Book Review: Wayward Son by Tom Pollack

Everything changes early one morning when Dr. Amanda James gets a call from an old college flame and fellow archaeologist, beseeching her to travel to Italy to help solve the puzzle of a mysterious set of bronze doors at a new dig site. Much to her surprise and bemusement, Amanda also receives an offer of stardom and celebrity from billionaire Luc Renard on the same day. The only catch? The job is in Tokyo, requiring Amanda to leave everything of her life behind including her current work at the Getty Museum. Unable to turn her back on archaeology and all the research that she loves, she turns down the offer, but Renard is not someone used to taking no for an answer…

At the dig site in Italy, Amanda takes up the challenge solving the secret of the bronze doors. Sealed by a code inscribed in ancient languages including Chinese and Egyptian, the researchers believe the doors should open up to an underground vault buried beneath a hundred feet of ash from the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. Once inside, Amanda discovers a room full of relics, including two unknown figures eternally locked in what appears to have been a struggle, killed and frozen in time by the volcanic effusion.

It is then Amanda suddenly experiences a shocking vision — the life and times of the notorious Biblical figure Cain. Through her visions, she learns the truth — that Cain actually walked the earth for thousands of years, cursed for the murder of his brother. Trapped in his immortal life, this is a story of Cain’s road to redemption and fight to resist the devil’s temptations.

At first, I thought I would love Wayward Son, based on my love for archaeology and the description of the book on various websites like Amazon and Goodreads. However, the book was nothing like I expected. Don’t get me wrong, this was a well written book with a rather creative story. My problem with it isn’t so much what the book was about, but with the way it was marketed.

From the synopsis, it sounded like a tale of suspense and adventure, something I would really love. As it turned out, this was not the case. I think I was initially drawn to these particular lines of the description: “Amanda is shocked to discover evidence left behind by a notorioius Biblical killer, who long ago wandered off the pages of history. When a strange relic unveils the miraculous truth about this villain, Amanda must battle sinister forces intent on suppressing her stunning revelation, before it alters the destiny of millions.”

While the beginning of the novel started off promising, I have to say that description did not actually reflect the content of the book at all. The bulk of the story itself is actually much more low-key and subdued, and not as heart-pumpingly exciting as the synopsis made it sound. The life of “Biblical killer” who turned out to be Cain played out more like a historical drama, and he wasn’t really portrayed like the “villain” as stated. While Wayward Son did have a touch of mystery and suspense, the description is unreliable. I would say this book would be more at home on a Christian fiction shelf.

I’m still glad I picked it up for the synopsis, misleading or not, because I don’t know if I would have read this book otherwise. It’s an intriguing read, though my only caveat to other potential readers, of course, is to be wary of the novel’s descriptions.


Book Review: Kraken by China Miéville

Kraken follows Bill Harrow, a researcher and scientist at the Museum of Natual History in London. An expert on mollusks, Billy was responsible for the preservation efforts of the museum’s most popular exhibits — the giant squid, affectionately nicknamed “Archie”. One day out of the blue, the gargantuan specimen goes missing, and Billy finds himself thrown into a side of London he never knew existed, a world of magic, secret cults, doomsday prophecies and supernatural creatures.

This novel, while technically can be considered urban fantasy, is certainly unlike anything I’ve seen in the genre. In fact, I can probably file this one under the “Weirdest books I’ve ever read” shelf. What an interesting experience for my first book by China Miéville, an author I’ve been hearing great things about from my friends and reader reviews.

In retrospect, I wonder if Kraken was such a good choice for my first taste of Miéville. For a while, I’d had my eyes on a couple of his well-known books, namely Perdido Street Station and The City & The City, but decided in the end to tackle something more recent. I’d been told beforehand by fans of Miéville, however, that Kraken is quite unlike many of his other books.

I thought I was prepared for anything, but this book was still nothing like I expected. The first quarter of the book was the most “normal” part, which set up the story and drew me in right away. After that, everything started spiraling out of control. More than a few times, I felt as confused as Billy.

