The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss ★★★★

The Many Pop-Geek References of Dahlia Moss

This book is a cute fun romp. I feel like it’s the perfect mix of Phryne Fisher and Ready Player One, a mystery series with a heavy theme of geekery and a definite sense of time and place. It’s as if someone took Sharyn McCrumb’s Bimbos of the Death Sun and updated it to match geek culture today (and removed most of the worst awkwardly sexist bits). If none of those references made any sense, then just know that its a light hearted mystery featuring a post-college woman who appreciates a good video game and is trying to find her way in the world.

The book is very full of geeky video game references, and I feel is sort of constantly walking the line of pandering to its audience. But somehow it didn’t irritate me in the same way that Ready Player One did. Perhaps it’s Dahlia’s constant self-deprecation. Perhaps it’s that the author does it with a nod and a wink. Perhaps it’s just me and my fondness for sassy protagonists a la Buffy and Veronica Mars and all the rest. Regardless, it is definitely a book with a certain attitude who know’s its audience.

Dahlia Moss does not have a job, or a boyfriend, or a plan. She does have a wacky roommate, a penchant for video games of all descriptions, and around $10. And once upon a time, she spent about a week as a receptionist for a detective agency. When one of her roommate’s even wackier friends misconstrues this as actual detecting experience and offers her $1000 to retrieve a stolen weapon in an MMORPG game, she figures why not take the easy cash? When her erstwhile client ends up dead, stabbed by a real-life replica of the digital weapon, things get a bit more interesting…

The author chose to follow the time honored tradition of all murder mystery writers. It’s never the first person you think it is, and the Least Likely Suspect rises up to catch you from behind. But that doesn’t make the story any less fun to read.

All the characters in this book are fully realized slight exaggerations of someone you probably already know. You can’t help but say to yourself “yep, I know someone just like that.” Are they real people, with real problems, messy and disjointed and confused? No. But they are fun, and lucky, and plucky, and adventurous caricatures of people you like.

The best part of this book? There’s already one sequel, and another on the way to be released in January. I fully expect them to be much like the first, and if the author continues to write another 10 books that follow the exact pattern of this one I’ll be more than satisfied. There is nothing wrong with potato chip books that fill you up in just the right way, but you always want just one more.

Of course, I’m already waiting for the announcement that this series being turned into a tv show. And if someone picks it up and does it the right way, I think it’d be a huge success. I’d certainly watch it. This series has emerged in the right time and place, and I don’t see why it wont end up being the next popular hit.

Death Comes To Pemberly ★★

Okay, so I thought I’d hate this book. I decided to read it because I actually did watch the TV series remake. Which I also thought I’d hate, and then actually ended up liking. And then I realized it was written by PD James, who is an actual mystery writer, not just someone who managed to get horrible fanfiction published. So then I thought I might love this book.

I ended up more more in the middle. I’m honestly not sure if I like it more than the show or not, which is a pretty scandalous thing for me to say. The show was super dramatized, as one would expect. It was not subtle. But it wasn’t horrible either, and it had pretty costumes, and the acting was decent. I really enjoyed how they portrayed the interactions between Darcy and Elizabeth, I could imagine both of them growing into those people. I also really liked the interactions between Lydia and Wickham, it made sense for them. The characters flowed comfortably from the book into this future. I thought the mystery of it all was glossed over too easily, and a lot of the actions were too dramatized, but thats what I was looking forward to in the book.

Instead, well, I hesitate to call the book a mystery at all. Sure, I guy died, and by the end of it all they figured out what happened. But well, no one was really looking to try to find out what happened. The great reveal moment came from a non-character, and no one actually investigated at all. A letter just magically appears explaining All. That was very unsatisfying.

Also, there were almost NO interactions between Darcy and Elizabeth, or Lydia and Wickham. There was no character development. There was no insight into the intervening years at Pemberly, or anywhere. To say that there was less annoying drama than the TV show is technically a true statement, but a bit unfair. There was nothing there. No characters to feel involved with at all. Elizabeth was barely a character at all.

