I just finished two fantasy books over the last couple of days, books I bought with a Barnes & Noble gift card I got for Christmas. Curiously, although the two books are extremely different both from each other and from most other generic fantasy, they both share a a fairly significant flaw, so I figured I devote a post to discussing my thoughts on them.

Red Hood’s Revenge, by Jim C. Hines

Red Hood’s Revenge is the third book in Hines’s “princesses” series, following The Stepsister Scheme and The Mermaid’s Madness. The premise of the series, if you haven’t heard of it, is basically “fairy tale princesses, only they’re secret agents”. The main trio of characters is Danielle (Cinderella), who is the crown princess of the main country the series takes place in and can control animals, Talia (Sleeping Beauty), who is an unbeatable martial artist (all those fairy blessings, you kn0w), and Snow (Snow White), who is a powerful sorceress and, amusingly, does more sleeping than Talia, if you know what I mean. It’s basically a “they fight crime” series… each book produces some problem and the princesses band together and stop it, all in two-hundred-odd pages. The second book introduced the mad mermaid princess Lirea (run that one through an anagram generator and see what you get), who wanted to overthrow the underwater mermaid kingdom, and this book adds in Roudette, a twisted take on Little Red Riding Hood (this time, she’s a werewolf and an assassin!).

The series is mostly light-hearted adventure, which is fine by me. (A series with this premise that took itself seriously would be eye-punchingly obnoxious.) Even after all these years, it’s still hard to find really good female protagonists in fantasy, and this series has three. (If I read one more back cover about how the heroine runs into a “dangerously handsome” so-and-so I may well burn every book on the planet.)

Of the three, though, I feel that this one is pretty easily the weakest. The first two books were ensemble pieces, but this one is very solidly about Talia — it takes place in her home country and she is central to the villain’s plans. This is well and good, but it has the drawback of pushing the newbie, Roudette, into the background for most of the book — she’s personally invested in the plot, sure, but she doesn’t really do all that much except complain and mope. Considering Red Hood was sold as this fearsome assassin as early as the first book, I’m not entirely sure it was the best idea to waste her in a book where she’s not front-and-center. Danielle’s role is also beyond minor, after being more or less the protagonist of the first two books. I think Hines wanted to write a Talia book but was unwilling to let her take over the narrative, so he threw in a few POV scenes for the other characters as well. This gets disorienting after a while. If the book’s about Talia, let it be about Talia.

This is the first book in the series where I wasn’t able to make immediate sense of the villain’s plot. Apparently they wanted to put Talia back to sleep… for some reason?  This would apparently result in some kind of bad juju for the rest of the country due to some magical loophole, but I wasn’t able to follow it. That brings me to the other main problem with the book: The magic is too central, and it’s not a solid enough magic system to carry a whole book. In the first two books, magic was a plot device — it let the characters do some cool things, but the characters were still the star of the show. In this book, it feels like Hines spends half the book giving the characters the magical runaround, dreaming up arbitrary obstacles to pad the plot — “normally this would work, but not now, because X”. “This spell works like this, but if I do Y I can make it work like that.” The book spends something like two whole chapters on the characters jumping through hoops to break a curse, and it’s just not that interesting. In the first two books, Hines was content to let us know that the magic worked, but now he seems compelled to tell us why and how, and that’s not what I’m here for. I’m down with magic-as-science, and I love a good loophole, but you can’t take a magic system that started out as “It works — take our word for it” and change it to a hard-fantasy rule-based magic system halfway through. You especially can’t do that and then not tell us what the rules are — and that’s what this book does.

The Horns of Ruin, by Tim Akers

Man, I can’t even begin to come up with a genre for this one. Let’s try… “noirish detective fantasy with steampunk influences”? Good enough.

The Horns of Ruin stars Eva Forge, the last Paladin of the God of War, and it takes place in the city of Ash, which is part modern (Eva puts on jeans and a T-shirt at one point; there are automobiles and monorails; the description of the tallest buildings brings to mind skyscrapers), part medieval (Eva uses magic and a sword; the city is ruled by a god and his priests), but not really either. It’s an exceedingly well-drawn setting, as I could practically see the dank, wet, crowded steampunk city.

Eva, too, is a very nice character, unlike any other character I’ve seen. She’s a brusque, no-nonsense personality, but devoted to the Cult to which she belongs. You really get the sense that she feels obligated to live up to the stereotypes of her religion, short-tempered, anti-intellectual, anti-social. She’s also not very intelligent, and that’s a hard character type to get right — most authors feel compelled to write clever characters, but Eva flat-out admits that while she’s smart enough to get through the day, other more complicated things are difficult for her to grasp. (This actually saves her life at one point.) Still, she’s dogged and determined and keeps her eye on the prize, which makes her easy to root for even as she’s overlooking obvious clues.

Problem? It’s the magic again. While this book, unlike the last one, does have an interesting magic system to play around with, it retains the same basic problem: The supernatural elements take over the plot at one point and never really give it up. About 80% of the book is a mystery story, classic noir, with cops and clues and corrupt politicians… but after that 20%, it becomes dominated by the screwy quasi-religious magical happenings. This would be fine if it arose naturally from the story, but it’s not — it’s abrupt, on you before you know it. The last several scenes are very mind-fucky, and I felt like I was drowning in technobabble by the end.

Magic is central to why I like fantasy — the whole reason I read it is to see something that couldn’t happen in reality. But you have to use a light touch. Magic’s a spice — it makes the dish better, but not if you oversaturate the story with it. Good stories are about the characters and the plot, not the phlebotinum.


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