But even as Kraken gets increasingly abstract, it is a strangeness that is familiar to me, one that is almost reminiscent of works by Neil Gaiman. It is a style I can appreciate, though probably not one I’d prefer if I was being honest with myself. Still, I was quite content with the actual story and its mystery, and I was particularly thrilled with the pop culture references like Star Trek, and the author incorporating a real life Tribble and an actual working phaser gun into this book.

In truth, it was the prose that somewhat disaffected me. China Miéville likes to use many words and he uses them very well, but too much of that and it can quickly get out of hand. At some parts of the book, this kills the momentum completely, making it difficult to connect with the world of the characters when you’re frequently distracted by so much that is superfluous to the main story. By the the time I got to the final chapters, I realized all I wanted to do was get the book over with and find out what happens so I could move on.

I’m definitely planning to read more from the author
, but in the future I would probably choose more carefully. Kraken had a good start, and featured some interesting ideas and a great premise, but reading it was a little exhausting despite the fact it’s not an overly long book. Still, I hear Miéville has quite a varied writing style and I’m looking forward to checking out some of his other more straightforward works.


Book Review: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters is a historical fiction about three photojournalists brought together during the Vietnam War. Helen Adams, a naive girl from California who drops out of college to travel across the ocean, hoping to change the world through her pictures. Sam Darrow, an experienced Pulitzer prize winning photographer, jaded by violence, but finds it difficult to turn away from it just the same. Linh, the son of a Vietnamese scholar, is changed by the war and finds himself working for an American magazine, but his own allegiances are a mystery even to himself.

But the novel is also so much more than that. It is a story about three individuals connected by their love for their work, for each other, and for a war-torn country in the final years before its fall. It is about people feeling like outsiders in their own country. It is about war, art and love. And it is about dangerous ambition, obsession and addiction.

Layer upon layer, the Tatjana Soli builds upon these themes in her book. I found the story slow to take off at first, but with every page the emotions and the tensions built up and I found myself just wanting to read more.

The writing is beautiful, almost poetic, and perfect for the premise and solemn tone of the story. In keeping with the genre of historical fiction, descriptions of actual events and key figures of the Vietnam War play a huge role, but for me the most memorable aspect of the novel was the author’s use of powerful imagery. Vietnam itself almost becomes a distinct character, the jungle and 1960’s Saigon taking on lives of their own. The descriptions of the latter setting are so realistic, it almost feels as if you are actually standing there in the city’s streets. I thought the author did an excellent job writing about the different faces of the country, detailing the horrors of war but also taking time to describe the beauty of the untouched countryside.

This is also a very emotional book, delving deep into the thoughts and feelings of each character. The book changes points of views frequently, which can be a little confusing, but I still got to know Helen, Darrow and Linh very well. At times it became difficult to read this book, because of how very little I related to the characters.

Helen came off exactly as the author intended, naive and idealistic when she arrives in Vietnam but gradually transforms into hardened photojournalist, completely numb to her pain and fear and becoming much like her colleague Sam Darrow. Darrow was more of a mystery to me, a flawed and tortured character, though not in the way which invoked any of my sympathies. Their relationship frustrated me from beginning to end, watching the futility of her trying to tame him. Both made excuses for what I felt were their selfishness and hypocrisy, but it was all written so well. Addiction can take many forms, and this is one of the themes I felt the book explored.

I was more impressed with the character of Linh, however, even though the first chapter did little to endear him to me. But subsequent chapters slowly changed my mind as we started learning more about him in the context of his past and his culture. His connection with Helen becomes almost like an allegory for the relationship between the two countries.

The more I read, the more I was drawn in. I didn’t necessarily have to understand the characters or their motivations to enjoy this book. While the war and the soldiers were a major presence, I felt it was interesting that the author chose to focus on the life of a female photographer for the novel’s premise.

Note: I received a copy of The Lotus Eaters through participating in a Goodreads giveaway. I would like to thank Goodreads, the publisher and the author for opportunity.


Book Review: Lily of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Lily of the Nile is a historical fiction novel about Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. From birth, Selene and her twin brother Helios were hailed as a sacred pair by the worshipers of Isis, but after Alexandria fell to Roman forces and the suicides of their parents, the children are brought to Rome by the conqueror Octavian to be fostered in his imperial household. A prisoner trapped in a culture completely at odds with her heritage and faith, Selene struggles to hold on to Isis and the memory of her parents’ legacy, meanwhile using all her wits to survive life in the Roman court.