To be perfectly honest, I felt a bit cheated by it all. I wanted the book to have more detail than the show, and I feel like I actually got less. To add to that, the book didn’t actually do anything offensive or annoying, so I can’t even enjoy hating it! It’s a fast easy unoffensive vaguely interesting read. It was alright. That’s all I can say.

The Rivers of London ★★★

Midnight Riot(US) or The Rivers of London(UK): A Book of Two Misleading Titles

Before I even opened it, this book had a pretty conflicting set of first impressions. In the negative column: 1. A quote by Charlaine Harris appears on the front cover. Yes, I’ve read most of the Sookie Stackhouse series, but that doesn’t mean I trust her taste in literature. Lets just say that its not a ringing endorsement. And 2. It was described to me as similar to the Harry Dresden series. I very much did not like that series.

However, to balance those facts… Positives: 1. A quote by Peter F. Hamilton appears on the back cover. I am much more likely to trust his opinion on books. 2. It may be just a repeat of the Dresden Files, but this one is set in London. Its true, London is almost always a more interesting setting for a mystery than some random American city. (I think Harry Dresden might have been Chicago, but I would also believe New York. If I can’t even remember, that tells you something about how well the setting was written…) 3. It was suggested to me on my blog. That doesn’t happen often enough, and it still makes me happy and excited when it does. I probably never would have come across this book without intervention on the internet, and in the end I very much enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was suggested to me.

Right, so, those were my thoughts as I cracked open this book. It is the story of Peter Grant, a recent graduate of London’s Metropolitan Police Academy. He wants to be a detective, but his superior thinks he is an ideal candidate for the desk job side of the force. Luckily, he sees a ghost who claims to have been the only witness to a violent murder, and he ends up being apprenticed to an old (who knows how old?) detective (Chief Inspector Nightingale) who is part of a secret agreement to use magic to keep the Queens Peace within the city’s supernatural forces. They proceed to solve a series of murders that seem to have been committed by an enraged ghost.

The book still has some of the same flaws I find unappealing about the Dresden files. First of all, it is written in first person perspective. I really don’t like first person, it’s extremely difficult to do well. The main character always comes off as self-involved and shallow. I always wish I could be reading the thoughts and impressions of some more interesting side character instead. In this case specifically (though not as badly as in the Harry Dresden series), the voice of the writing is so unsubtly male that I find it (unsurprisingly, I suppose) hard to identify with the main character. There are some authors who I’d never be able to guess their gender without looking at their name, and then there are some authors who have an equally female voice. And yes, sometimes that annoys me just as much as the male authors. Whichever way it goes, heavily gendered writing usually makes characters of the opposite gender feel flat and stereotyped. Peter is a nice, competent man, who is just awkward enough to be “adorable” to his coworkers and female friends. Most of whom he has a passive crush on, and would sleep with given the chance. In fact, that applies to just about any female he meets, whether that be his fellow constable Leslie, or a supernatural girl who happens to be a personification of a river “Beverly Brook.” (Pun much?)

One thing I really did like about this novel was the way Aaronovitch created his magic. Which is saying something, because that is usually what turns me off of books in the “urban fantasy” genre. Magic is hard to blend with the modern world: is it just a form of science we don’t understand, or is it the anti-science, powered by ritual and belief? Both of those choices come with solid stereotypes and giant plot-holes. And this is just a personal pet peeve, but I don’t understand why everyone uses Latin as the go-to language for magic. They try to say that magic is old old old, and so they name the oldest language they can think of. Latin? Really? No one says Greek, or Hebrew, or ancient Egyptian? Mandarin? Sumarian? Anything?

The magic in this series seems to have bee mostly developed during the Baroque Era, and that sort of birth of the golden age of science. In fact one of the main books used by Peter is Sir Isaac Newton’s secret second book on the principles of magic. (I guess that sort of justifies the use of Latin in this case, any sort of scholastic works of that time were based in Latin. But I still grate my teeth.) His teacher Nightingale seems to be more interested in the history and tradition of magic, than in the why and how of it. But that fits his character as a who-knows-how-old gentleman who was definitely alive in the Victorian era and doesn’t own a cellphone. Even given its mysterious and unexplained roots (and the apathy of his teacher), Peter Grant does not take the use of magic for granted. He has no idea how it works in our world driven by science, but at least he is curious. He develops tests (they even vaguely follow the scientific method) to better understand the effect of magic on technology. Which, by the way, is not good. Magic seems to negatively affect most higher technologies we use today, and Peter ruins several cell phones figuring this out.

