For anybody who didn’t catch my review of Variable Star almost a year and a half ago, I’m a big fan of Spider Robinson. Though I haven’t read as much of her work, Jeanne Robinson’s collaboration with Spider on the Stardance trilogy is also exceptional. Well, word is that Jeanne is fighting a rare form of cancer, and the couple is running low on cash. That link has several ways that you can help, but being the of-limited-resources types that we are, Kristen and I focused in on one: Amazon clickthroughs for their books.

Of course, I already have many of their books, so what to do with them? Give them away, natch! I have three books to give away (bought via Spider’s affiliate program): The Stardance Trilogy Omnibus (hardcover), Very Hard Choices (Spider’s new book released in August, paperback), and a hardcover of Variable Star signed by Spider! Note that the last is a used book which is supposed to be in very good condition, but if it arrives to me all beat up I will give the winner a choice of substituting my like-new hardcover of Variable Star which is (unfortunately) unsigned.

To enter, send an email to fantasycafe AT novomancy DOT org with the subject line “Spider and Jeanne” containing your mailing address. Mailing addresses will only be used for sending the books to the winners and emails will be deleted once the contest is closed on Sep 18th. That’s all it takes, though getting the word out about Jeanne’s post that I linked above would be much appreciated as well. Giveaway is open worldwide; you can enter no matter where you live.

One other note: Though it’s nice to buy their books, if you’re buying off Amazon anyway you can still make sure a bit of your purchase gets redirected to them. I made a bookmarklet that will turn any product page into one that shows up as coming from Spider Robinson’s affiliate account. To use it:

1. Drag this link to your bookmark bar (or right-click and add bookmark, depending on your browser): Robinsonize Amazon Page
2. Go to Amazon and find something you were going to buy anyway, then hit that bookmark before you add it to your cart.
3. The page should reload, but it now contains the code for Spider’s account.

I know that the book blogging community spends a ridiculous amount of money at Amazon, so if even a tiny portion of it can be redirected it would help.

Thanks, and good luck winning!

The Drowning City
by Amanda Downum
384pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 5.5/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: N/A
Goodreads Rating: 3/5

The Drowning City is Amanda Downum’s debut novel and was just released on August 25. It is the first book in The Necromancer Chronicles series, and the next two books are scheduled to be published approximately a year apart (The Bone Palace in 2010 and Kingdoms of Dust in 2011). Ever since I saw the cover quote from one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Bear, I’ve been dying to read it – and the actual cover plus the description about necromancy and spying didn’t hurt either. Unfortunately, it failed to connect with me even though there are a lot of positive aspects about it.

Necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur arrives in Symir with a mission – to start a revolution before the Empire decides to invade her own country. Her master sent her, along with a bodyguard Adam and his partner Xinai who is originally from Symir, to find one of the native groups dedicated to overthrowing the emperor. As a practitioner of magic, Isyllt makes contact with the local mages and pretends to study with one of them. In reality, her new teacher Vasilios is sympathetic to the cause of dethroning the current ruler. His apprentice Zhirin is secretly (or so she thinks) involved in a relationship with the leader of one of the peaceful rebellious groups and Vasilios asks Zhirin to introduce Isyllt to her companion.

Meanwhile, Xinai decides to get in touch with her people and becomes involved with one of the more violent revolutionary gangs, who will do anything to get their way – even if it means involving those who should remain dead.


This is a difficult book for me to review because it’s one of those I had very mixed feelings about. Basically, I struggled through the first third, thought the next third was ok, and ended up liking the last third of the book. Since I thought this novel had quite a few strengths, it’s hard to point out why exactly I wasn’t that fond of it to begin with. When rereading early parts of it for this review, it was decent enough so perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood to read it at the time. Regardless, the fact is I really didn’t particularly care about any of the characters or what happened for about two thirds of the book. Yet, I found that parts of the ending did leave me haunted by the fates of a couple of the protagonists so I did care at least a little about them by the time I was finished… even if I was tempted to put this one down for good several times.

One of the novel’s strengths was the writing. The prose was spare with some concise yet vivid descriptions. Infodumps are kept to a minimum, and Downum throws readers right into the story without explaining every little detail of the backstory. Background information is slowly revealed, which is a style I personally prefer to knowing a bunch of details about the world and characters right up front.

I did not find the actual story held my attention at first. Although I do like politicking and spying, I thought the plot moved rather slowly in the beginning. There was a lot of meeting contacts and introducing new characters, along with a side plot in which Isyllt performs an exorcism that I didn’t find all that interesting.

