Summer Reading: Sequels That Stand Alone

God of Broken Things, by Cameron Johnston (Angry Robot)

One of the challenges of writing a sequel is the balance between giving the new reader all the necessary background, developing the characters well enough, and yet not boring readers who are already familiar with the cast and setting.  I picked up God of Broken Things unaware that it was a sequel to Traitor God. For most of the book, however, I could not decide if God of Broken Things was indeed a sequel (to a book I knew immediately I wanted to run out and read) or a stand-alone with a rich and brilliantly handled back story.

The world of this story, and in particular the city-state of Setharis, are still reeling after the events in the previous book, which include all sort of monstrous, god-like things running amok and smashing things in horrific fashion.Our reluctant hero, Edrin Walker, a “tyrant” magus who can read thoughts and impose his will on others, among other mental talents, remains at odds with the magical authorities and himself. Behind all this havoc are the barbaric Skallgrim (skull-grim?), many of whom are infested with alien Scarrabus mind-parasites. Now the Skallgrim and their mind-worms (or insects) are back again, bent on battering the world into ruins, and if humanity survives at all, it will be as an inferior, enslaved race. Much as the Setharis magus powers-that-be distrust Edrin’s mental powers, he’s their best hope, so they send him to hold the invading army at bay or at least slow it down until their allies can arrive. Edrin gathers together a personal coterie of arsonists and poisoners, plus a mind-slave or two, a sword that’s really a bloodthirsty demon, an old almost-lover, and a vicious pony, along with a handful of other magi of various sorts. And things go wrong. And more wrong. And then seriously wrong, with one reversal or twist leading to the next, even more awful crisis. And then this-can’t-possibly-get-worse-but-it-does wrong.

This is a long, complex tale with a cast of thousands and a ton of battle scenes. Also torture, also other sorts of combat. But it’s very well done and immensely entertaining. God of Broken Things definitely marks Canadian Cameron Johnston as an author to watch for.

As an aside, the publisher, Angry Robot, is putting out some very interesting books these days. I’d keep an eye on them, too.

 

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Sons of Darkness (A Night Vigil Novel), by Gail Z. Martin (SOL)

I met Gail Z. Martin through her #HoldOnToTheLight campaign and was curious to see what kind of fiction she writes (there’s a lot of it, which is a good thing because she’s very good!) I didn’t know that Sons of Darkness is tied into several of her other series, but no prior experience was necessary to enjoy this story.

Martin is highly experienced in her genre and handles pacing, tension, character development, and a host of new twists on old horror themes with deceptive ease that makes for a smooth, fast-paced reading experience.

The book revolves around two men who are both mirrors of one another and distinct individuals. Travis Dominick, ex-priest, psychic medium, and former member of a secret Vatican order of demon hunts, encounters Brent Lawson, vet, ex-cop, ex-FBI agent, former member of a supernatural-black-ops, and surviving twin whose ghost brother hangs around, trying to make contact. Travis’s first thought about Brent as he rescues him from a psi-vampire is: There’s a newbie out there who thinks he’s Van Helsing.

Soon, however, the two overcome their animosity to work together as supernatural invasions mount and a pattern emerges:  every fifty years, a hell gate opens and increasingly terrible disasters feed the spirit dwelling there, climaxing in a horrific blood bath.

One of the challenges of writing a stand-alone book within a series, or linked to other series, is the balance between giving the new reader all the necessary background, developing the characters well enough, and yet not boring readers who are already familiar with the cast and setting. Martin does a fine job here, and although not every secondary character came fully alive for me, I always knew enough about them each time they were mentioned so as to not be confused. As I mentioned earlier, the handling of exposition, action, and pacing was top-notch, except for a couple of minor bobbles late in the book when a small but essential piece of action happened (unnecessarily, I thought) off-stage, but these flaws were minor compared to the overall pleasure of the story.

Now that I’m hooked on Travis, Brent, and the crew, I’ll be looking to follow their previous and future adventures with anticipation.

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The Mercutio Problem, by Carol Anne Douglas (Hermione Books)

The Mercutio Problem is a sequel to Merlin’s Shakespeare. In contrast to the above two books, this became obvious almost immediately, although to her credit, the author gave me all the information I needed to understand and enjoy the present story.

So the back story from the first book is that Merlin (from the legends of King Arthur) enlists the help of Beth Owens, high school theater student, to convince William Shakespeare to write a play about King Arthur. In the course of this adventure, she meets many characters from Shakespeare’s plays, including flirtatious, charismatic Mercutio (from Romeo and Juliet) and the ultimate villain, Richard III.

At the beginning of the present book, Mercutio is dead, slain not by Tybalt but by Richard. Here comes Merlin again, only this time the problem is that Richard wants to change the ending of Shakespeare’s plays (especially his own) and is going about enlisting various other characters and the ghost of Christopher Marlowe in order to pressure Shakespeare. Not only that, but Merlin offers an added inducement to Beth, that she will take the form of Mercutio within Shakespeare’s plays and if she dies in that form, he will live again. Got all that?

Then comes the fun part, visiting the plays and interacting with the characters, many of whom wander into other plays, too. The dialog is often brilliant, reflecting not only Shakespearean language but the particularities of the specific character (for example, Julius Caesar always talks about himself in the third person and rambles on about honor and fate). Bottom has gone missing, so Midsummerland is perpetually rainy (and Bottomless). Lady MacBeth, who knows a thing or two about tyranny and regret, plays a pivotal role in organizing the resistance against Richard, and King Lear, consumed with guilt, goes rampaging through the other plays to slay anyone who wants to keep the plays as they were originally written.

For me, though, the most interesting parts of the book were the subtle examinations of gender and sexual orientation. Beth encounters the world of the plays primarily in Mercutio’s male (heterosexual) body – although for some reason her genitalia remain female. This anatomical omission strikes her with a sense of relief, which bothered me. It seems to me a cheat to give Beth an emasculated, sexless version of Mercutio, instead of the experience of being fully male. Being in Mercutio’s body and behaving as Mercutio does offers so many openings for challenging Beth’s notions of gender and sexuality, it seems a shame to chicken out of the hard parts (excuse the pun).

A number of times Beth finds herself puzzled but not put off by her/Mercutio’s attraction to women, and wonders what this means for her own, hitherto straight, sexuality. She wrestles with jealousy when her best friend, Sita, comes out as lesbian and gets a girlfriend. Unfortunately, these issues were only suggested and not fully played out. Beth becomes temporarily disenchanted with Mercurio’s flirting but she never comes to a resolution about her own orientation. It would have been marvelous to see her explore non-cis-gendered sexuality, to see her insights and empathy play out in her relationships, and to have her accept being different in more ways than being able to travel to the world of Shakespeare’s plays. While The Mercutio Problem is labeled Young Adult, I don’t think these issues are beyond teens; in fact, I see today’s teens as hungry for honest, deep explorations of gender and sexuality.

The book’s prose itself was uneven, but occasionally rose to brilliantly insightful lines. My favorite was spoken by Ms. Portia Desdemona Capulet, the drama teacher: “But remember that loving great people from the past must always be a one-way love.”

All in all, though, this book was an enjoyable read and a delight to anyone familiar with the many worlds of Shakespeare’s plays. I look forward to reading more of Beth’s adventures, especially her journey of gender and sexual self-discovery.

 

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