I like that this magic has several rather important flaws built into it. It’s not a catch-all problem solver; it’s not as easy as say this word and no lock will stop you, say that word and you instantly find the one important clue, memorize enough special words and you can rule the world. It is difficult and time consuming to train your brain to appropriately use magic, and spells have limited uses that build on each other. Nightingale tells Peter it will take about 10 years to graduate beyond apprenticeship. And if someone is exposed to more magic than their brain can handle, the inside of their head turns to mush.

Also not following the usual cliches are the supernatural beings that Peter runs into. There are vampires, but they’re not sexy blood sucking cults. (*cough Dresden Files, and a billion other urban fantasies cough*). We don’t have werewolves yet, but I’ll be interested in seeing how Aaronovitch makes them different. (Though the second book is titled “Moon over Soho” and if that’s a blatant werewolf reference I might get annoyed.)

What we do have are the personifications of localities: Mother and Father Thames, and their children the various tributaries and branchings of the rivers of London. (Evidently the UK version of the novel is titled “The Rivers of London,” which has a much prettier ring to it, but has less to do with the full plot of the book. Though now that I think about it the midnight riot isn’t exactly the plot of the book either, but is closer, I guess… However, the rivers are definitely my favorite side-plot.) I like the characterizations of the rivers, and how they have their own family drama they’re dealing with. And if there are personifications of the rivers and sewers of London, what about the old historical buildings? That would be interesting. Do each of the outlying villages and suburbs have their own protector? Perhaps someday we will meet the goddess of London, herself?

All in all, I can’t call this book an enthralling masterpiece of fiction, but I’ll be interested to see if the series improves on the few flaws it has. I hope the characters start to gain a little bit of depth and non-stereotyped-personality. I hope we continue to see creativity in the layers of supernatural life in London. I hope we get to find out more about Nightingale’s past, and his strange maid Molly, with the sharp teeth, taste for blood, and extreme protection of her master. I hope Peter gets some taste and doesn’t try to sleep with two new women in each book (even if he does do it in an endearing and passive way.)

NOTE: After reading back over this review, I definitely took a little too much pleasure in bashing The Dresden Files. That probably wasn’t necessary because this book can stand on its own perfectly fine without being constantly compared to that series. I guess its just because so many people have recommended the Harry Dresden books to me, that when I finally got around to reading them, they were rather a big disappointment. I have trouble seeing why people who’s taste in books is usually so similar to my own actually enjoy those books. Maybe I had too high expectations, or maybe I should have given them more time (though I did get all the way through book one, and halfway through book two before giving up. I’m not going to read six books just to find out if the seventh might get better.) Anyways, the chance to voice exactly what I didn’t like about the series, and the opportunity to compare it to someone who did something similar, but did it RIGHT, was too good to give up. So if you’re a fan of the Dresden series, I’m sorry for bashing your books, and you’ll still probably really enjoy this series because there are lots of similarities. If you’re not a fan of the Dresden series, feel free to give these books a try and see if its any better for you. If you’ve never read the Dresden series, you can certainly enjoy these books all on their own, uninfluenced by any previous bias one way or the other.

My overall rating compared to similar Supernatural Urban Mysteries (Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, etc): * * * * *
(Considering that this is a genre I’m not in love with, this book deserves a great rating. This book proves that the genre has potential, if only people would stop screwing it up.)
Characterization: * * (Still better than Harry Dresden)
Creativity: * * *
Will I continue to follow the series: Yep, unless the author make some stupid plot move that’s too annoying to read. If the second book is all to do with werewolves, or if there starts to be too much Relationship Drama, I’m out.