Although it never made me feel like I knew the characters, some of them were likable enough. Even though she had good reason for it with the death of her family long ago, Xinai was a bit too cold-hearted for my taste, particularly since I never felt like I was seeing underneath the surface of her character. However, I liked Zhirin and Isyllt and was very intrigued by the powerful, mysterious mage Asheris. Zhirin was idealistic and naive but also sweet and courageous. She could have easily been spoiled with her upbringing but she was quick to jump in and help out her cause. Isyllt was the main character and was therefore the one who was developed the most. Her experiences made her colder and pragmatic than the young Zhirin, yet she also had past sorrows that made her sympathetic. As a necromancer, she was feared and that made her a bit of an outcast.

Downum is not easy on her characters in the tradition of more realistic fantasy instead of the kind where everyone lives happily ever after. They are not invincible, and by the end of the book most of them have had it pretty rough. There are consequences to being part of a revolution and no major character comes away from it unscathed.

The world introduced in this first volume is intriguing. Its not the typical medieval European setting but an Asian one in which technology has advanced to the point of having guns, although some do still use swords, knives and other pointy objects for weapons. I’d like to know more about the types of mages. Zhirin has an affinity with the river and her power comes from water. As a necromancer, Isyllt can talk to ghosts and perform exorcisms, although she has some other powers such as communicating over distances using a mirror.

Overall, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about The Drowning City. The world and writing were both strong, but the characters and plot failed to connect with me until late in the novel. By the end, I was vaguely curious about what would happen next but probably not enough to seek the next novel with all the other books that are out there waiting for me to read them.

5.5/10

Excerpts

A brief technical supplement in support of our proposed new unit, the grrm.

The grrm is a unit of change over time. Specifically, it measures the degree of warping of a shelf under a constant weight per distance over a given length of time. In terms of quality, more grrms represent a shelf that bends more under stress. In standardized units, 1 grrm can be described as:

1 degree of deflection under the weight of a full shelf of ASOIAF (books 1-4) over a given amount of time. Standard constants for weight and time are given below.

Obviously this definition requires a bit of explanation:

  • 1 degree of deflection
    This angle is measured between the nadir of the bowed shelf and a horizontal line perpendicular to the sides that represents where the shelf would be if it were not warped. Note that this is not just the distance that the middle of the shelf has dropped, so a 1cm drop will represent a smaller angle for a 1m wide shelf than one that is only .6m. This helps represent the fact that a longer shelf is more difficult to keep flat, and if it only deflects the same amount as a short shelf it is probably of higher quality than the shorter one.

  • A full shelf of ASOIAF books
    Of course, everybody should fill their shelves with ASOIAF, preferably as many hardcover copies as is necessary to completely fill the shelf. However, in recognition of the fact that many people will only have three or four copies of the series in hardcover (or even-gasp-one) this requirement can be averaged to a standard amount of weight distributed over a certain length of shelf space. Unfortunately, the provisional nature of this unit and the varying editions of ASOIAF prevents us from defining this quantity precisely. While it has been proposed that the official values be based on a reference set of first edition hardcovers kept in a hermetically sealed vault in George R.R. Martin’s library, preliminary values are as follows:

    - A Game of Thrones: 4.572cm wide, 997g
    - A Clash of Kings: 5.334cm wide, 1088g
    - A Storm of Swords: 6.35cm wide, 1360g
    - A Feast for Crows: 4.064cm wide, 1088g

    These values yield an average density of 223 grams per linear centimeter, also known as the golden grrm. When establishing the grrm rating of a shelf, this weight should be evenly distributed across the entire length of the shelf in question. Again, please note that these numbers are preliminary and will be revised if and when George R. R. Martin measures and weighs the copies stored in his hermetically sealed, climate controlled vault. (If anybody knows him to ask him, please feel free to report back the results in the name of SCIENCE!) Upon the release of future books, the average will be updated and all shelves previously measured should be destroyed, replaced, and retested.

  • A year
    This is, well, a year. Not to be all Euro-centric or anything, but we’re going with the 365.25 day calendar. Bowing is not likely to be a linear process, so ideally the first year should be used so results are comparable across tests. Otherwise, this is pretty much just a year.

Testing using exact weights may be problematic. Anywhere outside of a NIST laboratory, occupying (some might say ‘wasting’, but that seems a bit judgmental) an entire shelf with standard weighting instruments just for the purpose of determining the quality of your shelf is likely to be impractical. In deference to those who wish to test their shelf but do not have the space to sacrifice to proper methodology, this proposal suggests calculating a normalized grrm rating by comparing the actual weight and length figures to the standard constants defined by the grrm. There are a number of engineering problems with this procedure, but frankly, SCIENCE! is no fun if there’s not a home game. All we ask is that, when normalized grrm figures are presented publicly, they should be acknowledged as such and never compared to standard grrm ratings.