This was simply a beautiful novel. While not exactly a heart-thumping page-turner, it nonetheless had me enraptured with its story an
d characters every step of the way.

At the heart of it, Lily of the Nile is a coming-of-age story, and it’s a unique one at that. It’s labeled as historical fiction, but I was surprised to find a thread of fantasy laced through the novel in the form of old magic, which sets it apart from many other historical fiction I’ve read in the past.

This novel uses a lot of symbols and imagery to illustrate its themes, of which the most interesting to me was the relationship between masculinity and femininity. For example, Isis, Cleopatra, Egypt, Alexandria, the moon, the Nile and even Selene herself were all used at some point as metaphors for the feminine, while Rome embodies everything about the masculine. I am thoroughly impressed at how the author has created this war of symbols behind the backdrop of the actual story, and despite the power struggle between the two sides, masculinity and femininity meet as equals in the end. This is just one of the many themes I glimpsed in this this novel, and as they all “clicked” to me as I was reading, I began to realize how elaborately woven this story is.

The other thing that struck me was the novel’s approach to political intrigue. It is nowhere near as daunting as the way it was handled in George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”, nor does it have the flare or epicness of HBO’s Rome, but its subtlety is something I can appreciate nonetheless. In fact, I didn’t even get the sense that there was anything of the sort until I was well into the book. When the political dealings finally became apparent to me, it was even more captivating given what was revealed of Octavian’s cunning, and knowing the fact these political games were essentially being played with the children as the pieces.

Finally, I have to say I can’t imagine how much research went into the writing of this novel. Stephanie Dray makes every effort to stay historically accurate, and what she embellished or changed for the sake of brevity she explains in her author’s note at the end of the book.

At the same time, she is very good at injecting life in the novel amidst the historical facts. The fantasy/magic aspect I mentioned before plays into this, but the author also paints a very realistic and vibrant picture of her characters, especially the children — Selene, her brothers Helios and Philadelphus and all the other children in Octavian’s household. My favorite character had to be Julia, the impish daughter of the emperor. Besides the main story, what I liked most about the book were the children and their relationships with each other and the adults who hold the power over their lives.


Book Review: Naamah’s Blessing by Jacqueline Carey

The adventures of Moirin mac Fainche continue in Naamah’s Blessing, the third book of her trilogy. It all started years ago, when Moirin left her idyllic home in the wilderness of Alba to fulfill a destiny, seeking to do the will of the Maghuin Dhonn. Her travels have since brought her to the far reaches of the earth, but it appears still the gods have more in store.

Upon her return to Terre D’Ange, Moirin finds the realm in a state of unease. The royal family is broken, with Prince Thierry, heir to the throne, absent on an expedition to faraway Terra Nova. King Daniel, bereaved over the death of Queen Jehanne, is too distracted to rule. Their young daughter the Princess Desiree is troubled and neglected, her future and happiness in question. Times are rife with uncertainty and political instability.

The story ofNaamah’s Blessing also has its roots in the events from the first book. When Moirin first journeyed to Terre D’Ange seeking answers in the land of her father’s ancestors, her encounters with the D’Angeline people did more than teach her about her heritage — it also opened up a window to a brand new world. In her naivete, Moirin allowed herself to be manipulated by the charms of Raphael de Merliot, becoming entangled in his plot to summon a fallen angel. Their efforts ultimately ended in failure — but a costly and deadly one.

Now faced the mistakes of her past, Moirin must take on a dangerous quest to make amends and embark on one final voyage to fulfill her destiny. The future of Terre D’Ange and the lives of people she loves depend on it.

I adore Jacqueline Carey, ever since the day I first discovered the Kushiel’s Legacy series. I still remember the wonder and awe I felt when I finished reading Kushiel’s Dart, the epic story that started it all. I’ve been addicted to her books ever since.

Devouring the rest of novels in the series including her second trilogy featuring Prince Imriel, I was thrilled when I heard Ms. Carey was planning on writing a third trilogy set in the same universe, though it would take place generations later, focusing on a half-D’Angeline child of the Maghuin Dhonn. I looked forward to it with anticipation.

