering what Thom thinks of her, and she doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind unless she feels like it’s unwise to share certain information. Although the novel is ultimately focused on Simsa, the relationship is focused on two people who each use their skills and knowledge to save the other while uncovering mysteries of the past. (I was going to add that they did this while learning to trust and respect each other, but that wouldn’t quite be accurate since Thom seemed to trust and respect Simsa from the start, and meeting him was the first time Simsa had felt like someone was treating her as an equal.)

Despite its short length, I didn’t find Forerunner a quick read, but I did find it entertaining and quite liked reading about Simsa (and Zass!). The ending is rather abrupt and it doesn’t supply many answers, but that didn’t bother me too much since Simsa’s last thought fit well with the struggles she faces throughout the course of the novel—plus it’s not like this is the end of Simsa’s story since it does continue in Forerunner: The Second Venture!

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

This book is August’s selection from a poll on Patreon.