Other testing guidelines:

  • Shelves in a bookshelf that are structurally different from other shelves in the same unit should be tested separately. This is most common with the top and bottom shelves, which often have better support than middle shelves. When a single grrm rating is reported for an entire bookshelf, it should be the result of testing on the middle shelves.
  • Whenever a book is removed from a shelf that is undergoing testing, another book of identical weight should replace it. Empty spaces on shelves, even for books that are currently being read or as organizational space set aside for future books by an author or in a series, is not permitted during testing.
  • The grrm is only applicable for long-term testing (thus the inclusion of the time component). Instantaneous destructive stress testing is covered by a related standard, the Erikson, but that is beyond the scope of this document.

The first application of the grrm is in Kristen’s bookshelf review below.


Some of you may remember that a little while ago I mentioned I would be doing a review that is a bit different. CSN Office Furniture kindly offered to donate a bookcase for me to review and how could I refuse an offer like that? I asked them for recommendations for a bookcase that was sturdy since most of my shelves are bending under the weight of all my hardcover books. They recommended me cases made by Winsome or Sauder for these purposes, and I ended up settling on the Camden County Three-Shelf Bookcase by Sauder.

I received my bookcase very promptly but did not end up getting it up immediately because it was so hot here (90F is hot in Maine, really!). It cooled down enough to assemble it last week and over the weekend I moved a bunch of my hardcover books onto it (trying to keep series and authors together but unfortunately without alphabetizing since I still have to double stack books on some shelves and now have a total of 9 bookcases scattered all throughout the apartment).

Technical Details

  • Planked cherry finish
  • Two adjustable shelves
  • Sturdy 1″ thick shelves and uprights
  • Quick and easy assembly with patented twist lock fasteners
  • Overall Dimensions: 44.25″ H x 36″ W x 13.875″ D

Assembly

According to my husband (who put the case together for me last week once it cooled down enough here to do more than sprawl in front of the fan), the bookcase was very easy to assemble. It required a hammer and a screwdriver and used the twist lock connectors, which don’t seem as though they would be as sturdy as real cams, but when moving it around it did not seem weak or like it would come apart easily. He did tell me to make sure I added that it is frigging heavy, and I can attest to that since I helped him move it a few times.

Evaluation

With its cherry wood finish, the bookcase is definitely very nice-looking yet it is practical and holds a lot of books. It’s larger, more attractive, and sturdier than any of my other bookcases (not that this is difficult since I tend to buy cheap bookcases from Target – I can’t afford to be flashy with so many bookshelves). Only time will tell but with its one-inch thick shelves it is a lot hardier than my other bookcases and will hopefully hold up better under the strain of those thick books. Though calculations suggest otherwise…

To properly estimate the effects of hardcovers on a shelf over time, my husband is proposing a new unit and testing procedure known as the grrm. Based on the golden grrm value of 223 grams per linear centimeter, the center shelves which are 34″ long should be able to hold about 19.25 kg or 42.4 lbs. However, the manual that came with the shelf said the middle shelves were only rated to hold 35 lbs without bending. That suggests that even though the shelves are an inch thick, they’re probably still going to end up bending if you load it with hardcovers. The bottom shelf is rated at 55 lbs so that should be all set, even if I did put my George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson hardcovers on it. (For more information, see the exciting technical supplement detailing the grrm.)

The Camden County Three-Shelf bookcase is a lovely case that is sturdier than the cheap bookcases I normally buy (priced at approximately $100, it had better be – edit: oops, just checked and it looks like the price has increased). Even so, the middle shelves may still bend if used exclusively for hardcovers. Since the estimated weight a case may hold is often less than the actual weight, it may hold up better than expected, but I’ll have to report back after some time has passed.

Aug
31
2009

Over the weekend I finished two things necessary for reviews I’ve been planning on doing. One was the book The Drowning City by Amanda Downum, and the other was putting books on the new bookshelf. I’m hoping to get a review of at least get one of those up before next weekend, preferably both.

At the moment, I’m about a quarter of the way through The Magicians by Lev Grossman, which just debuted at #9 on the New York Times bestseller list. So far, I really like it.

For September books, I’m planning to read Soulless by Gail Carriger and Fire by Kristin Cashore, and I’ll read Doubleblind, the third Sirantha Jax book by Ann Aguirre as soon as I can find a copy (it’s supposed to be out on September 29). If I have time to squeeze it in before the end of the month, I’d also like to read Medicine Road by Charles deLint. For my very next book, I’m not entirely sure what to read. After I finish The Magicians, I’ve decided to read something that’s not from this year but I’m having trouble picking just one book. It could end up being Alpha or another Skolian book by Catherine Asaro, Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett, My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due, or maybe one of my unread Elizabeth Bear books. I can’t make my mind (but what else is new – decisiveness has never been my forte).