And now that Moirin’s trilogy is finally complete, I must admit the experience has been both frustrating and gratifying. On the one hand, I feel it is not as strong as the previous two trilogies, yet on the other, I am probably being unfair by making comparisons. After all, Moirin’s story was likely meant to explore a different direction, and expand the world of Kushiel’s Legacy.

I ended up enjoying Naamah’s Blessing quite a bit, but it took some time to get there. I was not initially impressed with the first half of the book, underwhelmed by a rather uninspiring and self-indulgent introduction. There were various attempts at twists and turns, but not once did I find myself feeling any suspense, predicting many of the major steps in the plot that were meant to set up the story. As such, I felt none of the emotional blows I was meant to feel, but simply became increasingly frustrated at how all the events felt forced and telegraphed.

Still, while I thought the first half of the book was lackluster, I have to say the second half made up for much of it. It was Moirin’s expedition to Terra Nova that provided the turning point, and it was then I started feeling the thrill again, and marveled at Ms. Carey’s way of building new worlds.

I don’t mind it when she takes us to faraway places, showing us there is indeed a lot more beyond the borders of Terre D’Ange. Since Naamah’s Curse, Moirin has traveled the world, from exotic Ch’in to the dry plains of the Tatar Steppes, from remote Vralia to the lush lands of Bhodistan. The only regret I have is that all this jumping around does not do these places justice. With so many settings, it is impossible to give the same level of attention to the details. Terra Nova, however, received better treatment. I do very much enjoy the way each geographical area and culture in the series corresponds to one in the real world, and I love reading how Carey shapes each place to her owm vision. She succeeded in drawing me in again with her descriptions of this new frontier.

The story itself was nothing elegant, but it was exciting nonetheless. Once Moirin and her companions started on their journey, it was hard to stop turning the pages until the climax was reached and her destiny resolved. D’Angelines are people used to a life of comfort and decadent luxury, so it also something else to read about them out of their element, trekking through the dangerous and unforgiving jungles of Terra Nova.

I have to admit I was never a big fan of Moirin, but after this book I started liking her more. Being so used to the strength and quiet poise of Phedre no Delaunay, it took some time to accept Moirin’s voice and her sometimes emotional and impulsive nature. I still got annoyed every time the narrative talked about her eyes stinging or filling with tears, but I think I’ve finally come to terms with her character. Moirin may seem childish sometimes, but her youth also gives her an energetic and lively view of her life’s challenges, which I came to appreciate in this book.

I also started to like her companion and romantic interest Bao a lot more. His character hasn’t been very popular with fans for some reason. Still, while he’s no Joscelin Verreuil, Bao has been much developed over the last three books and he is very much one of Jacqueline Carey’s men. I’ve always admired her talent for writing male characters, and over time she has given Bao the same treatment she has given to others like Barquiel L’Envers or Hyacinthe, transforming him into a hero I can respect.

There are, however, things I felt the book missed. Once again, Moirin is off to single-handedly save the world and right all its wrongs, but thankfully this was not as overdone as the last book. Still, the outcomes of the novel were very predictable. It is an irony that while Moirin being a child of the Maghuin Dhonn possesses a connection with magic, her story felt markedly less magical than the previous two trilogies. It was like something faded away from the series after Prince Imriel’s trilogy. I’ve always felt Moirin’s story lacked a focus, her mysterious destiny a tenuous reason for her adventures at best.

A lot of it has to do with so much of the plot feeling so convenient, such as the timely insertion of a usurping regent as an antagonist in the beginning of the book, or the child princess Desiree, three years old when she first meets Moirin, but who happens to be the spitting image of her mother Jehanne and acts and speaks in a way beyond her years. It’s discomfiting, even when it is explained to the reader that she is unusually precocious for her age. Or even Raphael de Merliot, the book’s main villain. While he poses a real and dangerous threat to Moirin and our heroes, his wickedness is one-sided, and he has none of the subtlety or delightful avarice, of say, Melisande Shahrizai whom we all loved to hate.

Overall, however, I still really liked this book. The trilogy really picked itself up following the last installment, and I also liked it for its themes of deities and destinies. Throughout her many adventures, Moirin has to remind herself time and time again that things get ugly when mortals misinterpret the will of the gods.