The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker
by Leanna Renee Hieber
324pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.17/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.12/5

The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker is the first book in The Strangely Beautiful series by Leanna Renee Hieber, whose novella Dark Nest won the 2009 Prism Award. The series will be four books long, but if it does well, there may be a fifth book focusing on the character Lord Elijah Withersby. This particular novel is a Gothic Victorian fantasy romance involving dark powers and mythology.

In the year 1867, spirits sweep through the city of London seeking a specific group of young men and women. Once the six are found and gathered together, they are surprised to learn that they can now see ghosts. They follow a raven to a chapel, where a woman appears to them and rather vaguely informs them of what has happened. The six of them are forming the Guard, which is intended to protect the living from the dead. Each member of the Guard has a special gift and together they are to enforce the balance between this world and the other side. Eventually, a seventh will join them but the woman cannot tell them when, only that the sign they should seek is a door. The coming of the seventh will mark the beginning of a time of conflict but the six are warned to beware since there will be a false prophet that would deceive them – and if she succeeds, the world will end.

Twenty-one years later, the Guard remain at six members. One of them, Rebecca, is now the headmistress of Athens Academy, where she encounters a rather unusual student, eighteen-year-old Percy Parker. Percy, whose mother died when she was very young, was raised in a convent. She is not only unique due to her ghastly white skin and hair, but she is also very gifted at languages and has known several for as long as she can remember. Although she will not admit to it for fear of what will happen, Percy can speak with ghosts and has visions. Upon confessing the nuns did not think it necessary to teach a lady math and science, Rebecca enrolls Percy in a math class and informs her that she must get decent grades in all her courses to continue at the academy. Percy’s failure to understand math leads to private tutelage with Professor Alexi Rychman, the leader of the Guard, whom she has been infatuated with since the moment she laid eyes on him. Yet she continues to humiliate herself in his presence, especially as her visions seem to be happening more and more frequently.


As can be gleaned from the title, this is Percy’s story even though we are given the perspective of some other characters on occasion, including Alexi and Rebecca. At a time when confident, brazen heroines are popular, Percy is very different – timid, softspoken and not at all confident. For her entire life, she has felt like an outcast due to her appearance as well as the fact that she knows it’s not normal to just innately understand a foreign language, converse with ghosts, or see visions. She hides herself as much as possible with scarves and glasses and tries not to stand out in any way. Sometimes I find this type of protagonist a bit dull to read about, but I did not have this problem with Percy at all. She was very sympathetic and well-drawn, making her seem very real to me. Also, she was not a stagnant character and she did grow throughout the course of the novel.

In spite of the fact that she believes no man will ever look at her, Percy is a romantic and a large part of the story focuses on her relationship with Alexi. I really liked the two of them together and the scenes involving both of them reminded me of a lot of the old romantic books I adored as a teen such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with all their drama (although Percy does not begin nearly as self-assured as either Jane or Catherine). Percy is immediately obsessed with the handsome, secretive Alexi, who is also a melodramatic romantic. Ever since the day he became a member of the Guard, he has believed it’s his destiny to fall in love with the prophesied seventh. Because of this, he’s forsaken all relationships with women (much to Rebecca’s dismay) and lives a rather solitary life buried in his books.

The other Guard members were intriguing characters as well and I’m looking forward to learning more about them in future installments. Other than Rebecca and Alexi, there were only a few glimpses of the others but I’m particularly curious about Josephine and Elijah, who each had a scene with Percy involving their gifts (art and visions of the past) that made me want to read more about them.

What I liked best about this novel were the characters. I also liked the alternate world of London in 1888 (complete with a paranormal explanation for Jack the Ripper), the magic and gifts of the six, and the friendships Percy struck up with ghosts.

Although I did like the fight against Darkness by preventing it from merging the two worlds, I thought the villains seemed a bit overdone – they were the single-mindedly obsessed with being evil types. I like my villains to have some sort of reasoning for their evil instead of just being dastardly. From the end of the book, the motivations of the main villain seem clearer so perhaps this will be fleshed out a bit more in future novels. Also, even though I had fun with the angsty drama for most of the book, toward the end it did get to be a bit too much for me.

Overall, I enjoyed The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker for its characters and the mythical English setting. The end didn’t hold up as well for me as the beginning and middle, but I am looking forward to reading the next book.

7.5/10

Read Excerpts

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